I just happened to be in Havana, Cuba two weeks before Fidel Castro died. I knew he wasn’t well. His brother Raul had taken over as El Presidente in 2008. My trip with some family and friends was intended to be a harmless sojourn to a forbidden land under the auspices of “people to people travel”. Under such criteria, the intent is to have educational exchange activities to enhance personal contact with the Cuban people and promote a civilized society in Cuba that will result in meaningful interactions between us and the individuals of Cuba. I need to establish before I go into details that our trip started out harmless. We had no idea what chain of events would ensue after our weekend trip to Havana that would make international headlines. I feel guilty about what eventually occurred to Fidel, but since you probably haven’t been to Cuba, I will paint some of my journey along the way.
When we arrived at the airport in Havana, I first observed that many Cuban female immigration and custom agents wore fishnet stockings with their government-issued short skirt uniforms. I thought, “Is this self-expression or are they ready to welcome tourists with a ‘happy beginning’?”. I made the mistake of not using the airplane restroom prior to exiting the craft and was faced to locate toilet paper in the airport bathrooms. I got lucky in one stall.
Our hotel was really an obese motel. I adjusted my gauge in order to not be a typical American who says, “Well, back in the U.S. we have this and that…” You need to have the mindset of, “Hey, it’s Cuba!” and roll with it. My sister-in-law was texting my wife that there weren’t any amenities in the mini-bar and the shower water never got hot. My wife said, “It’s not the Four Seasons. It’s Cuba.” That snapped her out of her American trance. There was a certain charm of the dripping water from the ceiling in the hall by the elevator accompanied by the overture of “squish, squish” when I walked over the wet carpet.
A convoy of restored 1950s taxis took us to dinner in a restaurant, but not just any restaurant. The government bars Cubans from opening a stand-alone restaurant like Applebees (have you ever been to an Applebees? Be honest). A Cuban who owns a house (usually been in their family for generations) can apply for a license to have a restaurant run out of the house called a Paladar. The food was on par with any great restaurant in the U.S. much to my sister-in-law’s relief. We met a number of local Cubans and exchanged stories of our different cultures. I got puzzled looks from locals after my rendition of Tony Montana’s line from Scarface, “Say hello to my little friend!”
I later learned that our restored 1950s taxis were the exception. We rode to a nightclub in regular taxis which consisted of 1970s Russian Lada cars and other vehicles kept running by the resourcefulness of their Cuban owners. Riding in these cars is worth the price of admission. They each ooze with unique character. One taxi was missing the entire dashboard. Another had only springs - no backseat – to sit on. My Lada taxi was missing the hand crank to roll down the window, so our driver reached into the glove compartment and handed the crank to us. I inserted it on the nub, rolled down the window, then handed the crank back to him. I loved it.
The next two days were filled with more adventures and hijinks. We met with local artists and the creativity of their work was mind blowing. It was a testament that it’s hard to suppress the human spirit even under Communism. Sure Communism is brutal and strips people of many freedoms. The quality of life of the average Cuban is now much better than compared to life under deposed President Batista in the 1950s when about one third of population lived in poverty. Now Cuba provides everyone with a room to sleep (no homeless there), a job (most everyone makes $30 a month regardless of occupation), food (everyone gets a food voucher), and free healthcare. All education is free including graduate school.
Something very interesting happens when the rules of the game are constructed in this way: capitalism and ingenuity shine through the cracks. The nightclubs were a hotbed of capitalism, literally, a hotbed. When we walked in I was struck by the massively high ratio of women to men. And the women were quite attractive and highly educated. And very friendly. I struck up a conversation with one Latina and soon she popped the question, “Are you staying at a hotel or a house?” I said, “Hotel, but why do you ask?” Disappointment came over her face and she answered, “In a hotel they allow you to have only one woman, but if you were staying in a house, you can take me and my friends back there.” [I thought: where was this place when I was a pimply teen in junior high school]. As the conversation continued I finally understood the reason there were so many women at the nightclubs. They were trying to augment their $30 a month government income. In my nightclub research (after all I am a scientist) I talked to women of a variety of occupations, including an attorney, who were working the night shift.
