Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Letter from Havana

Havana: one of the world's great cities on the brink of a fraught transition 

With negotiations under way to restore US ties, the Cuban capital’s days as a kind of open-air museum where time stood still are numbered. As the country opens up to the outside world, its people look likely to push for faster change

Michael Deibert in Havana

Wednesday 17 June 2015 

The Guardian

(Read original article here)

To visit Havana in the late spring, before the torpid humidity and showers of summer, is a glorious thing. Strolling through the streets of La Habana Vieja, its derelict and weather-worn facades still elegant, one encounters the grandeur of squares such as the Plaza de la Catedral, its church built in 1727, where leisurely cats and songbirds find refuge from the exhaust fumes that plague so much of the city.

As they have for decades, at dusk fishermen cast their lines and nets off the Malecón and into the splashing Caribbean, the sun descending as a fiery globe into the sea before them. In Vedado, once a glittering nightlife destination for the 1950s jet set, the old houses and green parks manage to catch some afternoon coolness as they slouch down towards the bay.

The last few years have one been ones of rapid change in Havana, one of the world’s great iconic cities for well over a hundred years and a traditional weathervane of the fortunes of the country as a whole. The days where it served as a kind of an open-air museum where time stood still appear to be drawing to a close, with the opening of a long-closed system generating an inevitable tension and dynamism.

Ruled by the Communist dictatorship of the Castro brothers since 1959 (and by the US-backed capitalist dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista for seven years before that), last December US president Barack Obama and Cuban president Raúl Castro announced that long-standing travel and commercial restrictions the US had placed on Cuba would be relaxed, and that full diplomatic relations would be restored. Confirmation that embassies are to reopen in Washington DC and Havana is expected in early July, according to the latest reports. Many in Cuba and abroad hope that the US embargo on the country – a blunt and ineffective tool that collectively punishes Cubans as a whole rather than their government – will soon end as well.

Such rapid geopolitical shifts mirror the changes taking place within Cuba itself. Beginning in 2008, two years after Raúl took the helm from his brother Fidel, Cubans have been allowed to own cellphones and DVDs, and in 2010 the Cuban government began permitting foreign investors to lease government land and allowed individual Cubans greater control over the island’s agricultural and farming sectors. A 2012 law eliminated the onerous exit permit that, for 50 years, Cubans had been required to possess in order to travel abroad, and Cubans can now get online at a handful of cyber cafes around the island – although the price (around US$5 an hour) remains prohibitively expensive in a nation where many people make only $30 a month.

Nowhere have these changes been more apparent than in Cuba’s capital, and Havana today can be a jarring collision of the antique and the nouveau. While I was there, the Havana Biennial was bringing in cutting-edge artists and art dealers from all over the world – yet turn the television to one of the state-sponsored channels and one is immediately transported back to the time of Soviet-era propaganda, of shrill declarations and low production values. In contrast, Venezuela’s TeleSUR (now accessible to Cubans), which generally maintains a line favourable to Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro and his allies (of whom the Castros are two), is positively electric and full of flashy visuals and news from the outside world.

Festooned with its ceaseless homages to the dead, Havana can still feel more like a necrocracy than a living dictatorship. There is the inevitable mustachioed and solemn José Martí, slain by the Spanish in Dos Ríos in 1895. The bewhiskered Camilo Cienfuegos, a revolutionary commander whose plane disappeared while flying from Camagüey to Havana in 1959. And there is Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the Argentina-born revolutionary who served as Fidel Castro’s right-hand man perhaps as much as Raúl did and who – when the revolutionary government seized power – oversaw the execution of dozens of prisoners at La Cabaña fortress above Havana, most with only summary trials. Che went on to support the quixotic ambitions of Laurent-Désiré Kabila in eastern Congo before turning his attentions to Bolivia, where he was captured and killed in October 1967.

I opted to spend a morning in a less ideological city of the dead, the Necrópolis de Cristóbal Colón, situated in Veadado and spanning many city blocks (the cemetery even maintains little street signs in case the departed should become confused and lose their way). Within the cemetery one can visit the final repose of the Swiss-Cuban author Alejo Carpentier, the photographer Alberto Korda and former senator Eduardo Chibás, who committed a spectacular on-air suicide on Cuban radio in 1951. Scattered throughout the cemetery, too, are graves of a number of members of the Abakuá, an Afro-Cuban initiatory society that may seem to have echoes of the Freemasons, but which has its roots in pre-colonial Nigeria and Cameroon.

