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Nothing Can Hold Back the March of History

Next year, if Cuba can make the deal it wants to with one of the big British tour operators, there will be a direct charter flight from London. For now, we had to catch the regular Cubana flight from Madrid to Havana.

By ‘we’ I mean a small party of British travel journalists whom the Cuban government tourism department Intur wanted to tell about the glittering prospects for diversion which their readers might not normally, unless promped, associate with the home island of Latin-American Socialism. People have somehow got the idea that Cuba is a mass meeting which Fidel Castro has been addressing continuously for twenty-seven years. We scriveners would disabuse them of that impression, after first having been disabused of it ourselves.

If that was the plan, it worked. When you can get there without hassle, Cuba will be worth going to see. Bits of it will, anyway. Other aspects are not so enticing, and lest, in describing these, I seem ungrateful to my hosts, it is best to say at the outset that I look back on the experience with gratitude. Cuba’s bid to make the world welcome should be welcomed in its turn, even if the locally prevalent bureaucratic inefficiency leaves your nerves in shreds. As an island, Cuba has a lot going for it. As a State, it has a lot going against it. Classical Marxists will recognise that a thesis and antithesis have been stated here, from which a synthesis will duly emerge.

Classical Marxists would also have recognised our airliner, a hulking Russian I1-62M whose front passenger compartment was full of crated radio equipment from Copenhagen. Actual passengers, in addition to their rolled-up bullfight posters, carried Japanese stereo equipment purchased in Madrid. They all drank Cuban rum as if there would be less of it when they got to Cuba. Clearly we were heading towards part of the consumer goods vacuum known to history as Socialism.

Havana had much to teach. The lessons started with billboards at the airport. NO SOMOS UN PAIS RICO PERO SOMOS UN PAIS DIGNO. We are not a rich country but we are a dignified one. My mastery of the language, acquired from a tape called Lazy Spanish, had passed its first test. It failed the next one, however. Our Intur guide was a charming young man who spoke excellent idiomatic English. His Spanish, on the other hand, sounded like my teach-yourself tape stuck on fast forward. There went my free Spanish conversation lessons.

Built before the revolution, the erstwhile Hilton Hotel is now called the Havana Libre. The carpets are stained, not everything works first time, and room service rarely arrives. To compensate, the hit-men and pimps of olden times are no longer on the scene. It’s a toss-up. Which do you like, clean carpets you might end up as a dead body on, or a run-down room in which your personal safety is guaranteed? The shops in the hotel were run by Intur and wanted our US dollars. They wouldn’t take the local money. Having predicted that US dollars would be useless, I had armed myself, immediately upon arrival, with a fistful of Cuban pesos. Luckily the shops, however desperate for foreign currency, could offer, apart from rum and cigars, very few things worth buying, so it didn’t matter that I had no dollars to buy them with.

My pesos I took out to La Rampa with the intention of buying an ice-cream to offset the immense heat. La Rampa is the show street of modern Havana. Everybody makes the paseo there in the evening. They look at each other and queue to eat ice-cream. At the most famous ice-cream parlour the queues were endless. I joined the shortest one and grew old waiting. By the time my turn came there was only one kind of ice-cream left. I began to suspect that from the economic viewpoint Cuba might be just the Soviet Union plus humidity. Some of the waiting girls, however, were very pretty, in a neatly turned-out way that made it look as if the revolution would be good clean fun to join.

Next day we were shown old Havana, consisting of historic fortresses, historic government buildings and historic Intur shops the locals aren’t allowed inside. Take away the towering palms and it could have been Leningrad, a resemblance emphasised by the number of Russian oil tankers in the harbour. Russian tankers provide 95 per cent of Cuba’s oil and 100 per cent of the oil slick that surrounds Havana.

The bookshops were full of party-line Soviet books translated into Spanish. More surprisingly, nearly all the books of local origin looked as if they were ready to be translated into Russian. The literature of the Spanish-speaking heritage was absent from the shelves. Marxist-Leninist tracts prevailed.

Of these, the least deadly looking were by Fidel himself. I bought a book-length interview called Nada podrá detener la marcha de la historia. Nothing can hold back the march of history. It sounded promising. Fidel’s picture on the cover brought back memories of the heroic age when he and Che were two beards united against injustice everywhere. Cuba sí!

