INTRODUCTION TO CUBAN PORTRAIT SERIES
Cuba has been on the cusp of change for a long time. It is interesting to understand both the times that have past there, and the current situation, especially since nobody really knows what is to come.
Cuba is a country of characters, raised in the isolation of a small Caribbean island, weathered by a revolution that aged with its leader. Cubans are educated, curious and artistic. Sipping rum in the vegas (tobacco farms) at sunset you talk politics, family stories are told over dinner, and the vibrancy of the Cuban culture pours onto the dance floor at night.
The following series of three portraits of Cubans helped me understand the diversity of experiences people had with the revolution, and provided some insight into where it is headed. Jose and Rosa benefited from it directly through a prestigious appointment, Rigo was given a first class education, and ironically Pancho was able to take advantage of the broken property market that emerged as a result of it. However, despite these benefits, each of them is adapting in different ways to a situation where the government is able to give them less, and market reforms may bring them more in the future.
The following is the story of Jose and Rosa, and Rosa’s account of The Cuban Missile Crisis when she served as Fidel Castro’s Spanish-Russian translator during the incident. (Names have been changed to protect privacy).
CUBAN PORTRAITS: THE AMERICAN MISSILE CRISIS
Rosa is a short plumb woman with the big rolling laughter of someone who has lived a happy life. She has permanently dyed red hair, permed in big stormy waves like those that hit the malecon during time of big surf. She wears rose colored sunglasses even in her dimly lit apartment, and gazes deep into people’s eyes when she meets them as part of an old habit of having to constantly size people up.
Her curtains are always drawn, and the pictures on the wall of Rosa with Fidel Castro and other dignitaries give the house a museum quality, which makes you want to whisper, but the feeling is always punctuated by her husband Jose’s music or her laugh. It is obvious from the sun worn upholstery that the house used to be airy and bright, and the dim light seems like an effort to preserve the glory of the past.
They live in a neighborhood called Vedado, which was one of the wealthy prestigious neighborhoods, however, all neighborhoods seem to be ruins of what they once were. It is obvious that the building they live in was once grand. However, it is now divided into three dwellings, and they live in a small flat, up a narrow, rickety, dark staircase on the second floor, and someone has constructed an ugly tin roofed car port in front of the building, which dominates their view.
Rosa and Jose had children who are now grown and have immigrated to Miami. They have made some repairs to their old room to rent it out to travelers and make a little extra cash, especially since their government pension was not much. They are both retired, but Jose had been a music teacher his whole life. He had been given a small mp3 player, and loves having guests, because he can often trade music with them, and he loves new music. However, even more than that, he loves sharing his love for Cuban music.
He would put on his reading glasses, and scroll through his music, arriving with great delight at a song he wanted to share. He would describe the artist, the song, its importance in historical context, or the perspective it gave on life, love or happiness. Then it would play it, humming along with it with his eyes closed, his finger tracing musical notes in the air in front of him. He would awaken from his trance to emphasize a part of importance or beauty. The wooden floor beneath his seat at the kitchen table had a smooth worn depression where he had tapped his foot for years.
Then he would raise his glasses from around his neck again, and select our next listening experience. His clothes were always loose on his body, and his belt snitched tight around his waist, making you think times used to be better, and he had not always been this skinny. He believed the world was about who a man knew, and he knew a man at the Habanos cigar factory that would help a box of cigars fall off the truck every month or so. This was his second pleasure in life after music.
You knew Rosa’s passion in life was eating when you met her, and she would stand in the kitchen stirring a sauce on the stove, listening to Jose tell his stories, interjecting with historical color when the topic drifted into Cuban politics. Rosa was Fidel Castro’s primary Spanish-Russian translator. The revolution had sent her to study Russian in Moscow, and she had studied diligently. She would claim with a smile that McNamara, always wanted to see her Spanish translation converted into English, so he could see how she was interpreting issues.
She had served Castro during the 13 days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and relayed the whole incident with the drama of a Mexican soap opera. I had only heard the story of the crisis from the American textbooks, but she was able to relay the Cuban perspective during that time period. It is a perspective that does not often make it into the narrative of the saga, as the two sparring super powers command the attention of most accounts. Her story was that of the American missile crisis, incited by the Bay of Pigs and the fear of further American belligerence.
It was a unique perspective, which had been kept in isolation just 90 miles off the American coast. She spoke about how vulnerable Castro felt to a U.S. invasion, how sidelined he felt during the American-Soviet negotiations, and how angry he was when the Soviets decided to pull out all their nuclear missiles from Cuba, not even leaving the ones the U.S. had overlooked and not included in the de-escalation agreement. She emphasized with a solemn shaking of her head how Cuban-Soviet relations never recovered from that, and eventually deteriorated along with the great hopes of the revolution.
In the end, Rosa and Jose had been given an amazing life by the revolution, but had chosen to send their children to Miami as the opportunities from it became fewer. They now did what they could to rent their extra room, and sell the odd box of cigars to travelers to try and save enough dollars to go visit their daughters in Miami, and it did not seem clear to me that once they had saved enough, if they would ever be back. Like many things, to them the revolution was important, but it had its time, and like most people with little money, they were practical, and adapting.