Farther From Shore: My Time in Havana

by: Hunter Sharpless

Havana stands 228 miles across the Gulf Stream from Miami; it is a port town, with a seawall—along which crowds of people walk almost daily—a harbor, and an old fort looking out over the deep blue waters, watching both the bay behind and the sea in front with a lighthouse built in 1845. From the sea five windows may be seen, small and rectangular, in a column like vertebrae. The structure stands 82 feet high. The color of the cut stone, gray with streaks of khaki, is the same as the fortress, though the fortress is hundreds of years older. The rocks below, meeting the sea, are also this shade of gray.

In town paint flakes off every house on every block, the sidewalks are torn up like badly skinned knees, scabs of concrete jutting out at angles from the earth, and Cubans stand or sit patiently on their porches or patios. The local accent is a slurred, lisp-tied Spanish. Rations are low. Public works lag behind. The architecture and the automobiles are outdated. But to any of these problems the Cubans carry a calculated quip, simply saying, “Es Cuba!”

West of the town’s center there is a forest, a splotch of green against the gray of concrete, a quiet sanctuary known by some as “the lungs of Havana.” In that park there is a river, and by that river, under a thick green canopy supported by trees like columns, stand three boys beating drums, two women wearing white, and a priest with closed eyes turned skyward. They dance around nine lit candles surrounding an altar. Behind the altar thick vines swell and recede with the wind, climbing from the earth to the sky. They offer rum and milk and fruit to their ancestors. The sun reaches the earth in patches. There is only silence and the song. They approach the banks of the river, which stinks of pollution and sweat and shit. A white stork fishes carefully in the middle of the current. Birds fly overhead. They sing now to Oshun, the goddess of the river. Beautiful and gracious, she is the goddess of love and fresh water, of Saturday and cinnamon and sunflowers, of yellow, of gold, of the black vulture; she is sexy.

They sing. They beat their drums. They dance by the banks of the river.

They wear slippers and sandals and sneakers. They wear red and black and FILA. The priest wears sagging blue-jeans, one of the women wears the Cleveland Indians logo, and on the shirt of another are the words, New York: the Big Apple. One woman pushes a stick into the mud, the mud littered with beer cans, Styrofoam boxes, and the remains of a sacrificed chicken: a cleaved wing, a skull.

I take notes and sometimes clap my hands, attempting to stay with one of the many rhythms created by the drums, but I do not know the extent to which I am invited to participate. They speak and sing and chant a Spanish I do not understand. I am standing in a living jungle with Afro-Cubans who sing to a goddess I do not know of a religion I do not know near the city of Havana, standing wearily because I have slept only six hours of the last sixty, having flown from Dallas to Chicago to Atlanta to Miami to Havana, standing in the jungle by a shit-stinking river under a green leafy canopy with a foreign tongue hanging in the air.

When the ritual is over I am led to the city center, to a small café in Plaza Vieja. I order a coffee and sit at a table outside. The plaza is large and bare besides a fountain in the center and potted plants scattered across the stone. The buildings lining the lengths and widths of the plaza have porticoes supported by columns. A group of schoolchildren enters from one corner of the plaza. Each child has a red sweater, whether worn or tied around the waist or twirled in the air. They walk in pairs to strangers—to a policeman, to waiters, to tourists—and ask them questions, then laugh and write in their notebooks. I want them to come to me, but they do not. After a while I leave my table and walk toward the Gulf. There are jazz clubs and street vendors and restaurants advertising the city’s best mojitos.

I like these Cubans, though I’m ashamed of my own presence in their country. Walking west along the Malecón, the seawall, I leave the city center for my hotel. To my right is the Gulf which, at high tide, splashes over the wall and onto the sidewalk and street, and to my left are houses painted baby blue and sea green and Easter yellow. Some of the houses have splendid wrought-iron fences like spires. A group of children stands in a circle by the wall; one boy is shirtless, holding a skateboard, another wears rollerblades, black shorts and a sweatshirt, and the third leans on a red bicycle. They watch me as I walk, and I smile shyly but keep course, looking out across the Gulf toward Florida, some miles away.

