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Your Man in Havana
by Ed Gray

In 1999, I had the distinct fortune to be sent to Cuba to work for two months. Although the United States has no official diplomatic relations with the island nation, it does have a massive mission there, larger than any other in the country. Officially, the mission is known as the U.S. Interests Section of the Swiss Embassy. It is an embassy in every way save for the name. This is where I worked during June and July of 1999.

Cuba is only 90 miles away from the United States, but once my colleagues and I landed and went out into Havana, it became apparent that our journey involved more than just miles traveled; the flight had actually taken us back in time 40 years.

All around the city, one can see American cars from the 1950s and before, prior to Castro's takeover. Nearly all the buildings downtown have sunk into a dreary squalor brought on by years of neglect. The hotel where I stayed, the Nacional, is no exception. The hotel is a popular landmark many celebrities frequented in times past (Winston Churchill, Ava Gardner, and I think even Muhammed Ali were here, just to name a few). The Nacional has settled into a kind of stately dilapidation, still retaining much of its decades-old charm. The tall-ceilinged lobby contains authentic chandeliers and furniture and antique elevators still servicing the guests. In the evening, dozens of visitors reclined in white wicker chairs outside in the spacious courtyard at the rear of the hotel, socializing and smoking freshly rolled cigars. With the smoke wafting through the air, the Cuban music playing in the background, the slowly spinning ceiling fans overhead, and a mojito (the tasty rum-and-mint concoction for which Cuba is renowned) in your hand, it was easy to imagine yourself enjoying the decadent Cuba of the 1950s.

Decadence was limited to the tourists to Cuba and was not something many native Cubans enjoyed, however. There were many Cubans on the streets who seemed to have no occupation whatsoever. On the Malecon, the long avenue that runs for miles next to the waterfront, there were always dozens of Cubans simply hanging out, sitting on the concrete walls and talking or fishing. All the clubs and restaurants are geared toward tourists--the typical Cuban cannot afford to go to these places. Therefore, some Cubans don't have much to do outside of the home. Most are very nice, and quite a few were inquisitive about who we were and where we were from. It seemed everyone wanted to talk about the United States and many Cubans I spoke with said they had relatives in different parts of the States.

After seeing the disparity between tourist and local and getting to know some Cubans I worked with, I could not help but see that the Cuban people were the real victims of the long-standing U.S. embargo. The no-trade policies set forth in the early 1960s have really taken their toll here since the collapse of the Soviet empire in the late 1980s. The USSR used to support Cuba with lots of money. Now, the people here have to do without; they wait in long lines for food and supplies and continually endure shortages. Viewing the plight of the Cubans really made me wonder why we still retain such a strict embargo.

All politicizing aside, I saw something in the Cuban people that is often difficult to find even in some of my affluent American friends. Despite their oppressive government and sometimes difficult living conditions, Cuban people are truly and honestly happy. During my stay, the Cuban friends I made would leave an indelible mark on me. "Cubans are truly the salt of the earth," a phrase I'd reserved for some of my rural relatives back home in Southern Virginia until my visit to the island nation. Those relatives would give you the shirt off their back, anything to help you out. My Cuban friends are the same.

I met nearly all of my Cuban acquaintances at work. There are quite a few foreign nationals employed at the U.S. Interests section, and they make very little money by our standards. But it can amount to a small fortune for them. I found out from a Cuban friend that a typical surgeon makes $20 U.S. a month. Only twenty U.S. dollars a month! It is quite incongruous that in this communist society, where everyone is supposed to be more or less equal, a bar tender at a trendy night spot takes home more in one evening than someone who went to medical school for five years and is employed as a doctor. It's like reverse capitalism!

The U.S. dollar is supreme in Cuba. It is the primary currency, and it has been much more preferable to have than the Cuban peso since reforms recognized the dollar as legal tender in the early 1990s. It was nice not needing to exchange money in Cuba and be concerned with getting a good exchange rate. But be forewarned if you ever thought about visiting Cuba as an American: aside from it being illegal for you to go, your credit cards and ATM card will not work down here because there is no formal agreement with Cuba and U.S. financial institutions. At the Interests Section, I encountered a few unfortunate Americans who came in for a loan; they had not brought enough cold, hard cash and were reported to the Treasury Department because they were in Cuba illegally!

