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  • LA CASA DE JUAN Y ODALYS

    Juan and Odalys' House

    It amuses me that one of the principal streets in Havana takes its name from a Spanish military officer of Irish descent named O´Reilly. Where it intersects with the equally busy but more appropriately named Calle San Ignacio is a perfect place to capitalize on the tourist trade in Habana Vieja.

    Ancient cannons no longer needed to defend the city from pirates have been sunk muzzle-first into the street as traffic bollards to protect pedestrians on this block of San Ignacio from marauding drivers. On one corner is El Bosqecito (the little forest) cafe, an oasis of tropical vines and plants that shade tourists from the tropical sun. Across the street Odalys operates a gift shop and her husband Juan rents rooms on the upper floors. The story of how they came to own this prime piece of real estate goes back many years to the time when the island was a colony of Spain.

    The original part of the building was constructed in 1890, and by the 1930´s it had been expanded to its current footprint and was the location of the Belgian embassy. The main floor was used for the offices of Belgian diplomats. But Juan tells me that in those days it was common for embassies to also house manufacturing facilities, so some of the space was used as laboratories to make medicines. The recipients of these drugs is a mystery, but he thinks there may have been underground connections.

    After Cuba´s 1959 revolution, many embassies such as Belgium´s that had been located in Habana Vieja moved to the newer, less congested and swankier community of Miramar. Odalys´ father, Julio Gonzales, who had lived and worked in the consulate for many years as an accountant and custodian, was allowed to stay in the building. Perhaps taking a cue from the revolution´s penchant for redistributing the properties of those with means to those without, the property was given to Jose, and passed to Odalys in 2004. Little remains to connect the building with its history: a flagpole over the ornate front entrance, a metal plaque inside the door, and a collection of antique labware.

    When Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro agreed to begin normalizing relations between our countries in 2014, Juan and Odalys anticipated a touristic tsunami and began increasing the number of rooms for rent on the upper floors of their building to the present total of eight. In the Cuban tradition of using available resources to their fullest, Juan has made the most of the space. Some of the rooms are part of the original footprint of the building, while others have been added in innovative ways. A recently built mezzanine holds two rooms, a new doorway allows use of a previously inaccessible area, and narrow outdoor stairs lead to two more rooms constructed on the roof. A US building inspector might look askance at some details, but the rooms are clean and comfortable.

    But recent events may portend an end to this capitalist wave. After investing heavily in his property, Juan has learned that the popularity of casas particulares such as his have cut into the profits of state-owned hotels, causing the Cuban government to consider a law that would restrict them to a total of only three rooms. And the Trump administration says it will reverse the eased travel restrictions enacted by Obama to once again make it more difficult for US citizens to come here; apparently their idea is to starve democracy into existence. Ironically, it seems that the US government is pursuing a parallel strategy with that of its communist nemesis to suppress the entrepreneurship that could bring real and lasting change to Cuba.

  • EL MONUMENTO DEL MAINE

    EL MONUMENTO DEL MAINE

    USS Maine Monument

    Havana is a city with many memorials to people who have fought for Cuban independence. So it seems perfectly fitting for a monument to be a metaphor for the long and complicated relationship between Cuba and the United States. That memorial stands along the Malecón and honors the 266 US sailors and Marines who died in the explosion of the battleship Maine in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898. Later investigations would conclude that the explosion was caused by a fire in a coal bunker that ignited the ship's ammunition, but at the time Spain, of which Cuba was then a colony, was accused of mining the ship. Whether in retaliation or as pretext mattered little: the US declared war on Spain and quickly defeated her army and naval forces in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines Islands. Spain ceased to be a colonial power, and the US became one.

    The Cuban people were so grateful to their presumed liberators that they commissioned the monument, a stylized ship’s prow flanked by two cannon salvaged from the battleship, and a pair of Corinthian columns topped by the American eagle. When I tell two friends visiting the island how the memorial came to be in the presence of a young, politically-educated Cuban tour guide, she quickly interrupts me to say “we didn’t learn THAT in school!” I suppose not.

