I step self-consciously out of the clutch of tourists and drop a coin in the bowl. Like a windup doll, the clown begins to move, his limbs sliding in slow, wide arcs. He touches a finger to his nose, then points it at me. A child giggles. The clown’s gaze is fierce, serene, prophetic. This is a secret language, one that lies beyond words, and I’m rendered speechless and vulnerable by his silence. For a minute he and I watch each other; then he smiles in a sudden, private ecstasy, tips his oversize top hat to me, and freezes. I melt backward into the crowd. Something has been exchanged, but I’m not sure what.
Another tourist steps forward and drops a coin into the bowl. The clown reaches into the cavernous pocket of his trench coat and pulls out a flute. Placing it to his lips, he ejects a cluster of notes that rise through the murky heat, echoing off the baroque lines of the eighteenth-century cathedral behind him, becoming part of the lilting, pulsing melee that is Havana.
It’s only my second day in Cuba, and I’m in love. I’ve spent my time wandering the cobbled streets of Old Havana and marveling over the colonial architecture, the gleaming old Chevys and Caddies, the Son Cubano music that seems a product of the air itself. I’ve sat in the wide, sunny plazas, sipping iced tea and watching the people go by. This being Old Havana, a lot of the passersby are tourists, mostly Europeans; but then there are the Cubans, sitting on doorsteps or sauntering down the streets. “Buenas,” I call out to them. Their casualness draws me in: the smiles that blossom easily, the effortless dialogue with a stranger.
One reason I travel is to leave the alienation of the U.S. behind. We live in a society where, as poet Adrienne Rich writes, “to feel with a human stranger / was declared obsolete.” Every time I return to the U.S., it strikes me how we avoid eye contact, how we keep to ourselves — in short, how afraid we are of each other. Cuba, a mere sixty miles off the coast of Florida, has stubbornly and courageously maintained its independence from American culture. There is no Hollywood here, no cult of consumption, no advertising for healthcare or hair spray — in fact, no advertising at all, which comes as a delight to me. I’m a global-justice activist, one of those folks who sing and make puppets and march in the streets to demonstrate against neoliberal free-trade agreements that punish the poor and the planet. I’ve been all over the world, but I’ve never been to a place without commercials. I theorize that there is a direct relationship between having no television and hearing music on the streets, between the absence of commercials and the willingness to talk with strangers.
Of course, instead of advertising, there’s propaganda. Outside the airport I saw a billboard covered with the smiling faces of children. The caption read, “Fidel es el páis.” (Fidel is the country.) I’ve seen several billboards devoted to demonizing George W. Bush. “No to Fascism,” reads one, above the image of Bush’s features merged with Hitler’s. Yes, I’m aware of the gross hyperbole of propaganda; the restriction on free speech under Castro; the ban on travel outside the island (other than when specially permitted); the bombast and outright fabrications of the government-run media. I see the shortcomings of dictatorship. But then I go to the Museo de la Revolución and watch a video of South African president Nelson Mandela’s visit to Cuba. I’m a native of South Africa, and I remember that Castro supported Mandela’s cause of a free South Africa, that Cuban troops fought in Angola against forces sent there by South Africa’s apartheid government. “Before you say a word,” Mandela says to Castro in the video, after the two leaders have greeted each other with affection, “tell me, Fidel, when are you coming to South Africa?” I’m sold.
In another museum I run into the ambassador to Cuba from a small Caribbean nation, and I ask what he thinks of Cuba, whether it isn’t highly problematic that the country is a dictatorship.
“I’m not interested in socialism, communism, or whatever you call it,” he says to me. “I’m interested in how the people are.” When I ask what he thinks of the jailed dissidents and the cage that Castro has effectively constructed over the entire island, he points out that everyone here has healthcare and is educated. “And it’s the most sustainable society in the world.”
It’s true. When the USSR collapsed, Cuba lost a crucial buttress to its economy. During the early nineties, now called the “Special Period,” Cubans came close to starvation as their economy collapsed. The struggle to feed themselves has resulted in a country rife with urban gardens, locally grown food, and organic farms — an inadvertent model for a world in dire need of sustainability.
