A SEA WITHOUT BOATS* a visit to Havana in 2005

In March 2005 I visited Havana, with two colleagues, as guests of the Cuban Ministry of Culture. It was one of the most fascinating visits I have made to another country.


Don’t listen to what anyone else says, the Riviera Hotel is the only place to stay in Havana. It stands on the Malecon that great five-mile sweep of a road that runs from the Harbour and Old Town, past Centro and Vedado, all the way to Mirimar and forms the northern edge of the great city. It is also a place of recreation for habaneros who meet there to promenade and play. Over the Malecon wall is the Caribbean and the ninety miles of sea to Florida. The Riviera, built in the fifties by Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky, has lost none of its period style with its vast ‘lobby’ of patterned marble tiles, sculptures, tables, lamps and a panoramic north wall of glass – the better to sit, relax with a drink and stare at the changing sea and sky. To the right, the casino (unused as such since the revolution) and cigar shop. To the left, the infamous Copa room. In the forties and fifties, and banned from the USA, Luciano ran the Mafia from Havana. The biggest gathering of the Mob since 1932 in Chicago took place there. Of course it couldn’t be publicised as such so the cover was, ‘a meeting to celebrate the success of our friend, the little boy from Hoboken.’ Later ‘Ol’ Blue Eyes’ himself was accused of being the ‘bag man’ carrying two million dollars in his attaché case for Luciano. At an investigation hearing, Sinatra claimed the attaché case held art materials for his painting! As the Fidelistas were advancing on the city Lansky said words to the effect that, if Batista can’t control these rebels then we’ll move Havana somewhere else. Cue Las Vegas. Cue also the conflated events in ‘The Godfather-2’ when Michael Corleone meets Hyman Roth.

I don’t suppose there is much more to be said about Havana that has not already been said before. The guide-books are full of descriptions of its special magnetism and contain a generous spread of quotations from many writers and historical figures to back them up. Churchill felt, ‘delirious and tumultuous…. a place where anything could happen’. Others describe it as, ‘irresistible and intangible’; ‘everything you have seen before is forgotten…. as if you had died and come to life in a different world’; ‘I wake up feeling different, like something inside me is changing, something chemical and irreversible’; ‘It is one of the weirdest places on earth’. And so, although the reign of Fidel Castro and the crippling US embargo have added the patination of crumbling buildings and the ubiquitous, fifties, US gas guzzlers, Havana has worked its magic on visitors for a very long time. The relatively short period as a Mafia outpost has contributed its own kind of allure and the city remains embedded in our culture through novels, films, travel and picture books, and endless articles in newspapers and magazines. But the Revolution, giving rise to one of the most universal icons of the 20th century whose star is still in the ascendant, has woven other patterns into the irresistible and intangible elements that make up the tapestry of Havana.

The Revolution has brought many good things to Cuba in health, sport, social services and education among others. More importantly it has brought a palpable and impressive dignity to the people. However the US trade embargo has meant that it is again a relatively poor country. The heady years of exporting seven million tons of sugar to the Soviet Union, at preferential rates, are long gone. The price of sugar has collapsed and production is down to one and a half million tons. With the demise of the Soviet Union, Cuba entered what the government calls, ‘the Special Period’, which proved to be a very difficult time for everyone. Cuba’s answer was to look for other dollar/euro earnings and, like most other Caribbean islands, stepped up its efforts in tourism. En route to Cuba I met a retired Scottish banker in Mexico City who described Castro as the world’s biggest capitalist. He spat it out. And yes, it is not cheap to visit Cuba. The government has followed the pattern set by other countries in a similar economic position and created a tourist economy which runs alongside the local economy. Raul, the director of a small museum in Havana, earns the equivalent of 20 dollars a month – about 11/12 pounds sterling. It is tough going for him and his family but he wasn’t complaining. We went out for a meal and we paid the bill as the cost of his meal would have been three weeks wages. This was the case whenever we took anyone out for a meal. I said to him that the Left across the world looks towards Cuba, as an example of how it could be. He replied, ‘It is very difficult to be the symbol of other people’s aspirations.’ Well that shut me up. Cut the romanticism. One of his sons was at school in the country where some of the week is spent on agricultural work. It can be tough being a citizen of the only communist state in Latin America. I don’t quite know how it all works out that, while some private enterprise has been encouraged, virtually everything else seems to be owned by the state. Driving along the Malecon after a day of massive, almost hypnotic waves crashing over the sea wall and onto the road, I said to the taxi driver that the salt wouldn’t be good for the car’s chassis. He replied, ‘I don’t care, the taxi belongs to Fidel!’ Taxi drivers, waiters, chambermaids and everyone else in the tourist economy make ‘good’ money. A taxi driver only needs a few tips a day to earn three or four times more than Raul. And the tourists continue to pour into Cuba. This two-tier economy must be eroding the disinterested self-sacrifice of the vast majority of citizens who do not benefit from the tourist economy. However no one I met complained about or criticised the Revolution. Most were fiercely nationalistic and proud of the achievements of their country. Public transport was the only thing that provoked serial complaints. Buses and trains are so rare and irregular that people despair of them. Even the government despairs of them to such an extent that it employs inspectors who have the power to stop government vehicles (identified by the colour of their number plates), demand to know their destinations and, if it fits, order them to take waiting bus passengers. The buses, when they do come along, have been nick-named, ‘camels’, for their distinctive shape – huge hump-backed beasts drawn by an articulated lorry. We were stopped by one such inspector on our way to the International Film and Television School. A residential school in the countryside, it attracts students from all over the world who are taught by an international staff. One of its four founding members was Gabriel Garcia Marquez and distinguished film makers, including Coppola and Spielberg, do master classes. (they left their signatures, sprayed on a studio wall, as their calling cards)