    Sadly, time has been little kinder to the monument than fate was to the ship. A year after it was dedicated in 1925 a hurricane blew the bronze eagle from its perch. My friend David Rodriguez tells me the popular story that the eagle landed feet first, staring north across the Florida Strait toward the United States. It was replaced by one with streamlined wings to resist future hurricanes that lasted much longer but ultimately met an end similar to its predecessor. This eagle was torn from its perch by a group of Cuban revolutionaries in 1961 who saw it as a symbol of American imperialism, a sentiment reflected in an inscription added at the order of Fidel Castro.

    Cubans were plagued with various sorts of US meddling throughout the twentieth century. The Platt Amendment enacted by Congress in 1903 granted conditional independence to Cuba, while retaining veto power over any decision made by the Cuban government that the US disliked. The United States enabled and supported rulers like Fulgencio Batista, whose corruption fomented the Cuban Revolution in 1959. Then, fearing a communist state so close to its borders that it inadvertently had helped create, the US imposed an economic embargo that persists well into the twenty-first century and has made life even more difficult for the Cuban people.

    I visit the monument on a warm Christmas day. As I contemplate its significance and the interconnectedness between our countries that it represents, I notice others around me: a Cuban family chatting as they gaze out onto the gulf stream, a young girl posing for photographs, a man playing soulful notes on his trumpet. For them it appears to be simply a place to gather, to be.

    In 1953 the United States built a new embassy just down the avenue from the monument. In a decidedly Cuban twist of irony, it is directly in the line of fire of one of the Maine's cannon. When I first notice this I think it might be a bad omen until I recall another legend. When the second eagle fell from its perch it was broken, and its wings and body ended up in the Havana City History Museum. Its head came into the custody of the Swiss, who were the caretakers of the US embassy during our diplomatic absence from Cuba. The Swiss returned the head to the US in 2014, and it now hangs in the ambassador's office. According to this legend, good relations between the US and Cuba cannot resume until the eagle's head and body are reunited. Perhaps the cannon is just pointing the way.

  • CONNECTANDO CUBA

    Connecting Cuba

    The technology used to connect this country with the rest of the world has traveled a typically Cuban path: slow, long, winding, and full of roadblocks and detours. But with a government whose existence relies on controlling what its people read and hear, this is unsurprising.

    First there was El Paquete Seminal, or the weekly packet, perhaps the ultimate manifestation of Cuban entrepreneurship. It is operated by young, computer-savvy people called, logically enough, paqueteros, who assemble and organize hundreds of hours of the latest movies, TV programs, and even YouTube videos. The content is loaded onto the hard drives of top-level distributors, who disseminate it through their own networks of distributors. Within a day the content has reached end users throughout the island, who pay around 5 CUC to participate in a scheme that would make an Amway marketer envious.

    I stayed at Hotel Los Frailes in 2013 which had, in theory at least, internet access consisting of one clunky old PC in the lobby. A guest wishing to check email or do some very basic web searching could purchase an access card, enter the login and password codes from the card, and, if both the computer and the internet connection happened to be working that day, one was online. Some hotels even had ¨business centers,¨ meaning several computers in a separate room.

    A couple of years later some hotels were providing wireless connectivity to their guests. They were easy to spot at night by the ethereal glow of smartphone-illuminated Cuban faces gathered outside, purloining the hotel's internet using bootlegged cards. It became such a problem that paying guests had trouble getting online, so police officers routinely rousted these latter day pirates, who no doubt reassembled around the corner at another hotel.

    The hourly cards cost 8 CUC at the hotels, but could be purchased more cheaply in a certain park known as an outlet for clandestine goods and services. As soon as I entered, a young woman offered me her ¨services;¨ I politely declined and said that I was looking for a tarjeta, or a wireless internet card. She directed me with her eyes to a man on a nearby bench, who palmed me a card then signaled that I should pay a woman on another bench 3 CUC.

    The latest and most significant change occurs in December of 2018 when “Weefee,” as it is pronounced here, becomes officially available in parks throughout Havana. I stand in line with some Cubans and a couple of other foreigners to purchase a WiFi card from a blue and white building that has recently been placed here by ETECSA, the state owned telecommunications service. The woman on the other side of the tiny, barred window knows even before I speak in my ¨Cowboy Spanish¨ that I am a foreigner, and asks for my passport. She dutifully types in its number, along with those on the access cards. The government may have made the internet more available, but its interest in who is communicating what to whom has not diminished. For 3 CUC I purchase 3 hours of connectivity.

