"After Fidel ..."
Author Notebook: Our Time in Havana
By Charles Fleming
It was dark and raining hard when we touched down at Jose Marti, the international airport that serves Havana, Cuba. By the time we’d claimed our luggage and left the terminal, the rain had stopped. Wet heat rose from the dark ground. Following a uniformed airline employee who beckons us forward, we pushed our way through a dense crowd of excited Cuban men and women there to greet returning relatives, and got to the curb and found a cab driver willing to take us into Vedado.
The highway into town was pitted and pocked with potholes, and badly lit. From the shadows, on either side of the road, appeared a broken parade of men and vehicles. A man naked from the waist up pushed a handcart filled with oranges. A man wearing a shiny suit rode a bicycle that pulled a cart filled with sugar cane. Cars and trucks of every description, most of them in states of accelerated collapse, rattled along beside and behind us. When we hit the outskirts of town, my oldest daughter said, “Is this Havana?”
An hour later, we had met Carlos and Sondra, who owned the apartment where we’d arranged to lodge, and were on our way to dinner. The sidewalks of Vedado, once the Beverly Hills of Havana, were in no better condition than the roads, and scarcely better lit. Carlos assures us we need fear nothing on the streets of Havana — “No bad man,” he says. “No pistolas.” We walked five blocks down Calle 15, toward the Hotel Presidente. Sondra stopped across the street from a paladar — local parlance for a privately run restaurant, usually housed in a private home — called “El Escorpion.“ It used to be a fine, colonial, two-story family home. Now it serves dinner to foreigners in what must have been the foyer and sitting room. A genial waiter took our orders, for chicken, pork and fish, and we ate a huge meal that included rice and black beans, fried bananas and an incongruous fruit cocktail. After dinner the waiter asked if we were American. Then he asked how much it cost to buy a new PlayStation2. We told him we didn’t know. So he asked how much the PlayStation CDs cost. He was being overcharged, he felt sure, for the pirated CDs he was buying in Havana. “I want to go to America," he said. "Then I could buy my son all the new PlayStation2 games.”
This was Cuba, in December 2002. We had come down for a ten-day stay, ostensibly for me to do research for a novel I was writing, set in Havana in the summer and fall of 1958 — the months before the corrupt government of Fulgencio Batista was swamped by the rising revolutionary tide of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos. The novel was to be a sequel to my first book, The Ivory Coast, which was to be published several months later. That book was set in Las Vegas, in 1955, and ended with Deacon, the trumpet-playing hero, fleeing the desert with a murder behind him. I wanted the new book to begin with Deacon living a new life, under an assumed name, in tropical Havana, with the revolution as a colorful backdrop to the personal trouble Deacon finds in Cuba.
We had specifically chosen December, my wife and two daughters and I, because December is the driest month. Cuba gets a lot of rain. We didn’t want any of it to fall on us. Our first day in the city, indeed, we saw none. The sky was blue and filled with big, billowy clouds, and the streets made wet by the previous night’s rain dried in the strong sun. We walked from our apartment in Vedado past the majestic Hotel Nacional, where statesmen and film stars stayed, down to the famed Malecon — the much-photographed crescent boulevard that lines Havana Bay. The wind whiskered the waves over the seawall, splashing lovers canoodling there and the vintage Fords and Chevrolets racing toward Havana Vieja.
It was to be almost the last sun we saw. The rain came that afternoon. We had wandered around the old city for several hours, admiring the wedding-cake exterior of the grand Hotel Inglaterra, stopping at Hemingway haunts like El Floridita and La Bodeguita, snapping photographs of the grand neon signs outside the Upmann and Partagas cigar factories. For a novelist researching Havana in 1958, this was paradise. The economy of Cuba has been so bad, for so long, that the architecture has been left intact. Just imagine the city with a fresh coat of paint and, voila, it’s 1958.
When the girls got tired, we grabbed a pair of Disneyesque “coco cabs,” which look like bright yellow coconut shells on wheels, and rode back to Vedado, to the storied ice cream palace called Copellia. Along the way, we got a clear sense of Havana poverty. Between the middle-class Vedado from tourist-class Havana Vieja was the bombed-out looking Centro, where every block revealed torn up streets, underfed children playing in sodden, filthy clothes, empty apartment buildings stripped of everything but the mortar and concrete, the windows and doors and flooring long since stripped away for use elsewhere.
Despite the poverty, we found good cheer wherever we went. Young men smiled as we passed and, once we had, called out, “Hello, my freng! Where do you fron?” Children in raggedy school uniforms ran to the edge of their playgrounds to say hello. Shopkeepers and paladar restaurateurs and taxi drivers all welcomed us, and gamely struggled with our bad Spanish. Nowhere, not once, were we menaced, hustled or hassled.
