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Cuba’s makeup full of good, bad, ugly

Clark Zlotchew during his time in Cuba.

Editor’s note: This is the third of four parts.

Under Fulgencio Batista, the Mafia was entrenched in the gambling industry. The day after my duty as Shore Patrol, some shipmates and I had liberty in this vibrant city and were sight-seeing. In the evening, we went to see the Tropicana night club. Just to see the place, I emphasize.

The management was glad to give tours of the venue. The tables were outdoors, among palm trees. Show girls were prancing on the stage and around the catwalks, to the music of the orchestra, on two sides of the audience, who were dining and drinking. The women wore evening gowns, and the men were clad in guayaberas, a long Cuban shirt with four front pockets, worn outside the trousers like a jacket. This was the Cuban equivalent of jacket and tie in the U.S. It was the right kind of formal wear in a tropical climate.

We were then shown the vast gambling casino, indoors, of course, and air-conditioned attached to the nightclub. The room was cavernous, and the gamblers were formally attired. We were told to take our hats off. I suppose we had to show respect for a place in which so much money changed hands. I noticed, about twenty yards in front of me, a group of obviously American young women. They might have been there to celebrate their graduation from high school. One of them apparently spoke Spanish, and was talking to one of the employees. I went over to the group. I heard the girl say, with a strong American accent, “Perdon, senor, puede usted decirme donde esta el exito, por favor?” I was sure that was not what she actually wanted to say. This interested me.

The employee was short, had a scar on his cheek from near his eye almost to his mouth. I noticed a bulge under his jacket, which I was sure was a pistol in a shoulder holster. After all, there was a great deal of cash circulating in this establishment. I wondered what he would say to her. He said nothing; he simply stared at her without a single word.

This seemed to unnerve the girl. Her cheeks took on a bit more color. She asked again, but in a noticeably shorter sentence, her voice quivering a bit, “Senor, por favor, donde esta el exito?”

The man simply continued staring at her, his eyes narrowing.

The other American girls looked at their spokeswoman as though wondering if she really spoke Spanish.

Guantanamo Bay

My second training cruise, which included liberty in Cuba, took place about a year later.

It did not make port in Havana, but in the US Naval Station of Guant’namo Bay, familiarly called “Gitmo.” It was in Oriente Province at the opposite end of this island nation from the Capital. It was not far from the second largest city, Santiago, and the rugged Sierra Maestra mountain range, which was Fidel Castro’s base.

This was Cuba, but at the same time was not Cuba. We were not allowed off the base to visit the local towns because Castro’s guerrilla forces were in the nearby hills and would sporadically skirmish with Cuban troops. The U.S. Navy wanted to prevent an international incident in which American sailors might accidentally be shot in the crossfire. Local Cubans did work in various capacities on the base, as mechanics and in the mess hall, but would leave in the evening. It was winter back home in New Jersey, while here I was in the tropics, with a clear blue sky overhead, eating three good meals a day in a relaxing atmosphere for two days. It was pleasant. But being at the Guant’namo Naval Base was something like being on a Naval Base anywhere in the U.S. And yet was different because of war between Castro and the Cuban Government forces.

Tourist in Big City

Frontiers don’t have to stretch across land; the sea forms the boundaries of islands. They don’t even have to be physical; language and culture can also form a definite barrier. I crossed the maritime border and, more importantly, the barrier formed by culture and language on a vacation trip to Cuba in July 1957, six months before my visit with the Navy. I saw a different face of Cuba.

In 1957 I wanted some kind of adventure during my two-week vacation from an office job in Manhattan. I decided to revisit Cuba, this time as a civilian. It would be an escapade without the restrictions of military duty. I knew that Fidel Castro and his guerrillas were based in the Sierra Maestra mountains at the other end of the island from the Capital, close to Guant’namo Bay and the city of Santiago. And I knew they would stage raids on army bases from there. This made it even more exciting for me.

¯ In Havana I noticed machine guns, pup tents and soldiers on the roof of the Presidential Palace of Fulgencio Batista. From time to time I would hear a distant explosion. People said they were bombs placed by Castro’s agents. Occasionally, I would be stopped by men in civilian clothing who showed me their identification as Cuban Secret Service agents and asked to see my identification. This added to my enjoyment because I felt I was really in a different world, a more exciting world.

¯ In this Cuban capital city I enjoyed strolling lazily along the streets of the older part of town, listening to, actually feeling, the rhythmic music issuing from every doorway, the stimulating beat of rumba, guaguancp,. son montuno…. There were also the more soothing, relaxing strains of bolero, the slow dance of the tropics, and an occasional old-fashioned danzon. I felt as though I were in a technicolor film with a musical soundtrack. I used my Spanish to speak to store clerks and patrons of bars and lunch counters, waitresses, shoeshine boys, anyone who was willing to talk with me. Cubans were very open and engaging, and had a great sense of humor. They seemed to like Americans. That contrasted with attitudes in some other countries.

Like the Cubans, I would stop for an occasional jugo de cala (sugarcane drink) or bottle of beer: either Cristal or its rival, Hatuey. Sometimes I would have a small cup of rich Cuban coffee preceded, as was customary, by a large glass of water. This was a wise custom in a tropical climate. The water resupplied hydration while the caffeine provided energy. Drinking the coffee last left a good taste in the mouth. I would stop to converse with street musicians and sometimes one of them would allow me to use his guitar and join them in making music. Evenings I would enjoy the pleasures and vices of the lively Havana nightlife. Finally, I decided that ten days in the Cuban capital was long enough for me. I was curious about Cuban life outside the metropolis, and determined to see rural Cuba for myself.

