Beyond Havana

Che Guevara was not the reason I took the Number 13 train from Havana to Santa Clara, Cuba, though it's true Guevara is buried in Santa Clara, along with 23 of his comrades in arms, all of whom died 32 years ago in a quest to spread Cuba's communist revolution to South America. Their remains lie in an elegant minimalist mausoleum on a grassy hill. From here, under the panoramic sky of central Cuba, a monumental bronze statue of the martyred Che surveys the town that, more than any other in Cuba, was marked by his brief passage through history. He stares down on the faded façades of seventeenth-century homes lining narrow streets that run from the central square; the hulking, dilapidated housing projects near the edges of town; then beyond to red-dirt roads disappearing into green sugar cane fields.

These days Che Guevara is a hot property and has lent a chic luster to Cuba's fourth-largest city. At least one tour bus can always be found parked outside the museum that has been erected at Che's burial site. Yet this hardly is a Disney World for revolutionaries: There is no admission charge and nothing is on sale, not even a single Che key ring or T-shirt.

Reverent groups of Canadian and European tourists come to pay their respects to the Argentine revolutionary, whom Fidel Castro has proclaimed to be a role model for all Cubans. In the museum's grottolike chapel, visitors gaze at a bust of Che and an entire wall quilted with bas-relief portraits of the other fallen guerrillas. Che's 39 years of life are chronicled in letters, photographs, and text on display in the main exhibit space. Clothing, guns, and other mementos fill glass cases (even the lacy gold-pattern plastic spatula with which Che and Santa Clara native Aleida March cut their wedding cake during a 1959 ceremony). Correspondence includes Castro's wartime missives from eastern Cuba to Che: military instructions and discussion of political strategy during the long campaign by divided rebel forces to overthrow the corrupt government of Fulgencio Batista.

But no, I didn't come to Santa Clara to soak up history or the Che mystique. I simply wanted to see more of Cuba outside Havana, and the relatives of a Miami friend had graciously offered me lodging in their home on Calle Real, just a short walk, as it turned out, from the museum.

In Santa Clara I did nothing more exciting than share a Mulata with my hosts -- that's a bottle of Mulata rum, about which Cubans have been known to make such ribald jokes. Mainly I met a lot of ordinary people who were well educated, who had an acute sense of their history, and a curiosity about their future. That's partly because family ties run deep here; it's not the unwieldy and transient melting pot that Havana is. It's also because Santa Clara played a major role in the revolution, Cuba's defining historical event of the Twentieth Century.

During the final days of 1958, Che Guevara and about 300 rebel troops under his command moved north from the Escambray Mountains and launched an attack on Santa Clara, defended by Batista's demoralized, reluctant government army. By December 31 the rebels had captured a trainload of weapons, taken 400 soldiers prisoner, and had used the arms and the support of civilians to gain control of most of the city. Only two military garrisons and a nest of snipers in the Gran Hotel downtown were still holding out. When Guevara's men finally forced a surrender, Batista's last hope to retain power disappeared, and he fled into exile on New Year's Eve. A week later Castro and Che rode a military tank into Havana and claimed the nation.

Reminders of the battle of Santa Clara are all over: Bullet holes are preserved in the façades of downtown buildings and in the army barracks; trenches dug by Guevara's men in outlying hills remain; those two military barracks, somewhat symbolically, have been converted to schools. The local newspaper, Vanguardia, still runs stories about the battle of Santa Clara and its heroes.

This past October, as Castro was preparing to host the ninth Ibero-American Summit, his brother Raul presided over a ceremony at the Santa Clara museum commemorating the 32nd anniversary of Che's death. The well-publicized event was overshadowed, though, by the international media's increasing focus on Cuba's political dissidents and their plans to protest at the summit. Santa Clara, as the largest city in central Cuba, isn't immune from occasional muted political unrest. Two years ago a half-dozen hunger strikers received some attention from exile organizations three months into their fast, but then faded from view. No one I spoke with in Santa Clara professed knowledge of any organized government opponents, or the desire to know. The official media ignores dissidents altogether, except in the rare cases when Fidel Castro decides to denounce a person or group.  