We were guests of the Ministry of Culture and taken on a round of visits of artists’ studios, arts educational institutions, museums and performances. At the end of it all it was obvious that the Cuban government was embarked on policies that make the arts a central part of the development of Cuban society. Who could forget the scene in the film, ‘The Buena Vista Social Club’, when Ruben Gonzales is playing the piano in a grand room from Cuba’s rich and decadent past, that suddenly fills with ballet-dancing children. There’s lots of ballet dancing going on in Cuba. In a country of twelve million people, we were told by the Council for Plastic Arts, that there were eleven thousand practising artists and two hundred and fifty galleries. There’s a lot of the other arts going on as well. A ‘House of Culture’ in every town, and every district of every city, starts the process of exposing and involving children to the arts. In San Antonio de los Banos, an hour’s drive from Havana, it is just a house in a dusty street. It was 3-30 in the afternoon and the place was crammed full of children and specialist teachers. We were met by 15 of the 30 staff who teach there. A class of 8 year-olds was being introduced to the instruments of the symphony orchestra – identifying percussion, strings and wind. But there were no actual instruments here. Pictures of them, tapes of music and TV clips did the job. A literature group was being read a chapter of a book and were answering questions on it. Later in the town square we attended a performance, by 50 or more children, of ballet, folk dance, carnival, singing, poetry (a ten year old recited a long poem he had written) all accompanied by staff or student musicians, or taped music, and all of it through amplifiers. A great throng of parents and townsfolk had gathered for this event, a regular demonstration of what the children had learned and achieved in their ‘House of Culture’. Some time ago a friend had told me that guitar strings were in very short supply in Cuba. I brought some sets with me as presents. They ended up in the ‘House of Culture’ in San Antonio.

Children from the House of Culture performing in the main square.











To support and supply the ‘Houses of Culture’ with staff, there is The National School for Art Instructors in Havana with a capacity for 2000 students who come from all over the country. Like the other, single art form ‘specialist academies’, with a mix of secondary education and specialist study and practice, students attend from 14 to 19 years of age. When they graduate they go back to their home towns and are committed by contract to teach for eight years there. They will do three days teaching per week and on the other days they are free to develop their own skills or do further education. While I felt the lessons we saw seemed rather narrow and restrictive, the commitment and idealism that the students exuded left me in no doubt as to their support for this system, for their key role in the arts and culture of their country and for the revolution itself. I felt I was back in the sixties in the Nigerian ‘bush’ where I was teaching art to students between the ages of 14 and 40. They had all only been to primary school and were being given a five- year course which combined a mixture of secondary education and teacher training. They had the same eagerness to learn, to excel and to get out into the remote bush schools to teach.

The Art Academy of San Antonio de Los Banos is a ‘specialist academy’. It has about 90 students, who board, with seven fulltime staff and numerous visiting staff. Here as one might expect of an art school the work was much freer and more expressive. Speaking to a sculpture student at the academy, and asking what other interests he had, he replied, ‘Singing.’ I couldn’t resist asking him to sing. He drew himself up, focussed his mind and, after a short pause, launched into Gounod’s ‘Ave Maria’ with a powerful tenor voice. It was, simply, one of those moments when the hair stands out at the back of your neck. As we left the academy a group of students was lined up in rows. They were doing their military drill.

We visited the studios of three artists, Flora Fong, Eduardo Roca (known as Choco) and Nelson Rodriguez all in their fifties. They paid no rent for their studios and homes. Each had a colour photograph of themselves, pictured with Fidel, pinned to a wall. They all exhibit internationally mainly in Hispanic countries, the Soviet bloc latterly and, more recently, Japan. Choco had been to Japan several times and teaches annually at the Juan Miro Printmaking Summer School in Mallorca. They had all attended an art academy graduating at 19 years of age. A passing comment about the negatives of the Soviet influence on Cuba prompted one of them to begin to hum the ‘Internationale’. All worked in a powerful, distorting, expressionist manner with the figure or the landscape, in painting and printmaking. There was no hint of Soviet socialist realism.