Past these boys, three men work on a chink in the sidewalk. They wave me over. The leader, wearing a green shirt with rolled-up sleeves, his silver hair flecked with black, the chest hair exposed beneath his neck snow white, greets me excitedly, asks where I come from, speaks proudly of the Malecón. He seems to be overseeing the other two men, one bent over with a shovel, the other crouching, ready to be called. Explaining their work the leader moves his hands, pointing to the hole in the ground, out to the sea, to the city, all the while smiling profusely and, as I am leaving, saying how happy he is to meet an American, shaking my hand.

When I near my hotel I turn off the Malecón into several blocks of buildings. A cyclo rickshaw driver beckons and asks if I need a ride. It is a sunny day and the buildings block the sun at such an angle that the driver, in the cover of his rickshaw, is in shadow, his face immutably indefinite. He does not need to ask to know I am an American. And he does not leave when I deny him business, but draws me close and, from the darkness, asks me what I think of his country. I laud it, for Cubans elude the common ideas with which I was impressed. I was told they were militant, but the only policemen I see laugh and, once, I even see two officers kissing on a park bench. I was told they were Communist, which to us meant suppressed, but they look free. Expecting to hear gratitude, I smile. Instead, he whispers a single word, “Propaganda.” And I reach my hotel.

Cuba, I read before my trip, is beautiful. I read that Cuba is not any one thing. I read that Cuban culture is painted by colors of Spain, colors of England, colors of China, colors of Africa and colors of the United States. Santería, for example, is a hybrid of Catholicism and Yoruba, the predominant spirituality of Nigeria. Cuba is Creole and Mulatto. Cuba practices Taoism and Voodoo. There are Jews, Protestants, and Freemasons. In a letter to the king and queen of Spain the first European settlers praised the “many sierras and very high mountains,” the “trees of a thousand kinds,” and the “singing nightingale and other little birds.” The trees seemed to touch the sky, they wrote. In November, the island looked like Spanish May. They wondered if it was green all year long. Like the settlers, I think the island is the most beautiful place on this earth I have seen. It recalls the landscape of the Nigerian interior, the verdure of Florida. The Gulf breathes its life.

Sofia is my guide through Havana, and sitting in the lobby of my hotel we speak of the modern world. She tells me that Cuba, since the revolution of 1959, has become one of the most literate

countries in the world. The most literate country in Latin America. That it is, in fact, more literate than the United States. I could not have guessed that walking the streets of Havana I would see, perhaps, poverty but nothing I would call squalor. Nor did I suspect that I’d see fewer cripples and beggars and peddlers here in Havana than in areas of Dallas, Chicago, or any moderately-sized city in the States. The revolution has not cured hunger, but it has filled stomachs. I did not know about the free health care that contributes to an infant mortality rate lower than the United States. I did not know that Cuba sends doctors all over the world. I did not know that Cuba offered 1,600 medics, 83 field hospitals, and more than 80 tons of medical supplies to New Orleans in the wake of Katrina. And I did not know that we, however, denied that aid, because Cuba, in the words of our government, remains a “State Sponsor of Terror,” joining Sudan, Syria and Iran.

We denied that aid because of an embargo that began in the 1960s—about the time the University of Mississippi admitted its first black student, about the time Martin Luther King was jailed, about the time the Jim Crow laws were being overturned.

“The basic goal of the sanctions,” writes the U.S. Department of Treasury in a pamphlet called WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE U.S. EMBARGO, “is to isolate the Cuban government economically and deprive it of U.S. dollars.”

Isolate to what end, I do not know.

I do not understand the embargo. I understand neither the word itself nor the meaning behind it, nor the remaining motivation behind it, nor the logistics supporting it, nor the conditions that might topple it. I understand neither the Bay of Pigs Invasion nor the strange U.S. Interests Section near the Anti-Imperialist Plaza in Havana, nor our demonization of Fidel Castro, nor our harboring of Cuban-born, anti-communist terrorist Luis Posada Carriles, a former agent of the Central Intelligence Agency suspected of orchestrating the bombing of Cubana Airlines flight 455 in October of 1976; he now resides happily in Miami.