But while they were in Havana, heads of state and foreign ministers from ten nations met with opposition groups, and other leaders in attendance spoke out in favor of freedom of expression on the island. Many observers concluded that the Castro regime would no longer be able to disregard its internal opposition.

Still, on the streets of Santa Clara, where the prying Committees for the Defense of the Revolution operate, denial is the order of the day. Nothing is hidden; everyone knows what their neighbors are doing to survive, which usually is something illegal, but to acknowledge it can only bring trouble.

Between eight and nine o'clock each morning on Calle Real, a man's deep, mournful voice calls out. "Escoger," he slowly sings, repeating the word again and again, drawing out the syllables until they sound like blue notes. That's his only word, Spanish for choose. He's a neighborhood man advertising his freshly brewed coffee. The stingy state rations are of poor quality, and sometimes it's even hard to find decent coffee on the black market. So this gentleman has started a sort of mobile cafetería to make a few extra dollars. No doubt his coffee comes to him from another entrepreneur who likewise is unlicensed by the state.

Teresa Garcia Nuñez, who has lived for more than 40 years in this four-room apartment on Calle Real, doesn't pay the vendor any mind because she always has her own fairly good coffee. A stout, buxom woman of 61 years, her hair has gone a wiry gray and white but her caramel-color skin is still smooth. She wears a flowered housedress and sandals as she and husband, Calixto, warm up their kitchen's new gas stove -- a mysterious portable contraption purchased with dollars sent from Miami by the elder of their two sons, Alfredo. (All names used by members of this large family have been changed because they want their privacy preserved.)

A gleaming white refrigerator-freezer, made in China, is there courtesy of Alfredo's dollars, as is their 32-inch Sony color television and VCR. This oversize TV dominates the Nuñez living room, which opens onto the narrow raised sidewalk along Real. Passersby can see and hear the expensive video equipment through the apartment's slatted windows, or through the front door, which Teresa and Calixto have no concern about leaving open. Most of their neighbors must make do with old black-and-white sets and appliances in use since the Fifties, but the Nuñezes don't feel constrained to hide their possessions; home burglaries are not unheard of, they say, but delinquency of any kind is rare around here. Crimes against persons, that is. Offenses against the state are another matter. Just about everything is a crime against the state.

From the kitchen Teresa and Calixto hear a rap at the front door, and Calixto rises from his seat at the table, where for the past few hours he's been sorting unroasted coffee beans. The beans, different shades of gray and smelling like dirt, were harvested in the Escambray and transported to Santa Clara, where Calixto bought a kilo from a black marketeer on the street. Picking out pebbles and other debris from the puny beans, he shakes his gray head dispassionately and comments every now and then: "No, it's not good coffee."

Outside the door is one of the many black-market vendors who make their rounds of the neighborhood. This man is selling beef, a practice forbidden to private citizens and punishable with jail time. Calixto gives him a U.S. dollar for about a pound of what will turn out to be thin, tender strips of sirloin. He carries the package (wrapped in an edition of Vanguardia) back to Teresa, who places it in the freezer. By the end of the day Calixto will have finished sorting the coffee beans and begun roasting them slowly in a wide pan over a medium gas flame.

Teresa and Calixto, who is 65 years old, both were born in Santa Clara and grew up in the same neighborhood, not far from where they live now. They married young; Teresa was only fourteen. In those days, the early Fifties, because they are black they weren't even allowed to take a romantic stroll in Santa Clara's scenic central square. The town's population of about 150,000 was racially and economically segregated.

