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.
Dengue is generally transmitted by mosquitoes, and Dr. Mendoza may have been concerned that visitors to a scheduled trade fair in Santiago could be exposed to the virus. It may have been the government’s concern that potential dollar-carrying visitors could be exposed to Dr. Mendoza’s information and cancel their trip. Or it may have been that, once again, the Cuban regime’s intense horror of a dissenting or irreverent gaze set off a reflex chain of actions and convinced the judge who presided over the trial that what Desi Mendoza deserved for his infidencia was eight years in prison. This despite the fact that information on the epidemic that was essentially in agreement with Dr. Mendoza’s figures was published by the official Santiago newspaper, Sierra Maestra, one month after his arrest.
Dissenters are invisible in Cuba, and inaudible. They have no access to the airwaves or the official press, and are not allowed to hold public meetings without permission, which in effect cancels out the possibility—so it seems inevitable that those who feel the need to protest should end up talking to foreign reporters.
When I sought out people who had been released from jail following the Pope’s petition on their behalf, I asked them repeatedly if they were not afraid that talking to me might get them into trouble again. Their answer was generally a more or less pro forma statement in defense of freedom of speech—which was certainly sincere, and even heroic, in view of their histories. But it also struck me that there was something helpless about their situation when they were faced with an inquisitive foreigner. It was not so much that they made a decision to speak to me, but that they desperately needed to talk to anyone at all: they were lonely. They had stories to tell and opinions to give, and although neighbors might be friendly and friends might be supportive, any political conversation in Cuba is haunted by the terms of discussion enshrined long ago by the regime: Dentro de la Revolución, todo. Fuera de la Revolución, nada. Within the Revolution, everything: outside it, nothing—a radical restriction whose borders are impossibly vague. How much can you say, how closely can you look—even if the dissident before you is your best friend and you basically agree with the concrete points he or she is making—before you find that you have all unawares crossed over to the enemy side? Seeing becomes a fraught activity, and talking about what one observes can lead to ruinous disillusionment, or jail.
For the released prisoners, enforced silence seems a particularly cruel restriction, because people who have spent time in jail necessarily have terrible things they need to tell. I heard a story from a man who had served three and a half years of his seven-year sentence (again, for “enemy propaganda”) before the Pope put his name on a list. He spent the months between the time of his arrest and final sentencing at the detention center run directly by State Security, the Villa Marista. He lost twenty-six pounds during those weeks, confined with four other prisoners to a cell whose only access to the outside world was a slot on the cell door. When a prisoner was taken from his cell and through the hallway, the slots were shut, which meant that no one was able to know who his fellow prisoners were.
The hallway was only wide enough for one person, and when a prisoner was let out of a cell for whatever reason, he had to march ahead of the guard, and was told to do so quickly and with his eyes to the floor, while the guard marched so closely behind him that the man I interviewed said he could still not forget the sensation of the guard’s legs brushing his own at every step, forcing him forward. During these two months, he said, he was allowed out only once for an hour of sun and exercise, alone, on a patio, and this was the week before his transfer to the general prison at Combinado del Este. At the new prison he shared an overcrowded cell with men who, by and large, had been convicted of violent crimes, and were repeat offenders.
Prisoners serving harsh sentences at Combinado del Este are kept in galleys with forty to sixty other convicts, and, according to various sources, are fed so poorly that prison doctors classify their stage of undernourishment as either “moderate,” severe,” or “critical.” The prisoners are allowed one two-hour visit by two family members every two months, and during these visits they can receive as much food as their relatives can carry (no canned goods, or items that require cooking). But many prisoners don’t have good relations with their relatives, or else have relatives who are poor and live so far away that they cannot make the visits on a regular basis. The hunger they suffer is at the heart of the story that the man I talked to felt most compelled to tell, even though his wife gently tried to steer him away from the subject during our conversation.
