The Mansion, The Country

She has a five-bedroom house that is falling to pieces. She got it in the seventies when the family for whom she worked as a maid went into exile. At first she went through all the rooms each day, the interior patio, caressed the marble banister of the stairs to the second floor, played at filling the basins of the three bathrooms just to be reminded that this neoclassical mansion was now hers. The joy lasted for a while, until the first bulbs burned out, the paint started to peel, and weeds grew in the garden. She got a job cleaning a school, but not even six salaries for such a job would have been enough to maintain the ancient splendor of this house that seemed increasingly larger and more inhospitable.

Thousands of times, the woman in this story thought of selling the house inherited from her former employers, but she would not do anything outside the law. For decades in Cuba a market in housing was prohibited and it was only possible to exchange properties through a concept popularly known as a “swap.” Dozens of decrees, restrictions and limitations also arose, to regulate and control this activity, making moving an ordeal. An all-powerful Housing Institute oversaw the completion of a string of absurd conditions. With so many requirements, the procedures were strung out over more than a year, such that before families could go live in their new homes they were exhausted from filling out forms, hiring lawyers and bribing inspectors.

Such anxieties raised hopes that the Sixth Communist Party Congress would raise the flag for real estate. When, in the final report, it said that the purchase and sale of homes would be accepted and all that remained was to legally implement it, hundreds of thousands of Cubans breathed a sigh of relief. The lady with the mansion, at the moment it was announced, was sitting in front of her television avoiding a drip falling from the ceiling right in the middle of the living room. She looked around at the columns with decorated capitals, the huge mahogany doors, and the marble staircase from which the banister had been torn out and sold. Finally she could hang a sign on the fence, “For Sale: Five-bedroom house in urgent need of repairs. Wish to buy a one-bedroom apartment in some other neighborhood.”

Almond-Shaped Eyes

They travel in groups around Havana neighborhoods. Hundreds of Chinese students who learn Spanish in Cuba and add color to a reality where other foreigners barely stay a couple weeks as tourists. Thanks to them, the city once again has those Asian eyes that were so common in the first half of the twentieth century, that Asian gait which gives the impression of feet barely touching the ground, has returned, for a time. They crowd around Chinatown, giggling in front of some restaurants with paper lanterns and red curtains where the menu offers more local and Italian food than plates of spinach and noodles.

One morning, I met several of them lost near the Central Rail Station. They had empty bags, tired faces, and walked slowly. One of the girls asked me, after consulting a small dictionary, where they could buy lettuce. It was one of those hot months where the only green on the market pallets is cucumbers. But there they were, waiting for the agricultural miracle that would put some soft leaves on their plates. I explained that the sun was very strong and the vegetables were harvested just in roofed areas, that the lack of packaging hampered their arrival in the cities, and when they appeared it was at very high prices.

After a few minutes, those almond-shaped eyes rounded in consequence of my strange explanation. “Lettuce! Lettuce!” they insisted, and one of them translated it into every language he knew, “lettuce, laitue, Kopfsalat, alphas ….” I smiled, it’s not about not understanding the word, I said, it’s that I don’t know where, right now, where they could find vegetables to eat. It was clear, they didn’t believe me. “Go to Four Roads Plaza and see if you can find them there,” was the final thing I thought to tell them, so as not to kill hope. And off they went in that direction, their steps already exhausted, empty bags blowing in the wind, with their oriental elegance faded somewhat, lacking vegetables to revive them.

Quick Love, Brief Shelter

“To the warm shelter of 214…” began a song by Silvio Rodriguez which — in my adolescent naivete — I listened to as if it were a riddle. So it was until a friend, who’d lived a little more than I had, unblushingly clarified the phrase. It was simply the address of a well-known Havana motel, where couples could find a place for quick love in a country already gripped by housing limitations. Waiting outside those places were women who covered their faces with scarves and sunglasses, while the men paid the desk clerk and got the key to the room. An insistent knock on the door would warn them that their time was over and others were waiting to enter.

Havana’s inns, scenes of so many infidelities, sudden passions, and even innumerable passions that led to formal matrimony with several children. These places, once flourishing, faced a long period of stigma and then a precipitous decline. They passed from sites of ardor to become cramped housing for victims of building collapses. Put like that, it sounds fair: substituting necessity for pleasure, the rapture of the flesh for the pressing needs of a family. One after the other, the city’s motels were closed to the public and their small rooms were taken up by people who lost their homes to the winds of a hurricane or the ravages of a fire. Informal love began to move to the bushes, dark corners, or, quietly, to the same room where Grandma was sleeping. Those with hard currency could, in turn, seek out private homes that rented rooms for 5 convertible pesos for several hours.

Now, passing through Fraternity Park late at night, it’s not uncommon to hear to a groan in the shadows, the muffled sound of clothes rubbing against each other. The majority of people my age and younger have never had their own roof under which to caress their partner, or a private bed where they can lie wrapped in each other’s arms. People who haven’t known what it is to live in a city where there are motels with neon signs and tiny rooms where you can make love for at least an hour. Nor do they understand the song — outdated now — of that singer-songwriter, and names such as Hotel Venus, 11th and 24th, The Countryside, or Ayestaran Cottages do not awaken any pleasant memories.

