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Spring Break in Cuba

In the twilight of their lives the once-intransigent Castro brothers, Fidel and Raul, have begun behaving in at least moderately encouraging ways. Fidel recently summoned writer Jeffery Goldberg of The Atlantic magazine and told him President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran was outrageous for demanding the destruction of Israel and a nincompoop for continuing to insist the Holocaust never happened. And Raul, generally not so doctrinaire a communist as his retired and ailing brother, has recently, as Comandante en Jefe, announced that Cuba will be slicing about half a million government jobs in order to invigorate the private sector of the economy. It appears the former champions of Marxism have forsaken that deceased dogma, begun to comprehend free market endeavor, and alluded to at least some fondness for democratic principles, albeit in other nations. When I visited Cuba in the spring of 1992, both men were very different, and so was I.

* * *

My earliest recollections of Fidel Castro, when I turned ten in October 1962, were most unpleasant because he disrupted a dramatic baseball season. With but three games to play, the San Francisco Giants, whom I followed fanatically, had come from three games behind the hated Los Angeles Dodgers to tie them on the final day as electric Willie Mays crushed a ball far into the left field bleachers, in the bottom of the eighth inning, to lift the Giants to a 2-1 victory over the Houston Colt .45’s, a name soon deemed inappropriate or at least unmarketable, even in Texas. I cheered Mays’ historic clout from the upper deck in windy Candlestick Park exposed on San Francisco Bay and watched after the game as groundskeepers soaked the first base path to impede Dodger Maury Wills, who had stolen a hundred four bases that season to break Ty Cobb’s record, and would come to town the next day for game one of a best of three pennant playoff. Mays hit two home runs in the opener, the Giants lost the second, and trailed late in game three in L.A. before rallying to win and advance to the World Series against the New York Yankees, the eternal gold standard of baseball.

Fidel has always been a baseball fan, and long ago implied he was a player of some regional note, a dubious notion based on his inept swings captured on archival footage. He at any rate could not have been attuned to the thrilling World Series that culminated October 16, 1962 in the bottom of the ninth inning of game seven at Candlestick. The Yankees led 1-0 when Matty Alou sped to first on a drag bunt and, with two outs, appeared en route to the tying run as Willie Mays doubled to right field, but Roger Maris, an underrated fielder with a strong arm, who had hit 61 steroid-free homers the year before, quickly pounced on the ball and made a strong relay throw that enabled the Yankees to hold Alou at third. Big Willie McCovey stepped to the plate as fans prayed and my elementary schoolmates and I enjoyed the unprecedented privilege of watching a black-and-white TV for a few minutes. With a massive swing McCovey hit one of the hardest line drives I’ve seen, but, still achingly, the ball shot straight at sure-handed second baseman Bobby Richardson, who squeezed another title for the Yankees.

On that same autumn day President John F. Kennedy learned that a U-2 reconnaissance plane had secured pictures of medium-range ballistic missile components, which indicated that Fidel Castro and his Russian allies had, or soon would have, the ability to strike the United States from Cuba with nuclear weapons. Soon, Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and the seemingly-suicidal Castro, all blustering and blundering, had pushed the world to the precipice of nuclear catastrophe. Kennedy and Khrushchev were marginally more mature than the young revolutionary – JFK had fought in the Pacific in World War II and Khrushchev served as a political commissar in the middle of the massacre on the Eastern Front – and terrified by the threat of immeasurably more bloodletting.

Six days later Kennedy sat before television cameras and revealed the crisis in “Cuber” to the nation. And in the same classroom where children had watched the final out of the World Series, we followed orders and moved our desks away from the windows, toward the inner wall, as if that meager measure might help during a nuclear attack. While American naval ships established a five-hundred-mile quarantine around Cuba, frightened millions in the United States talked about what a wretched communist Fidel Castro was. But more should have also considered why he was so eager to have a nuclear deterrent in his country, which the United States had attacked in 1961, using inept Cuban-exile proxies, during the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Really, Castro was trying to secure his borders, an inalienable right of all nations. He and Khrushchev ensured Cuban sovereignty by forcing Kennedy to promise not to invade again in exchange for removal of Russian missiles from Cuba.