This man is white. The cot above his in the overcrowded cell was vacated one day, and he began using this space to store the relatively bountiful supplies which his family lugged to prison every two months. Across from this cot was another, occupied by a young black man. My storyteller for some reason was specific about the youth’s race, although he couldn’t recall his crime, or didn’t feel that it was relevant. One night, the man who slept in the cot above the young black man’s (they were stacked in layers of four) discovered him stealing a small jar of preserves that belonged to the storyteller. As punishment, the young black man was severely beaten by the other prisoners. (I did not ask the storyteller what part he had in this.) The young man was taken away to the infirmary, and one month later he was dead. “Not as a result of the beating, you understand, but because he was so hungry. He died of hunger,” my storyteller insisted. And then he repeated several times, in a tight voice, that what he could not get over was the fact that the young man was the same age as his son.
This man was released from prison after John Paul II’s visit, and he is now awaiting an exit permit so that he can go abroad. (I do not mention his name or his other circumstances, not at his request, but out of my own fear that being quoted in an interview might send him back to prison rather than into exile.) According to a statement released by the Cuban government, seventy-five prisoners had already been freed before the Pope presented his list of 302 political detainees, and seventy “will not be liberated under any circumstances whatsoever.”
According to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, 115 prisoners, out of the Pope’s list of 302, were released in the days following his visit. But matters are not so simple. Gerardo Sánchez, brother of Elisardo Sánchez and president of the commission, has looked at the records available for these dissenters and found something interesting: a great many of them had already served either half or two thirds of their prison sentences, which is the point at which first and second offenders, respectively, are eligible for parole. Several knowledgeable Cubans confirmed to me that there was nothing unusual in this. As a matter of course, they said, political prisoners are detained long past their parole date, until some important person—Danielle Mitterrand, the Pope—comes to visit and speaks to Fidel on their behalf. No real amnesty is involved.2
Given the conditions under which the members of the Commission for Human Rights have to work, it is remarkable that they can collect or verify any information at all. As a former political prisoner himself, Elisardo Sánchez is not allowed to have a computer or a fax in the house he shares with his brother and several other members of the Sánchez family. Many other commission members or supporters don’t have phones. Many relatives of men and women in jail who might like to give their names to a human rights organization probably don’t know that the commission exists. (The government, of course, does not volunteer information on the individuals it chooses to keep in jail for crimes of opinion.) Thanks to new information provided by the recently released dissenters, Gerardo Sánchez said, they had only now been able to add to the list of prisoners the name of one man who has been in jail since 1993.
The Sánchezes’ personal situation is difficult, too. Like every other person who has been a political prisoner, Elisardo will probably never be offered a job as anything other than a menial laborer by the government, which is still the only legal employer in Cuba. Gerardo was a union leader until the day in 1980 when they first arrested his brother and charged him with the all-purpose offense of enemy propaganda. He is also out of work. (Relatives living abroad are the main source of support for the Sánchez brothers, as well as most other dissenters, which may help explain why so many of them are white and middle-class.)
Elisardo has a right to a ration card, but what the card provides these days is not really enough to keep a person alive. (And even that is hard to come by for most former prisoners. Two months after his release, one man still had not had his card “reactivated.”) Nevertheless, Gerardo says that over the last few years, conditions for those who disagree with the regime have improved somewhat, most likely as a result of Cuba’s new need to be more responsive to international pressure. The total number of political prisoners has gone down significantly, Gerardo said, and State Security officers, who in the past have sometimes been regular visitors to the Sánchez household, lately have been leaving the brothers in peace. But Gerardo Sánchez insists that none of these changes are significant because the regime has always blown hot and cold on dissenters, and will have a legal justification for its repressive measures until there are fundamental changes in the Constitution and the legal system.
I asked Gerardo whether he thought that the US trade embargo had been a useful weapon against the regime. He shook his head. “Sometimes I have the impression that the embargo reflects a fear that this economic system might really work, that [the people who support the embargo believe] that if it were lifted today, tomorrow socialism would be viable. It probably couldn’t be done overnight, but there should be some thought how to lift the embargo gradually. It would put an end to the regime’s great excuse, which is to say that things are so bad here because of imperialism.”
