Thirty years ago, I was a professional photo-journalist, working for the Leesburg Commercial, a New York Times-owned daily, published in Leesburg, Florida. Before eventually leaving the South, I wanted to end my tenure there by doing something risky and controversial. I proposed an investigative trip to evaluate freedom of the arts in Cuba. My editor loved it!
Thursday July 10, 12:30 a.m.,
“Batteries going dead and still an hour to go until check-in …sitting here in the airport terminal trying not to feel self-conscious with a typewriter in my lap, listening to Spanish being spoken by everyone around me as I wait patiently with them for the plane to Havana.”
I didn’t know it then, but patience would prove to be the single most important characteristic necessary for the trip to Cuba that I had undertaken.
Being asked to arrive four hours before a flight that was consequently postponed two additional hours, meant that by now, midnight to be exact, I have exhausted all possibilities for diversion. I’ve checked out each of the duty-free boutiques and explored every magazine rack, eaten a piece of pie and even looked in on the video game arcade before deciding to return to the waiting zone and set up my “office.”
I’m trying to override the anxiety that everyone has chosen to inflict upon me ever since I proposed the idea of this trip. Everyone from the travel agent who warned me of the possibility of a ten-year jail sentence if he or I were convicted of falsely representing me as a journalist, to my Aunt Carol who broke down in tears last night swearing that I would never get out of Cuba again once I entered. I’ve suffered through the dire warnings and misgivings of everyone that I mentioned this trip to, with the exception of my editor and publisher who both thought my proposal sounded quite “interesting.”
Now, there is nothing left to do but wait, having pushed the game ball through all of the necessary Washington wickets to gain legal access to this zone-under-embargo, lying just ninety miles off the tip of Florida.
Cuba has been declared off-limits to Americans for over 25 years. That time represents a lot of unanswered questions – too many questions to answer in a year of study, much less the week I have been allotted. Therefore, I plan to restrict the focus of my exploration to the Cuban art scene, trying to draw some valid conclusions from inference.
My theory: if a country is suffering from repression, the arts will be a highly visible social barometer. When a government is dictating aesthetics along political lines, then the artistic results of that situation should inevitably begin to show signs of decay resulting in a lifeless, mannerist form of imitation — a kind of “official style” as in German art during the Nazi era or Maoist art throughout the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
In 25 years, Cuban painters suffering under state oppression should either have exhausted all possible varieties of the Che Guevara portrait or given up painting entirely. I realize that expecting to explore Cuban culture while avoiding the political overtones of its preceding historical narrative would be impossible. I plan to investigate Cuban fine arts, talk with artists and representatives at the various agencies that organize the arts, in order to take the pulse of current Cuban culture.
Today in Miami, where the news of Latin America is of vital interest to a greater proportion of a city’s population than anywhere else in the United States, there are several stories concerning Cuba, stories about expatriate Cuban people driven mad by misery and loneliness, separated from their families.
I read about Juan Gonzalez, turned out of an overcrowded psychiatric emergency facility, attacking a crowd on a Staten Island ferry with a sword. Down the page, another Cuban expat purposely sets himself afire while driving his car. Another puts a bullet through his head while talking about his proposed suicide with the police dispatcher over the telephone. Meanwhile, Cuban-American doctors meeting in the U.S. are condemning health care on the island nation while government officials from both countries negotiate media rights over radio stations broadcasting into each other’s territories. Mother Teresa is in Havana, while here in Miami, wives and relatives of the Mariel felons are protesting their possible deportation.
It’s no secret that there are volatile issues among the mundane news, especially here in Florida. Human suffering over political differences has psychologically distanced the island of Cuba much farther than its geographical location would infer.
Our world is changing faster than most of us are willing to admit. The ABC television World News just announced that sometime tomorrow, the 5 billionth person will have been born into the Earth’s population. More than 1 million Cubans are now living in the U.S.. In a world that is getting smaller and more crowded by the minute, it’s alarming to think the space that separates Americans from their estranged island neighbors to the South is just 35 minutes away by air.
Thursday July 10, 2:00 a.m.
Flying over Havana one sees two fires burning constantly. I assume they are refineries but they look like candles as they burn above populated sections of the sleeping city. Touching down brings a loud cheer from the tail section of the plane, full of students wearing Cuban flag hats and matching T-shirts.
Passing through the customs check at 3 a.m.
