- Historic Sites
Sexy and melancholy, festive and forlorn, the island has always heated the Yankee imagination. The author visits there in the late afternoon of a straitened era and looks back on four centuries of passionate misunderstandings.
November 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 7
In those days, back in the thirties, the forties, the fifties of this century, Cuba was Havana, and Havana was a dream.
The dream was set to music—Xavier Cugat playing Ernesto Lecuona’s “Siboney” and “Malaguena” and “You Are Always in My Heart,” Bing Crosby crooning, “They’re glad to see you, in See-You-Bee-Ay.”
In those days Havana could be smelled and felt and tasted like a tropical fruit. Its flavor was in a daiquiri cocktail mixed to your order at the Floridita, Ernest Hemingway’s hangout on Obispo Street. The bartender made your drink with Cuban sugar and the juice of Cuban limes and a wallop of Havana’s own Bacardi rum, and he shook it on the ice by hand. Havana’s touch was in the sun and wind along the Malecon, on the beaches at Miramar and Siboney. Its fragrance was in the blue-gray smoke of a corona, a panatela, a perfecto—seductive names that made an ordinary stogie sound as rich and mellow as it looked.
Reckless, contradictory, sensuous Havana! A young naval officer, steaming into port on an American cruiser in 1946, could sense its allure miles away: “The mixed aroma of coffee, tobacco, sugar, and rum was so strong that I can smell it still. And when we entered the narrow passage between the city and Morro Castle, the water around us was jammed with rowboats full of clamoring prostitutes!”
That was the trouble with the dream. Unpleasant realities kept seeping in. Cuba was a slave, and Havana was a whore. Most of the carefree American visitors were able to persuade themselves that the Cubans liked it that way. Every so often there would be a palace coup. New Bad Guys would replace the old Bad Guys. Editorial writers up north would express satisfaction that Cuba had finally changed its wicked ways, and the jolly steamers would glide to and fro, across the ninety miles between Havana and Key West. In 1953, the year that Fidel Castro and his comrades failed in their first, fatally botched attempt to overthrow the government of Fulgencio Batista, there were eighty tourist flights a week from Miami to Havana (forty dollars roundtrip, including a five-dollar U.S. travel tax). Down in Havana you could bet the horses, play the lottery, fry your brains with dope, or watch an exhibition of sexual bestiality that would have shocked Caligula. Orchestras of moist-lipped senoritas in low-cut scarlet dresses played rumba music in the cafés on the plaza. George Raft, the movie actor, ran a casino that everyone knew was owned by the mob.
I did not make it to Havana in those days, I was too young, too poor, too far away. But like most Americans, I carried in my mind a small assortment of blurred images of Cuba, like a packet of smudgy postcards from someone else’s vacation trip. There was a snapshot of Teddy, the Republican Roosevelt (the one whom my grandmother did not refer to as “That Man”), in pince-nez and wide-brimmed hat leading his Rough Rider cavalry up the jungly slope of San Juan Hill. (That picture was almost the extent of my knowledge of the Spanish-American War of 1898, except that we had invaded the island and taken it from Spain because somebody blew up our battleship Maine in Havana Harbor and the jingo press of Hearst and Pulitzer, on no evidence, had blamed the disaster on the Spaniards.)
The Cuba in my mind was luscious but unreliable, a noisy, slovenly next-door neighbor, too close to be ignored, too strange to be em braced—a Spanish-speaking, Roman Catholic, Afro-European neighbor, with a feudal society, plantation agriculture, tyrannical institutions, tropical diseases, and bad habits. Over the years the Cubans seemed to waver unpredictably between ardent love and bitter hatred for the United States, sometimes begging for our attention, sometimes lashing out at us and inciting other nations to oppose us, and America had responded by alternately bossing and bribing, threatening and ignoring Cuba, like a distracted parent trying to control a spoiled child.
What I did not know about Cuba was that during all those lilting years of daiquiris and rumbas, $49.50 weekend cruises and tea dances at the Havana Sevilla-Biltmore, American businesses, American banks, and American gangsters had owned Cuba just as surely as Britain and France owned their colonies in Africa and Asia. Fidel Castro laid out his case against the American regime in a four-and-a-half-hour address to the United Nations General Assembly in New York City in 1960, the year after he had seized power. All the public services in Cuba —electricity, telephones, transit lines- were owned or controlled by American companies. Most of the banks, the import-export firms, the sugar and oil refineries, the arable land—those, too, were owned by Americans. The standard of living, especially in rural areas, was primitive: More than a third of Cubans were illiterate, 70 percent of rural children had no teachers, nine out of ten rural children had parasites, and 2 percent of the entire population had tuberculosis. Close to half the liand was owned by 1.5 percent of all the land-owners, and 85 percent of the small farmers paid a third of their gross income in rent.