Sex, Drugs, and Public Health

January 16, 2018

Cuba, Número Tres

Filed under: Uncategorized — cbmosher @ 7:02 am


De Soto, a fluffed-out peacock, struts onto the Malecón. Potential mates drive by, chrome gleaming and whitewalls spinning, flaring their erogenous zones with colors both bold and pastel.

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The Gulf splashes against the seawall, but not, at the moment, onto the street. A diorama flows by as if De Soto were a slow camera. Tour Guide Lady chats, mixing English and Spanish.


Invisible Observer: “Is this your full-time job?”


“No,” she interrupts her diorama comments. “I work at a hospital. I’m a dermatologist. Now over here you see – ”


“Wait. If you’re a physician, why do you guide tours?”


“I want for that the world sees,” she smiles, “how beautiful are the people of Cuba. Also, I need the money.”


From Vedado we cruise past Central Havana – the most color-less and run-down section of the city. Paralleling the sea, we curve slowly to the right where centuries-old fortresses guard the harbor’s entrance.



Close your eyes. See the Conquistadores in Peru surrounded by hundreds of magnificent gold sculptures. See them melt these into bricks. See them load the bricks onto their ships (well, honestly, the Conquistadores don’t do the work. The local residents such as the Inca’s people do the hard work because they love the Spanish so much that – z-z-z-t! Wrong record.)


See these gold-laden ships make their last stop here in Havana before crossing the ocean to feed the rapacious Siglo de Oro of Spain. See the English, Dutch and French pirates drooling over the gold.






“Here we have Havana Vieja,” Tour Guide Lady-Doctor announces. De Soto disgorges us onto the street. We walk. Our phones take pictures. Quickly we discover that “Old Havana” is two places: first, it is el número uno tourist trap. Also, it’s a sclerotic but dignified City of Ghosts.


First, the Tourist thing because it is the more distracting and you have to get beyond it: cheap cigars hawked in the street; three-peso “Che” coins for only $5 (worth 12 cents at the bank); Hemingway’s bar #1; cigar-smoking ladies in colonial dress available for photos and tips; The Best Mojito in Cuba! ; hawkers for restaurants; Hemingway’s bar #2; music (don’t need to hear “Guantanamera” again); The Best Mojito in World!



City of Ghosts:

           Within a couple of decades of Columbus claiming Cuba for Spain, this satellite Madrid began to grow. With the help of indigenous residents (who proved to be of “weak constitution” for slavery, and were therefore banished early to extinction) and of imported Africans, they used local materials to build streets of wood – – –



And buildings of fossil- bearing stone.




Here, gold played out quickly. They established sugar plantations on the backs of slaves.


473 miles to the east, Spain set up a second capital at Santiago. African slaves in this “oriente” region worked themselves to death growing tobacco, sugar and coffee which were sold by Spaniards and Criollos (those born in Cuba with white skin). Thus were created the two wealthy classes of Cuba: Spanish loyalist land-and-slave owners in the west (Havana) and Criollo land-and-slave owners predominantly in the oriente east. Also was born the far more populous Poor class that worked the flat valleys.




Remember this geography. It will haunt Cuba over four centuries.


Cuba’s Tea Party:

So, while feisty white-skinned English speakers started a revolution in “The Colonies” 90 miles north, feisty white-skinned Spanish speakers on the island revolted against Spain’s Tobacco Levy. Common cause trade between the two colonies began, and grew both economies. Sugar, coffee, slaves.


By 1841 there were 1.5 million African slaves in Cuba. On a subsequent visit to the sugar fields, a Cuban woman showed us around a long-deserted mansion and plantation. “Only men were kept here,” she synopsized her own ancestry. “Their life expectancy was 25 years. Women were kept on breeding farms somewhere else.”


She also gave us a dramatic insight into post-Revolution Cuba. But that’s for later.


Two things Latin America has in abundance are statues of long-dead people and various public streets and parks named for long-dead people. Ghosts whose faces you can see and names you can hear.


Ghost # 1:



This is Céspedes. “Father of the Country.” He owned a plantation in the east. Got tired of the Spaniards telling him (and other Criollos) what to do. Of course, he told his slaves what to do, but that was different.

