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Paradox regained: a conversation with an old comandante in Cuba

Bella Thomas
19 August 2003

The colonel had agreed to meet me in the foyer of the Hotel Nacional in Havana. Spotting him amongst the throng of European travellers traipsing through the art deco hallway was not difficult. It had nothing to do with his attire, or the closely-ironed trouser pleat that suggested a taste for military precision. It was his expression of edgy expectation that distinguished him so obviously from the dreamy glow on the faces of the tourists floating by.

Cuba, to the newly-arrived visitor from the developed west, offers a thrilling trip into a 1950s time warp. The fantasy is engaging because it is redolent of so many American films of that era that were set in Cuba. The fabric of the place is familiar to Europeans because it betrays a hint of America as it was in the golden age of Hollywood movies, and as it was in the aftermath of the second world war when Europeans used to love America.

Cuba today breathes of the age of Humphrey Bogart, Frank Sinatra and South Pacific as much as it does of Ignacio Pereira or the Afro-Cuban All Stars. The Chevrolets, the Cadillacs, the old casinos, the marbled palaces of the sugar barons, the Hotel Nacional itself, are all images of a bygone American influence which are now rusting and repackaged as the symbols of Cuban perseverance.

Not for nothing is modern Cuban nationalism brimming with a perverse kind of nostalgia. What were once symbols of depravity are, in their decay, now symbols of unrepentant revolution.

The former comandante (as he is known: once a comandante, always a comandante) is not relaxed but he agrees to a mojito in the garden of the grand hotel. The three-piece band strikes up a bolero. The comandante looks around uneasily. It is not just that he is the only Cuban in the expensive precinct sipping a cocktail bought with dollars. He knows that Cubans themselves are not, by and large, supposed to enter these expensive hotels. The regime claims that it is preserving its people from an exposure to capitalist habits. Others have called this state of affairs an apartheid that allows tourists to live it up in these palatial hallways while Cubans who live here are turned away.

The influx of tourists over the last decade has helped the Cuban state to survive the collapse of the Soviet Union, and more specifically, the loss of the Soviet subsidies to Cuba that used to keep Fidel’s regime afloat. But tourists were permitted only as a desperate measure to stop the freefall of the Cuban economy. The worry was that Cubans would be corrupted by the luxuries afforded to marvelling visitors – or seduced into an envy of their financial muscle that would undermine support for the revolution.

Since Cubans are not allowed to travel or even to question the state of the regime, it is hardly surprising the regime looks askance at the possibility of tourists bringing unwanted, provocative influence. So it started out as enclave tourism, with parts of the island given over to touristic ventures. That soon collapsed, but there are times when anyone who brings a Cuban into a hotel may be asked to leave their guest outside, on the possible grounds that they may be pimps extending their network of clients.

I understand the comandante’s unease, especially as I hear that he has fallen somewhat foul of the military (and the naval command to which he’d been attached) in recent years and hasn’t found a way to join Cuba’s new elite of tourist operators or hotel managers, as others of the old guard have. He is an old man who has served his time, but who apparently has no leverage, no money and no influence.

Talking to foreigners can be a dangerous exercise (Cubans have been disciplined for consorting with foreigners in the past) but one which might offer opportunities. And he wants to find a way to get in touch with an old friend who left Cuba in the 1970s and who is now an eye surgeon in Brazil.

The arts of survival in Havana

Any alarm or frustration on his part is suppressed after a while. With a second mojito he becomes accustomed to the novelty of sitting in such an ostentatious setting. He begins to talk of his study of the 19th century sugar industry. But as he does so, it is clear that this subject masks his real interest in Cuban politics which has not diminished despite his inability to speak candidly.

He has rigorously trained himself to talk about other things, but beneath his condemnation of the Russian pizza, and the absence of any real Russian legacy in Cuba (as compared notably to that of the Americans), lies a deep cynicism about the Russian influence on the Cuban polity and on the direction of the Cuban leadership.

What grips the comandante is the pervasiveness of paradox here. It is not clear whether this is a ruse for explaining to me that things are not quite what they seem in Cuba. Whether it is a way of engaging me in conversation to explain that under the calm acceptance of most Cubans, a firm disenchantment lies; or whether the observation of paradox provides its own existentialist thrill for an old man who seeks to admit the failure of a political ideal.

Paradox is life-affirming, and it is one of the reasons that the hard certainties of an ideology like communism can never be sustained (and he speaks as a former communist). But paradox is also, the comandante explains in a hoarse whisper, the only way the regime in Cuba manages to survive.

Anyone who spends any length of time in Cuba will be familiar with those spiralling, zigzagging emotions that hit you as you wander down the grainy streets of old Havana or along the jungly boulevards of the Vedado. You find yourself lurching from a delight in the slow, seemingly kind pace of life in Havana, where the sound of the cockerel in the inner city is louder than the traffic, where neighbours watch out for each other attentively and where you are lulled into a sense that the state will look after everyone come what may – to a horror at the absence of ordinary freedoms to talk, to take the initiative, to participate critically in the life of the country, to organise an ad hoc gathering of people, to buy ordinary essentials, and even to get access to the much-touted healthcare which (like the hotels) is increasingly at the service of foreigners and not Cubans.