    I notice a young man standing in the shade of a tree near the ETECSA stand, occasionally making eye contact with people in line. Some of them purchase cards then walk to the man and exchange one for money, while others eschew the line and instead buy cards from him. Later I learn that people can only purchase a limited amount of access each day, so some buy their allotment and sell what they don´t need, while others who want more than the daily limit purchase more. He pays a little more than what ETECSA charges, and sells for a bit more than that to make a profit. I wonder if he once sold bootlegged cards but was forced to change his business model, and once again marvel at the ability of Cubans to follow the motto of the US Marines to “adapt, improvise, and overcome.”

  • Nochebuena; La Habana

    Nochebuena; La Habana

    Christmas Eve; Havana

    Dateline HAVANA, December 24, 2018: LARGE BEARDED MAN DISTRIBUTES PACKAGES TO CUBANS.

    In another time, it would not be surprising to read a headline like this in an edition of Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba. Although he was an authoritarian, Fidel Castro wanted to be seen as benevolent to his people, the giver of all things. But Fidel died in 2016.

    It is Christmas Eve 2018, and despite the fact that another large bearded man reputedly travels the globe this night giving toys to children, I assume that Santa is still on the no-fly list here in Cuba. So imagine my surprise as I stand on a corner in Habana Vieja and, “what to my wondering eyes did appear, but”...uh...two bicitaxis tricked-out in the regalia of Spain's Fútbol Club Barcelona and propelled by elf-shirt-clad riders.

    The bicis skid to a stop, Papá Noel leaps out, hands soccer balls to two children that happen to be nearby, jumps back in next to an extraordinarily beautiful Señorita Claus, and down the street they fly. I have just enough time to make a couple of exposures before they are a block away. From personal experience I surmise that this drive-by gifting is done of necessity so that the bicis, elves, Santa and his Señorita are not overrun by other kids who are descending on the scene.

    This Cuban riff on Clement Clarke Moore's classic poem illustrates how much the country is changing. Fidel made Santa persona non grata in 1959, more or less accusing him of being an illegal immigrant from the United States. His reindeer were unwelcome as well. Decorations had to portray traditional Cuban scenes, and “Yankee” Christmas trees were forbidden in lieu of Cuban palms. Castro's Grinch-like decree lasted until just before Pope John Paul II visited the island in 1998.

    When I first began traveling here I noticed very muted acknowledgments of the holidays, mostly limited to small, artificial trees in a corner of people's houses. But as with other things that were once banned, each year the celebrations become more open and festive. Strings of Christmas lights adorn balcony railings. Many of the people whose job is to stand on the street to entice customers into restaurants do so while wearing Santa hats, and the restaurants are decorated in ways that Fidel would not have approved of in 1959. The ubiquitous street bands incorporate a rendition of “Feliz Navidad” into their set lists.

    I enjoy a traditional Christmas Eve gathering for drinks and snacks with some Cuban friends, then have a great dinner at my favorite restaurant. Later I return to my apartment and sit on the rooftop with a glass of rum, listening to the revelry below.

    Christmas Day comes to life a little more lethargically than do most mornings here. The roosters crow more softly than usual. The bakery across the street is open for business but the flow of customers is a little slower today than on others. The holiday seems to have settled back into just another day here in Cuba, perhaps a metaphor for the ebb and flow of change here.

    As I finish writing this story I learn than the US government is changing the conditions of visas for Cubans wishing to visit the US, ostensibly to mirror Cuban visas for US citizens. But an unintended consequence is to make travel more difficult and expensive for the nascent Cuban entrepreneurs who regularly travel to the US to buy many of the supplies they need for their paladares and casas particulares. I think that a more thoughtful and consistent approach to relations between our countries might ferment democracy here, and is the best gift we could give the Cuban people.

  • LA VELADA DE SAN LAZARO

    Evening of Saint Lazarus

    I witness a powerful illustration of the syncretization of the Yoruba and Catholic religions at the Pilgrimage of San Lazaro. On the evening of December 17 of every year people who themselves, or who have family that are suffering from various physical or mental afflictions, congregate in the town of Santiago de Las Vegas. Here they fulfill promises that they have made to San Lazaro in hopes that the ailments will be cured.

