Our Man in Havana (with apologies to Graham Greene)

Picture ‘The Last Supper’ in Havana. Victor had chosen the Hanoi. Had he guessed that Criollo food was not for my discerning taste buds? He was happy to be my guest because, like most Cubans, eating in a dollar restaurant or a Paladare (a private restaurant), was equivalent to half a month’s salary.       

For tourists everything has to be paid in dollars even the tips for the musicians playing on almost every street corner, bar and restaurant. A dollar is a fortune when the average Cuban worker earns $8-$20 a month. Tourists never see the national peso. We are given mint convertible pesos in bars and restaurants at the rate of  one peso to one dollar. However, the national peso was worth 20 last year and is now worth 25 to the dollar.       

Victor, my man in Havana, gave me a souvenir. I closed my eyes and held out my hand palm up. When I opened my palm, there lay gleaming a three national peso coin emblazoned with Korda’s world-famous Che effigy with the wording Patria o muerte. We forgot about our cold Vietnamese rice and Paella for a moment.        I asked Che: “What could a Cuban buy for three pesos?” to which he replied, in Spanish of course, “Ten cups of  Cuban coffee, a ride in a collective taxi, several journeys in a Camel (the large colourful bus with two humps) and basics with the indispensable ration book such as rice, a bar of soap, a roll of bread per person per day, and milk for a child up seven. I could see instantly how valuable a dollar bill was to a Habanero.       

Considered to be ‘little’ luxuries, Cubans have to buy imported tinned food, soap, shampoo and the latest spandex tops at State owned dollar shops. With high prices, one wonders how these proud people manage to hand over their hard earned don’t-ask-too-many questions dollars. It’s no wonder everyone is trying to make a buck one way or another via tourism. Last year Cuba welcomed the targeted one and a half million tourists and in the next five years plan to receive up to ten million of us a year.       

Victor was one of those accidental tourist meetings. An average-looking man standing on his balcony, taking a moment’s break from teaching English to a Rap group, that split second I happened to walk past in gloomy unlit Central Havana with his neighbour.         

Another second later and the script would have been different. I would never have heard about his father - Fidel’s personal cook during and after the Revolution, never heard about his life as captain of  a group of mercenaries in Angola, his mysterious life in Russia and Brazil. I would never have eaten in the newly opened Pekin Bar in China Town, never have heard wonderful music played on guitar and timbas by his friends, never have had a malt drink in a third category bar reserved only for Cubans, never have stood in front of the audience at the Casa de la Trova with the Bolero singer gazing into my eyes and singing Dos Gardenas. Nor would I have seen the colourful diversity of local talent displayed on the walls of the home of his life-long friend Jesus who had created the Horizontal Project representing 45 Cuban artists.           

“Sometimes I have money, I don’t,” said Victor gulping Buccanero beer. “Right now I’m broke!” “Why especially now?”  He explained that it was just after St. Valentine’s day. “I love my two ex-wives, my current wife Marta, who lives three doors away, my three mistresses and of course my mother. The seven women in my life. This year they cost me $200. Ah but I love my women!!” “What about Aids?” “All my women are clean and I don’t like to be dressed in bed!” He threw me a knowing phallocratic look.       

“You love it here, you don’t really want to go, do you?” “No, I’m just beginning to see Havana in another light. See you next year.  Start saving now for next St. Valentine’s”.         

I knew my obsessive Cuban dream had to end and the reality of grey London skies and my understanding husband awaited me. Instead of ‘God willing….next year in Jerusalem’ it will certainly be ‘next year in Havana.’      

Sonia’s journalist class at the Mary Ward Centre, London. March 2002.