I remember when, shortly after the success of the revolution against the dictator Batista and his Mafia cronies, the young Fidel Castro came to the United States, eager to make friends. He even appeared on the popular television program Person to Person, chatting with Edward R. Morrow about his ideals, dreams, and hopes for his country. The young bearded leader showed surprising charm and humor, but perhaps not enough awareness of what he was up against. What would have happened if the U.S. had been willing to help and work with the new Cuba?
When I was there during an earlier, if brief, thaw in relations between the U.S. and Cuba, I found an exciting, diverse society, despite the economic hardship. There was a lot more to see than old Detroit cars. The three weeks I was there, I saw almost no other tourists.
One day, I wandered through an art fair in a park a short walk from old Havana. Acrylic Coke bottles brazenly alternating with inverted Havana Club bottles, suggesting endless Cuba Libre drinks, was just one of the paintings, drawings, and handicrafts being hawked there. Some of the art was angry, some of it flirted with kitsch, some of it was merely skillful, but much of it was exciting.
Detouring around a Latinized version of Van Gogh’s demented sunflowers, I found myself in front of a small canvas of decaying Vedado district mansions. A fragrant breeze drifting up from the river brought complicated musical threads from a band nearby. Turning toward the throbbing Latin beat, I found myself staring at a sultry Mona Lisa painted in lush Cuban hues, silvery bombs raining from the sky behind her enigmatic brown-skinned beauty.
Havana: an old, partially crumbling city, a hot and humid city in which bare skin is fashionable, a city rich with music and art. Hot and tired after exploring the art fair, I was ready for a cooling drink. In Havana, it’s always time for a refreshing mojito and where else to indulge but at the roof bar of the Ambos Mundo hotel, where Ernest Hemingway stayed before he bought his villa out on the bay?
I navigated the streams of pedestrians of all shapes and colors that flooded the uneven sidewalks and streets, most of them part of a couple, family group, or cluster of friends: fingers clasped, arms entwined, hands on shoulders, waists, hips. These are people who make physical contact easily and take pleasure in showing off their bodies with short shorts, tiny skirts, tank tops, and clinging tee shirts.
The beat of an Afro-Cuban band drew me into a crowd swaying and clapping hands on the Cathedral Plaza. A buxom black woman in a white, ruffled, multi-layered costume was dancing with heavy-footed fervor, a fat cigar wedged between gold teeth. Her bare feet slapped the paving stones, her buttocks gyrated, her dark hands pummeled the air as her shoulders, elbows, and white-turbaned head moved to the strenuous rhythms. Later I learned that she was an incarnation of a Santeria priestess, a Cuban adaptation of a Yoruba West African ritual, magnificent and life-affirming.
Maneuvering past faded colonial buildings, I reached the Ambos Mundo. The roof bar already was busy with people drinking and swaying to the music a small band. You can’t walk anywhere in Havana without hearing the beat of salsa rhythms along the streets and plazas, in restaurants and hotels, from balconies and open windows. I pushed up to the bar for my mojito. The white-shirted young bartender already had set up a row of tall glasses, sugar, mint, and lime juice waiting for ice, soda water, rum, and eager hands.
As I sipped the mojito, one of the Cubans leaned over: “While you’re here, don’t miss the Bienal, artists from all over Latin America, Africa, the tropics, many developing countries. Their work is exciting, very political.”
“Can art be political?” I asked.
“How can it not be? Everything is political.”
Splintered bits of Havana’s skyline vibrated in the fading light behind him.
The next day, I wandered through the Bienal exhibits in the high-ceilinged rooms of the Art Center deep in the old town. A local man saw me pondering an aggressive arrangement of radio and television parts, mannequin limbs, weapons, and fake blood.
“You don’t like it?” he asked.
“I don’t understand it.”
“It’s not so difficult. For centuries, the peoples of the Third World have lived with oppression and war. Even to survive has been a battle. This is reflected in their art. Our art.”
My new acquaintance suggested lunch. Together, we walked down a side street, passing a yellow sign with large black letters on a wall: “La Verdad sobre el BLOQUEO debe ser conocida.” He translated for me: “Roughly, it is ‘The truth about the blockade must be known.”
“It is what we Cubans call the U.S. Embargo.”
“And what is the truth?”
“It also called is ‘genocide’ here.”
At the little café, an old man with a guitar appeared in the open doorway as we ate a blockade “salad” of canned corn and canned peas. He was followed by a skinny youth shaking a pair of castanets, both of them singing. Their complicated salsa rhythms filled the café.
“Music,” said my companion. “One way we survive.”
Outside, as we left the restaurant, I saw red letters on a bare wall: “Viva Fidel!”
Looking up, I discovered at an open window a caramel-skinned girl not more than nine or ten in a white dress with a red bow in her black hair, swaying and dancing to the music pouring into the street, a joyous smile on her round, brown face.
This was Havana, Cuba, a part of the world that at last I was beginning to know and understand. It wasn’t what I expected, but it was amazing and wonderful and I wanted to experience more. I still do.