Havana for a Dead Castro
To Ivet Kamar. For the taste of coffee.
The constellations and the Mediterranean aroma.
From Mexico City to Cancun. The plane landed at 12:00 pm.
Seeing as how I had to wait four or five hours to make the connection with Cubana de Aviación, I wandered around the terminal. Images came to my mind from 10 years ago. I visited this splendid place on a study trip; it was a popular travel destination for those thirsty for the sun, the beach, and nighttime safaris. The most appealing image was that of walking along the boardwalk and spotting the twinkling lights from the island’s capital. I just stood there, mesmerized.
If the humidity was unbearable here, I said to myself, in a place with tourists packed like sardines from all over the world, I did not want to imagine what the thermometer in Havana would say. It was at the end of March, awaiting the Frankenstein summer of 1997, full of confusion and shadow. My flight was at 20:00 hours. Neither the sextants nor the gypsy palmists, not even a crystal ball could have revealed that my arrival coincided with that of the remains of Che Guevara. That, to begin with, was already significant.
Mexico lay behind.
The captain of the aircraft told us with the velvety voice of a news anchor that we would be landing at José Martí International Airport.
With the 35 degree Celsius temperature awaiting us outside, I began heating up my spirits –because we had to wait almost two hours to leave the plane– in a state of perplexity and prudent curiosity from not knowing what was really going on with the strange movement of the soldiers. I thought about the beginning of a chronicle by the great José Lezama Lima: ¡Hay frío en La Habana! Frío nocturno de abanico de cuchillos, de salida de baile, in tune with the defiant logic of the open sky.
We formulated questions and launched them like rockets, but nobody on the crew could, or would, give us the placebo to calm our anxiety. We could see soldiers as tall as Cuba’s national tree, the Royal Palm, going from one side to the other in diligent military fashion. The Carlota Operation, the Ogaden War, and the punitive persecution of Jonas Savimbi (the African adventures that generated so many ideological gains in Latin America) had fed historians for years. In a context of political oppression, be it despotism, tyranny, or dictatorship, there is always someone who talks.
We were circumstantial witnesses of the return of the best icon of post-revolution Cuba’s remains. He was immortalized in that photo by Alberto Díaz, alias Korda –the puffy beret, the bristly hair, faint mustache, and that gaze, as profound as can be. None of the passengers on board could decipher what was really going on with the military bustle, possibly because the man in charge of the luggage carousel spoke like a talkative Orisha. He called those of us who asked questions “the chosen ones” because we were part of such a coincidence, the arrival of the hero and the encounter with mere, ignorant mortals. I was the most ignorant, especially when it had to do with Marxism-Leninism. In a dogmatic and dictatorial regime, the manuals and manifests form part of an atheistic Bible, for example The Academy of Sciences from the USSR; The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State by Engels; The State and the Revolution by Lenin; Socialism and the Churches by Luxemburg. Capital. Volume 1. The Process of Capital Accumulation, by Marx. The Red Book, by Mao. Finally, The Fundamentals of Socialism in Cuba, by Blas Roca. As it pertains to the hero’s death, arrival, and reception by the military caste, we needed to use a Homeric key to decode the novel circumstance: the death of Ulysses, who went to remedy alternative social trajectories, seek new knowledge, and explore faraway lands.
At that time as well as this one, I continue without giving the words of the Airport Orisha, with Elegua’s pardon, the credit they deserved. It is not because of insensitivity. Unfamiliarity. Nor ideological apathy. With the arrival of the dead hero, the Hegelian idea that Marx took care to perfect in The 18 Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte grew stronger. History is written twice: first as a tragedy, and then as a farce.
While I walked to the clandestine taxi that would take me to El Vedado, near Línea and Calzada, a Mexican couple in their forties asked if we could share a taxi. I accepted. The dollar was at an exchange rate of 23 Cuban pesos. She was from Monterrey and he was from the port of Veracruz. They were small business owners and also worked for the Avon company. They sat in the back and I took the co-pilot’s seat. They talked nonstop, but soon, as the trip became slow and tedious with the humidity, they began kissing passionately. The driver used the rearview mirror so as to not miss any details. They begged him to rush to their destination, the Riviera Hotel. I found out later that the distance between the house I was staying at and the seaside hotel was relatively short.
