The Rum Chronicles

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

Rita produced a chewed-up plastic glass, which she filled and pressed into my hand as the truck started up again. Ahead of us was another hour of navigating the countryside, drinking in diesel fumes along with the burning rum, swerving and slamming into potholes unseeable in the obscurity, the huddled men in back tossed like bags of rice.

We stopped again at a gas station in San Luis, just downhill from our destination, the stone-and-log cabin of the matriarch Luisa, Julián's mother. No one expected the gas station to be selling gas; we were there to stock up on necessities Luisa couldn't afford and wouldn't have on hand -- things such as cooking oil, dishwashing soap, toilet paper, bottled water, bottled rum. These and many other goods, including imported foods and candies, are almost always available only for divisa, foreign currency. U.S. dollars were the coins of choice until several months ago, when President Fidel Castro, reacting to President George W. Bush's crackdown on the flow of both U.S. residents and money to the island, outlawed dollars. Now dollars must be converted (at an eighteen percent discount) to chavitos, named in honor of Fidel's new best friend, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez.

I was intrigued by the name of a rum I'd never seen before -- Planchao -- displayed alongside the usual lineup of Havana Club, Varadero, and our family favorite, Mulata. Planchar means "to iron," and planchao is Cuban for planchado, "ironed"; various slang meanings include "fired," "kicked out," "done away with," "the end of the matter." As far as I'm concerned, all the meanings are perfect for Cuban rum.

We bought a case of water and a case of Cubay, another previously unheard-of rum brand recommended for its price ($2.25 to $3 per bottle) and taste. It was indeed good, though not more or less than any other of Cuba's many minor-league rums.

Carlitos started the truck again and we passed San Luis's dark town square and shuttered homes. We came onto a paved highway, a smooth black river in the moonlight, but after a short cruise, Carlitos turned off onto a dirt road that was actually the floor of a ravine. We began a gradual climb up the foothills and mountains overlooking distant Santiago and its rocky bay. The winding route was bordered by cashew trees, thick bamboo, or craggy cliffs where the rock had been blasted away to carve out the road. We went through towns no more substantial than a few buildings set into the mountainside or perched amid brush on a bluff.

Finally we passed through Boniato, still ascending and catching a bird's-eye view of the notorious Boniato prison. The prison enclosure was well lighted and we could see the wormlike rows of barracks. That was where Julián's father had spent the greater part of his son's childhood, and where several of Julián's friends served time for various petty crimes. We climbed around a lime quarry and a dairy farm. Sometimes I could see little white stones arranged on the side of the road in revolutionary reminders, such as Viva Fidel, and Volverán -- "they'll return," a reference to the five Cubans now imprisoned in the U.S. for espionage.

Then there was the wood gate and long stone walkway leading to Luisa's open front door, and people rushing out and down the path to embrace us and exclaim over Julián. Luisa, small and darting, with eagle eyes and a tight-lipped smile (from worry and arthritis pain), disappeared quickly again back into the house to cook and keep order. All five of Julián's siblings were there: Besides Rita and Francisco, who live in the neighborhood, Cristina had journeyed from Havana, and Elena had left the bedside of her infirm husband in Santiago. Their father, Benjamin, and eldest brother, Vicente, had come from their finca way up in the Sierra Maestra, 100 miles or so to the southwest. (Benjamin and Luisa have been separated for more than twenty years but remain good friends.)

There were four narrow beds in Luisa's five-room house, two light blankets and a few sheets, no defense from the unusual cold that had moved into the area. But that first night hardly anyone but the children slept. Benjamin, the patriarch, had his guitar with him, and after some of us ate (goat, rice, red beans, and ñame, a potato relative), he began playing and singing. One year older than Fidel Castro, Benjamin can make music longer than Fidel can make speeches. His iron-black skin is weathered from a life of field labor; every ounce of fat on his body has been worked off, leaving round biceps built up on his skinny arms like two mangos cleaving to bare branches. He was wearing one pair of thick-framed glasses atop another, explaining he couldn't see much through either pair alone. Well into the morning, as people dozed off in their chairs, Benjamin and a group of his children and grandchildren sang old songs about bony women, sex organs, licentious men, dancing, and the Virgin of Charity.

Just a rough plank wall away, the pigs awoke in their pen, grunting and squealing in their eagerness to trot out and eat before rolling in the mud under a stand of banana trees. To guard against animal rustlers, rampant throughout the countryside, Luisa hid all of her goats, pigs, and chickens behind a tall split-log fence, virtually inside the house, every night.

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