The Rum Chronicles

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

Several blocks from Bernabé's, we came upon a roving group of young men Barrigú knew. He pulled one of them aside and they climbed up the steep stairs of a nearby house and knocked at a door on the roof. Someone let them in, and Barrigú appeared in a few minutes carrying a case of Cubay. Back at Bernabé's house, Benjamin was again surrounded by singing but fast-flagging relatives. Spirits revived with the infusion of rum. I crawled under the mosquito netting on our bed and don't know when the music stopped.

One of Julián's nieces, the beautiful, almond-eyed Odalys, had invited me to a fashion show at the nightclub La Maison, a beautiful converted mansion where she is a runway model. La Maison's fashion shows, along with music and variety acts, are popular with foreigners in Santiago. I walked to the club with Odalys's best friend Berta, who works as a secretary and dreams of getting married and moving back to her native Palma Soriano. Five dollars bought me entrance and a glass of champagne, which I downed too fast, grateful for something that wasn't rum.

We joined a table in the club's outdoor courtyard, where a Spanish couple, a Dutch couple, and Odalys's fiftyish Italian boyfriend Manolo were waiting for the show to begin. I wondered what her handsome young Cuban boyfriend, Ismael, also a La Maison model, thought of this. Berta, who is at least as gorgeous as her modeling friend, had no one waiting for her at the table.

"Odalys tells me my standards are too high," Berta confessed, leaning close to be heard over the romantic Mexican pop tunes on the PA system. "Maybe they are -- bueno, they must be, because I just haven't met anyone to love."

"A Cuban holding out for love?"

"Odalys says love doesn't exist anymore," Berta corrected herself. "I guess she's right about that too." She took a quick look about. We sat at a glass-topped, metal-filigree table under leafy trees, in the moonlight, in front of a raised, spottily lighted runway. Most of the tables were empty in the courtyard and in an ornate indoor dining room. Berta looked tired, or maybe resigned. "I've got to get up early in the morning to go to work," she sighed, sipping her beer.

Disco music suddenly began, and the models emerged. Knowing the club's affluent image, and perhaps because I live in Miami, I was expecting South Beach -- lots of slashed necklines and lower-than-low waists, thongs, tattoos. But it was all just stylish tropical clothing, a low-key collection by America's hypersexual standards and more modest than most of the attire worn on the streets of Havana.

After the fashion show, singers and dancers followed on the runway, as well as a magician who flawlessly performed every beginner's trick in the book. Just when I was sure entertainment had ended for the night, one of the models slunk onstage. She was wearing a black gown with spaghetti straps and high side slits, and was holding an outsize bottle of dark Havana Club -- it must have been twenty inches high and almost a foot in diameter.

"All of us at La Maison thank you and hope you've enjoyed our wonderful program tonight," a smooth man's voice intoned in Spanish over the loudspeaker. "And now we are pleased to present Havana Club Cuban rum, the world's finest rum, reminding you Havana Club is available to enhance your pleasure and your enjoyment of this beautiful evening in Santiago de Cuba." Meanwhile the model held the bottle out to the audience, suggestively tilting it this way and that as she dipped and swiveled. "Havana Club," the announcer concluded. "The pride of our great nation! Cuba!"

Our last day in Santiago began at 10:00 a.m., when a socio from long ago, who had just found out Julián was in town, showed up at the front door bearing a bottle of Caribe and his own glass. So everyone began early, except me. I was really sick of rum. More friends and relatives began appearing, some to accompany us to the train station. Héctor drove up around 3:00.

People I'd never seen before were waiting for Julián at the station. A half-dozen retired boxers were there, and two baseball players. We congregated in the wide flat paved space in front of the station; some women and children and the old man, Benjamin, found seats on two rows of metal benches. The sky was overcast, the heavy air had a slight nip to it, and I thought it might rain.

Bottles of rum were opened and glasses passed around. Just as I was reconsidering my vow of abstention, I heard someone calling the Santería orisha Eleggua, the guardian of destiny and opener of doors, signifier of chance and death. Daniel, a distant cousin with a batlike face and doglike body draped in ragged sweatpants and sweatshirt, was crouching on the pavement about five yards away. He sprang up, twirling and shaking. Julián's nephew Armando found an empty can and began beating out a jiribilla, a dance rhythm, on the concrete.

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