Indeed, I was hoping to find a few old revolutionary posters in the shops. At the risk of indulging in radical chic, I would have liked a good wall-sized Che to take home so that my daughter could supplement her plaster bust of Lenin with a portrait of a better man. But the old colonial building which had been converted into an Intur shopping precinct was not in the business of peddling rebellious mementoes. Apart from the brandy and cigars, the main item on sale, replicated a thousand times and stacked in heaps, was a rural scene of toiling peasants preserved in the form of a brown ceramic wall-plaque that looked like a cow pat and was heavier than a discus.

Melting in the humidity, my wrist sprained from test-lifting a wall-plaque, I was glad to be led into Floridita, the famous bar in which Ernest Hemingway drank daiquiris. The barman built him a jumbo daiquiri in the biggest glass that could be filled with frappéd ice without the ice congealing into a berg under its own weight. Having been on the wagon for twelve years, I fell off in order to bring you an authentic report of how it feels to drink one of these concoctions in an air-conditioned, dollars-only bar while the rest of Cuba is sweltering outside. I was fairly certain that it felt good, but I wanted to be sure, so I ordered another. It felt very good. You can definitely put a daiquiri in Floridita on top of your short list of things to do in Havana after you’ve watched a Russian tanker unloading.

The cold truth, or rather the hot truth beaded with sweat, is that most of Havana is falling apart. The streets are free of pot-holes but otherwise it looks like Nairobi. The inhabitants are fit — Cuban health statistics are as good as ours — but it takes all the native genius for mechanical improvisation to keep the capital functioning. Citizens of Havana have the extensive facilities of Lenin Park to make them feel wealthy, but they go home to a city which is essentially a pile of old American junk, a predicament exemplified by the number of superannuated Detroit cars still miraculously on the road. Heirlooms from the 1950s, made fat by amateur resprays, their quondam chrome trim now frosty with silver paint, Oldsmobiles, Buicks, Dodges and Plymouths bulk proudly in the streets of Havana as if it were a tailfin-era copy of Collier’s advertising next year’s models. Harbingers of a forgotten future, they make Cuba look like a hangover.

It’s a false impression. Next morning we were out in our minibus rolling east on the autopista, and the country’s beauty began to unfold. Well kept, busy with Russian trucks, it was as green as green can be without making you want to lean forward and adjust the colour control. Mangoes hung fatly. There was also a rich crop of revolutionary slogans. A succession of roadside billboards welcomed us to each town. VIVA LA AMISTAD SOVIETICA-CUBANA. Long live Soviet-Cuban friendship. Perhaps it was better not to translate them. ‘Ideology is, above all, consciousness.’ They didn’t sound quite so stirring in English.

Finally we arrived at Varadero, the seaside resort which counts as Cuba’s main thrust at the world tourist market. Significantly, there were few billboards. The emphasis was suddenly switched from struggle to relaxation. For tourists, that is. The Cubans would be doing the catering.

At the Hotel Internacional they do it fairly well, on a self-service basis that at least lets you pick and choose among the two main dishes on offer, instead of ordering one of them from a waiter and getting the other. Energy restored, we walked out of the back door and on to the beach, which was simply perfect. The sand was soft and stretched for a mile each way. The sea was clear and blue and the bottom shelved so gently that you could walk to Florida. What would happen, goes the old joke, if the Sahara went Socialist? The answer is: nothing, for the first ten years, and then there’d be a shortage of sand. At Varadero it hasn’t happened yet. When the airport is extended and there are direct flights from Gatwick, you will be flat on your back without ever having found out that Cuba is a Communist country.

Water-skiing and wind-surfing were available if we couldn’t conquer our Protestant work ethic. I conquered mine. For a day and a half I did nothing between swims except burp about on a Honda moped. At $2.50 per hour, without licence or crash helmet, I buzzed all over Varadero, which turned out to be a long promontory only a couple of hundred yards wide. At the far end was the Dupont mansion. The American tycoon who opened up Varadero used to bring his friends there by yacht and private plane. Now his house is the Restaurante Las Américas. The food is dull and the tiles blown off the roof by the last hurricane have not been replaced, but you can’t object when the playground of the élite becomes the collective recreational amenity of the masses, especially if the masses include you. There were even a few Cubans present, blowing their precious dollars on a big day out.

