I often travel to Cuba to visit family and friends. During a recent stay, owing to the whims of chance, and my hired driver’s avarice, the Cuban KGB misread my visit as a potential murder plot against President Raúl Castro.
I’d hired a car and driver for the duration. Virgilio (my chauffeur) shared his opinions from behind the wheel of a rusting ’56 Plymouth: 3-speed manual, 6 cylinders, no air conditioning, tenuous brakes. As we left my hotel he turned to me with a cautious whisper. “Anyone break into your room last night? Anything missing? Letters? Photos?” We struggled up Santiago’s steep hills. He leaned over the transmission hump to confide, “They were at my house last night. Wanted to know what you’re up to. Pumped me for answers. I said nothing, of course. Absolutely nothing! You can trust me. You’re my friend! My employer, my confidante!” He gave a sly wink.
Virgilio’s mysterious ‘they’ were the MININT, Cuba’s Ministry of the Interior. Established fifty-five years ago with help from the East German Stasi and the Soviet KGB, it’s still a force to be reckoned with.
“I am the model of discretion,” he promised, “I’ve never betrayed a soul.” He tugged at the skin below one eye (a local gesture meaning ‘be wary’). Then whispered: “…And I can guess what they’re after. Wasn’t born yesterday. It’s about your old man. Ha. Yes. Am I right?” He cast a knowing glance. “Your father and the things he did to…well, you know…to el caballo…”
We were stopped at a semi-functioning traffic light. He looked cautiously about, threw me a glance, then stroked at an imaginary beard. A useful pantomime in a place where (even now) disrespectful mention of Fidel can still win you a visit from your local comité. We don’t take the Lord’s name in vain.
We weren’t far from Hortensia’s house. Prudent and circumspect, the aging matriarch listened quietly to his gossip. She ordered him into her kitchen. A fifties-era oscillating fan creaked and whirred as it masked their conference. Finally emerging, she sent him on a make-work errand. Then she brewed the coffee I’d brought from the states. Fifty-plus years after the Triumph of the Revolution Cuba’s excellent coffee beans, once cheaply sold, are hoarded like precious stones. She thoughtfully poured two thimblefuls into cracked porcelain cups. “The villain is telling the truth,” she finally whispered. “But he hasn’t told you everything.”
Marxist Cuba, (to those who live it), is secured through layer upon layer of surveillance, intrigue, and spies. Yes, the Interior Ministry had been to Virgilio’s house. Yes, they were investigating me. But Hortensia hadn’t survived 75 years without learning a few tricks. The wily Virgilio, she surmised, was being a bit too inquisitive. He’d clearly struck a deal with the MININT. They were obviously paying him for any information he could glean, on me. Because, (despite Cuba’s legion of foreign admirers), my birthplace remains (for those lacking an exit visa) a police state.
Foreign visitors are often convinced that Cuba is a paradisiac Socialist state, that we Cubans are a happy, child-like people, infinitely content with our meager lot in life.
Well, not quite.
Since 1959’s Triumph of the Revolution, every Cuban citizen has been forced, by poverty and circumstance, to adapt to dictatorship. This involves keeping your thoughts and opinions to yourself, and learning how to be a street hustler. In a system that pays an average salary of $20 per month, and where government owns 97% of businesses, the citizen is effectively held hostage by the state. He (or she) survives only by stealing from his employer (which is to say, the government). Should a young lady’s place of employ have nothing worth stealing, she may resort to selling her body to European sex tourists. Those same men claim to respect and admire the Marxist government that forces her choice.
Fifty-six years after Castro outlawed prostitution, the sex trade is Cuba’s foremost growth industry. You’ll find everything for sale on Havana’s black market. My hired driver was doing what everyone in a Marxist economy is forced to do: indulging Cuba’s distorted version of free-market capitalism. In exchange for his labor (his espionage), the Ministry was rewarding Virgilio with (at best) another $20 to supplement his $20 monthly income. Thus corroborating the credo of Karl Marx: “From each according to his ability,” he commended, “to each according to his needs…”
What on earth (you may ask) did I do to catch the MININT’s eye?
Now that you mention it, two things come to mind. First, I’d innocently and unknowingly made reservations on the same dates (and in the same Hotel Meliá) where Comandante Raúl Castro and Venezuelan President-For-Life Hugo Chavez were holding their regional summit. You might conclude those odds seem incredibly long. They are. But then, only in Cuba is it possible to share a hotel with not one, but two dictators. Imagine my luck.
