Chorus Of Praises, Counterpoint Of Whispers
In Havana's Central Park, a pair of young black Cubans, Manuel de Jesus Rodriguez and his buddy Lorenzo Caballero Martinez, are restless and discontented. The 18-year-olds live in Guantanamo, a city in Cuba's southernmost province. They say their lives are bad, the revolution is bad.
Rodriguez says his parents earn little money for clothes and shoes and that businesses in the tourist zones, where dollars are more plentiful and life is better, hire mostly whites. His bitterness, hard and knotty, is just another texture of the city. Yes, they say, they have free education and health care and, at least in theory, a job guarantee, but they are young enough to take these things for granted while Western images of plenty dance in their heads. The revolution has covered many of their basic needs, but what about the deep-seated needs of young educated Cubans to get beyond the basics?
This is the challenge of their times, says 51-year-old Cuban filmmaker Gloria Rolando. In 2000 she made a film about the Cuban army's 1912 massacre of 6,000 blacks in southern Cuba who were demanding an end to policies of racial discrimination. Rolando, who was 7 when Castro came to power, says Cuban families and communities must remember how the society treated poor people and people of color before the revolution. That even if things are bad now, they used to be worse. When her grandmother was young, Rolando says, blacks were forced to walk around their local park; only whites were allowed to walk through.
As for shortages: "The young generation wants material things -- 'I want this, I want that,' " she says. "My mother is 77 and she is now inside the university for older people. I don't have the latest fashions in clothes or shoes, but I have the example of my mother and she continues struggling and learning."
While some of Cuba can seem in a state of perpetual contemplation, on the weekends, crowds of Habaneros take their big ideas with mojitos on the teeming sands of Marazul beach. A reporter in our group floats the idea that it is impossible to find the most beautiful woman in Cuba, because each one is more beautiful than the last. A popular saying has it that all Cubans are part Carib or part Congo and people occur in lush combinations of parts and colors. One group of bikini-clad young women sway to salsa rhythms and talk about things they have, like education, and the things they want, like shoes.
Our Cuban companion says they are "working girls," trying to cash in on their curves. The women say they are hard-working chambermaids and schoolteachers.
As always in Cuba, it's hard to say which is true.
On a final night in Havana, you think back to an earlier interview with Ricardo Alarcon, president of Cuba's national assembly. It seems both haunting and hyperbolic. He fears a U.S. invasion, citing John R. Bolton, U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, who calls Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism and warns that Castro is "developing a limited biological weapons effort."
Throw open the French doors of your hotel room, and there is bustle and hum in the late Havana night. You realize it's probably a view that few Cubans, who aren't even allowed into the sleeping floors of the swank hotels for foreigners, have ever seen. Looking over the city, for a moment you wonder, could we actually bomb these cultured, complicated people? Then you close your doors against a sudden rhetorical chill.
"Un Mundo Mejor Es Posible." A better world is possible.
The signs seem more plentiful on the drive to Jose Marti Airport. The group seems more reflective than when we first arrived. In the end, or perhaps merely in that curiously self-absorbed American way, visiting Cuba makes you think deeply about the United States. About a country of people who fought for the right to criticize their government, and now fight about whether doing so is patriotic. About a tradition of multiple political parties, even if they often seem impossibly out of touch, and of a fiercely free press, even if it is unable to tell us the number of Iraqis who have died in the war. About a country, mostly, of religious tolerance and a bloody, unjust, but sometimes beautifully transcendent history.
Still, you deeply wish your kids could see the literacy and tenacity and beauty of old Havana before it falls into the Gap.
Flying over Havana Bay, 90 miles from Florida, it comes to you: Visiting Cuba doesn't make you long for communism, only bigger ideas in your democracy.
Staff researcher Don Pohlman contributed to this report, portions of which have appeared on blackamericaweb.com.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
This picture, in Havana's National Museum, shows Fidel Castro extolling, in a U.N. address, Cuba's literacy campaign.