    The pilgrimage is named after Lazarus, the poor man in the parable recounted in Luke 16:19-31 of the Bible, who begged for food from “a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury.” The beggar was covered in sores that were licked by dogs who came by, and so christianity venerates Lazarus as the patron saint of lepers. In the Yoruba religion, the orisha Babalú-Aye is associated with the healing of diseases such as smallpox and leprosy; he is portrayed wearing burlap clothing with purple adornments, and is accompanied by two dogs. The two are syncretized, and bear the Spanish name San Lazaro.

    Unlike Felipe, a pilgrim I meet in downtown Havana who plans to walk the entire way, I take a cab to the village on the outskirts of the city. Here begins the final leg of the pilgrimage to a church on the grounds of Santuario Nacional de San Lazaro, a former sanctuary for people suffering from leprosy. The illness is rare in Cuba today, so the hospital treats victims of other skin diseases as well. The patients stand behind a fence surrounding the hospital, quietly watching me, an artist named Jose who is my guide tonight, and thousands of other people who have come here to participate in the pilgrimage.

    Some, like me, are here to simply experience the event. For others it seems to be a reason to drink rum, play loud music, and party, much like Carnaval. Residents are meeting their more basic need to earn a living by selling statues of San Lazaro, other Santería objects, souvenirs, and food and drink to the attendees. Others have come to support the pilgrims, who are dressed in the rough sack cloth representing the clothing of Lazarus, trimmed in finer purple fabric like that of the rich man of the parable. Many of the pilgrims are fulfilling their promise to San Lazaro by completing the last few kilometers to the church on their hands and knees, some dragging heavy weights behind them, while others roll themselves over and over down the street. A few wish to endure even more suffering to prove themselves worthy; we stop next to one man lying prostrate in the road where Jose, a devout practitioner of Santería, drips hot wax from his candle onto the back of the man.

    After reaching the church into which hundreds of people have crowded, I see a man sitting on the floor surrounded by candles, his ankle horribly disfigured by a large, deep skin ulcer. I can only bear the heat and the tightly-packed throng for a few minutes before I need to go outside. There, others sit in quiet contemplation in front of candles, some performing Santería rituals.

    Later, I think about my experience this night and realize how fortunate I am. I have good health, a comfortable life, a wonderful family and friends, the ability to travel and experience a wider world, and the freedom to do and think as I like in my country. The pilgrims do not enjoy such luxuries. Instead, their lives are consumed by some kind of overwhelming problem that has compelled them to make their promises to San Lazaro. I feel undeserving, but blessed just the same.

  • LOS FANÁTICOS

    In “Havana Black,” Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura writes of the fanatical devotion of police lieutenant Mario Conde and his friend Skinny Carlos to their beloved Havana Industriales, the New York Yankees of Cuban professional baseball. I experience the roller coaster emotions of Padura's characters in the grandstands of Estadio Latinoamerica one evening, where I am blessed once again with the good juju of Cuba and learn why the Spanish word for “fan,” fanático, is so appropriate.

    The night is clear and warm; exactly the conditions under which baseball should be played. The home team and their opponent from Sancti Spiritus are having winning seasons and I am told that this will be a good game. It turns out to be a more exciting contest than any writer could invent, as thrilling as watching the injured Kirk Gibson hit a walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth inning during the 1988 World Series.

    After paying a cuban peso apiece (4 cents US) to enter the stadium, three friends and I find the special section behind home plate that our cabbie tells us is reserved for extranjeros (foreigners). Realizing that the net in front of us will interfere with our photography, we set our sights on another group of seats along the first base line but are stopped by a guard who tells us the section is reserved for journalists. Our cameras and my claim to be writing a book about Cuba either fails in translation or persuasion, and we are refused entry.

    We next find some empty, roped-off seats behind the third base dugout. An ancient guardian tells us these seats are reserved for an Industriales fan club, but we are then approached by another man who says that for 10CUC we can sit in the section with him and his friends. I agree and reach for my wallet, but he quickly waves me off and ushers us to some rickety wooden seats with a premium view of the field. A bit later he asks me to follow him under the grandstands and into a dark, deserted corner that would make me nervous in any other country. But I understand that he is simply collecting his baksheesh away from the eyes of the many police officers who are attending the game, his version of resolver. We watch from our seats and are treated as friends; cursing the umpires and cheering “our” team as enthusiastically as our hosts.

