Forbidden Island

Tad Friend

Though it has the obligatory colonial armoires and brass firemen's helmets, the Museum of the City of Havana's chief attraction is an ambience, a moody magical realism. Downstairs, in the courtyard of this former Spanish colonial palace where royal palm trees rocket above sinuous, barroco-style columns, lies the magic: two old bathtubs hidden in the shrubbery without curatorial explanation, a peacock strutting and flourishing its fan, a young woman descending the staircase in a yellow taffeta ball gown, trailing her fingers along the keys of the grand piano on the landing.

Upstairs, for an American visitor, is the realism: a suite of rooms devoted to the wicked depredations of the United States. The most unsettling exhibit is an edgy diorama, imperialismo yanqui: busts of Cuba's puppet presidents, a Shell Oil sign, empty Coca-Cola bottles, all scattered on the floor, spurned.
Throughout Cuba you find these reminders that Fidel Castro defines his country's identity, in part, by negative space, he means Cubans to be what we are not. Signs at crossroads exhort citizens to observe "twenty-four-hour vigilance" against imperialism; posters caricature Uncle Sam as a gaudy vulture; and every museum seems to devote half its resources to detailing CIA atrocities. Havana's Museum of a Militant People has a wall chart listing the Principal Aggressions of Yankee Imperalists, including 5,300 "provocations and diverse types of incidents," as well as a compendium of slogans shouted during a march against the 1980 Mariel boatlift, which evacuated over one hundred thousand Cubans to America, "Yankees, CIA, that's one enormous pile of shit"; "Carter, you bum, you get all the scum."
In private, happily, Americans are well received; I was the recipient of free food, enthusiastic conversation, and breathtakingly bald offers of marriage. "We are told you are a dying society," Irene, who was candidly angling to become Mrs. Friend, told me, "but I would like to catch the illness myself." Cubans watch a lot of American films, and those with powerful radios can pull in 92.5 FM from Key West, ninety miles to the north, so we can take comfort in the knowledge that "Margaritaville" is booming out our message of freedom.

Americans are popular partly because they're so rare: current flooded in the Spanish style; bullfighting posters and impala heads cover the walls; and the grounds are an arboretum of areca palms, mango and coral trees, African orchids, and sweet-smelling Cup of Gold flowers that somehow lend an extra fillip of sadness to the large, empty swimming pool where Ava Gardner used to swim naked. Hemingway's house, for years a clean, well-lighted place at the center of a blustery life, endures now as an unexpectedly haunting sanctuary from the diesely bustle of modern Cuba.

Though Castro has increasingly sought to dissociate himself from the Soviets, denouncing perestroika as "deviationism" and comparing its architects to "counterrevolutionaries," the contours of modern Cuba are still heavily shaped by the hand of Russia. (Castro continues to accept up to four billion dollars a year in aid and favorable trade agreements from the USSR but seems more comfortable with Brezhnev-era policies; at last count, some twenty-five human rights activists languished in Cuban jails.) Counterpoised against the delightful relics of 1950s American cars (plump, chrome-heavy Buicks and De Sotos) and architecture (hotels flush with linoleum, Formica, fluorescence, Naugahyde loungers, bubble lamps, "Bars Elegantes" with confident men drinking highballs, smoking fat cigars, and striding about in Sansabelt slacks) are the boxy Russian cars (Ladas and Moskviches) and Soviet-style buildings (most notably the gray stadiums and arenas now being built for the 1991 Pan-American Games, and the vaguely humanoid Russian embassy, five times larger than any other country's, that hunches over the horizon like a cement Frankenstein's monster).

Russia's influence is also apparent in the clumsy state planning: the only possible explanation for Havana's preposterous number of shoe stores is that some central office added an extra zero to the footwear budget. Havana, especially, features Moscow-esque queues for rationed supplies, meat, milk, rice, beans, and sugar, and lines around the block occasioned by the sporadic appearance in the battleship gray stores of a luxury product (lipstick, say) in its one variety (Soviet red, naturally).
Cuba as the State Charting a Precarious Course Through Ideological Shoals holds the traveler's attention for a few days, but I soon switched focus to the island's underlying character, to the jaunty resilience of a people whose salutation, compañero, is a lot friendlier than the Russian comrade. To be sure, I had some difficulty ferreting out that character beneath a confusion of dilapidated Moorish architecture (many of the oldest buildings and liveliest bars are in slow-motion renovation) and unreachable people (Havana last issued a phone book in 1979). Patience is a saving virtue here. 

