In 2001, the author took a trip to Cuba. What follows is a time capsule, written up in a journal at the time but never published. Given recent events, we may look to Cuba’s recent past to think about its future. The three people profiled here are likely still living in Cuba — still waiting, still hoping.
It’s May 2001. A professor friend (let’s call him “Fred”) and I had been invited to Cuba to lecture at the Center for the Study of the United States. We had prepared stuff on the American presidential election. And we had worked up presentations on some of the subcabinet appointments for Bush’s government, particularly those affecting Latin America and Cuba. But we were out of our league.
The folks at the center were smart, funny, and had direct outside Internet access. That meant two things: First, they were stone spooks, “studying” the United States for Cuban intelligence. Second, since they lived in a system where whim and personal bias were king, they knew an incredible amount about whim and personal bias. Fred and I knew the formal American system; the Cubans wanted to know about the third deputy undersecretary of photocopier maintenance in building four at the State Department, because they knew who was really in charge.
My color overheads impressed them, though, because they cost $1.50 per page. The reason they were impressed was that, as professors — and near the top of the heap in terms of income — they were well paid, earning in some cases more than $30 per month. The idea that someone would pay nearly $30 to make 18 overheads was amazing to our hosts. I later found out they also drove taxis nights and weekends, since they could make a month’s salary in tips in a couple of days.
We had some free time, and there are plenty of things to do in Havana. Visiting Hemingway’s house, touring the Morro Castle, museums, parks — it’s a 500-year-old city, with 50 years of ideologically excreted zealot-guano caked on top.
We encountered three of the most interesting, sad, and hopeful people I’ve ever met, in three different settings. Each of them represented a layer of Cuban society. Let’s start at the top.
1. Museo de la Revolución: Antolina
Fred and I went to the Museo de la Revolución, unsubtly sited in the former presidential palace. It had last been occupied by the appalling gangster-dictator Fulgencio Batista on New Year’s Day, 1959. Our tour guide was a young woman I’ll call “Antolina.”
Antolina showed us the bullet holes near the stairway, where the Castro-aligned “students” had run up the stairs to try to kill Batista in 1957. Batista’s office was impressively ornate, and Antolina showed us the “secret” exit behind a curtain where cowardly Batista had hidden from the students’ righteous anger. Though the attack had failed, it had been a glorious union of intellectuals and the working class, the union that still animates Cuba today, and blah, blah, blah (I’m skipping a lot).
Halfway through the tour, we went outside to look at some anemic military displays. Fred asked Antolina a question about the “students” and where they had come from. It couldn’t have been more innocent. But she immediately turned to him and said, “Look, you’re professors; I’m a historian. That other stuff is just what we tell tourists.”
And then she told us her version of the real story. Remember, she was in uniform, a priestess at the Temple of Socialism. But she also cared about history. First and foremost, she cared about Cuba and the truth. In that moment, she felt more of a connection with history than with the revolution.
It turns out, at least according to Antolina, that the attack was botched from the outset. Students and workers were supposed to coordinate and pull up to the palace together. But the workers pulled up first, saw soldiers on the roof with rifles, and panicked. They drove off, tires squealing, and hid behind a building. Then they bailed, leaving the truck. The students arrived about a minute later, and immediately attracted the already-aroused interest of the soldiers on the roof.
Several students were killed in the parking lot, but 10 or so made it inside the building, brandishing rifles and yelling. They fired wildly, making the bullet holes by the stairs. As they went up the stairs, the soldiers were getting organized. The students just ran around bumping into each other until they were killed or captured. It is not clear they ever even found Batista’s office, on the second floor. And, if they had, it would hardly have mattered, because Batista was upstairs in his bed that entire day, suffering from diarrhea. In short, the workers ran off before the first shot, the students got lost and then got killed, and Batista was out with a tummy ache anyway.
Through gestures and concise, idiomatic description in what was, after all, her second language, Antolina made us feel as if we had been there. Though the story was brief and furtive, she told it in a way that has stuck in my mind ever since. This impressive young woman should have been a real historian, doing real research, or curating some important museum collection. If she had been born in almost any other country, she would have been. Her self-confidence, in retrospect, was striking. When she found out we were professors, she decided we were all peers. Even more impressively, she was right: she was clearly our equal. But the best post open to her was as a cleric in the Cuban secular church.
2. The tour guide: Trino
The second striking personality was a government-approved tour guide who went with us by taxi to several sites and tried to work with us to get through an army “roadblock” that had no apparent purpose. He was friendly, bright, and very energetic. I’ll call him “Trino.”
At lunch, Fred and I asked Trino about himself. It turns out he had an advanced degree, the closest equivalent one could find to an MBA in Cuba. He wanted to start his own business, after Castro passed on, and he had several plans about how to make it happen. I slowly realized that Trino was furious. And what made him angry was the system he had to live in (partly because that meant he had to be a tour guide to fat idiots like me!). More than anyone else I met, this tour guide made me feel the tragedy of “modern” Cuba.
He had enormous plans, gigantic ambitions. But he had to go to Morro Castle, or Hemingway’s house, or some other attraction every day and answer the same questions. (“Do they have those six-toed cats here?” “No, ma’am, that was Hemingway’s other house, the one in Key West.” (Dios, me tira ahora…) His life was ticking by, and he couldn’t organize any development ventures, even though he lived in one of the largest, most attractive, least developed tourist destinations in the world. There is prime real estate, right on the Malecón, one of the most beautiful ocean vistas anywhere, where the buildings are completely uninhabitable. Some visitors ask, “Were these buildings damaged in the revolution?” What Trino wanted to say, but couldn’t, was “No, ma’am, they have been damaged by the revolution.”
We had asked our spook hosts, back at the university, why these properties weren’t being developed, or just torn down. They earnestly explained that there were plans to renovate them, but that the government had not yet authorized the money. Somehow, Miami had managed to find ways to generate huge new private building projects, but there were no renovations along the entire Malecón.
Trino had to ride by these great gold mines every day, seeing but unable to touch or build. It was a tragedy of the unseen, because of what was not happening. All you would have to do is take ten 26-year-old entrepreneurs like Trino, open up a financial system for direct foreign investment, and endorse private property. Within a year, each Trino would be making $30k a month, the unemployment rate would be below 3 percent, and the Malecón would be beautiful even if you turned away from the ocean and looked across the street.
3. The cigar hooker: Evaristo
The last guy was the most amusing. His type is not unique to Cuba; it can be found in any police state. The young man I’ll call Evaristo was utterly charming, amusing, and completely untrustworthy — so we liked him immediately. Evaristo was selling contraband cigars in, incredibly, the government cigar shop. To be fair, he wasn’t actually selling cigars there. He was openly trying to hook people into walking across the street (good hiding spot!) with him and buying the “same” cigars (he claimed) at less than half price, avoiding all those nasty taxes and laws and things.
Being a free-market libertarian, I am completely terrified of tax dodges and black-market transactions, since governments have men with guns. Being a lefty, my friend Fred believed in a more nuanced approach: pay the taxes you think are legit (to be fair, for Fred this is almost all of them), but feel free to weasel on the rest. So, I paid $80 for 10 cigars in the government shop, got my receipt for US Customs, and followed Evaristo and Fred to the “private” cigar shop run by Evaristo’s “associates.” (I’m sorry for all the scare quotes, but it was scary.)
We got into the first floor and saw that the building was just a shell, left over after a pretty severe fire. There was nothing on the first floor, including light or air (it is possible I was hyperventilating by this time). Being a coward, I stayed on the first flo