Friday, July 1, 2011

Dirty Havana Trilogy

by Pa Rock
Avid Reader

Cuba is a place I have always wanted to visit.  Unfortunately, our government has forbidden ordinary Americans from traveling to Cuba for over five decades, and although there has been talk of that policy changing for several years now, it seems to be just talk.  Agricultural and trade missions can come and go to Cuba with relative ease, and some people are allowed to go there for educational reasons -  but for the average tourist the trip still can't be made legally.  Rich Americans (for whom the rules are always different - or at least enforced differently) have floated their yachts in and out of the island's harbors for years, and many skirt the law going to Montreal or Mexico and then flying to Havana.

There appear to be no military or secret concerns that would warrant keeping Americans away from Cuba other than the fact that the Cuba lobby in Florida, an extremely powerful political force, doesn't want to legitimize Castro by normalizing relations with the island nation.   They still see him as a "temporary" leader who will one day fall, allowing them to return home and reclaim their confiscated property.  Castro has been in power in Cuba since the Eisenhower administration, and most of these angry Cuban-Americans were born in the United States after the revolution.

It is because some of the younger Cuban-Americans are beginning to accept reality that our government is finally talking about normalizing relations with our largest neighbor in the Caribbean.

Fifty years of saber-rattling and boycotts by the United States have had a harsh impact on the economy of Cuba and the lives of its people.  The Soviet Union subsidized the island to a great extent until the mighty Soviet Bear collapsed in 1991.  It was at that point that things went from bad to worse for the people struggling to survive in Cuba.

I have recently finished reading Dirty Havana Trilogy by Cuban journalist and writer Pedro Juan Gutierrez. It is a lengthy volume of vignettes about life and poverty in Cuba during the early 1990's, the period just after the collapse of the Soviet Union.    All of the very short stories in the book describe the lives and living conditions of the common people, and most involve Gutierrez himself and the denizens of the building in which he lives.

Pedro Juan Gutierrez portrays himself in terms of being an ex-journalist who is barely surviving in one of many shacks that occupy the roof of a decaying old apartment house along the Malecon - Havana's famous sea wall.  He makes a meager living by selling produce that he brings in illegally from the countryside, trafficking in various black market items, encouraging his girlfriends to go out and "hustle" along the Malecon, and fishing from an inner-tube for days at a time in the dirty water that is Havana's harbor.  At one point during this time Gutierrez is prostituting himself (to women only) and is arrested and imprisoned for two-and-a-half years.

The author describes life in Cuba in stark and very tragic terms.  Most of his tales revolve around sex, usually involving people living in squalor and who have no sanitation or means of keeping clean, and decaying buildings.  People and buildings fall apart after years of neglect, day-by-day or sometimes all at once.  Gutierrez describes suicides, people sleeping twenty to a room on floors - with some having sex in the dark while the rest listen or try not to listen, and hallways and stairwells littered with human excrement because a water shortage has made the toilets useless.

Yet, almost amazingly, Gutierrez weaves his way through all of the suffering and filth and makes sense of it. He is describing people who are intent on getting by, despite their circumstances, just like people everywhere.  His account of life in Cuba in the 1990's is just that - a depiction of life.  His tales are well crafted and powerful, and their power comes from the author's ability to understand his own experiences and express them with brutal honesty.

And with all of that, I still want to visit Cuba.  The island was a leading force in the shaping of 20th century American history with its splendid casinos built and run by Meyer Lansky and other infamous figures of  the American mob, the Hemingway connection, the successful revolution led by a small boatload of young brave hearts with names like Castro and Guevara, the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the numerous failed attempts by our government to kill Castro - and his possible retaliation by having some mysterious involvement in the assassination of President Kennedy, the Mariel Boat Lift, and the refugees who continue to try to reach the shores of the United States on small boats, rafts, and inner-tubes.

The world is changing.  Americans and their dollars are now welcome in many places where they would have once been banned - by our own government.  Today we can travel to Russia, China, and even Vietnam.  It is well past time for the government of the United States to quit protecting us from ourselves and allow unfettered humanitarian and tourist travel to Cuba.

The Cold War is over.


Xobekim said...

I've always had a hankering to sit in a chair on the patio of Ernest Hemingway's home, Finca Vigia in San Francisco de Paula, Cuba. I'd like to just sit there and listen to the breeze.

Don said...

That's as good as it gets! Great exposition, Rock.

Pa Rock's Ramble said...

Okay, Xobekim, let's get this trip planned before we are both too old to enjoy it! While we are on the road we can also hit the Hemingway home in Key West and spend an afternoon drinking at Sloppy Joe's!