The East Germans, with whom each Varadero hotel was stuffed to the rafters, no doubt get an assisted passage. But the Canadians go there because it’s a hop, step and a jump and costs peanuts. ‘I’ve never seen such a wonderful place as Varadero,’ said a woman from Niagara Falls, who had previously been to Barbados, Nassau and Puerto Rico. ‘Everything in Barbados costs at least twice as much.’ She was especially pleased with the low price of the brown ceramic wall-plaques, of which she had bought two, presumably so as not to develop asymmetric shoulders.

With blue water glittering in the background I did in-depth research into daiquiris and the different lengths of Havana cigar. The girl reporter in our party collected material for an important suntan. Intur needed only to have left us alone and we would have written reports they could have used as a brochure. But our guide had his orders. The prepared itinerary said that we must see all the major installations of tourism.

So off we sped through the heat and cane-fields. No autopista this time: just a two-lane blacktop, but in good repair. The slave shanties of 100 years ago now all have television aerials and look like desirable architecture. Cane on undulating ground still has to be cut with machetes. Agriculture is hard work, but today everybody gets a taste of it. There are schools out in the fields where Cuban children spend two weeks getting a tougher version of what our children call Work Experience. Billboards remind all concerned that their arched spines form the collective backbone of the economy. Everyone a worker and everyone a soldier. ‘Commander in chief, go into combat! Your rear is secure!’

My own rear was aching by the time we reached Trinidad, an old colonial town with a lot of old colonial buildings. The heat was sensational and there was no relief except beer. It was a Spaghetti Western set begging for Clint Eastwood to ride in and open an ice-cream parlour. Even the most up-market British tourist would have to be pretty interested in natural history to come all this way just to faint in front of the same house where Alexander von Humboldt once dissected a few specimens.

Gladly we doubled back to the coastal city of Cienfuegos, whose installations seemed to consist of only one hotel. The bay of Cienfuegos was famously beautiful up until the day we got there, when a Russian tanker, instead of delivering 1,000 tons of oil into the refinery, pumped it straight into the water. On television that night there was a frank admission, or rather a frank accusation, of incompetence. Those responsible would be disciplined. There were pictures of a man in uniform poking a long stick into the bay, pulling it out again and gazing learnedly at the high proportion of it which was covered with goo.

What we would have done in Cienfuegos if the bay had not been converted into a sump I never discovered, but I did discover someone who was selling old revolutionary posters. She wasn’t running an Intur shop. She was in business for herself — one of the free market merchants grudgingly allowed to operate for a while until they become too successful and have to be clamped down on again. Cleverly she had guessed that what the hip visitor really wanted was pictures of the men who had dreamed up the utopia in whose interstices she now scratched to make an extra buck. If she is really smart, she may even rake together enough dollars to live like a tourist.

‘My city, happy and beautiful,’ said a large sign as we left Cienfuegos, its oilslick gleaming in the dawn. Pressure from us, plus some admirably persistent phone-calls from our guide to his headquarters, had expanded our schedule beyond the envisaged touristic limits and into the realm of politics. We were heading for the Bay of Pigs, so called because of the large numbers of crocodiles, parakeets, crabs and flies in the area.

Playa Larga, one of the several beaches around the Bay of Pigs, turned out to be very pleasant, with a nice restaurant full of real Cubans. Crabs crawl out of the sea and march a long way inland — much further than the invaders ever did. Slower crabs which get no further than the restaurant can be eaten while you contemplate the CIA’s folly.

You shouldn’t contemplate it too long if you prefer to believe that the CIA machinates ruthlessly in the interests of US imperialism. At the time it seemed more plausible that the CIA was machinating ruthlessly in the interests of revolutionary Cuba. The invasion plan was demented. Even if the Contras had not been stopped cold by Fidel’s armour, they would have run out of gas further up the road. The scheme was predicated on the assumption that the people would rise.