During the journey, glances of revolutionist propaganda in spectacular ads and along the highway showed in an atomized way a doctrinaire aesthetic halfway between barbarism and chieftainship, between authoritarianism and Enlightened Despotism. We defend socialism. My pen flew as I wrote the first slogan in my notebook. After a stretch of road, another: Revolution is to not lie, ever. There were others that were worthy of raising conjectures, but I stopped with this one: Homeland or death, the palpable phrase that was part of an infected political philosophy (not left out of power discourses) that is directed toward a militant majority capable of self-criticism, undoubtedly, but lacking the autonomy to exercise public dissent.
Suddenly, I was becoming a participant of complete immersion in a universe whose libido designed and sublimated the consecration of an order that, whether wanted or not, forced you to unrestricted submission and repression through institutional ritualization which is repeated until it causes delirium. That took me to the threshold of the taxonomies and language denominations, strengthened by a dogmatic imagination. As if to down play the ties I had begun to establish between the Cuban context and the Mexican context, because there were links: the same pedagogical sensitivity of the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) and the third world paternalism of rampant Castroism; I determined that in these cases, there was always mobility and relationship in every power discourse. Also the PRI slogans (or those fabricated by the system), with the help of TV stations (TV Azteca and Televisa), were the champions of the collective spell that translated into big dividends: Mexico is first (by Ernesto Zedillo); Mexico present, Salinas for president (by Carlos Salinas).
After leaving that alienating introspection, I concentrated on the words of the driver that, in order to indulge us, showed his affection for Mexico by evoking Juan Gabriel’s Mariachi music and movies with Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete, and Tin Tan. I drew the conversation to Congris, Moors and Christians, yuca with mojo and oxtail stew (el rabo encendido). That dish caused laugh to Mexican couple. Finally, I asked him point-blank if he had ever seen, from up close or from afar, Fidel Castro (1926-2016), master and lord of the island.
A silence (speculative, esoteric, empirical) invaded the inside of the car. The driver said yes in a roundabout way. He began to speak in Cuban: the warlord spoke for hours in the Revolution Plaza. He did not say warlord. He said Fidel. As if he were a trustworthy friend.
The woman from Monterrey took two small black boxes from her bag, one for me and the other for the driver. Inside there was a bottle of Avon lotion. We thanked her and parted ways. The car stopped on Avenue 23, Street 8; my destination. I was already in El Vedado. A pretty neighborhood, a completely opposite appearance from that of Old Havana, a section of town with the stifling climate of urban demolition. Houses were in ruins. They served as metaphors to raise up the Batista regime, or to justify the effects of the United States government’s economic embargo. For most people, it symbolized both.
It was the first time I had visited a socialist country, and even though the collapse of the Soviet Union had wreaked havoc on all levels in the nineties, Cuba avoided crucial battles. The country sustained itself by exporting goods like sugarcane, rum, tobacco. Cuba, with a great push, did not only rise to the top like a boat that did not want to sink, but also cultivated a flourishing tourism in key zones, with impressive and luxurious hotels for VIP tourism. At the same time, nevertheless, in an economy so injured for the islanders, there was an impressive demand for sexual tourism. Jineterismo (a practical euphemism to refer to prostitution in a discrete way) was broadly institutionalized because it put food on the table. What they gave with the Provisions Card did not do anything, not provide basic sustenance for the family, let alone allow one to indulge in other whims like a color television, name brand tennis shoes, soap, toothpaste, for example.
But I felt uneasy. I don’t know why, since I came from a country with a singular political party that had governed Mexico for decades. In addition, I automatically became part of the Crisis Generation, one crisis after another, so recurring that it slowly became second nature, worse than usual. “Crisis” is a nuclear term that the well-oiled power machine tattooed on millions of us. My obsession obeyed the arrival of a paradigm that was hard for me, that of non-fiction, with capital letters, between the subject and its environment, and for a contrariety on the subject of representation between the political administrator and the legitimacy conferred by the citizens.
I don't exactly know when my country got fucked up, but I, nevertheless, learned to manipulate my reality through fiction and the ability to create stories. Overcome crisis. I thought about illusions. Longing. Desire. If not, I would not have been able to live. I did not for a moment think about expressing ideas that had to do with public issues and business that were unique to Cubans. Even so, the idea of one person controlling all the power annoyed me, in the same way that social, political, or testimonial realism uniquely made up the authorized ways I could describe that reality that I began to perceive. It was a question of perception, obviously, a change of register that compelled me. With a bad habit, I had begun to map possible routes: from Dulce María Loynaz’s house to Trocadero Street, where Lezama Lima lived, the last voyager. The trace of Hemingway in La Vigía, following the main highway of Cuba, or returning, toward the insightful and irreverent Pedro Juan Gutiérrez’s jurisdiction, the faun of Downtown Havana.
