by Lang Phipps
The Cuba I see has none of the squalor, despair, or class inequality I've
read in the American press (I smell the Miami-based Cubans behind the most
melodramatic accounts of Cuban life). Either these are the pluckiest people
since the wartime Brits, or the shortages are just not that crushing. I
don't mean to minimize the mess Cuba's become, or certainly deliver an
apologia for Fidel, but everyone I've met is good-humored, relaxed, and
even, dare I say it, happy. This is what I've seen.
I pose this question to an educated older woman I've met in the hotel bar: How would you feel if there was an election between Fidel and an opposition candidate? She answered, "Thrilled, but who is the other man?" I said "Mas Canosa" (leader of the Cuban activists in Miami), and she threw back her head and laughed caustically, "You would say the only person we'd prefer Fidel over".
Strolling down the crumbling grandeur of the Prado, in the heart of the former Paris of the Caribbean, my reverie is shattered by the crowing of a rooster.
At the Palacio de la Salsa, I blend into the ecstatic crowd. It is Tuesday night, but people are out to dance and socialize. Tonight it's a double bill, NG y la Banda and Adelberto Alvarez. I notice that no-one is drunk. I am unaware of any typical American nightclub skulldruggery. The feeling in this enormous, triple-tiered room with the brightly lit stage is of unrestrained happiness. I remember being this happy once in my early twenties, when I had just enough money to live on, a roof over my head, and the company of friends. Maybe the solitary success of Castro's communism is that the Cuban life is so stripped down, so devoid of excess, that there are no high-class problems. There's no room for neurosis. The average Cuban lives one year longer than the average American: the absence of stress? The idea of a therapist strikes me as faintly ridiculous in the Palacio de la Salsa tonight. Got a problem? Go dance it off.
Cuban hospitality takes alarming forms at our hotel. Returning to my room one night, I am shocked to see a cobra in the middle of my bed, poised to strike. Quickly turning on the light, I discover it is only a fresh towel. My chambermaid has not only made the bed, she has also artfully shaped my blanket into a butterfly, and my towel into a snake. Plus she has left a little note that reads, "I hope you feel very well with us. Your chambermaid".
Even the hustlers are polite in Havana. They respectfully back off the moment I shake my head "no" to offers of a taxi, or the "Cohibas" that their brother-in-law has smuggled out of the factory.
Yves and I go to the east Havana beaches on Wednesday. They are among the best I have seen in the Caribbean -- superfine white sand, clean, pellucid, aqua-green sea. It's crowded like a Saturday, of course: it feels like Saturday everyday in Havana. We have a drink at a little bar under a thatched hut, and get a show from a teenaged mulatto girl in a string bikini. Hoping for a handout or some free beer, she dances to the salsa that's playing over the P.A., her arms folded on the bar, her culo grinding away, mere inches from our table. We buy her a beer and she gives me a water-based tattoo to put anywhere I want on her body. The Cuban men pay all of this no mind: they know it's just business being done. I hear, however that they hate the idea of their women running with foreign infidels, but they're reconciled to the economic realities of the situation.