Published Sunday, August 22, 1999, in the Miami Herald


Reality frays the hype on `new' Cuba

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 this fall. In this, the second half of her Cuban journal, Torres, her husband and their two daughters are in Havana on June 16, preparing to leave for the countryside to visit relatives. Torres took along author Martin Cruz's latest novel, Havana Bay, and the Cigar Aficionado issue on Cuba to compare its information with what she saw.

At night it rains. We try a restaurant near the hotel recommended by Cigar Aficionado, Don Cangrejo, run by the Ministry of Fisheries. This one is illustrated with a photograph of the sommelier with the sea as a background. ``Havana's take on Joe's Stone Crab in Miami. Don Cangrejo's fish is second to none, it is always available. Great wines.'' They only had frozen fish from Mexico; a shrimp cocktail had two pieces (the rest, we assumed, sold in the black market), the wine was spoiled. I feel closer to the mood in Martin Cruz's novel Havana Bay, gloomy and decentered and too tired to fight with the waiter.

June 17: We embark to Yaguajay. We take the Carretera Central. There are hardly any other cars on the road. Not even those old Fifties cars everyone takes photos of and whose owners hope they will be able to sell to some rich tourist after the fall. We stop at the Meneses cemetery. I look down to the wet red dirt and find a path of coins and a small cloth doll leading to the pantheon where my grandmother, her parents and other relatives are buried. A large marble angel guards the tombs. ``Brujerias,'' the taxi driver tells me.

My mother had heard that people in Meneses were saying that my grandmother had made three apparitions. She was 33 when she died of poliomyelitis she caught while helping one of my grandfather's patients. She was beloved. Maybe in times of crisis, people want to have her come back.

Yaguajay is 10 minutes away. There are no photos in Cigar Aficionado of these little towns in the interior. They look like bombed-out war zones. We reach my great aunt's house.

She is so happy to see us. They have been preparing for our arrival for weeks. She apologizes -- there is no running water in the house. A year ago the Canadians donated a new aqueduct system for the town. They disconnected the pipes to the artesian wells used for decades. Now 70 percent of the town does not have running water. They've been saving gas so they can cook while we're there. They have been using coal on a small one-burner hibachi. How can I tell my mother that her aunt is hauling water, cooking with coal and that the wooden house, its chairs, its picture frames are being eaten away by termites?

June 18: My great aunt is frail. We had planned to take her to the beach, spend a few days away. Still, I want to take her to a nice lunch, a day at a resort. The only one near is in Mayajigua, about 20 minutes away. I have an old photo of her and my mother there, smiling, with a beautiful pond in the background. We pile into the taxi.

The guard stops us and asks for passports. The island Cubans have their national IDs (they can be arrested for not carrying them), my husband and I have our driver's licenses. ``What about her?'' he points to my oldest daughter. ``Isn't she Cuban?'' It takes me awhile to realize what he is saying; I'm distracted by my desire to have her feel Cuban. Then it sinks in. He thinks she is a prostitute.

There is no place to eat other than Mayajigua. Some of us wait outside the complex, sitting on the road curb underneath a tree while others go back for passports. Inside, the pool has no water, the thermal baths are closed and the food barely edible. We are alone in the restaurant, except for a singing trio. The woman, who does not look at us when she sings, has a hauntingly beautiful voice. Musicians are all over the island.

I spend the day reminiscing with my aunt. She shows me photos; one box filled with ones we have sent her since we arrived in the 'States. Our entire exile kept away in a cedar closet. We only had an occasional photo of them. For a long time she was in our past. Our trip is a clumsy attempt to connect with her present. There are other boxes. There are so many people I don't know. She writes their names on the back. She tells me to take what I want. I can only bring myself to take one of my great-great grandmother, another of my great grandmother and a third one my grandmother with my mother when she was a baby. My youngest daughter says, if your mother were here, we would be four generations in one room. I can't bring myself to tell her why I don't think that will ever happen.

June 19: We cannot stay long at my aunt's. We would deplete her water and gas supplies, which even dollars can't buy. We head to the beach with a stop in Santa Clara. We visit one of my mother's first cousins. I notice that Paola, my youngest daughter, has his lips and jaw. He stayed in Cuba while others left. This used to matter in most Cuban families. It's no longer relevant.

He gives us a tour of the square of the city. There in 1895, my great grandfather -- his grandfather -- was arrested by the Spanish and tortured for his activism in the independence movement. These are the ties I hope to resurrect. That night, we arrive in Varadero.

June 20: We swim in the ocean. The salt water is healing. I swim along the coast. I can hear the conversations of disgruntled tourists. No one is happy. The Cubans don't get tourism, they say. I strike up a conversation with two Argentine women; they are so sad for Cubans, they say. I tell them it was pretty rough for their country too with the military. They say yes, it was bloodier, but add, it only lasted 10 years.