That changed after the revolution, though, and the Nuñezes' three girls and two boys grew up with opportunities unknown to their parents. All five children have earned university degrees and work in white-collar professions. That used to mean security and prosperity for the whole family, before the early Nineties brought the collapse of the Soviet Union and subsequent disintegration of the Cuban economy. Nowadays a professional, who earns the equivalent of about $20 per month in pesos, has no hope of supporting a family without some access to dollars. Thus physicians become hotel waiters and geologists drive tourist taxis. One of the Nuñezes' grandsons, eighteen-year-old Pedro, learned half-decent English last year working at a luxury resort hotel in Varadero Beach, about 90 miles to the northwest. Now married and father to a young son, Pedro is back in his hometown working as a plumber. Not only is he making less money, he's also suffering from the so-called yanqui virus: He loves everything American and nothing Cuban, and he lives with a nagging urge to follow all the other Cubans who've made it to la yuma, the golden land where Air Supply and Bryan Adams are on the radio, not this salsa shit.  

Teresa and Calixto have applied for tourist visas so they can visit their son and other relatives who live in Miami, but the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, where they and everyone else seeking permission to visit the United States must travel, repeatedly has denied their requests. "They think we're going to stay," Teresa says, "because Alfredo is there." She shakes her head and glances at the ceiling, insisting unconvincingly that she and Calixto absolutely do not want to live in the United States. "Ni modo," she concludes. ("What can you do?") She resumes mashing together garlic, onion, salt, cumin, and culantro: a seasoning for the black-market lobster thawing in the refrigerator.

One of the Nuñezes' daughters, Cecilia, a physical therapist, drops by later with her husband, Ramon, and their two children. After a dinner of lobster, congri, fried boniato, and okra, everyone repairs to the living room to watch TV.

I'm looking forward to two programs: tonight's telenovela and Cuba Demanda, an hourlong courtroom drama bearing no resemblance to Judge Judy. Cuba Demanda is the televised presentation of evidence in a civil lawsuit brought by Cuba against the United States. The suit, filed last June in Havana, demands $181 billion in compensation for attacks on Cuba and against Fidel Castro. It is a response to the lawsuit brought in U.S. district court by relatives of three Cuban exiles who, while on a 1996 mission for Brothers to the Rescue, were shot down by Cuban MiG fighters. (In 1997 Judge James Lawrence King awarded the plaintiffs $187.6 million, though they haven't been able to collect.) For one hour every weeknight, witnesses testify before a tribunal. One fascinating program outlined scores of plots to kill Castro, naming the Miami-based individuals and organizations allegedly responsible. It was a perfect illustration of the two-sides-of-one-coin that is Cuba and Miami: Men who in el exilio are patriots and heroes (Tony Varona, Andres Nazario, Orlando Bosch, Tony Bryant) in Castro's Cuba become traitors and assassins. The sheer number and variety of plots were amazing; how could so many people fail so many times to kill one man?

Cuba Demanda's time slot is 8:00 p.m., and the novela starts at 9:00. Cubans already know everything presented on Cuba Demanda (it's part of school curricula), so they don't pay much attention; during the soap, though, streets are deserted and phones go unanswered. A foreign-produced series alternates weeknights with a Cuban novela. This evening we're anticipating the closing episode of Café con Aroma de Mujer, a Colombian scorcher reaching its tortuously romantic finale.

But we have to wait. There are just two television channels in Cuba, and this household doesn't have a satellite dish, which is illegal in any case. Both channels are broadcasting live from the National Assembly hall in Havana. Fidel and regional officials are reviewing, as they have been for the past several weeks, post-Hurricane Irene recovery efforts. The storm tore through Cuba last October 14, downing trees and power lines, smashing houses, flooding crops. More than 2000 people were left homeless, according to one report, most in Havana province. Now public-works chiefs stand one after another before el comandante en jefe to inform him of the progress on all fronts and to praise him for his clear-sighted leadership during the days of crisis.