Having precipitated the ultimate in superpower brinkmanship, an intoxicated and egocentric Fidel Castro concluded he was not merely sexy, charismatic, revered, and feared, he was himself one of the big boys on the world stage and could not be removed. He’d long been convinced – or had at least stated – that no assassin would ever get him, and he knew enemies were trying. His countermeasures were not always elegant. In 1968 he planted his lips on the protective Soviet ass, applauding as they crushed freedom-seekers in Czechoslovakia and denouncing the latter as counterrevolutionaries… moving towards capitalism and into the arms of imperialists.” The Russians awarded Castro with increases in oil exports and loans. In the 1970’s he sent Cuban troops and socialist ideology to Angola, Ethiopia, Nicaragua, and elsewhere. From that period I remember an eerie news article about a Cuban ship, stuffed with refrigerated corpses of Fidel’s fallen warriors, off the Angolan coast. Approximately fourteen thousand Cubans died in military interventions abroad.

The everlasting American economic embargo of Cuba is understood by almost everyone, except Cuban exiles and devout Cold Warriors, to be Castro’s greatest asset, an omnipresent excuse for his and the communist system’s economic ineptitude and an always-galvanizing reminder that the Yankee colossus might again try to destroy them, and they, the righteous Cubans, must be united and ready to defend their revolution. That had ceased being true three decades before the 1991 demise of the Soviet Union crushed economic aid to Cuba and constricted the island’s already-antiquated economy.

* * *

What was this strange and forbidden country really like? Was it an exotic island or a dangerous place? Were the people happy socialists or poor and angry victims of repression? I couldn’t be sure from media reports, so in 1992 I decided to find out. Getting to Cuba, for an American, required a not difficult but thoroughly asinine set of procedures. Since the United States does not diplomatically acknowledge the existence of this vibrant nation ninety miles south of the Florida coast, there isn’t a Cuban embassy in Washington, D.C.; there’s a Cuban Interests Section. To that office I mailed my passport, requesting a visitor’s visa, and expected a wait of two or three weeks. My approval came within a few days: the Cubans clearly wanted tourists from the United States. Next, by phone, that antiquated implement, I booked and paid for a roundtrip reservation from Los Angeles to Mexico City to Havana on Mexicana Airlines – once a titan but now defunct. I’m set, I thought. But a few days later Mexicana called and said it had cancelled the Havana part of my reservation.

“You mean there won’t be a seat for me on the plane?” I asked.

“You still have the same seat reserved, but you pay for it in Mexico City,” said the airline official.

“I’ve already paid.”

“You can’t pay inside the United States.”

The line was long in the Mexican capital but it moved fast enough and soon I was excited to be flying toward Cuba and pleased the flight would be little more than two hours. Walking down the ramp onto the tarmac in Havana, I was blasted by moderate heat loaded with intense humidity, and this was only late March. At customs the official examined my passport and waved me on.

“Aren’t you going to stamp it?” I asked.

“No,” he said.

“Because I’d have problems with U.S. officials?”

“Maybe.”

In front of the airport, which had the feel of a small-town facility, there were some 1970’s cars deployed as taxis. The fare into town was a robust twenty-five dollars, more than the average Cuban made, or still makes, in a month. After riding through a landscape rather barren by tropical standards, I paid the driver in dollars. The Cuban Interests Section had told me, in writing, that I wouldn’t be permitted to use my credit card and to bring plenty of traveler’s checks. I complied but still pulled out my plastic at the desk of the hotel, a tall, weary structure overlooking the Caribbean. The desk clerk asked me to wait, picked up a list of credit card numbers, and told me to put mine away and sign a check.

Several floors up, my room reminded me of a scene from a 1950’s movie, except the carpet, bedspread, and drapes were in worn 1992 condition and the window so corroded with salt I had to squint to see the sea. In those days, that was only a passing consideration. I was most interested in a drink and hustled down to the bar and asked, “What’s the best beer in Cuba?”