Each day I venture out from my hotel with Sofia either to a new part of town or to a location within an hour or two of Havana. Most of the Americans I meet along the way have come illegally from Canada or Mexico. Some have come because of the lifting of certain restrictions regarding educational or religious travel to Cuba. Many are here because of relatives. Others have married a Cuban simply to acquire a visa. Among most of the Americans, including myself, it seems that the feeling of being in Cuba is not one of learning or experiencing another culture, but rather of voyeurism. We ride modern, air-conditioned buses commissioned by the Cuba Tourist Board while Cubans, crowded together like packed cigarettes, ride old Chinese buses on the public transportation. We listen to tour guides, like Sofia, commissioned by the Cuba Tourist Board. We eat at paladares, privately owned restaurants much too expensive for any ordinary citizen, while the

Cubans themselves eat at state-run restaurants. We bring cameras. We capture photographs of their old cars, which we find quaint. We capture photographs of their old houses, which we find quaint. We capture photographs of children in the park playing baseball, which we find quaint. Of children in the park playing soccer. Of the decrepit tops of buildings outside our hotel windows. Of Chinatown. Of the barberia and the man sitting in the swivel chair wearing Nike sneakers, his hair being cut by a young woman. Of a dog on the street wearing a Michael Jordan jersey. Of the harbor. Of the man cutting the coconut.

I travel to Cojimar, a fishing town near Havana. The sea near the beach is blue-green and, farther from the shore, deep blue. A jetty with a crumbling fortress at its end sticks out in the water. Clouds hang. Waves flow. Two boats slowly bob in the bay. A boy approaches me and asks for money.

Carrying a $600 camera, wearing $115 shoes, $60 jeans, I say, “Sorry.”

I have been instructed to respond like this.

“They don’t need it,” Sofia says of the children who ask for money. “They all have three meals a day, health care. They’ll just go buy candy.” She scolds the boy.

Indeed the boy’s clothes are clean, his skin smooth and dark, his teeth straight, and he does not look hungry, but he knows the business, and though I say no the first time I later return to him. I hand him a coin, then raise my camera, point it, and capture him, sitting on the ledge, the Gulf and horizon behind him, in a photograph.

“All Christendom ought to feel joyful,” wrote Christopher Columbus after he and his men had captured the island, because for the “refreshment” and “profit” of Spain and Christians, he decided to occupy, then own, and then enslave the island that would later become known as Cuba. He concluded his letter by assuring the king and queen, “This is exactly what I have done.” It was a “great exaltation.” A “great triumph.”

The city of Havana was founded 500 years ago, and has flown officially and unofficially under the flag of three separate countries for most of that time. In the year 1517 Spain authorized slave trade to the island. In 1762 the British briefly seized control. Thomas Jefferson wanted to annex it, as did John Quincy Adams. And following the Spanish-American War the United States, through the Platt Amendment of 1901, extended a shadow hand across the Gulf, and has attempted to direct affairs, influencing who comes to power, who trades with who. In the first half of the century it was successful, but since the revolution of 1959, Castro has pushed back.

In my hotel room that evening I watch a smiling Mitt Romney. While I was in Cojimar, the town by the sea in Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, while I was touring Hemingway’s house and Hemingway’s hotel and Hemingway’s bars, drinking Hemingway’s cocktails and visiting the grave of Hemingway’s bartender, Iowa caucused, New Hampshire voted, and the former Massachusetts governor emerged as the Grand Old Party’s frontrunner. He says to his constituents after winning New Hampshire, “You’re the best.” He mentions “American greatness.” Sitting on my bed I hear Romney say, “I would insist on a military so powerful no one would ever think about challenging it,” which lends a certain degree of credence to Fidel Castro’s fear as voiced the morning before in the Granma, the official Communist newspaper in Cuba, the suspicion that the Republicans carry more weapons than ideas, but as I watch and listen I am not so much afraid of this statement, shocking as it is, as I am preoccupied with another: Romney’s cheerful assertion that the United States is the “greatest nation in the history of the earth,” because as soon as I remember taking the photograph of that boy, and as soon as I remember writing notes on the high priest, I realize that I—like Columbus—am consuming Cuba.

The people of the island, however, see wrongly too.

“Come! Come!” they said to each other when the Spanish boats arrived. “See the people from the sky!” Frightened and shocked and timid and in awe, they saw not men but gods. To these people from the sky, the natives gave and gave. They deified. They shared in everything they had.