    The game does not begin well for the home team. By the bottom of the fourth inning they are down by a score of 0-6 and have seemingly gone through all of the pitchers on their staff; I wonder if there is a mercy rule in Cuban baseball. Then inning by inning they score a run or two, closing the gap against the Sancti Spiritus team. With one out in the bottom of the ninth, the Industriales have clawed their way back to a 6-6 tie. The visiting pitcher hits a batter to load the bases and spark a stare-down between the two, but before trotting off to first base the batter shakes hands with the pitcher in a remarkable display of sportsmanship in this very competitive game. The next batter hits a soft single into shallow right field to score the winning run, causing the entire Industriales team to storm out of the dugout in a celebration worthy of a World Series game 7.

    Despite the excitement on the field, I am equally entertained by the fans. After every important play, and each time the umpires make one of several bad calls against the Industriales, loud, heated debates ensue, each point punctuated by animated gestures, and I wonder what would happen if these people were not actually on the same side. Life in Cuba is complicated, but for these fans, just as it is for Lt. Condi and Skinny Carlos, baseball is an escape, a brief respite from politics, the economy, and the difficulties of living here.

  • PROMESA DE LEALTAD

    Pledge Of Allegiance

    I think that I most enjoy Cuba early in the day, when for a few moments before the sun rises above the horizon Havana is a pastel city. From the roof of my casa I can see soft, warm light reflected from the pockmarked coral walls of the main cathedral, making it look a bit like a birthday cake left too long in the sun. Soon the neighborhood will be alive with uniformed children on their way to school; older kids with groups of their peers, younger ones accompanied by a parent, all seemingly looking forward to a day of learning. The commitment to education exemplified by these students might be the most important and enduring legacy of the Cuban Revolution, and is one of the most interesting stories that I have learned about this fascinating place.

    Before 1959, access to education was very unequal here. Affluent Cubans sent their children to private schools at home and abroad, while children of families of lesser means attended a public school system ill equipped to provide a good education. Schools did not exist in many rural areas, so children living outside of cities often could not attend at all. As a result, many Cubans could not read or write, especially in the countryside where the literacy rate was about 68%. In addition, the disparity in educational opportunities between rich and poor, urban and rural, was symbolic of the class divisions that marked the first half of the twentieth century in Cuba, something that Fidel Castro was determined to eradicate. So with the revolution less than two years old, Castro declared in a speech before the United Nations that 1961 would be the “Year of Education” in his country. He went on to say, “in the next year, our people plan to wage a great battle against illiteracy with the ambitious goal of teaching every last illiterate person to read and write.”

    The plan to enact this lofty goal became known as the Campaña Nacional de Alfabetización en Cuba, the Cuban Literacy Campaign. It would depend heavily upon the participation of citizens, andwas built on two basic socialistic ideas: “if illiterates are to be found among the people, so also are those who can teach literacy,” and “those who know more must teach those who know less.” Following these principles, more than 300,000 literacy workers called alfabetizadores were trained and equipped. Adult volunteers worked primarily in cities, and more remarkably, 100,000 students ranging in age from 10 to 19 years old were sent out into the countryside, where they worked in the fields alongside the campesinos by day, and taught them to read and write at night by the light of a special lantern that would become the symbol of the program. By working with their adult “students” in the fields, a bond of trust was established, as well as a sense of solidarity between learners and teachers.

    Although the goal of 100% literacy within one year was not achieved, the literacy rate throughout Cuba climbed steadily to eventually reach today's level of 99.8%, one of the best in the world. After the campaign ended, the government continued to make education a priority, and a right, of all Cubans. Schools were constructed in rural areas throughout the country to give every child access. Others are found tucked into corners of old buildings, in the plazas popular with tourists, and along busy streets in the built-up urban areas such as Havana.


    One morning I notice a commotion down the street from my casa and see students gathering in front of Simon Rodriguez Primary School. One is responsible for raising the flag to mark the start of the school day while his schoolmates begin singing the country's anthem. As I watch and listen I am reminded of a simpler time in my country, when at the beginning of each day we would stand, place our hands over our hearts, and recite our pledge of allegiance.

  • SALSA

    One of my favorite places to listen to music in Cuba bears the ironic name of Cafe Paris. It sits at the intersection of two important streets in Habana Vieja, San Ignacio and Obispo, that are closed to vehicular traffic but crowded with tourists. The proprietors have taken advantage of this happy accident to fill the cobblestone street in front of the cafe with tables and chairs. On pleasant evenings, which is to say most evenings in Havana, this patio is filled with patrons whose money enables the cafe to hire top quality ensembles to entertain them.