“Hatuey,” said the bartender.

I quickly downed the bitter brew, and even allowing for my weakened condition – a ferocious ear, nose, and throat infection, a hangover from the previous night in Mexico City, the flight, and the humidity – I felt a startlingly strong buzz.

“How much alcohol is in a Hatuey?” I asked.

“Doce grados,” said the bartender.

Twelve percent, that’s like downing a twelve-ounce bottle of wine in five minutes. I was a heavy hitter, but generally with four-percent beers.

“I’ll take a Bud Lite.”

“We don’t have any American beers.”

“What do you have besides Hatuey?”

“Heineken.”

I drank a few of those at two bucks a pop – most Cubans don’t do much vigorous drinking in tourist hotels – before taking a cab to Habana Vieja, Old Havana, and eating some delicious pork steaks and rice and beans in a small restaurant, and then going to the Floridita Bar, the legendary hangout of Ernest Hemingway, for twenty years a distinguished as well as lubricated and sun-blasted resident of Havana. I talked to some German tourists in Spanish after failing to remember much of the little German I’d learned years earlier during one college semester. Before sundown I took a cab on the Malecón, a romantic road arcing several miles along the Havana shoreline. The ladies in flashy dresses were already starting to stroll.

In the morning I asked what time the tourist bus left for the Finca Vigía, Hemingway’s old estate outside the city.

“There aren’t any tourist buses,” said a desk clerk.

“Okay, I’ll rent a car.”

“There aren’t any. You’ll have to take a taxi.”

“How much is that?”

“Thirty dollars.”

I doubt I flinched. I was on vacation. And the taxi driver was a congenial fellow. He said he’d often enjoyed driving out to Hemingway’s place, but when we arrived the gate was locked.

“Didn’t you know?”

“It’s been a long time,” he said.

“All right, then, let’s go to Cojimar.”

That was the nearby village where Hemingway kept the Pilar, the boat he used when pretending to look for Nazis during World War II. Usually, though, he was a relentless fisherman who learned the intricacies of fighting the big ones and molded his experiences into The Old Man and The Sea: after an immortal struggle, broken old Santiago secures the massive fish to the side of his boat, and then loses his prize to ravenous sharks and returns here, struggling up this hill, as, Christ-like – a heavy-handed metaphor – he carries his cross, the boat’s mast, on his bent and aching back.

“Do you know where Gregorio Fuentes lives?” I asked.

The taxi driver pulled over and said, “Dónde vive Gregorio?” An old man, about seventy-five, pointed. He could’ve been Gregorio’s son. In the spring of 1992, Hemingway’s skipper was three months short of ninety-five. Thin and spry, he smiled, shook our hands, and invited us into a clean home offering a sofa and comfortable chairs in the living room. We talked about Hemingway, whose presence remains so strong that Havana’s synonymous with his name and so are Key West and various parts of Paris and Spain and Wyoming and Montana and Idaho, where, just short of his sixty-second birthday in 1961, worn out by alcoholism and psychosis and a lifetime of plane and car crashes and wounds and other misfortunes, he placed a gun in his mouth, as he’d always known he would, and forever relieved himself.

Among many questions the one I strongly remember asking was simply, “What kind of guy was Hemingway.”

The memory evoked enormous pride, and with two fingers Gregorio Fuentes touched the left side of his chest and said, “He had a huge heart. He was a great man. He spoke seven languages.”

I felt good visiting an old man, who probably rarely had any guests, and helping him recall his glory days. Fuentes excused himself and went into a rear room and returned with a large album. Opening it, he asked us to sign our names. We were about the sixth and seventh people to visit that morning. And, looking back in the album, there were several signatures almost every day.

