In Havana, On Drugs

Arcs of water crash over the sea wall protecting the Cuban coast and splash onto the asphalt roadway, endangering cyclists and the stray Soviet-built Lada. On any other Thursday night, the nocturnal denizens of Havana's Malec centsn would have already staked their claims. Lovers, hustlers, adolescent rockers, hippies, penniless professionals, poets, and guitar strummers would have found their place along the cool concrete esplanade. The air would be full of soft notes and whispers. Ron. Merca. Yerba.

But tonight's stormy weather has dampened Havana's best-known open-air drug bazaar. There's not a rum bootlegger in sight, much less a jibaro with prewrapped packets of cocaine and marijuana. Even the prescription pills, popped mostly by younger kids seeking a quick and cheap high, are in short supply among the handful of soggy teenagers hanging out across the street, in front of the disco at the Hotel Riviera.

Sitting in a borrowed car, Tigre considers the prospects. The eighteen-year-old had been hoping to find some black-market drugs to fuel the celebration of his friend Andres's 22nd birthday, begun earlier that afternoon on a sooty avenue in Vedado, a formerly upper-class residential neighborhood. A group of six young men had gathered outside a boarded-up storefront and passed around a clear glass bottle of bathtub-brewed aguardiente, congratulating Andres amid stifled grimaces. By midnight half the group has drifted off in search of other entertainment. The three remaining revelers A Tigre, Andres, and Rodolfo, are joined by a female friend named Tatiana. She cuddles with Andres in the back seat while Tigre plots his strategy.

The roadway shimmers obsidian in the car's headlights. Tigre's head bobs with the combined weight of drug-procurement responsibilities and alcohol saturation. "Let's go to Johnny's," he finally announces, indicating a Havana nightclub in the posh district of Miramar, about a mile away.

Officially renamed the Rio Club after it was briefly shut down in an unsuccessful effort to deter drug trafficking, Johnny's is a favorite nightspot among a growing group of Cubans who can afford the five-dollar entrance fee (roughly equivalent to a month's salary for a recent college graduate) and still have money left over to buy drinks and drugs. This assures that the clientele is fairly homogenous, consisting predominantly of employees of the tourism industry and black-market entrepreneurs.

Tigre falls into the latter group. Until a few months ago A by his own account at least A he was one of the most popular drug dealers in Nuevo Vedado, a middle-class neighborhood of multilevel, concrete apartment buildings and Fifties-style single-family homes that follow the meandering path of the Almendares River. He had started using pills when he was thirteen years old at the urging of an older cousin, and soon began trafficking in pharmaceuticals. Then he graduated to harder drugs, buying cocaine, known on the island as merca, from a contact in Santos Suarez, a blighted neighborhood a few miles from the port. (In order to protect the identity of individuals interviewed for this article, last names have not been used. Most first names have been changed and some identifying details have been altered.)

"I take drugs every day," boasts Tigre, who explains that his nickname is lifted from the title of a popular novel, Sandokan, El tigre de la Malasia. Tigre laughingly describes himself as "king of the farmacia." "I can't live without drugs," he continues. "When I go out, I have to find drugs, because without them, I don't have a good time. All the kids do drugs. If they don't, they're fools."

Recent conversations with Cuba's increasingly disaffected youth confirm the prevalence of drug use among certain segments of the population. While alienated young people (known variously as rockeros, frikis, or pepillos) make no attempt to hide their enthusiasm for getting high, it is the more discreet users A factory workers who smoke pot in the evening, artists who snort cocaine for a burst of energy A who make up local drug dealers' principal customer base.

Although the Cuban drug business is minuscule by American standards, its very existence on an island where virtually every facet of life has been controlled by the government raises intriguing questions: How do drugs get to the island in the first place? Who controls their distribution? Is the government involved? Answers are difficult to ascertain.

