Forbidden Island

Tad Friend goes off limits in the Caribbean—to Cuba—where he finds a lot more than ideology.

  1. 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 ...

Originally published in Vogue, February 1990