Everyone’s Got a Havana

Cuba’s Most Famous Dissident Blogger Writes About Life Inside the Sepia Postcard

The cast bronze sculpture rests one of its arms on the rail of the bar. It seems like he’s going to ask for another daiquiri, but in reality his metal eyes are watching everyone who comes and goes from El Floridita. Some turn the flashes of their cameras on that life-sized statue of Ernest Hemingway, while others see it as something from the past, that distant time when there was nothing unusual about finding an American drinking in some cantina or walking the narrow streets of Havana. Times when ninety miles didn’t seem such a great distance and the language barrier was crossed by dint of drinks, music, hugs and jokes.

Despite geographical proximity, for the vast majority of Americans today’s Cuba is unfamiliar territory, a region mired in mystery. It is possible that many of them couldn’t even locate our island on the map, or that they imagine a little island whose entire coastline can be viewed from the height of a coconut palm. Something like the space inhabited by Robinson Crusoe, but in this case occupied not by a single man, but by 11 million people. In that immense country to the north of us, there are still those who believe in the story of the heroic David resisting the onslaughts of Goliath in order to create a realm of social justice. Others see us as more of political freak, from where a robotic people, sunk in material and moral misery, threaten to invade them, whether as soldiers or as immigrants.

It has been half a century since American citizens have been denied the right to legally visit our country. While they have had to learn the names of the eleven different presidents who have passed through the White House in the last five decades, our Plaza of the Revolution has had just two tenants, both with the same last name. In all this time, most of the enemies of the United States have evolved, becoming business partners-like Russia, China, or Vietnam-or even NATO allies, like several of the Eastern European countries. There is the opposite case, as well, where former friends-like Iran or Venezuela- have become adversaries. But the name of Cuba (along with North Korea) remains on the same list.

Thus, on the other side of the Straits of Florida, the image of Cubans has taken shape through much imagination, built both on past memories and on stories from exiles. So it is not unexpected that we are seen like one of those old postcards in sepia, a forever frozen image from the mid-twentieth century. People who still travel in old cars-Cadillacs, Chevrolets and Plymouths-built in American factories. An island trapped between its natural beauty and the deterioration of its architecture, with some neighborhoods which, at a passing glance, could be in New York or Washington D.C., while others recall Calcutta or Somalia. Strolling the wide boulevards of Havana triggers nostalgia among Americans older than sixty. A kind of déjà vu recalling the memories of childhood and the sensations of adolescence. We are like some early twentieth century museum, but one where those in charge of the “collection” haven’t bothered to care for the pieces shown to the public: an agglomeration of obsolete and patched objects evoking the glamor of what is now extinct.

Clearly, we are the only Latin Americans who do not call those sun-burned, flowery-shirted vistors by the derogatory name of “gringos.” Here, no. Here we say “yumas,” which has a laudatory and admiring tone, even a certain fascination. Although the political propaganda constantly carries on about the “Yankees,” that little word has failed to take hold in everyday language. And the same thing happens in the other direction. Many Americans look at us with the affection with which one observes a poorer and younger cousin, one who still has a lot to learn. Sometimes, with a certain arrogance, they ask questions only they understand: Why doesn’t my Blackberry work here? Where’s the machine to pay for parking? Is it possible to find Kleenex somewhere? And each of these questions exudes a naïveté that amuses us, makes us laugh. Perhaps it is from this that they get the image of a people who are always smiling, which they then pass along to their friends in New Orleans, Arkansas, Texas.

Ever since the Buena Vista Social Club film and album, it’s been very hard to convince Ry Cooder’s compatriots that not all Cubans know how to dance, play dominoes, or sing a guaracha. Stereotypes have led many of those living north of the Rio Grande to believe that this island contains millions of skilled baseball players and that the only skin tone encountered is a medium-tan mixture of Spanish and black with a little Indian. The repeated cliché of “poor but happy” has also done much damage to the understanding of our reality. There are those who are certain we dance a few rumba steps while waiting two hours for the bus, or sing a guajira décima facing our empty plates. The serious faces of so many Cubans, distressed and worried, is one of the great surprises of visitors who have only seen us through the shiny pages of a tourist guidebook. This awareness of sorrow, of grief, of the rictus of sadness beneath so many smiles, is among the most bewildering discoveries of those who come here for the first time.

Among the Americans who have been able to tread this land in the last five decades there are many exceptional people. From academics or TV stars, to movie directors of the likes of Steven Spielberg (why not travel to a Jurrasic Park?), to the former president Jimmy Carter, all filled with good will but also with more than a little naïveté. Thousands come every year, daring to defy the controls imposed on them by U.S. law, using the old trick of traveling through a third country and taking advantage of the fact that the customs officials will forego stamping the passport of anyone who finds their way to this demonized territory. Among these intrepid visitors is James, a boy from New York who, not satisfied with his passion for Cuban literature, fell hopelessly in love with a young brunette with slanted eyes and the hands of a healer. One day, more than five years ago now, someone asked him exactly how he saw Cuba. “My experience is unique,” he said, “so it can’t serve to make generalizations. I am aware that I am on an island where, when I open my eyes in the morning, the first question that comes to mind is, ‘What am I going to eat today?’”

So everyone sees this land in her own way. Through the viewfinder of her camera, focusing on what, in her view, seems most Cuban, be it skin color, peeling walls, the unsual driveability of a museum-quality Chevrolet, slogan-covered billboards, the perpetual smiles of the children, the haggard faces of the old, the lines and parades. And you? How do you see us?

Yoani Sánchez is a Havana-based writer and author of the blog Generation Y and the recently published book Havana Real. This article was translated by Mary Jo Porter.

*Photo courtesy of flippinyank.


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