"Tovarich, Chiclets": Impressions of Cuba
[This article appeared in the New York Native, August 3, 1987.]
“Tovarich, Chiclets” Impressions of Cuba
by David Thorstad
“Why write about gays in Cuba?” asked a friend with whom I twice traveled there. People have OD’d on it. They’re more interested in Nicaragua, which is avoiding the anti-gay policies of the Cubans.”
Maybe so, but for me Cuba still looms larger. It was a radicalizing influence for me during the 1960s. It may be one of the great revolutions of the century.
It was only after the Reagan administration had tightened restrictions on travel to Cuba that I finally made it there. I went twice—in December 1984 and December 1986. Writers are one of the categories excluded in Reagan’s ban on unauthorized travel to Cuba (which could bring five years in jail and a $50,000 fine), but I went unofficially.
In Havana, everyone—from the person in the street to the woman who heads the local CDR (Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, an extension of the police as well as a community watchdog and mobilizing group)—is hoping that a Democratic administration might overcome Reagan’s hostility to Cuba and relax restrictions. My advice: Hope is fine, but don’t overestimate the Democratic Party; it’s as imperialist as the Republican. Democrats launched the war against Vietnam, and it was John F. Kennedy who approved the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. And don’t forget Grenada, I persisted. The majority of Americans, including blacks, supported that sledgehammer-against-flea operation. Why? That’s easy: because it succeeded. Americans approach world affairs as if it were a football game. They want success, and don’t care much how it is achieved. If the U.S. invaded Nicaragua or Cuba, most Americans would probably support it, as long as it succeeded. Opinion polls may show a majority against invasion of Nicaragua, but the difference between opinion polls and reality is the measure of success. Had the arms-for-hostage deal with Iran succeeded, there wouldn’t be such a fuss about it.
I spent only two weeks in Cuba. The first time, I stayed at the Havana Libre, and spent two days at Varadero Beach. The second time, I stayed at the less elegant Vedado Hotel. Both are in the Vedado section, near the university. Besides visiting relatives of New York friends, my main purpose was to learn about being gay in Cuba, more than six years after the Mariel exodus. I also had a progressive’s desire to see the “first liberated territory of the Americas.” My experiences may not have been special, but they weren’t predictable or routine, either.
Love and Money
Cuban males, even in the company of their wives, exude eroticism. But it may not be easy to find a place to make love, especially if your friend is young and lives with his family. If your hotel has Cuban guests, the management may not stop you from bringing a friend into your room. Two Cuban men, however, would find it difficult to take a room together in a hotel.
It requires ingenuity to smuggle a friend past the eagle-eyed women who run the elevators in the Havana Libre. Their attitude seems to be, “If I’m not getting any, you’re not getting any.” Throw words and questions at the elevator operator to distract her, and talk away in English to your companion, who responds only with, “Yes, yes,” so his Cuban accent won’t give him away. It helps if your friend is not too young, is not black, and looks more Greek or Argentinian than Cuban. This policy may have been enforced more strictly against heterosexual couples, who were not as discreet as gay men. I saw one elevator operator, who seemed to relish her job, deny entry to a tipsy guest who had just left the cabaret, but couldn’t produce a hotel card for his female companion.
An attendant sits outside all hotel men’s rooms, reducing to a minimum the potential for encounters. At the popular Coppelia toilet, two years ago, an attendant walked in and out every so often; this time one was sitting outside. Men are the same everywhere, I thought: always looking to meet other men. I found it strangely reassuring that Cuban authorities felt they had to go to such lengths to prevent men from getting it on. Did the straight men who saw the attendants outside the johns realize what they were there for?
One evening two prostitutes were loitering outside the glass door entrance at the Havana Libre. They looked garish in their miniskirts and ankle bracelets, and hardly seemed good public relations for the government; but no one asked them to leave, and they were allowed in, one at a time, to use the ladies’ room. Was this tolerance? Curiosity won out and my friend asked a hotel guard what prostitutes were doing hanging out in front of the hotel. “Cuba abolished prostitution in 1963,” the guard said matter-of-factly. “It could be they’re waiting for their novio, or for somebody to come along.” The understatement of the week. I decided they must be working with the police.
