For a while, the blind girl's song is lovely. Her fingers move easily across the keys, and her command of the piano and musical phrasings give her tune a sweet, elusive familiarity. Then she starts to cough. Just a little at first, then she interrupts her playing to cover her mouth and convulse. Still, she keeps returning to the keyboard until an instructor, who is hovering nearby, reaches down and gently guides her away.
Her three classmates walk to the front of the room and hold hands. Slowly, they start to sway. They sing of revolution, three stanzas full. Their long coltish legs or short chubby thighs rustle the pleats of their national school uniforms, and their strong voices and sightless eyes make them poignant and vulnerable. Alina Garcia, 13, president of the National Youth Pioneer Union for the Abel Santamaria school for the blind, watches the scene with a group of visiting reporters from the United States. Her eyes dart back and forth like an urgent line of type repeatedly frustrated by the carriage return, but her voice is steady and composed. She wants to be an architect, she says. "It is better to live in a society where I can be someone in the future," not a society where some people can't afford to go to college.
To a first-time visitor to Havana, the Abel Santamaria school, located on the grounds of an old military base, seems like much of the city: A place of distended proportions -- a spareness of material and a surfeit of ideas. A place that proclaims that people are more important than things. At eye level, it can be compelling and beautiful, unless you also need things. Unless you're a blind girl who seems to need an inhaler.
It is a place where you can see a great deal, and still not be clear about what you're seeing at all.
At the National Literacy Museum, you find letters and pictures from the campaign that deputized teenagers, among others, to teach everyone in Cuba to read a few years after Fidel Castro came to power in 1959. As you ride around the city, every quarter-mile or so you see towering billboards and signs across buildings announcing 45 years of the "triumph of the revolution." They say "We will overcome" and "Our ideals are not for sale."
Esprit de corps seems to be what Cubans advertise instead of Drink More Bud. And it can make you hungry for a U.S. triumph that's not about buying things. Wistful for a culture that isn't so papered over in advertising that we can't see our own public service announcements.
For complicated political and economic reasons -- the island is authoritarian, impoverished, embargoed -- Cubans are deprived of things. While supposedly the news media report on problems with the country's infrastructure, criticism of the Castro government is not allowed. And much of the daily technology and access to information we take for granted is either prohibitively expensive or practically prohibited. That means you don't see Cubans on cell phones or PDAs or laptops. They're not holed up in the house watching HBO or playing video games. They don't have devices and distractions, so what they have is conversation and connection. The charm of a simple life has been forced on Cubans. And, at least for a time, it draws you in willingly.
That's the dicey part about hearing only the bad about a place -- finding good things can defy your expectations and bend your mind toward subversion.
Maybe it is blowback from more than 40 years of exiles' invective against Castro's government or recent revelations that the U.S. Treasury Department spends more to track violators of the Cuban embargo than to search for money hidden by Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. Maybe it is the unseemliness of a U.S. congressman from Florida, Republican Lincoln Diaz-Balart, calling for Fidel Castro's assassination on a Miami radio station last March. Or perhaps it's that most Americans can't visit and judge for themselves that makes the island seem so different from what you've heard and what you expected. Maybe it's those pictures of Che all around Havana making you perverse.
Cuba is a communist country, but a 50-foot marble statue of Jesus Christ blesses passing ships in Havana Bay. It predates the revolution, but supposedly the lights have never been allowed to go out. All about the city are statues of heroes from the Cuban wars of independence in the late 1800s: Jose Marti and the black general Antonio Maceo. (Like the island, which was about one-third black and mixed-race at the time, Cuba's military was multiracial until the United States, which occupied Cuba from 1899 to 1902 and from 1906 to 1908, forced it to segregate.) But as you ride past El Parque de la Fraternidad, it is the bust of Abraham Lincoln -- sans any reference to the white sale that accompanies his annual holiday in the United States -- that provides the most unexpected and moving tribute. That causes your own shiver of connection.
Cuba is a Third World country, but spend a week in Havana, a city of more than 2 million, and you won't see any homeless people. Housing is a hallmark of the revolution, even if much of it is crumbling. Still, it is a poor place and there are poor people like the women who walk the rows of the Old Havana Fair, where artists sell original oil paintings to tourists for $45, and beg. One thin, scarred young woman pulls a sleeping toddler from her breast. She has taught the little girl to stick out her hand and gesture toward her mouth. My baby is hungry, the woman says with bad teeth in bad English. Disturbing juxtapositions are part of the unofficial tour of Havana. It's a lot like Freedom Plaza, just down from the White House, in that way. Or like any other city in the world.
In Cuba, they say the next front in the revolution is the battle of ideas: whether, and how, their socialism can self-correct social inequality and economic privations, and compete with free-market countries for the souls of its people. Young Cubans (60 percent of the population was born after the revolution) are more exposed to U.S. images and ideals than their parents and so are more aware of what they may be missing. And for young black Cubans (while 89 percent of Cubans in the States are white, the island is 60 percent black or mulatto) who are aware of the widespread racial discrimination that marked Cuban history before 1959, this battle can be deeply personal.
Neivi Cuesta, 28, who heads public relations for Havana's five-star Parque Central Hotel, says she loves the elegance and bite of Pulitzer-winning American poet Gwendolyn Brooks, a black woman who wrote of things "rageful and resolute." Together we recite "We Real Cool" over soft drinks in the hotel lobby. Cuba is her world, but she desperately wants that world to get bigger. Despite "the triumph of the revolution," she says, "it is difficult to please people's desires."
Her grandparents had little money to send their children to school, and before Castro came to power, her mother had planned on being a teacher. Now her mother is a surgeon, her aunt is a dentist, her uncle is an engineer. "I don't think, in fact I know, we would not have had the educational opportunities we have had," Cuesta says. But: She wants to travel, to buy her own car. She has visited Canada, so "I know all the things I could have, but I want to have them here," she says. "I think we should think of a way so that we can have the things we need and still support the revolution."
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.