The conversation makes me think: What if what the people want is no good for them? Is democracy still such a great idea? In the U.S., by all appearances, what matter most to people are cars, jeans, and gadgets. We work longer hours than any other nation in the world and then devote our leisure time to shopping. Americans seem less concerned with civil rights, war, and climate change than we are with consumption. Perhaps a benign dictatorship is not so bad after all.
I harbor these thoughts guiltily. Until the age of eleven I lived in a segregated, censored, militarized country, and for the past decade or so I’ve been a staunch advocate of direct democracy, in which communities govern themselves, as opposed to the more distant governance of representative democracy. So I’m astonished — and a little repelled — by the subversive questions bubbling up in me: If everyone in a society is fed and housed, is free speech really that crucial? What is the freedom to travel worth if the poorest are scrambling to feed themselves? Here there is poverty — the buildings outside the tourism zone are falling apart, and many families live squeezed into a small unit — but there is no homelessness, no hunger. Perhaps a sensible dictatorship is better than a distracted, superficial democracy?
I did not enter Cuba on a journalist’s visa, given the hassle involved, and a newspaper editor I know warned me that if I am caught interviewing locals, the Cuban government will kick me out. But I can’t leave these questions unexplored, so I talk to people on the streets and then sit in a cafe and scribble down the conversations in my journal. When I ask Cubans what they think of Castro and the status quo, at first their answers are all roses and sunshine, but after we’ve talked a bit longer, a marked ambivalence emerges. On the one hand, there’s pride in what Cuba has accomplished, given its proximity to the great beast of capitalism. On the other hand, there’s a half-guilty pining for the beast itself: “Don’t get me wrong, I support the Revolution, but . . .” But enough of the poverty, the propaganda, the constant scraping to get by. Everybody I meet has relatives in Miami, and practically everybody, it seems, wants to join them. Young Cuban men throw themselves at me: as a single foreigner, I’m their ticket out. I can barely walk ten feet without being approached. With man number 117, I finally lose it, crossing the street and yelling that I want to walk alone.
“Fine,” he retorts, “I’m walking alone too — just right next to you.”
Cubans ask me why I came to Cuba. I wanted to see it before Castro dies, I respond, a little ashamedly. I wanted to see the old cars, the children playing marbles on the sidewalk, the socialism. I came here, I say, to see Cuba before it changes. But change is what the Cubans I meet want. Commodities are so scarce that some earn their living fixing cigarette lighters on the street, and others are standing outside the fancy hotels asking tourists for soap. The very reasons I came to visit are the reasons Cubans want to leave.
On my fifth day in Havana, I emerge from a bookstore into the sunny Plaza de Armas, where a street-theater group is rehearsing. A small crowd has gathered to watch, and I settle on a bench among them. The actors prance about, some of them on stilts, singing and clowning, spinning a tale of magic and spells. “When you wake, all will be as it was before,” one of them declares to a skinny, curly-haired man, who is in a trance. It is an adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and he is Lysander, who has been charmed into loving Helena instead of Hermia. After the rehearsal, “Lysander” circles the crowd with a tin, collecting donations. When he approaches me, I tell him how much I enjoyed the performance. “I’m Alejandro,” he says, holding out his hand. I take it, peering into his bright brown eyes and wondering why he looks familiar. Then I realize: he is the clown from in front of the cathedral.
At Alejandro’s invitation, I help to clear the props and carry them to a building on the corner. “Welcome to our cave,” says Alejandro, ushering me into a small room festooned with costumes and set dressing. I settle on the balcony as the actors and director proceed to critique the rehearsal I’ve just witnessed. They talk animatedly, arguing and conceding, leaping up to protest, then dropping down to lean on each other or light cigarettes. They seem unusually comfortable with conflict. After the discussion most of them leave, but a few remain to speak to me. “How do you like Cuba?” asks Rafa, who is fast-talking and urgent.
“I love it,” I say.
Wrong answer. He lectures me at length on the hardships of being Cuban. “How would you feel,” he asks, “if you could never leave?”
“Terrible,” I say.
“Like a caged bird,” says Alejandro. Later he will tell me that his Zen Buddhist meditation practice has granted him some equanimity inside this cage.
“Everything here is for show,” says Rafa. “According to the state-run news, nothing interesting happens outside Cuba, and inside Cuba everything is good.”
