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.

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.

By midday I was desperate to bathe and wash my hair, so Luisa scooped a pan of water from the barrel behind the house. She heated the pan over a gas burner and then poured the hot water in with cold in a bucket. It made precious little bath water and did nothing to abate the grossness of standing shivering on a dirt floor in a cramped wooden stall redolent with barnyard stink and filled with insects dangling from spiders' webs.

Nevertheless I realized that I, the pampered American, was being allowed to use more water than anyone else -- and it wasn't me making the mile-long trek to the nearest creek to fill two wooden buckets. The middle brother, Francisco, who spends most of his time at his mother's house, has that onerous job. He trudges back to the house with a branch-yoke across his shoulders and the buckets hanging from either end. It used to be he could transport water and anything else in a little cart pulled by his horse Letty, his pride and joy. But Letty was stolen from this house two years ago while Francisco and Luisa were ten miles down the mountainside at Rita's house, lost in revelry at her daughter's quinceanera. Luisa had sought help from a nearby babalao, who "saw" Letty not far from where she was taken. The babalao urged Francisco to get to the horse quickly, before she would be killed and eaten. Francisco was pretty sure who had Letty, but he never found her.

Almost everyone from Julián's past came up the mountain the second night of our stay. A DJ arrived, too, a friend of the teenagers in the family, with a playlist of about two reggaeton albums. This was disappointing, since I'd been looking forward to hearing the latest Cuban hip-hop and maybe even some oldies, like my favorite rap song, the famous tirade against racism in Cuba, "Quién tiró la tiza." All the DJ had was some Don Omar material heard even in Communist Party members' houses these days.

That night was also bad for conversation, because everyone except the Jehovah's Witnesses (principally Julián's middle sister, Elena, and several of her in-laws) was very drunk. One of Elena's daughters-in-law did ask me how she could contact church members in Miami, and Elena requested a Spanish-language Bible. I can't say I encouraged them to discuss their religion, but they showed no inclination to do so anyway. Elena doesn't join in many family gatherings, and not only because her husband has been incapacitated since suffering a stroke three years ago. I would later learn that this church, which recognizes Jehovah and not Fidel Castro (or any other earthly leader) as the ultimate social and political authority, is frequently persecuted or ostracized, so members stay to themselves.

Julián is glad his sister has found religion, despite the gulf between her and the rest of the family, even if it hasn't meant the healing of her husband or the paving of the muddy, mosquito-infested dirt trail outside her house, or any material improvement in her life. "She has peace," Julián says. "She thinks her religion gives her strength."

By about 1:00 a.m. I couldn't absorb any more rum, so I put on two T-shirts under my jacket and went to nap on Luisa's bed. I nestled into a space between two adults and two little girls covered by a towel. Luisa's room, like all the bedrooms in her house, is separated from the main living room by a wall of wood with cloth curtains hung in the doorways. Everyone in the house can hear everything going on elsewhere in the house, and the "doors" become almost transparent if one side is lighted and the other dark. So lying on Luisa's bed was almost like watching a stage play. My bedmates and I slept fitfully. Once we were awakened by a short but explosive shouting match between Cristina and Rita that ended when Rita slugged Cristina on the jaw. The fight wasn't really about anything, but they didn't speak for the next three days.

It must have been around 4:00 a.m. when most of the crowd, including the DJ, had either left or passed out, and Benjamin picked up his guitar. The group went through the old songs again, but then a few of them began some amazing improvisations. The star was Yaniset, the new wife of Julián's nephew Armando. Her call-and-response improvisations with Armando and Francisco were so clever and rousing they elicited many rounds of applause and inspired me to get out of bed. One of the best verses rhymed perfectly in Spanish but is clumsy in English: "They say rum makes you drunk," Yaniset sang, "and sweets make the teeth fall out ... so I prefer to be drunk than to see my mouth without teeth...."

Just before dawn, Vicente, the eldest brother, suddenly burst out weeping. He rose to his feet and fell in an embrace on Julián, apologizing for something through great sobs. The family members still awake also broke into grief-stricken cries. There was great wailing and clasping, and then it stopped. The sun rose. Benjamin dropped off to sleep with his guitar in his lap and cup of rum in his hand.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Then in Spanish, Daniel spun out a rumba: "Señoras y señores/a fighter has emerged/who's attracted attention/who's won a following/he's the fighter Julián/ watch out, opposing boxers/Julián will leave you in the shadows...."

The men began to clap and shout and dance. Between verses Daniel raised a bottle of rum, poured it into his mouth, sprayed it out, and then continued the rumba. "Señoras y señores/you might have seen him on the television/he demonstrated his courage in the first round/he threw right-hand combinations/he threw left-hand combinations/but in my judgment, luck was not with him that time/a cut opened above his right eye...."

Then out from the dancing cluster stormed a tall frowning man whose grim face bore the scars and flattened nose of a boxer. He grabbed Julián's arm, then a nephew's. But they'd already heard him out. Julián introduced him to me. "Tell her your story, Roel," he ordered. "But talk slowly so she can understand you."

I saw his point when Roel reached out to grip my shoulders, just to make sure I was listening, and launched into the story of his brilliant career in the fastest Spanish ever spoken. I picked up some English words: Mike Tyson, Muhammad Ali, Tito Trinidad, Whitaker, Spinks, De la Hoya. At first I thought Roel was just dropping names, but no, he not only fought all of these guys but also knocked them out! Yeah, he knocked out Mike Tyson! He went on several tours of the States, yeah, he fought the greats. He met a rubia on one of his trips, a blonde, and she fell in love with him and he with her, but he hurt his head in the ring, it was bad, and the Cuban doctors wouldn't let him fight anymore, and his rubia, with whom he had a child, stayed in the States while he went back to Cuba. "Me hace falta la rubia!" Roel cried. "I have to find my blonde again! She's there, in la yuma! You can help me!"

But it was too late. The express to Havana was about to leave. Julián came to get me. Héctor handed me an envelope for his daughter in Miami. "Please tell her I love her and I miss her so much," he instructed. He nervously smoothed his mustache. "No, don't tell her I miss her. Don't tell her anything. Just I love her."

Julián was saying, "Roel's crazy, but he's not bad. He's got a good heart." He hesitated and then quickly pulled from a jeans pocket a twenty-dollar bill and wadded it into Roel's clenched fist. Even though a week later we ran out of money before leaving Havana and couldn't even pay for a taxi to take us to the airport, we agreed Roel was worth it.

"When I lived there," Julián mused later, on the flight back to Miami, "people had some hope. They could see a better future. Now all hope is gone."

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