Day Six: Politics, Mansions, and Music
So now the last installment, in which we finally get to hear some of that fabulous Cuban music. Mostly, though, it’s a marathon of lectures and museums, with the grueling nature of our schedule here being required, it turns out, by U.S. law. We booked this trip way before the big December 17th announcement; we’re not here because of any new lifting of travel restrictions. And there’s been no flying through Mexico and asking not to have our passports stamped. Americans are allowed to visit Cuba for Educational or Humanitarian purposes. No leisure time allowed. Seriously—our schedules must be approved, and must be Education-packed. No loafing; no vacation.
Cuba Educational Travel has taken this concept to the max. We begin our day with a lecture by Marc Frank, foreign correspondent for Reuters, The Financial Times, and The Economist. He’s lived here twenty years and written a popular book called Cuban Revelations, about economic/political stuff from his insider’s perspective. We’re in that seminar room again, our airless home away from home. The space has a soporific effect. (One woman in our group did some serious snoring during an earlier lecture.) But Mr. Frank is a good talker, moderately disheveled as any self-respecting U.S. journalist in a developing country should be, and clearly a very smart guy.
It’s the Change-Is-In-The-Air theme again, and this time maybe strongest of all. He tells us how different Raúl’s govt-messaging is from Fidel’s. The leadership’s gone from blaming the U.S. and the outside world to acknowledging Cuba’s own problems. The government used to close down the city every three months and march thousands of people through the streets, protesting the United States; but since the day Fidel got sick in 2006, there hasn’t been a single anti-U.S. demonstration. Unanimity and conformity used to rule; now Raúl seeks diverse opinions. He recently spoke to the Congress of Artists and Writers and said he didn’t agree with a lot of their views, but “as you know, I’m the absolute enemy of unanimity.”
The philosophy has shifted from egalitarianism to reward for individual achievement. Raúl says communism (Fidel’s ideal: From each according to his ability, to each according to his need) won’t work. He wants socialism instead (From each according to his ability, to each according to his deeds). You give as much as you can, and you get back what you give. The practical implications of this shift are significant. Cubans can now travel, have cell phones, own and sell houses and cars, run individual business. They’re allowed to go to hotels. (Raúl’s logic: if you can go, you’ll work hard to get there, and we’ll get your money back.) Fidel had nationalized everything down to the shoe-shine boy; by the end of the ‘60’s, only small farmers could have private enterprise. Now Raúl says the state shouldn’t run secondary economic activity. He plans to privatize 40% of businesses by 2016.
Cuba is basically bankrupt. Raúl has implemented an IMF-type austerity program: exports way up, imports down; cuts in spending on education, arts, medicine; beginning to pay down Cuba’s debt. He wants to develop a surplus so Cuba can borrow money on the international markets. But Raúl doesn’t have as much command of gov’t as you might think; it’s an entrenched bureaucracy, resistant to change and not afraid of the Castros. And the government’s losing control of the system. Cubans are becoming way more critical. Fidel had a gift for moving people; now money, it seems, is the only way to move people. But on that front, Cuba doesn’t have much to offer. Their demographics are like Japan’s: more people leaving than entering the work force. Average age in the countryside is over fifty. The young people are getting out of here, in search of better offers.
So now remember what Carlos Alzugaray mentioned before, sans specifics, about how other countries have pressured the U.S. re: our policy toward Cuba? Juicy detail from Mr. Frank: in organizing this year’s Summit of the Americas, the host country, Panama, invited Cuba before the United States, so we’d have to either boycott our own summit or accept Cuba’s presence. (And a post-April-10th note: this Summit, of course, became the scene of that historic and much-publicized Castro/Obama handshake.)
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From there it’s onto the bus to see mansions-turned-museums in the famous Vedado neighborhood. The absurd, aging, ghostly/abandoned opulence of these places gets to be all kind of the same. More Carrara marble, more living rooms the size of concert halls, more non-touchable antiques and dark oil portraits and collections of expensive decor, more centuries-old oriental rugs that the guards have to bark us away from walking on. We are to shuffle, instead, along the red-carpet strips laid on top.
Maybe I’m just getting tired. These places are something. But it’s hard to wrap one’s mind around these buildings as residences. They’re so grandiose and cold they just don’t seem habitable. One houses the largest collection of Napoleonic memorabilia outside France (collected by Julio Lobo, former sugar king of the world). Another is now the Museum of Decorative Arts, packed with gilt furniture made for European royalty. The very very young docent (polo shirt, bad skin) has never left Cuba but speaks almost unaccented English—only a slight deliberateness gives him away as non-native speaker—and the effect is totally uncanny. At both places, I keep lingering behind the tour and ducking out to the balconies, photographing the stuff going on next door, which is much more variable and messy and visually interesting.
For lunch, we climb six flights of stairs to a mod penthouse that’s now Café Laurent, privately owned restaurant. From our breezy table on the porch, we see down the avenue to the sea. A stream of brightly colored cars flows along between the bright decaying buildings. On the roof below there are chickens; beyond that, an empty modern hotel tower and vacant pool, in the shade.