Thinking of how moderate the Sánchez brothers’ politics are, and how useful the two might be as interlocutors to a regime suffering from severe interior decay and increasing distance from its subjects, I asked Gerardo if the government maintained any sort of regular contact with them: “Of course,” he replied. “In the form of interrogations.” It is hard to avoid the impression that the Revolution prefers the radical, invasion-prone opposition in Florida to the unarmed social-democrat and Christian-democrat activists within, as if Fidel and his comrades were grateful for the opportunity to present themselves—and see themselves—in a more flattering, heroic mold, facing enemy gunfire rather than snooping on people who want the right to register their organization as a fully legal political party.
If being outside the Revolution is difficult in Havana, it must be doubly so in Santiago, a small, sweltering seaport ringed by the hills of the Sierra Maestra, where generations of rebels, including Fidel Castro, have found shelter. Santiago is a fascinating place, but it is not the cosmopolitan center that Havana has been throughout its history. The visual landscape of Havana has remained pretty much unchanged since 1959, but the visitor to downtown Santiago has the impression of having traveled back in time straight into the nineteenth century: tile-roofed houses fronting on empty narrow streets, an ornate (but empty) galería of shops, and—one result of Cuba’s ongoing fuel shortage—spindly carriages drawn by spindly horses. And if in Havana one is sometimes overwhelmed by the sensation that nothing ever happens—no news, no movie openings, no political changes—in Santiago the atmosphere of tedium is ever-present: a weary continuum of uneventfulness that was once happily interrupted by the bustle surrounding the Pope’s visit.
In this small world nonconformists must feel particularly exposed to the glare of official disapproval. I would have liked to ask Dessi Mendoza Rivero, the physician who revealed the existence of a dengue epidemic in Santiago and was sentenced to eight years in prison as a result, how he came to see himself as outside the Revolution and what it was like to be a dissenter in Santiago; but it turned out that he was on the commission’s list of political prisoners who were not released following the papal visit, even though his name was among those presented to the Cuban government on behalf of the Pope.
It may be that Dr. Mendoza was not released because he is considered a particular enemy of the people. What seems undeniable is that he did not overstate the extent or the dangers of the dengue epidemic. In Havana, I talked to a woman who lives in Santiago and whose husband was hospitalized during the epidemic. She says that the resources of the very large general hospital in Santiago were stretched so thin at the height of it that many dengue victims had to lie on cots on the lawns of the hospital grounds awaiting treatment. One morning when she arrived to visit her husband she found him in a state of great agitation. He begged her to take him away. “The young man in the bed on the other side of the aisle died last night. I don’t want to die here,” he said.
With some trepidation, I looked up Dr. Mendoza’s wife, doubting that my visit to her would go unnoticed, or that she would be willing to expose herself by talking to me, but Caridad Piñón turned out to be a fearless woman. A physician herself, she told me that her husband had been fired from his hospital job in 1995, after he set up the College of Independent Physicians and joined the Human Rights Commission, and that from then until the day of his arrest he had contributed to the family income by selling fritters at the door of the crumbling nineteenth-century house the couple occupies with their three children.
Dr. Piñón is on maternity leave still (her youngest child was twenty days old when Dr Mendoza was arrested), but she knows that when she returns to work she too might lose her job, as outspoken relatives of political prisoners tend to. Still, she talked to me, and all of her answers to my questions seemed to come ringed in exclamation marks. “Me, afraid?” she said when I wondered aloud yet again why someone like her would talk to someone like me. “I told them [State Security] that I would say everything that happened. Imagine if I couldn’t say what is happening to my husband!”
She went on. A few days earlier, her husband, who suffers from chronic heart problems, had spent five days in intensive care at the local hospital, undergoing treatment for severe hypertension. Even though she was wearing her hospital uniform and carrying her physician’s credentials, she said, the guards at the door to his room did not allow her to see him, or even to deliver a basket of food. I could picture her giving the guards several pieces of her mind, loudly, and I decided that what I liked best about her was the sense that she did not feel impotent or inconsequential, the way so many people who disagree with the Revolution seem to. Of course, she had never spent any time in jail, but the fact remained that she was still trying to drive a hard bargain with the people in charge of keeping her husband behind bars.