Back at the hotel I took my second shower of the day and went out to the pool. Though I sat in the shade slurping cold Heinekens, I was sweating in a tropical sauna that compelled a retreat back into my room for a nap and another shower – three was my daily average in Cuba. I wanted to be fresh for my trip that night to the vaunted Tropicana nightclub. It cost thirty or forty bucks to enter, a sizable sum in a 1992 socialist paradise. Most of the revelers were tourists, with a few party functionaries, in an outdoor facility fashioned to resemble an exotic island. As a Californian, I thought the club had a Pacific feel but in this region I’m sure the decorators were thinking Caribbean.

I sat at the bar – let me here emphasize that I years ago quit drinking – and resumed knocking down those bitter Heinekens. An attractive young lady of African descent sat on the stool next to me. Ah, she likes me, I thought. We spoke animated Spanish as I kept buying her drinks. This was what I really wanted, the start of a super-exciting romance. Even buzzed I’m afraid I soon had to accept the nature of her attention, as she’d begun glancing into my wallet each time I paid the bartender. “Hay algo de interes en mi cartera?” I asked her. (“Is there something of interest in my wallet?”)

“Oh, no,” she assured me.

In a little while she asked me to buy a huge, twelve-dollar Cuban cigar for her male friend, perhaps her agent, who’d just appeared. I declined, and the woman rebuked me, “You don’t buy anything for anyone.”

Soothing my anger with more beers, I enjoyed a succession of singers and dancers and acrobats accompanied by powerful live music that seemed a fusion of Bob Marley and Desi Arnaz. After the show, having established that I was a worldly man and not to be trifled with, I invited the working lady to join me on the rounds of Havana nightlife. We didn’t stop until the bars closed at five a.m. In the hotel lobby, vigilant hotel employees suggested I send the lady home.

Too early the next morning, around noon, I received a call from a female friend of the working lady. She wanted to meet me. I was honored but declined since I had to get to Hemingway’s house and had been fielding daily calls from a deep-voiced taxi driver calling me “Jorge” and promising to arrange everything. I agreed. And we took off, after he swore Papa’s place really would be open. It was. And I patrolled the estate of the king of declarative sentences, as did loads of tourists arriving on buses said not to exist. Doors to the large, rustic house on a hill were open but roped off. Can’t I go in, I motioned. No, countered a museum employee. The Cuban government, which had stolen the house from the Hemingway family after the author’s death, wants to protect its evidently-fragile investment. I saw the author’s library of several thousand volumes spread over a few rooms, and admired heads of beasts he was always so proud to kill, and gazed at the antediluvian hi-fi system and sofa and chair where he sat to read and sip spirits in the rugged family room. I wished he was there but settled for desultory conversation with the deep-voiced taxi driver who, on the way back to Havana, abruptly pulled over and asked if I’d let him report that we didn’t go where we went but somewhere much closer to town so he could report a smaller fare and pocket the rest. In philanthropic spirit, I agreed.

In the city this Caucasian cabbie twice pulled over and chatted with groups of African Cubans. I had already noted similar interaction and would see much more. But, you say, blacks and whites talk all the time in the United States. That’s true. But go to Cuba and you’ll notice more relaxed and informal relations between races. I haven’t read about many African Cubans in the upper levels of power, but on the streets there’s definitely a better vibe than in the industrialized world. I complimented the driver on the nation’s racial relations but noted, “Some day your country will have democracy and an open market economy.”

“I know,” he said. “But right now no one could do a better job than Fidel.” Cubans must have the same scriptwriter, because several other people said precisely that when we talked about the political and economic future of their country. As a polite guest, I didn’t ask what Fidel was doing so well except maintaining his power.

This was my favorite question to ask Cubans: “Where am I from?”

They’d study my face, light even by Caucasian standards, and say Germany or England or Canada or anywhere else you might find a white man, except the United States. When I told them they usually said no way and wouldn’t believe me until I flashed my passport. I’d been in town a few days, and played this game with at least ten people, before a man said, “You’re an American.”

“How did you know?”

“Because of the way you speak Spanish,” he said.