“Fine,” I say, “but at least you have a thriving culture. Here people play music on the streets. You support yourself by making street theater. There’s racial harmony. People actually seem happy. In the U.S. we’ve lost ourselves to distraction, to stuff. There’s a spiritual vacuum, an emptiness that most people don’t even recognize.”
“You think people don’t care about stuff here?” demands Rafa, eager to demolish my naiveté. “We pretend not to care about money, because we’re supposed to be socialists, but if somebody doesn’t have nice shoes, he doesn’t matter. There’s dictatorship by force, and then there’s psychological dictatorship, which is worse. It fucks with your head.”
“What about a culture devoted entirely to selling?” I reply. “What does that do to your head?”
“I’d take commercials over propaganda,” says Rafa.
We leave to get coffee, still debating. “I’ll take you to the Cuban cafe,” says Rafa, explaining that Cubans aren’t allowed to go to the cafes for tourists. The line at the Cuban cafe stretches out the door. “You see that?” Rafa points to an ornate lamp on a building across the street. “That’s a camera. For psychological control.”
I ask if it makes him nervous to talk to me about this.
“Yes.” He glances around. “You have to watch who might be listening. If you have this kind of conversation at your job, you’ll get fired.”
We sit at the polished bar and down the espressos the barista shoves our way. There are none of the polite smiles or niceties of the tourist establishments here. “That’s how Cubans are,” says Rafa. “Real. What’s good about Cuba is the people. It has zero to do with the Revolution.”
Rafa and Alejandro invite me to a friend’s birthday party the next night, and I part company with them feeling delighted to have made new acquaintances — and thoroughly confused. In the U.S. Cuba is either demonized on the Right or lionized on the Left. I’m trying to figure out where I stand, but the ground just gets more slippery. What my new friends have here is invaluable to me: their art, their community, their relationships. They don’t know what lies beyond the barbed wire surrounding this island. But then, who am I to tell them how good they have it — I, the heir to a colonial legacy, able to come and go as I please?
When I meet my friends at their rehearsal space the next day, they greet me with a chorus of welcomes. “We’re just going to do a quick performance; then we’ll go to the party,” says dark-eyed Magalys, who plays the fairy queen Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She struts about in a bra, stockings, and a pair of dangerously high platform heels. The rest laze around in their underwear, dabbing on makeup, singing, and playing instruments. I’m struck by their complete absence of self-consciousness. When they are painted and costumed, they gather together and call for me to join them as they place their hands in the middle. “All for one and one for all!” I cry with them. Then they waltz, stride, or glide out the building in character, and I tail them through the cobbled streets with my camera. People, especially children, stare and follow, entranced. I feel as if I am in a dream and these are my dream comrades. Is Havana nothing but a dream? Does this land of palaces and fairies really exist?
“There is a lie that covers this island,” Noemi tells me at the party that evening. It is her husband’s birthday. They live with their two children in an ancient, dilapidated apartment in Santo Suarez, one of Havana’s many suburbs. Her voice shakes. “You speak of how it’s hard not to hate George Bush. Well, that’s exactly how I feel about Fidel.”
When I tell her where I am going next — Mexico, then Guatemala — her eyes fill with tears, and I berate myself for my stupidity. These are young, educated people with whom I have a great deal in common, yet much of my life is completely inaccessible to them: They can’t backpack through Mexico. They can’t stage a rally to protest a new government policy. They can’t read “dissident” literature. They can’t surf the Internet.
“The Revolution?” scoffs Maria, a middle-aged black woman I meet on the street the next day in Old Havana. “My father fought in it, for nothing.” She asks where I’m going today, and I say to Trinidad, a small colonial town a few hours away by bus. “I’ve never been there,” she says quietly, “not in my forty-seven years.”
In Maria, as in most Cubans I’ve met, I sense something hovering just below the surface of smiles and warm greetings. I’ve been vaguely conscious of it since I arrived here, and now it shifts into focus: Defeat. A malaise of the spirit. A weighty inertia. Time and again Castro has crushed dissent. The spirit rises anew, but it’s crimped and confined within narrow margins.
Maria describes the problems she’s having trying to get her apartment fixed: there’s no running water; the ceiling is falling down; there’s no money for cement or tools. “The jefes, they have cars and nice homes — but the workers? We have nothing.” I offer her a Cuban convertible, roughly the equivalent of a U.S. dollar, but she shakes her head emphatically. Begging is illegal. “Slip it into my hand so that no one sees,” she says a minute later. I do, and she is inordinately grateful. “I can buy two soaps with this,” she says. “Enough for a month.”