The waitresses-slash-bartenders make us the best mojitos we’ve had here. Appetizers are various croquetas, family-style, over shredded lettuce, and I end up eating lots of these because the rest of the meal is flavorless squash soup (which I eat) and rubbery fish (of which I can manage only two bites). The shellfish-allergy problem again: everyone else has Caribbean lobster tails, which apparently aren’t so bad.
Our post-lunch Education is a tour of the Museum of Cuban Art, led by art historian Nelson Herrera, who’s in charge of the upcoming Biennial. He herds us through from the old stuff to the new—lots of dour commissioned portraits from colonial days; a surrealist/cubist era in which Caribbean color starts to appear; the revolution-story art; and finally all kinds of experimental/conceptual works in paint and sculpture and collage and repurposed industrial materials. And by this time we are truly exhausted. Manuel Mendive’s vivid primitivist work is here, as is Lolo Soldevilla’s lovely geometric 3-D stuff, plus lots and lots of the fabulously alive Picasso-goes-Afro-Cuban stylings of Wifredo Lam, and, noteworthy to us, a few pieces by our Roberto Diago’s grandfather of the same name.
We limp back to the hotel for a micro-nap and pre-dinner shower. And we forge ahead with the planned program because the next stop is music. A private performance and lecture by Prof. Alberto Faya, who looks like Mandy Patinkin’s joyful, twinkly-eyed twin. This is a man who has found his calling. We’re in the dark-and-dingy back room of Bar Asturias, with that extra-sad sleepy feeling an empty nightclub has when the sun’s still blazing outside. But Faya seems delighted to be talking, playing, and singing for our small (and at the moment, reptilianly sluggish) group.
When he first starts to sing, the mellifluous power of his voice jolts us all awake. It’s spine-tinglingly good, and a total surprise. Even if you don’t normally dig that vaguely operatic vibrato style, he’s the kind of singer who puts you at ease because you know he’s got this. His voice fills the room, confident and pure. He speeds us through centuries of Cuban music, from way-old Spanish ballads to the cheerful tapping syncopation of campesina tunes to the piano-intensive ragtime-meets-tango sound of early-19th-century danzón to a rousing and jazzed-up rendition of the classic “Guantanamera.” (Which title, by the way, means simply a woman from Guantánamo, a place that of course didn’t always connote what we think of nowadays.)
His sidekicks are a band of three young guys, all jazz musicians, on drums, keyboard, and bass guitar. The guitarist is Faya’s son, David, who seems both amused and charmed by his dad’s professorial earnestness and the sweet little fanfare with which he introduces each number. Faya talks about the transcultural musical melding of European, African, American and Caribbean styles—and how the latter two have influenced each other. The danzón came to signify Cuban identity and resistance of Spanish colonial rule, as people gathered at dance halls wearing blue ribbons in their hair and brandishing the small black orchids native to Cuba.
Sometimes the boys in the band take the tune and run with it, diverging into improvised riffs. On the danzón, they keep seeming to wrap it up with an ascending da-da-da-da-da, Ba-Ba! and then dive in again, another jazz variation, all the guys grinning; unclear if this was planned or if they’re playfully hijacking the professor’s show. They look like kids but play with virtuosic skill. Everybody on stage seems to be having a terrific time.
After the show we talk with David, whose English is good, and I practice my Spanish on the non-English-speaking drummer, translating what Philip is trying to tell him about the birth of the Sabian cymbals company, maker of these ones onstage. We exchange cards with David. He’s coming to New York soon to play at Lincoln Center, and we plan to get together. (Which we do; see Epilogue, below.)
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The much-hyped Farewell Dinner is at Paladar San Cristobal, formerly a house, with small high-ceilinged rooms so crammed with iconography and knickknacks that I start to feel phobic/claustrophobic right away. I choose a seat near the door and with the least-cluttery environs I can find. One of the selling points here is the special Cuban rum and cigar they give you after the meal. The chicken is demoralizingly bland and tough, and rice and beans don’t come standard. We keep asking for them, and the kitchen scrapes together tiny dishes that get pounced upon and devoured as soon as they reach our table. The couple beside me enters into a heated debate about whether the husband will or will not smoke that cigar right now. “You’ll be coughing all night!” his wife insists, and he resignedly tucks the cigar into his breast pocket, then seems to brighten, as if part of him agrees that she’s just pulled him from the brink of pulmonary disaster. It’s her birthday, and a special-order coconut cake arrives on a tray. The cake is divine: moist and fluffy and vanilla-coconut-sweet, worth scarfing by the giant spoonful. Virginia and I put the last couple slices in to-go boxes for Alicia’s and Jorge’s families.
The Final Morning: Hemingway, Departure
Planned programming on this final morning starts at a leisurely 10:30 a.m. It’s our last chance at photographs, a damp day with only glimpses of sun. Philip and I walk north from the hotel, speculating about how soon it might rain. There’s a high-end souvenir shop he wants to check out, by Sloppy Joe’s. It’s closed, with no sign telling its hours, but through the window we can see the antique Cuban motorcycle plates Philip was hoping to find.