We return to the pool. The French rugby team is there, drunk, obnoxious. One player harasses the waitress, another one takes off his bathing suit, bends over, opens his buttocks wide, and has a friend take a picture. Close up. This isn't an adolescent's innocent mooning. These are grown men. And it's aggressive. In the background, an animadora (dancer) cranks up the stereo and dances the mono, a hip-grinding Havana booty dance.

It's not the dance or for that matter the animadora that is making my stomach turn. It's the whole scene. Most tourists in Cuba today are men looking for sex. My daughters no longer want to go into the pool.

June 23: We see friends and relatives who live in Varadero. One comes to the hotel to spend the day. We have to sneak her in through the back. Cuban nationals are not allowed on the premises, although inside young Cuban women hang on to tourists who must have bought the government certificates.

I have not seen my friend in four years. We swap stories. I tell her things that I know have happened in Cuba, purges at the university, research centers. She has no idea. She tells me stories about common friends in California and Miami. Cuba is funny that way. How connections between people can transgress, sabotage, reshape political borders.

June 24: By this time the hotel administrator has heard about the pool incident. He comes to apologize. ``We are trying to build another kind of tourism. This hotel is family oriented.'' Somehow it rings hollow. Besides, my island relatives cannot even have lunch with us there.

June 25: Matanzas. It used to be called the Athens of Cuba. It's a beautiful city. However it's crumbling, its Malecon destroyed to make way for an expressway to take tourists from Havana to Varadero. I follow my father's tattered 1950s map. It's difficult. Sometime after the revolution, all street names were changed to numbers. Vera, Teresa, Tello Lamar and Versailles -- sounds that roll off your tongue with pleasure -- became primera, segunda, tercera. Some, however, tiled into the walls of houses, stubbornly hang on even as they lose a letter or two. I find the house in which my father was raised by asking older people the street names. A neighbor remembers my grandmother, Rita la Enfermera. He warns me not to show my father any pictures: ``He'll have a heart attack if he sees what has become of his city.''

I visit friends at la Edicion Vigia, an impressive artist and writers collective. Some people not only survive, they continue to create. They hand assemble journals that seek to rediscover Cuban cultures, create a space for new culture. One is working on a play, in rehearsal at the majestic Teatro Sauta. It's on my father's list of places to visit. It is where his high-school graduation was held; he also once sang at a concert here. I go to meet the actors.

The play, El Bano Publico, starts with a man urinating in a public bathroom. When he finishes, a lady attendant asks him to pay 10 cents. A humorous and poignant discussion unfolds around the questions of who is entitled to this public space. The two decide to start up a state public bathroom for tourists, and they discuss the ethics of charging people for the right to urinate.

The actors are worried that it's too colloquial. I think struggles to redefine the public and ensure equal access are universal themes that can bring together Cubans on the island and in exile who are interested in building a democratic and socially just government.

June 26: It is our 16th wedding anniversary. The girls want us to go out. Really they want to spend the night eating pizza and watching the VH1 music awards. Hotels have satellites that Cubans are prohibited from owning. We go to Marina Gaviota and have a wonderful meal; after all, it's owned by the military.

June 27: We return to Havana. A group of friends have gathered to say goodbye. We share stories. I ask about their children. They tell me about the latest government assault led by Carlo Lage, defined by many as a reformer, by Cigar Aficionado as one of Cuba's most powerful men. His assault is against parents who hire tutors for their children. I ask why. One answers: Obvious, tutors are symbolic of the fact that teachers are not teaching. She tries to keep her daughter's teacher interested with occasional gifts of tampons, candies and cigarettes.

``And you know,'' she adds, ``education was one of the jewels of his (she points to her chin as if caressing a beard) crown. They can't publicly admit that it too has failed.''

They want to change the topic from politics. We used to spend hours talking about it. After all, we are Cubans. But now they avoid it like the plague. It hurts too much. Whatever sympathies we once may have had for Cuba's socialist experiment have long faded. I try to lighten the conversation. I show them the Cigar Aficionado. Some laugh. Others want to know if there is another island somewhere else in the world named Cuba.

But we ponder the phenomenon of why the media love affair with Cuba today. We speculate: exotic morbid death watch; horny ugly men; nostalgia for the Fifties; imperialism of the left that won't extend a concern about civil liberties to the ``colonies.'' But we do understand that the only ones enamored with Fidel don't live in Cuba or do so with the privileged category of residente extranjero.

June 28: As we leave, I am saddened. Cuba today is a mixture of the worst of socialism and capitalism. Its main industries are sex tourism and remittances sent by exiles who have been scorned.

Are we really powerless to do anything about Cuba's future? I reread the embargo debate as it is framed in the magazine -- lift it; harden it. Our problems are so much more complex than this unimaginative reduction. Maybe we can contribute, a little, by making the exile community more open, more democratic, perhaps more tender. After all, we will always be engaged with the island one way or another, and there is an awful lot of pain here as well.

However, it will take a magician to conjure the Cuba of the Cigar Aficionado, because for now, and I suspect for a very long time to come, it is much closer to Cruz's depiction in Havana Bay: a physically beautiful island strangled by a corrupt and authoritarian regime.

Copyright 1999 Miami Herald