Fortunately for me, I was in Cuba legally, and I'd brought enough dollars to make my stay quite enjoyable. Two or three dollars in Cuba gets you a heaping portion of arroz y frijoles negros (black beans and rice), a beverage (Coke and Sprite are here, but they are bottled in Mexico), and some platanos fritos (incredible fried bananas!). I often enjoyed my excellent meals at an establishment unique to Cuban living, the paladar.

A paladar is a small restaurant that the communist government of Cuba allows families to operate in the front rooms of their homes. There are restrictions they must abide by, however. Only family members can work in the paladar, only 12 people at time can be served, and "fine cuisine" (I suppose someone in Fidel's government has the task of determining what food is "fine!" such as shrimp, lobster, and beef cannot be served in these establishments. I was turned away a couple times because the paladar was at its 12-person capacity.

No doubt about it, any visitor to Cuba needs to try eating at the paladares. Each one of these places I visited served extraordinarily good food! And there is no substitute for sitting in the front room of someone's house enjoying your meal while in an adjacent room family members have gathered to watch one of Fidel Castro's lengthy speeches on television. Frijoles negros, platanos fritos, and viva la Revolucion.

But before the revolution, Cuba was a decadent hotbed of fun and craziness. During this time, American writer Ernest Hemingway found a home in Cuba. Hemingway hangouts abound in Havana, since the writer spent large spans of time here in the latter half of his life. I drank a mojito in one bar Hemingway frequented, La Bodeguita Del Medio, a place that has signatures from thousands of patrons all over the walls. Hemingway's famous signature was in a frame behind the bar. It is hand-dated 1952. In La Floridita, a greatly overpriced tourist trap, they have the bar stool upon which ol' Papa once sat, cordoned off from the public. No one is allowed to sit there.

The Finca Vigia, Hemingway's Cuban home throughout the 1940s and 1950s, is just outside of Havana proper. A taxi can take you there for a small fee. One can peer inside Papa's home through the doors and windows (you are not allowed to walk inside) and see vintage magazines and books and Hemingway's animal trophies from Africa, everything still in-tact and left, so they say, pretty much as it was when he last stayed in the house. Behind the Finca Vigia are the graves of several of Hemingway's favorite dogs, and his boat, the Pilar. Being a writer myself, I took joy in walking to the second-floor office at the back of the house and seeing where Hemingway did a lot of his writing.

These things aside, no discussion of Hemingway and Cuba would be complete without mentioning Gregory Fuentes. Fuentes is, or was (he just passed away this year, at the ripe old age of 105), the model for Hemingway's character in his famous book The Old Man and the Sea. I was still in Cuba in early July 1999 on Fuentes' birthday. In a favorite restaurant/bar of Hemingway's on the outskirts of Havana, La Terraza, they were preparing mid-day for a big party that night, specifically for the Old Man on his birthday.

I visited the establishment with a colleague. We walked around and marveled at the brilliant ocean view and saw many wonderful black-and-white photos of Hemingway, the Old Man, and one particularly famous one of Hemingway and Fidel together at a fishing tournament.

Unfortunately, the Old Man was at home resting up for his big fiesta that evening. We got into our taxi and told our driver this fact. He quickly responded and said, "No problem!" We were whisked through sunny streets and came to rest in front of a very small, innocuous white house with green trim.

"His home," the driver told us. My colleague and I must have simply looked at one another in disbelief. "One minute," our driver said, and left the car, heading toward the door of the house.

Our pleas to not disturb Mr. Fuentes went to deaf ears. The driver knocked on the door to the house and we saw a woman open it. The two of them talked for a few moments. The driver came back to the car. "I had hoped you to meet him," the driver told us. "But he is sleeping now, for his big night tonight."

We almost met the Old Man of The Old Man and the Sea! At least we got to see his house.

The celebrations were not just limited to birthdays when I was in Cuba. July 4, 1999 I celebrated American Independence Day in a communist country! I suppose Cuban "communism" is really more socialism than anything else, especially with the recent introductions of more free-market reforms (of which the paladar is but one), but this is still something I'll want to tell the grandkids.

Not surprisingly, there were no Fourth of July parades or fireworks in Havana on or around July 4. The only American red, white, and blue I saw was on the thin, twisted little cartoon Uncle Sam painted on the billboard across from the U.S. Interests Section where I work. That Uncle Sam was standing on a little patch of green ground and across from him is a robustly drawn Cuban soldier clad in military fatigues, clutching a machine gun, standing on another patch of ground. The solider calls out to Uncle Sam:

"Senores Imperialistas, no les tenemos absolutamente ningun miedo."

