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Dancing with Bravado and Flirtatious Pleasure
by Cate Kennedy
[SeeingRed special correspondent]

 CUBA--Havana International Airport looks like a regional airstrip
 in a town of about 10,000 people. After I pass through the glass
 customs window I walk towards an old man in a nondescript
 uniform, standing alone, seemingly waiting for me. He holds out
 his hand for my passport, opens it, and studies my photo closely.

 "Catia Kennedy" he says consideringly, pronouncing my first name
 as if I was Russian. "That's you, is it?" He swings his eyes back
 up into mine with such directness I am taken aback. He stares
 deeply into me, past my eyes, it seems, right into my head.

 "That's me," I say. Had I been a CIA operative under the force of
 that gaze, an El Salvadoran bomber, a carrier of contraband, I
 would have sagged and confessed instantly. Señor Soul Searcher.
 His eyes go on assessing me.

 "Any relation to El Presidente Kennedy?" he says, and suddenly
 there is a light in the eyes my slight paranoia has prevented me
 from seeing.

 "Luckily for Cuba, no," I answer. The eyes wrinkle, and my mouth
 stretches into an answering grin, I feel my spirits lift. I'm here!

 "You go ahead, Catia," he says, shaking my hand. "Welcome to
 Cuba, amiga. "

 There's that tropical heat, exciting because some part of our brain
 associates it with indolent holidays, those shiny palm trees, the
 huge lettering you see instantly which proclaims that the people
 you are about to meet believe in revolution. There's the inevitable
 taxi driver who speaks Miami-accented English, making more
 money driving his Chevy to and from the airport for dollars than he
 did as a research chemist. How does he think things are going?
 He meditates on the question as he drives through the crumbling,
 swarming streets of Old Havana, the architectural New World
 masterpiece falling down around the ears of its inhabitants. "Well,"
 he says, "we're toughing it out. "

 It's disconcerting, his perfect U.S. accent. He could be a
 complacent Miami businessman, commenting on business
 downturns as he turns the steaks on the grill on the sundeck.
 Disconcerting because the thing he's referring to that the Cubans
 all around U.S. are toughing out with such astonishing resilience is
 el bloqueoa - the U.S. blockade. Cubans just like him with
 accents just like him, living in Miami, have lobbied the U.S.
 government for years, with a viciousness against their country
 which could only be described as rabid, to choke Castro's Cuba to
 death.

 In flagrant contravention of United Nation rulings, in treatment it
 wouldn't dare mete out to countries like Iraq, Iran, China, Korea or
 any number of regimes it claims are totalitarian and practise
 human rights abuses, the U.S. continues to single Cuba out as its
 own special whipping boy. It withholds trade revenue, medicines,
 and humanitarian aid to an island of 11 million people. It bullies
 other countries into doing the same, using its economic trade might
 as thumbscrews.

 It has done everything in its awesomely aggressive power to
 destabilise and disrupt a tiny place that dares to uphold a different
 political system than its own.

 And for over forty years it has boasted that Cuba is going to
 collapse any day now, thereby justifying its aggression towards it,
 justifying the billions of U. S. dollars spent and lost in attacking it.
 No ridiculous socialist state could possibly stand up to the
 irresistible glory of capitalism, and to prove it we'll surround it with
 trade embargoes and boycott everything it tries to produce. Yep,
 any day now. Not possible, socialism. So what are you guys
 waiting for? Don't you know we won the goddamn Cold War
 already?

 The taxi driver chuckles softly when I ask him if he thinks Cuba is
 ever going to succumb. It's a laugh I'll be hearing a lot of over the
 next few weeks. "Never," Cubans will say to me dismissively,
 waving aside the possibility like a mosquito. We flash past a
 billboard that shows a ranting Uncle Sam on one shoreline, his
 face distorted with greed, shaking his fist at a Cuban soldier
 smiling quietly to himself on the other shore. "We are not at all
 afraid of YOU, Mr. Imperialist!" says the caption. I want to
 admire its outrageous insouciance, its defiance. But all I can think
 of is how close those shorelines are.

