Return in the time of cholera: Havana, Cuba

          I walked through US customs, down the hall, and out the electric doors into the Los Angeles sunlight. I was excited to see my mother.  My mother, upon seeing me, both smiled and then winced. She looked at my face and condition. Her first words to me, after 5 weeks of absence, were, “Pareces como si estuvistes barriendo las calles por propinas (You look like you have been sweeping the streets for tips).” I shrugged and agreed, only to respond, “I actually looked pretty well-kept in Cuba. I was noticeably more well-kept than the others there.” Mami made a reluctant I-don’t-want-to-believe-that “pssshhhh” noise, waved at me with disregard, clicked her heels together, and began to move towards the garage. While she was happy I was home, she was not about to get dirty for our ride home to San Diego.

         Mami knows Cuba; she was born there. And while I was not born there, I was always told I was displaced from my heritage– I was supposed to be born there. Because I missed my birthright, I dedicated my life to Cuba– learning about the island, writing about the island, getting my doctoral degree in history on Cuba, and making as many people aware of the island, its situation and possibilities. I never felt outright American; Mami was Cuban, Papa was Cuban (and part of the ranks of children who came on the Peter Pan flights), my great uncle was a great Cuban war hero and political leader (Manuel Sanguily), both abuelitas and abuelitos were Cuban– I was seriously displaced. My displacement made me feel as if I was born in a plane and then parachuted from the sky, only to land on earth for the first time by chance. I was a duck out of water, a baby fallen from the sky. Before my birth, my life was displaced and relocated from my rightful birthplace. So I made it my job to return to my homeland. I made it my goal to find the place of rhythm, sun, guava, heat, rooftop restaurants, palmeras and the Godfather II. 

          While I traveled to Cuba before, this time was different. I was alone and being a woman, alone, in Cuba is, in and of itself, a difficult task. The machismo of the 50s is still very present. The practical reality of this machismo means that knees turn heads, let alone shoulders, arms, thighs, necks, breasts and any other body part that might need air in 90+ heat. Men ask you if you need help, given you are alone. When you answer that you are fine, their automatic response is, “You are beautiful.” As if that were the kind of reassurance one needed or wanted.  I know I am beautiful; I don’t need your approval. 

The little annoyances were not going to deter me from my main objective: finish researching and collecting documents to finish my dissertation. Each day, I would walk from Havana Central, onto the Prado, through Parque Central, across the Plaza to Calle Obispo, turn right at Compostela, passing Convento Belen, traversing stagnant pools of water, mold, gaping holes in the cement, dog diarrhea and feces, strewn old fruit, fruit sellers, the man who worked on cleaning a home filled with trash and barbed wire, metal and fences, until I reached, 35 minutes later, the Archivo Nacional de Cuba.

By the time I would enter the Archivo, I was covered with the soot of the city. Dirt, grime, tiny little flea-like animals radiating around my skin, sweat-covered arms, and achy feet would accompany me the next 6 hours as I poured over the pages of 19th Century documents. Refuge only found in looking at the other researchers, feeling miserable and looking as beaten as myself. Exasperated and hot, constantly washing their hands in the stinky bathroom’s washbasin, pointing me to that same bathroom and stating the bathroom wasn’t so bad if one could just, “hold your breath.”

           This was my routine for a month in Cuba.  This is generally the routine of most women researchers in Cuba; sparing individual differences, of course.  I had experienced the grittiness of the city before, but this time it felt more strident, more pulsant, more unpleasant than ever before. When I told a colleague of mine, after working in the archive all morning, “Doesn’t the city seem dirtier than usual?” She responded, “Of course.” I was not sure what she meant by her “of course” but I didn’t interrupt our conversation. She was actively involved with our chatter and she was about to surprise me with a statement:

“You know there is cholera, right?”

Immediately, I remembered the uproar over cholera in Haiti after the earthquakes. I became whoozy with dizzying, anxiety-ridden thoughts. I began envisioning pictures and videos from the Congo on the cholera epidemic in that distant country. I imagined black toes and finger tips. I felt fever and sweat on my forehead. I thought back to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s book and looked at my colleague in disbelief, “Cholera? Really?” She looked at me dead-on, “Yes, we all need to be careful. No love affairs, no tap water, no off-the-street drinks, and no hanging out with sick people. The official reports from the Cuban government are that it is only taking place in Matanzas, but there exist some reports of possible cases in Havana and in Cienfuegos.”  