We arrived at the house after midnight.
Tipsy from the mojitos and the music of Bola de Nieve and Ernesto Lecuona, a rhythm that hits like an iceberg, my euphoric hosts awaited me. They were excited, as if two people were ten, including the taxi driver who was a friend and neighbor of theirs. Beside the gardens, the neighbors were playing dominoes as if it were chess. The energy of the players surprised me: Hey buddy, what up? Here with the Cuban rhythm.
Before, I had come up with the idea that every traveler really knows a foreign country when he or she stays in a house, because only then can they catch the time and the pulse of a foreign culture. Afterwards, when I glanced inside the house in which I would spend a long, Caribbean summer, I confirmed this idea.
My hosts spoke fluent Portuguese. They enjoyed the sweet nectars of retirement from the health sector, with 230 pesos monthly for each of them (equivalent to 10 dollars, with the exchange rate of the time). At least they could buy good pork in the famers’ market at 17 and G street, along with well-priced vegetables and legumes. The Council of the State of the Republic of Cuba awarded them the medal of International Combatant for their services in Luanda, the capital of Angola. They celebrated my arrival and also the retirement of my host (his wife had retired five years earlier), because his last and definitive incursion in that African country had ended without any news until just two days ago, the day of his return to the island with tan skin, he was skinnier than normal, and with lighter-blue eyes due to overexposure to the sun.
He told me that in a few days he would be subjected to rigorous lab tests, as part of the preventative measures of the ministry of health: malaria, yellow fever, dengue, and sexually transmitted diseases (syphilis, gonorrhea, chancre, and AIDS). He was ready for whatever it may be because Changó had opened the ways for him, he added. You better be, my hostess interjected with a cigarette in her hand.
I went inside and recognized my room at the end of the hallway.
A clattering fan lying in the middle of the two twin beds impeded that I sleep well the rest of the night. I opted for enduring the blades crossing on this small helicopter made by the Soviets, which let me be consumed by the humidity and heat.
Dr. Kafka made an appearance. The next day, Gregorio Samsa was in the bathroom. Sitting on the toilet he realized, with amazement, that the shower curtain was moving for no apparent reason. Samsa grabbed the shower curtain, pricked by curiosity. He froze upon encountering the inexorable and severe look of a pig, fat like a Buddha, stretched out in the bathtub, waiting on his masters to feed him. Although it was months until Christmas, my hosts imagined Fidel as an appetizing roast pig, reclining on a soft bed of rice. My hostess began to fatten him two months before her husband found out his return date to Cuba. He was first baptized as Bruno, because that was her first husband’s name, who took his own life in a coastal city of the Mexican Pacific. With a bullet. So that is how the audacity to re-baptize him as Fidel sprang up. Like civic catharsis. Samsa and Fidel established a cease-fire agreement on the second day, especially during shower time.
They constructed a prophylactic border. The rest of the time, Samsa had many privileges, despite showering by the cupful due to the sudden cuts of the electrical and water services: Fidel was mute. He became aware as the days passed that Fidel the pig did not make a sound. The hostess explained that she had asked for the Pinal del Río veterinarian’s help, so that the pig, after a significant throat surgery, would stop grunting. Samsa took pity on poor Fidel and arrived at the conclusion that there is nothing worse for a living being than not being able to show its emotions. No one but those who lived in the house could know about the pig. One tip-off from the neighbors is all it would take for Fidel to be confiscated by the authorities, five months before Christmas dinner.
My hostess had the marvelous idea to hire a guide the first week so that I could familiarize myself with the city quickly. She thought the ideal tour guide would be Mr. Bacallao, an imposing black man, with a shiny bald head, advanced in years, respected by everyone, not because of his gray hair, but rather because of his job. He was a warlock, a good one, a priest of Ifá: a babalawo that predicted the future, cast out demons, gave direction, threw coconuts, and spoke lucumí, a liturgical language from Yoruba that the slaves brought over from Africa.