While I didn’t see capitalism on a government level, I did learn about its ingenuity. Since Cuba doesn’t produce oil, it struck a barter deal with Venezuela: they send Cuban doctors to Venezuela and Cuba gets oil in return. I suppose that’s a good deal for the Cuban doctors. The Cuban government controls everything. Everything. All the famous cigar brands (Cohiba, Partagas, etc) – owned by the government. All the rum factories – owned by the government. There is such an abundance of rum that it’s cheaper than buying water. Rum wasn’t exactly coming out of water fountains, but it was really inexpensive.
Our last night turned into quite a bash at a former private club, now an open government club on the beach. This is where I believe Fidel took a turn for the worse. Up until this point my friends, family, and myself were all good ambassadors on our “people to people” visit. In previous nights I was unsuccessful to find any karaoke in Havana. That I can’t sing doesn’t bother me - it’s great fun. There was a stage set up on the beach with a DJ as traditional Cuban dancers hammered away. I saw this as another opportunity to interact with the local Cubans as I jumped up on the stage to try their dance. My enthusiasm got an A, but not so for my dance moves. It wasn’t so much that my hips, legs, and arms weren’t gyrating. There were, but the gyrations lacked coordination my other limbs, let alone with the other dancers. There was a nice gentleman rolling cigars and I felt compelled to interact with him too. He didn’t speak much English, but he showed me the way to trim and light a hand-rolled cigar.
The thought went through my mind, “What if Fidel finds out that these ‘American capitalists’ are indulging themselves like this in the bosom of Havana?” I knew his health was fragile, but he had a strong personal constitution. Remember he led a revolution and, after I rubbernecked my way through the Museum of the Revolution earlier that day, Fidel was an official ‘badass’ in my book. So without further consideration of how word of our festivities might impact Fidel’s health, we continued onwards. The DJ on stage at the beach gave way to a live band that began playing American cover songs. “Ahha! My karaoke moment has arrived!” I thought. I jumped back on stage and belted out with the lead singer Guns N Roses’ Sweet Child O’ Mine. It was American debauchery at its finest on that starlit beach in Havana followed by natural migration to the clubs.
The night turned into the morning sunrise. One of my buddies and I rolled up to our hotel at daybreak just as some friends and family were leaving the hotel to get taxis back to the airport. I’m not one to boast, but we pulled an all-nighter which pleased me greatly. The last time I did that was in college under somewhat different circumstances. I’m here to tell you that Havana was a bit more fun than a biochemistry final exam. My friend and I ate breakfast in the hotel buffet before it officially opened to the hotel guests. It was just us two and twenty feet of cheese, luncheon meats, eggs, and French toast. I accidentally spilled the pot of coffee on my shirt. I took my shirt off and used a wet rag to dilute the stains in hopes of salvaging the garment. The European hotel guests made their way in for the all-you-can-eat trough. I got plenty of looks because they probably weren’t used to seeing a half naked guy hanging out in the buffet.
While I tried in vain to remove the coffee stains, that persistent thought kept running through my mind, “When Fidel finds out about our escapades, will he be able to handle it?” I was worried. The last thing in the world I wanted was to bear being part of the reason he passed away. No amount of therapy can get one through that burden. I knew Fidel had never witnessed nor heard of such things that happened that evening. No news was good news as far as Fidel’s health was concerned.
Then two weeks later the unthinkable happened. Fidel died. I felt guilty and partly responsible for his demise. How I wished I could take back “Sweet Child O’ Mine”. How could I have been so selfish! To me it was the glory of the moment of Axl Rose. To Fidel, it must have been torture to hear about what I did on that stage with those lyrics along with my friends and family egging me on. Oh dear, what did I do? At this stage, I can’t bring him back. But what I can do is tell you to add Cuba to your bucket list.