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 …

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