A good education, if there is such a thing, may get you a job as a door-opener in a swanky hotel. The poverty of Cubans, relative though poverty always is, can be juxtaposed to the fact that Cuba – unequal though it certainly was – was, before the revolution, richer than Italy.

A woman who worked in the Ministry of Culture once took me aside at a party and told me that the most interesting aspect of the Cuban reality was the schizophrenia of the people. She told me in a low voice, that if ever you hurt a man in Havana with intent (stamped on his foot, say, or beat him), your victim would simply laugh it off and hold his breath, as he would not want to accuse a stranger of anything lest you turned out to be linked to some authority which might deprive him of his livelihood.

 

No cojes lucha, the oft-repeated Cuban refrain goes: “Don’t pick a fight, don’t look for trouble.” At no time is it more used and more apt than today. If there is no possibility of using the rule of law, and if everyone is obliged to deal illegally on the black market to survive in the complex, fractured world of modern Cuba, then no one is prepared to accuse anyone of anything.

Hence the apparent calm on the streets of Havana, which all foreigners remark upon. This is the only country in the world, the lady from the Ministry of Culture remarked, where people would go laughing into battle, not because it doesn’t matter, but because they are afraid to accuse.

The Cuban-American embrace

I have heard those kinds of remarks about the difficulties of understanding how Cubans really feel about the situation, and the double-edged emotions that Fidel Castro inspires in his people. But the comandante’s theme is rather different. He is an unusual kind of Cuban who is able to criticise the regime (only in private of course), to dissect its dubious record, to wonder at the sanity of its leader, without loathing it – the less sophisticated Miami-based Cubans do not appear to have any truck with dual emotions.

It may be that this is true of my interlocutor because he is something of an open-minded intellectual or because he is the sort of person who happens not to feel rancour. One of the reasons he doesn’t leave Cuba is that he feels he has lived through one of the wildest films the 20th century has seen and he doesn’t want to leave just before the end.

His theme, anyway, is the surprise factor of paradox. The word has a semi-surreal invocation, which outsiders might find fits their preconceptions of a Latin country with its taste for magic realism and the films of Luis Buñuel. But at times I wonder if what he actually means is contradiction or downright hypocrisy. Is he too circumspect to say so? It depends, I suppose, on the degree to which you think the discrepancy between the reality at stake, and the words used to describe it, has been willed.

It is, however, an intoxicating theme. The prevalence of such paradoxes is one of the reasons no one ever understands the Cuban reality, in his view. ‘Contradiction’ is part of the fabric of daily life here.

He starts tamely enough. No one has anything to eat in Cuba but people somehow survive. No one has any soap but the Cubans are cleaner and better dressed than the Europeans who visit. No one has anything to say for Fidel, but everyone turns out in the plaza to applaud him. This is the Hotel Nacional, the great bulwark of Cuban nationalism, but it was built by the famous American company, Pan Am, in the 1930s.

The Cubans are more enamoured of America than people think, although it is their deadly enemy: they play baseball (like Americans) and not soccer (like the rest of the world); American heroes are their heroes. They watch endless streams of American TV on illegal satellites.

As for foreigners, he glances around them room, they used to come to Cuba, to discover the scope of the “new man”, el hombre nuevo (as Che Guevara put it). Now they come to rediscover the etiquette of the old ways and the spirit of the 1950s (which is what the revolution sought to escape). That may say more about the disquiet about modern development in the west than about Cuba, but it is true that a Cuban holiday is a nostalgia trip.

He pauses, and shaking somewhat, he takes a sip of his cocktail, replacing it gingerly on the glass table. He looks to see that the bolero band is louder than it was, and the waiters are otherwise engaged. He then launches his biggest paradox yet. The Americans have an embargo on Cuba, but the only reason anyone survives today in Cuba is because of the money their relatives send them from the States. That amounts to a cautious estimate of a $1 billion a year in total – more than the entire sum earned by the Cuban government in the sugar trade. That makes America Cuba’s biggest donor in aid, and the aid goes direct to the people.

 

The heroism of isolation

Then when you’ve got used to that level of paradox, he ascends to new heights. His eyes gleam. “It is only because of paradox that Fidel survives at all.” Now he has begun to sound like Hegel. He marshals his explanation slowly in the face of my obvious confusion.

Fidel is a brilliant manipulator of the international situation. He ran rings around the Russians – induced them to involve themselves in Cuba somewhat against their will – and never paid them. (He was never really a communist – real communism has never existed – but used the ideology magnificently to his advantage…).

