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Cover Story: The Banana Republic

Cuba's no heaven, but it's no hell either

By Kathy Y. Wilson · June 16th, 2004 · Cover Story
Cuba Libre
Sean Hughes

Cuba Libre

Usted puede leer este artîculo en idioma Español visitando nuestra pâgina en internet.

HAVANA, CUBA -- High school Spanish won't help me now.

Outside -- whoomp! -- the air is a cocktail of sulfur, sea salt and diesel fuel. Inside, the bus smells like piss.

I'm stuffed into a plush seat midway back in a hooptie miniature Hola Sun tour bus dispatched to fetch me, Sean Hughes and a handful of others -- mostly Cubans -- from the Jose Marti International Airport.

The air is tepid. You can't open the darkly tinted windows.

It's Friday night. I put my face to the glass to get close to the people outside.

Baby palm trees fade past. Fifty-year-old dingy Chevrolets, motorcycles, scooters and bicycles keep pace beside and cross in front of the bus.

Every mode of transportation is sagging with people. Barely anyone travels solo.

Later I learn part of a good Cuban's responsibility -- and Socialism's foundation -- is to assist her brother and sister. You got wheels, so do I, and vice versa.

A school is illuminated. The side of the building is adorned -- as are most state-run buildings -- with abstract art. It's for Young Pioneers, children hand-picked for training as Socialists. Uniformed, they crowd a second-floor patio.

As we near Vedado -- where Sean's father Jon waits for us at the Hotel Melia Cohiba -- the remnants of Cuba's wealthy and revolutionary past spins by like the roulette wheels of Fulgencio Batista's casinos.

Old people playing dominoes sit at garden tables in the front patios of formerly grand mansions turned peeling tenements. Those who look up stare blankly. We pass.

Deserted scaffolding hugs buildings with chipped painting.

"The Pope's been where it's painted," Jon said during a pre-Cuba briefing.

In front of empty bodegas, tired-looking men crumple beneath faded signs advertising chorizos. Billboards are nationalist greeting cards.

There is nothing more noble and humane than a school.

Socialismo o muerte! Socialism or death!

Others have phrases like, "If we all work together...."

I smile that I can translate Castro's cheerleading. This'll be easy. No it won't.

My senses collide and explode. There's a photograph in every blink. My eyes are shutters burning images on my brain until I can write.

Traffic picks up as we enter Habana Vieja, Old Havana. Its energy is sexy.

Couples somehow walk intertwined with one another. At night the buildings -- El Museo de la Revolucion, Gran Teatro de la Habana -- look like abandoned movie sets.

Che Guevera's face is stories high on a ministry building. The rebel's famously stoic visage watches us, chin titled slightly upward, hair blown back, beret cocked just so. It looks expertly spray-painted, but the morning's light betrays a three-dimensional black metal sculpture.

That was Plaza de la Revolucion, marked by a massive memorial to Marti, a poet, playwright and essayist who, while in exile between America and Mexico, denounced America's exploitation of the poor and warned of its sporadic empirical intrusiveness.

Its plaza is where Fidel Castro gave the legendary speech when the dove lighted on his shoulder against the backdrop of a darkening sky.

As a tricked-out BMW with black windows and twinkling rims overtakes the bus, we pull to the hotel.

We walk through a pushy Caribbean breeze up the driveway and into the lobby. The dark-suited security officer eyeballs me.

"Buenos noche," I say. He's not impressed.

I'm walking into/through a dream. The lobby's palatial, decorated art deco-style with towering palms punctuating large, deep sofas on marble floors.

Jon is sitting at the illuminated corner bar like he's waiting for a connection or a source. We hug hello, and I feel welcomed home.

In the room where Sean will snore the next six nights and I'll fill in the day's notes in my journal, Jon tells us he's already been paid a 30-minute visit by Immigration officials.

"Be careful about what you talk about in your room, because it could be bugged," says Jon, who's been coming for nearly 20 years.

I'm not paranoid. I am a cultural spy.

Lost in translation
We come to Cuba because it's forbidde. We're told it's dangerous to take that first sip of rum, that first long hard drag off a 10-inch Cohiba.

We come because yellow, tan and dark-skinned people -- women and children especially -- work tirelessly and happily to curry our favor. If they're poor, they'll do anything. Smiling.

