The Hearts and Souls of Havana

A foreigner explores the city, falls in love, and discovers the limits of hope

It takes about an hour to walk to Carmen's apartment from Havana's Vedado neighborhood, where I'd been searching for secondhand books about the idealized, revolutionary Cuba. As usual I had lingered longer than anticipated and would probably be late for dinner.

The darkness began to catch up to me somewhere between the U.S. Interests Section and the Hotel Nacional. But as I approached a long, sweeping curve along the Malec centsn, I could still see all the way to the far end of the boulevard, to Havana Vieja. This is my favorite part of the city's famed oceanfront, where the crashing waves on a warm and breezy night can evoke something almost mystical, the cooling mist and the sea's soothing rhythms releasing deep emotions.

Carmen and I had spent many nights looking out across the ocean from this point, talking about choice and control, the ability to make decisions for oneself versus choices constrained by political systems. We had spoken of love and how it could work, or not work. How the future could be or not be. She would say she didn't have much of a future in this country of her birth, and would speak of engaging in a form of suicide by marrying, having a child, and giving up all hope for her own desires and dreams. Those could only be passed on to the next generation.

But I had hope -- for her, for us, and that the immigration bureaucracies of Cuba and the United States would be capable of exhibiting something like compassion, an understanding of our love. I also knew, though I didn't say it aloud, that the efforts of a Cuban and a foreigner to marry and live abroad would be protracted and difficult, and also that bureaucracies by nature lack heart.

Cars in varying degrees of disrepair cruised along the Malec centsn as I continued to Carmen's apartment. Some struggled along, suffering from years of deprivation, beyond salvation even at the hands of Havana's inventive car doctors. Two distinct tempos of bicycle speeds were audible: The spokes either sang with the wind or moaned against it. Cyclists appeared hazily in the weak light cast by street lamps coated with sea salt.

This particular part of the city was relatively well-lit; at least it didn't suffer from the constant blackouts that regularly dropped the rest of Havana into the black void of the Cuban night. The presence of the huge Hermanos Ameijeira hospital prevented that. Castro really couldn't claim hospitals and medical care as one his revolution's successes and then let the sick simply die because of "special period" electrical policies. It would push the issue of abuse too far, even for Castro. But yes, turn out the lights everywhere else.

Near the hospital is a small park named after the Cuban martyr Antonio Maceo, and off to the side is one of my favorite propaganda billboards. Over the years it has served as a sort of barometer of the Cuban condition. In the 1980s, when the island was fertilized by an endless stream of Russian rubles, the billboard's lights shone proudly, proclaiming, "Esta Tierra es 100% Cubana" (This land is 100% Cuban). I used to stand in front of it admiring the red and blue colors and have long, energetic discussions with the Cubans. We would laugh and denounce the self-righteous American embargo.

When I saw the sign during a visit in 1992, the situation had changed dramatically. The rubles had disappeared and the stream had virtually dried up. Cuba was no longer center ring in the Soviet circus, as the sign revealed. It was only partially lit, and somewhat abstractly stated, "Esta Tierra 1 Cub." As I approached the billboard this past March, I could see that all the lights had burned out and none had been replaced, a fitting symbol for a collapsed economy and Castro's wobbling commitment to 100 percent Cuban anything. Any new message would have to read, "This Land of No Electricity Is 51% Cuban (and 49% Foreign)."

Carmen's place, where I was staying, was still 30 minutes away. The darkness became progressively thicker as I headed inland, away from the Malec centsn and up Belascoain. By the time I crossed Carlos III, the night had completely embraced the crumbling buildings and masked their neglected facades.

The blackness, though, was not so kind to me; for several blocks I couldn't see a thing. But then I fell in behind an elderly woman who carried an old kerosene lantern at her side. She walked with the ease and confidence of a long-time neighborhood resident, even though the swinging lantern cast only a pale twenty-watt glow on the uncertain future before her.

I was nearly home, past the cigar factory, the police station lying ahead. That was the final landmark guiding me back to Carmen's. I knew there would be a policeman sitting on a chair, tilting on two legs against the wall. He would look at me and I would look at him. Never a word was said.

Nearly the entire neighborhood was submerged in blackness, but Carmen's apartment had the luck of light shining behind the window. Several years ago, in the early days of Havana's blackouts, a single overhead wire had been strung across the street and into a different zone of the city's electrical grid. Today a canopy of wires crisscrosses the street, a testament to the spirit of resolviendo (making do) Cubans have developed so well. During the day, wires would cast shadows on the street below, but at night they did just the opposite; they became the source of illumination.

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