“How do you know of the possible cases?”

“They announced it on the news, but they made it sound like it wasn’t serious. As if cholera was….somehow…. not serious. But, furthermore, I heard from friends in Cienfuegos, and my hosts tell me, that everyone is whispering about possible cases in Havana. Technically, we shouldn’t be talking about this. So let’s whisper.”

I began to whisper.

“So how do we prevent ourselves from getting cholera? The water touches everything, there are pools of muddy water on the streets and dripping from the buildings. I don’t know how one can evade the problem.”
Lacie whispered, “I don’t know how to prevent it. Maybe, just, think about it all the time and watch your hands and mouth?”

We walked along the dusty streets, careful to press our lips together as we saw water dripping from above, soot shifting into the air with each of our shuffling steps. We spoke about Haiti and how close Cuba resembled the island before the earthquake.  “But Haiti never had cholera until after the earthquake, Lacie.”

“Haiti had cholera before and after the earthquake. But the earthquake made cholera relevant. Supreme desperation and poverty made Haiti relevant. Cuba’s problems aren’t relevant yet, because complete and total destruction has not completely taken over the city. When all the buildings have fallen, when floods swallow the city, when rubble is on every corner and not every third corner, then Cuba will be recognized. A state of emergency will be sounded. But we have to reach complete destruction before that can happen.”

“But everything (the implication is on the island) is destroying itself, at the moment. Cuba is filthy, people are dirty, sick and hungry.”

“It doesn’t matter. The government will cover it up until they can no longer hide the damage. And the world will pretend it is not happening until total catastrophe makes it utterly immoral to look away. We need a catastrophe. This country needs a natural disaster.”

I had a love/very discouraged (not quite hate) relationship with my researcher friend. We had very different ideas about life on the island– I detested the circumstances of the island. Meanwhile, she both detested and enjoyed the current circumstances of Cubans. She benefited from the poverty of the island. She used its poverty to her benefit.  I vehemently tried to live outside of this poverty. I tried to seek comfort at each turn, I never approved of the poverty I saw, nor tried to get around the rules and “live as the Cubans” i.e. use their currency which, literally, equated to living from penny to penny, rather than dollar to dollar. I did not research during the day only to party at night. I never bled Cuban friends for their goods or dangled my money, as a sort of ill-determined promise, in their faces. I worked hard, kept to myself, struggled and lived in a “I-will-not-subject-myself-to-this-awful-state-rationed-food” sort of hunger. While I was on the island to research, I did not enjoy what the Cubans’ poverty could offer me as a foreigner.    

 Suffice it to say, Lacie and I often agreed, but more often disagreed, in our opinions of the island. Lacie, despite stating these opinions, had an odd love with the island and its men. She participated, passively, in the indescribable, ill-defined, yet-defined, prostitution, poverty and hardship of its people. She enjoyed visiting the island. She enjoyed dating the men and paying for their meals, drinks, in a quiet exchange for love and sex. She used the men as she used her Cuban friends, making “friends” with families as a means to obtain things cheaper than in the tourist dollar (convertible). She justified her actions by saying they used her as well. They used her for sex and company. She used them for sex and company. Suffice it to say, she was like many tourists on the island.

She would proceed to tell me I needed to make “connections”. Make life easier for myself. She believed love and friendship crossed all borders and boundaries, race, color, nationality, creed–citizen to tourist. I believed all the same things, except love passing between Cuban citizens and Cuban tourists.  There are exceptions, of course. But that relationship, in my experience, was always dependent on money. What drink I could buy them, what internet access I could make available to them, what croissant I could give them, what extra clothes could I leave for their mother; the currency for sex was no longer money, but bread and shoes.