    But one evening I find myself being entertained by two elderly women at another table, each with one of the quintessential tourist drinks, a mojito and a daiquiri. The woman drinking the daiquiri is employing a fascinating method of consuming her beverage: keeping her hands in her lap, she bends forward at the waist and aims her mouth at the straw, takes a small sip, then straightens back up. Seconds later she repeats this process, over and over, reminding me of one of those drinking bird toys. Neither woman smiles or seems to be particularly enjoying herself. Daiquiri-sipper's bows to her straw are not in time to the music, causing me to wonder if they even hear it. In any case, I decide they at least don't “get” the music, and maybe not the place.

    Whether lost on these women or not, a great band plays a mixture of salsa music, Buena Vista Social Club hits, and of course, their version of “Guantanamera.” The same cast of Cubans that I see here every night dances at the edge of the seating area, one of whom is a woman with what seems to be the same large cigar clenched in her teeth. With even the slightest encouragement, they descend upon the tables to pose for selfies with the tourists and ask for money before being chased out by the waiters.

    In Viñales I watch a group of children taking salsa lessons and wonder why, since it seems that Cubans are born knowing how to move to the music; it is as natural to them as walking. Salsa music is built around a particular rhythm, called a clave, or key, with a wooden instrument of the same name often heard tapping out this rhythm. Jorge Gomez of the band Moncada says that one one must have the clave inside them, and that when Cuban women walk, it is more like they are dancing. I observe this phenomenon carefully and can confirm that Jorge is correct: Cuban women seem to make an extra little forward movement of their hips with each step they take, giving them a dancing kind of walk. They feel the music, even when they do not hear it.

    Salsa is an escape, however temporary, from the hard reality of life in Cuba. To watch Cubans play or dance is to see them free of the bonds of oppression under which they have lived for five hundred years. It is also a way to make a living. The best bands play in places like Cafe Paris, while those less talented, or perhaps those still earning their “chops,” play on street corners. Some use homemade instruments; all regularly pass a small basket for donations or to sell their latest hit CD. Teaching salsa is a booming business as well. Five American friends and I take a class one day, each of us paying our personal instructor 10CUC per hour, good money here. After two hours, we at least understand the basic steps of salsa dance: “one two three, five six seven,” still echoing in our minds hours later.

    Late in the evening, I lie in the darkness of my little room on the roof of a casa particular. The sun has long set, and the tropical day is slowly cooling. Down the street at Cafe Paris the salsa band plays, percussion instruments and horn clearly audible, the notes of a tres sneaking through from time to time. With windows open on two sides, my room becomes a large speaker, the music a perfect soundtrack to my time here in Cuba.

  • EL MALECÓN

    The word malecón is Spanish, meaning a breakwater or esplanade. Many Latin American cities such as Lima, Peru, Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico have them. But I suspect that when most people hear the word, especially when it is preceded by a definite article and expressed as a proper noun, they think of the one found in Havana, Cuba.

    Here,“The Malecón” is the name given to the multi-lane road, walkway, and thick concrete seawall that parallel each other beginning in Havana Bay and extending about five miles along the city's waterfront to the mouth of the Almendares River. The United States began building it in 1901 during our occupation of the country, and it was finished by Cuba after it became an independent nation.

    It is meant to protect the city from the Florida Straits, and on calm days it does. But when a hurricane visits the island, or a strong storm crosses the Gulf of Mexico from Texas as one did recently, the waves crash over the seawall, making the otherwise pleasant place dangerous to pedestrians and drivers, and it is closed by the police. I walk to the end of an intersecting street where I am waved away by a motorcycle officer. When I ask if I can stand in Antonio Maceo park across the street to take pictures, he literally draws a line on the ground with his boot, behind which he tells me to stay.

    Although the original purpose of the Malecón was to keep land and water in their respective places, over the years its importance to the commerce of the city has grown. It is an efficient way to travel between Habana Vieja, Centro Habana, and on into the Vedado neighborhood. Cruise ships dock in the bay where it begins, and taxistas in their pink Cadillacs compete for tourists here. Vendors selling tropical drinks and TuKola, the island-produced version of Coca Cola, do a brisk business. Further on in a poorly-lit section, exotically beautiful young women and men offer less reputable services to foreigners who, by chance or design, venture here after dark.

