- 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
But oh! That Havana! You could drink Bacardi and play baccarat, roulette, hazard, craps, birdcage, electric poker, bookmaker, or wheel-of-chance at the casino, waltz at the roof garden of the Sevilla-Biltmore, or pick up a blonde (forty cents and up) on Virtue Street. Irénée du Pont was building a seaside house at Veradero Beach, a few hours west of the city. At Veradero there would be a yacht harbor, hotels, tennis counts, golf courses, and the vacation cottages of American millionaires—a winter New- port on the Caribbean.
A British journalist named Basil Woon wrote a book about it, enticingly called When It’s Cocktail Time in Cuba . He checked out the grand lottery, the January social scene, and Sloppy Joe’s bar. He concluded that Havana was becoming the Monte Carlo of the Western Hemisphere.
In the midst of these bright expectations, a group of Cubans and Americans erected a monument on the Malecon, Havana’s magnificent seaside promenade, commemorating the loss of the Maine. At the center were two Corinthian columns, topped with a soaring bronze eagle. The inscriptions at the base recalled the war, and there were guns and anchors and medallions cast of metal salvaged from the wreckage of the battleship. Its dedication marked the peak of fellowship between the nations.
The butcher Machado was pushed out in 1933 by another butcher, a young officer named Fulgencio Batista, and the American ambassador, Sumner Welles, was credited with contributing to Machado’s fall. A throng of Cubans tore palm fronds and yellow cannas from the garden of the Presidential Palace and carried them, singing and cheering, past the American Embassy. Sloppy Joe’s survived the challenge of a neighboring bar called Sanitary George’s.
The Maine monument’s inscription has been altered in the style of the revolutionary credos in Orwell’s Animal Farm .
America was beginning to worry about Nazis in the Western Hemisphere. The old fear of foreign influence in Cuba surfaced again. On the eve of World War II, John G’fcnther, the most widely read foreign correspondent in the United States, passed through Havana gathering material for his book Inside Latin America . His questions reflected our historic anxiety: How stable was the government of Cuba? How much did Havana like us? Gunther’s answer was that President Fulgencio Batista, while wrestling with the problems of poverty and a single-crop economy, was “intimate and friendly” to the United States.
It was eighteen years later that Castro’s revolution drove friendly, corrupt, intolerable Batista into exile. Significantly, many of Castro’s earliest and most publicized reforms were supposed to end the social ills of Havana: prostitution, drug abuse, casino gambling, cockfights, and the lottery, all of which the rural revolutionaries associated with the evil city and its American masters.
Not long ago I finally made my cruise from Miami to Havana, not as a tourist but in a party of working journalists on a Bolivian plane loaded with Florida Cubans carrying Coleman lanterns, vitamin pills, electric fans, teddy bears, Pepto-Bismol, and other unobtainable necessities to their relatives in Havana. Havana turned out to be a city of crumbling walls and melancholy boulevards with virtually no markets, no restaurants, no shops, no gathering places, no transportation—almost none of the attributes that make cities endurable. The Cuban people were there, walking or biking with surprising spirit past the decaying facades of the rich old business houses and the pink marble mansions of the sugar daddies, garlanded now with strings of laundry and plastered with signs proclaiming faith in socialism, Cuban independence, and the endurance of the Revolution.
We did what visitors from hardcurrency countries are expected and required to do. We ate small plates of shredded pork, black beans, and rice at the Bodeguita del Medio and drank mojitas , and paid in dollars. We took a taxi (for dollars) driven by a cardiac surgeon who had done a bypass that morning but made his living as a cabbie. We took a bus (for dollars) out to Veradero on a deserted highway and sat on the porch of Irénée du Font’s mansion (a public restaurant now) and watched the quiet sea. We talked for a couple of hours to a Cuban economist who said: “We were a colony of Spain for more than four hundred years, a colony of the United States for sixty years, and a colony of the U.S.S.R. for thirty years. I do not know whether it will ever be possible for us, politically, economically, or psychologically, to be a self-sufficient nation.”
Strolling bands sought us out and serenaded us (for dollars) with “Siboney” and “Guantanamera” and “Tu es siempre in mi corazón, ” and a girl with shiny black hair and flash- ing eyes recited a poem by José Martf in a classroom near Matanzas. We talked about the effect of the American embargo with the editors at Granma , the Communist party’s national newspaper, and went to the Museum of the Revolution and looked at the blood-stained bandages and blotchy photographs and old typewriters and bullet-ridden cars that are the artifacts of the Twenty-Sixth of July Movement.