I kept a journal while on the island and my first entry is telling. I remember my initial impressions of the city, the reminders of all the harsher elements of city-life in Cuba: the pungent smell of piss, shit, dust, moldy water and a faint hint of what smelled of dead animals, the (as one french researcher put it) aggressive state of poverty and the constant panhandling of merchandise and one’s self on the island. My entry stated, “I do not approve of any of this. I do not approve of my existence on the island, I do not approve of the way people must live on the island, I do not approve of what people need to do to survive on this island, I do not approve of the close to apartheid-like system (Dual-currency system, the haves and the have nots, the Cuban citizens and the tourists) which separates the population at all points in their daily lives. I do not approve of the tourists who spend their money and vacations here overlooking citizens’ quality of life only to enjoy and benefit for themselves the luxuries that are restricted to Cuban citizens because of their government-imposed poverty. I will use this time to write about what Cuba’s reality entails. I will write about the Cuba I see, not as a tourist, but as a researcher.”

When asked about my trips to the forbidden island, I always feel embarrassed by how negative my descriptions of the island sound. However, I don’t know how else to state the truth and so I always chime, as afterthoughts, “Havana is very safe, there are no drugs and very little domestic violence.” Those are clarifying statements, phrases used to comfort my friends and the listeners of my travels. But I find that those statements are misleading.  My “returns” to Cuba are never some glorious return to a beautiful nation and tropical island. Rather, they are a return to a ghost city, a city whose past constantly lives amidst the present. As a result, as I walk the city, I constantly feel haunted myself: as if all the refugees in the United States, their family members who died in the Revolution, and those who died in the many wars that preceded the 60s, somehow still walk the choleric streets of Havana today.

2 thoughts on “Return in the time of cholera: Havana, Cuba

  1. Having just been to Cuba for the first time, I wanted to re-read this post (which I had read months before). I find your observations fascinating – and in many ways, so different from my experience. I met Cubans who seemed happy; I found the country to be remarkably clean (every casa particular was immaculate, every taxi was spotless). There is poverty, of course, but it wasn’t outwardly apparent – in fact, appeared to be much less than the poverty that I see in my everyday life in my city in America. Some countries, like India or Cambodia, you can’t walk 2 ft without seeing the sickness, the poverty, the begging, the suffering. I expected Cuba to be similar and it shattered any preconceived notion I had. I am certainly NOT approving of their communist regime nor the control the government has over its people (ie informants spread throughout the country to report on any negative comments – which can result in jail time). But, my take-away was that it is an amazing country with friendly, seemingly happy people. I felt incredibly safe. My experience was different than yours… and certainly different than your friend’s, but now that I’ve been, I have a much better basis for comparison. Of course, I don’t have a family history with the country, but I am an American who is fed certain amounts of propaganda from our government about the state of affairs of Cuba. And for me, I was pleasantly surprised to see how different the country was from my naive expectations. It is an amazing country with some of the kindest people I have ever met. I already can’t wait to go back; you are lucky to be able to travel there legally and frequently.

    • Everyone’s experiences are different. I believe visiting the island is different than staying and living there. The tourist sections of the city are beautiful and people are always friendly— Cubans are always potentially able to make money off tourists. As far as your comparison to India or Cambodia are concerned, I believe you that they are poorer…. but what I wonder is whether we should be looking at what countries are worse-off, or considering a country’s true potential. What could they be? Just because Cuba is better off than Haiti, Cambodia and parts of India, is that enough? Is that okay? Isn’t it incredibly patronizing to compare Cuba’s human rights violation and poverty status to countries who have always been the worst in those very two categories? I believe one has to hope for more for a country than just “better than the other poor countries”. The country is filled with individuals, individuals who must experience and live their Cuban fates for the rest of their lives— not for a fun-filled 1-3 week vacation in tourist hotels.

      The key line in my story is: “I did not enjoy what the Cubans’ poverty could offer me as a foreigner.” I don’t believe any poverty is justified and one country’s poverty should not be compared to another country’s poverty as justification.

      I believe Cubans deserve more than what they receive. I believe the government has not treated its people well and provided them with the opportunity to fulfill their desires and needs in order to accomplish a full life. I do not believe the government has protected or provided its citizens with lives that members of the first world would want to live for the rest of their lives. And I do believe it is our responsibility to not sympathize for Cubans, but to fight for their rights (whether they speak about their rights and needs or smile and stay silent).

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