A Postmaster in Rural Cuba:

What I find strange — or at least unexpected–is the impact an incident that lasted only about three hours would have on my soul. I don’t think saying the brief encounter had an effect on my soul is exaggerated. It still resonates so many years later.

The next morning I boarded the intercity bus for the 80-mile trip westward to Pinar del Rio, capital of the Province of the same name. This was tobacco country. I observed the tropical scenery along the road and the towns and hamlets through which the bus passed — Guanajay, Artemisa, Candelaria, San Cristobal, Los Palacios, Consolacion del Sur–the smaller ones composed of from 10 to 20 single-story stucco structures with tile roofs originally red, but now the color of earth. These were the houses and stores strung along both sides of the road. I began to feel as though I were traveling backward in time. These communities must have looked the same a hundred years earlier, except for the occasional car and the bus on which I was traveling.

¯ ¯ ¯

Most tourists arriving in Pinar del Rio took taxis or limousines to a luxurious hotel in Vilales Valley, location of the famous geological wonder: the mogotes of Vilales. These mogotes are tall, rounded hills or plateaus that rise straight out of the valley, with no foothills or gradual ascent. They were excrescences that seemed to have been thrust up by a giant subterranean hand. But I wanted to absorb more of the local color and checked in to the Hotel Comercio, a decaying old hotel in the heart of this small city, where the bus dropped the passengers. I paid two pesos (equivalent then to 2 U.S. dollars) for one night and took a local bus to the Valley. Farmers and other country folk crowded onto the bus, loaded down with baskets of food and with live chickens in wooden cages. The floor of this ancient vehicle was constructed of wooden planks well-seasoned with years of tobacco juice from those who chewed their leaves.

As the bus climbed hills and descended into valleys, the vegetation changed from tropical palms to deciduous trees and pines and back again. I looked out the window and saw a mountain chain, light blue in the hazy distance, with a trail of white clouds streaming through them like smoke. The bus stopped at a small roadside stand that sold coffee, soft drinks and magazines. The Cuban soldier who had been sitting behind me had piercing dark eyes and a black moustache. Because Americans in that era were clean-shaven, the moustache combined with the intense brown, almost black eyes, seemed sinister to me, even malevolent. The fact that the man belonged to the armed forces of a dictator, Fulgencio Batista, added to this impression. As I drank my Coke from the bottle, the soldier, who was sipping a small cup of strong Cuban coffee, struck up a conversation with me, after ascertaining that I spoke Spanish. We had a really congenial chat. The soldier opened his wallet and proudly showed me photos of his wife and two children. He was a loving husband and father. This time, I found my own naive stereotypes shattered.

¯ ¯ ¯

I alighted from the bus at the luxury hotel (at which I was not staying) where there was a viewing platform to see the mogotes. These geological phenomena were surrounded by patches of tobacco fields which, from that distance were mere tracts of flat green and brown fields, occasional royal palms, and tropical forest. The mountain chain in the distance was a hazy blue. After half an hour of observing the outcroppings and the scenery all around it from this lookout point, I drifted into the bar of this very modern, air-conditioned tourist hotel. Two leisurely martinis later, I wandered out to the dirt road and walked. Thick tropical foliage and scattered palm trees closely bordered the dirt road, forming a dark green wall on either side, with vividly colored flowers here and there protruding among the greenery. The humid air carried the heavy scent of tropical flowers and thick vegetation. From the concealment of this jungle, birds raucously shrieked to each other. I had never heard these sounds before “in person,” only in motion pictures that took place in tropical forests. In my mildly inebriated state, I felt exhilarated in this alien atmosphere. Paraphrasing Dorothy, in The Wizard of Oz, I thought, Yup, I’ve a feeling we’re not in New Jersey anymore. It was an adventure.

After half an hour of rambling along the road, I noticed the foliage cleared to reveal wide and deep expanses of tobacco fields, with a royal palm here and there in the distance. These trees had tall slender trunks with broad-bladed leaves on their crowns. I smelled the mildly acrid, yet pleasant aroma of raw tobacco in the humid air. A long, white-painted wooden structure stood very close to the road. Something about it seemed less alien to me, probably because it wasn’t built of stucco. I realized it looked like a private house back home, except that it was longer than an average house. It struck me that wooden houses, common back home, were rare in Cuba. Almost all the structures I ever saw in that tropical country, outside of multi-story dwellings and office buildings in the business section of Havana — definitely not made of wood either — were made of stucco or adobe.

This building had a porch on which were high-backed chairs with wicker seats and a couple of rocking chairs. It looked, I thought, like two houses joined together lengthwise. The large sign read: CORREO (Post Office). Since this was a public building, and it was late afternoon, certainly past the post office’s work hours, I decided the building would be deserted. I traipsed up the three wooden steps and took a seat on one of the rockers. My legs comfortably stretched out, I serenely rocked in my chair, and bawled out, “You ain’t nuthin’ but a hound dog…” at the top of my lungs. The alcohol combined with the feeling of being entirely alone removed all my usual inhibitions.

After about 10 minutes, I was surprised to see a man emerge from a door further down the porch and walk toward me. He wore wide white trousers and a guayabera, a long shirt with four pockets, worn outside the trousers, I jumped up and, feeling like an interloper, said in Spanish, something like, “Oh, I beg your pardon, I had no idea anyone was here.”

The Cuban, who was probably in his early 50s, smiled and in pleasant tones said, “The fact is, I live here.”

Next week: the final part of the series.

Clark Zlotchew is an author of fiction and non-fiction and a Distinguished Teaching Professor of Spanish at the State University of New York at Fredonia.

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