One afternoon, a young money changer on the street, who looked like a cheo (lowlife), zeroed in on me: “Chay moe, chay moe?” No, I did not want to change money, and found him irritating; he was about the hundredth to approach me that day. “You people are worse than the capitalists,” I said, cantankerously. “All you seem to think about is money. What is there to buy with it anyway?” “A prostitute,” came the answer, like a reflex. So, prostitution hadn’t been eradicated after all. I neither saw nor heard of homosexual prostitution; maybe that was the type of prostitution they had abolished.
Illegal money changers come up to you all over Havana, and in fact anywhere they see a tourist. Almost all are young black males. A Cuban friend says this is a lingering legacy of racism, an acceptance of lower horizons, not unlike black youths in Harlem. Whatever the reason, they do provide a service (if you don’t get ripped off in the process): five pesos to the dollar, as opposed to around 85 centavos in the bank. The black market is a more accurate reflection of the currency’s real value than the official rate. But if you change money on the street, you’re apt to end up with a wad of worthless old bills, or one good bill wrapped around pieces of folded-up paper. Not to worry: Your need for pesos is limited; most restaurants require all foreigners—even Russians, I was told—to pay in dollars. Cuban pizza parlors are a good buy, though, and they accept pesos, as do many of the bars.
One gay youth I met was not a regular money changer, but he knew the ropes. He had recently agreed to change $60 for a tourist, at the going rate of five pesos to the dollar. After changing the money, he was stopped by police, who wanted to know why he wasn’t at work. He could prove he was in between jobs, so wasn’t charged with “loafing.” But a search turned up the 300 pesos, a substantial amount for a young man to be walking around with. He said they belonged to his mother. He was taken into custody, questioned, and released after five hours. Had he been stopped earlier, with the dollars on him, he could have gotten eight years in jail.
“Are you g-a-y?” asked José and Eduardo, ages 19 and 20, in English. I had met them outside Coppelia a few days earlier. As we took the bus to the apartment building on the outskirts of Havana, I could tell that something was on their mind, and wondered when they would bring it up. I hoped they were planning an orgy or something, and suspected they were gay. They had to know I was, because the night we met, Eduardo had suggested I might like to go dancing with muchachas, and I had made a point of saying I would like to, but with muchachos.
“Of course I’m gay,” I replied. They got up to shut the door to the back stairway of the apartment building, even though it was 1 a.m. and we were on the eighth floor, with no one within earshot. A gay friend of theirs, whose apartment we had come to with bottles of Havana Club purchased at the Havana Libre Intur shop, is a member of the Communist Youth, though he did not seem very committed. A portrait of Che Guevara hangs on his wall. His television set wasn’t working. “It’s Russian,” he explained.
“Which one of us would you like?” Eduardo asked. I would have preferred a group scene to having to choose between them, and wondered why the choice had to be mine. I soon discovered a tension between José and Eduardo. José, who first had sex with a man at the age of 12, would not have sex with Eduardo because, he explained, “You don’t like me.” It didn’t make any sense to me, but I knew I couldn’t let myself get caught in a flare-up of Cuban jealousy. So instead we stayed up talking about homosexuality, gay history, and the gay movement. Like other gays, they expressed keen interest in a subject on which you cannot find any books in the bookstores, and on which no sensible public discussion exists. They were fascinated to hear about the early struggles for gay rights in Germany, and the reversal of the Soviet Union’s policy of tolerance toward homosexuality under Stalin, a subject about which they knew nothing.
Another gay friend, Raúl, an artist who supports the revolution, says a friend of his, who is a hard worker and cheerfully volunteers for extra tasks, was denied membership in the Communist Party for no other reason than that she is a lesbian. He lives across the hall from the head of the local CDR, whose gay son lives with her. She is simpática, friendly to homosexuality, sensible, and outgoing toward American visitors. Like most Cubans, she sees U.S. hostility toward Cuba as the product of a crazed president, not as a consistent component of American policy.
