The author lived in Havana as a Foreign Service spouse in the 1990s. Here she presents — in fictional form — an impression of Cuban life at that time. ~ Ed.
THE SEA STRETCHES OUT, LUMINOUS AND BLUE, to the northern horizon. I lean, like a Cuban, against the rough, crumbling seawall of the Malecón.
Decrepit apartment buildings, eaten away by years of salt air and neglect, line the curving waterfront. Soviet-style housing blocks sport balconies with flaking blue paint. The modern U.S. Interests Section building stands out like a clean-cut American cop in mirrored glasses. In its narrow garden, palms gently shake their brushy heads, as if in disbelief. Outside the iron fence, unsmiling Cuban policemen in olive drab wave pedestrians away.
My thin silk blouse is already damp with sweat, sticking to my back. But the wind from the sea, fierce and pure, somehow makes my heart leap like the brilliant white spray on the rocks below.
A dark-skinned couple in T-shirts and jeans walks past on the broad sidewalk, laughing and kissing. An old American car rattles by, its windshield cracked in a deadly-looking star pattern.
A whole family passes on a bicycle, father pedaling in a faded red tank top, mother primly sidesaddle over the back tire, little girl perched on a makeshift seat between the handlebars. A shiny black sedan, casually steered by a foreign businessman talking on a cellular phone, veers too close, making the bicycle wobble.
The inevitable black-market salesman saunters up to me in the heat. “Cigars, señora?” he asks. I decline. He is young and handsome, despite a chipped front tooth. I am a perfectly ordinary single woman in my mid-30s. But a foreigner, and thus rich and glamorous. “Are you looking for a boyfriend, lady?” he asks in English, smiling ingratiatingly. It is time to go back inside.
My job in Havana is to process the twenty thousand Cuban immigrants the United States takes in each year. We used to accept any Cuban “rafter” who managed to enter our waters. But that policy was unsustainable — a moral hazard, as the economists say. It simply encouraged more people to pile into homemade vessels and risk their lives in the Straits of Florida.
Now the Coast Guard returns Cubans found at sea. Just yesterday, I was driven out to the concrete pier at Mariel, an hour from Havana, for another hand-over. I told the drained, sullen group of Cubans on the Coast Guard cutter how to enter our computerized visa lottery. They already knew all about it. I wrote down their addresses, and they were taken away on a rusty, windowless bus.
Once or twice a year, my colleagues and I will visit these rafters in their homes, holding the Cuban government to its promise not to persecute them. Cubans are easy to persecute. The government controls their jobs, their relatives’ jobs, their food rations, their children’s educations.
Since I was out at Mariel yesterday, the piles of documents waiting for my attention are thicker than usual. As I leaf through the first stack, two visitors from Washington stride down the row of cubicles toward my office, discussing U.S. policy toward Cuba in ringing English. They mention Fidel Castro. The name reverberates, almost shockingly, in the quiet hallway. Cubans usually refer to their leader by silently stroking an imaginary beard.
The visitors, a man and a woman, stop by to discuss some business with me. Since it is Friday afternoon, the conversation soon turns to their after-hours interests. A pair of consular colleagues and I have offered to take them to the beach tomorrow. They are also eager to go salsa dancing, and they ask about the “in” clubs. I’m not one for night life, so I don’t know the answer, but I promise to find out.
I can ask Javier, a Cuban employee in the press and cultural office. He always seems to know what is going on around town. And as a tremor of pleasure accompanies the thought, I realize that I am looking forward to seeing him, too.
Before the workday ends, I punch in the combination on numbered metal buttons and open the heavy security door to Javier’s section. The chemical smell of copiers hangs in the air. There is always a nervous, rushed feeling in this office. In an ordinary country, its cultural exchange efforts and work with the press would be conventional and well-respected. Here they are subversive, even dangerous. Last year, the hardworking and idealistic American deputy officer was badly bruised when two burly men in a dirty white Soviet Lada ran her off the road.
I approach Javier’s cubicle, and he smiles up through a phone call. His specialty is music. At official parties and receptions, I have listened in prickling rapture as he coaxed a piano into full-throated song. Other Cubans throw themselves into art, ballet or baseball, making their restricted lives temporarily disappear.
Javier’s dark head leans to the side in concentration as he talks. His voice is warm and gravelly, his American English charming and pure, without the annoying, over-emphasized “arrr” of the radio announcers on the tourist station.
He finishes his call and stands up to greet me. I am smiling too broadly, but so is he, his intelligent brown eyes crinkling at the corners. “What can I do for you?” he asks.
He talks to me formally and deferentially, the way I would treat an ambassador. He knows the difference between his salary and mine. Like all of our Cuban staff, he technically works for Cubalse, a government agency. We pay for his labor in dollars, and he receives Cuban pesos, for an effective tax rate of some 95 percent. We also pay these workers a small amount directly, but that is one of the things we are not supposed to discuss in our intelligence-compromised offices and homes.