Tigre claims to never have probed the source of his own supply. "Esto, nunca se sabe," he explains. No one ever knows exactly where the drugs originate. While marijuana is believed to be grown in remote areas of the Oriente and Pinar del Rio provinces, cocoa is neither cultivated nor processed in Cuba. Three dominant theories are offered to explain the source of Cuban cocaine: Tourists are assumed to smuggle in small quantities through the airport; a certain amount of cocaine is fished from the sea, leftovers of sloppy transfers between Colombian planes and speedboats bound for Florida; and over the years, persistent rumors, mostly originating in South Florida, have held that the Castro government itself has been involved in narcotrafficking.

Those rumors came to a head in April 1993, when the Miami Herald reported that the U.S. Attorney's Office had prepared a draft indictment alleging that Raul Castro, the Cuban president's younger brother, and fourteen other high-ranking Cuban military and intelligence officers conspired with Colombia's Medellin Cartel to ship at least 7.5 tons of cocaine through Cuba between 1980 and 1990. According to the Herald, the seventeen-page document stated, "In return for substantial sums of money, Raul Castro exploited his official position by offering narcotics traffickers the safe use of Cuba, including Cuban airspace, as a location for the transshipment of multihundred-kilogram loads of cocaine destined for the United States."

The charges, which were based largely on grand jury testimony provided by former Medellin Cartel operative Carlos Lehder, rang with echoes of the notorious 1989 Ochoa trial, in which the Castro government accused Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa, Col. Antonio "Tony" de la Guardia, Brig. Gen. Patricio de la Guardia, and eleven others of drug trafficking and corruption. All pleaded guilty. Ochoa, Tony de la Guardia, and two other senior officials were executed. The rest received lengthy prison sentences.

During the trial, parts of which were broadcast on Cuban television, government prosecutors denounced Tony de la Guardia and Ochoa for having contacted the Medellin Cartel, and in the case of de la Guardia, for having agreed to let the traffickers transship cocaine through the island. Ochoa and the de la Guardia brothers specifically denied that Fidel and Raul Castro had any knowledge of their activities, though many observers found that difficult to believe. Still, all efforts to definitively link Fidel Castro or his brother to drug trafficking have failed thus far. According to Thomas Cash, former DEA special agent in charge in Miami, the case against Raul Castro never achieved the level of proof necessary for a formal indictment.

Even if the case could be made, it would be one thing to establish that the Castro brothers had agreed to allow drug traffickers to operate in their national territory and quite another to prove that the Cuban government is overseeing cocaine distribution in Havana. "When we talk about people using drugs in Cuba, this is sort of an oxymoron," Cash observes. "My feeling is that Cuba is still a totalitarian state and that drug use by anyone could be used against them."

This is a common perception -- that the ubiquitous Committees in Defense of the Revolution (neighborhood organizations that keep an eye on unrevolutionary behavior) and the country's extensive system of informers would discourage drug use. Yet the case of Carlos, a 30-year-old actor who became a cocaine addict, reveals that human weaknesses are actually more powerful than an Orwellian environment.

In 1986 Carlos was being trained by state security to be an informant. His friend Sergio knew it, but said nothing, just as Carlos knew that Sergio smoked dope. Their mutual silence lasted more than a year, then one day Sergio invited Carlos to smoke. "I remember we went to a house in Vedado," Carlos recalls. "I waited at the corner while Sergio went inside. Later I found out that inside the house was another friend of ours, and his brother made a living by selling pot. Sergio came out a few minutes later with two marijuana cigarettes and I remember we started walking back to my house and I decided to start smoking in the middle of the street. I don't know why. I was just in the mood. We even passed by a police car and smoked in front of the car. That was the joke of the night."

Now an exile in Miami, Carlos says he continued to smoke for a few years, even though marijuana gave him a headache. It wasn't until three years later, when he was working on a film produced by some students at the International Film School in Miramar, that he had found the drug he still refers to as "un amor," a love.

The students, who included cinematographers from Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and Colombia, had finished filming and retired to a house to celebrate. "Suddenly from a small room a group of people called out to me and all of a sudden, there was a table and a guy with a razor blade, one of those shitty ones made in the Soviet Union called Sputnik or Astra. He was cutting up cocaine. Really, I felt like I was in a movie. At that moment, whether for reasons of ego, immaturity, or a million other things, you don't admit that you don't know what you're doing."