The minutes drag by in the National Assembly, past 8:30, then 9:00, with no sign that Fidel is close to wrapping up for the night. Teresa and Calixto, already in their pajamas and robes, express neither annoyance nor surprise. They sit staring at the screen with a look that suggests something between contentment and catatonia. After 40 years as a captive audience to Castro's interminable speeches, they apparently have developed an extraordinary tolerance for monotony.

An official is reporting on the number of downed trees in the capital. "We are in the process of clearing the parks," he notes. "Then as soon as possible we will replace the trees that won't grow back -- "  

"But we must give the trees highest priority," Castro interjects with a finger wag, catching the bureaucrat off guard. "Maintaining our vegetation is so important for the environment, for the society our children will inherit." He pauses, looking hurt. "Why have the trees not been replaced?"

"We are working as quickly as we can, comandante," the official explains.

"We must do a better job," Castro insists, shaking his head emphatically.

By now I would welcome any programming change, even a Tampax or Claritin commercial. At about 9:45 Cecilia and Ramon and their children pile into Ramon's smoke-spewing cargo truck (useful for his construction/handyman business) and drive home.

At 10:00 Teresa begins to snore lightly. At 11:00 I go to the kitchen for another glass of Nestlé Quik with milk, then give up and go to bed. Teresa and Calixto are still comfortably seated in their chairs in front of the TV. The next morning, bemused by my lack of endurance, they report that the hurricane conference ended shortly after 11:00. Then Café con Aroma de Mujer came on. Cuba Demanda never did run that night, but there was no way even Fidel could keep a good telenovela off the air.

Entertainment in Santa Clara is not completely lacking. Dramas, musicals, and dance programs regularly travel from Havana to the exquisite 114-year-old Caridad Theater on the town's central square. Santa Clara also has its own philharmonic orchestra that performs in the Caridad. The pianist for that orchestra is Freida Anido, whose family has been prominent in the arts in the province for generations, and whose name is known by practically everyone in Santa Clara. Freida spent seven years in Havana during the late Eighties and Nineties, playing jazz and pop piano in concert halls, restaurants, and hotel lounges. She decided to move back to Santa Clara about three years ago, but continues to appear at festivals and special events around the island. A friend in Havana had urged me to visit her, and even wrote a letter of introduction, though he didn't know her address. Teresa and Calixto seemed impressed that I was to meet the musician, and Teresa thought her younger sister, Amarylis, who works at the bank downtown and has a lot of artsy friends, would know where Freida lives.

Late the next morning Teresa and I walk a few blocks west to Carretera Central, Santa Clara's main street that leads straight to the central square where Amarylis works. We pass a giant grinning face of revolutionary hero Camilo Cienfuegos painted on a warehouse wall, past vintage Spanish-colonial hotels and bars, the bus terminal serving the provinces, and on to the heart of the city. Taxis pass continually; some are cars but most are horse-drawn wagons with passengers bouncing on benches behind the driver.

The bank, next door to the Camilo Cienfuegos Theater and 100 yards from the Caridad Theater, is one of several venerable edifices set like monumental chess pieces around the square. The bank's interior retains much of its Fifties and Sixties furniture and ambiance. It is air-conditioned and spotless. A uniformed guard ushers Teresa and me into the lobby and seats us on a maroon leather sofa. Amarylis appears after a few minutes. She is the youngest of six sisters, born some fifteen years after Teresa. Her softly waved black hair frames her dark oval face like a wreath.

Yes, she is certain Freida Anido lives near the square, but she's not sure in which apartment. So we walk across the park, past a tall monument and bust commemorating Marta Abreu, a philanthropist of the 1800s who funded the construction of the Caridad Theater and worked throughout her life for educational and charitable causes. Townspeople seem to hold Abreu in as much esteem as more modern heroes, and a section of Carretera Central is named after her.

Cespedes Street branches off from a corner of the square, just wide enough for two cars to pass inches from each other. Raised sidewalks on either side of the street allow people to pass single file. Amarylis knocks on a sunbleached blue door and an elderly woman opens it. "Excuse me, señora, but which house is Freida Anido's?" she asks.

