An American Poet in Cuba

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First published in The Noise, mayo 2006. See all posts on Cuba.

I’ve been in a Cuban house for five minutes when a commercial for the US Army comes on the television, which is playing in the background as we’re all huddled around my map, trying to figure out where exactly I am in La Habana. Turns out that somebody down the block has two satellite dishes hidden on a roof, inside a water tank with the top cut off. From there they have over fifty families hooked up with coax cable, each one is obsessed with Univision and TNT, both en español and from Miami. This is dangerous. This is my first five minutes in a Cuban home.

I’m sitting on an old bed in a crumbling colonial building, trying to remember why it is exactly that I came to Cuba. The bed is in a room I’ve rented from a gay couple who lives together illegally here. Renting me the room is also illegal. And I guess that’s why I’ve come to Cuba: to really see what this country’s people are like, after hearing so much about governments in NAU courses. Turns out that it’s exactly as I expected: everything most Americans know about Cuba is wrong.

For instance, beards. My dear fellow Americans, beards haven’t been popular in Cuba in a generation. In fact, here the two-month-old unkempt fuzzbomb on my face doesn’t peg me as “antiestablishment,” or any such thing. When a Cuban sees a beard like this, they’re wondering por qué quiere parecer el tipo–if my look-a-like beard means I’m a Fidel supporter. Beards in Cuba are like American flag pins on suits in the States: the ruling elite wears them, and we may or may not agree with them, but only the most rabid citizens wear them too.

Most of the Cubans I’ve met don’t describe themselves as communistas, and most make €10 a month. My friend Juan–one half of the gay couple–is explaining the system to me after dinner the other night: sure the government gives out food each month, “pero no alcanza,” it won’t last ten days. For instance, though each citizen receives five pounds of rice each month, they receive only four ounces of low-grade coffee, 250g of cooking oil, eight ounces of chicken, eight eggs, etc. Though there’s one thing that is never lacking in Cuba: the infamous azúcar that has been the base of the Cuban economy since early colonial times. The sugarcane fields are still endless and burn green into the pale island sky.

To make it work, every Cuban is forced to live illegally in one way or another, whether it’s stealing some sweet-smelling cigars from the factory they work at to sell on the side, or renting out a room to a lost American writer for €15 a night. They’re risking ruin by doing so: if I were to be discovered here, my hosts would be fined over €1000, an unthinkable sum.

At this point in the article, you’re probably assuming that I’ve become an anti-Castroite, in league with the rabid masses of exiles and the infamous Miami Mafia. So then, it’s time to point out something else ignored by Americans in thinking about Cuba: it’s more complex than pro-Castro or anti-Castro. In fact, I’ve come to look at it from the perspective of a Cuban, who doesn’t have the luxury to be anti- or pro-. Of the Cubans I’ve met, most couldn’t give two shits about The Beard: they’re too busy trying to figure out how to get some chicken for dinner or worrying about black-clad agents on the roof ripping out the wires that connect them to Univision.

“It’s not him, it’s the bureaucrats around him,” Alberto, a 24-year-old sound engineer, tells me. Most people still feel a nostalgia-tinged loyalty to Castro personally, and most also agree with the elderly man in Cienfuego who puts it this way: “I love my country, but this system, it doesn’t work.” Castro was responsible for some amazing leaps in the early years: bringing literacy the Cuban people, providing free health care–but by all accounts he has now fallen the way of the traditional caudillo strongman.

As far as education and healthcare go these days, it’s exiled Cuban writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante who points out “what good is teaching the millions to read when only one man decides what you read?” Higher education is nearly useless without academic freedom, which has steadily eroded.

But as an American who can’t afford health insurance, I admire the Cuban system. Then my friend Dominique in La Habana reminds me, “[the healthcare here] is great as long as your doctor isn’t in Venezuela,” where many Cuban doctors spend years at a time.

The government programs are mostly well-intentioned and idealistically right-on, but are marred by a government’s manipulation and personal grudges. Then again, doesn’t that sound similar to our situation here in the States?

We’re not so different, Cubans and Americans, despite our governments’ respective stupidity. Stick with Alberto, who says “to me, it really doesn’t matter, socialismo o capitalismo. I just want to be able to provide for myself and my family… do you think I could do what you’re doing now? Drop everything and travel to, I don’t know, Japan? That doesn’t exist here…”

For me too, at the moment, there’s more pressing matters than international political systems. For one, my money has run out thanks to my poor planning. I’ll have to hitchhike instead of taking the tourist busses and survive on the salty pizza they sell in the street for 50¢. I’m lucky that at least one American company besides the almighty Coca-Cola has broken my country’s useless embargo: there should be money waiting for me at the local Western Union soon.

Until then, I’ll turn on the TV for some pirated telenovelas and try not to get caught watching them or thinking all these thoughts. Next door, an old lady is yelling about rum. This old building seems to sigh. Down in the street children are playing baseball with a broomstick bat and a bottlecap baseball. Someone is practicing trumpet on a nearby rooftop. Flagstaff seems far away.

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