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Still Going Strong

Havana, Where Everyone Can Dance

by ANDRE VLTCHEK

Havana, Cuba

It is crowded and loud. La Froridita, a famous old bar in Havana Vieja (Old Havana), is packed to the roof. Patrons consist mostly of foreigners and some overseas Cubans. They are loud, trying to shout over the upbeat son music booming from an old stage where the confident lead singer of an all-girl-band is threatening her boyfriend or husband, by a stunning re-arrangement of the old bolero ‘Si Tu Te Vas’ (‘If you go away’).

It is all very cool. This is the exact bar where Hemingway used to have his countless daiquiris. Not those touristy and over-sugary ones that one can get anywhere in the world nowadays (even here, at La Floridita), but those very ‘masculine’ daiquiris, bitter and unsweetened, made only from rum, squeezed grapefruits and crushed ice.

The waiters, all middle-aged men, are working in unison, with perfectly coordinated movements, wearing “Havana Club” aprons.

Drinks here go for US$6, making them out of reach for most ordinary Cuban citizens. But this place is just a part of that huge hard-currency earning industry, with countless outlets all over the island: beach resorts, clubs, restaurants, bars, and boutiques. Propaganda beamed from the North calls this arrangement ‘cynical’. Some Cuban citizens, critics of the Communist system, as well as various revolutionary ‘purists’, also dislike the arrangement. But there is consensus among the rest of the population that this is the best way to maintain the free and excellent health system, education, housing and culture.

Clubs, theatres, galleries, all are powerful magnets for educated visitors from all over the world. Cuba has the reputation of a cultural powerhouse. And unlike in any other nation in the world, Cuba’s main attraction are the high-quality artists, and the main ‘exports’ are not manufacturing or agriculture; it is culture and arts.

People from all over the world are traveling here to listen to some of the greatest music played anywhere on earth, to visit countless research centers, art schools, to attend concerts and performances, or simply stroll through many magnificent cities, world heritage sites declared by UNESCO, like those of Santiago de Cuba and Havana.

Buena Vista Social Club after the concert

Buena Vista Social Club after the concert.

In the Old Havana, the atmosphere is always electrifying. Unlike in Western Europe and United States where culture and arts have become mostly decorative and ‘form over substance’, in Cuba, art is alive, it overflows onto the streets, and it is magnificently vibrant.

I lean over the bar and scream into the ear of old barkeep whose name is Jose:

“They say this is like surrendering to capitalism. This bar; places like this bar…”

“Let them eat shit”, he replies laconically, working with his powerful mixer. “Look, do you see that door; the entrance door? It is open right? This place is air-conditioned but the door is open. All over the Old Havana, the doors and all those huge windows that grow from the floor, are open. Do you know why? So everybody can hear the music. Windows here are like walls. And if they are open, it is as if there is nothing between the musicians and the street. Nothing at all! You just stand and listen, for free.”

“And if they, people, want to come inside?” I ask.

“So they come in”, he replies. “They don’t have to drink our booze here. It is their country. They can enter, and listen, of course. Do you see any bouncers here? Look, in this country we care about feeding people and curing the sick first… It is not easy with the embargo… We will make sure in the future that everyone can have a drink in places like this too. But for now, honestly, it is not the priority!”

just playing on the street

Just playing in the street.

At the end of the L-shaped bar, a bronze statue of Ernest Hemingway is leaning on a perfectly polished wooden surface. Several tourists take snapshots of the embracing great North American novelist, one of the best friends of the revolutionary Cuba. Hemingway lived here. He donated money from his Nobel Prize for Literature, to this country.

Here, in this bar, Hemingway is not politicized too much. But it is clear what the Western establishment is ready to do to those who support Cuba and socialism:

The FBI tailed Hemingway, he was harassed and until now there are many unanswered questions regarding his death. Some suggest that his 1960 medical treatment was actually supervised by the government authorities and that he was given excessive doses of electric shocks that destroyed his memory and drove him to suicide.

new concept of restaurants - old printing house

New concept of restaurants – old printing house.

This is of course not common knowledge embedded in the minds of North American and European visitors. They come here for the arts, for the unrepeatable atmosphere of lightness and good humor. They come here to listen to music and to dance. And to taste bits of ‘forbidden fruits’, and to break the US embargo here and there.

Very few can resist falling in love with the country where entire streets; entire neighborhoods, are turned into concert halls and dance floors.

One of the iconic phrases symbolizing Latin American revolutions has always been: “Everybody Dances or Nobody Dances!”

In Cuba, music and dance are synonymous with life. Here, everybody dances, and that is how the revolution survives.

Cuban doctor at work in Rancagua, Chile, after deadly earthquake

Cuban doctor at work in Rancagua, Chile, after deadly earthquake.

Yet things are not always ‘light’. Cuba is under an embargo, de-facto under siege. It is often forced to literally fight for its survival. The East European Block collapsed a quarter of a century ago. The Cuban economy was instantly pushed into a corner, it almost collapsed, as the ‘newly capitalist’ European countries almost immediately refused to honor trade agreements with its former ally, all too eager to join as quickly as possible, the club of global oppressors. And then, the brutal US trade embargo has been clearly geared, for decades, to destroy this proud Communist island-nation.