Back at the hotel it was inevitably time for more Heinekens in a shady spot by the pool. This country must have horrific summers since the springtime humidity was nearly asphyxiating me. I retreated to my room to rest for the big game that night. Baseball is the national sport in Cuba, as it long was in the United States until football ascended. Numerous Cubans who’ve escaped from the regime that so fears freedom have played in the Major Leagues. I anticipated seeing a lot of big league talent this evening but arrived at the stadium with more urgent concerns, rushed into the bathroom, and was appalled by large pools of filthy water on the floor and toilets that appeared to have last been scrubbed during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Even if you don’t have much money, Fidel, and even if one reason you don’t have much is the U.S. economic embargo, you can still clean the damn bathrooms in the national baseball stadium. And make sure there are some napkins at the concession stands. When I asked a fellow how I could clean my hands holding a massive piece of greasy pizza, he looked at me like Count Dracula, placed both of his hands on the wall, and slowly pulled them over the rough surface. Thanks for the tip. I stepped into the ballpark and noted the Cuban baseball players were first rate, boasting lots of speed and power, particularly the players of African descent, who formed the majority.

Cuba also has excellent medical care. I needed some my final night in town. Already ill upon arrival, as noted above, I was unable to destroy the ear, nose, and throat infection despite my conscientious regimen of beer and antibiotics, and my left ear felt like it had been plugged by the lit end of one of Fidel’s cigars.

“Please take me to the nearest hospital,” I told another expensive taxi driver, and explained the problem.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “Your treatment will be absolutely free, even if you need a heart transplant.”

“That’s impressive, but I hope my ear’s the only problem.”

At Hospital Calixto Garcia, a large facility on a hill, I filled out some forms and, despite many patients in the lobby, waited only a few minutes before I was taken into an examination room where the slender and vivacious Doctora Marta soon arrived. I described the fearsome pain.

“Have you been drinking?” asked the doctora.

“No.”

“Yes, you have.”

“Will you please remove the problem from my ear?”

“I’m going to put some chemicals in your ear now. Tomorrow you can return to have the wax removed.”

“I’ll be in Mexico City tomorrow. I’ve had this done a few times in the United States, and the doctors have always removed the wax the same day.”

“That’s not how we do it.” She was smiling.

“Please, I know you can do it now.”

She stepped from the room and a stocky blond female American doctor came in and repeated the policy in English. I emphasized my experience and asked to again speak to Doctora Marta. She returned, still pleasant, and retrieved a long silver instrument with a hooked end and extracted a frightful blob. She then gave me a prescription I took to a pharmacy that had a dark, foreboding look and many half-empty shelves. Still, the pharmacist produced what I needed.

My final morning, down in the lobby, a female travel agent at the hotel, who’d complimented my appearance shortly after I arrived, snapped, “You look like an old man.” I had no rejoinder, but if ever I return to Cuba, refreshed by everlasting sobriety, I’m going back to that hotel and tell her she looks like an old woman.

En route to the airport, I asked the driver to swing by Hospital Calixto Garcia, where I inquired if Doctora Marta was on duty. She was, and walking into the lobby she halted when she saw me, shook her head, and told the driver, “Last night he was completely drunk.”

“Can I write you when I get back to the United States?” I asked.

She hesitated but reached into her pocket for paper she adorned with her name and the hospital’s address. I should have written but didn’t. I would use emails to try to find her today but, while Fidel obsessively burrows into the internet, only three percent of his socialist beneficiaries are permitted online access and most of that is at work. That number will improve if Fidel and Raul can hasten their emotional growth, or, dream of dreams, some new people take control.

Categories – Angola, Baseball, Czechoslovakia, Cuba, Ethiopia, Fidel Castro, Ernest Hemingway, George Thomas Clark, Havana, Health, Holocaust, Iran, John F. Kennedy, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Nicaragua, Nikita Khrushchev, Roger Maris, Raul Castro, San Francisco, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey.

This entry was posted in Angola, Baseball, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, Ernest Hemingway, Ethiopia, Fidel Castro, George Thomas Clark, Havana, Health, Holocaust, Iran, John F. Kennedy, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Mickey Mantle, Nicaragua, Nikita Khrushchev, Raul Castro, Roger Maris, San Francisco, Travel, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Writers.