"It must be the one on the next block, just past that yellow car," the woman points.

There's no answer when we knock on what we think is the right door. As we're walking away we hear a voice above us. It's an elderly man leaning over a wrought-iron railing on a tiny balcony. "Oh, you have to push the second buzzer," he calls. "Not that one, no, the white one under it." Still no response. "I guess they're not home," the man says. "I think they're out of town." So we head back to the square.  

"I'll find her," Amarylis promises, "by the end of the week."

And sure enough, two mornings later Amarylis's husband, Josue, drives up Calle Real in his beautifully maintained 1958 Chrysler, which is painted a peculiar shade of vivid blue, almost turquoise, common in Cuba but not seen in the United States. "Freida says she'll be waiting for you at ten o'clock," Josue happily announces with a wide smile that stops just short of being a leer.

Josue volunteers to chauffeur me to Freida's; it's Saturday, so he doesn't have to go to his building-maintenance job. We head downtown, swerving from the occasional pothole, and before long arrive at the musician's home. Freida Anido's linoleum-floor apartment, more spacious than is apparent from the doorways lining the street outside, is in some ways a shrine to the innovative jazz that flowered in Cuba in the Seventies and Eighties. This is largely because Reinaldo Gomez Ruiz has a great love of the genre. A tall, saturnine man with a black mustache and milky skin, Reinaldo is Freida's ex-husband and long-time musical collaborator. He still plays bass in the Freida Anido Trio, maintains a part-time residence in her apartment, and acts as an informal manager, something the absent-minded pianist appears to need.

In the apartment Reinaldo proudly shows off a collection of hundreds of vinyl LPs recorded by the island's most important jazz musicians (as well as other types of distinctly Cuban music, such as trova). Because of Cuba's long isolation from the United States, many of these artists are unfamiliar to American ears: Emiliano Salvador, Felipe Dulzaides, Bobby Carcasses, Orlando Lopez. Reinaldo can no longer play the albums, however. What was twenty years ago a state-of-the-art turntable sits broken on a shelf with no parts available to fix it.

Reinaldo worked in Havana for more than a decade, most of the time with Freida's trio. He and the group's percussionist, Julio Contreras, stay busy playing two-man gigs in hotels in addition to their appearances with Freida and other irregular jobs. But Reinaldo exudes restlessness and admits his professional future is limited. "We can't get a visa to play outside Cuba," he complains. "The [Cuban] salsa musicians tour all over the world, and some of them have become very rich, but no one notices us."

If Freida, now in her late forties, feels locked into musical anonymity, she doesn't say so. She obviously is a private person, given to self-revelation only through her music. "I'm not that ambitious, really," she allows, resting for a moment on a wire-backed chair in her living room. Having just finished washing dishes and making coffee in the kitchen, she fruitlessly tries to smooth her wild red hair. She wears a sleeveless blouse and dark skirt, both almost colorless with age. "I could have stayed in Havana," she goes on in a soft voice, "but I missed my children, and Santa Clara is my home."

Lately the Freida Anido Trio has been playing Saturday nights at El Bosque, a spacious, lushly landscaped indoor/outdoor bar and restaurant that was closed for years and recently has been revived by a Havana businessman. The trio's repertoire consists of Cuban pop ballads and jazz standards. "That's not my forte," Freida offers. "I'm really a classical pianist -- Chopin, Beethoven, you know. But I don't mind working in all kinds of music." She pauses, looking around distractedly. "What I plan to do is open a piano bar on the square. There's a space that used to be a bar but it's been closed for several years. Naturally I'm going to call it Freida's. That will be nice."

