Chaotic days and winking ways in Cuba

The Guardian, March 20 1999

It was a big moment. The young couple had emerged from the register office in the centre of Havana, holding hands and smiling shyly, to find the pavement full of people and the street in front of them occupied by what must have been the biggest, flashest, reddest Mercedes sports car in the city.

It took a full five minutes for the attendants to settle the bride on the top of the back seat with her gown spread out like a huge white cushion. Then the groom perched beside her, the driver stepped into his seat, the crowd on the pavement started waving and cheering, the other cars in the street started tooting and trilling, the bride and the groom smiled and waved, the driver turned the key in the ignition – and nothing. The Mercedes would not move.

Never mind. Within seconds, half-a-dozen men had stepped off the pavement, leaned on the back of the car and heaved it down the road. The driver turned the key again, the engine thundered into life, and they were off – the young couple grinning and waving like royalty, the children on the pavement running along behind them, a whole concourse of cars and vans in their wake. And 50 yards down the road, the Mercedes died and would not be revived. The wedding procession became simply a traffic jam.

It is hard to watch a country struggle for life and even harder to enjoy it. In Cuba , however, there is real pleasure among the rubble. This is partly because of the island’s apparently unique ability to adapt and survive, to keep generating joy no matter how difficult the circumstances. And it is partly because of the strange and powerful chemistry between Cuba and its foreign visitors. This is not always simple, not always comfortable, but it is a rich experience. The secret, you will see, is in the winking.

You have to understand, first, that the whole country runs on improvisation. At the time of the revolution, in 1959, the victorious Fidel Castro traveled to Washington to ask for President Eisenhower’s support. Eisenhower, whose only concern was to defend the American corporations that owned two-thirds of Cuba ‘s land, refused to meet him and fobbed him off with his vice-president, Richard Nixon, who refused to offer him anything like support. Never mind. Castro turned to Moscow instead, found the support he was looking for and announced that, in truth, he had always been a Marxist-Leninist, he just had not liked to mention it.

The streets of Havana are famously crowded with half-dead American Oldsmobiles and Chevrolets, strapped together with sticky tape and genius. The streets of the smaller towns are awash with bicycles, often carrying three at a time. Out on the highways, they deal with the shortage of vehicles by organised hitch-hiking. There are government officials with clipboards to make sure no one jumps the queue and a law to make it compulsory for all official vehicles to stop and take on passengers.

Even God has been improvised. The numerous (beautiful) churches, which were built by the Spanish conquerors, have adapted to accommodate the religion of the Africans who were imported as slaves, with the result that the same icons that serve the Roman Catholics also stand for Obatala, Oricha, Elegia and Demalla, and so everyone is happy. We – the tourists – are part of the latest and one of the greatest improvisations. Bereft of foreign currency after the collapse of Cuba’s markets in the Soviet bloc, Fidel announced in 1990 that ‘tourism is gold’ and opened the doors to visitors with wallets full of dollars. The great question that surrounds us now is whether we are a cure or a new and fatal illness.

The simple pleasure of Cuba is about the constant combination of natural beauty and spontaneous incident. Havana is a great place to walk. You set your back to the sea and wander down long narrow streets. Ornate buildings rise on each side of you, most of them with balconies overflowing with plants, washing, people and dogs, and everywhere you look you see the unexpected. There’s the ragged-arsed man on Obispo, one of the busiest streets in old Havana, who juggles with an empty oil drum, spinning it on its rim, circling it around his body, bouncing it from side to side. Or the woman with the too-tight skirt who stands in the middle of the Boulevard San Rafael, staring into the middle distance, chanting the words of the songs which scream out of the cassette player she clutches to her chest. There is the group of men who gather every day near the statue of Jose Marte, in Parque Central, who argue for hours and with alarming fury – about baseball. Every single day.

In the middle of Havana, there is the Museum of the Revolution, 100 years of struggle encased in glass display cases: the spiteful stupidity of American politicians, relentlessly placing themselves on the wrong side of the moral barricades; the sepia photographs of 19th-century union leaders, almost all of whose brief biographies end with word of their murder; the piles of bleeding bodies left by the post-war dictator Batista; and the poverty and the prostitution which he and his American allies chose to foster; the terrifying struggle of Castro’s guerrilla army; and, most of all, the room dedicated to Che Guevara and his friend, Camil Cienfuegos, where I saw a Spanish woman sit alone in a corner and cry for the tragic bravery of it all. It is unique.

This combination of beauty and fascination is even more obvious when you leave Havana and see this classic Caribbean island – rolling green hills splashed with banana plantations; long white beaches with palm trees and empty hammocks and half-a-dozen different shades of blue in the water; the tobacco factories, where men and women sit at rows of little desks laboriously rolling and gumming cigars by hand; the men on boney horses with sombreros on their heads and rope lassos on their saddles; the smokey bars, the salsa music, the sweet white rum.

All of this rich experience makes it easy to believe that your relationship with Cuba is a simple one: you bring dollars for the economy, you take away pleasure. The moment when this becomes more complicated, for a man,  is the first time that, walking through the streets of a Cuban town, he glances into the eyes of a passing woman – and she winks.