Someone passed Carlos a plastic straw, and imitating those around him, he sniffed up a line. "From that day I couldn't abandon cocaine," he says, speaking in the South Beach apartment of a friend. "The truth is, I became eternally infatuated with cocaine. Even today I live with these feelings of love for cocaine. What has happened is that I realize it's a love that kills."

In one sense, Carlos was lucky: The onset of his cocaine addiction coincided with the Ochoa trials. Fearing increased police activity, skittish dealers dumped huge amounts of cocaine on the market. A fingernail's worth of coke (una u*a, a common Cuban drug measurement), which previously had cost $50, suddenly was selling for $10. Then Carlos discovered it was even more economical to buy cocoa paste, pasta basica, and transform it into powder himself. "I learned this process," he explains today, "because Cuban cocaine has a tendency to be mixed with crushed aspirin or other pills."

Carlos usually would buy a small package of pasta basica for ten dollars. After he cooked it and ground it down, the paste yielded about four film canisters' worth of powder. Although the price of the paste eventually rose to $100, Carlos's addiction remained affordable. (He also acquired the habit of stashing the film canisters, a small tube, a mirror, and a knife in the fanny pack he had been issued during his military service. Originally intended to store a gas mask and filters, Carlos says the pack was ideally suited for drug paraphernalia.)

Long a taboo subject among officials touting the purity and innocence of the revolution, drug use in Cuba had been vehemently denied until this past June, when Cuban Justice Minister Carlos Amat, in an interview with the magazine Bohemia, admitted that narcotraffickers had been attempting to "infiltrate Cuba and organize here from within." In response, Amat declared, Cuba was engaging in "an all-out war against drug traffickers A from the patrolling of the coasts and the border troops' tasks to the surveillance of our ports and airports by customs officers."

Cuban anti-narcotics efforts were recognized in a 1994 U.S. State Department report on international narcotics control. According to the report, the Cuban government has been cooperating with U.S. efforts to stem drug trafficking in the Caribbean on an ad-hoc basis and "continues to give a high profile to its anti-drug policies." However, the report adds, "continuing shortages of fuel and essential spare parts limit the Cuban government's ability to interdict drug trafficking."

What Cuban officials delicately refer to as "the economic situation" A and what residents on the island call un desastre (a disaster) A has contributed to increased drug use in more subtle ways, as well. Not only has the economic crisis robbed Cuban youth of their hopes for the future, it also has prompted many to embark on lives of crime, including drug dealing.

Depending on his mood and how much alcohol he's consumed, Tigre likes to refer to the situation on the island as un fen centsmeno (a phenomenon), a phrase he rolls around in his mouth with ironic delight, or una mierda (so much shit), which he spits out with disgust. "I want to leave here," he says with desperation. "I want to leave and sink this place to the bottom of the sea."

Slight and stoop-shouldered, with a snaggle-tooth grin and sorrowful brown eyes, Tigre's bedraggled appearance seems to belie his claim to being a major player in Havana's underworld. The only son of a single mother, he learned to look out for himself at a young age. Today he lives with his grandmother, aunt, uncle, and two cousins in a windowless one-room apartment off a noisy thoroughfare. His father, whom he dismisses as a "closed communist," lives in another province and hasn't been in touch with his son for seven years. "He doesn't care about anyone," Tigre says, "but my mother, yeah, she cares about me." His mother, however, is forced to stay with relatives in a different part of Havana because his grandmother's apartment is so small. (Makeshift partitions A a bookshelf, a piece of cloth A provide an illusion of privacy. Not long ago the only lamp in the apartment burned out, intensifying the gloom.)

As the car approaches Johnny's, Tigre reveals that he is currently too broke to purchase drugs for resale. But the reasons for this are fuzzy. On the one hand, Tigre maintains that his supplier got him in trouble with his customers by diluting his cocaine with white bicarbonate powder. On the other, he says he was just too nice a guy A treating everyone to rum, giving his friends a break on drug prices. "The money I invested, it was all wasted," he laments. "I know other dealers who have moved up in life. They own their own house, their own car. And for being a guy who gives everything away, I'm left with nothing." Tigre points to his beatup sneakers. "I have these tenis because I stole them from someone. I have these jeans because I stole so much from my work."

