Another Dispatch from a Gringo in Havana

(Editor's Note: After Fidel Castro officially stepped down as Cuba's president, Lagan Sebert, a contributor to this blog, contacted one of his American friends in Havana. The result was a series of reports about Cuba and a photo essay. Lagan's contact must remain anonymous due to the repressive political atmosphere in Cuba, but his dispatches provide insight into the current climate there.)

Edited by Lagan Sebert
Special to iVoryTowerz

Along the Malecon...

It’s a Friday night on the malecon (Havana’s sea-front drive). There are few seats available for over a mile on the sea wall. The scene: bottles of rum; teenagers in white shirts with “Dolce & Gabbana" logos stiched in gold on them and shiny belt buckles; families; guitars; a bagpiper; police across the street — and the night is getting slowly louder. A black transvestite, well over six-feet tall, has passed for the third time: languid expression, thin hips, and tremendous hands. Like Wormold’s daughter in Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, I can hear her coming through the rising pitch of whistles and cat calls. As it has been for years, the malecon is the social barometer of Havana.

First I am approached by a middle-aged man in a worn out wetsuit. He asks my pardon as he approaches; he must be used to foreigners being afraid of anyone who approaches them unsolicited. “Have you seen any kids running around with a spear gun?” he asks with a worried glance up the coast. He takes a seat and we strike up a conversation.

His name is Yosmani and he fishes at night along the malecon, “about two-hundred meters out,” he tells me. This type of fishing is illegal. It is also illegal to serve seafood, especially lobster and shrimp, in your home. Most of the desirable meats, beef included, are reserved for tourists. When a Cuban casa particular (private homes licensed to rent to tourists) serves lobster, it is always with a wink and a “shhhh.”

Yosmani, like most Cubans, is forced to be a jack of all trades. He lives most of his life dealing in the black market economy. He fishes at night and in the day time he dives to collect the almost worthless Cuban coins that litter the bottom of the ocean a short distance from the sea wall. Believers in Santeria throw these and small lead statues into the sea to curry favor with their particular orisha.* I don’t ask him if there is any moral dilemma in collecting these offerings.

Yosmani has a brother who was born in Miami. He came to Havana to visit a few years ago for the second time; the first trip had been during the worst years of the “special period,” (after the fall of the Soviet Union and the overnight disappearance of billions in subsidies for Cuba).

“There was nothing to buy,” Yosmani tells me, emphasizing the nothing with empty hands. It bothers him that his brother speaks little Spanish.

Before long, a group of musicians approaches. Yosmani has continued to search for his spear gun. An old, thin black man speaks to me in Italian before switching to perfect, almost lilting English. He is the guitarist. Most Cubans in Havana know at least a few words in English but nothing on the level of this man. He can see that I am surprised. He has never been out of Cuba. I tell him that his English is incredible.

“I went to the Chandler School here, an American school. This was before the triumph of the Revolution.” I’ve read about it, I tell him. He hands the guitar to a teenager behind him and sits down. The rest of the group keeps moving down the malecon. “For a long time it was not a good idea to be a Cuban and speak English on the street. I practice a lot more now.” He has a drink and we keep on talking.

I met a guy like him before in a bar bathroom. Another older black man with very correct, almost archaic English, he worked the bar bathroom handing out soap and collecting dimes. “I once went to Kentucky. I love Nat King Cole,” I remember him telling me with a smile.

My new friend on the malecon says his name is “William.” He also wants to talk about music. “Do you know Bill Haley? Little Richard?” He asks as if I might have their latest records. He slaps me on the back when I tell him that I know their music. We shake hands and he hurries to join up with his band that has started playing for a group of people celebrating a birthday.

The malecon is one of the few places where a foreigner can sit and talk to Cubans in public without raising suspicion. Generally, the police stay on the other side of the street, across six lanes of traffic. Old women sell pork rinds, candy and peanuts. On this Friday night, only days after Fidel Castro announced that he will not continue in office, I wait for someone to bring up politics. No one does.

*An orisha is a spirit in the Yoruba spiritual system.

(To see a photo essay that prominently includes several photos of the malecon, please go here.)

(The photo of Old Havana is by a Gringo in Havana; this photo is © copyright iVoryTowerz and a Gringo in Havana, and may not be republished without written permission.)

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