Spaniards in the World

The capitol, rum, salsa music played on street corners, cars that look like collector’s pieces although under the hood they are falling to pieces. This and more in the chapter, “Spaniards in the World,” filmed here in Havana. Fifty minutes with stories of immigrants from Asturias, Galicia, Andalusia, which have transported their dreams from the other side of the Atlantic. Everything is nice and blue, sprinkled with salt; but something doesn’t fit.

While I watch the serial I have the impression that what they’re showing me is another country, a distant dimension in sepia tints. The life stories of the seven main characters happen, for me, in a space far from the daily life I know. And though I repeat — to calm myself down — that the serial is about Spaniards spread across the globe and not about Cubans lost in their own geography, as the credits run I can’t escape the feeling of having been conned.

The writers cleverly hide the detail that those interviewed possess prerogatives unattainable for natives. They fail to say that spending a night at the Bodeguita del Medio, or at the Tropicana cabaret, renting an office in the Bacardi building, managing cosmetic or tobacco companies, dining on lobster and wine, are privileges accessible — almost exclusively — to the wallets of foreigners. Not to mention the beautiful sail on the yacht in one of the final scenes, prohibited by law to the nation’s 11 million people. It lacks, this modern and diverting program, the explanation of the imbalance, the story about the gap that separates the world of these Spanish who come here from the world of the Cubans who were born here.

The video Españoles en el mundo – La Habana

In His Own Way

And now, the end is near
and so I face the final curtain...

To say goodbye can be accomplished with just a brief note left on the table, or by a telephone call where we say our final farewells. In the preparations to leave the country, at the end of a relationship, or of life itself, there are people who try to control the smallest details, draw up those limits that oblige the ones they leave behind to follow their path. Some leave slamming the door behind them, and others demand before taking off the great tribute they think they deserve. There are those who equitably distribute all their worldly goods, and also beings with so much power they change the constitution of a country so that no one can undo their work when they’re gone.

The preparations for the Sixth Congress of the Cuban Communist Party and its sessions in the Palace of Conventions have been like a great public requiem for Fidel Castro. The scene of his farewell, the meticulous ceremonial demanded by him and realized — sparing no expense — by his younger brother. In the organizational excesses of the military parade, held on April 16, was seen the intention to “spare no expense” in a final tribute to someone who could not be there on the podium. It was clear that the announcement of the names of who would assume the highest positions in the Cuban Communist Party would not be read by the man who decided the course of this nation for almost fifty years. But he sat at the head table of the event to validate, with his presence, the transfer of power to Raul Castro. Being there was like coming — still alive — to the reading of his own will.

Then came the standing ovation, the tears of this or that delegate to the party conclave, and the phrases of eternal commitment to the old man with the almost white beard. Through the television screen some of us sensed the crackling of dried-up flowers or the sound of shovelfuls of dirt. It remains to be see if the General-cum-President can sustain the heavy legacy he has received, or if under the watchful supervision of his Big Brother he would prefer not to contradict him with fundamental reforms. It’s just left to check the authenticity of Fidel Castro’s departure from public life, and whether his substitute will choose to continue disappointing us, or to reject him.

Laughter and the Congress

Celia Cruz. Caricatura de Aristides

Laughter is still an effective cure for the daily trials. Thus, on this Island, we bend our lips into a smile more for self-therapy than for happiness. Then the tourists take our pictures and go home saying we are a happy people, that we haven’t lost our sense of humor before all the difficulties. Ahh! The tourists and their explanations! We tour the world with the instant of that laugh on our faces — a laugh that preceded a gesture of disgust — or with the image of satisfaction that overwhelms us on resolving, after a year’s effort, a pair of graduated lenses for a child.

Splitting our sides laughing can also be preventative medicine to avoid disappointments to come. Perhaps for this reason, every time I ask someone about the possible reforms likely to grow out of the Sixth Communist Party Congress, they answer me with a giggle, an ironic “teeheehee.” Next they shrug their shoulders and come out with a phrase such as, “Well, no one should have any illusions… and maybe they’ll authorize the purchase of houses and cars.” They end their words with another enigmatic grimace of pleasure, confusing me still more. It’s difficult to know if the majority of my compatriots today would prefer that transformations be approved at the Party Congress, or for it to be a fiasco to demonstrate the system’s inability to reform itself.

Although expectations have faded considerably in recent months, some part remains, especially among the most materially destitute and the most ideologically fervent. The image of a pragmatic Raul Castro has been replaced by that of a hesitant ruler, trapped by a situation beyond his control. The Congress some assumed would lead to reforms, has come too late and forfeited, with this waiting, many of the hopes it once unleashed. Behind the enigmatic smiles of the taxi drivers, pizza sellers, students, and even Party militants, is now concealed the insolence of those who know how little things change, and who use silent mockery to vaccinate themselves — in advance — against the frustration.