But we did have the rain. It began the second day. It increased in intensity that night. It came down like the wrath of God the following day. Within forty-eight hours, the city was crippled. Ground-floor shops were forced to close. Buses stopped running. Taxicabs could not navigate through most of the city. Gas and electricity services were intermittent. Telephone service was abandoned. The work of being a tourist became hard work. We managed to see the Parque Lenin, the Hemingway monument at Cojimar, the Presidential Palace and a few more sightseeing destinations in Havana Vieja. But for long hours over the following days we were pinned down in our rooms. One evening, desperate for a good meal, we waded a quarter mile, at times during across knee-deep streams, to the nearest open paladar, a magnificent second-floor establishment called “Amor,” housed in what had once been the Spanish Ambassador’s residence. We ate an ambassadorial meal of fried chicken and roast pork while the very patient staff mopped up the puddles of water gathering where we sat.
The following day I walked through a pounding rain to the Hotel Nacional, and later that day, when the rain lifted a little, we went en famille to the Museum of the Revolution. In these two places I found most of the research material I had hoped to find. In the Nacional there were framed black-and-white photographs of the entertainers and celebrities who, in the 1940s and 1950s, came to Havana for the casinos and the music and the sin. Here were Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner, and Walt Disney and Spencer Tracy, John Wayne and Marlon Brando. Singers like Nat “King” Cole posed with bandleaders like “Prez” Prado. Boxer Rocky Marciano stood with baseball player Mickey Mantle. Appearing regularly, too, were dark-eyed Latin playboys and tycoons like Porfirio Rubirosa and Pedro Almendariz. Within two hours, I had an extremely clear sense of the high end Havana tourist traffic — what they were wearing, what they were listening to, what they were eating, where they were staying, where they were gambling, and at what cost to their wallets and the Cuban people.
This did not prepare me for the Museum of the Revolution.
The exhibits are housed in what was once the Presidential Palace. Batista was living here when the rebels stormed the city. He fled Cuba, along with many of his top ministers, having already spirited away untold millions in public funds, only hours before the armies of the revolution entered Havana and stormed the palace.
The exhibits include a most remarkable array of revolution detritus. Here are Che Guevara’s boots and pipe, and rifle. Here are Camilo Cienfuegos’ shirt and carbine. Here is Cienfuegos’ bush hat, posed with Fidel Castro’s boina, or beret. Here are Fidel’s pants, and his brother Raul’s boots. Here is a life-sized waxworks tableau of Che and Camilo dashing past a burning tank.
The photographs are more impressive, and document every inch of the revolution, from the Moncada Barracks raid in July, 1953, which left half of Fidel Castro’s assault team killed or captured and executed and sent Fidel Castro to prison and later into exile, to the leader’s triumphal march into Havana on January 8, 1959. In between, here is Fidel in New York. Here is vice president Richard Nixon in Havana, photographed smiling with Batista. Here are Fidel and Raul and Che, giving speeches, gripping their cigars, dressed in Army fatigues, bright-eyed with revolutionary fervor.
There are also files and files of newspaper clippings, in English and Spanish, chronicling the rise of Fidel and the fall of Batista. The photographs that accompany them are vivid in the extreme — battles, dead civilians, victims of political assassination, victims of torture. The violence was not only Batista’s. I later come across a Life Magazine report on the rebels, complete with photographs, that includes a field “court martial” of a man accused of raping a peasant. Che Guevara quite calmly oversees his trial and execution.
That night, I had a disturbing dream. I was called upon to assist in organizing and overseeing a firing squad. The condemned man was clearly innocent. Everyone knew it. The execution was unnecessary. So we got the man drunk, and stood him up against the wall. He had no idea what was happening to him. I gave the order and he died.
The men of the firing squad then asked me uneasily if I knew what was going to happen next.
I said, “Yes. I am next.”
They said, “Yes,” and offered me a drink.
The weather dried after several more days. We were able to hire a car and driver and visit the western end of the island — Vinales, Pinar Del Rio, the countryside. Upon our return, we spent another day in Havana Vieja, an evening at the famed fortaleza, an afternoon at Marina Hemingway, and a half-day at the enormous Cementerio De Colon, one of the largest cemeteries anywhere in the Americas, and certainly the most colorful. We left the country eager to visit again, to see more, to experience less rain and more Cuba.
I wrote my book later that year, and into the next. It became After Havana, which St. Martin’s Press published in January 2004. In the intervening time, the Bush administration tightened the travel restrictions to Cuba, and promised to prosecute any American found to have visited the country illegally or otherwise broken the decades-old trade embargo that makes it a felony to exchange American money for Cuban goods.
Everywhere we went, everyone we met, we heard the same thing. “After Fidel...” In conversation with our landlord, our waiter, people we met on the street, the driver who took us to Pinar Del Rio, that was the preface to any discussion of the future. Ask a Cuban his plans, his dreams or his ambitions, and he is likely to say, “After Fidel...” The present, in Cuba, is difficult. After Fidel is where the future begins.
I haven't been back to Cuba. I will go, though. Maybe after Fidel.