Another artist asserts that an occasional film with a lesbian theme has been shown at film festivals in Havana, but so far none with male homosexual themes. Midnight Cowboy was shown on television, with the title Los caídos de la noche [The fallen of the night], and heavily cut (the same scenes they cut when they show it on U.S. television?). So has The Damned, an example of bourgeois propaganda about homosexuality under the Third Reich.
A documentary about AIDS was also shown on television. Judging from reports I received, it sounded accurate, but not detailed. It focused on homosexual behavior as the main means of transmission, but did not discuss different sexual acts nor assess their various risks. Cuba has no drug problem (I was surprised at the single individual who offered to sell me Cuban marijuana on the Paseo del Prado). I wondered if the presence of Cuban soldiers in Africa might one day prove to be a source of AIDS in Cuba. In April, the Cuban government issued its first extensive report on AIDS in Cuba, and said that three Cubans had died from it. Tests of about 677,000 Cubans—nearly 7 percent of the population—showed that 108 have been infected by the so-called AIDS virus, though none had yet developed AIDS or shown symptoms of the disease. The New York Times reported April 18 that the government has set up a “special isolation unit” for people who test positive for antibodies to the virus.
Varadero Beach, a couple of hours to the east of Havana, is one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve seen. I met a bearded, clone-ish bodybuilder there. He said he had spent nine months in jail for running a private bodybuilding center (in contrast to the Soviet Union, bodybuilding is discouraged in Cuba). He seemed nervous to be seen with foreigners on the beach, and claimed that “they” spied on you from a big house nearby. Another hunk hung out on the beach looking for tourists who would change money or sell their jeans. A Mexican I met sold $50 worth of clothes that way.
The beach is deserted after 8 p.m. Wide and long, with endless secluded spots, it seemed a perfect place for nocturnal fun. None of the gays I met had even thought of using it for sex, and didn’t expect to see that in their lifetime. Anyway else in the world, gay men surely would have taken advantage of the possibilities.
On Sunday, December 7, 1986, the entire island was roused by sirens at 8 a.m. A mass rehearsal of civil defense procedures in case of a U.S. invasion was under way. It felt a bit strange, as an American, to be witnessing this mobilization, dubbed Bastión ’86, which went on for three days. An invasion might be remote, but still, the U.S. government was menacing people in Latin America, and even maintains a base at Guantánamo, a lingering affront to Cubans.
The CDRs put up signs for Bastión ’86 in neighborhoods all over town: Death to the Invader! Some included a photo of a white American soldier. I wonder how many U.S. invaders would be black or Puerto Rican.
At the beginning of Bastión ’86, all services stopped for an hour, and foreigners were told to stay in their hotels, although a bus taking Russian tourists to Varadero Beach was seen leaving our hotel during it. Jets swooped down over the city; simulated bombs and gunfire went off all over town. Militiawomen seemed to be everywhere. To a foreigner it looked like street theater on a grand scale.
The next day, it was reported that the United States had sent an SR-71 “Blackbird” spy plane over the entire length of the island during the mobilization. The sense of outrage was palpable. The day after, a huge demonstration was staged outside the U.S. Interests Section on the Malecón. Thousands of workers and students began arriving at 10 a.m., and people continued to make their way there in small groups well into the night. Inside the Interests Section, somebody with a video camera was filming everyone in sight, to the annoyance of the crowd. It occurred to me that they did not run the same risks in being videotaped as did an American.
The posters were generally apt and to the point: “Gringo, remember Vietnam!”; “Reagan, you puppet, your flight was a failure”; “Nobody will surrender”; “Cuba will win.” One, in English, said “Miss Reagan, we’re not afraid of you.” Machismo, it seems, is inevitable in Cuban demonstrations.