To hear us/U.S. tell it, Cuba's all Fidel Castro as Ike Turner -- brilliant pimp of the frightened wage slave. It's true Cubans shake that ass for the world in resorts they can't afford to stay in. They want us.

This desire is conflicted. We all are.

We misunderstand them, discount the strivers they are. Look at Castro himself. We can't even kill him right.

The day before I leave Cincinnati for Toronto for Cuba, there's news that four Cuban men washed up dead on a Florida beach.

There is tense desire. Deadly.

When we go, we're harangued and hushed; rehearsed, secretive. Membership isn't for everyone, but the club is tight. We recognize her from afar: She's been, too, we whisper.

My papers say I'm a journalist. Emotionally, spiritually and historically, I've come as a black woman.

I hadn't realized how American, how numbingly national and stupidly patriotic I'd been toward Cubans until I deconstructed my ignorance of Cuba. Like most Americans, I assumed Cuba was forbidden, dark, dingy, diseased and filled with pitifully begging and dirty people blindly and loyally waiting for Castro to tell them when to take a shit.

Then on Fridays they stood on line at company stores waiting to return to the government the wages they'd slaved all week to earn. Stepford Cubans.

How stupid. Why won't they come here? And why won't they fly? Why the inner tubes?

Our presidents don't like Castro so he must be evil, a brainwashing egomaniacal dictator. That's because neither America public education, media conglomerates scripting news reports this side of propaganda nor do popularly elected officials tell the truth of our relationship to Cuba and our accountability for why Cuba is the way it is or why Castro behaves the way he does toward us.

I never learned about the debacle of the Bay of Pigs, only that Vietnam was a war we couldn't win. No one ever said our Golden Boy President Kennedy ordered Castro's assassination or that in 1971 we dropped African Swine Fever germs on Cuba, forcing the slaughter of 500,000 pigs, a Cuban dietary staple.

Mainstream media never told that President Clinton used the U.S. Navy to protest Castro's downing of two exile-backed planes flying in illegal air space. The demonstration was a show of force against Cuba unheard of since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Nobody eulogizes dearly departed President Reagan as establishing Radio Marti, a U.S.-funded, anti-Cuba propaganda campaign.

Certainly I wasn't told how the American Mafia corrupted Batista.

Who knew the American dollar is the ironic antidote to the Special Period, the era beginning in 1988 when the demise of Russian Communism crippled the Cuban economy, rippling blackouts and shortages across the country? Or that the U.S. puts money into Cuban Catholic churches? Since the Church is largely white and affluent, the Vatican actually contributes to postmodern Cuban racism and classism.

Even today amid the chatter of tightening our embargo against Cuba, no one talks about the U.N. General Assembly's recurring vote against America's economic terrorism against Cuba. Must be the language barrier.

Cuba libre
Each night Sean and I flip through his travel guide and pocket dictionary or type words into his Inspector Gadget electronic translator. Invariably we say "Aaaah" to words we should've known but didn't.

Jon has contacts here. Professors and workers.

In the morning he's arranged for Alex, a 60-ish family man who served Castro in Angola and Mozambique, to meet us in the lobby. We'll rent a car for Alex to drives us around. It's as much a luxury for him as for us.

The manager of his family's paladar, a family-run restaurant specializing in Cuban and Creole food, Alex drives a struggling 1952 two-tone Chevrolet, works long days ordering fresh food and vegetables from campesinos and oversees waitresses and kitchen staff.

Our rental is a small white "Yaris," a generic-looking Toyota Tercel bastardized into an unpronounceable brand name for tourism's sake.

After Cuban rum and half a Cuban cigar in the hotel's humidor, we stretch out in our suite. I memorize the abrupt juxtaposition between the poverty on the street and the comfort of this resort.

I want to forget it, forge it into respect for the Cubans I'll cross. I want to be the un-tourist. I want to wake up fluent in Spanish.

I want inside the ramshackle apartments I see from my window. I want Cuba.

My first night's rest abroad dictates the journey, and I sleep peacefully.

I never figured out how to say "1411" correctly, so the first morning the woman checking room numbers at the dining room door asks I say each number individually. "Uno. Cuatro. Uno. Uno."