Meaning, "Cuba has no fear of Mister Imperialist across the water. Absolutely none."

Truth told, the caricature of Uncle Sam was not the ONLY American red, white, and blue to adorn Cuba during my stay. On Friday, July 2, I attended a party at the American Ambassador's residence in a very nice Havana neighborhood. The event was fairly large in scale and, in addition to the small contingent of American Foreign Service Officers and family members present, dignitaries from other missions and several influential Cubans were also in attendance. The menu included beans and barbecued pork sandwiches, as well as good ol' American potato chips. Items such as plastic forks are difficult, if not impossible, to come by in Cuba, therefore one of the Americans from the Interests Section had to bring dozens of them back with him after a trip to Miami.

My colleagues and I socialized and enjoyed the moment, all of us finding it incredibly interesting that the Cuban officials and U.S. officials interacted so casually, even though there are no formal relations between the countries. My Lebanese colleague Nabil found out later that the Lebanese ambassador to Cuba was in attendance that night and she escaped without talking to him. When he found this news out, he was aghast. But, until then, he was content with his mojito and cigar, as were all of us.

At this gathering, I found myself unable to get over the fact I was in Cuba on this important American holiday. Look over there! It's a Cuban official eating American food on a red plate, with a white fork, and using a blue napkin!

As the sun began to set for the day, I was still at the party, socializing and enjoying one of Cuba's quite palatable local beers, Cristal, with my fingers wrapped around a fresh, fragrant cigar. Despite my mother's fears that I would return from Cuba with a gravelly, George Burnes-esque, smoke-hardened voice, I could not help but indulge in quite a few wonderful Cuban cigars that hold such mystique for Americans. Cuban cigars are indeed a far cry from the cheapo brands you get at the neighborhood 7-11, a kind I'd smoked a few times in college. It was a common sight at the Independence Day bash to see cigars being handed out like business cards at a social gathering in the States.

I was able to watch cigars being rolled by hand on several occasions during my trip. And nothing will ever top going to the basement of my hotel to the cigar stand and having a man roll a fresh cigar for you right there. And to enjoy it there in the garden of the Hotel Nacional, with those plush seats and a mojito, the jazz or son or bolero music and ceiling fans spinning above you. Some aspects of Cuba made me feel transported to another land, another time.

And other aspects of it made me see that America and Cuba are not that different at all.

I had been working some long hours in my first weeks in Cuba. One evening, as I was entering the compound after procuring dinner pizzas for me and my colleague, I noticed a group of boys playing baseball across the street from work. They were nine in number, enough for one team in a real game of baseball. Their field was a conglomeration of dirt, concrete, and grass; exactly one half of it formed part of the U.S. Interests Section parking lot. Their backstop was the Malecon, the winding seaside road that runs the length of Havana, and the warning track was another smaller road that runs parallel to it. The center field fence was a towering, run down apartment building that those kids would never hit a ball over.

I watched as one boy, perched on an oval of concrete serving as the pitcher's mound, delivered the ball to the batter. The batter swung the narrow stick the kids were using for a bat and connected, sending the ball into deep right field. One smaller boy, possibly relegated to outfield duty because he was youngest and smallest, ran furiously to the edge of the street to get the ball. He heaved it back toward the pitcher and it landed many feet short, but rolled the rest of the way on the mound. I watched as the same pitch-and-hit-to-deep-right-field routine played out a few more times and found myself wanting to tell the poor fielder to go ahead and STAY out there where the ball always ends up instead of running to it each time.

Smiling, I watched as the children continued to play, occasionally switching batters or pitchers. As I walked into the Interests Section through the gates of the guard post, I looked back and saw the most striking feature of this baseball "field." In far left field, displayed like an advertisement in an American stadium, was the billboard warning Senores Imperialistas across the water that Cuba is not afraid. I questioned then if the presence of this sign mattered to the kids, if they realized or even cared that the game they are playing is, after all, American.

I watched as one of the kids hit the ball in the general direction of the billboard, but the fielder did not even pause to look up at the sign as he fetched the ball. He turned and threw it back to the pitcher and the game continued.

That was my answer.

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