    But by day, the seawall is a place to catch fish. Along its length I see young boys and old men casting lines into the water, some using expensive-looking rods and reels while others simply throw baited hooks by hand, anchoring the free end of their lines with a convenient piece of broken concrete. Some of these pescadores (fishermen) make a living this way. I find one being supervised by his wife as he sorts a nice catch of pargo rojo, the local name for red snapper, likely destined for a local restaurant. After considering what a recent deluge had washed down the storm sewers and into the bay where some of these are caught, I decide against fish for tonight's dinner. But many feed their families this way, and are unable to be as particular as me.

    One afternoon I hear the incessant honking of a car horn and turn to find a girl dressed in a fine gown, sitting atop the rear seat of a classic American convertible. She is celebrating her quinceañera, an important milestone marking the fifteenth birthday of a latina. This is one of the few times that I see Cubans riding in a car purely for pleasure. The adjoining walkway and seawall is a place where Habaneros can go to just relax and enjoy themselves. Entire families from grandparents to small children walk together. Groups of teenaged Cubanos laugh and mug for selfies with their newly-acquired smartphones. Lovers lean into one another atop the seawall and gaze out into the gulf stream. To these people, I think that providing a brief respite from the challenges of living in Cuba is the most vital function of the Malecón.

  • El PASEO DEL PRADO

    El Paseo del Prado, which translates into something like “Meadow Promenade,” is one of the most beautiful places in Havana. The boulevard was built almost 250 years ago in an undeveloped area just outside of the original city wall, perhaps inspiring its name. Or, since Cuba was a Spanish colony at the time, it may have been named after the famous street in Madrid. In any case, the Prado became the societal epicenter of the colonial city: mansions and important commercial buildings were constructed along its length, and it became fashionable for the wealthy and elite to stroll down its sidewalks or ride in their carriages each afternoon. After Cuba gained independence from Spain in 1902 it was renamed Paseo del Marti in honor of the country's most revered figure, but it is still frequently called by its earlier name, or simply as El Prado.

    I decide to take my own stroll on the Prado one hot afternoon. Crossing busy Calle Neptuno that marks its upper end, I pass the first of several bronze lions that guard the wide promenade. Rows of stately trees line each side, their full, low-hanging branches serving both as a shield from the tropical sun overhead and the noise and fumes from the car-choked streets on either side. This sanctuary of sorts is occupied by artists hoping to sell their work to the tourists who venture away from nearby Parque Central, their stands filled with paintings of Che, old American cars, street scenes of La Bodaguita del Medio where Hemingway drank one afternoon, and the occasional abstract or interpretive piece. I stop to watch a Chinese artist and her small child, she looking out for prospective customers while he sits on a stool with pencil and sketch pad, learning his mother's art.

    As I walk down the gentle slope and begin to taste the salt air coming up from the Malecón I leave the tourists behind and sense more of a Cuban vibe. A jinatera working the day shift calls softly from a marble bench on one side, hoping to “entertain” me for a little while; I nod in her direction, smile, and politely decline the offer. Further along, two girls have decided that another of the lions is a good place to sit, so I ask them to pose for a picture.

    Then I encounter these men. Susceptible to the narrow range of temperatures in which Cubans feel comfortable, they wear long sleeves, sweatshirts and jackets, even though I am warm in a T shirt. They have gathered at what I suspect is “their” bench, at what is probably an appointed hour, to discuss politics, baseball, the problems in their country, the girls walking by, and maybe the jinatera on the opposite side. The uniquely Cuban blend of a tres, abundant percussion instruments, and intertwining vocal harmonies emanating from a boombox accompanies their discussion, along with two bottles of the less expensive vintage of Havana Club rum affordable by ordinary Cubans and a can of Kermato tomato juice.

    I have noticed this decidedly un-tropical cocktail being consumed by other Cubans, and so it becomes the beginning of a conversation with them. Being Cubans, which means being generous to a fault, they quickly offer me a glass, which I just as quickly accept. I ask if I can photograph them, and being Cubans they immediately adopt poses: one crossing his arms and staring down his nose at me, another using his ubiquitous cigar as a prop, and the third giving me a thumbs up, which I take as a sign of approval for their new American friend.