It's Saturday morning, and the dining room is overrun by the hotel's new crop of tourists -- Germans, French and Spanish. Summer Camp for the Rich and Gaudy.

After we eat, we meet Alex in the lobby. He's handsome. Ruddy and grandfatherly.

His English is scant, but it doesn't matter. A raised eyebrow, shrugged shoulders and silence forge a newfangled, bilingual version of charades that works for all four of us.

This part of our tour is for Alex. He takes us to familiar but inaccessible places, places off limits to an everyday Cuban that, with us as his pass, he can now get to. Later I realize that Alex's checkered button-down, khaki pants, baseball cap emblazoned with "Australia" and clean gym shoes are his take on a tourista.

The more un-Cuban he looks, the easier he moves about with us in tow. It gives him entree into hotel lobbies he'd otherwise need a hotel card for.

Gangsters once gambled in the Hotel Nacional where Batista's thugs arrested his predecessor's officers. It's also where Ernest Hemingway, Winston Churchill, Frank Sinatra and Ava Garner once stayed. Alex waves at but never speaks to hotel guards.

He leads us directly through the grand entrance to the rear cliff-top garden, where artisans have tables filled with art and peacocks strut regally. I buy a small painting of Yemaya, La Diosa del Mar, Goddess of the Sea.

We're reciprocal passports. Without Alex, we'd be hustled, price gouged, lost.

Today we see marinas, Cuban beaches and curiosities of Communism.

The resort of the Marina Hemingway is named El Viejo y El Mar, The Old Man and the Sea.

The former Russian embassy overlooks a Cuban beach that's sin arena (without sand) but has dientes de perro ( dog's teeth). The building is a gray cement rocket-shaped architectural eyesore, a phallic symbol deserted once the ideal Socialism of Cuba's Golden Period of the 1980s collapsed when Soviet Communism ended.

As we drive, we figure out license plate color codes: orange=business, cardinal=tourist and black=diplomat. City streets are littered with piscinas (snack bars) and Cubans eat chorizo sandwiches and fresh pork rinds and drink nectar pressed from sugar cane.

We drive along Havana's periphery, and the "expressways" are unremarkable and unmarked. Black smoke plumes from patches of Earth being burned to make way for fresh cane plants.

Groups of people -- women, entire families, teenage boys -- gather on roadsides and at exit ramps. They're not waiting for busses, as I'd assumed, but for "any ride they can get," Jon says.

Some have luggage, and they all look expectedly up the road toward oncoming traffic, rarely calling out to passing drivers. They look into cars. Will eye contact open doors?

Un mundo mejor es posible. A better world is possible, a billboard persuades.

Driving back through Havana, we pass monuments to the revolution. The Hotel Habana Libre is the spot that Castro, Guevara and their troops commandeered on New Year's Eve 1959 when Batista fled and power shifted to Castro.

Alex parks, taking us to a market along the Malecon. Imagine Vine Street from Central Parkway north through Avondale, plop it beside the ocean and the Malecon is ours.

Donkeys carry Cuban children giggling wildly. Young lovers pause to smooch, the women leaning hard into their men. Castro frowns on machismo, but Cuban men are catered to and their mannerisms gather gazes.

In the market stalls, painted canvasses hang like laundry, hand-carved wooden totems cluster like miniature forests. The weather is brilliant: bright, warm but not hot. The sun is direct, but Caribbean breezes move the rays horizontally.

Deeper into the market, book stalls hawk manifestoes about Communism and Karl Marx, Sartre in Cuba, Hemingway in Cuba. One man has plastic Baggies full of official, state-mandated black-and-white photos of Castro.

I like one of Castro eating fried chicken. The drumstick's blurred in his right hand as he pulls it from his mouth. The man takes my outward disinterest as a bartering tactic, lowering the price until I buy.

"Are you Rastafarian?"

A band is playing on a restaurant patio. I've made eye contact with a beautiful young man. His hair falls around his face in curly shining dreadlocks. His skin is burnished dark copper. He looks Ethiopian.

"No I'm not. My hair is just nappy," I say.

He's beside me. "Are you Cuban?"

I walk quickly. Alex looks back, slows down.

"No. I'm from Estados Unidos, United States."