“These relations between conqueror and colonized,” writes one historian, “tended to be self-perpetuating. The sight of the other confirmed each in his inhuman estimate of himself.”

There is “circularity” and “mutual solitude.”

If we are cultural voyeurs of Cuba, perhaps they have a fetish for the United States, for Nike clothing and stories of our purported luxuries. There is a feeling, as an American in Havana, of being probed, probed by questions, probed by hands to pull up a seat, probed by vendors selling fake cigars made of banana leaves. Some of this desire to know is simple curiosity, some of it is the business of conning tourists, whether American or anything else, and some of it, Sofia tells me, is an obsession with the United States that exists based not on fact but on legend, the land across the water to which they may not go. Most Cubans never leave the island.

“We are very skeptical,” Sofia says to me at the hotel. For eleven years she has been leading students and senators and tourists through Havana. She graduated from Che Guevara High School and the University of Havana. She has high cheekbones, a dark ponytail pulled back tight, and every day wears a small gold name tag on her starched white shirt. She only smokes Cuban cigarettes (when I offer her a Lucky Strike, she kindly declines), and she goes on to describe what she has coined an “internal blockade” here in Cuba. That is, the limited minds, as she sees it, holding offices in the regime. What she tells me is not a part of her training from the Cuba Tourist Board. She tells me that she sees a lack of foresight and oversight and hindsight in filling positions, because it’s often who you know, she says, rather than how qualified you are. Vision is short. Power is ambition.

José Martí, Che Guevara, and Fidel Castro are immortals in Cuba. They are marble busts and T-shirts, billboards and fans and tattoos, and since 1959 Castro has controlled, or has attempted to control, truth. The scale of sliding truth is both small and large.

At a restaurant in Chinatown, I decide on a meal that costs roughly five dollars; the waitress suggests another item on the menu. I ask if it is the same price, and she says yes; but when the bill comes I pay twelve instead of five dollars. In Cojimar there is a monument to Hemingway. Six neoclassical columns surround a smiling bust of the author. The foundation of the sculpture announces the years of his life: 1898-1961. Hemingway, however, was born in 1899. Truth slides socially and politically. Castro has forbidden the simple freedom to say—as in the Padilla affair of 1971, as in the Production Help Unit in the years following the revolution: work camps “set up to indoctrinate writers into abandoning what government officials considered to be a bourgeois sexual orientation,” as in the hushed voice of the taxi driver in Havana who said to me, of the regime, “Propaganda.”

The billboards I have seen across the country look as though they have been done by a street artist. They teem with crude and unrefined color, with feigned valor: TODO POR LA REVOLUCIÓN.

“We are stuck in time,” Sofia confesses. 53 AÑOS DE LUCHAS Y VICTORIAS. “We are not motivated,” she says. ¡PATRIA O MUERTE!

She explains the idea that some Americans, having been to Cuba, hope the embargo never goes away, citing for reason that if the two countries were to open up to each other, the United States would infect Cuba with McDonalds, Starbucks, and Gap. At first it seems noble, she says. Of course, though, its façade quickly deteriorates. It is not for Cuba’s sake that some Americans hope the embargo stays, but for their own sake.

I have seen it, the forbidden land, and on the plane from Havana to Miami, high above the Gulf Stream, the island behind me, the United States in front of me, I know that having been to Cuba I have something other Americans do not. I understand their selfish jealousy of Cuba. But Cubans wish the embargo eliminated. What I experienced was neither what I had been taught I would experience—militaristic communism, a police state, a third-world nation of hunger and want—nor what I myself suspected I would experience—a euphoric people in gleeful rebellion against the United States. There was neither hatred nor happiness in the broken relationship; there was longing and there was legend. There were stories and there were tales. There were cousins, and there were sons and daughters. There were airport greetings. There were gazes across the Gulf. There was the harbor, the bay, the beach, the fortress, the lighthouse. There was Ernest Hemingway and there were cigars. There was baseball.

When I remember Cuba, what I recall is mutual solitude. They were strange to me; I was strange to them. There was a moment in the forest in which the priest looked at me. Still dancing, still chanting, he smiled and reached into his pocket, from which he produced a cell phone. He raised it, pointed it, and captured me in a video, a movie of me watching him.