The chanted slogans were something else. The most popular ones, spurred on by loudspeakers mounted on vans throughout the crowd, were anti-gay: “Reagan, you’re like a maricón”; “Reagan, maricón, we’ll hit you [te jodimos] with Bastión”; “Reagan, you queen, AIDS is driving you nuts” (Reagan, loca, el SIDA te alborota). The most enthusiastic voices, both on the loudspeakers and in the crowd, were female, mostly schoolgirls who gathered right at the center of the demonstration and reached a frenzy, jabbing their fists into the air on cue from a photographer on a balustrade in front of them. I told my Cuban companion that I was saddened and angered to hear such low-level slogans, which had to be condoned, if not encouraged, by the Communist Party. I turned down an interview with Radio Havana. My sadness had taken the joy out of demonstrating against U.S. imperialism in Havana. What good would it have done to make an issue out of the anti-homosexuality of their slogans? Anything I said would have been edited out.
We left to visit Havana’s lovely main cemetery. It is a contrast to the rest of the city because it is so clean. A small army of workers kept busy cleaning tombs and paths. My friend, a well-known actor who supports the revolution, prayed at the tomb of La Milagrosa, an unofficial saint whose tomb is the most popular. (It reminded me of the tomb of Kardec, the founder of Spiritualism, in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.) A statue shows her holding her cherub-like baby boy. Like other believers, my friend tapped each of the tomb’s four brass rings, and touched the baby’s foot, as he made his way around it. He said he had prayed for three things: a safe trip back for his American friends; good health for himself and his daughter; and good work in the coming year. The most recent plaque on the tomb, crediting La Milagrosa with a miracle, was dated October 19, 1986. I wondered how it got there so quickly: Raúl’s family had ordered a plaque for his father’s tomb—in the same cemetery—almost two years earlier, and it still hadn’t arrived. Private plaque-making is not allowed, despite the inefficiency of a setup that requires years to make a funeral plaque. If your family has a high turnover death rate (more recent arrivals take precedence over bodies already in the tomb), you could conceivably spend all your time in it without any indication to the living who visit your final abode. I was surprised at how philosophically Raúl accepted this insensitive delay.
The tomb of the head of the secret police under Batista stands in contrast to the rest of the tombs in the cemetery. It is in shambles. During the revolution, it was sacked and emptied of its remains, which were scattered on the ground. It is maintained in its sacked state as a reminder of the hatred for the old regime.
That evening and the next day, television and newspaper accounts of the protest demonstration showed the schoolgirls with their fists in the air, but omitted any mention of the offending slogans; they mentioned only the “politically correct” ones. Obviously, no avenues exist for consciousness raising on gay issues and homosexuality. Gays will continue to endure in silence until they decide to fight back. None I met had any ideas about how to accomplish this, nor any hopes that the Communist Party would do anything to improve things. All found it impossible to imagine gays organizing. I thought of Janis Joplin: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”
The second night of the mobilization, we had dinner at the home of the mother of a Cuban friend in New York, who left in the 1980 exodus. The men ate before the women, but the mother said this was because there wasn’t room for everyone at the table. As we sat down to eat, all the lights went out, not just in the house but all over town. The blackout was part of the war exercises and lasted twenty minutes. We ate by candlelight. The dinner was lavish—roast pork, tomato salad, cold yucca with olive oil and garlic, black beans, rice, cold pasta with mayonnaise, and dulces (flan, orange marmalade, and cheese). The Americans brought wine and scotch.
As I watched the TV news reports on Bastión ’86, a large part of which was devoted to showing Fidel chatting with enthusiastic participants (mostly militiawomen), I noticed that all the Cubans present had tuned out. I was the only one watching the news. The rest were talking or had left the room for the balcony or the kitchen. One, a supporter of the revolution, read a book throughout.
During the festivities, the mother made a cassette recording for her son that included conversation and the sounds of the dinner. The cassette was confiscated by Cuban customs officers as we left the country.
Officially, homosexuality is not repressed in Cuba. The age of consent is 16, so homosexuality above that age is legal. (That’s more than can be said for most American states, which have higher ages of consent or still criminalize all homosexual acts, regardless of age.) A few openly gay artists—Pablo Milanés, the great late Bola de Nieve—are popular. Milanés was featured in an artists’ protest of the U.S. spy flight.