He's tickled, smiles broadly. He doesn't ask for money or try selling anything, but Alex lags back and shoos him away before he can.

We make our way around to La Plaza de la Catedral, a square formed in the grand shadow of La Catedral de la Habana. Black market salesmen quietly hawk cigars. White-clad Santerians float through. Foreign student groups buy post cards and T-shirts. Yuppie tourists from Spain and France drink oil-black Cuban coffee from small cups at tables in the outdoor cafe. Old people beg.

Standing in the center, I look up at the sky. There's no word for this color blue.

City, country, city
We've forgotten about Daylight Savings Time, and Alex has been waiting for 90 minutes. He's taking us to Pinar del Rio, a mountainous province home to barrio farms, tobacco plantations and pasty German tourists sunning in resorts cut from the mountains.

On the way, we drive tree-lined streets of Vedado and pass stately buildings that formerly were embassies. On alternate corners sit one-man cement police booths.

I raise my camera to click and an officer raises his index finger, moving it side-to side like a windshield wiper. He shakes his head slowly "no."

On the unmarked highway we speed up on a rusted Chevrolet wagon jammed with mostly children. Alex taps his horn, and the driver extends his clay-colored arm in a wave past.

All the Hemingway lore, Castro mythology, Che worship and Latin deifying boil to nothing the first time a tin can smashed full of poor workers struggles past or a roadside companero balancing a cheese wheel on his palm becomes a figment of the rearview. Las gentes.

Cuba is about its people. They've been overshadowed by ideologies and movements, by politics and racism.

It's two hours and a half tank of countryside later when we again see people. We bump down dirt roads through Yugo-sized potholes past Appalachian-looking shanties slowly up, up, up and around.

Airing out at a resort, we walk to the pool. I look across a valley whose floor is carpeted with grass extending up the side of a mountain, which casts a shadow at its own feet.

I look to my left and right to double check. I am in Cuba.

At a tobacco plantation Sean and Jon, both photographers, click paintings of two farmers who naturally and easily pose, freezing for minutes at a time. In the barn, long and thick bunches of tobacco leaves in varying states of drying hang upside down like leather-skinned bats sleeping until nightfall.

On the way out of the mountains back to Havana, an oncoming government truck barrels down the center of the narrow roadway, forcing Alex to the burm through brush and back onto the road. I pray, look out the window and take notes.

The next day is Regla, a port town and the keeper of Afro-Cuban religions, the Shrine of the Black Madonna and a small slavery museum opened for our private tour. First, gas.

Note to self: Never carp about American prices again. Before he can refuel, Alex must first ask station attendants if there is gas. He finds it for 70 cents per liter. At the paladar we drink small cups of ink-black Cuban coffee while Alex reorders fresh food.

After a long conversation with a man, Alex proudly shows us a plastic bag moving with lobsters.

We hustle off to a Cuban beach behind the small bungalow of Marcos, Alex's older brother and owner of the paladar. I shamelessly gather rocks and shells, kick off my shoes, hike my pants to my ass and run into the ocean.

"The blues define the deep," Jon yells at my back.

I stop where water laps at my crotch.

As the tide pushes me around and my feet melt into white sand, I look toward Miami and I cry. It's been girlhood since I've stood in a natural body of water, and I cry until the wind dries my face.

We're at the deserted end of the beach. We're not Cuban, so we're not supposed to be there and Alex explains us away to a worker from the snack bar.

Walking back to Marcos', the man tries enticing me with lobster and cerveza.

"Where jew from? Canada?" he asks, walking alongside.

"Estados Unidos."

He's going to America in July to live indefinitely. He's won the loteria, the lottery.

We talk in mangled shorthand Spanglish. He's thinking of New York or New Jersey but not Miami, he says.

"Because ees no good para me in My-yammy. Too many Cubans in My-yammy. Es bad."

"What kind of trabajo will you do?" I ask.

"Aah, mostly sing or play."

"Aah, cantadore?"

"Si. Es possible to do anything there, so I will see."

"What about California?"

"Si. California es posible. Bueno tambien."

I wish him buena suerte, shake his hand and shake sand off my legs the short distance to Marcos' bungalow, where his lackeys are delivering a hog tied up in a car trunk.