An area with a particularly strong Abakuá tradition is Regla, just across the bay. Taking the short ferry ride across from the city proper offers one of the best views of La Habana Vieja. Alighting from the ferry, we were greeted by an Afro-Cuban woman chanting at the water’s edge and employing various accoutrements in what appeared to be a ritual for Yemayá, the chief orisha of Santería (as Cuba’s syncretic Afro-Cuban religion is called) and goddess of the waters and seas.

The orisha spirits kept popping up during my visit. The following evening at a “party for Yemayá” in the Playa neighbourhood just west of Vedado, a local friend and I drove through the dusk-hued streets in a shared public taxi before arriving at a street of modest low-rise concrete block buildings. The 
party was already in progress: mangoes, rum and a fully-decorated birthday cake proclaiming 

“Felicidades Yemayá!” were laid before the altar. 

The people – lovely and welcoming, though threadbare – were drinking rum, wolfing down food, dancing to reggaeton and sitting out on the uncovered roof as the cool night breeze blew in under a blanket of Caribbean stars. The host’s daughter, in her early 20s and conversant in Spanish, English, French, Portuguese and Italian, wondered if the changes that were coming to Cuba might mean some respite from a life that, for her parents, had seemed to be one of unrelenting grind and struggle.

Walking through Vedado later that night, I was reminded of the great Cuban novelist Heberto Padilla, who had written in his post-revolutionary book En mi jardín pastan los héroes (translated into English as Heroes Are Grazing in My Garden) that “at night the neighbourhood recovered its old majesty. Darkness hid the cracks and grime, and from a distance it took on again its old splendour.”

Padilla was part of a landscape of writers that suffered terribly after the revolution, though rage at his ideological deviation was not further inflamed by his being gay, as was the case with authors such as Reinaldo Arenas, José Lezama Lima and Virgilio Piñera. (Padilla had also written that “a revolution is not simply the excited rush of plans, dreams, old longings for redemption and social justice … [but also] repression, overzealous police vigilance, suspicion, summary verdicts, firing squads.”).

In the sexual sense, times have markedly changed in Cuba, with Raúl Castro’s daughter, Mariela, running the Centro Nacional de Educación Sexual and advocating on behalf of LGBT rights. Gay couples, though not exactly flamboyant, certainly do not have to cower as they did in earlier times. A less appetising side to the country’s more permissive sexual atmosphere – prostitution – remains a fact of life in Havana and a draw for a certain kind of male (and to a lesser degree, female) tourist here, as it has since the early 1990s when the collapse of the Soviet Union sent the country’s economy into a tailspin.

But Cuba, even its increasingly cosmopolitan capital, remains an authoritarian state. The last time Cubans were freely able to chose who represents them was when they voted for Carlos Prío Socarrás for president in 1948, a presidency cut short by Batista’s 1952 coup. And it is highly doubtful that current visitors – sitting in the back of the spotlessly maintained American cars which tour the city, or smoking cigars at the Hotel National or the Hotel Habana Libre – know the names of, say, Wilmar Villar Mendoza, a dissident designated as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International, who died on hunger strike in January 2012. In January, Cuba released 53 political prisoners – but human rights groups here say that other political prisoners remain in jail.

A contrasting city

At the time of the 1959 revolution, Havana ranked as one of the world’s great and dynamic cities. The country’s literacy rate was 76%, the fourth highest in Latin America. Cuba was 11th in the world in the number of doctors per capita, and it boasted one of the largest middle classes in the entire region. Hard as it may be to believe today, the country ranked fifth in the hemisphere in terms of income.

But there were also yawning inequalities, between both city and country and black and white. By the mid-1950s, Batista – once a democratically elected president – had emerged into an odious and fully formed dictator who showed little interest in addressing the poverty from which he himself had come (in his case in Holguín province). The place was ripe for revolt, and so it came. But, hobbled both by the nature of Cuban communism and thuggish, cloddish US attempts at intervention and destabilisation, so too a gradual diminution of Havana’s glory took place over the ensuing decades.
As a Cuban-American friend noted upon his first visit, the buildings and vistas of Havana are so overwhelming in their magnificence – and their dilapidation and the poverty surrounding them so apparent – it sometimes seems like a visitor has wandered into the ruins of a once-great civilisation, like the Aztecs or the Mayans, now being squatted by a banana republic.