We roam the nearby streets and take pictures, then circle back to the shop one last time, to find the shopkeeper lifting the grate. The plates are more expensive than we’d guessed. There are car license plates, too—brown ones and blue ones, very retro-stylish. My husband is in motorhead-memorabilia heaven. We have enough cash in our pockets for one plate, and in typical kid-in-candy-store fashion, he agonizes over the choice. We dash back to the hotel with just enough time to collect our things and meet the bus.
In the lobby, we present Alicia with two large bags containing clothes and drugstore supplies and candy for her son, plus one of the beaded bracelets I’ve been wearing all week, and my almost-full bottle of gardenia perfume. Alicia could maybe afford to buy some of these things, but they’re ungettable in Cuba; there are basically no stores aside from a few groceries that offer alcohol and lots of empty shelves. In the midst of this crowded lobby, the handover feels vaguely awkward—kind of personal and goodwill-ish and conspicuous—but Alicia seems thrilled. She’ll distribute the goods among her family and friends and share, of course, with Jorge. (Later she emails me to say which clothes she kept for herself, and thank us again.) She exclaims over the sunscreen: “I can take my boy to the beach and he won’t get burned!”
Our bus stops at the Hotel Parque Central to pick up the last two members of our party. There’s been a miscommunication re: the timing, and they’re still upstairs packing. Our souvenir store is just two blocks away. Alicia gives us the green light to scamper over there for some last-minute speed shopping. D&V come with us. We are all running. Philip gets temporarily waylaid by a resplendent pink Caddy convertible parked on the street. In the shop, he goes for one of the other antique plates he was lusting after. I choose an original movie poster, a vividly colored artwork print from the Cuban film Cecilia. We sprint back to the bus and arrive just as the other couple wheel their suitcases out the hotel doors.
Our final touristy/Education stop, pre-airport, is at La Finca Vigía, former home of Hemingway. For damp-weather reasons, the doors and windows of the house are closed, and no tours are possible. We shuffle around the outside with several other busloads of people, taking pictures through the windows. There’s his typewriter, his clothes, his books, all his furniture, undisturbed—as if he’d planned to return. His boat, Pilar, sits up on blocks under a high roof, with tourist boardwalk around it and a row of his pets’ graves off to the side. His lavish pool is waterless and strewn with leaves. The whole place is jungly and ghostly-sad. The feeling reminds me of Graceland: the life conspicuously gone, private spaces overrun.
At the airport, we hug and thank Alicia and Jorge and help haul out the bags. (Jorge is soggy-footed from stepping in a puddle this morning, and even if he had time to rush home before his next group, it wouldn’t help; this is his only pair of shoes.) Curbside, there’s a sizeable ledge that some of the creakier members of our party struggle to scale; but they persist, reaching up for someone’s hand and heaving themselves on their bad knees, instead of walking over to where the steps are. We’re here early, then our flight’s delayed. Our group kills time by stocking up on rum and cigars at the duty-free shop, where they let you pay with a combination of dollars and your leftover Cuban Convertible Pesos. There’s not much to eat here. I open my last snack bar from home.
Finally our plane pulls up practically to the terminal doors, and this time, after much will-they-bus-us-again speculation, plus V.’s and my photographic documentation of the plane’s extreme proximity, we’re allowed to walk. A light rain is just beginning again, and the air feels balmy.
Landing in Miami, we get our last taste of Cuba: our wheels hit the tarmac, and the passengers burst into applause.
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On 23 April the guitarist David Faya came to New York as part of the all-Cuban Jorge Luis Pacheco Campos Quartet, to play at Lincoln Center. A super-big opportunity for young Cuban jazz musicians, as you can imagine. Philip helped raise funds for their NY accommodations, and we took the guys out for beers and oysters and burgers at PJ Clarke’s the night before the show. The ultra-rockstar-ish leader, Pacheco (tousled hair; ripped-neck sweater exposing pectorals; chain necklace; pretty face), had gotten married the week before—to a German woman he met while performing over there. Soon, he said, they’ll be living in Germany and just visiting Cuba. Hard for his family, but better for his career.
As guests of the musicians at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola, we watched them perform in front of that dramatic plate-glass cityscape. A mix of bebop-type rowdiness and Latin-jazz standards and some rapping-in-Spanish by Pacheco, all overlaid with, or resolving into, those unmistakable Cuban rhythms. Pacheco on piano, David on guitar, the other two on kit drums and congas. Also clearly part of the spectacle were Pacheco’s tight black tee shirt and absurdly bulging arm muscles and, at one point, sentimental pianissimo milking of the keyboard on a song he composed about being reunited, after long absence, with the one you love. The crowd got way into things, and especially the part about how the band had flown here from Cuba just to play this one show.
At the end of the night, Philip received the bandleader’s final shout-out: “Thank you, my friend, for helping us.”
View the photo portfolio, or return to part one of this series here.