So what is this? Prostitution? In and around the big hotels, certainly there are prostitutes simply selling sex, and in the past five years Cuba has drifted alarmingly close to becoming a venue for sex tourism. One of the first people to speak to me on the streets of Havana was a girl who looked about 12 and who offered me sex – for a single dollar. In this clear respect, the arrival of tourists with wallets full of cash in a society where the average monthly wage is only five dollars has spelled real danger. But the women who winked were different. Somewhat.

It took me a day or two but, after a while, I started to wink back. Strange adventures followed. In the middle of Havana, a woman hissed at me from a first-floor balcony, winked, blew a kiss and pointed to her door. This was a building that was outwardly grand but, inside, it was like walking into hell. There was a big marble hallway, whose floor was covered with litter and fat puddles of dirty water, and whose ceiling leaked the guts of the old air-conditioning system and loose wires where once there were lights. Upstairs, there were long, unlit corridors walls with bare bricks where the plaster had collapsed and a cacophony of sound – wailing babies, loud music, somebody screaming.

The woman, who said she was 27, led me into her flat and introduced me to her 32-year-old sister. Both of them were separated from husbands who had battered them. They shared one room with the older sister’s teenage daughter, laying out three mattresses on the floor at night. Each of them offered me sex for $20. That, certainly, was an attempt at prostitution, but they weren’t prostitutes. One of them was a teacher, the other a government inspector. I compromised – gave them $5 and left. The winking went on.

In a small town outside Havana, a man was riding a bike with a young woman perched on his crossbar. He smiled and asked if I wanted a guide. I shrugged. Five seconds later, the woman was in the front of my car. I spent three days with her. She was no kind of prostitute. She took no interest in my money: I’d buy things in shops and ask her if she wanted anything, and she’d decline. But she took it for granted that we should sleep together.

Why? Because Cuban women are sexually confident? Because, even though she did not want my money, she still wanted the car and the meals in restaurants? Because that’s what foreigners do, and she thought it was expected of her? She took me to her home to meet her parents. She led me into a garage where, oddly, there was a rocking chair sitting on its own on the bare concrete floor. She bade me sit in it, and I looked at the naked breeze-block walls and the corrugated-iron roof where the ceiling should have been and slowly realised that this was not a garage, this was the sitting room. There was no mains water, no mains gas, no plaster on any wall, almost no furniture. I sat there with something like 18 months of a Cuban salary in my pocket and wondered.

I liked this woman. I am single she is single. We wanted to sleep together. But it was too complicated. Quite rightly, Castro has cracked down on prostitution and street hustlers, who were beginning to harrass the foreign visitors. In February, he introduced new laws, but they are framed very widely. It is now an offence punishable by up to 20 years in prison not only for a prostitute to sleep with a tourist, but for any Cuban woman to do so.

Similarly, it is an offence punishable by a fine of some 12 months’ earnings not only for a hustler to talk to a tourist, but for any Cuban at all to do so. I flagged down a taxi, which was already being used by two Cubans. The driver let me into the back seat, turned and drew an imaginary zip across his mouth to ensure there was no conversation. The truth, of course, is that you can still talk to plenty of Cubans, and the winking has certainly not stopped.

As a result of the arrival of tourists, there are now two Cubas. One consists of the exclusive tourist areas and the dollar shops, where you can buy almost anything. The other is the real Cuba , which is a stable and, in many ways, successful society, but nonetheless a poor one. The quest for dollars has become a dominant fact of Cuban life. They can get them from family who live abroad, or they can get them from us. In that sense, our arrival appears destructive, an injection of instability and inequality. And, yet, the alternative looks worse – to open the door to the suits from the International Monetary Fund who will come in and destroy the schools and hospitals which are the revolution’s finest legacy, to sell up to the Americans again, to see the brilliant chaos of Havana bulldozed and rebuilt as an air-conditioned nightmare.

In an imperfect world, there are two conclusions. The first is to go there – not on some package deal to a place like Varadero, east of Havana, where you might as well be on the Costa del Sol – but through an agency, like Interchange, which will improvise a trip (in true Cuban style), a trip that will take you out into the real Cuba , where you can make your own decision about how to handle your dollars.

And the second is to go soon. The last enclave of revolutionary socialism is struggling to survive. All the soothsayers shake their heads and agree it can’t last. Maybe they’re right. But, then again, that’s what Richard Nixon thought. Maybe our dollars can keep it going a little longer. It is a strange place, a compromised place, but at least it’s different, at least it’s joyful and unpredictable and full of inspiration. At least it’s Cuba .

The practicals: Nick Davies travelled with Interchange, 27 Stafford Road, Croydon, Surrey CR0 4NG (0181-681 3612). Direct return flights to Cuba from pounds 395 (including tax). Short breaks start at pounds 519, per person sharing a twin room, or pounds 540 for a single room. Two-week trips start at pounds 889 per person sharing a twin, and pounds 910 for a single. Further information from the Cuba Tourist Board, 167 High Holborn, London WC1V 6PA (0171-240 6655).