One boyfriend—an important reason for my second trip, but with whom I broke up while there—said that a couple of months earlier the police had raided the Salón de Té on 23rd Street. The teahouse was a gay gathering place during the evenings. He claimed that everyone was arrested and held for three days. They were released only after they signed a paper stating that they had frequented a homosexual hangout and would not do so again. (There is no law against being in a homosexual hangout, though Article 359 of the penal code does provide for three to nine months in jail and/or a fine for anyone who “offends modesty or healthy customs” through any act of “public scandal,” a vaguely worded statute that can easily be used to harass homosexuals.)
I dropped into the Salón de Té one afternoon for iced tea, and struck up a conversation with several gay youths. One was making lavender cords for glasses, a fad these days among young men in both Cuba and Mexico. They were surprised to learn that lavender is the color of gay liberation in the United States.
A medical student says that a code word for “gay” in Cuba is “diabetic.” He finds it amusing, but I feel like I’ve been thrown back to the late nineteenth century, when the medical profession was asserting its role in defining homosexuality as a disease or a perversion. The student, gay and contemptuous of the revolution, did not understand my revulsion that gays would use a term of sickness to disguise homosexuality from potential busybodies on public buses. Better to proclaim it openly. I suggested that this was an example of self-oppression that could not be blamed on the government. “Things may not be perfect here—far from it—but at least you’ve got socialized medicine.” I don’t think anything I said got through to him.
I sensed a stifling surveillance in Havana. One night, two friends walked me back to the hotel. My traveling companion continued with them the few blocks to their apartment building, stepped in for a minute or so, then left to cruise the Malecón. As soon as he left, three plainclothes cops rushed into the building, did an identity check, and questioned them: Who were the foreigners? Why did one go into the hotel, the other not? Perhaps they suspected that our friends were illegal money changers. The next day, our friends professed no concern over this incident, but that night one of them said good-bye to me a block from the hotel, rather than risk walking me to the door.
A highly visible middle-aged black man in fatigues was always keeping an eye on things at Coppelia, one of the world’s great ice-cream stands. He was known to the youths who hung out there as the Black Shadow and the Satellite (he kept going in circles). He warned me against hanging around “riffraff,” many of whom were probably illegal money changers.
The night I met José and Eduardo at the entrance to Coppelia, an unmarked car of “special police” screeched to a halt and did an identity check on them. The cops suspected them of changing money. The identity check turned up nothing and, in fact, we had not discussed changing money; we continued our conversation as though nothing had happened. Eduardo claimed the police stop young guys every chance they get. “Sometimes I get so mad I could throw a bomb at them.” But he said he respected the special police because “they’re intelligent.” Still, I didn’t find the police in Havana as menacing as they are in Mexico City, where you are more likely to be robbed or raped by a cop than by criminals out of uniform. In Cuba, nobody’s afraid of being mugged in the streets.
Eduardo wants to leave Cuba. José says he’s not happy with everything there, but if the U.S. invaded he would take up a gun against it. Two years later, he says he too would like to leave. His mother, no revolutionary either, speaks of Fidel with affection and thinks Reagan would be foolish to tangle with him.
One evening, there was a soiree at Raúl’s place—a lovely, spacious pad for a single man, with one room functioning as a studio. Several people showed up uninvited, including a small-time delincuente, who offered to rent me his apartment for sexual trysts. Raúl said the presence of a person like that at his party looked suspicious, and could create problems. (I was surprised to run into this guy later at the protest demonstration against the U.S. spy plane.) Another man we had seen moments earlier in the hotel lobby; we wondered if he had come to spy on us. I believe these were paranoid reactions to innocent situations, but they reflected the pervasive sense of surveillance in Havana.
A few days later, my traveling companion prepared an Italian dinner in Raúl’s apartment. The grapevine must have been working because several uninvited people again showed up, including a boring Swiss man who was taking a break from the film festival, which, along with the Second Bienal of art, was the major cultural event in Havana. Not one of them brought even a symbolic offering. This must be normal because Raúl didn’t object.
