The Hearts and Souls of Havana

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

Looking through the ration book on my way back, I saw many empty spaces, foodstuffs that were never received. No lard for two and a half months. One bar of soap in the last month for the entire household. One piece of fish per person in the last three weeks. Four people were allotted food at Carmen's house: Carmen, her sister, her mother, and her grandmother. Luis obtained his rations at his mother's house in the Luyano neighborhood. Carmen's grandmother, a victim of Alzheimer's, had lived until last year, but she has not been removed from the ration book and she still receives her daily ration of bread. Just another little way to steal from the government.

That night dinner consisted of the ever-present rice and beans, and a tin of sardines that had been stolen by Carmen's mother from her job. Last week she had come home with a little bit of lard. "What I would like," said Yaelis, cynically looking at her stolen sardine in a puddle of its own oils, "is a big sandwich with ham and cheese, pickles, mustard, and full of mayonnaise."

More than the rest of the family, Yaelis was not afraid of showing her contempt for the regime under which she lived, and she had a history of periodic public protest. Last year, for example, we all went to a concert at the Teatro Carlos Marx, given by Gerardo Alfonso. The crowd was practically all roqueros (long-haired rocker types), and obviously the police expected the show to be boisterous because they were there in massive numbers.

At one point the police decided to levy fines against Yaelis and Luis for not sitting properly in their seats. (They had been propped on the seat backs for more height because nearly everyone in front was standing and jumping to the music.) Luis complained but accepted the fine. Yaelis, though, create a scene that threatened to turn nasty. She yelled at and insulted the cop while Carmen tried to mediate. Soon a police supervisor was summoned, and Yaelis launched at him her years of pent-up fury. It was quite a sight. But he was overwhelmed by the good-Cuban, bad-Cuban combination of Carmen and Yaelis, and eventually he left without issuing the fine. Carmen had grabbed her sister and pulled her outside before the cops changed their minds.

"Maybe a chicken stuffed with ham and cheese," suggested Luis.
"And for dessert, a sundae dripping with chocolate sauce," added Carmen. And so unfolded another dinner-table conversation -- a communal obsession with food they can only dream about.

Of course, food is not the only thing relegated to the dream world. Carmen and her friends can no longer vacation on the island because nearly all of the hotels accept only dollars. They can no longer eat in restaurants because they, too, demand dollars. They can no longer go anywhere because the transportation system is a mess. They can't live anywhere but with family members because housing is so scarce. There is no possibility for upward, or even lateral, mobility. So marginalized, so limited, and so frustrated, average Cubans resort to drinking, dancing, and having sex; and they really don't care about much of anything else. The result is a tacit governmental policy of sex, drugs, and rock and roll: Keep them drunk, dizzy, and in bed.

There were two concerts I wanted to see that Saturday night. Carmen felt awful and couldn't walk because of the pelvic pain, and Luis was taking Yaelis to the movies on borrowed money, so I went alone. The first was given by Pedro Luis Ferrer, the country's most politically outspoken musician. I had tried to see him sing last year but his shows had been canceled without reason. He had just traveled to the U.S., including Miami, where the Cuban government had hoped he would stay. Much to their horror he returned, and he continues to sing and scathe.

The bold and brainy Ferrer is part of the Cuban intellectual tradition that has represented the principal fountain of dissidence. In recent years, however, many such people have been effectively shut up because it is they, as opposed to the rest of Cuba, who are granted the opportunity to travel abroad and see the world. Say what you please when you are out of the country, but remember those travel privileges when you are back in Cuba. The few like Ferrer who do cause problems are often harassed and simply stay abroad the next time out. This is acceptable to the government because an exiled dissident is an impotent dissident.

Even though Ferrer has a solid following in Havana, his shows are never extensively promoted by the government-controlled media. The majority of people hear of his concerts through the grapevine. In this case, I had confirmed the time and place by visiting the venue to check the accuracy of the Havana rumor mill. Indeed the show had been scheduled.

The sophisticated crowd, primarily white, had arrived early to ensure entry to the patio of the Palacio de Bellas Artes, where tickets were sold for an affordable five pesos each. Fifty seats in front of the stage had long ago been reserved, but behind and around them a standing crowd grew to about 700 people. The stage was a homage to minimalism: one chair, two microphones, two speakers, and a single orange spotlight.

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