                       * * * *

 Old Havana looks like Rome must have looked as the clock
 wound inexorably down on the Empire. There's no money for
 street repair, far less restoration of three hundred-year-old
 buildings. From out of dank hallways and busted-open basements
 billows the smell of rot, broken sewage pipes, garbage. Curving
 marble staircases that stink of piss and timbers that are greenish
 with decay. Across the road from the splendid Capitolio building,
 grand public buildings have been long since turned into apartment
 blocks. Washing flaps on sumptuous crumbling old balconies in
 egalitarian pride. Art deco wrought iron creaks precariously out
 over the street, suspending T-shirts and socks on string
 clotheslines.

 Oh, it's easy to fall in love with this, this picturesque poverty, and
 wax lyrical about citizens entering the finery of Batista's capital
 and taking it over, living in marble-floored bank buildings and
 leveling everything that stank of hierarchy and privilege. It's easy
 for us to do this, because we don't live here.

 We are first-worlders, so we have a problem distinguishing form
 and content. We love the idea of it, the symbols, the props - we
 would prefer to see these than the reality of hauling water up to
 the fourth floor on a pulley every day of your life. To living in a
 collapsed ruin for a year waiting for a new apartment. We glory in
 the concept, but we would not put up with it ourselves for an hour
 - that's the job of the poor, while we take photos and claim the
 politics as our own.

 Everywhere I walk in Old Havana, every person I talk to, I feel a
 country's eyes as shrewdly gazing into my soul as the old man's at
 the airport. This is who you are, is it? I can't stand the honesty
 of the scrutiny. I look away, forgetting my name.

 This is the reality of life in Cuba: joining a line snaking around a
 city block for something you don't even know which might await
 you at the end. Cheese? Milk? Ice-cream? Soap?

 And here comes a foreigner, strolling down to the air-conditioned
 hard currency shop with your annual salary in their pocket as
 today's spending money. They will buy in dollars whatever it is
 you'll wait three hours for today. They will spend eight year's of
 your salary this afternoon on cigars, in a special dehumidifying
 box, a further three year's salary. They will sneer at you and try to
 bargain you down for their dollar taxi fare, even though they
 understand you cannot buy pens, soap, laundry powder, paper,
 meat or a thousand other things without dollars. That your national
 currency, the only one you're supposed to have access to, is worth
 next to nothing. It won't buy you entrance to restaurants,
 nightclubs, or supermarkets, you can't buy an airticket with it.
 Simply by dint of being from somewhere else, somewhere that has
 succumbed to the imperialism that makes your life a misery, they
 will go straight to the front of the line.

 The Cubans catch my eye as I walk past. They are dressed in
 cheap but exuberant clothes, they are black, white and Creole, tall
 and well-built and handsome, and waiting patiently in this queue to
 buy a piece of cheese or see a Cuban film. Without exception,
 they each offer me a dazzling and sincere smile. They do not rob
 me for my dollars, spit, scream or lash out at me. In the vast
 majority of instances, they don't want anything of me but to walk
 along with me for a time, talking, finding something in common we
 can laugh about. It is much worse, somehow, this open eager
 warmth, than a resentful slap in the face. When people shake my
 hand and nod, looking into my eyes, I can hardly speak.

                       * * * *

 Look, I know there is nothing new about this, that Westerners go
 to poor countries all the time and wallow in guilt and angst - it's
 probably one of their reasons for going. With one breath we mouth
 the truisms, with the next we reveal that we bought coffee on the
 street for 10 centavos, can you believe it?

 But Cuba is different. Everybody is educated. They write their
 addresses for me in neat, well-practiced handwriting, they can
 discuss history and politics as you're sitting on the bus, shouting
 over the din of the labouring diesel engine.

 They all have access to health care and attention, birth control
 information, adequate cheap clothing and reasonably nutritious
 food. Pride and self-esteem is immediately evident in their bearing
 and confident manner.

 These people are not oppressed. They are not downtrodden East
 Germans, terrified to make eye contact in case you are the Secret
 Police. They are not yelling for fatwah and burning effigies of the
 U. S. President. The women, rather than being in purdah for fear
 of stoning, are breathtakingly flirtatious and confident, striding
 down the street, wiggling their hips to salsa that pours out of
 doorways.

 No, these people are impoverished because they are being
 punished. What is oppressing them - or doing its best to - is the
 strongest economy in the world, desperate to see them suffer until
 their system collapses.

 Why do we come here, to be tourists? To see it for ourselves? To
 marvel or shake our heads? To see that this is what it boils down
 to, that you can't have marble stairs without broken drains, equality
 without military service, resistance without food shortages? To see
 that people are waiting in a kind of limbo here, wondering what the
 end of the line might bring?

 In the opulent 'fifties pharmacies, the long curving shelves are
 empty, or displaying a few lovingly arranged bottles of cough
 syrup, hand-stoppered in brown bottles and all costing less than
 five U.S. cents.

 Medication is part of the embargo, never mind that lives might be
 lost for the lack of it. Never mind that it flouts international laws of
 humanitarian aid.

 Department shelves and display windows advertise what they
 have inside: a few rolls of toilet paper, stock cubes, a pile of
 bicycle tubes, dusty thermos flasks made in China fifteen years
 ago.

 In their houses, full of 1950s furniture and dusty artificial flowers,
 people display proudly plastic bottles that once contained shampoo,
 after-shave and bath oil. I look at these empty bottles and bare
 pharmacy shelves, drink precious coffee made with powdered
 milk, pour buckets of water down the toilet like everybody else
 here except for the tourists in the hotels, and I think of a catalogue
 I saw recently for a U.S. bird feeding company that advertised 70
 different kinds of seed combinations for bird feeders, including
 ready-processed suet with seventeen different nut flavours. I think
 of dumped medicines lying in warehouses that governments will
 use to pass off as aid relief in the Horn of Africa, the cornucopia
 of items I expect to find on my plate if I order salad.

 I think of everything I assume for myself as necessities, and what
 I feel is not exactly guilt, but a kind of nausea. We are letting this
 happen, in fact our governments (and therefore by default us,
 since this is how our democracies are meant to work) are causing
 this, and our response to it is to buy a postcard. That's you, is it?

 Even this self-disgust is predictable; anyone who bothers to read
 anything or think for five minutes about world affairs would feel
 the same. I can't revel in the defiance of modern-day Cuba any
 more than I can take credit for their revolution. My culture, my
 assumptions, and my excesses are, in fact, part of what gives
 them such hardship. It's no point loving the form and ignoring the
 content. Cuba just makes you more aware of this uncomfortable
 but simple fact.

                       * * * *

 So there I am, walking down the street nursing my forty-nine
 flavours of effete Western capitalist guilt, past queues of people
 and crumbling buildings and fat self-satisfied European men
 strolling with stunning Afro-Caribbean prostitutes down the tourist
 promenade of Obispo. and I hear faint laughter, music and
 applause.

 I follow it to a side-street where a smiling crowd is clustered
 around a doorway. Inside small children are performing a dance,
 Creole and Black children in Caribbean-style costumes as their
 parents and friends sit around smiling and clapping. They dance in
 a gloomy stairwell in improvised costumes.

 The ones I watch all the way through are two little girls, about
 eleven years old but already with that wicked flirtatious joy,
 skipping around to a Creole love song. Their arms twine
 wondrously up towards the smiling faces arranged along the stairs,
 they bump their narrow hips with abandon. , singing along to a
 tape: "This is the STORY, (shimmy shimmy bump) of what might
 HAPPEN (shuffle clap clap) to two young LOVERS (shimmy
 clap clap) underneath the MOON!"

 Their languid hands gesture upwards, two black, two brown, both
 with white palms and pink shell nails, and the audience gives a
 small ecstatic sigh. For a second or two, we are transported out of
 that dark, gas-smelling hallway. We are on a Caribbean beach
 under a moon like bowl of cream, watching brown-skinned lovers
 do what lovers do next to a glinting midnight ocean. Shimmy
 shimmy shimmy, go the girls' hips.

 The adults' faces shine. They applaud wildly as the girls bow
 deeply. Boys in straw hats come out for the next piece, the
 Banana Boat Song. Smaller brothers and sisters are invited up,
 and none of them refuse. The three year olds, grinning delightedly,
 watch the steps and concentrate. A sea of black and white and
 brown little bodies move gracefully in unison - an object lesson in
 how culture is inherited.

 When it is finished I am invited in for cake and fruit drink. I speak
 to the dance teacher, a tall gentle man who studies at the
 University and teaches the local kids for free in his spare time to
 perform little concerts like this. I tell him I teach youth theatre
 myself in Australia, and we stand grinning at each other, both
 knowing exactly how the other feels, especially in a moment like
 this when the kids are flushed with triumph at their own power,
 jumping and hugging each other, fathers wiping their eyes and
 mothers full of surprised delight. We eat too-sweet cake,
 exchange addresses, and laugh at the kids.

 Twenty-five metres away from us, on Calle Obispo, girls display
 themselves to the sleazy European men for dollars, tourists stroll
 past the empty Johnston's Pharmacy and Cubans line up with their
 ration books for their allocation of today's bread.

 In one of the department stores (for the first time in forty years, as
 the U. S. media is so fond of reiterating,) there are Christmas
 decorations like battery-operated Santa Clauses and tiny dioramas
 of fireplaces dusted with snow and stockings hung over the
 hearth. Nobody born here can buy anything in this shop, even if
 they had enough money. They have the wrong currency.

 I wish I could say they walked scornfully past this crass window,
 ignoring its cheap seduction, knowing they had more annual
 holidays than the vast majority of North Americans over
 Christmas anyway. But that would not be true. It would be the
 rewrite I'd prefer, that I'd be more comfortable with. But the glass
 of that store was a map of smears from fingers, hands and faces
 pressed from the outside, gazing at the jerking Santa and the snow,
 something alien and incongruous that might or might not prove to
 be the thin edge of the wedge.

 They are heads and tails of the same coin, these contradictions.
 To experience them in Cuba is to ride the ultimate emotional
 rollercoaster, by turns sickening and inspiring, gut-wrenching and
 exhilarating. These swoops and swings will occur within minutes
 of each other, will appear suddenly like a quiet contradiction to the
 knee-jerk assumption you have just finished making.

                       * * * *

 Attainability. Access. Contact. Young Cubans in the city say how
 frustrated they are, how they want to travel. I meet someone who
 works in one of Cuba's three television stations, who tells me she's
 been applying for an overseas scholarship for seven years, that
 she feels so cut off from what's really happening in her profession.
 "We have one camera at the station, Cati," she says, "the others
 are broken and there are no parts." And where would she be able
 to study, if she was granted a scholarship? Her intelligent face
 makes a wry grin. "Nicaragua," she answers.

 She turns, frowning, and looks out her front door into the street,
 rocking on her chair. We are drinking tiny deadly cafecitas, liquid
 caffeine, and she throws hers back in one sip. "Nicaragua," she
 repeats to herself. "You know, there are more doctors here per
 head of population than anywhere else in the world," she says,
 "and they don't have any medicine to treat people with. " She
 rocks harder and gives a short explosive laugh. "The three things
 wrong with Cuba," she says, counting them off on her long
 well-manicured fingers . "The blockade, the collapse of the Soviet
 Union, and Fidel's age. "

                       * * * *

 "Hey, where you from, beautiful?" calls a stallholder at the food
 market. Everybody seems to have the same fruit and vegetables
 for sale at much the same prices, just like home. He stretches his
 hand out for a dollar and gives me twenty three worn Cuban pesos
 in return. The dollar is folded up and goes into the breast pocket of
 his shirt. "Australia? It's nice there, right?" He gives me a perfect
 white smile, proud of his English. "And what do you think of here?
 My country, it's the BEST, no?" His shirt is so thin it's beyond
 worn - it's almost transparent across his broad polished shoulders.
 I buy papaya, yucca and bananas. I want to buy rice but there are
 no plastic bags and I have only brought one shopping bag for
 everything.

 "Come back any time!" he calls as I go. "I'm always here!" The
 smile blooms again - a lifetime diet without candy and Coke and
 excellent free dental care, I think automatically as I drift away.
 And I wonder if I'm being overly romantic if I say I have heard
 lots of people of many nationalities express patriotic pride but
 never with this joyful laid-back undefensiveness, this simple
 invitation. He wasn't boasting. He just loved it.

 Cubans are well-educated, so they know a lot about Latin
 America and the rest of the Caribbean. Even when they complain
 about Cuba, when they say they wish it was more "open", they
 don't fail to recognise that unlike a vast majority of the world's
 citizens, they are fed, educated, clothed and given medical
 attention, despite medicines themselves being in short supply. They
 don't all claim their country is the best, but they all concede that in
 comparison with a great many of their neighbours, they're doing
 OK. Queuing for food is not the same as stepping on a landmine
 or being herded into refugee camps.

 "20 million of the world's children sleep on the street every night:"
 proclaims one billboard, "not one of them is Cuban. " It takes a
 poor country to recognise these benefits as privileges and
 something worth fighting for. A large number of El Salvadorans
 and Nicaraguans, for example, see Cuba as a paradise. North
 Americans, on the other hand, have neglected to notice that their
 own free or affordable access to health, transport, education and
 legal rights have been slowly eroded away. The country that
 denounces Cuba as a violator of human rights, though, while it
 can't offer its citizens free emergency medical care or legal
 representation, can of course offer seventeen varieties of
 mail-order nut-flavoured bird suet.

                       * * * *

 Out in the campo [countyside-ed.], we are invariably met with
 courtesy and hospitality. I wonder, if I met a Cuban on a bike in
 the Australian countryside who spoke (at best) garbled English,
 whether I would necessarily hail them and offer them scarce food
 and homemade beer and floorspace to sleep for the night? Would
 I call the neighbours in, offer to kill one of the chickens, wave
 away their offers of help preparing a meal? Would I extend my
 hand on a dark road to a stranger, wish them a Happy New Year
 and invite them to my house, just over there, on the hill, should
 they want to visit later?

 "To international solidarity," say the Cubans when they toast
 glasses with you, "to amistad [friendship-ed.] and understanding".
 And they mean it. They look at you clearly in the eyes, and they
 want to know if you mean it too.

 Down goes the rum, on goes the Cuban music. God, they can
 dance, the Cubans. They dance and play the maracas in two
 different counter-rhythms and when they catch each others' eye
 they break out in big infectious grins of joy. Jazz afficionados sit
 and nod meaningfully when musicians hit their stride; the Cubans
 jump up.

 I was traveling with a Scottish friend and her husband who after
 many rums on Christmas Eve at a party in Havana put on a fast
 and furious Highland Fling, and danced it. The Cubans sat and
 watched in astonishment all through the first verse, blinking at this
 unfamiliar tempo and melody line.

 At the second chorus they got up out of their chairs and hit the
 floor with triumphant yells. They did the Highland Fling, and they
 did it better than my Scottish friend. They did it so it spoke sex.
 There's no other way to describe it. In a moment the tiny
 apartment was pounding with yips and cheers and spinning arms
 and hair. Midnight occurred as we came together to do that
 strange dance in that strange place, laughing and grabbing arms,
 and I hope again I am not romanticising things by assuring you that
 in that moment, nobody there needed a battery-powered Santa or
 fake snow.

 On Christmas morning, Vilma in the next apartment has an asthma
 attack. Her husband helps her out of her room, stiff with terror,
 and runs off to find a taxi to take her to hospital. I help her down
 the slippery, worn marble stairs to the street outside, listening
 helplessly to the tiny desperate sounds of distress she makes as
 she tries to breathe.

 She could die from this, from something that requires only a plastic
 inhaler and a measure of Ventalin. Merry Christmas, love from
 the Blockade. Her eyes stare straight ahead, focusing on getting to
 the door.

 "God, Vilma," I say as I guide her down, one step at a time, "if
 there's anything I can do, anything, if you need dollars to pay or if
 I can help you find medicine, just tell me. " I feel near to tears with
 horror and frustration. "I'll do anything," I say again, and Vilma's
 arm tightens on mine and her trembling hand goes to her mouth,
 she kisses her fingertips and opens her hand towards me. Her
 breath gasps in and out with agonising abruptness, not nearly
 enough breath to provide oxygen, not nearly enough air to survive
 in this decrepit, airless hallway.

                       * * * *

 Almost three weeks later, I am back in Havana airport. Having
 been in a country not set up for constant consumption and
 constant recreational shopping opportunities, the departure area
 with its dollar shops looks and smells like an exclusive boutique.
 Sumptuous rows of compact discs line glass display cases and
 jewelry, magazines, alcohol and the ubiquitous cigars stack the
 shelves of the shops there. You can buy last-minute Che T-shirts
 (the revolution you can wear!) and postcards of Valadero and
 mountains of carved black wooden figures. A promotional video
 showing stretches of white beach and bikini-clad Afro-Caribbean
 girls cavorting on it plays on large televisions overhead.
 Everywhere accepts MasterCard. [U.S. law prohibits the use of
 U.S. credit cards in Cuba-ed.]

 It has to be said, this is the Cuba the Cuban government would like
 you to experience. It wants you to peel off a few notes of
 currency from a country it resents and resists - several hundred, in
 fact. It wants you to spend that currency in carefully government-
 controlled places where the coffee will cost $4. 00 instead of 10
 centavos and you'll never hear a Cuban make a toast to
 international understanding.

 The Cubans you'll hear there, in the hotels and guided tour groups
 and as you get off the air-conditioned bus, will be begging you for
 soap and pens and quarters. They will look wretched and
 guilt-inducing. They will not look like they believe in revolution, or
 like they think their country is the best. But perhaps in a way they
 will actually comfort the tourists who choose to travel like this,
 perhaps they are even part of what they have come to see.

 But the Cubans want "openness", and an increasing number of
 foreign visitors want it too, not the strange sanitised holiday
 destination touted as a safe quarantine for visitors here, and the
 Cubans are young and vibrant and forceful and Fidel Castro is an
 old man.

 "Goodbye to the hopes of the imperialists," he once wrote; "what's
 happened has happened. Those who have fallen have fallen, those
 who have died have died. And still, the Revolution continues
 onward. "

 It continues against all odds, and that infuriates some and inspires
 in others a kind of vengeful glee. It continues onward, and I get on
 the plane and find myself pleading a kind of prayer: let it survive
 the lifting of the quarantine, for that is certain to happen, let it
 watch and learn and not be too hasty in throwing things away. Let
 it believe in revolution, not a Che Guevara T-shirt.

 Yes, I bought music while I was there, and I took photos. But
 what rises to my mind every day now, when I consider the things
 which will soon crystallise into memories, are images of people's
 hands.

 Hands taking mine to show me how to stumble through the salsa,
 hands hard as leather from working on the finca [i.e., from
 farming-ed.] offering me bananas and a handshake, hands
 reaching eagerly for dollars, the amazing and uplifting sight of
 hands of all skin colours, from pitch black to brown to white,
 resting on a long lunch counter as their owners waited for the
 single item on the menu - fried eggs in a bread roll - before moving
 politely on for the next people waiting in line to sit, Vilma's hand
 thanking me as she laboured for breath.

 But most of all, I think of the hands of those two little girls, telling
 the story of what might happen underneath the moon - the
 mischievous graceful tilt of their hands as they crooked them into
 the air. My emotions are torn when I think of them, dancing with
 such bravado and flirtatious pleasure under the stairs. Up stretch
 their hands, and I want it all to be possible - not just what they are
 reaching for, but what they are already holding.

 Cate Kennedy is a prize-winning Australian fiction writer.

                       [END]