And what must our Cuban colleagues do, to be permitted to retain their air-conditioned, dollar-compensated jobs? We can only imagine. Do they betray us willingly, or do they take heroic measures to protect us? Most likely they do the minimum required to get by. Informing seems banal, not sinister, when one is actually doing it. A few bits of gossip, some facts that everyone already knows. Satisfaction that one has not given away anything worse. After The Wall fell, astonished East Germans found transcripts of their dull dinner conversations carefully preserved in carbon-paper gray on yellowed white.
I exchange pleasantries with Javier and then ask about salsa clubs. Carmen, from the next cubicle, joins in with a few tentative recommendations: Palacio de la Salsa, Casa de la Musica, the disco at the Hotel Comodoro. Apologetically they both admit not having been to these places in a long time.
“Guess I need to ask some twenty-year-olds,” I suggest, chuckling stupidly.
“No, it’s not that,” says Javier quickly.
“They are for tourists,” Carmen clarifies.
Yes, the best clubs would be, of course. Although Javier and Carmen earn a small dollar salary, the cover charges are steep. And in some places, even if they have scraped together the money to pay, Cubans are not admitted at all.
I have placed a hand familiarly on Javier’s arm as we talk. Now electricity rises from his skin, rooting me to the spot. I suddenly feel as if I can reach deep inside him, into a place where there is anger and bitterness and pain. And my heart is flowing toward my hand, seeking the connection.
For an instant I rage and mourn for this gentle, talented man. For his dignity forced to choke down its daily spoonfuls of humiliation. For the lies he has to tell. For the secrets I must guard from him.
He turns his face to me, so near, looking slightly startled. He must feel it too. He looks as if he is about to say something. But everything else in the room remains normal. A phone rings. Carmen talks on. The fluorescent lights make a slight buzzing sound. I look into Javier’s eyes. They are friendly, respectful, even affectionate. But somewhere deep inside them, a door is still closed. I take my hand away. It burns in the pocket of my jacket, with a dull flame that seems to drain the strength out of me.
THANKING JAVIER and Carmen politely, I return to the piles of work on my desk: family member petitions, questionable marriage cases, Congressional inquiries. Later I take a break at the office microwave to warm up a container of leftover black bean and rice congrí, cooked by my part-time maid, a trained biologist.
“Working late again?” smiles my boss, walking past me to the door. I nod through a bite of the food, which tastes bland and somehow muddy. I stay until long after the sun must be gone from the sea outside my windowless office. Nothing in my dark house, with the listening devices in its walls like undiscovered malignancies, entices me to go home.
The next morning a freshly-washed sport-utility vehicle pulls up in front of my fence, picking me up for the beach. The two junior officers from my section, who have seemed lately to be striking up a romance, help me load in my gear. The visitors from Washington make room for me in the back seat. For them this is a great adventure.
Our first stop is the Diplomercado, Havana’s hard-currency supermarket. We push through the glass doors into coolness and a smell of old meat and stale air conditioning. Some shelves are empty. One aisle contains nothing but rows of bottles of a single brand of cooking oil. We are in luck — a few treasures beckon from the snack aisle. Crackers from Italy. Cookies from Trinidad and Spain. We select a few of each. The visitors from Washington heft six-packs of American soft drinks, imported through Mexico.
Cubans in a separate checkout line, clutching worn Yankee dollars, are buying soup bones, sugar, bottles of oil. Many receive money from their U.S. relatives. Others work the black market or scramble to earn tips. The country’s economy is slowly turning over, like a huge, doomed ship. Hotel porters, waitresses, black market cigar peddlers, and carvers of tourist trinkets emerge, blinking, on top. Bewildered professionals salaried at $20 a month hustle after-hours in taxis.
Back in the car, we leave the city behind, cruising along the empty highway through rolling grasslands broken up by clusters of dignified royal palms. A straw-hatted farmer is cutting tall, thick grass by the roadside to haul away in a wooden cart. Sugar cane in its dense fields looks like grass too. A haze of sun hangs over everything.
We pass another vehicle every few miles. An old American car with a flapping trunk that says, in neat script, “DeSoto.” A motorcycle with sidecar, stuffed with excited children. An open Soviet truck with stoic, wind-whipped passengers crowded in the back. Another truck, billowing out black smoke that fills the roadway.
The billboards are all political. “Our People and Party Will Never Forsake Their Unity.” “Socialism: Stronger than Ever.” My colleagues and the visitors from Washington share a good laugh over that one. I used to think the signs were funny too, but now they just make me sad. Back in Havana, the party youth center is decorated with a series of placards that read, in order: Computing. Popcorn. Roller Skating. Cool Drinks. Union of Young Communists. Socialism or Death.
We turn off the highway and wind through villages. One-story concrete block houses stand in dusty yards. Their occupants sit on open porches, in heavy square wooden rocking chairs.
The others in the car continue talking and joking. The visitors from Washington discuss people I don’t know. At times they attempt to include me in the conversation. Yet soon they are rattling on about something else, and I am looking out the window again. On one porch, a mother and daughter sit at a small table, hands busy with a heap of dried beans. I know what they are doing. They have received their rations for the month, and they are picking out the bits of straw and tiny stones.