A short walk away from La Floridita, another iconic restaurant La Bodegita de Medio used to witness the indulgence and over-indulgence of Hemingway of yet another typically Cuban drink mojito. And La Bodegita was just one of many places bombed by Cuban exiles.

There were countless terrorist attacks against the island, coming from both the United States, and from the right-wing Cuban exiles settled abroad. Passenger airliners were blown from the sky in full flight, clouds were diverted to trigger draughts, crops were poisoned and tourist destinations were repeatedly bombed.

But Cuba stood proud and tall. It sometimes bled badly, its people had to get used to tightening their belts, but the country managed to survive the worst hours, and began growing once again.

Even in its most difficult hours, Cuba continued to help poor countries by sending there their doctors and teachers. Even when it stood, for several years, almost alone, it never abandoned its internationalist path.

Its culture and the arts became the main pillars of the fight for survival, for the nation’s identity.

During my latest visit, Mario Hubert Garrido, Director of Prensa Latina Television (Prensa Latina is the Cuban and International press agency founded by Ernesto Che-Guevara, after the revolution in 1956), explained the role culture plays in his country:

“Cuban culture has always had deep roots in the Cuban nation. And it is what feeds the spirit of resistance so embedded in the psyche of our people, always, but especially during the most difficult times. Here, people are united, because of the blockade, and because of the aggression against our nation. Here, culture means, above all, solidarity.”

We talk. I agree to write for Prensa Latina. Here, interiors are simple. There are photos of Vietnam on the walls, the iconic villages of Ha Long Bay. There is some artwork and paintings depicting Fidel jumping from a tank. There are exposed, naked light bulbs. A pre-historic radio receiver broadcasts a program about Jose Marti and his long journey; I can’t comprehend from where to where, really.

I feel at home here, inside this old dilapidated villa, very close to the statue of my great Chilean hero, President Salvador Allende.

“Do Cubans really hate North Americans?” I ask. “Do Cuban artists?”

He smiles. His smile is gentle, despite the fact that he is the director of an important revolutionary television station.

“No”, he replies after a while. “Here, despite the political situation, we still maintain many vivid cultural contacts between Cuba and the United States. You know: writers, film directors…”

He looks at me, and he almost winks.

“It has never stopped. It will never stop. It never will… Even right now, as we are speaking, there is a meeting of Cuban and North American academics taking place in Washington D.C.”

“Culture is solidarity,” I smile.

He nods. Before I go, we embrace.

Cubanismo big band performing in Malaysia

Cubanismo big band performing in Malaysia.

At the historic “Hotel Inglaterra” a band of local salseros is playing in the open, right on the pavement. Nothing special, honestly, but good and honest stuff nevertheless.

Inside, in the restaurant, the ceramics are magnificent, but the food is mediocre.

But I am actually content as I am sitting at an enormous wooden table with my best friend, the Chinese concert pianist Yuan Sheng. He flew in to Havana all the way from Beijing, in order to participate in a festival of some of the best pianists from all over the world; the festival organized by his former professor from the Manhattan School of Music, the legendary Solomon Gadles Mikowsky, himself originally from Cuba.

“I am tremendously impressed by the cultural life and art scene in Cuba”, explains Yuan, excitedly. “I traveled to and performed in so many countries in North America, Europe, Africa and Asia… But what I see here is unprecedented. Music, ballet, arts… Even the art objects that people sell on the street… It all shows how heroic the national character of Cuban people is.”

“Cuba is also very open-minded and receptive of international culture; there is a constant interchange with the world. The plane which I took here was bringing an entire delegation of Chinese artists and performers. And that is at the same time as I was coming to take part in yet another festival, which was featuring top international pianists. Coming here, I am helping to deepen the understanding between China and Cuba. And you know, in the last years, many educated Chinese people are fascinated with this island and its artists. When I was talking to my friends back in Beijing, that I am going to Cuba, their eyes widened. They were envious, they kept telling me how lucky I am. They wanted to know, to understand Cuba.”

National Ballet - Shakespear and His Masks - New National Theatre

National Ballet – Shakespeare and His Masks – New National Theatre.

Later that night we ended up drinking beer with the renowned North American concert pianist Simone Dinnerstein, talking about the music and artwork of her famous father, Simon Dinnerstein.

We are in a café, in one of those beautiful squares, at night. Nearby, some band is playing old Mexican boleros. Simone, Yuan and I switch our discussion to the piano festival, but then, suddenly we all fell silent.

There is an unmistakable, confident, perfect sound coming from nearby. It’s the Buena Vista Social Club! The stars are brilliant. Historic buildings are brightly illuminated. Two great classic pianists, one North American and one Chinese, are trying to catch the sounds coming from the Taberna. It is not difficult: all the windows and doors are open!

great Chinese pianist Yuan Sheng and a local singer

Great Chinese pianist Yuan Sheng and a local singer.

One night, Yuan and I go to the National Ballet of Cuba, to see a performance of “Shakespeare and His Masques” under the choreography of the legendary Alicia Alonso.