Compounding the situation was my family’s counterrevolutionary past. “Has this troublemaker come here,” the Ministry worried, “to assassinate Raúl Castro…he who once tried to kill Lucas Morán, his father?”
Hortensia decided there was nothing else for it. “It is time,” she sighed, “for divine intervention.” In Cuba that means one thing only: consultation with Spirit and a word or two with the primal forces of the Afro-Cuban faith. You shouldn’t consider this extraordinary. In my birthplace, devotion to those who rule in Heaven trumps obeisance to those minor godlings who merely rule the state.
Karl Marx, (wise people assure me), once defined religion as the “opiate of the masses.” Maybe so. But Marx left something unsaid. The very nature of Marxist faith compels us to embrace our opiate all the more. The gods in Heaven at least offer us hope, a commodity in short supply. Those minor deities who rule Cuba offer us only slogans, and promises, and lies.
On her kitchen table she arranged a small altar: a crucifix, a candle, incense, tobacco, a glassful of rum, and a fistful of cowry shells. She lit cigar and incense. The tobacco leaf’s fragrant smoke (it is said) penetrates the veil separating this world from the next, attracting beneficent spirits to our side.
I said nothing to mock her faith as she, reciting a protective prayer, sprinkled me with a bit of the rum. Reversing the smoldering cigar, she placed the burning end inside her mouth. She inhaled deeply, then quickly exhaled. A technique once practiced by Cuba’s Taíno shamans, the smoke of tobacco is said to cleanse the astral body of any lingering maledictions. She threw the cowry shells and slowly, carefully, read their portent. For confirmation she repeated her ritual two, then three times.
Spirit’s message was clear. My guardian saint was Africa’s Yemayá, primal aspect of the Virgin Mary and (as everyone knows), mother-goddess of Cuba. Yemayá, (it is said), rules the Ocean, the Moon, women and children, fishermen and sailors, witches…and secrets. My life (and my secret) were in her care. Yemayá would protect me, provided I made the traditional offering: seven white roses and three new pennies. Cast, (under a full moon), into the inky black waters of the Caribbean Sea.
My secret? I was writing a historical novel. It is set in Cuba in the year 1958, the very height of the Castro revolution. My other secret: I’d discreetly taken possession of certain family photos. Shot during the Revolution, they show my father, in rebel uniform, in the company of (now-President of the Republic) Raúl Castro. Before falling out with the Castro brothers, he’d fought alongside them.
Visiting Cuba to research an illicit novel on the subject of the Revolution, without the permission of the state, is a criminal act. Possession of sensitive, historic photos taken during same period is equally unlawful. My book, and my photos, were prima facie evidence. The situation called (in Hortensia’s view) for divine intervention.
To the Cuban people, matters supernatural are an everyday affair. We quietly acknowledge Fidel Castro is a devotee of the Afro-Cuban faith. Fidel’s protective deity is said to be Changó: god of thunder, thrower of lightning, axe-wielder, hand-drummer, ruler of human destiny. When Changó dances, the skies darken and the heavens thunder. For those who believe, Changó is the incarnation of masculine energy, of vanity and violence, power and pride.
Changó’s color is blood-red; his animal, the horse; his number, the One. Three accurate portents. Foreigners may not know it, but we Cubans commonly refer to Fidel as el caballo , the Horse. His color is the blood-red tint of Marx. He is, if nothing else, our unelected One. Even in this twenty-first century, we indulge and respect the primal gods of Africa. The past here is never quite past. It lingers.
As the Chavez summit drew to a close, and no vindictive plots were unearthed, the MININT lost whatever interest it had in me. And Yemayá proved as good as her word. My visit ended, I returned to California to complete my manuscript, aided by certain old photos, now in my keeping, taken in the Sierra of eastern Cuba. A place where, since January of 1959, time has followed Fidel Castro’s dictate to stand perfectly silent. And perfectly still.
Stasis, inertia, and immobility have come to define ‘revolution’ in Cuba. Conformity, compliance, obedience, and submission have come to define ‘freedom.’ The subversion of our language is complete.
With minor variations, all of our citizens, from birth, must navigate the nation’s security apparatus. They do so as second nature. They are expert at it. Tourists cannot begin to comprehend life under a totalitarian state. But then, tourists are deliberately shielded from that reality by the state itself. By all means, go to Cuba. See it for yourself. But be aware that your travels may be an artificial construct. Your experience, however pleasant, is not necessarily shared by others less fortunate, and less free.
Addendum: This related article explains my father’s notorious activities undertaken during the Cuban Revolution.