This isn’t socialism, Rafa and Alejandro tell me repeatedly. This is capitalism. “During the Special Period we were struggling, but we were all equal.” Then came tourism, and with it, a class system. People who work with tourists earn convertibles; those who don’t earn pesos. I smile at the irony: I’ve come to see Cuba before it changes, but the presence of tourists like me — with our dollars and our freedoms and our possessions — is contributing to the change. Castro introduced tourism as a “necessary evil,” strictly controlling the industry in order to contain the capitalist influence. For example, Cubans who work in the tourist industry are barred from having contact with tourists outside of work. When Alejandro and I stop by the house where I am staying, the landlady forbids him to enter beyond the vestibule. It’s not her fault, Alejandro tells me; it’s the law. But later, when we visit an Australian friend in his lavish hotel and Alejandro is not allowed beyond the lobby, he grows enraged. “Fidel says Cuba is for the Cubans. What a joke! And as for us, with our theater — the only reason we can perform is the tourists’ pocket change. It’s a farce.”
In a globalized world of interlocking economies, is it possible for a culture to evolve at its own pace, or does change come in only two packages: fast-tracked by corporate-sponsored leaders, or arrested entirely by dictators and juntas? I’ve seen savvy indigenous communities in Ecuador and Chiapas, Mexico, incorporate what they like of the outside world and reject the rest, but can this be done on the scale of an entire country? Is there even a possibility that Cuba can preserve its culture while opening to the world, to dissent, to change? Every place, wrote the English poet Kathleen Raine, has its secret, inviolable essence. She wrote this in an era before globalization.
On my last day in Cuba, I am wandering through the cavernous rooms of Havana’s Center for the Development of Visual Arts when an attractive and stylish young man with a camera slung from his shoulder introduces himself as Jorge. He tells me he’s a graphic designer, and we talk as we meander. When we reach the roof, we pause. It’s covered with an art installation: a series of raised huts, connected by bridges, like a desolate village in the air. Jorge tells me that the artist’s theme is the emigration of Cubans to Florida. We sit down on a couple of ancient chairs in one of the huts, and I ask him what he thinks of the future. He smiles and shakes his head. “I want change, but I fear it,” he says. “Certainly things are bad now. The country has no economy. All these educated people with no jobs.” There is a breeze, and a small shutter swings back and forth, opening to the glaring sun, then closing and enveloping us in darkness. “People can’t wait for change. But who’s to say we won’t become the Dominican Republic? I’m very pessimistic. When Cuba opens, American corporations will come in and eat this island up. We’ll have a tiny population of rich and many, many poor.” He shakes his head. “I think it’s better if nothing changes.”
When I first arrived in Havana, I marveled at the colonial architecture. But the night of the party in Santo Suarez, Alejandro pointed out that the only reason these buildings were still here to delight tourists was that Castro hadn’t invested in the kind of functional architecture that would have served Havana’s residents.
“I feel like a naive fool,” I told him, “as if I’ve fallen in love with a charlatan.”
“It’s just my opinion,” said Alejandro, performer, poet, and Zen Buddhist. “You keep yours.”
But when I woke up the next morning and walked the cobbled streets of Old Havana, the place felt subtly different. It was all a facade for tourists. The people were oppressed; the country was a sham. I should have expected this disillusionment, a familiar backlash to the belief that perhaps I’d finally found the Answer. The Answer has assumed a number of forms for me over the years: electoral politics, socialism, feminism, civil disobedience, dialogue — all wonderful ideas, but ones that get knotty when put into practice; that get bent, sometimes out of shape, by personalities and biases. First Cuba was heaven to me. Then it looked like hell. Where is the middle ground? Moreover, what is it in me that seeks the Answer? Why must I always look for a simple fix?
I grew up in a society that claimed to be utopia for the 12 percent of its population to which it catered. Cities, restaurants, public schools, vacations, careers, hopes, and dreams: all were reserved for whites only. And beyond this blanched oasis, privileges were doled out sparingly in direct proportion to the lightness of one’s skin. I knew it was wrong, but it was all I knew.
