Published Sunday, August 15, 1999, in the Miami Herald


Gritty Reality vs. Cigar Aficionado's Slick Version

Maria de los Angeles Torres is an associate professor of political science at DePaul University in Chicago. Her book, In The Land of Mirrors: Cuban Exile Politics in the United States will be published by University of Michigan Press this fall. This is the first of two parts of her Cuban journal. The second part will be published next Sunday.

Last March my great aunt Olga, who lived in Yaguajay, Cuba, died, leaving her sister, Alicia, as the last remaining sibling of a large family. This is the family with whom we spent Christmas and part of the summer when I was young. We decided to visit her. I have always wanted my daughters to have a connection to the island in which five generations of my relatives, six for them, were born.

To go, I have to ask for permission to re-enter; my husband and daughters need visas. In reality, we pay $400 for the application fees and photos. We get ready for our trip; I find a 1950s Esso map of the island; my father sends me one of Matanzas where he was born, marking places to visit. My husband, Matt, brings home the June copy of Cigar Aficionado, it features Cuba. I throw it in my backpack, along with Martin Cruz Smith's Havana Bay.

June 14, O'Hare Airport: We go through Air Jamaica, thus avoiding the charter flights whose passengers are harassed in Miami by U.S. Treasury Department agents and in Havana by Cuban officials. Amazingly, we can check our bags directly to Havana. Somehow that shortens the distance between the city of my birth and the place I now live. Bad weather delays our flight in Montego. Finally, we board and arrive in Havana at 4 p.m.

At the immigration checkpoint an official in a small booth will check our documents. If they are in order, she will buzz the release lock of a heavy metal door. One by one, we enter. Family units are not allowed to enter together. I tell my daughters it will be OK.

We really can't stay at relatives. No room. We had paid for reservations at el Hotel Comodoro in Havana. This is one of the few places you can rent bungalows with two rooms. They try to give us a unit with only one. After some discussion, the clerk begrudgingly ``does us a favor'' and puts us in the right room. I think he was expecting a tip.

The photo of the pool area in the Cigar Aficionado does not show the mold growing around the edge of the pool. And they are wrong about the ``friendly service.'' As far as this being the coolest place to stay, it is simply an expensive bordello. Not a lot of street prostitutes here. Word is they were arrested. Only government-controlled ones roam this place. European businessmen set up their women in the bungalows -- the large ones -- and pay the government for a certificate, swearing they intend to get married. The government is the pimp.

At night, a magician charms my daughters with tricks, the sea breeze cools the air. We will try to make the best of it.

June 15: I go walking down Quinta Avenida. I notice a boom in construction. A corporate park is going up in Miramar. Here that means half the buildings will be government offices. They are tearing down el Museo del Pueblo Combatiente and building a Sofitel apartment hotel. The museum was set up in the former Peruvian Embassy, once a private home, to honor those who did not leave during the 1980 Mariel exodus. It began when more than 10,000 people jammed the compound. The government is now selling its own monuments.

Later we visit relatives in Havana. Three of their four children work abroad. I hear stories of Cubans emigrating everywhere, anywhere. Cubans applying for visas to live in Angola, even. We visit Old Havana. A United Nations project has restored some of the old buildings. Benneton has set up a store in one. The Cigar Aficionado photos are right, we walk through the Hotel Santa Isabel and stop to look at the Rotunda inside El Café del Oriente -- it is absolutely exquisite. But it's eerie; the hotels and restaurants are empty.

They are now working on the Malecon's facade. I wonder if, after the restorations, Havana will look like it did in 1959. What will happen to the people who live in these crumbling old buildings? What will history do with the 40 years that have passed?

We eat at a wonderful private restaurant, La Cocina de Lilliam (recommended by friends and Cigar Aficionado), one of the few permitted to operate. What the magazine doesn't say is that this is deja vu. In 1993, there were private restaurants throughout the island. After a year they were abruptly shut down since they were effectively competing with state-owned restaurants. It's all so precarious.

June 16: A new crackdown has left independent taxi drivers unemployed. We rent an official car with a driver. After a while, he warms up and asks, ``Do you have any information about what happened to Robertico Robaina?'' (The boy wonder promoted to Minister of Foreign Relations several years ago and purportedly now under house arrest.) He tells us, ``What bothers me the most about this government is that they tell us nothing. I have to try to piece together things by what tourists tell me.''

My husband wonders what would happen in the United States if all of a sudden Madeleine Albright was arrested and held incommunicado and no one was told anything. I wonder, how can American civil libertarians still be enamored with this government?

We drive out to Pinar del Rio, to Viñales and Soroa. I want my daughters to have memories of the island's physical beauty. My husband, who smokes an occasional cigar, wants to see a cigar factory. The photographs in Cigar Aficionado are tempting. After hassling with the doorman who was trying to charge us $10 a head, twice as much as what they were charging organized tours, we settle for $6, a modest multa (literally, a fine; colloquially, money stolen from tourists).

What we find inside breaks my heart. Workers, mainly women, rolling cigars and begging for quarters and gum. They are not smiling like the ones in the magazine photos. Yes, it's true Cuba does not have beggars in the streets like other Latin American countries. Cuba's also work 50 hours a week. I cry. I know how proud cigar workers have always been. At the turn of the century, they were the elite of Cuba's working class, better organized, better paid and cultured. They would pay to have literature and newspapers read to them while they worked. How could they have been better off 100 years ago? I'm not sure how to make the best of our trip.

Continued next Sunday

Copyright 1999 Miami Herald