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Love and Misery in Cuba

For many of the long years that the Revolution has been in power in Cuba much of it was off-limits to the potentially unfriendly gaze. Not only were all sorts of facts and procedures kept secret; all foreigners were barred from access to large portions of Cuba’s territory and even Cubans were told where they could travel, and therefore where they could look. The reason stated for so much secrecy was the imperative of the cold war, but another reason was not given, and perhaps those who established the limits never formulated it clearly to themselves—it was simply understood that the way the Revolution was seen was critical to its survival. Its failures were hardly a secret but it was important that they not be visible.

So it comes as a double shock to arrive in Cuba as a tourist and see so much of it open to one’s foreign stare, and to see also how brutal in many cases the new stare of the foreign visitor is. On a tour bus, the modest and articulate young woman who is our guide attempts to explain the currency system, but she is interrupted by a hefty middle-aged Mexican of some means who has been looking frankly at her body. “You’re very good-looking, Cubanita,” he says. “I like your hair.” She thanks him less than graciously for the compliment, but he is unfazed. He makes a few comments about the pitiful state of the economy, and a short while later interrupts again. “Where can we see some table-dancing?” he wants to know.

Airports and airplanes, natural collection points for foreigners, are in other parts of the world centers of regimented behavior: no smoking, fasten your seat belts, step up to the counter. At the brand new international departures lounge in Havana these rules don’t hold: hundreds of young men on charter tours—Mexican, Italian, and Spanish, on this occasion—sprawl on the floor, spill beer on the just-polished marble and throw the cans at each other, boast openly about their diminished supply of condoms after an Easter weekend sex holiday in sunny Havana, and blow cigar smoke in the face of the women at the check-in counter.

In the old days guerrilla apprentices from Brazil and Uruguay and El Salvador came here and treated each brick laid by the Revolution with reverence, and nevertheless were kept within strict boundaries during their stay. With an ordinary tourist visa provided with any charter tour package, however, the new type of foreigner can rent a car or buy a domestic plane ticket and travel just about anywhere he pleases in Cuba. On a decrepit plane that miraculously survives its daily run from Havana to Santiago and back, two Italians join the other tourists and Cubans who have already fastened their seat belts. They are late, it would seem, because they are less than coherent, or more than a little drunk. Convulsed with giggles, they make their way up the aisle, and then one of them decides that the jokey thing to do is to sit himself heavily in the lap of another traveler—a Cuban. “I’m sorry,” the Italian slurs in deliberate English. He does not look at all repentant, and his friend is howling with laughter. Gently, the stewardess tugs the offender away from his victim and pushes him toward an empty seat.

To say that Cuba has opened itself up to tourism in this context has connotations that are unfortunately true: the island has become an established part of the world sex tour circuit. Of all the ways the Revolution could have looked for emergency money following the collapse of the Soviet Union, none was less predictable than this, and not only because the eradication of prostitution was one of Cuban socialism’s proudest achievements—in the rhetoric, at least. Personified by Fidel Castro, the Revolution has craved nothing so much as respect, but prostitutes, who have given up the right to choose who they are possessed by, are generally not respected. They can be stared at by anyone, as if the stare itself were the equivalent of sexual commerce. Indeed, in Latin cultures the way a man looks at a woman—or at another man, for that matter—can be cause for conflict. A penetrating stare in the wrong direction may lead a man to feel that he needs to defend his honor. And yet in Cuba the brazen stare has replaced the old obsession with the respectful gaze.

Although there does not appear to be any official reference to the phenomenon in any government speech to date, the decision to tolerate, and even encourage, prostitution appears to have been deliberate. After all, once it was decided that only tourism could provide the emergency currency needed to keep the country afloat, how could Havana hope to compete with the likes of Martinique, Santo Domingo, Curaçao, or Cancún? Not on the basis of its shabby hotels, limited food supply, and terrible flight connections, certainly.

Five dollars, the young Mexicans standing with me at the departure line boast at the end of their sexual holiday, was enough to buy “a spectacular mulata” for the evening. They are happy. So was the businessman who checked in to my hotel on the same day I arrived. I had come to see what had changed in Cuba in the wake of John Paul II’s January visit—how the euphoria of those days had carried over into everyday life during the Easter holidays.1 Soon I was trying to solve the problems of my room—a fog of mosquitoes, the fact that if the windows were kept closed nothing could be seen of the outdoors, because for incomprehensible reasons the glazing had been varnished black—but the businessman had other concerns. Less than an hour after our joint arrival, I stepped into the hotel elevator and ran into him again. He had changed into tropical gear, and was now in the company of a woman who could, indeed, only be described as spectacular: lithe, with skin the color of bitter chocolate, and dressed only in high heels and an electric-blue bodystocking.