We eyeball the beast in the open trunk. Two workers lasso the squealing, stinking thing thrashing for its life and shaking the entire car.

Jon jumps on a table. Sean backs away, his camera cocked and fixed on the pig.

I whoop and step closer. I look around for something to jump on should Wilbur get a notion to bolt. The workers get the beast from the shit-smeared trunk and tether it to a poll supporting the low-slung roof.

Hooves kick dirt around. The hog squeals and snorts, pulls against the ropes catching at its neck. It heaves heavy breaths. I sit in front of it and talk to it.

"Silencio," I whisper. "It'll make your death easier."

The next day is Marcos' 63rd birthday. He is barrel-stomached with delicate features, thinner hair than Alex's and eyes less sad.

He unloads bananas and beer from the car and invites us to the party. We pile back into our rental.

The workers lead the stubborn hog to the rear of the house. It overturns potted flowers, kicks up bricks and dirt.

Three grown men wrestle against its doom. Backing away we hear a loud, throat-slicing "Mwheeeeeee!"

Mi familia
The next time I see Wilbur he's hanging, gutted and spread eagle, from the same pole that yesterday kept her from charging her captors. Blood drains to the ground and people walk casually past to get beer.

We've just arrived with Alex, his wife Carmen and her sister.

The rental's gone back, and we're riding six deep in Alex's 1952 Chevrolet Bel-Air with the cracked windshield. We spent 30 minutes picking up and situating the huge sheet-style birthday cake. Alex moves some gas cans, tools and car parts around in the trunk, gingerly sitting the cake atop the lumps where it fills the entire opening.

The ride to the party is bumpy and rough. Sean and I whisper and giggle about the cake.

We open the trunk. The cake is perfect.

"No prahvlehm," Alex says.

Every paladar worker is at Marcos' party. Men drink beer around a fire smoldering in the ground for the pig. Frustrated for flames, one squirts gasoline from a dirty plastic bottle into the pit and flames leap up.

"Aaaaah!" A cheer goes up.

In a small kitchen women cut lettuce and boil beans and rice. I go to the rear courtyard for a while and someone introduces me to Rosa, a full-time shoe store manager who also cleans the paladar every day.

At the beach I hike up my skirt, kick off my shoes and recline in the sand, talking for hours to Rosa about her life. I try memorizing her details for later transcription, but someone keeps filling my cup with Cuban rum.

The breeze has stilled. The sun is hot. I feel my skin pull blacker.

As we talk non-stop -- she in careful English, I in run-together Spanish -- we're handed a brown bag spotted with grease. The top's rolled down and inside are freshly fried pork rinds.

I learn about Rosa as we munch Wilbur. She has a 14-year-old daughter by an abandoned father, a malady we decided isn't culture specific. She earns $2,300 a year and practices Santeria. She's impressed by my new knowledge of Yemaya, patron saint of sailors first carved in the fifth century by the African St. Augustine.

Her daughter is a painter. Her lessons cost Rosa $60 per month.

Prostitution is the only fear she has for her daughter, so she tells her to "concentrate on art and let me worry about the rest." In school she was drilled with "English! English! English!" but has no desire to come to America.

"What's the worse thing about America?" she asks.

"Education is not equal," I say. "The richer you are, the more things you have access to, and rich people in America have too much and they're greedy. Meanwhile, poor children get poor educations."

Someone calls us back to the house for the feast.

I have no idea that in 48 hours my skin, burned to ebony, will start to peel and flake off. With my thick naps standing on my head and my new skin, I feel like an alien.

Despite my drive-bys on engagement, barely anyone among the mostly white and light-skinned people looks at or speaks to me. Except the black Cubans.

An extended family of black Cubans congregate in the corner yard of Marcos' house. No one talks to them. They don't speak to others unless they're spoken to first.

There are two 50-ish women and two men who look older. A younger couple has a small son, and there's another young boy. I play with the kids, snapping their pictures while they dance shirtless.

One of the women scribbles her address in my journal so I can send her photos.

While everyone freely grabs at and guzzles Buccaneer beer, the black Cubans sit in the sun. Marcos comes around with a small tub of beer and doles one each to the black Cubans.

