The Hearts and Souls of Havana

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

We retired to her room, where she opened a small cabinet that stood alone along one wall. I had long wondered about this knee-high wooden object; the family regarded it with something akin to reverence. Now I learned why. It was a haven for various medicines, all of which were on the health-care endangered list, if not already extinct in Cuba. Carmen drew out a precious lotion to help kill the beasties. Owing to the limited amount remaining, we dabbed it on carefully and then lay on top of the lumpy bed. I held her tightly and asked her to tell me a story. She knew the kind I liked to hear -- tales of everyday existence spiced with the surrealism of contemporary Cuban life.

One of her best friends, Lillian, whom I knew from a few social gatherings, detested her job. A month earlier, in February, she had asked a doctor friend to provide her with a certificado (medical excuse) because she was feeling lousy with the flu and also because she simply did not want to go to work. It was one of the many "vacations" Cubans award themselves when they want to get away from the boredom of useless employment that provides no financial rewards, frustrates any attempt to measure progress, and offers no hope for promotion.

For nearly two weeks Lillian hung out, tried to enjoy herself, and did not file reports of the weekly meetings of the Union of Young Communists (UJC), an offshoot of the Communist Party. Lillian's role as general secretary was to record the contents of these meetings at her workplace.

To have any decent job in Cuba, it's advantageous to be a member of this organization in order to prove loyalty to the government, and practically every workplace in the country convenes these meetings to discuss government policies and their effect on people. Literally thousands of such meetings take place weekly A and nobody complains. To deviate from the party line is to invite trouble of one sort or another.

This is where Carmen's story got interesting. Some time ago Lillian had colluded with her colleagues at work to fabricate their discussions of government policies. Then they decided to fabricate the entire contents of her reports. Finally they stopped meeting altogether. Lillian simply made up weekly reports professing the support of workplace XYZ for Castro and the government's policies.

But because Lillian had not filed a report for two weeks, she was visited at her job by a UJC supervisor who inquired about her performance -- and indirectly about her loyalty to the party itself. It was an ugly scene.

Imperious by virtue of her association with the Communist Party, the 23-year-old woman condescendingly questioned Lillian: "Why did you not file the reports? Why did you not find a substitute to file the reports? Did you not consider your responsibilities? When is the next meeting?" The haughty inquisitor then gave Lillian a chance to put down in writing any complaints she might have, and offered her a UJC document that allowed exactly two lines for such heresy. Lillian scoffed. "I'd need a thousand pages to tell you what is wrong with this country!" she retorted. And she wrote nothing.

In the end, Lillian retained her job, and she continues to produce a weekly piece of fiction for the benefit of Castro, who uses these reports and thousands of others like them as evidence of continued support for him and his policies.

"Fantastic!" I exclaimed when Carmen finished her tale. As usual I was impressed. I asked if that sort of thing also happened at her job. "Everybody does it," she replied. She shook her head in anger and I could feel the tension rising in her body. More than ever I could sense how much she hated the system, the lies, the dismal realities of her life. I hugged her a little more tightly and slowly stroked her face and her thick, long hair, black as the Cuban night.

rom the very beginning, my relationship with Carmen had been defined by this system: bureaucrats, visitor's visas, travel restrictions, and other constraints that shaped our time together. Every day by her side meant one fewer in the days or weeks ahead. It was difficult to enjoy the present when the future was so clearly limited.

We had met in a museum, both waiting for other people. I asked her questions regarding her country, her thoughts, her life. I also asked for her number so we could continue the conversation. She consented, and we began seeing each other as best we could in contemporary Havana.

For weeks we went out and talked, ate, saw music shows, and bought bottles of Guayabita del Pinar, a regional rum, from the black-market vendors along the Malec centsn. Honesty and communication were critical. I never wanted her to think I was interested in a quick Cuban affair. She never asked me for anything because she didn't want me to think of her as a jinetera (a jockey literally, a prostitute figuratively, both riding foreigners for all they're worth). Neither happened, though others came to their own conclusions.

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