Waiting in lines for papers to be shuffled and stamps to be administered then the searching of luggage…. There I spot the first sign of communism, Russian scales set to weigh the bags. I am ready for the communism to sweep over me in nauseating waves as I step out of this building. But first I must undergo a thorough and humiliating search of everything I am carrying and that includes 5 bags in all. I knew this was going to be unavoidable, confirmed as I watch the people ahead of me. One woman is carrying huge bags full of numerous Bic razors and cosmetics. The guard dutifully inventories every single item. Her search alone consumes half of an hour.
My turn is next. I step forward after that broken wretch steps ahead to pay her duty. I place my bags on the counter and start to open them. The customs agent asks what I am doing in Cuba.
I say “I am a journalist.”
She says, “Go on through.”
I want her to look in my camera bag. She refuses. I walk out into the hot and steamy communist night. It seems impossible to avoid melodrama in this tropical atmosphere. Years of conditioning and imagery are festering in my brain. Pushed to the limits of endurance as the clock approaches 4 a.m., I am getting silly under the circumstances.
However, I am not prepared for the next sight that meets my eyes. Outside, on that dingy, silent street, sits a collection of Soviet cars posing as taxis, with sleepy Cuban men posing as alert taxi drivers. But, scattered about are unmistakable signs of the American influence – rolling relics from Detroit’s glorious era also posing as taxis. It is enough to make a classic-car fan giddy. There are old Ford Crown Victorias, 4-hole Buicks, Chevys and Plymouths still shiny and serviceable with none newer than vintage 1958.
As luck would not have it, I am met by a driver with a Soviet taxi possessing as much style as a refrigerator on wheels.
The 15-minute ride from the airport to my downtown Havana hotel gives me my first ground-level impression of this crumbling neo-classical, Mediterranean-gothic, kingdom-by-the-sea and time for a bit of conversation.
I notice that they appear to turn off the neon signs and lighted billboards in this city when it gets late. Actually they turn off a lot of the lights, giving the aged city a yellow, somewhat sinister appearance.
Thinking wisely, I ask the cabbie, “Are there any spots where somebody could run into trouble wandering around the city?” I sense confusion and press on, “I mean are there any dangerous parts of the city, perhaps to be avoided after dark?”
His laughter and response to my question are sufficient to wake us both, “Señor, there is no crime here in Havana!”
“Whad’ya mean no crime?” I grope.
“There is no crime – no robbery, no rape, no drugs.”
The pity I initially feel for this poor victim of the “betrayed revolution” fades. The conversation dims to utter silence as I sit here wondering if he is telling me the truth or is this just what he is instructed to say to all foreigners.
We arrive at the hotel as I continue struggling to reconcile this newfound bit of information. So this is what it’s like to be muzzled, forced to deliver newspeak as dictated by a police state.
My suspicions are aroused even further when the desk clerk assigns me to a room on the 13th floor. Don’t these communists have any common sense? Hotels in America never have a 13th floor. I complete the process of signing in and I am nervous. I am tired. I am waiting.
The frontdesk clerk now seems to be ignoring me having turned away to attend to some bookkeeping. I am wondering when he will give me the key to my room. I finally give up being patiently polite. I ask for the key to my room.
He glances over the tops of his reading glasses trying to fix his gaze upon me like I have somehow become a complete stranger. Then, he too starts laughing… at me.
“I’m sorry. No one has ever asked me for a key before,” he apologizes. “No one locks their doors here. We have no keys.”
I follow the bellhop toward the elevator carrying more than $3,000 dollar’s worth of camera equipment in bag on my shoulder. The bellhop accompanies me to the 13th floor. Sure enough, the room door can’t even be bolted from the inside!
I’m a seasoned traveler. I’ve survived for weeks in seedy hotels in London, New York, Paris and LA. I know what to look for in securing a room in a foreign city. I can wedge a chair into the hallway door. I’ll be secure on the main front. Then, I spot another weakness, the balcony doorway. Anyone could easily step over the low railings dividing the balconies and step right inside. Of course, the balcony door has no lock!
I am very tired. I accept the testimony of the cabby, the desk clerk, the bellhop and all of the rest of the evidence. It is now 4:30 a.m. I am feeling quite strange. I fling the balcony door wide open and let the warm ocean breeze freshen my room. The first hint of daylight begins to reveal a new day. I sprawl out on the clean, crisp, white sheets and drift away as the ceiling fan turns slowly overhead.
Now, as I think back on that week in Havana, I recall that I never once heard a siren wailing in the night. Don’t they even have an occasional fire in the police state?