The Rum Chronicles

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

I'd never seen Vicente like that: dumb drunk. I regard him as much my big brother as Julián's, and I love him for being the father in Julián's life during the eighteen years Benjamin spent in prison (three separate stints, all for marijuana cultivation, starting in 1963, the year of Julián's birth).

Vicente is the only one of Benjamin and Luisa's six children who is a loyal Communist Party member, a militante, and I always thought his kindness and decency and work ethic were the revolution's best recommendation. It's true that for years he carried too many responsibilities -- he and his wife (who had stayed at the faraway finca) kept having babies while his crops decreased with the drought; the government was paying him less for its share of the produce; and his father and farming partner was wearing down. In fact in the next few days, Vicente planned to sign documents authorizing his household to move to a more accessible farm closer to Boniato.

So he had more than enough reason to stay drunk for a week. But I could see Julián was uncomfortable with his brother's uncharacteristic lack of decorum. His long-time fears about Vicente's health revived: He was too thin, Julián worried, and his hair and beard were too gray. Vicente, as hardheaded as the rest of the family, paid no mind.

ILLUSTRATIONS BY DAVID HOLLENBACH
ILLUSTRATIONS BY DAVID HOLLENBACH

Later that day Julián's good friend Héctor picked us up in his 1983 Lada. We were moving to the more comfortable house of Julián's half-brother Bernabé in Santiago, about twenty miles away. Bernabé is Benjamin's son from a pre-Luisa relationship. En route we bought more rum and water, then dropped in on Luisa's younger sister, Silvia, who lives in the hills outside El Caney, an agricultural center on the road to Santiago. She and her two adult children, Sonia and Sergio, were thrilled to see us. Sergio immediately plugged in a boom box and began the elaborate preparations for killing and roasting a young pig. Julián opened a bottle of Havana Club, and that was the cue for most of El Caney to appear on the steep concrete steps to Silvia's porch. The men cleaned, gutted, and dressed the pig, dug and fired up the pit, skewered the carcass with a long branch, and then took turns patiently turning it over the smoldering fire.

A dozen or so of us sat around a small back patio where the boom box played. Cándido Fabré was singing about los apagones, the systematic electrical outages throughout the island, and how he had lost some good pork chops in the fridge. We were joking about the difficulties of life in Cuba, but the mood turned darker when we learned that Sonia, who is married to a policeman, had lost her two-year-old daughter eighteen months earlier. The girl had been playing with some other children on a roadside not far from the house when a drunk driver struck her. Those types of alcohol-influenced car accidents were becoming all too common, the neighbors agreed.

The air was cooling off fast, and Héctor made a quick rum run. I think he is the only one of Julián's legions of friends and family in the oriente who owns a car. By Cuban standards he has it good: a decent job, a beautiful wife and daughter, and an apartment far nicer than the residences of any of Julián's family. But Héctor is still sick with longing for his ex-wife and sixteen-year-old daughter in Miami, even after almost ten years.

"We were so happy," he confided softly that night on Silvia's patio. "She's the love of my life. Please don't tell her that." Héctor has pale skin and eyes, a gingery mustache, and fine features that contrast with his barrel-chested frame. He had never said much to me before and would never admit such heartache without help from Havana Club. "If she had to go, why did she have to take my little girl?" he asked. But of course he knows; Héctor is just one of millions of Cubans who have seen their families dissolve.

The pig was carved up and tiny portions served with congrí and yuca. By then there were probably 40 people wandering in and out of the house, and close to 20 transfixed around the television set in the front room. A telenovela was on, one of two wildly popular soap operas airing alternate nights on Cuba's two TV channels. Tonight was the penultimate episode. As it came to an end, Julián made moves to leave, but Sergio went out and killed one of his chickens and a goat. Of course we couldn't refuse his hospitality. Héctor went on another rum run.

The night air carried a slight chill and the smell of dry vegetation. After the food and rum had been finished off and the neighbors all sent home, Héctor, Julián, and I settled into Héctor's Lada and rumbled down to the road from El Caney to Santiago. The old highway is irregularly paved, widening and narrowing and turning capriciously. Massive root-bound trees border the road on both sides. Along some stretches, the branches make solid arches overhead.

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