There are literally thousands of people queuing in front of the entrance doors. The tickets cost almost nothing, just a symbolic token, everyone here can actually attend some world-class performances.

But that very particular evening, something goes wrong. The doors do not open 15 minutes before the performance, as they should; they do not open even when it is time to begin.

The crowd mumbles, but stays calm. Ushers look indifferent. I knock on one of the glass doors and ask what is happening. The ‘electric system collapsed’, I am told. ‘Does it happen often?’ I ask. Not often, hardly ever.

The usher is at first rude, but then I ‘win her heart’ by smiling and explaining that I am a writer and my friend is famous Chinese pianist, and we would actually like to wait inside, walk through the semi-darkness of this legendary theatre, and just dream.

She likes that. She obviously likes dreaming in semi-darkness, too. She let’s us in.

“It reminds me of China, when I was growing up”, says Yuan.

still going strong

Still going strong.

To some extent it also reminds me of Prague some time ago. But what exactly is it that we feel?

People are absolutely real here. They are not ‘trained’ to be servile, even in the service ‘industry’. They are gloomy if they are in a bad mood, or cheerful when something good happens to them. They are not afraid of losing their job.

Cuban people are honest, sometimes brutally honest. They laugh when they are happy and they cry when it hurts. They show affection to those they love, and scorn to those they hate. It is a pure and sincere society. And in many ways much freer than those societies that are promoting their own freedom as the only model for the world.

Eventually, the enormous space of the Nation Theatre fills up with thousands of people. The performance begins. It is powerful, as expected, sharp as a razor blade, with an unmistakably brilliant choreography and excellent dancers.

Love stories and stories of death, of betrayal and hope. It is Shakespeare at his best, converted to classical ballet, on this green tropical island obsessed with artistic and intellectual excellence.

But at the end, the audience does not cheer. The applause is lukewarm. The long wait in front of the theatre was not forgiven. It is Cuba, after all, and in Cuba, one does not feel obliged to applaud, even when confronted by unmistakable greatness.

Hemingway's room at hotel Ambos Mundos

Hemingway’s room at hotel Ambos Mundos.

In the old lobby of the historic hotel San Felipe, in old Havana, Solomon Mikowsky, a legendary Professor of piano at Manhattan School of Music, continues to be impressed with Cuba, his native land:

“Before, Cuba honored only great people, great artists like Jose Marti. But now, Cuba is honoring every single person, every single artist, who contributed to the creation of this great nation. Poets, musicians, actors, writers, alongside the great warriors… Now the history of Cuba has expanded to several hundreds of heroes who made a true contribution… And by educating people, the government has made sure that so many citizens of Cuba are now thirsty for knowledge! Culturally, Cuba is to Latin America what Athens used to be to Europe. Cuban arts are not designed to ‘please the audience’. They are designed to aim at excellence and creativity… they are geared to produce great poets in virtually every field of the arts.”

In La Floridita

In La Floridita.

Great bards and filmmakers, poets… That’s Havana. Bookstores selling high quality, subsidized books…

I walk through the center of the city; I stop at an old and elegant bookstore. I decide to buy ten books of contemporary poetry. This store does not accept convertible currency (CUC).

“Please go next door and buy local pesos”, I am told. I go to the bank. “What for?” the young clerk asks me. “I need to buy books.” “How many?” Ten, I tell her. “Then change only 5 dollars and after you pay at the bookstore, you will get plenty of change for public buses, so you can write for the rest of the week.”

I talk to great artists, to journalists and students. For days I talk, and watch. I listen to music, day and night. I read.

Obama, give me 5!” I see posters on the wall. It is referring to the 5 Cuban patriots who have been held in high security prisons in the United States, for infiltrating the CIA, and for trying to prevent hostile, even terrorist actions, against Cuba. The posters are very artistic. But then, here, everything graphic could pass for art.

Then, one night, a young woman, a student, asks me about my impressions:

“What do you think about Cuban culture?”

We are in the old Basilica, where the piano festival is held. She is holding a small notepad in her hands.

“Do not think…” she smiles. “Answer quickly. Just few words…”

“Revolution… dignity… passion…” I shoot.

She nods.

I then turn the tables around:

“You? What is it for you?’

She thinks only for two or three seconds: “Everything… Life… Death… Love…”

Behind us, we hear Chopin’s etude. And behind the walls of the Basilica, as the sun goes down, one of the most beautiful cities on earth is beginning to explode in a perfect harmony of sounds and rhythms.

This is not necessarily how revolutions are made. But this is how they survive!

Andre Vltchek is a novelist, filmmaker and investigative journalist. He covered wars and conflicts in dozens of countries. His critically acclaimed political revolutionary novel Point of No Return is now re-edited and available. Oceania is his book on Western imperialism in South Pacific. His provocative book about post-Suharto Indonesia and market-fundamentalist model is called “Indonesia – The Archipelago of Fear” (Pluto). He just completed feature documentary “Rwanda Gambit” about Rwandan history and the plunder of DR Congo. After living for many years in Latin America and Oceania, Vltchek presently resides and works in East Asia and Africa. He can be reached through his website.