That evening at El Bosque a full moon fairly blazes in the clear sky. A thick growth of palms, mangoes, and other tropical trees and vines ring a multileveled outdoor courtyard. Above a wide concrete dance floor rises a covered stage. El Bosque's weekend shows are a Cuban variation on Sabado Gigante: Comedians joke about the bizarre economy, racial stereotypes, and very obliquely about politics; kids do acrobatic tricks on moving bicycles; performers sing and dance; audience members compete in name-that-tune contests. As Freida's guest I don't have to pay admission; otherwise it would have cost roughly ten dollars for foreigners. Cubans shell out 80 pesos (about two dollars) per person, which covers the entertainment, beer or rum, a can of Tropi-cola, and dinner (choice of chicken or pork). Eighty pesos is a more than a week's salary for most working people, but everyone agrees it's reasonable.  

The Freida Anido trio will play two sets of about four numbers each. Freida, at an electric piano, is an assertive, polished musician, gliding effortlessly from thick, complex chords to staccato runs. But true to her unassuming personality, she isn't flashy. The trio warms up with a lively jazz tune that doesn't seem to interest the audience, which is engaged in eating and conversation. Then a "guest" vocalist (who sings with the trio every show), a tall, plump young woman in a black sequined tunic, walks on to the dance floor. She sings two pop ballads that every Cuban surely knows by heart: "Tu, Mi Delirio" and "Si Me Comprendieras."

Freida's accompaniment is a singer's delight, subtle and supportive. She takes a solo in the middle of each number while the singer moseys among the tables and flirts with the men. When she departs the floor, another guest vocalist, a middle-age man, comes on for another two numbers. The man has a great baritone but seems vocally restrained, a little hesitant. Reinaldo tells me later that several years ago this singer serenaded the whole nation as a regular on a musical variety program. Lately, though, he hasn't been working much.

After the trio's second set, Freida and company are ready to go home; they won't stay for the remainder of the evening's entertainment. Reinaldo and Julio have a noontime hotel job tomorrow, and after all, how interesting is it to observe night after night of tipsy audience members trying to remember the words to obscure boleros?

The next afternoon I take a stroll downtown with the Nuñezes' younger son, Miguel, his wife, Maria Celeste, and their five-year-old son, Eliseo. It's actually a hike of at least two miles each way, which is no big deal to people accustomed to walking everywhere. Miguel, who is 35 years old, likes to dress in patterned silk shirts and creased slacks, and always appears freshly shaved and perfumed. He has passed along to his son large downturned eyes and a questioning brow. An economist, he surely has the most thankless job anyone in Cuba could have today. He helps develop economic plans for various state industries, but isn't eager to speculate about what might be done to repair the nation's economy. Rather he just shakes his head and mumbles something about long-term solutions. When it comes to difficult subjects, Miguel isn't exactly a typical Cuban. Instead of breaking out a bottle of rum and debating endlessly for the sheer love of talking, he quietly avoids discussion.

But neither he nor his wife is blind to the surreal nature of their daily lives, such as the dollar boutiques that resell clothes donated to the government by international aid organizations, or the high-quality, state-manufactured medicines that are exported to other countries while Cubans have no aspirin. Miguel and Maria Celeste, however, are loath to abandon all hope for the revolution. They're not so discontented that they'd erase their history.

Maria Celeste's bronze hair is cut close to her head, and she wears a straight lavender skirt, white lace-trimmed blouse, and low-heeled beige pumps. She looks like the secondary school teacher she is, charged with keeping revolutionary values alive in the hearts of her young students. Like Teresa and Calixto, Maria Celeste and Miguel have known each other most of their lives. After receiving her degree in education from the University of Havana, Maria Celeste was sent to a village in the Escambray for a mandatory rural teaching stint. Following that obligation, nearly seven years ago, she and Miguel were married.

