It is around midnight in Havana, and our room is only a block or so from the gay bar Las Vegas, which did not exist on our last visit here back in 2001. Another few blocks on is a corner—known for some reason as the Big Bang, which in Cuban sounds more like ‘pingpong’—that is gay cruising central, right where La Rampa (23rd St.) meets the Malecón. This sea wall is an evening living room for all of La Habana, the traditional locale for cheap dates, family outings, older couples and innumerable crews of teenaged kids.
But we are not out tonight, even though it is a Friday. Ken has been feeling sick with the same coughing thing I’m just getting over. We try turning on the telly. First there appears a printed quote from national forefather José Martí, whose rebel army fought alongside Teddy Roosevelt and died in battle to free his country from Spain only to have it fall into the hands of the North Americans, along with Puerto Rico and the Philippines in 1898. His quote had to do with Culture being the path to Freedom. Then the tv switched to an old version of Wuthering Heights already in progress. We watched as much of the tacky ‘90s costume drama as we could.
But it simply couldn’t hold a candle to the Cuban/Spanish film we saw today in Teatro Yara at the top of La Rampa, one of many hundreds of offerings in Havana’s New Latinamerican Film Festival, currently celebrating its 38th year. December is high tourism season, and there is an International Jazz Festival and a Pan-American Crafts Fair going on as well.
The film we saw was “Esteban,” a 2015 first feature for tv-based director Jonal Cosculluela, and it merits description. The nine-year-old moreno title character (a previously non-professional Reynauldo Guanche every bit as believable as the youngest actor in “Moonlight”) is the only child of a beleaguered but still radiant mother (the truly lovely Yuliet Cruz). On the street she illegally sells soaps, packaged noodles and “intimacias,” a euphemism for tampax. Esteban is solitary, and quietly sad—possibly he will be gay, definitely he is lost. Until one day his ears lead him to stop outside the apartment of an old, rather derelict piano teacher (the amazing Cuban master actor Manuel Porto). It turns out the child has a gift, but more importantly he has the strength and determination to overcome: this crusty teacher’s repeated rejections; an inability to pay for lessons; and his mother’s stubborn antagonism to her child’s fantastic desire. Unlike almost every other film released today in Cuba, it has neither sex nor violence nor X-rated language. And despite being as far from melodrama as can be, it was a three-hanky flick for me. I know I am just a sucker for films about sensitive kids and unlikely father figures.
It helps that we now recognize every detail in the film. Among these are the short school uniforms, color-coded gold for primaria (elementary school), red in secundaria and blue for colegio. Also familiar are examples of a dismal economy, the mother too exhausted to cook who gives her boy 10 pesos (40cents US, but a lot to someone who may make only the equivalent of $10 US per month) to buy a pizza on the corner, and the son who then goes without it, to save the money toward a first piano lesson. Then there are the newish yellow cabs, like SEATs from Spain and Russian Ladas, plus all the ‘40s and ‘50s American classic cars held together by baling wire and genius that are referred to as almendrones (due to their almond-like chubby rounded lines, at least prior to the ’57 Merc). After only two weeks in Cuba none of this seems foreign.
And all the music in the film is provided by four-time Grammy winner Chucho Valdés. The leader of the Cuban orquesta Irakere, he is probably one of only a handful of true piano masters in all the history of Jazz. Also in that class of five I would list Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Thelonius Monk, and for the last one either McCoy Tyner or my man Fats Waller, but friends of mine would argue for Bill Evans or Keith Jarrett. At any rate it was a real coup getting him to write and record the soundtrack.
