conundrum in the sun

San Francisco Chronicle | March 28, 1999

By Leslie Guttman

I am trying to walk like a Cubana: hips on ball bearings, swaying beneath the straight, proud torso of a dancer. I am a queen. I am in no rush. Check me out.

But it’s no use. I can’t get it, no matter how much I study the women of Havana. Maybe if I stayed a year I’d learn, but I am only here a couple of weeks, in a country that the United States has for four decades considered the enemy.

I am here to see the face of the enemy and what I am supposed to fear.

The face of the enemy is black, white, mulatto, an Afro-Cuban-Spanish-European-Asian garden of wild beauty. The face has a range of expressions, changeable as tropical weather, calm to sunny to stormy. But the expression I see most, on the streets, in stores, on bicycles, and while waiting for the giant pink and blue semis-turned-buses called "camellos" (camels) is resignation. It is a hardness, like a 10-centavo Cuban roll, from the frustration of trying to survive in an economy that keeled over when the Soviet Union did.

Everyone hunts for U.S. dollars, the currency of the lucky ones, whose hands touch the silken cloak of the tourist. An average month’s salary in Cuban pesos (less than $15) can barely buy three weeks of food in a month, and stuff, good stuff — Lycra bodysuits, Rollerblades, Italian underwear — can only be bought in dollars. And Cuban youth want good stuff. That doesn’t mean Payless shoes, a top government economist tells me.

A Cuban friend tells me the entire country could be bought for a couple of million pairs of Levis. I think the whole place is being held together with duct tape and Krazy Glue, sent from a relative in Miami.

At the cemetery, a teenager is buried in a cardboard coffin. Miguel, an esteemed union president I meet, wears a frayed woman’s gold nylon jacket salvaged from a donation box. In the graceful, tree-lined neighborhood of Vedado, a crumbled pile of pink Italian marble from another collapsed home lies underneath a ceiba tree. I pick up a small piece shaped like a jagged heart to take home.

——

I sit with my 19-year-old friend Carmen, a music student and singer, on the Malecon, the sea wall on the edge of Havana. With the crash of the waves to cover our conversation, she tells me that if a jealous neighbor suspects she got her white and yellow Reeboks through prostitution — which she did not — one phone call will send her to jail. She tells me of three journalists jailed for publishing a magazine protesting prison conditions for dissidents. At 19, she has the face of someone who is scared she is a rose that may never bloom.

At the baseball game, record-breaking Livan "El Duque" Hernandez has been obliterated from the stats book for bailing the country for the U.S. and the Florida Marlins by boat. Across Havana, a listlessness hangs in the air like a wet towel. Everyone seems to be waiting for something that may never happen in their lifetime. The price of a night out is too high for most Cubans, who can only watch, from the sidewalk, tourists dancing in clubs or listening to music or having nice dinners. The Cubans have the faces of people who can still remember what good food tastes like.

On a dark, potholed lane in Central Havana, a man in a black T-shirt and baseball cap pushes me and tries unsuccessfully to grab my purse before running off. Later, in bed, I think about how he didn’t yank the strap very hard, almost as if the attempt was half-hearted, tired. If there is to be a civil war when Fidel goes, as some say, it cannot happen on Monday, Wednesday or Friday nights at 9:30, when the weary country is transfixed by the lives of Gaviota and Sebastian in the telenovela "Cafe con Aroma de Mujer." The empty streets echo with the choir of hundreds of TV sets.

I try and call home and find out service has been disconnected between the United States and Cuba over delayed payments to the Cuban telephone provider by American telephone companies. I get a taste of what it is like to be cut off from the world. I understand a little better why I am constantly quizzed about my life and the United States: "Are the hills in San Francisco really like they look in the movies?" "How much money do you make?" "What is Brooke Shields doing with her life?" "Can you tell me all the words, in English, to Patsy Cline’s Crazy’?"

Every tourist I meet on my journey says the same thing: "We wanted to come now, before things opened up, before you can get a Happy Meal in Old Havana." Everyone wants to look into the crystal ball to see what the marriage of Cuba and hard-core tourism will bring.

In the middle of a flash rainstorm, my bus turns off the Malecon to find a road that’s not flooded. We lumber past a Cuban guy trying to fix his battered beige car, a Russian Lada, stuck in the heavy rain. As we pass, I see a tourist jump out of his shiny, white rent-a-car a couple of feet in front of the broken-down Lada. He runs in front of it and snaps a picture. Then he heads back to his car and zooms off. It doesn’t occur to him to help.

——

Che Guevara is ubiquitous, his movie-star face on posters, murals, billboards and T-shirts. He is a hero, a keychain, a saint in fatigues. I meet a noted surgeon, an older gentleman who lost his private clinic and his wealth after the Revolution, but speaks of his life without regret or bitterness. We sit talking in his garden under his treasured mango trees. He gives me a three-peso coin with Che’s face on it and tells me to save it. "Every country needs a dreamer," he says.

I meet Cubans who want to stay in Cuba, and I meet Cubans desperate to leave. The latter talk to me in low voices about longing to own their futures. The believers in the Revolution move me when they talk of fruits of its harvest: the near-perfect literacy and infant mortality rates, the free education and health care, a country where the old are never abandoned. And still others tell me, frustrated over the U.S. embargo and the country’s internal economic policy: What good is free education if you can’t afford textbooks? Or health care with no medicine?

But everyone is proud of the promise that no child go to bed hungry and forgotten. In two weeks, I have never heard an infant cry. I have never seen an unhappy child. They walk in laughing packs of every age through the streets, strong, self-assured, beloved. A 7-year-old girl can hitchhike home in the dark with no fear.

What is the most intriguing for me, coming from the United States of Prozac, is that while the Cubans that I meet are unhappy, frustrated, down about the economic disintegration of their country, they still know how to laugh, have a good time, make an instant friend from a stranger and a party out of bottle of rum and a salsa tape.

They don’t have the microwaves, computers and VCRs Americans have, but they also don’t have the poverty of the spirit, the kind that comes from waking up lonely in a studio apartment, or spending a Christmas holiday with no family, or trying to keep up with the Joneses, whom you’ve lived next door to for five years and have never even met.

Around midnight, a friend and I walk out of a concert hall to find the musicians we had seen inside standing on a median in the middle of a tree-lined street in Nuevo Vedado. They start playing, and we start dancing, along with about 20 other people on the cracked asphalt, into the warm night.

On a breezy, late afternoon, a grandmother pulls me and another gringa friend into her 19th-century home after seeing us admire, through her half-open door, her collection of six-foot-tall dolls dressed up like saints in glittering gold and blue. We spend the afternoon talking about men, love and family, and looking at her photo albums. We look at picture after picture of three generations, aunts, uncles, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters. Not one, that I can see, is the face of the enemy.