Only a fool could have believed they would. If you don’t see how a man as smart as Kennedy could have been such an idiot, the only remaining explanation is that the whole enterprise was designed to drive Castro further down the road to Socialism, in order that the eventual lack of consumer goods might serve as an awful warning to the rest of Latin America. If that was the idea, it didn’t work with the Nicaraguans. But maybe that’s part of the plot too! On my third daiquiri and second cigar, suddenly I saw it all.

I was downing the daiquiri, and mauling the Monte Cristo, back in Havana, where our trip was drawing to an end. At Floridita we got into training for a visit to the Finca Vigia, Hemingway’s old house on a hilltop outside the city. This item had not been on the schedule either, but half a day came free when one of our number, a fluent Spanish speaker, fell victim to Cuban paperwork. He wanted to stay on a few extra days, an initiative which would alter his status from Intur invitee to individual foreign visitor. Two different departments being involved in this change of classification, a third department had to be brought in so that the first two could be put in touch with each other. Only narrowly did he avoid having his visa cancelled altogether. I watched him disappear under a hill of paper.

On a hill only slightly larger, Hemingway’s villa looked out over the polluted city and back to a less bureaucratic time. But it had been a corrupt time, too — a fact of which Hemingway was well aware. Papa had liked Fidel, and vice versa. With beards interlocked they had given Batista the kiss-off. Fidel has kept the friendship well tended. The villa is in spanking condition. You aren’t allowed inside because of weak floorboards, but everything can be seen from the windows. On the walls are the heads of everything he shot except his own. The size of his shoes is a revelation. His custom-made penny loafers are like twin canoes. He couldn’t be more present if he was there.

A vivid writer doesn’t write vividly, he sees vividly. Hemingway went where he could see life, and lived in Cuba because he thought the Gulf Stream was the great, clean, deep well of truth. He was an awful liar but he knew what the truth was.

That night in the Havana Libre I finished reading the march-of-history manifesto and wondered if Fidel still does. While I read, Fidel was on television, winding up a 20-hour session of the all-Havana assembly in which the delegates addressed themselves to him on those occasions when he did not address himself to them. Several delegates complained of too much paperwork and he promised to look into it. He made a note on a piece of paper, which did not bode well. Criticism was freely expressed but nobody criticised the one-party State. Democracy was dead and buried.

Perhaps it has to be. Revolutionary Cuba has a lot to be proud of. Nobody starves. Everybody goes to school. There is no race prejudice to speak of, or none that is spoken of. Women get equal pay. Old ladies do not get mugged. Though it costs a lot to dress well, it costs little to dress well enough. None of this would have happened under the old system, which would still be there if Fidel had not overthrown it.

If I speak with dewy eyes, it is because the Cuban revolution was the great thrill of my generation. If the tears taste bitter, it is because one’s residual admiration for those bearded heroes can’t alter the sad fact that no concentration of power can perpetuate itself without ossifying. The horror stories coming out of Fidel’s jails are not all of the CIA’s invention.

Fidel locks up Cuba’s real writers because real writers will agree to lie only selectively, and usually about themselves. For a man of Fidel’s mental stature to lie systematically about the whole of modern history is a sorry thing. Because he needs friends among the non-aligned countries he says the Ayatollah Khomeini leads a progressive regime. Because he wants to please the Soviet Union, he calls the rebels in Afghanistan counter-revolutionaries.

It was at this point that I gagged on my last daiquiri and went back on the wagon. What else are the Afghan rebels trying to do except get an interloping giant of their backs? They are doing exactly what Fidel did when he was in the mountains. Has he forgotten who he is? But this was too deep a question to tackle on a freebie junket.

For one last time I ventured out along La Rampa and queued for an ice-cream. From far away I watched the cashier accept each customer’s money and issue a ticket. Armed with a ticket, each customer queued again in front of the counter behind which a young man delved with a scoop. Nearby hovered a supervisor who had no incentive to sell a ticket or help dig. Elsewhere was an office processing the supervisor’s reports. It was full of paper-pushers, who, on a hot evening after an easy day’s work, would queue for an ice-cream without too much objection, because that’s the system and it has a job for them.

So I didn’t object either. It’s their country. The girls looked prettier than ever and by now I knew how to chat them up in their own language. ‘Ideology,’ I said suavely, ‘is, above all, consciousness.’ They laughed until they cried.

Observer, 13 July, 1986