Proof of which we heard the night before, catching Valdés for the first time since Irakere overcame State Department difficulties to play in San Francisco about ten years ago. And he shone. It was the opening night of the Havana Jazz Plaza International Music Festival, and el maestro provided a compendium of Cuban jazz. He’d take a standard like “For All We Know (We May Never Meet Again)” jazz it slowly with feeling, then swing it to a cha-cha beat, or maybe it was a guaguanco. Then he towel-fanned himself in the Yoruba ritual manner while the clave beat-keeper of his cuarteto did a traditional call-out to the orisha deity Ogun, this time on his batá talking drums. Next, he introduced special guest Omara Portuando, of worldwide fame via Ry Cooder’s Buena Vista Social Club album. After Celia Cruz she is Cuban vocal royalty. Valdés tastefully accompanied La Omara with pared down piano behind “Dos Gardenias Para Tí” and “Besame Mucho” as the crowd roared. To top this, he then brought out two current US jazz greats, New Orleans trumpeter Terrence Blanchard and Philly’s Christian MacBride on standup bass. They stayed with the combo for the rest of an amazing evening; both looking glad to be in 86-degree Havana in December, playing with such a hot ensemble.
So how was Culture doing in Cuba a week after the passing of Fidel? All partying had been cancelled during the luto period of mourning. But international festivals must go on. And though all the popular-priced tickets (20 pesos, 10 peso students) for the Jazz Fest opening gala had sold out, some tix were still available to tourists, at a whopping $20 US. But then some foreign tour groups must have bribed their way in and took over whole rows of sold-out seats., creating verbal conflicts between newly entitled visitors. But the rest of the huge Teatro Mella (the same size and period as the dearly departed Coronet Theater in SF) was cool. And the organizers adjusted by simply half-filling each aisle with folding chairs and standing folks four-deep in the back. Did I already mention that the concert was glorious?
The film festival was put on by venerable government film institute ICAIC, which in past decades has released prestigious films including Santiago Alvarez’ documentaries from the ’60s like “Now,” a history of the US civil rights movement narrated by Lena Horne, and the prize-winning Cuban gay classic “Fresas y Chocolate”(1997 Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabio). The festival, utilizing 14 mid-Havana theaters as venues, showed an average of six films a day in each one—over a period of 11 days! Film fanatics, along with ordinary Havana residents, lined up an hour in advance of each showing, especially with the entry price of 2 pesos (8 cents US), Yet even this could not go without a typically Cuban hitch. An hour before one popular Cuban film, a line formed while in the ticket booth a seen-it-all employee counted money: once, then the same bundle of bills again, until on the third count she started to fall asleep. “Are there tickets for the film?” I asked. “No tickets,” was her mumbled response. “Come back at three.” But the film would start at three, and I already knew they refused entry after a movie began. Thinking it was my Spanish, I asked a Cuban in the line to try to find out what was up. After an equally hopeless exchange with her, it looked like she didn’t sell tickets, that was someone else’s job. “Eso es Cuba,” was his dispirited assessment. Luckily, trying at another theater, a patron mentioned that you could always buy a passport of 7 tickets for 10 pesos. Done!
The Cuban ideal is that nobody be excluded from Culture. Remember that the first national campaign of the Cuban Revolution (even before the nationalization of foreign holdings) was a literacy campaign that reached 100% of the population, all genders, ethnicities and occupations in three years. Victory was proclaimed in the fight against illiteracy by 1963. And Cuba continued through the US boycott to be the cultural vanguard of Latin America, with world-class dancers, musicians, writers and filmmakers, even baseball players. Yet it has remained a social backwater because of inflexible rules from above and the attendant lack of initiative. The Cuban Communist Party is right to worry that many among the young generation may wind up with no concept of the necessary sacrifice and fortitude of their elders.
When we were here in 2001, practically everybody in the country was reading, be it textbooks, novels, newspapers, and especially romance novelas and comic books. Not anymore. With three channels, TV is now fairly ubiquitous. And telephones are no longer so rare that entire blocks got their messages from the one lucky neighbor that had a landline. Cell phones have begun their cultural takeover, Android and Google are not yet in the house, but AirBnB is in the waiting room. The US Government (read CIA) tried and failed to set up a bot-like social media app called ZunZuneo that peppered Cuba with “surveys and questionnaires”. Can Tinder and Grindr be far behind?
