Atlas 5 Robin Bowman : Cuba

back & forth
Time Travel in a Volvoor
by Vijay Vaitheeswaran

The Yanqui dollar, victorious yet again : Fidel Castro's goons come for me in the middle of the night. One addresses me politely in perfect English : Please get dressed. We have your friend Robin waiting in the police car downstairs. I met her in the jungle, that girl ... that alone convinced me she would be good company on my trek across Cuba ... but I should have known she would hardly keep out of mischief. I was in love with Cuba -- her timelessness, her nocturnal rhythms, her sultry embrace of life. I had visited often, and had never seen the authorities harass foreigners. On the contrary, I had given many a botellato soldiers hitchhiking on deserted roads, and chatted as amiably with cops as with their usual street corner companions, jineterasplying their nocturnal trade. So, I wonder, what mess has Robin got herself into? We are taken down to a decrepit old mansion where they interrogate us, separately. Her crime? Robin had moved out of our government hotel and into a family-run inn. Never mind that such hostels are now legal.

Every fifteen minutes another cop car dumps off a load of panicky foreigners guilty of committing capitalism. The Mexicans rented a car from a local, the Spaniards fraternised with a mulata,and so on.

In many ways, Cuba is a land which time has forgotten : '57 Chevy convertibles are still king of the road, men spend evenings chatting on front porches, and debutante balls are important events. But the end of Soviet subsidies, combined with the misguided American embargo, has plunged the economy into chaos and shortages are forcing nasty, brutish changes. Hospitals and doctors abound, but not basic medicines. Even well-educated Cubans eat only one meal a day.

In desperation, the government recently legalised use of the American dollar. Capitalism has been too damned successful. Now, industrious locals earn hard currency, and pesky foreigners slip out of the easily-watched hotels. A captain explains the bizarre crackdown on foreigners this way : How else can we possibly maintain control? Worse, the Yanqui dollar is perverting my beloved Cuba almost beyond recognition.

I look the next day for Loly and Chichi in Vedado, a nice part of town. Though they supported big families, I was sure they would scrape by : Loly earned dollars from tourism, and Chichi got money once in a while from an uncle in Miami. I guess the money dried up, for they are gone without a trace. Their home is now the shiny office of a European bank. Seeking solace, we head over to Old Havana for an initiation into santeria, an intoxicating brew of African and Catholic rituals.

As I smell the jasmine in the air, and spy the Technicolor deity surrounded by garlands and offerings of fruit, I am taken back to the Hindu pooja rooms of my youth in India. Three old men strike up a primal beat, prompting frenzied dancing and eerie trances. My reverie is broken when the hostess browbeats us to contribute dollars to the deity's offering plate. Disgruntled, we step outside into sticky air of old Havana, heart of what was once the grandest capital in the Americas. The colonial buildings are still as endearingly crumbly and some denizens as warm as ever, but the place is changing. It is a cauldron of racial tension thanks to mounting poverty and migration from the poorer, blacker eastern provinces. Quiet dignity has been replaced with delinquency, and aggressive kids demanding dollars and grabbing handbags.

Getting the hell out of Havana should help, I think to myself, as Rita, a German who knows Cuba better than anyone, jumps into our big blue Volvo. And it does. Giving rides to hitchhikers, we hear of the joys and disappointments of the simple life from lovers, school girls, farmers ... a warm embrace in thanks, an invite in for a hot coffee, a lazy evening chatting over a bottle of rum ... Yes, I think to myself, this is the Cuba I remember! But even in the interior, Cuba is changing ... I realise this when I look up El Guiro, an exuberant musician I last saw a couple of years ago. He wanted to build a dance hall in his backyard with the money his wife earned selling home-made pizzas. I want my own little Tropicana! I remember him gushing ... This time, he sits listless on his stoop. His dream has been crushed as officials, wary of his wife's success, have squeezed her out of business with inspections and taxes.

In Cienfuegos, I try to find Carlos ... he worked as a magician in a hotel when I met him, but confided to me that it was just for the tips-- his doctorate had been in nuclear engineering ... the staff tell me that he ran off to Mexico because he could not make ends meet. Somewhere in the heartland, we stumble upon cowboys practising for a rodeo, all smiles and machismo when Robin pulls out her camera ... not far away, though, we find one on patrol with a shotgun in hand ... because, he explains angrily, rustlers are now stealing cattle to sell the meat for dollars.

Pulsating salsa, scantily clad dancers and parade floats of the annual carnival greet us as our dirty Volvo finally cruises into Palma Soriano, just outside Santiago, the great eastern capital ... we slip into the town's church to talk to the padre ... shouting to be heard above the debauchery and din, he puts into words what has been tugging at my heart throughout my trip-- the grave moral decay of Cuban society ... the crumbling of Fidel's old order is pushing fathers to steal from their state jobs, mothers to run illegal businesses, children of both sexes to whore themselves, all just to get by and get a buck ... Fidel has just turned seventy, and looks like he could live to be older than Deng ... his grand social experiment has humiliated eight American presidents and a tight embargo ... on many measures, he has won ... but as the ugliest face of capitalism spreads like a cancer through Cuba, I ask myself : at what price?

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