When I was twelve, my family arrived in Los Angeles, miraculous city of mixed-race schools and neighborhoods, of black doctors and white service workers, and it struck me as paradise. But over the years, the realities of my new home revealed themselves — the injustice, the racism, the hypocrisy — and disillusionment arose. I went from reciting the Pledge of Allegiance with great gusto to watching bewildered as downtown Los Angeles erupted in race riots. Our utopia was no more than a house of cards erected on some beautiful, oft-forgotten ideas.
Awareness of injustice made me an activist. I’m also an idealist, which I’ve always considered a good thing. (After all, what progress has ever been achieved thanks to “realism”?) But my experience in Cuba makes me wonder: Am I still the twelve-year-old seeking utopia? Am I so naive as to deny the complexities of human society?
These days I have a hard time recognizing anything good about my adopted homeland. But the truth about the U.S. is complicated. Granted, the Bush years have brought us low, but for anyone coming from the global South, the U.S. still looks like paradise — at least, initially. Rule of law, due process, opportunity, democracy — as much as these have been diminished of late, they’re still there, battered but breathing. In raising public awareness of all that’s wrong in the U.S., have I been discounting all that’s right?
Castro had his own utopian dreams, but no matter how benign his dictatorship was, he had no faith in the wisdom and capability of the people, and he imposed his Answer over the diverse answers of his people. Underlying my own quest for the Answer, I see, is a history of defeat: as an adolescent I was defeated by the ugly truths of the U.S.; I felt defeated again trying to stop the war in Iraq, and again trying to get Bush out of office. But I don’t stop trying. The seduction of the Answer invariably lets me down; the disappointment keeps me yearning for the next fix.
Alejandro insists on accompanying me to the airport for my 6:30 A.M. flight to Mexico. “You should have a Cuban with you until the last minute,” he says, chuckling.
“This must be a little like torture for you,” I say as we check my backpack. I am free to flit to the next country; my new friend is obliged to stay in his cage.
“No,” he says. “I’m content here. I have my art, my life, my practice.”
In a society that walls off its population from both the pleasures and the dangers of liberty, this man has found more freedom within his art and his spiritual practice than most who cross the globe without a second thought. Is this, then, where utopia lies: in our own minds and hearts? Certainly it can. But although inner freedom is a virtue, it is nonetheless wrong to restrict physical freedom.
Upon my arrival here, I struggled to make sense of Cuba. Like a child, I categorized: This is good; this is bad. This goes here; that, there. But then the categories developed cracks and fault lines, and I was reminded to listen and to question. I’m still an activist; I still put myself on the line for my beliefs. But there’s relief in noting that the categories have cracked open, and in the place of stridence sprouts a suspicion of my motives for having constructed the categories in the first place.
I travel in Central America for three and a half months. As always, my return to the U.S. is an ambivalent affair. I’ve been back a couple of days when I meet my sister and my two-year-old niece at the playground in Duboce Park, a stretch of green in the heart of San Francisco. I am going through the usual culture shock, watching the children run and swing in their little flowered frocks and knitted cardigans, each child attended by at least one caretaker, sometimes two. The entire city strikes me as too clean, and no part of it is quite as gleamingly perfect as this playground, with its slides and monkey bars, its expensive strollers and appropriately concerned nannies and mothers and grandmothers. Suddenly I flash back to my own happy childhood, to my father pushing me on a swing and teaching me how to go down the slide by myself — in a lovely park in a suburb of Cape Town that was “whites only.” The injustice hits me in the gut again: Why do these children get to be so lucky? Why are these parents so preoccupied with a scrape on the knee when Maria’s apartment has no running water and Jorge’s future is a thin, dark line on the horizon? I think of all that is being trampled to grant us this lifestyle, and the resentment rises in me.
It’s not your fault, I tell myself. It’s not these children’s fault. It’s nobody’s fault that we are the lucky ones. Or are we? I think of Alejandro and Rafa and Magalys capering through the streets of Havana, whooping and frolicking. We all suffer, I remind myself. Utopia looks like utopia only from across the fence. And if there is a fence between me and the people in this park, it is one that I have built.
“Look!” calls my sister.
I look up, and there is my niece, swooping back and forth in the swing. She is laughing, her green eyes shining, dark curls flying. “Higher!” she says. Together, we push her.
Names have been changed in order to protect identities.