Tigre's 21-year-old friend Rodolfo is equally candid about his criminal activity. "I had to steal from the state in order to be able to buy clothes," he admits. He and Tigre currently are employed as construction workers, though they readily admit their desire for a steady job has nothing to do with the paltry salary they're paid in Cuban pesos. It's the other perks they want A the opportunity to swipe paint and coveted building materials.

Rodolfo affects the style of a high school jock -- black high-top sneakers, black sweat pants, and a T-shirt -- which translates to chic in Cuban fashion because the clothing, purchased at dollar stores, comes from the United States.

Whether he's stealing from the Cuban state or from his own family, Rodolfo excuses the thievery (known in Havana slang as tumbar dinero) as a necessary element of survival. During high school, he explains, he took money from his mother and grandmother in order to buy marijuana. He finally was kicked out of the house and only recently allowed to return. After being arrested for burglary this past December, he insists he's going to stay clean.

Rodolfo is the first among his group of friends to have gone to jail, and although he was locked up for only three days and then given one year probation after pleading guilty, the incident is clearly troubling. Theft has become commonplace; to be arrested and actually punished for it seems to have shocked Rodolfo and the others. "Everybody steals in this country," Tigre says defiantly. "If you don't steal, you don't have anything." But Tigre adds that, in the wake of Rodolfo's arrest, he has stopped going to the Malec centsn. Both claim to have given up cocaine because of the risk and expense.

The Cuban government tightened its drug laws in June of last year. Under the penal code, simple possession of marijuana carries a jail term of six months to two years, while possession of cocaine can lead to sentences of up to three years. Anyone trafficking in drugs or growing marijuana can be jailed for four to ten years. Those who fail to report knowledge of drug dealing can receive a sentence of six months to two years. However, some sentences have been known to exceed official guidelines. All Cubans are familiar with the 30-year sentence given to Brig. Gen. Patricio de la Guardia, who was found guilty during the Ochoa trials of failing to denounce his brother for drug trafficking.

Last summer, soon after the new drug laws were announced, police began to crack down on both dealers and users along the Malec centsn. According to Tigre and others, the authorities brought along drug-sniffing dogs to assist in searches. After that, Tigre says, many people grew wary; they stopped hanging out at the coastal wall and began retiring to the steamy street corners of their inland neighborhoods.

Although the drug dealers and black marketeers have returned to the seaside avenue, blatant consumption has been replaced by caution. On rainy nights like tonight, scoring drugs seems about as likely as stumbling across an all-night 7-Eleven.

Parking briefly outside Johnny's, a squarish building set among pine trees near the Almendares River, Tigre and his friends have no better luck. The disco is virtually empty, and the residential neighborhood surrounding it A home to diplomats, foreign correspondents, and government think tanks A holds little promise in the way of illicit substances. Tigre and Rodolfo consult. They decide to settle for a bottle of black-market rum, obtained from a nearby gas station.

Drug use is hardly new to Cuban culture. The revered Cuban patriot Jose Marti, whose framed likeness adorns homes from Hialeah to Havana, published an ode to hashish in 1875 in a Mexican magazine:

Y el buen haschish lo sabe
Y no entona jamas cantico grave.
Fiesta hace el cerebro,
Despierta en el imagenes galanas.

Marti praised hashish for unleashing a fiesta in the brain, for knowing the song of the morning, for revealing the mystery of the blue sky and the murmurings of a restless river. In the poem, his enthusiasm for hashish is unequivocal.

Despite Castro's fondness for larding his speeches with references to Marti, this particular poem is prudently avoided by the revolutionary government. "I believe that Cuba has the most impeccable conduct in the world regarding drugs," Castro said in a 1990 interview with CNN's Ted Turner. "Our country does not consume drugs. We might have exceptional cases of drug consumption because marijuana, for instance, can be harvested in a room the size of this one. Our country has no experience with cocaine consumption. It does not exist. I believe that if all countries would do what Cuba did with respect to drugs, the drug problem would not exist in the world."