That was at the height of the so-called special period of extreme scarcity. Today Maria Celeste complains bitterly about not being able to buy her son proper shoes, not being able to buy herself new clothes, about not having enough soap or cooking oil or other household necessities. "I love my family," she says. "I'm willing to sacrifice for them, but it's not right that we work so hard and it doesn't bring us any benefit." She is convinced that the U.S. trade embargo bears a lot of the responsibility for her suffering, simply because Cuba doesn't have access to the good-quality, relatively cheap goods the United States buys and sells. But she's not holding me personally responsible.

At the town square a contingent from the Santa Clara philharmonic is tuning up under a gazebo for its traditional Sunday-evening miniconcert. It will play the Cuban national anthem and other march-tempo numbers. There are lots of students in the square this Sunday, as usual; many are awaiting the arrival of buses to transport them back to live-in technical schools elsewhere in the province. Others are out with their parents because it's the traditional place to be on Sundays. Some are looking for tourists to hustle.  

As the sun sets, a chilly breeze comes up. The rustling leaves of the old trees in the square cast flitting shadows over the old men in their best guayaberas lolling on benches. In front of the imposing Camilo Cienfuegos Theater, Maria Celeste points high up on the façade. "See?" she calls to Eliseo, who is dancing a few steps ahead of his parents. "Can you see the bullet holes in the wall there? Che made them a long time ago. Remember why he made them?"

"He was shooting," Eliseo answers sensibly, leaping from curb to street and back up to the sidewalk.

"Right. Che was driving the bad men out of the building." Maria Celeste hesitates a split second after she says bad, as though wondering if she might be speaking too strongly in front of an American. We pass the Caridad Theater, and a block away down a side street is a Rapi-Perro, our final destination for the evening. As its name implies, Rapi-Perro is a fast-food joint offering, among other items, perros calientes (hot dogs). These places are all over Havana, and now they've come to the provinces.

We line up at a red counter under fluorescent lights and peer at the food photos affixed to the wall: fried chicken with fries, five varieties of Cuban-style pizza, ham or ham-and-cheese sandwiches, perros. Prices are in U.S. dollars only and are roughly what they'd be in Miami, from about two or three dollars for a sandwich to five for a quarter fried chicken and French fries. That's definitely a big expense for a Cuban family, yet many splurge if they can. But the truth is, Cubans come to Rapi-Perro for the ice cream. It's impossible for them to resist ordering a small carton. Tonight the vanilla and chocolate are sold out, leaving only strawberry.

Seating consists of the typical fast-food plastic-table-and-bench arrangement. The restaurant's two entrances open on to side streets, and people are continuously shortcutting through the room -- young families, old and young couples, groups of students in school uniforms or athletic clothes. Miguel and Maria Celeste know some of the passersby, who stop at our table to exchange small talk.

The fried chicken we asked for has been delayed because the chicken must be defrosted, so we plunge tiny green plastic spoons into our ice cream. It too is frozen rock-hard but quick to soften. While we're savoring it, a little girl clutching a carton of chocolate ice cream, chocolate all over her face and lacy pink dress, wanders over to our table. She turns her gaze on Eliseo, waves her little spoon, and gurgles knowingly: "I got the last chocolate."

It's late when we get back to the apartment on Calle Real. Cecilia and Ramon and Amarylis and Josue are there, along with Pedro and his wife and baby, neighbors, cousins, and more children. A typical Sunday evening. The front door is open and a long-running dramatization of the revolutionary war in the Sierra Maestra is on TV. Some of the adults occasionally glance at it as they talk about how, when, and at what price they can acquire mundane items such as clothes or food. Barefoot boys in the unlit street are playing a game that involves much yelping and dashing.

Tomorrow the work week begins. Again they'll be reminded that everything is difficult: getting to and from the job, dealing with tedium and lack of resources at work, figuring out how to fix a bicycle when tires are impossible to find, or patch the roof using only pieces of cloth and plywood. But they'll remember they've got each other, and they've got some dollars coming in. And they'll be okay.

Soon about a dozen men, women, and children will manage to squeeze into Josue's Chrysler, and he'll drive them home.

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