My mind returns to Javier as a tongue insists on exploring a damaged tooth. I think wildly of marrying him, liberating him.
In the real world, though, I cannot even get close to this man I hardly know. He would surely lose his job or be required to exploit me for some socialist purpose. The State Department, for its part, does not look kindly on relationships between its officers and citizens of hostile nations. I could derail my career, be shipped home in disgrace.
No, it is impossible. I will never know if I could have loved Javier in a more ordinary place.
I close my eyes for a moment but am soon jolted back to attention as the car bounces through a series of potholes. We wind past walls of cane stalks and emerge abruptly onto a beach where scrubby pine trees grow almost to the edge of the calm blue water.
Off the tourist track, this coral inlet has no infrastructure, just a few abandoned concrete foundations with collapsing walls. We can be confident that no trio in swirly purple-and-mustard shirts will suddenly pop up, strumming guitars and singing “Guantanamera” or “Comandante Che Guevara,” dollars suggestively peeking out of their breast pockets.
Cuban beach-goers sit on rocks under the trees, drinking beer from unlabeled brown bottles, or stand chest-deep in the water, talking in small groups. Children in damp underwear wallow in the sand at the water’s edge, playing with sticks and other found objects.
We, on the other hand, emerge with a plastic garbage bag and aggressively clear our chosen patch of beach, removing soggy cardboard, rusty cans and fibrous mango seeds. We then colonize our little outpost, deploying a large blanket, a cooler, several magazines, a bottle of 45-factor sunscreen and duffel bags of expensive snorkeling gear.
Satisfied with their efforts, my colleagues and the visitors from Washington pop open their sodas and settle comfortably onto the blanket. Nearby, two muscular, fully-dressed young men lean against a pine trunk, watching us, their faces somehow alert and bored at the same time.
I strap on my mask and flippers and escape into the sea. Soon the first coral masses, bristling with fish, appear in the sun-filled water.
The reef is shallow, built up almost to the surface. I swim carefully over its intricate forms. My own echoed breathing through the snorkel mingles with the sea creatures’ faint clicking sounds. A tiny, bright purple and yellow fish glows against the rounded surface of a brain coral. I think of pointing it out to someone, and the first person I think of is Javier. I am suddenly aware of a dull ache of sadness, along with the sensual, salty taste of the sea.
Back at the shore, a man with brushy white hair approaches our blanket, offering lobsters for sale. The Washington visitors strike up a conversation in American-accented Spanish. The man, a retired laborer, supplements his tiny pension — five dollars a month — by fishing. He fishes to feed his family, and if someone will pay dollars for his catch, so much the better. But we must decline the lobster. Our surveillance team under the pine tree would be only too happy to report us for black-market trading.
Later, as I am walking alone down the beach, the fisherman comes up with another offer. From somewhere he produces a dirty plastic grocery bag containing a struggling sea turtle. A few children gather, and the fisherman sets the animal down on the sand, holding it by the shell, enjoying his role as showman and brave turtle-tamer. The turtle reaches out with its strong front flippers and tries vigorously to escape, straining its pale, sinewy neck forward, excited by the sight or scent of the sea.
What did you catch it for, I try to ask. Turtle, says the fisherman proudly. I back off from the circle of children. Buying the turtle from him and setting it free would just encourage him to catch more, I tell myself. Another moral hazard. I return to the blanket.
Later, as we are loading the car, the fisherman approaches me again. “Are you going to take the turtle?” he asks eagerly. Again I attempt to ask why, and this time he explains. You coat the shell with lacquer, and you mount it. “Muy lindo.” Very beautiful, he asserts with pride.
Oh. Now I recall the shiny, shield-like objects hanging in some rafters’ homes. Like the little crocodiles in the craft markets, frozen with their toothy mouths forever open, mounted on rough ovals of wood upon which someone has written a cursive “Cuba” with a felt-tip marker. I stand there without saying anything. My colleagues brush the man off with practiced politeness.
As we return to Havana in the late afternoon, the hitchhiking women lined up along Quinta Avenida lunge determinedly into our path. They retreat in disappointment as they glimpse the mixed group inside the car.
In bed that night, I fall asleep quickly but suddenly wake as an overpowering roar fills the room. The power has gone off, causing the huge diesel generator in my yard to crank up with the sound and smell of an idling tractor-trailer. Shards of my interrupted dream return: something urgent, about Javier. I am surprised to find my face wet with tears.
I flip over my damp pillow and try to fall back to sleep amid the noise. But something else is bothering me, something sick and ugly at the edge of my consciousness that will not go away. I call it up reluctantly. It is the turtle. Straining as long as it lives for the open sea that it senses so near, while the old man smiles over it fondly.
The author earned an M.A. in German literature at the University of Georgia. She, with her husband, has served at four U. S, Foreign Service posts abroad since 1990.