He was different. In the same decade that the U.S. proclaimed the Emancipation of its slaves, Céspedes freed his own slaves and started a revolution. Somewhat successful for a while. Got himself installed as president of the country. Spain didn’t recognize him, but it recognized his son, Oscar. They captured Oscar.

Here’s the deal, Spain said (probably with that annoying lisp). Renounth your prethidency and your thon retunth to you. Famously, mythically, Céspedes is reputed to have said “I do not have just one son. All Cubans are my children.”

At this point in the story you hear a fusillade of executioners’ rifles.



Invisible Ghosts:

There are no statues of slaves. Shocker.

There were to be many slave rebellions, however, in addition to the repeated attempts at revolution against the European colonizer (Spain) by Criollo patriots.



Ghost # 2:

Replica of the statue of Jose Marti arrives in Havana


Name is Martí. This guy lived for a while in the U.S. – Cuba’s major trading partner. Somewhere between Cuba and the U.S. he caught independence fever in 1892 and formed the Cuban Revolutionary party.

Martí’s rebels brought Revolutionary War from the oriente (see the geographical pattern?) right into Havana. Spain was pissed. And militarily stronger. It launched a “War of Extermination” and drove the rebels back to the east. But Martí’s writings inspired many, right down to the 1950’s.



Ghost # 3:



Battleship Maine. No photos; it sunk. U.S. excuse for intervention into the Cuban War for Independence. America destroyed the Spanish fleet and got control of Cuba. Also, took ownership of Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam.



Skipping details, next comes a period of U.S. military occupation, a new Cuban constitution with an amendment demanded by the U.S. allowing us to intervene in Cuban affairs at will, a series of corrupt presidents, large sugar companies displacing Cuban farmers, and another uprising by Blacks and Mulattos.


The pattern of a handful of rich dudes and millions of poor, continues into the twentieth century.


Ghost # 4:

Remember Vedado? It grew during the Boom Era of sumptuous homes built along the Malecón in the 1920’s by U.S. capitalists (they controlled 70% of Cuba’s sugar and much of its infrastructure), by corrupt Cuban politicians, and by colorful gangsters like Meyer Lansky who built hotels, casinos and prostitution rings.




Here’s a Cuban description of those halcyon days, translated by someone with a poetic eye but a tenuous grasp of English: for thousands nine hundreds were built great villas, amazing and rich palaces – – – and new population nuclei formed thus fashionable. Very beaten to the sea it receives from this all his light and magic. Along the Malecón you enjoy near the sea how the sun is lost in the water after the horizon – – – the progressive light dimming.


The 20’s, 30’s and 40’s were lots of fun for American tourists. Wonder if Jay Gatsby still haunts the opulent halls of the gangster-era Hotel Nacional?


The 1920’s also brings the birth of the University Student Movement. Restless, naïve kids fighting injustice. Oh, oh.


Ghost # 5:



Fulgencio Batista. Military dictator who undermined an uprising by soldiers, students, and workers. And who took over, by military coup, the government in the wealthy post-WW II era. Supported by the U.S. which was, as usual, protecting its financial interests.


Out of these University student movements comes, in 1953, a young lawyer. Name is Fidel, of whom we’ll hear more –

               Hey! What’s this?



His wife and daughter wait as Carburetor Man does a re-build on the street. He and wife are perfectly happy to allow a photo. Their teenager daughter sits in the back seat displaying an age-appropriate sulk.



During the entire morning we’ve seen no police and no signs of street-living Homeless.

I. O. turns to Tour Guide / Dermatologist: “Does the government keep the Homeless off the streets in tourist zones?” he inquires, thinking Santa Barbara or Miami.


She stops walking Havana Vieja to explain in English for us. “In the evenings, comes through Social Workers. Anyone they discover with no dinner or bed they offer a place to sleep and a few pesos for ration-card food. To those people with mental illness, they offer care. If they refuse, at least they get food.”


“So, they can get medical care?”


“Everyone can get medical care. No cost.”


I. O. has heard about this for years. But how is the quality? “Please, I would like to see a clinic, a Centro de Salúd. I would like to speak with physicians, if it is allowed.”


“Of course,” our Dermatologist smiles. “I will arrange it.”


We finish the day, back in Vedado, enjoying how the sun, all his light and magic, is lost in the water, after the horizon, the progressive light dimming.



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