In fact, with the exception of the 1989 Ochoa trial and a few highly publicized arrests of foreigners, the Cuban government has released very little information about its activities "with respect to drugs." And because Cuba's domestic drug problem is not officially recognized, major drug busts in Havana or in the outlying provinces usually are not reported by the government-controlled press. Arrests of major traffickers do eventually become known through chisme, Cuba's highly efficient gossip network, but it is virtually impossible to confirm details. For example, the breakup of the Milanes drug ring in 1992 acquired near mythic status in the drug lore of contemporary Havana, though no information appeared in the Cuban media.

The Milanes brothers -- Conrad, Ernesto, and Marco -- were said to be the sons of a high-ranking intelligence officer, and reportedly controlled a far-flung cocaine-distribution system, concentrated in the area known as Playa, which includes some of the city's wealthiest neighborhoods: Miramar, Atabey, Cubanacan.

Marco Antonio Abad, a Cuban filmmaker now living in Miami, got to know the Milanes brothers in prison. Arrested in 1991 for filming the public beating of dissident poet Maria Elena Cruz Varela, Abad was transferred to Cuba's biggest prison, the Combinado del Este, in April 1992. At the time, all three Milanes brothers were there, as well. When they learned that Abad also hailed from Miramar, they arranged to protect him. "In Cuban prisons, people from the same neighborhoods look out for each other," explains Abad, adding that the first few months of incarceration are especially dangerous. "Ernesto gave me the cot above his and access to his food." Most importantly, Ernesto let it be known that Abad was to be left alone.

Although he was only about 25 years old, Ernesto Milanes was widely respected both within the prison and outside its walls. Says Abad: "In Cuba economic power converts itself to social power. [The brothers] could buy anything A shoes, clothing, food. They were very famous and closely linked to the cultural and social scene in Miramar."

Abad had heard of the Milanes brothers before his arrest, but he only learned the extent of their trafficking activities during the tedious hours spent in his prison cell. Ernesto, handsome and reckless, was accused of masterminding a narcotrafficking network that stretched from the slums of Central Havana to the luxury hotels of Varadero, the seaside tourist resort east of the city. Ernesto and his brothers were arrested in early 1992 after police raided their Miramar apartment and allegedly found cocaine on the roof.

Abad's wife Ana, who began car-pooling to the prison with the mother of the Milanes brothers several months after the arrests, recalls visiting their apartment, located across the street from the Mexican embassy. "It was a luxurious place full of mirrors," she remembers, "but the police had destroyed it. All the mirrors were broken. The mattresses had been ripped open."

During the time he shared his cell with Abad, Ernesto was awaiting sentencing after reportedly pleading guilty. "He always maintained that his brothers were innocent," Abad recounts.

While the image of a Miami-style drug lord operating in Cuba might seem incongruous (high-living and drug running under the noses of suspicious neighborhood watch committees?), the fact is that for a decade cocaine has been consistently available, though subject to fluctuation. According to a number of Havana drug users interviewed recently, the city's drug supply has mirrored that of Miami A becoming more plentiful in the mid-Eighties as some of the cocaine headed for South Florida ended up in Cuba, falling off as interdiction efforts intensified, and rising again in recent years, due in part to the growing number of foreign tourists.

Purchasing drugs in Havana is unexpectedly easy. All it takes is a basic knowledge of the system of puntos, places where contact is made with the representative of a drug dealer. These puntos can be a luxurious apartment in Miramar (as in the case of the Milanes brothers); a shack in El Fanguito, a squatters' community along the Almendares River; a contact at Parque Trillo in Central Havana; or a tenement (called a solar) along the pockmarked streets of Santos Suarez.

My first visit to a punto took place in 1992. A Cuban friend, eager for a few lines of cocaine, borrowed a motorcycle on a drowsy August afternoon and we headed off for Santos Suarez, dodging the occasional overloaded Hungarian bus and the couples riding double on bicycles built for one. From downtown Havana the trip took only about twenty minutes. We cruised past the chocolate factory on Via Blanca and turned into a neighborhood of crumbling houses. After rounding a few corners, we came to a halt in front of a large two-story building.