Later that evening I saw him escorting the electric-blue woman and another marvelously beautiful woman into a taxi. The following morning he appeared at breakfast and rose to greet a different woman altogether. That evening he had changed partners again. The last time I saw him the woman in the bodystocking was back. He looked throughout earnest and busy, like someone with many important appointments to fit into an already crowded schedule.

At Twenty-third and Linea, Havana’s central crossroads, young girls gathered from early in the morning in front of the Habana Libre hotel, dressed and painted for display. Passing them, I tried to convince myself that they were over sixteen. I was on the way to a weekly conference for foreign journalists that is held nearby, and I was struck by the fact that there seemed to be no attempt to zone prostitution, to restrict it to certain types of hotels or certain neighborhoods or otherwise hide it from view.

The press conference, attended by some fifty journalists, was different. There, nothing could be shown, no information could be revealed. To give the press officials credit, they seemed utterly relaxed about the fact that I was there as a reporter without the right kind of visa, and that, as I told them, I planned to look at what had become of the dissidents who were released from jail in February, following an appeal by the Pope. They were willing to let me look, but providing straightforward answers to the questions put to them by the gathered press corps was a different matter.

Was it true that a certain aged Colombian guerrilla leader had died not in Colombia last February, as was initially stated, but in a hospital in Havana, as a guerrilla defector was now claiming? The answer, compounded of careful evasions, was not even an explicit denial. Was it true that an important promoter of US investment on the island has been denied a visa? Again, the circumlocutions made nothing clear. The session ended without a sentence of real information being exchanged. The day’s issue of Granma, the official newspaper, was again a model of obfuscation. None of the topics raised in the press conference were covered in the day’s stories.

It is hard to understand just who is being protected by this censorship. True revolutionaries have presumably had time throughout these nearly forty years to develop an immunity to counterrevolutionary versions of the truth. The regime may have thought that it should protect from foreign influences the poor Cubans it described as “lumpen” and “scum” because they refused to accept revolutionary austerity. But as it happens, this is the group of people now most heavily engaged in prostitution and related black-market activities. They are, therefore, the very Cubans who are most in contact with the new type of foreigners, and who have the greatest access to the foreigners’ contrasting versions of reality. Because they are also likely to be the significant breadwinners in some of the poorest Cuban households, their influence is probably great. And because these households are so poor, the effect of their commerce with foreigners is likely to be subversive. Under these circumstances the distinction between what the government does not wish to see and what it does not want others to look at seems, at the very least, arbitrary.

Perhaps it is nothing more than fear of the foreign gaze that is behind Cuba’s perceived need to fill its jails with dissidents. Many who were in past years allowed to voice their unfavorable opinion of the socialist regime and wander the streets unsupervised were hustled into prison once they shared these opinions with a foreign journalist. Elisardo Sánchez, for example, founder of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, spent two and a half years in prison after talking to Julia Preston, then a reporter with the Washington Post. Sánchez claimed that the relatives of prisoners who were executed in a notorious military trial in 1989 were not allowed to take the bodies home for burial. That the government brief against Sánchez virtually admitted this fact did not affect Sánchez’s four-year sentence. José Angel Carrasco, founder of a movement whose acronym, AMOR, reveals a certain wistful romanticism rather than any violent impulse to take up arms against Fidel Castro, was sentenced to seven years after he gave an interview to Le Monde‘s Bertrand de la Grange. (De la Grange was subsequently beaten and arrested before he left the island.)

One of the most striking cases is that of Dessi Mendoza Rivero, a doctor in Santiago, capital of Oriente province, who founded the College of Independent Physicians in 1994. Over the next three years he was called in regularly to the local State Security offices for questioning and scolding, and often spent a night in jail for good measure, but it was not until June of last year that he was arrested and charged with the crime of “enemy propaganda.” The previous month he had held a few phone conversations with an assortment of foreign correspondents based in Havana. His statements were, if anything, moderate and cautious. Despite the best efforts of the government health authorities, he said, an epidemic of dengue fever was devastating his city. The first outbreak of the epidemic had been detected in January, and by May Dr. Mendoza’s estimate was that between fifteen and thirty people had died. In addition, he thought that thousands of santiagueros had already been affected by the virus, which can turn lethal if the patient has suffered from dengue before or is undernourished or otherwise immune-deficient.

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    See “A Visit to Havana” in these pages, March 26, 1998.

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