Cuban children are outgoing and spontaneous toward foreigners. They repeatedly came up and cheerfully asked, “Tovarich, Chiclets!” I concluded that they felt friendly toward Russians too, because they assumed I was Russian, and Americans are unexpected. Did Russian tourists actually give them Chiclets? Maybe Russian tourist books don’t warn against bringing in Chiclets. “Have you ever seen a Russian man wearing an earring?” I would ask. They are surprised, even delighted, to find out you’re an American, despite the Ugly American image Washington has created for us. Several young women expressed pleasant surprise at seeing a man with an earring.
I stepped into the Iglesia de las Mercedes, a Carmelite church on Infanta Street with a big Virgin and Child statue atop a tower. I talked to a brother, who was not wearing a habit, for about twenty minutes. “There is complete freedom of religion in Cuba,” he volunteered. He was sorry to hear that I was an atheist. There were eight members of his order in that particular church, he said, and five churches run by the order in the country. Many new young members were joining.
After I broke up with my novio, I went to the Malecón to recover by watching the waves break over the wall. Within minutes, I was joined by an ebullient 17-year-old. I was not in the mood to talk, and even less to hear an offer to change money, which I assumed he would bring up. He didn’t. It turned out he was a jazz musician, a trumpet player, and a fanatic for Maynard Ferguson. He insisted on playing his mouth like a trumpet and mimicking riffs from Ferguson hits over the sound of the crashing waves. He supports the revolution and virtually worships Fidel. “What do you think of Fidel’s oratorical style?” he wanted to know. We spent an hour talking about jazz and blues, but mostly about trumpet players such as Ferguson, Dizzie Gillespie, Miles Davis, and Wynton Marsalis. He had only a few jazz records—apparently it’s not easy to find Maynard Ferguson records in Cuba. His dream is to put together a jazz group that will allow him to travel to other countries some day. His optimism and enthusiasm restored me.
On the way back to the hotel, I passed by a Communist Party headquarters not far from the Havana Libre, and saw a crate of ripe tomatoes being delivered. I felt like running over and expropriating a couple of them; I knew I wouldn’t be able to enjoy tomatoes once I got to Mexico. No fear of getting amoebas in Cuba, at least. Two days before, there were only green tomatoes in the market. But with garlic and virgin olive oil from Argentina, the greens made a delicious salad.
Many of Old Havana’s lovely buildings are being spruced up and given a fresh coat of paint. They are welcome islands of color in a sea of drabness. But paint is hard to come by, and is said not to hold up well to the heat, humidity, and salt air. Residents say they have no idea when they’ll be able to get enough to paint their apartments. Still, a trip to Miramar, Havana’s most elegant neighborhood, was like night and day. It looked like an upper-middle-class neighborhood, well kept up, with fresh coats of paint on many of its spacious homes. Once the abode of Havana’s wealthy, today Miramar is home to embassies. Near the modern Hotel Tritón, facing the ocean, stands the huge Russian Embassy and compound. It was built a few years ago by the Russians themselves, a young woman told me. “They didn’t want Cubans to work on it. I guess they thought it would take Cubans too long to do the job.” Maybe they prefer to build their own embassies, I suggested. Gossip has it, she said, chuckling, that inside the campanile-like tower that dominates the embassy is a missile. Electronic equipment seemed more likely.
One problem that has not been adequately addressed is pollution. Havana’s bus system is cheap (about ten cents) and fairly efficient, if overcrowded. It operates on the honor system (if you enter at the rear, you pass your money forward through dozens of hands to the driver), a pleasant surprise for a New Yorker; that system wouldn’t work in New York City for one minute. But the exhaust fumes, especially during rush hour, can knock you dead. At bus stops, it seems worse than Mexico City, where pollution problems are legendary.