The most notorious forum for Cuban ebullience is the cabaret, and the most notorious cabaret is Havana's Tropicana nightclub, which last year celebrated its fiftieth year of compellingly tacky floor shows. The current incarnation of Montezuma's revenge on Busby Berkeley choreography features scores of underclad showgirls, a thirty-two-piece orchestra, Carmen Miranda headdresses, choruses, ballet, gymnastics, a Nat King Cole impersonator, an extended xylophone solo, a piebald horse, strobe lights, bongos, break dancing, demonic possessions, and extended, convincing simulated sex. As soon as the show is over, the rum-fevered audience bursts on stage and dances until the next show, at 1:00 A.M. Most of the tourists have gone home by this point, unaware that there's more to come, and the late show for the locals is extremely steamy.
Outside Havana, in the town of Guanabacoa, the folk history museum has a fearsome exhibit devoted to Afro-Cuban religions. It's worth asking at the office for Marta Delafuente to take you around: a tiny stick of a woman, she told me in gruesome detail about the Santeria ceremonies in which you drink blood mixed with rum and delivered an unsettling disquisition on how to give my enemies frog-dust cocktails, swab their skin with poisonous bark, and, after making a fetish of my love-rival, how to stick it with small needles or burn it with cigarettes to induce mind-destroying pain. So watch out, enemies and love-rivals.

As tourism has increased (Cuba had 208,000 visitors in 1987, almost a quarter of them Canadian, and tourism is now the country's third-leading industry, behind sugar and nickel), the enthusiastic and wildly inefficient tourist bureau, Havanatur, has tried to funnel sunstruck gringos to the twenty-kilometer stretch of beach on the Gulf of Mexico at Varadero and, for the slightly more adventurous, to the Caribbean island of Cayo Largo. The snorkel-shaped island encourages complete relaxation: it's empty save for three hotels, which, like most of Cuba's tourist hotels, are long on fatty meals and Brobdingnagian swimming pools and short on hot showers. Especially soothing are the oddly Venusian sunsets: by some miracle, the light is dart-shaped, but the colors, the gray-green casuarina trees fronting the milky sand, the gauzy blue water, the violet clouds, are soft, sleepy, nuanced.

You can strike out to the nearby keys to gaze at iguanas or monkeys, or dive with Pipin Ferrera, who holds the world record for depth submersion without equipment (67 meters), but it's best simply to waste the afternoon in the Blue Marlin nightclub, listening to the Studio Dos band tighten up their infectiously wicked merengue sets as everyone drinks endless cervezas claras and chomps fried bananas and dances around laughing.
The country's most evocative city is Santiago de Cuba, six hundred miles east of Havana. Santiago today is languid and appealingly tatterdemalion. Life is slower, the Spanish more lilting than in Havana. People sit on their iron balconies and drink pru, a concoction of pepper leaves, vanilla, pine needles, soapberries, and India root that tastes a little like applejack and a lot like you're drinking a pine forest.

Padre Pico Street's fifty-three renowned steps aren't going to make Rome's Spanish Steps beg for mercy, but they suit the local dominoes champions, who attract soft-voiced kibitzers around their game on the first landing. And nearby Lino Boza Street is a dream of decaying mews, rosebushes climb the light blue and white walls, puppies roll between doorways, a small girl gathers the red flowers that women wear behind their cars as a mosquito repellent and then scatters them behind her as she climbs the hill overlooking the harbor and the Sierra Maestra Mountains, and old women rest their heads against barred windows, waiting for Cartier-Bresson to come along.
Indeed, Cuba, in its precarious innocence, often feels less like a country in need of a wise government than a landscape in search of an artist. In Santiago after sunset, a heavy darkness gathers around the low stone houses and fragile old gas pumps, around the sidewalks stained blue by the fallen grapes from the uva caleta trees, and only naked porch bulbs illuminate it all. You feel the deserted nightscape calling to the ghost of Edward Hopper. If he were still alive, he'd be just the sort of American, ironic, romantically disillusioned, having the initials E. H., who might get a visa.