Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Old Havana

I normally don’t believe in time travel but I wish there were such a thing because it would be fascinating to go back in time and see a world long since removed from our planet. Oh wait; come to think of it, I did just that when Sharon and I meandered the cobblestone sidewalks of old Havana a couple of years ago. It was another side of Cuba and Havana and the Cuban people I had never experienced before. Their history (as told directly from the source) is a good example of that.

Their version of the Spanish American War is radically different from ours. Our history books show Rough Rider Teddy Roosevelt leading a charge up Santiago de Cuba’s San Juan Hill in the only major battle of the war. The truth, I found out, is that the Cuban Nationalists had been fighting the Spanish for years. They had been winning that war but American business interests were worried about their investments in sugar cane and wanted assurances the Spanish wouldn’t win the war.

In 1895, Cuban poet and independence leader Jose Marti was killed by Spanish troops during the Battle of Dos Rios, becoming the country’s most revered martyr and a symbol of Cuban patriotism to this day. The United States, egged on by private interests, sent their battleship, the Maine, to Havana Harbor. After the Maine was mysteriously destroyed in Havana Harbor, the United States moved against the Spanish and hence the war.

After the war, Cuba went through a series of corrupt political leaders and dictators. The people remained poor and the economy was propped up mainly by rum, sugar cane and tourism. American business interests continued to play a major role in Cuba’s political intrigue and self-serving interests. Most Americans knew little about this poor country just eighty miles south of Florida. Their only impressions of Cuba came from slick Madison Avenue hucksters.

Following on the huge success of image-making first created by Hawaii and then California in the 20s and 30s, the Cuban powers-to-be painted a romantic picture of their country as a refuge for the rich and famous. Novels by Gramme Green helped the image along.

The 1940’s curtailed much of the tourism trade but Cuba still created its own mystic with old Havana and stalwarts like Earnest Hemmingway who haunted its bars and nightclubs during the war years. Frequent layovers by U.S. Navy ships only helped to advance the image of old Cuba as exciting, morally dangerous and a world apart from prudish America just eighty miles north.

After the war, Cuba remained a poor country still ruled by dictators, the worst of whom was Fulgencio Batista. To prop up the economy and his own bank account, the dictator courted East Coast gangsters to run the casinos and nightclubs in Havana. Never one to miss an opportunity to turn a quick buck, the con men and criminals swept through the business, eliminating the honest businessmen with their own cronies. Gambling flourished and tourism soared.

There was some trickle down benefit for a small but growing middle class. White-collar professionals and businessmen prospered while the poor languished. East coast promoters sensed an opportunity in the growing affluence of America and tried to package Cuban music scene as new, exotic and romantic. The movie ‘Our Man in Havana’ starring Alec Guinness and Maureen O’Hara perpetuated the myth of old Havana as a mysterious and romantic Caribbean hideaway.

Nightclubs, hotels, resorts and casinos were packaged along with ship cruises and a new and novel form of travel; airline travel for the average person. Tourism began to grow by leaps and bounds.

Then it all came to a screeching halt in January of 1959 when Fidel Castro, after a series of battles along the length of the island, finally arrived in Havana. He was first welcomed as a savor and hero of the Cuban people. But very quickly his true intent as a socialist and communist came to the forefront. That is when the time warp began.

It can literally and figurative be said that Cuba stopped growing as a country on that date.  What Sharon and I experienced as we traveled from one city to the next and finally through Havana was a country locked in a time warp. There are generations of Cuban people who have missed the social, cultural, artistic, and political changes other countries have come to expect over time.

There is nothing romantic about a people and a country stuck in limbo with little hope for change on the horizon. The Obama administration tried to open relations with Cuba. The Trump administration slammed that door shut just as quickly.

So I’m sitting in the Hotel Ambos Mundos where Hemingway hung out when he was in Havana. The tourists are all here along with some locals, all soaking up the ambiance and fading memories that match the framed pictures of the old man on the walls. I’m imaging what it was like back then for him; heavy drinking, womanizing, political intrigue and pressing demands from New York publishers.

I’m wondering how it got to be this crazy for this poor Caribbean country. A country literally and figurative stuck in time. Horse and carriage competing for space with cars and trucks.

For those in the know and with the cash, there are amenities galore. There are charming restaurants tucked away in narrow back streets that open up to wonderful courtyards. The people there are very friendly. The food is great and relatively cheap...if you can afford it.

The Cuban children are beautiful, energetic, and alive with life. This is the only life they know and their parents must dread the time they will begin to realize what the real world outside of their shores is really like. The internet is closely monitored and regulated.

The music of Cuba is alive with African drum beats, gyrating sweating bodies and an energy that is almost palatable. It hasn’t changed for hundreds of years. It’s just been in remission since the fifties.

At the Hotel Ambos Mundos, pictures of the old man are everywhere. This is supposed to be Cuba’s version of ‘Sloppy Joe’s’ straight out of Key West. In reality, it is a tourist trap that has managed to keep a little of the original ambiance of the times. They’re charging five dollars American to go upstairs and wander around the hotel room where Hemingway supposedly drank and slept and misbehaved when he was in town.

Now I’m standing outside, watching it all go down. Cuba has done a good job of retaining its past, reclaiming its history and pretending it has a future. Some things haven’t changed for over fifty years. I’m trying to take in the sounds and smells and sights from a writer’s perspective. There are a hundred million stories here. I just have to find them and see if they translate into something my audience might find interesting.

In the meantime, the beer is cold, the air is warm and the girls are all pretty. What more could Ernest and I wish for.

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