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Regla, Shadowless Port

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It is a common belief the world over that a specter may not cross running water. Water divides living from dead and pure from impure, although water spirits often haunt inland lakes. The pier is a human gate and harbors are midway places, attractive to vendetta, ghost and mermaid.

Regla is on a peninsula but if you cross by water you have entered a far different place than you would have by car. Everyone pays the ferryman at Regla but the price is functional – less than a US dime.

José Martí gave his first momentous speech at the Lycée artistique et littéraire de Regla. The port also provided martyrs in the early days of the Movimiento de 26 de Julio. Regla is known as a place of magic, but also for that continuous project of the earthy present, revolution. Revolution has an uneasy relationship to prophecy but both share a mistrust of logic: “And you must consider, too, master, that it is rashness and not valor for one man to attack an army with Death in its ranks, emperors in person fighting in it, and assisted by good and bad angels.” – Cervantes

Any state quite rightly keeps a close eye on its harbors, life-blood of trade and defense. A state must tolerate these areas of quarantine where the otherwise strict code of law is allowed an accordion-movement of expansion and collapse. Gossip is history. Police raids always end in a deal. Ports never fail to give you a shiver, even if you put it down to the salt sea air.

The last recorded executions carried out in Cuba were for three out of 11 young men who hijacked a tiny Regla ferry in 2003. The boat ran out of fuel 30 miles offshore in a silly parody of Granma. This inept act was met by the same dark product of the poverty of both men and courts given some 62 times over in the United States that same year. Hadn’t Martí written, rather obliquely, that It is a sin not to do what one is capable of doing?

Unlike Old Havana, Regla’s streets reject shadow and heaviness. Light and color hide secret pledges here. The Orishas and fortune-tellers manage languid time, cyclical time, the time of prediction. The time of Prophecy circles around the speed of our new silicon myths: the prophetic reaches back into the past to create what it sees now in time future. The time where prophecy strikes like a lightning flash is always slow, sauntering, Mediterranean, reglic.

Cigar-smoking fortune tellers sit on a low wall outside of the beautiful Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de Regla. They smile, stare into you, graciously accept a gift of money in kind. If you do not want to know your future, it is advised to give them even more deference than you would if you did. And the ancient heresy that the fetish inhabits the deity (and not the other way around) makes you mind where you step around the curbside altars.

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Legend has it that a wooden statue of the Black Madonna was consecrated by Augustine himself at Hippo: “Before he, as God, created her from whom he would be created as man, he knew his Mother” (In Joannem). As a refugee from the Vandals, La Virgin Negra went first to Spain and then to Cuba. At Regla, she was saved from the hands of ‘the treacherous sons of Albion’ when she was moved to a sugar mill after the British invasion in 1762. In 1958, she was saved from Batista’s prayers by revolutionary young atheists. Regla had first saved her from Christianity by introducing her to the Orisha, Yamaya.

Creased tarot cards, plastic flowers, whitest of white robes (A true miracle here: the material never shows even the smallest fleck of dirt, despite the dust, diesel oil, and muddy tracts left by the streetsweepers). Mysterious relation of deep black skin to glaring white robes, impossible to capture in photographs, wholly part of the ‘natural’ world.

Once proscribed, the Masonic and Odd Fellows’ halls have slowly returned. Masonic lore and theosophy were brought to the Caribbean by the obscure magus Martinez de Pasqually in 1772. Secret societies are conformist, reactionary and revolutionary all at the same time. Fraternities are made of both slaves and magistrates. Similarity between the guild-craft of sailors’ knots and the symbols of secret orders on flags, hall alters, devotees’ garb.

Never read the cards next to objects in a museum. Ideally, all exhibit signs would be written in an artificial language. Only in museums can someone who knows only one language feel like a true initiate (anywhere else, he’s a moron). The objects before you rely on their tactile, social impression when no one speaks for them. Artifacts seem linked together through secret qualities freed by chance arrangement, by a throw of the dice or life and death, by an unintended irony. The larger a museum is the more it loses this great ability: the massive granite hall is the very image of a will-to-mastery of the world and with it, the death impulse. By contrast, the modest museum creates precise new relics for the present. Each thing looks mysteriously out of place the longer you look. The sea will turn up all kinds of things. Collection is Fate.

Museo de Municipal de Regla: 19th Century colonial drawing room; rusted slave shackles; black doll in lace; painted wood-carved pigeon and china crock; lame San Lazaro with his pups; Soviet flag…

The hammer and sickle appears in all the contradictions of the Quixotic when placed next to sextant, wooden homunculus, and African drum. Do the powerful still fear it? Certainly. It still retains its force, perhaps precisely because we are always told that it is merely an image from history. Maybe the rich should beware of paying too much for the future, just as they have paid too little for the past. This might explain why they are such notoriously bad prophets.

Genius of Capitalism: to have no symbols but itself. It does not even need prosperity because it only recognizes poverty as evidence of its absence or its promise to come. Nothing exists outside of it, certainly not its assassins.

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Museo Yoruba de Cuba: Haitian-French weathervane-like gate (rare in Cuba, due to welding limitations set by the embargo); a pickled frog in a jar; ancient Austin-Martin in a garage (probably runs, like all old cars in Cuba); lute from Mauritania; photos of Fidel at the grand opening. Unearthly beauty of the tour guide, palest blue eyes set in wrinkled tan skin.

‘Gothic’ Old Havana contra ‘Oriental’ Regla: “…the santeria temples of Regla with a cornucopia of fruit to calm the gods of thunder, the interpenetration of the fixedness of stars and the incessant mutations of the maritime depths that form a gilded zone for a man who can resist all the possibilities of chance with an immense complacent wisdom.” – Lezama Lima, Paradiso

Although you cannot walk a few feet without getting a smile or a greeting, no one is particularly interested in visitors in Regla. Because they are not interested, they are never impolite. Manners are a complex.

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Colina Lenin overlooks the port proper and the church. The hill was renamed so by Regla’s socialist mayor, Antonio Bosch, in 1924 when thousands of people gathered there on the day of Lenin’s funeral in Moscow (the iron portrait was actually added in 1984). Vladimir Ilych’s stern face looks out onto a gaggle of white figures resembling department store mannequins, and an empty parking lot. Above him is an abandoned cafe busy with weeds, graffiti and birds. A horse wanders through the grounds and stops to eat grass at the left of Lenin. Despite the crassness of the monument (and because of it), despite the irony of history (or its dialectics, if you prefer), despite the horror that all statues should provoke in a socialist (or anyone interested in art), despite the failure of what came after 1917 – Yes, yes, I know… I’ve read all about the very real atrocities of Stalin in your history books… I know about gulags, Beria, the secret police, denouncements and show trials, the great famines and Akhmatova’s suicide and all of it — despite the paralytic force of nostalgia and the victories of the most ruthless of financiers (and these triumphs are always inevitable until they triumph themselves to death), despite red sentimentality and in recognition of our fatal right to be absurd, I can’t help but hope that people will come here once again.

Sugar-cane juice is extracted by a large cog-and-wheel contraption which resembles an old clothes-drying winch. It is sold by the glass in the market.

Photos by Janet Beveridge Bean

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Martin Billheimer lives in Chicago.

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