They're cooks and janitors. Their noses and lips are thick, their hair is coarse and they dance close and fast, peering blankly over their partners' shoulders. Sometimes they're the only ones dancing.

They look like black Americans. This could be a cookout in the West End.

When the food is laid out to much fanfare, I look over at the black Cubans. They sit still.

Someone offers me a plate. I decline.

Once everyone else has been served Marcos tells the black Cubans they can eat. They fix their plates. I fix mine.

Alex's family dynamic looks familiar. Marcos is the patriarch, and he relishes it. There is hostility toward him, but he has the power.

While Alex served in military, Marcos tended family matters. Marcos has a young baby girl by a young woman who looks 19.

People dance, laugh, eat and drink. I internally untangle the drama.

Marcos dances shirtless with one of the black Cuban women, rubbing his crotch in circles against her ass. He smiles.

I want to live in America
The next day we meet Raul Rodriguez Rodriguez, a teacher at the Center for the Study of the Americas at the University of Havana. He examines affairs between Cuba and America at the state-run research center started in 1981.

He takes us to a paladar for shrimp and beer. His wife, an accountant, meets up with us.

Overlooking the ocean at sunset we talk about Socialism, America, imperialism, classism and racism. A white American man at a nearby table stops eating to listen. I drop my journal to my lap, scribbling beneath the tablecloth.

"One of the strengths of Cuba's system is education and health care," Rodriguez says. "It's a system that stresses social concern rather than economic concern."

He gives me the thumbnail sketch of Cuba's economy.

"In 1993 the Cuban economy hit bottom," he says of the time known as the Special Period. "That was the worse time I've ever seen in Cuba. There were no cars in the street, there were blackouts, no food. Since 1972, Cuba's economy was totally designed and supported by the Communist ideal. Since 1993, there were a series of economic reforms to try to reinsert Cuba into the world economy.

"You have lost 85 percent of your foreign trade (to Russia), so (tourism) was done out of pragmatism. Cuba is a country with no natural resources. We have no oil, no gold. It's basically a country trying to break with the constructs of imperialism and colonialism. It's the banana republic."

I ask how Cubans see Americans.

"There's no animosity at all," he says. "The cultures and the peoples have been quite close. After the Civil War in the U.S., the U.S. was Cuba's main economic power."

Then what of the embargo?

"I believe the embargo's going to be lifted because of the national conditions of the two countries and because we're so close, geographically and culturally," he says. "The U.S. has hegemonic designs over Cuba and Cuba resists that. The 45 years we've gone through have brought deep changes in Cuba socially. I don't see Cuba crumbling and being swept away if the embargo's lifted."

Rodriguez enlightens me to the unspoken classism and racism of the Miami Cubans, many of whom got wealthy during Batista's reign and fled with their money at the outset of Castro's presidency. Largely white and of Spanish descent, Miami Cubans are conservative Republicans who bash Castro and fool the American government into thinking all Cubans are miserably oppressed under him.

"That's not true," Rodriguez says. "Castro's still in power not only because he brought the other guy down but because he went into the mountains. The bureaucracy may have been inefficient, but not corrupt. The Cubans in Miami give you the impression there's a big, monolithic anti-Castro community.

"They're the Cuban elite. They were already rich. Since the '60s they've worked to subvert Cuba."

And they were greatly helped in 1981 when Reagan created the Cuban-American National Foundation, a platform for conservative Cubans within the political system. It's solidified the anti-Cuba lobby in Washington, he says. Further, among the Latin American population thriving in America, others might be larger "but no other has the political power of the Cubans," he says.

This segment of Cuban-Americans helped in 1992 and again in 1996 to pass the Helms/Burton Bill strengthening the embargo.

We eat, laugh, talk. I pass Raul a signed copy of my book, the only copy floating around Cuba.

We pile into his wife's large company car and drive to their apartment.

They live in a neighborhood like Clifton in a small but comfortable apartment. They've an impressive collection of Cuban art and promise to introduce me to their favorite painter on my next visit.

Before we leave, they show me their 17-year-old son's bedroom.

"This is the perfect intersection of Cuba and the world's influences," Rodriguez says.

A large poster of Michael Jordan hangs above his bed. Britney Spears smiles from a poster taped to the bureau near the bathroom. On his desk there's a photo of the boy posing with a cardboard cutout of Shaquille O'Neal. His mother pulls open a drawer holding bootleg copies of CDs by the Notorious B.I.G. and Lil' Bow-Wow.