Bacallao and I walked from El Vedado to Downtown Havana for hours. He told stories like a novelist and I listened to him as if I found myself before a deity, the Seneca of the Caribbean. In fact, he was. I briefly interrupted him, like the trembling Lucilius, after seeing the sailors busy with loading, entering and leaving the merchant ships anchored in the port, to ask if he had read El negrego: vida novelada de Pedro Blanco Fernández de Trava, by Lino Novás Calvo. His resounding no made me feel like a perfect imbecile. Bacallao continued his narration.
He knew incredible anecdotes that supposedly took place in the Ambos Mundos Hotel (in which Hemingway never stopped being interested in women), in the Bodeguita del Medio (Che’s plate was the Machuquillo, Mofongo from Puerto Rico), in the bar of the England Hotel (the other Fidel ended up surrendered in the snowy arms of Marita Lorenz). He seasoned them with the phrase aplende que no soy etelno (learn that I won’t live forever), as part of a didactic exercise that resulted effective for his Mexican disciple that had promised that he would never forget him or his narrative tricks while mixing stories.
The days passed by. Bacallao arrived home on April 4th to repeat the hike. Happy because he perfumed his orishas every morning with the fragrance of Avon. He let me know that in Karl Marx Theater, Fidel Castro would give the opening speech at the 35th anniversary of the Young Communists Union. Delegates from different invited countries would participate, including the United States –with the largest contingent. The Ifá priest and his godson, given that he had participated in a ceremony to stay in the shelter and spiritual protection of Changó and adorned with multicolored necklaces to please his godfather, went to the theater to see the other Fidel, the fucking boss of the island.
I remembered a story by Elias Canetti while we saw and listened to the commander. Verbose, dressed in olive green. Canetti tells that he walked hand in hand with his mother down one of the central streets in Vienna. He was a child and his mother, a passionate and intelligent reader of novels and Shakespearean theater, observed the world like a gypsy scrutinizes palms. Upon seeing the nervous mass in the street and identifying quickly the man in the window, a man who would later mark an era of history in the 20th century, his mother stopped in her tracks. She told the boy Canetti to get a good look at the man that had his back to them in the cafe and to never forget his name: Joseph Stalin, drinking coffee, in a circle of friends.
Bacallao joined in the constant ovations. I did not applaud. I wanted to put into practice my injured emotional intelligence, diminished even more by being in the middle of a context of extreme fervor produced by Cuban nationalism. Very respectable. So I stayed on the sidelines.
Like the boy Canetti, under a hypnotic spell, I did not stop looking at the speaking Fidel, whose picture overlapped with the Fidel from the shower, immobile, with a morbid consistency, reduced to nothingness, without the opportunity to take advantage of the moment, in detriment of the uses and customs of an extraverted people, the magicians of music, painting, and fiction. The Fidel from the shower, mute and without the ability to exercise the right of reply or pose a poignant tirade. What worried me the most about the fattened pig was that the feast would take place in a few months, and nothing could be done to postpone his fatality, because every pig meets his San Martín.
Before Fidel’s speech ended I asked, in an untimely fashion, if as a priest of Ifá he could tell me what would happen in Cuba when the fucking boss of the island was dead.
Socialism or death!
Homeland or death!
We will be victorious!
–Dude. He is the son of Changó and Yemayá. Those never die.
Translated by Caren Vestal
José Antonio Moreno is an Assistant Professor in the Spanish Program of the Department of Literature and Linguistics of the University of Texas, Permian Basin.
Caren Vestal is currently pursuing a Master's in Spanish at the University of Texas at the Permian Basin while teaching at the High School level. She and her husband Will have two cats and two dogs. Caren has traveled to many places including Spain, Argentina, Peru, New Zealand and Holland, but she has a special place in her heart for the Spanish language and culture.
Latin American Literature Today begins its third year of publication with an issue that takes in Venezuelan poetry, the writing of indigenous women, and the strange worlds of fiction. We open the journal's second volume with a dossier dedicated to Samanta Schweblin, an Argentine writer whose work tests the limits between the fantastic and the real, and then we shift to the poetry of Venezuelan poet Rafael Cadenas, winner of the 2018 Premio Reina Sofía de Poesía Iberoamericana. We also pause over Mapuche poetry, with a special selection of four young women poets who write in Mapuzungun and in Spanish, and we also stay up to date with the present debates surrounding one of the central figures of twentieth-century Latin American literature, Pablo Neruda, with an exclusive interview of his biographer Mark Eisner.