“I tell them, you let him free and I won’t say another word,” she said in her exclaiming way, after mentioning that the State Security people had recently suggested that she might want to drop by their offices for a “constructive conversation.” I asked her why she thought Dr. Mendoza had not been freed after the Pope’s visit, and she said, for the first time looking worried and pained, that she didn’t know. I thought to myself that it might have something to do with the fact that he will have to serve three and a half years of his sentence before he is eligible for the parole that authorities choose to present as “amnesty.” If this is the case, he has more than thirty months to go.
I stared at the rain pouring in through the roof of the room where we were sitting while she saw to some urgent request of her youngest child. Everyone in the family looked healthy, and I wondered what miracles of thriftiness and hard barter were involved in making that possible. I had seen some ration cards for Santiago and other provinces, with the blanks showing that people had not received their allotted quotas of cooking oil, soap, or toothpaste for weeks on end; they were allowed, I saw, ten ounces of beans and one pound of meat substitute per person per month. Whatever food Caridad Piñón managed to acquire on the free market, at dollar prices, had to be stretched to provide for her husband as well; prisoners’ ration cards are suspended, on the grounds that they are fed in jail. It was all so difficult it was a wonder that she did not throw up her hands in despair, or blame her husband for the mess he had gotten everyone into. I asked her if she thought Dessi Mendoza knew that he would pay for his statements about dengue with an eight-year prison sentence. “Are you crazy?” she said. “He wouldn’t immolate himself like that. He’s not crazy!” It had simply not occurred to him that talking about a public health epidemic to an unauthorized audience could be so wrong.
Later I sat on the terrace of the pleasant turn-of-the-century hotel where I was staying, which overlooks a leafy plaza and the Cathedral of Santiago. At the Cathedral the outspoken bishop of Santiago, Pedro Meurice, holds weekly support meetings for the relatives of prisoners. The hotel terrace, too, is a sanctuary of sorts, because on the streets that surround the hotel unaccompanied men or women like myself (and even, a Spanish couple told me, men held firmly by the hand by their wives) are targets for relentless hustling by women—or, in my case, men—hoping to obtain a few dollars in exchange for a little adventure. But because the money-seekers are not allowed on the terrace unless they are in the company of a hotel guest, a kind of tranquillity prevails there.
The just-formed Cuban-foreign couples who occupied so many of the tables around me were at peace: both partners had what they had come to find. And because Cuba is a place where fantasy and idealism and the pursuit of exoticism have always been intertwined, and because the women are so cheap that they are usually rented by the day, and because it is the hope of so many of the women who rent themselves out that one of their customers will want to keep her for good, the nature of the relationship between prostitute and customer was also different, I thought. A certain amount of trust had time to develop, along with the quest for romance and salvation involved on both sides. It seemed absurd that Dessi Mendoza should be in jail for talking to the foreign press while on the terrace hesitant conversations were taking place between the new couples—in sign language, or pidgin Spanish, or in whatever common language the two people had found.
I had spent some time talking with Bishop Meurice, and been struck by his arguments against the United States trade embargo, which he, like so many other Cubans, refers to always as “the blockade”—perhaps because the word more nearly conveys the besieged feeling of the island. “The Cuban Church has spoken out against the blockade in the past,” Meurice said. “It is unjust. But the fact is that there are other realities that also affect the anguish lived by our people: unjust inequalities, state paternalism and centralism, limitations on civil society’s ability to participate. The blockade depends on the United States, but the rest of it depends on us. In a situation as hard as the one the Cuban people are living, the truth must be said: the blockade doesn’t help. On the contrary. It may prevent us from seeing those other realities.”
June 11, 1998
See “A Visit to Havana” in these pages, March 26, 1998. ↩
Fidel himself would have fared poorly under this system. Captured in August 1953 following his assault on the Moncada army barracks, and sentenced to 15 years in prison, he was freed by Batista less than two years later following an amnesty campaign in Cuba on behalf of the Moncada prisoners. ↩