Havana residents seem to have little consciousness of cleanliness in their surroundings. Rarely do you see them washing down the sidewalk in front of their homes or stores—a common sight in even the poorest neighborhoods of Mexico City. Complaints about the lack of paint are unconvincing when few people bother to clean up around themselves. I saw one street cleaner in one week. Two friends, both pro-revolution, littered without giving it a thought. Neither feared reprisal. One threw an empty Coke can (bought in the Intur shop) right onto the Malecón; the other dropped paper on the sidewalk. I doubled back to pick it up and throw it in a dumpster. He found my lecture on civic pride amusing. On the other hand, can you expect people not to litter when they have to walk for blocks before finding a trash can?
Next to a monument to revolutionary martyr Gustavo Ameijeiras Delgado, near José Martí Square (in one of the loveliest neighborhoods in Old Havana), someone had placed a handwritten sign: “A cultured people takes care of its parks.” Next to it was an empty soda can and other refuse.
Artists and photographers from all over the third world had work on display at the Bienal in Havana’s Bellas Artes, across the street from the Granma, the boat Fidel and 82 armed men took from Tuxpán, Mexico, to Cuba in November 1956, to begin their guerrilla struggle in the Sierra Maestra against the Batista dictatorship. One photo, from Chile, was of a transvestite. Much of the Cuban art struck me as uninspired geometric diddling. The Mexican artists seemed to have more to say. (Later, I read in La Jornada, a Mexican leftist daily, that Mexican artists were complaining that they had not been given enough space, and that prizes should not be conferred in art shows.)
There was a stunning exhibit of Haitian painting in the Casa de las Américas. What a different view of a culture, I thought; in the United States, Haitian art is not accorded such importance. Cuba is playing a leading role in encouraging and providing a space for art and film. Last December, filmmakers from Latin America announced the formation of a film director’s school, to be located in Havana but run by artists from the continent.
Facing the Granma, which is housed in a glass mausoleum flanked by tanks, is the Museum of the Revolution. It has been closed for the past few years, undergoing renovation. An information booth was open, though, and the woman sitting at it said the museum wasn’t scheduled to open until the summer. As I left, I stopped to take a photo of the Granma. A guard told me it wasn’t allowed to photograph from where I was standing, but that if I moved the mere two yards to where he was positioned outside a barricade, I could take the picture. “Are photos better from here?” I asked.
Nearby was one of the dozens of mangy dogs that live on Havana’s streets, rummaging for scraps wherever they can. So far as I could tell, nobody bothers them. Nobody helps them, either. Apparently, neither dogcatchers nor animal protection groups do anything about them.
Walking along Neptuno Street one afternoon, I noticed a bus and a truck that had gotten stuck against each other as they both tried to enter a side street. A crowd had gathered. I decided to take a photo. “No se puede,” said a cop, waving his finger back and forth in front of my face. Picture taking is not allowed. “Okay,” I said as I hurried away. He was too late. I’d already snapped it. Cocktails are one of Cuba’s pleasures. At Varadero they serve a rosa roja, a delightful drink made with rum, banana liqueur, grenadine, sugar, and yerbabuena. For some reason, you can’t get it in Havana. But you can get a cubanito, made with tomato juice, white rum, salt, hot sauce, olives, and lime juice. The best are in the Lafayette Bar, where they were created. One afternoon there, we were served cubanitos by the creator of the drink. The clientele seemed working-class, many of them black, laid-back, even hedonistic. The walls were covered with poems praising the cubanito: Pida el cubanito, pero hable bajito (“Ask for the cubanito, but not too loud, please”); ¡Un bistec de palomilla o un bistec de riñonada, te bebes un cubanito y no pasa nada! (“Eat a palomilla steak or kidneys, then have yourself a cubanito and nothing can touch you!”). It was a place you could spend hours in—if it weren’t for the monotonous mechanical bird singing in the background. Cubanitos in the nearby Café La Mina, in the Old Town, were a pale imitation.
You might never find out about the cubanito if you just went to La Bodeguita del Medio or La Floridita, favorite watering holes of novelist Ernest Hemingway (“My mojito at La Bodeguita. My daiquiri at La Floridita”—his words are prominently displayed on the wall behind the bar in the Bodeguita).