Above the desk, large photos of Guevara and Castro -- the twin towers of revolution -- peer down on him when he studies.

"See, it's OK to have the influence of the world," Rodriguez says, "but at his base is Cuba. He has the right foundation."

But it's evident, especially in what they overhear him saying to his friends, they're losing him to Americanness -- and Rap is the bait. Che and Fidel might be to appease his intellectually nationalistic father.

Rodriguez's wife says her son is a "neeger."

"Ask him who he is, and he'll say he's a neeger," she says, laughing and shaking her head in mock disapproval.

Raul corrects her, saying in Spanish as he shoots me a glance, that in America nigger is a slur.

"Yes," she says cheerfully, "but he is a neeger."

"He identifies as a black man?" I ask.

"Yes," Raul says, interjecting and exasperated. "He's a black man. He considers himself a black man."

Castro comes to Harlem
If Clinton was our first black president -- wink, wink -- then Castro is Cuba's.

Castro has for decades appealed to the rebellious nature of politically and culturally progressive black Americans because he's an intellectual renegade who doesn't kowtow to America's white male power structure. And Castro feels our pain.

Fresh off defeating Batista, he invited a small delegation of black writers and activists -- LeRoi Jones among them -- to Cuba in July 1960 to see for themselves what post-revolution Cuba looked like. It was the beginning of Castro's, but not Cuba's, relationship to black America and black rebellion.

According to Manning Marable's "Race and Revolution in Cuba," Cuba and the U.S. share a legacy of racialization and "racial formations." That is, societies built during hundreds of years using different racial hierarchies first developed in slave economics. What separates us, Marable writes, is how "racial domination and black resistance evolved."

We were twinned by 18th-century anti-slavery activists, and from there black American freedom fighters and Afro-Cuban rebels constantly supported one another throughout various movements. They had Batista; we had Bull Connor.

So when the civil rights movement came down, Cuban artists took revolutionary stances against American racism.

Cuba and black America are also linked by our connection throughout history to the black Caribbean via historic figures like Toussaint L'Overture and the Haitian revolution and to our parallel struggles for political democracy and self-determination, according to Marable. But it was Castro who modernized the relationship.

A few months after Jones and the others left Cuba, Castro came to New York to address the opening of the 15th session of the U.N. General Assembly. The American government denied the Cubans access to travel outside Manhattan, and after refusing to make a $20,000 security deposit to a Manhattan hotel Castro took his people to Harlem, where they found lodging.

Throngs of black Harlemites greeted them, and Malcolm X visited.

Thirty-five years later, Castro returned to Harlem to an even bigger reception that included Angela Y. Davis, among other black activist celebrities. Clinton and New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani snubbed him.

"As a revolutionary, I knew I would be welcome in this neighborhood," Castro told the crowd.

Where Cubans split almost irretrievably with black Americans, however, is at nationalism. Cuban nationalism is cross-racial; American nationalism is reserved for white supremacy.

But Castro still validates the relationship. Marable, who attended a 1990 conference in Cuba called "Malcolm X Speaks in the '90s," writes that Castro addressed the group of black American activists, scholars and journalists.

"We have always been in solidarity with the struggle of black people, of minorities and the poor in the United States," Marable quotes Castro saying. "I think that in these times we need that friendship more than ever, and we need your solidarity more than ever."

Salida/entrada (Exit/entrance)
I'm still not back yet. I knew writing about the holy trinity of identities -- race, gender and class -- for mass consumption seen through a Cuban lens would return me not just to my Cuban journal, thereby disturbing the deliberate and sacrosanct stillness of memories, but I'd also be catapulted fully back into my American self.

Back into believing, into fearing, not trusting. Just back to life.

See, Cuba's where the realities of Socialism are difficult but not heinous. Where its people do suffer but where they strive, like no people I've seen. Where people are as black and complex as I and as white and complex as America.

Cuba's where every capitalist lie and truths dipped in stereotypes come to bear 90 miles south off the shores of my reality.

It's like Raul Rodriguez said.

"Cuba is no heaven, but it's no hell, either."



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