There is a story about Fidel and Che which, because it is so good, so romantic, so revolutionary that it bears all the hallmarks of a myth. Myths however begin with some grain of truth which is then embellished over time by the very telling of it. It took place on the golf links of the Havana Country Club. This club was so exclusive that even the dictator, Fulgencio Batista a mulatto, was not allowed to be a member. If ever a case of reverse racism could claim to be the most astonishing then this is the one. Here was a man with total control over his country whose whims had to be met, who exercised the power of the life or death over the people daily, who had deferred to the racist rules of a country club. When I say, exclusive, this is what is meant. It is said that the land on which the club was built was owned by Ronald Reagan’s grandfather. The golf course had been carved out of the ugly scrub and designed and landscaped with all the typical features – manicured greens, rolling fairways and imported trees. The clubhouse itself was a long, low-slung, art deco building. Two years after taking power Fidel and Che were, in their ubiquitous military uniforms, playing a round of golf. No doubt wondering what to do with this symbol of racism and decadence and, taken by the beauty of the place, Fidel suggested that they should build on the golf course the finest arts academy in Latin America. In her memoir, ‘Dancing with Cuba’, Alma Guillermoprieto, who returned from New York after the revolution to teach dance, says, ‘Fidel saw this venture as being a socialist phoenix rising from the ashes of capitalist defeat.’ Architects were commissioned, plans approved and construction started. It was a great architectural adventure that, regrettably, was not allowed to reach fruition. Four years later, the schools of visual arts, ballet and dance were finished, but with the baleful influence of the USSR now unremitting, it was decided that the buildings were too individualistic, too self expressive and maybe too ambitious and utopian for the young republic. Maybe too it was deemed that such a place of privilege did not fit the aims of the revolution. The money for the project was withdrawn and further construction stopped with the music and theatre schools remaining half built. ( they were, nevertheless, used in that state) The lead architect, Ricardo Porro, left Cuba to live and work in Paris. Today he is back, after 40 years exile, to advise on the refurbishment of the buildings of ISA, the Instituto Superior de Arte. The art deco country club remains the hub of the institute. Due to pressures of time we only visited the visual arts building. But what a building! The Gaudi influence is strong and is reinforced by the use of local materials, red tile and brick, and the ‘Catalan’ vault to create light, strong structures. (Under the Soviet influence this commitment to local materials was rejected and expensive imported materials and construction techniques were introduced.) This is one of the most intriguing buildings I have ever seen. Some of its forms are based on female body parts particularly those related to sexuality. (birth, nurture, fecundity, creativity?) What we would reject as utterly sexist, did not seem to deter the woman who was showing us around. She was proud of the building and seemed to enjoy the central female motif. Guillermoprieto says in her memoir, ‘….the School of Plastic Arts in particular alluded to Cuba’s joyous sexuality; each (circular) classroom (roof) – a cupola crowned by a small pointed skylight – had the unmistakable shape of a breast. At the center of the main plaza, water gushed from a fountain that evoked the form of a conch or papaya – the latter word so closely associated with the female pudenda in Cuba that it cannot be uttered in polite company.’

Vulva fountain in the central plaza of the visual arts building.

Almost without exception every book and article I have read about Cuba mentions its culture of ‘joyous sexuality’ and this being as much to do with males and females. This feature of Latin American culture and mores seems to be most manifest in Cuba. The people strut their stuff doing it with an ostentatious confidence and pride. Sexual exploitation, endemic before the revolution, was ruthlessly attacked with all brothels and sex clubs being closed down. ( with the tourist industry booming there are indications that these are reappearing.) From what I could gather women had taken on major, responsible roles in Cuban society and, at the majority of the art institutions we visited, we were welcomed by a female director or deputy.

I saw no images of Fidel anywhere in Havana. Che? Yes – a few, as if Fidel was using him as the model, the ‘new man’ as Sartre described him, of the revolution. There were numerous sculptures of Jose Marti, the poet and revolutionary who led a revolt against Spanish rule in 1895. He died in the first week of the attack on the island but lives on in Cuba, not least as the author of the poem, ‘Guantanamera’ which, when set to music by Osaito Fernandez in the 1920’s, became the best known Cuban song around the world. A large, full-figure bronze statue of Marti holding a child stands at a hugely significant point on the Malecon. It was hurriedly erected during the dispute over the young boy, Elian Gonzales, in 2000. Marti points accusingly at the group of buildings that are the ‘US Interests Section’. It is the only visible, formal link Cuba has with the government of the USA and every day crowds wait outside. Are they queuing for visas or hoping for letters from exiled families? However, in a brash, bellicose gesture, Fidel created a space with stages and lighting, between the sculpture of Marti and the US buildings, for public demonstrations! It is within the ‘Plaza de la Dignidad’ and is called the ‘Jose Marti Anti-Imperialist Platform’, known by the locals as the ‘protestadromo’, where Cubans can vaunt their anger at the USA.

Oh, about the boats. During my stay looking out from my hotel window at the Caribbean and passing along the Malecon, I saw only two freighters and, what appeared to be, a coastguard launch. Not one sailing boat, motor boat, rowing boat, fishing boat, inflatable dinghy or any other craft appeared on that beautiful sea. In 2002, three men hijacked one of the ferryboats that cross Havana harbour, turned it north and headed out to sea. Of course, being a ferryboat, it had a limited amount of fuel and so did not get very far before it was stopped by coastguards. The men were taken back to Havana, tried and shot. (1)

David Harding
July 2005
Note: (1) see Richard Gott’s, ‘A New History of Cuba’

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