The grandiose seat of government, El Capitolio, was completed in 1929 during the dictatorship of independence-era general Gerardo Machado. The nearby Gran Teatro de La Habana is even older, having opened in 1838 while Cuba was still under Spanish colonial rule and with its present home having been finished in 1915 during the presidency of Mario García Menocal. Many of the landmark hotels in Havana likewise opened during the reigns of either Machado (the Hotel Nacional) or Batista (the Habana Libre), an irony that seems lost both on many visitors as well as the regime.

Taking a shared public taxi out to the suburb of Alamar, faded imperial grandeur slaps one in the face in the form of both the Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro (better known as El Morro and named after the Biblical magi) and the aforementioned La Cabaña, both haughtily guarding the city as they did in the days of slavery and plunder.

With the sparkling Caribbean on one side, the cab veers inland and eventually the housing project of Alamar, built in the early 1970s to house workers (and, often, Russian advisers), rears up into view. A visitor steps out to be surrounded by multistorey tenements that would be recognisable to anyone familiar with Latin American urban planning. For all the revolution’s desire to construct a “new man”, the appearance of Alamar is rather similar to low-income housing elsewhere in the world.
I’ve come here to visit a friend, part of a poetry and art collective that has appeared throughout the US and in Latin America. We talk in an apartment that is nearly devoid of furniture, as his small children play outside and neighbours amble by.

“Yes, people can talk now, but nothing changes,” he says. He’s happy about Cuba’s increased access and connectedness to the rest of the world, but also says that exorbitant internet costs have made him “a guerilla” with his time, preparing his emails and internet searches days in advance before hopping on and trying to frantically get everything done before his time (and money) run out.

After sipping some very sweet, very strong coffee, we walk through the entire complex, several miles of similar characterless high-rises, the monotony of which is broken up by unexpected delights such as stumbling across a quintet playing the lilting son music of Cuba’s countryside simply for their own edification in the shadow of one of the towering buildings. Eventually, we walk the whole way down to the glittering sea, so clear you can see right to the bottom.

“It’s so peaceful here,” my friend says. “I like to come down here and meditate.”

As we turn around and face the land, he points out Cojimar, the fishing village that longtime Cuba resident Ernest Hemingway memorialised in his 1952 novel The Old Man and the Sea. In keeping with the absolute absence of anti-Americanism I have come across in Cuba, Hemingway remains a venerated figure on the island, with the country’s largest marina named after him and his home in San Francisco de Paula, just outside of Havana, a national museum.

As my friend is evidence of, many Cubans cherish and welcome the intellectual interaction of the island with the rest of the world. They hope it will only increase in the coming years.

Stale politics

It is hard to visit Havana today and not feel like the country is entering a potentially fraught period of transition. The levers of power in Cuba are still held largely by men who are immensely old. Fidel Castro – whose occasional essays in the state newspaper Granma get stranger every time they appear – is 88 and infirm, while Raúl Castro is 83.

Cuba’s vice-president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, is a youthful 54 – but the political trajectory of all but the Castros themselves in Cuba has often been uncertain. One need only look at the fates of Ricardo Alarcón – once a rising star in the Communist Party who found himself demoted and disgraced in 2013, or Arnaldo Ochoa – a widely popular general and hero of Cuba’s war in Angola who perished in front of a firing squad in 1989, for evidence of that.

The more the country opens up to the outside world – as Raúl Casto seems to know it must do in order to survive – and the more access Cubans have to information, the more they (particularly the young) are likely to push for change. The current, curious sense of idleness in Cuba’s political scene – dominated still by revolutionary slogans painted on public walls and propaganda broadcasts from another age – rings more hollow when one realises that there are many countries with good health and education systems that don’t feel the need to deny people the vote in order to achieve them.

Towards the end of my visit, I was pondering these questions as I sat writing under the shade of a tree in Havana’s Parque Central, just in front of the magnificent Gran Teatro de le Habana. Then I heard the shouts: “Libertad! Viva los derechos humanos!” (“Freedom! Long live human rights!”)

I looked up and saw a slight young man with spiky hair. He couldn’t have been more than 25 years old. He was shouting these words with his fist raised. A crowd formed, watching mutely and doing nothing. Within a few minutes the police arrived. They handcuffed him, threw him in a car, and hustled him away.

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