Now, he is doing the same to the foreign investors who’ve arrived to scoop up some early deals before the United States embargo collapses. He lures them here with promises of great profits and acts as if they are the next great friend, pretends that the real estate with which they do business may be their own private property, and a few years later, changes his mind and sweeps it back from within their grasp by making out that he has fallen out with them too for some unforgiveable capitalist trickery.

The Spanish group, Sol Melia, thought it owned the Melia Cohiba Hotel, but now it realises that it is only on loan from the Cuban government in spite of the fact that it built it, paying the Cuban workers itself. Fidel, breathes the comandante, has no intention of paying any creditor.

The greatest paradox is, of course, the US embargo which everyone knows is an anathema to both the US and to Cuba. Even I, a paradox amateur, am aware of that. The comandante provides no special insight when he remarks that the only one who stands to gain from the embargo is Fidel himself: “How would he survive if the small island were suddenly to be awash with American capital again?”

Many have been aghast at the behaviour of the Cuban authorities in recent months – the imprisoning of about seventy journalists and dissidents and the execution of three hijackers who were determined to get to Miami by diverting a ferry. The three were denied a trial and, in a peculiarly macabre throwback to the 19th century, were shot by a firing squad at dawn three days after their alleged offence. The outspoken seventy were imprisoned for an average of thirty years each.

Some commentators, who are more focused in knocking whatever America does, have suggested that American agents forced the Cubans to it by stirring up dissident activity that would never have been there otherwise. It may be that with a rising tide of anti-Americanism around the world, Fidel thought he could get away with such extreme measures.

But armed with this new notion of wilful paradox, one begins to see another dimension. The only reason Fidel cracks the whip, and takes action of this sort, is that it makes it problematic for America to act to end the embargo. The intense lobbying behind the scenes by both Republican and Democrat groups to bring the embargo to a close have seen senators and businessmen queue up to visit the island in recent years. There have even been pharmaceutical fairs for US firms in downtown Havana. The Cuban lobby in Miami is not as influential as it once was in keeping the political chill alive. So Fidel was faced with the warming of relations. What was he to do?

The execution of the three escapees (whom Fidel has referred to rather engagingly as terrorists, joining forces with the Bush vocabulary for a second) scuppered these manoeuvres in a trance, and the lobby groups in the States calling for the end of the embargo have closed down. Even the European Union joined in the condemnation leading some commentators to think that Fidel had miscalculated this time. But emerging from an avalanche of international censure is precisely where Fidel likes to be. The more embattled, the more heroic he can claim to be.

If a foreigner zigzags in their thoughts about Cuba, that is precisely Fidel’s position. He opens up the economy to foreign investment; a year later he battens down the hatches, and creates numerous caveats; he opens up again. He allows private restaurants to open up; when they get too successful, he closes them down. He lives off the unforeseen, he eschews prediction. He is a quite brilliant reader of the international scene, and pre-empts prediction. He makes Cubans believe that Cuba is about to be invaded by George Bush, as if it were the next in the axis of evil, which allows him to undertake some much-needed austerity measures – even, it is rumoured (by Cubans in Cuba), orchestrating a few episodes which makes it look as if he is under siege from terrorists.

Requiem for a dream

The island of Cuba has a strong headwind, and tornados turn up from behind a skyscraper, just when you thought the day was set fair. The other night in Havana, some fireworks went off to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the start of the revolution: some Cuban friends of mine went out into the street thinking the Americans had arrived. It is hard to live comfortably if you don’t know what to expect.

My friend Jorge, who works as a cleaner in an embassy, but who is actually a lawyer, feels a profound fear at the prospect, without quite knowing why. His grandmother, who lives in a tiny room in a former brothel in the cavernous, coagulated streets of central Havana, has nothing to do but sell matchsticks which she siphons off from a factory she used to work in. She would cut “the bearded one” up into tiny pieces if she could, but she believes the rhetoric that Bush will come to Cuba next, and she fears that, because, she says, they might take away her room. Fidel’s rhetoric has worked on her. He has used the discordant relations between the US and Cuba once again to rally his people to him.

The comandante in front of me is more sanguine. He doesn’t believe any of this. In fact he thinks that the day will come, sooner or later, when the Cubans and the Americans will embrace quite openly again. His lack of rancour is impressive. That is perhaps precisely why it is good to stick to neutral, value-free nouns like paradox: it drains the bile out of your language and your soul.

The comandante believes that there is a mutual curiosity which makes former enemies more interested in each other than people imagine: he himself came face to face with a Cuban who took part in the Bay of Pigs invasion on the American side, when he was in Mexico visiting his daughter recently, and, after some initial discomfort, he sat drinking whisky with him until 4 in the morning, discussing the episode in detail.

And anyway, he says with the delight of a paradox artist, everyone now knows the Americans are now paying for the revolution and paying for the Cuban people. He thinks that any animosity will, when the time comes, fizzle out in a spirit of enquiry, of hungry curiosity, with the same dreamy glow that the tourists wear when they first arrive at the Hotel Nacional.

 

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