A group of men was lounging near the entrance. They wore T-shirts, shorts, and plastic sandals. A large man with a potbelly ambled over and greeted us. He agreed to watch the motorcycle as we went inside, where a short hallway opened onto an interior patio. A radio blared, pots clanged, a woman carried on a shrill, one-sided argument. Circling the patio was a passageway lined with doors. We walked past the common bathroom and sink shared by the residents of this solar and entered a door at the far end of the building.

"Que bola asere?" said a man as he rose slowly from a plasic chair.
"Que bola," responded my friend, in this ritual of Cuban slang. What's up, man?

"Ahi tranquilo." Everything's cool.
"Vengo a ver a Alfredo," my friend said.
"Okay. Pasa. Y esta, quien es?" The man pointed to me.
"Una amiga."

I stayed behind as my friend walked though a curtain of plastic baubles. After a few minutes, he emerged with the cocaine wrapped in a folded piece of paper A twenty U.S. dollars for two bottle caps of coke. (Scales are in short supply in Cuba, so the drug is measured by leveling off the aluminum caps used to seal domestic beer and bottled water. A bottle cap yields about ten to fifteen lines.)

Just a few weeks earlier Castro had attempted to address various social problems exacerbated by tourism A including drug use A in an address to the National Assembly. The July 11 speech began in vintage Castro style as he launched into a favorite theme: Social ills did not exist in socialist Cuba. "We had to accept tourism as an economic need, but we said that it will be a tourism free of drugs, free of brothels, free of prostitution, free of gambling," he thundered from the podium of the Havana Convention Center. "There is no cleaner, purer tourism than Cuba's tourism, because there is really no drug trafficking...."

Less than three years later I'm back in Havana, and Castro's pronouncements seem more ironic than ever. My friend Ricardo, a young writer, agrees to show me the network of puntos with which he is familiar. We begin by circling Trillo Park in Central Havana. A flat square of land with only a few trees, Trillo has long been favored by marijuana dealers and smokers. Its popularity predates Castro, and by all accounts is likely to outlast him. Still, the revolutionary government has driven most of the drug dealing out of the park and into the roach-infested apartment buildings nearby. "This guy doesn't sell cocaine by the gram," Ricardo quips, pointing to a tall building with jutting balconies. "He sells it by the kilogram."

Our tour continues as Ricardo indicates various houses in Central Havana and Havana Vieja, poor neighborhoods with historic links to crime, where he has witnessed various drug transactions. He insists he's never had the cash to actually pay for drugs himself, but he's certainly willing to forage for pot or cocaine if someone else foots the bill. Proceeding from the east side of the city to the west, he proposes that we visit a punto near Miramar. It's well past midnight, but Ricardo assures me the hour doesn't matter.

We pick up one of Ricardo's drug-savvy friends and end up at a three-story building with a boarded-up shop on the ground floor and apartments above. A clean-cut 24-year-old answers the door. He's cool and businesslike, pocketing my five dollars and producing a package of chocolate-colored marijuana. I poke at the weed. Soft and limp, redolent of damp cardboard, it doesn't look promising.

Reading my thoughts, the dealer interjects, "It's Colombian. The reason it smells musty is that my contact brought it to me in a package." His equally wholesome-looking girlfriend emerges sleepily from the bedroom. I inhale suspiciously. "It had a long way to travel," she adds.

Outside the apartment, Ricardo displays a dismaying eagerness to smoke. He takes out a sheet of paper A not the delicate rolling paper commonly used in the U.S., but thick construction paper A and rolls a long, skinny joint.

Sitting on his balcony overlooking the sea, Pedro observes that Cuban society has become "surrealistic" in the last few years. An openly gay 28-year-old who is comfortable with life on the fringe but who yearns to emigrate to the U.S., Pedro began using drugs a few years ago out of curiosity, although he grew up in an intellectual atmosphere (his father is a well-known artist) where drugs were readily available.

