Sunday, August 06, 2006

`I'm Cuban, I'm sugar, I have flavour!'

Toronto Star

HUMOUR & DIGNITY | Rosemary Sullivan looks back on the curious world of communism under Fidel

Aug. 6, 2006. 01:00 AM


When my husband and I went to Cuba with the photographer Malcolm Batty in 2003 to write a book called Cuba: Grace Under Pressure, we met a young man who warned us: "Everyone comes to my country looking for their own version of Cuba. Revolutionaries find revolutions. Capitalists find dictatorship. Tourists find the perfect beach. Nobody wants to see Cuba through our eyes."

What I discovered was a dynamic country that was not frozen in time since the Revolution of 1959, but was evolving and continually changing. There were debates on every street corner, both strong affirmations and deep criticisms of the president, Fidel Castro. And yet I found a consensus: like all citizens, Cubans passionately love their country.

What I most admire about Cuba is how Cubans deal with the complexities of their lives with humour and dignity. I remember the old woman we visited on the farm in Pinar del Rio, in the fabled tobacco heartland where the weirdly beautiful limestone hills look like giant inverted thimbles. She was 85 and poor; the chairs we sat on in her living room were plastic; she had just had a quintuple bypass.

"Mi casa es su casa (my house is your house)," she said. And, holding her hand over her fragile heart, she joked that she had had eight children, but those were the dark times when there was no electricity.

Or I think of the child in the Boxing Club wearing used gloves that left his thumbs exposed. As he watched me writing in my notebook, leaving the left margin empty, he looked at me in puzzlement and asked why I was wasting so much paper.

On television, we watched young singers with diamonds in their navels looking like Britney Spears singing: "I'm Cuban, I'm sugar, I have flavour!" We met alternativos, young artists who specialized in satirical songs like the one about the explosion of private restaurants opened by gynecologists who could make more money in the restaurant business than they could in medicine. And we encountered musicians and painters who travelled regularly to Europe and brought their money home.

A young man we met had immigrated to Mexico at the age of 14 to join his father. But he soon returned home: "I missed the self-expression I had in Cuba. Cuba is a wonderful place for a child," he said. In Mexico he had discovered a level of racism that had shocked him. Now he wanted to make films. He had no illusions about the censorship he would incur if he made a film about the year he spent cutting sugarcane on a collective farm. Though for him it was a time of camaraderie and escapades, as he and his young friends subverted the rules, his government, he said, did not accept criticism. Paradoxically, it was they who had taught him self-expression by sending him to music school. Still, this was his country and he was sure he would find a way around the bureaucracies to tell his story.

The oldest person we met was Mary McCarthy, a Newfoundlander who arrived in Cuba in 1923. At the age of 103, she seemed to incarnate the memory of Cuba. The wife of a wealthy leather merchant, she had met everyone from Batista to Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. "The Cubans," she said, "are a cultured people." She did not regret staying in Cuba when the wealthy fled in 1962. She assured me her intention was to be buried in Cuba. (But not yet.)

The nightlife in Havana was exciting: jazz clubs, salsa palaces, transvestites parading on the seawall affectionately called the Malecon. People set up their domino games on the pavement where they gossiped and drank their rum. Each time we asked: "How is life in Cuba?" the response was "No es facil" (it's not easy), but then the verb would come: "resolver." Cubans have ingenuity, whether it's making a transmission from scraps to keep a 1959 Buick going, or coming together to reconstruct a tornado-ravaged city.

"Cuba is the oldest European civilization in the Americas," one woman told me. "We have a problem with our superiority complex." Havana has the most impressive collection of Napoleon artifacts outside Paris, housed in the Museo Napoleonico, an Italian mansion built in the 1920s by a sugar baron. And Havana is the most beautiful colonial city in the New World.

No one outside Cuba can understand the baroque complexity of Cuban politics, where politicians span the spectrum from enlightened liberal socialists to dogged militants. It's as hard as trying to understand what goes on inside the halls of power in the Bush administration.

One thing is certain — things are not as simple as the black and white portrait painted from abroad. On this small island, politics often has the feel of a bitter family quarrel. Still, the majority of Cubans are young and have their own ideas about what they want to make of their country.

Now that an era is passing, what will become of Cuba? All I say is, "Hands off." Cubans can decide their own destiny.

Rosemary Sullivan's new book, "Villa Air-Bel: World War II, Escape, and a House in Marseille," will be published this September.

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