The Rum Chronicles

In which the author observes recent changes in Cuba: Cheap liquor is now plentiful but hope has become scarce

We had been bouncing and lurching our way from Holguín to Boniato for about an hour when Carlitos stopped his cavernous covered flatbed truck at a crossroads. No other vehicles were in sight around what appeared to be three divergent highways. An almost full moon and clusters of stars lit the January night. Once the chugging of the motor died, it was utterly quiet except for the phantom noise of the cold wind that had been slamming full into my ear as I sat at the cab's broken-out passenger window.

A half-dozen men riding in back clambered out, shivering, and headed toward a solitary brick building. They were searching for rum. Our greeting party from Santiago had quickly emptied the homemade rum from the two half-liter plastic bottles they'd brought for the 180-mile ride to the Holguín airport.

That's where we'd landed a few hours earlier; it was my husband's first visit to Cuba since immigrating alone to la yuma, Yankeeland, five years earlier. We had flown in from the north, and the hilly farmland surrounding Holguín looked brown and patchy compared to the emerald fields I remembered from the last time I was here, two and a half years ago. People had told me then there was a drought in eastern Cuba; it must have been the beginning of the same one now ravaging the region.

But more than water has dried up in Cuba, I would observe on this visit. I was struck by a scarcity of spirit. Everything was dwindling, including what I had always believed to be Cubans' infinite resourcefulness and resilience. (Maybe I would have a different perspective if we'd stayed only in Havana, where there are undeniable pockets of vitality, prosperity, and renaissance -- but even in that great city, I didn't escape feeling an unaccustomed psychic fatigue.)

More and more members of our family are filling their malnourished souls with Christian fundamentalism, adhering to an absolute morality that promises the life and hope undelivered by the revolution. But by far the more prevalent and trusted opiate is rum, Cuba's great national product, which I found to be in more reliable supply than food and water, certainly more so than gas, electricity, or cash. My husband, whom I'll call Julián (all names and occasional details have been changed to protect identities), attributes the island's rum-saturated marketplace to an astute socialist government producing revenue while taking the edge off social discontent. "Of course it's for the tourists; they love Cuban rum," Julián says. "But also to keep the people from thinking about the way things are -- to keep them from getting upset and making trouble, going on strike or protesting or speaking out."

The bottle proved a constant companion as we revisited a past not always missed. Naturally Julián's people drank more than usual to celebrate his return, and even more because he was buying. At first I assumed those were the simple reasons everyone was inebriated all the time. As the days passed, though, I could see a more complicated picture. The return of the prodigal son wasn't easy for anyone. Drinking became less a means of rejoicing than of dulling the difficult, ambivalent emotions that arose in both visitor and visited. Julián's family has always been dirt-poor, generations of farmers and laborers (his father's grandparents came to the island from Africa, either as slaves or indentured farmers). Julián alone escaped his legacy at an early age, fighting his way to a one-in-a-million spot on the Cuban national boxing team. That accomplishment afforded him seven years of privilege, celebrity, and world travel. It's been about twenty years since an injury forced him out of boxing and into a long aimless period, capped by five years in the Combinado del Este prison for plotting to leave Cuba. After he was released in 1999, his life had changed too much for him to go back to his beginnings, but he had no future on the island either.

Julián has missed Cuba terribly since relocating to the U.S. under the auspices of the Red Cross refugee program; nevertheless he was steeling himself for his first trip back, hoping against his deeper reason that he might be able to ease the hardness of his loved ones' lives. I was all but oblivious to his inner turmoil, at least at the beginning.

While Julián and the others went for rum, I waited in the front seat beside Rita, the youngest of Julián's three sisters, who was cradling her gorgeous three-year-old grandnephew, wrapped in a ratty orange towel for a blanket. Ten minutes later the men straggled back with pockets full of unfiltered Popular cigarettes and the two bottles now brimming with off-white rum. This was the mass-produced stuff the state stockpiles in tanks and pipes into its bare, pesos-only stores commonly called roneros. The socialist rum (also sold in mass quantities at marches, rallies, festivals, and religious peregrinations) costs only about twenty pesos, less than a U.S. dollar per liter, and isn't half bad -- certainly better than chispe tren (train spark), homemade from kerosene and other foul ingredients.

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