His first experience with cocaine came as an unexpected shock. He was having dinner with some friends in El Turquino, the cabaret atop of the Havana Libre (formerly the Havana Hilton). One of his companions, who was also a prostitute, took out a compact case full of cocaine. "She opened it up in front of a whole table full of people!" he recalls. "I said, 'This girl is crazy!' and I left." Since then he has become more accustomed to watching his friends snort coke, smoke hash, and pop pills. "Here, in actuality, there is a very, very large consumption of drugs of every type," Pedro says. "I can tell you that because I see it. Pills more than anything else. I know people who take pills every day." His personal drug of choice is Valium.

According to an article in Acento, the journal of the University of Havana, the pills most used by Cuban youth include Parkisonil, a medication for Parkinson's disease, and the barbiturates pentobarbital, phenobarbital, and secobarbital. The article, published in January 1994 and titled "Children of Slime," concludes that "the ingestion of medicine, because of its lack of magnitude, does not constitute a health problem for adolescents in Cuba. Nevertheless, addiction is an extremely harmful phenomenon and studies should be done to determine the principal characteristics of dependency on pharmaceuticals."

Although the pills are only available at state-run pharmacies and are thus theoretically under the strict control of the Cuban government, it is relatively easy to steal presigned doctors' prescriptions, says Tigre's friend Rodolfo. For example, Rodolfo's aunt happens to be a doctor, and he tries to make sure he has a few prescriptions prestamped with her authorized signature in case of emergencies.

The drugs, whose effects range from hyperactivity to hallucinations, represent an easy source of cash for teens who resell them. Though it only costs one or two pesos to purchase a package of twenty pills at a state pharmacy, the retail value on the street soars to five to ten times that amount. Recent shortages have made pills harder to come by, but Rodolfo maintains that those who know the system can still get them.

Waiting outside Tigre's house a few nights after the birthday celebration, Rodolfo elaborates on his latest pharmacological discovery: swallowing eye drops used by optometrists to dilate the pupils of their patients. "You feel like you're flying!" he exclaims. The drops have another advantage. Like prescription pills, they are available in Cuban pesos, while cocaine and marijuana are sold in U.S. dollars only. Even so, the cost adds up. Wouldn't he and Tigre prefer to save their money for something else A the clothes they say they can't afford, a motorbike?

Rodolfo stares blankly in response. "I've always said I don't have a future," he answers finally. "I don't like to pretend to be a person that I'm not," he says earnestly, speaking in clipped sentences that seem to dangle in the air, waiting for the next idea. "I'm not a person who represents something. I'm not a sign you put on the wall or a piece of propaganda."

Then, as inevitably happens in Cuba, Rodolfo's thoughts abruptly switch from personal anomie to political alienation. "I love my country," he adds, "but I don't feel comfortable here at the moment."

Such attitudes are common among marginalized youth, says Damian Fernandez, an international relations associate professor at Florida International University. Fernandez has spent the last several years studying Cuban society, concentrating on social misfits such as the frikis and the rockeros. He currently is writing a book about informal resistance, and he views drug use as one of several methods young people employ to passively oppose the government. "When the state is so invasive of the person, anything you do to challenge the official forms is a way of subverting authority," Fernandez observes. "There has been drug use in Cuban society for a long time. Socialism was supposed to erase that."

Fernandez notes that the Cuban government has been trying, with mixed results, to reform its youth for at least the past fifteen years. He points to Castro's 1979 speech before the National Assembly, during which the comandante en jefe scolded both young people and the Union of Young Communists (UJC) for blandengueria (weakness or softness) and chapuceria (sloppiness). Even communist militants were skipping classes and revealing a troubling aversion to party discipline, the Cuban leader griped.

After much handwringing and public exhortation, a solution was finally reached. In 1986 the Politburo appointed 30-year-old Roberto Robaina to head the UJC. Robaina was charged with spiffing up the organization's stodgy image. He contracted artists to redo the union logo, invested in discos and concerts, and held personal meetings with alienated youth, eventually helping one group of rockers move to a farm in the country where they could listen to the Doors and grow their hair in peace.

Robaina's efforts generated an initial burst of enthusiasm, but amid the rolling blackouts and severe food shortages of recent years, attempts to rally Cuban youth to sacrifice for their country have fallen increasingly flat. Young people continued to drift away from official organizations.

