The Rum Chronicles

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

We arrived at Bernabé's house sometime around 3:00 a.m., waking him up. He left for work at 6:00, and by the time he returned in the afternoon, family and friends were in the house watching TV, playing dominoes, and nursing glasses of rum. Benjamin and his children (minus Elena), along with assorted nephews and nieces, had brought the party down from Luisa's house. Now cousins and uncles from Bernabé's branch of the family showed up as well. In the back yard, an already besotted Vicente was busy dressing a pig. It appeared we were down to our last bottle of rum, and I hoped Julián, who was in town with Héctor, would return with a supply.

A more pressing dilemma, though: no water. The barrel out back was about half full, but no water was coming through the faucets in the kitchen or bathroom. No water for bathing. Or flushing the toilet. I grew anxious, but no one else was fazed. Bernabé's girlfriend, I soon learned, was rigging some pipe she'd obtained from a neighbor that would bring water to a makeshift pump on the roof.

"We're about out of rum," I complained to Bernabé. He smiled and replied, "Well, let's go get some. First we gotta find an empty bottle." That was easy.

"Don't worry, niña. Anything you need, just ask." Bernabé is very dark-skinned, like his father, but his face is rounder and his eyes have a gold, forbidding glint that belies his sweetness. He took my hand, adding, "I'll take care of you."

Bernabé and Julián have had their brotherly standoffs, mainly over family and community responsibilities. Bernabé, like Vicente, is a militante who came of age during the early years of the revolution. Julián, born after 1959, is less inclined to respect societal rules and more likely to act impulsively.

Bernabé and I set out through the neighborhood, its sidewalks reflecting the yellow afternoon sun. It's an upscale district spread over several hills, with views of more distant foothills and mountains. Many of the houses, Bernabé's included, are undergoing renovation or expansion. He pointed out one house with a newly laid brick façade; a European had recently bought it, he noted proudly. We turned down a slope and stepped onto a patio that turned out to be the entrance to a neighborhood ronero. Bernabé presented the empty bottle and ordered a few packs of cigarettes. "We're out of rum," the girl behind the counter told Bernabé. "Oh, no!" I burst out. They ignored me.

"How much to fill this bottle?" Bernabé asked.

"Twenty-five pesos."

"Okay," said Bernabé, as if no one ever said there was no rum. "Fill it with what you have."

A block later I looked at the bottle and saw a mosquito drifting on the bottom, along with a few disembodied roach legs. "That happens with this stuff," Bernabé observed philosophically.

At home he got down to business at the domino table while preparations for the full-moon feast went on. Vicente was proud of this pig, which was revolving over the coals, its front legs daintily trussed, ears and tail sticking out perkily. When it was done, the men carried the branch inside, pig still skewered, and hung it over the dining table laden with congrí and ñame.

Around midnight, after Héctor had driven home and left us without a car, Julián and one of his boxing socios, El Barrigú ("The Big Belly"), decided to go out and search for rum. Barrigú lived in the same neighborhood and knew all the places to look. But store after store was either closed or had no liquor. We walked farther and farther until we reached Parque Ferreiro and began our way down the wide boulevard that encircles the park. As we walked past a food cart offering hot pork sandwiches, Barrigú stopped to greet a thin, disheveled man among the cluster of people around the cart. The man, clutching a beer can, recognized Julián. At once his chest inflated and he began calling out names of boxers he'd knocked out and tournaments he'd fought in. Julián, accustomed in the past to being dared and often goaded to fight, began to walk away, yelling, "You didn't do shit! You were a nobody!"

Apparently the man had fought on the Santiago provincial boxing team about the same time Julián had been tapped for the national team. He faded back into the sidewalk crowd as we crossed the street. A block away was a murky bar that smelled of decay. Julián and Barrigú each bought a glassful of rum (no bottles available), and I bought a small bottle of water. We headed back toward Bernabé's house in the moonlight, an uphill climb. The music of La Charanga Habanera blared from one house, and a block later we could hear even louder reggaeton. It was a Don Omar song Cubans were crazy about then, with a chorus, chanted by delighted female voices, that went: "Aay, a mi, me gusta la yuma. " On the corner, illuminated in the haze of a lone streetlight, three girls danced to the song. Whenever the chorus came up, they shrieked along defiantly -- at any carefree moment to be swept up to la yuma.

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