ESSAY Tom Anderson

NWR Issue 98

Castro’s Capitol

Our taxi rattles on, its open windows allowing hair and skin to absorb humid air, anticipation and pollution. A field of sunflowers passes by, all over twelve feet, all beginning to wilt. At least it’s not just us looking tired, then. Workers labour home on poorly oiled bikes; one stopping to stare back at us – the pale faces bound for the centre of their universe. The ‘Capitol’ dome and Downtown roll back and forth across our horizon, slowly swelling in size as fumes thicken and driving pace slows. It seems greatness lies, like it has for decades now, just a few roads ahead.

Don’t call my name don’t call my name… FERNANDO, bleats Lady Gaga from the taxi’s stereo – a dancing panel of blue and white LDC displays that are probably worth more than the car itself. A bass-box bounces us from underneath, forcing each tone of this previously innocuous pop song upon us. Alejandro-Alejandro, Ale Ale Alejandro… go the lyrics. The namesake’s soft ‘j’ sound reminds me, as I prepare for re-entry in to the Havana bubble, of the sad experience which just about summed up the previous visit of a month ago, when in the Fundacion Alejo Carpintier I’d tried to take an interest in Cuban literary heritage with a broken conversation that resulted instead in a demand for cash. ‘Donacion pour le fundacion?’ Alejo’s great work, Explosion in a Cathedral, would remain an un- translated mystery to me thanks to the greed – no, sorry, the desperation – of its custodians. (Instead my only significant prose purchase had been a pirate-photocopy imprint of The Old Man and the Sea – Hemingway seemingly the one English-language voice the island is still keen to promote as somehow representative of its plight.)

City drawing closer, we pause in front of a sign – one of many trying to preserve that moment of idealism, now half a century ago – the inception of this utopia: 51 años en Revolucion y todavia contando.Fifty-one years in revolution and still going strong…. Is it still a revolution when you’ve had five decades of the same thing, I want to ask, but don’t. Stay off politics with Cuban taxi drivers – unless they start it.

So why this second trip to Cuba in a month? Reasons to come to this country had always struck me as kind of dubious. Since days as an idealistic, punk-loving teenager, I’d wanted to see this symbol of anti-American defiance, but had quickly grown wise enough to feel that simply passing through a land
of contradictions as a gawping tourist wouldn’t quite do it. An opportunity to go to Cuba had arisen years ago when a friend wanted to search its southern shores for surf while I was relatively close by in Panama – but I joined him on the second leg of his explorations (Colombia) instead. Asking about Havana back then, I’d been given nothing but reasons not to go. Among them were a perceived lack of authenticity, currency complications that meant you got ripped off the whole way around, unwelcoming hospitality from people who couldn’t get at your money whatever they charged you and the general sense that you were helping prop up a dictator by buying in to stereotypes set up to fund the failing project.

In the end though, capitalist opportunism had thrown up another chance. Mexico’s national carrier, Mexicana, was going bankrupt, and selling off seats on its final flights just as I was planning a trip there. Taking full advantage meant passing a few days in Cuba either side. Supply and demand. The
freemarket. They were all conspiring. And so a double-dip out of the skies above was to be performed. Havana, twice in five weeks – in case the first time wasn’t enough to figure anything out.

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