"Here, you have a continuation of all the shit from Woodstock," says Ivan, a 38-year-old writer who has done his own share of experimenting with psychedelic drugs. "The frikis, the hippies, the rockeros, here you have everything." For the past ten years Ivan has been buying pot, and occasionally cocaine, from puntos in the community of El Fanguito, located along the Almendares River. He disputes the theory that rising drug use in Cuba is a way of passively opposing the government. "There is an incredible sense of frustration," he says. "The kids don't know what to do with themselves. Either everything is only available in dollars, or the clubs in pesos aren't worth going to. So they take a guitar, a bottle of rum, a package of pills, and they go to the Malec centsn. There's also an intense level of repression that has converted drugs into a mystery."

Ivan's conclusion: The first open discussion of drug use in Cuba could only appear as a work of fiction. His evidence is the publication of a mystery novel called Vientos de Cuaresma, by Leonardo Padura. Winner of the Cirilo Villaverde Award for best Cuban novel in 1993, Padura's book opens with the murder of a 24-year-old high school teacher, an ideologically faultless member of the Union of Young Communists. As the plot progresses, readers learn that Lissette Nu*ez Delgado had been having an affair with one of her students. Moreover, the student is involved in a marijuana-trafficking ring at the high school where Delgado taught tenth-grade chemistry.

A former reporter at the newspaper Juventud Rebelde, Padura writes novels that usually are praised for their social realism. In the case of this recent novel, however, he deemed it necessary to insert an opening page declaring that "the facts and characters of this book only exist in fiction." Notes Ivan: "This is the first time that the actual consumption of drugs has been spoken about publicly."

Last June, in his interview with Bohemia magazine, Justice Minister Amat not only acknowledged the existence of drug use, but admitted it had increased in 1993. According to Amat, 570 people were arrested for drug trafficking and drug possession that year. "There were 294 drug convictions," he said, "primarily for marijuana consumption, although cocaine consumption has risen lately, especially among the underworld jineteras [prostitutes whose targets are tourists] and people who associate with tourists." Amat also reported 79 seizures of cocaine, totalling 3364 kilograms, an increase of 104 percent over 1992 figures. "There are signs of drug abuse," Amat conceded, "but this has not spread throughout society. There are reported cases of parties in which youths mix drinks with pills. We cannot behave like an ostrich and believe the world is a marvel."

Tigre and Rodolfo swear that the best place to observe Havana's drug culture is in discotheques like Johnny's or the Palacio de la Salsa at the Hotel Riviera. So once again I find myself wandering through Havana on yet another rainy night.

Paulito and su Elite, a popular salsa band led by Pablo Fernandez Gallo, is playing at the Palacio, and the lobby of the Riviera is full of young Cubans dressed to the hilt. Rodolfo and Tigre check to see if one of their friends is working the door and can let them in for free. (The cover charge is ten dollars.) He isn't, so they go outside to smoke a cigarette and wait for him to show up.

Jineteras predominate in the mostly Cuban crowd, but the privileged sons and daughters of high-ranking officials are also known to patronize the club. A tall man with a receding hairline is pointed out to me as Castro's youngest son, Alfredo. He walks around the room once, chats with a few women, and leaves.

Any drug use is well concealed. In fact, the only mention of cocaine I hear the entire evening comes as part of a catchy dance tune written by Fernandez: "Yo no tengo nada que ver con la coka, Ina." ("I have nothing to do with Coca-Cola, Ina.") The lyric puns on the Spanish pronunciation of cocaine, co-kai-eena. Fernandez says he wrote the song after a story spread through Havana last year that members of his group had been arrested for cocaine possession, a rumor he vehemently denies.

Outside, Rodolfo and Tigre have disappeared. They had been picked up by the police and questioned about their relationship with an American tourist A me. The police took them to the station, searched them for drugs, and when they found nothing, sent them home.

They ended up walking back to Nuevo Vedado in the early morning, trudging uphill through broken streets from the Malec centsn. Stone sober, without rum, without merca or pills, without any of the pharmacological aids Tigre says make his life bearable. "It's always the same thing," Tigre grumbled later. "We can't do anything. We can't go anywhere.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >