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
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
"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
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
In flagrant contravention of United Nation rulings, in treatment
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
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
The taxi driver chuckles softly when I ask him if he thinks Cuba
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
Oh, it's easy to fall in love with this, this picturesque poverty,
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
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
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
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
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?
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
lost for the lack of it. Never mind that it flouts international laws of
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
In their houses, full of 1950s furniture and dusty artificial
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
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
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.
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,
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
"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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
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 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,
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.