One Sunday, a block from the Floridita, a shop specializing in drinks made with sugar cane was closed because the sugar cane delivery hadn’t arrived. This in a country where sugar cane is the major crop.
Havana’s most posh restaurant, Las Ruinas (called La Ruina by some), is built on the ruins of old slave quarters in what is now the Lenin Park, about an hour from downtown by bus. It is elegant, and the food excellent. Even the service is good. When four of us arrived, the maitre d’ told us we’d have to wait up to two hours to be seated, and mumbled something about diplomats being served. When we mentioned in passing that two of us were Americans, his face lit up and he became more accommodating. After a daiquiri at the downstairs bar, we were told we could enter. The place was nearly empty, with no sign of diplomats or anyone else leaving. Filet mignon for four, good Bulgarian wine, juice or salad, dessert, coffee, and brandy came to around 84 pesos. That was in 1984. Today a foreigner would have to pay in dollars.
Dinner at El Cochinito, a pork restaurant on 23rd Street, was not as pleasant. Maitre d’, waiter, waitress—all emphatically made it clear that our Cuban friends could not treat us to dinner, as they had wanted to. Foreigners would have to pay in dollars. Once we were seated we discovered there were no napkins on the table. When I asked for them, I was told there weren’t any. Instead, the waiter gave us one paper place mat, which my traveling companion ostentatiously tore into four pieces, handing one to each guest. After eating greasy pork chicharrones, you simply cannot clean your hands on a quarter of a paper place mat, so I used the tablecloth.
The Mezón de la Flota is a lovely café-bar in a restored fortress-like building used by pirates in the seventeenth century. We ended up there one evening after failing to gain entry to a half dozen other restaurants and bars in the Old Town (all were filled). We could see empty tables at the Mezón, but were told it was full; but after a few minutes, the maitre d’, obviously gay, seated us cordially. Earnest conversation about art and sex accompanied repeated tragos of straight rum.
Another chic nightspot is El Morro, a former fortress and prison at the entrance to the Havana harbor. Today it is a restaurant and bar, whose tables are set in the midst of dungeons, giving the place a rather lugubrious air. This is hardly a hangout for riffraff, yet the bread on my sandwich was so dried out and hard that I nearly lost my teeth trying to eat it. As we left, an East German ballerina and her escort were entering. She looked pleasantly out of place in her elegant clothing and punk-chic hairdo.
The two sidewalk coffee bars near O Street and La Rampa, like coffee bars in Italy, serve good, strong espresso. The service is cheerful, especially from the black woman who worked in the one on O Street, and they always have lines—even when they are closed for lack of water, as they frequently are.
As we left Cuba, a customs officer confiscated three cassettes of “oral letters” to relatives in the United States. He invoked some international covenant prohibiting “third-party” delivery of mail. Get real! I thought.
I was touched by the warmth and friendliness of Cubans, their resilience and resolution in the face of threats from the bully to the north. Life is not easy there, especially if you’re gay. But it is far from joyless. Néstor Almendros and Orlando Jiménez-Leal’s film Improper Conduct added some details to what was known about the persecution of gays in Cuba in the 1960s and ’70s, but it cannot be taken as an accurate statement about gay life there today. None of the film was shot inside Cuba—probably no one could get permission to do any film on homosexuality in Cuba. But that leaves only part of the story told. And, of course, Improper Conduct has not been shown in Cuba; in fact, nobody I met there had heard of it. The November 1984 issue of Cuba, a magazine available on Cubana Airlines, contained a polemic by filmmaker Tomás Gutiérrez Alea against an article by Almendros that had appeared in the Village Voice. (Almendros’s article was not included in the issue.) But this one-sided “debate” on the film received limited distribution on the island; nor would it have made much sense since the film itself had not been shown.
Everyone I met said they would like to travel—a privilege reserved for the elite and the bureaucrats. They were amazed to hear that the Reagan administration restricts travel to Cuba. Several gays said they’d like to visit the United States, but wouldn’t want to live there. I could buy that. When, I wondered, will the United States bring its policies toward Cuba into line with civilized behavior between nations?