Those hotspots of conversation and flirting and complaining, the plazas in every Cuban city and popular parts of The Malecón are now full of people looking down at their phones. One difference, though—here people share their phones, and what they have discovered on them, with each other. Another difference? Connectivity comes at a premium, as much as $2 or $3 US to buy wifi access cards good for an hour. This was expensive even for us. And when I mention US dollar prices, I am actually talking about “convertible currency” CUCs which unlike actual US dollars are legally in circulation. Changing 100 US gets you only 87 CUCs. Euros and other currencies are traded at a much less punitive exchange rate. But hey, we have kept the island suffering under a boycott for decades. It’s payback time.
Most sales are still in Cuban pesos, outside of the tourist economy. Coffee that will be $1 CUC or more at an air-conditioned restaurant, is still 1 peso (4 cents) at the stalls on every street. And street vendors still chant their ages-old pregón, the unique cry for each item, be it for cebollas, mani or pan suave (onions, peanuts, soft bread rolls). Women call the vendor to stop, lower a basket from a laundry-bedecked balcony, pull it up on its rope.
Another tradition shows staying power is the persistence of the Yoruba religion based in African customs that parallels Catholicism in Cuba. Many wear necklaces and bracelets to indicate their belonging to an orisha, and initiates of both genders wear all white. I used to work with Cuban refugees to the States; they had arrived when Fidel responded to charges that Cubans were not free to leave by emptying his prisons and creating the Mariel boat lift. Most of the “marielitas” that I worked with still had santería altars behind the doors of their SRO hotel rooms on the 6th Street Skid Row in San Francisco.
Another thing that hasn’t changed is the presence of police on random corners. Their increase or decrease has always been a clue to latest Cuban Communist Party policies. Many hold muzzled attack dogs on short leashes to enforce revolutionary morals, by intimidating queers for instance. I had the unfortunate experience of having one of those monsters growl and immediately lunge at me, getting about two feet away from my face. I took the chance of demanding to know of the officer, in Spanish, if he was incapable of controlling his dog? People on The Malecón later told me it was no slip, that they regularly experience such near-assaults. While CENESEX, the pro-sex, pro-gay and pro-trans government agency, headed by no less a figure than Mariela Castro Espín, daughter of Wilma Espín who started the Cuban Women’s Federation and her husband Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother and now president. But this does not eliminate daily, petty and sometimes serious oppression of queers. In the biggest cities public displays of affection are still a no-no, unless you are a hetero couple, and most LGBT people are not out to their families.
Outside the drag bar kids still try to hustle the several CUCs cost of admission, and once inside the price of a beer or rum, about the same. All travelers are fair game, the perpetual line being “Where you from?” Italy? Germany? Mexican tourists are also relatively rich here. But we were at the bar until late last night, which provided more than enough of surly straight guy studs, giggling amateur possibly-18-year old prostitutes and Mafiosi-style bouncers.
Especially after the emotional catharsis of “Esteban” earlier this afternoon, we are both happy staying in for the night. We recently got back from a cross-island trip with stops at Bay of Pigs (including an amazing tour of a national park that included a cave filled with thousands of bats and a snake coiling and uncoiling from a cleft in the wall trying to catch one), at the French-ified town of Cienfuegos, home to singer/songwriter/bandleader Benny Moré (a Cuban Nat King Cole), and the cattle-rich city of Camaguey with its entire street for film buffs and excellent Casa de la Trova (troubadours, traditional soneros) on the way to the far Oriente, Cuba’s tropical and majority Black second city of Santiago.
Though I lost my prescription reading glasses on a very long bus ride back from Santiago de Cuba, I’m now glad to just lay in bed to read the last chapters of Rabih Allamedine’s new novel, the Angel of History. Rabih, as well as being a Middle Eastern queer novelist and a friend, was recently nominated for the National Book Award for his last book, an Unnecessary Woman. His amazing and very gay new novel flashes back to the Castro District during the height of the AIDS epidemic. So it provides an appropriate counterpart to an American’s view of the dilemma of Cuban life post-Fidel.
Earlier in the day I had wept and laughed with brave young Esteban. Tonight the guffaws and sobs are for me, for my generation and our youth.
And yes, Martí could well have been right about culture being the path to freedom, at least when it is freedom from the limitations of the past…Hasta la Victoria Siempre.