February 29, 2008

Havana, Cuba — On Jan. 8, 1959 Fidel Castro triumphantly arrived in Havana to the adulation of the joyful multitudes that lined the streets of the Cuban capital, welcoming the man who had liberated them from the hated dictatorship.

Fidel entered the swank Hilton Hotel, where Ernesto “Che” Guevara had taken over the mezzanine and second floor as the Revolution’s headquarters. The Hilton’s management also welcomed Fidel: the presidential suite on the 22nd floor was placed at his disposal. Euphoria was in evidence, and electricity was in the air as thousands of Cubans amassed across the street in Quijote Park (where the Coppelia ice cream parlor, made famous in the film “Strawberry and Chocolate,” is located), shouting “Viva Fidel!”

By time afternoon arrived, the first declarations were being made, as a government was being formed and officials throughout the government issued public declarations pledging their allegiance to the Revolution: Fidel Castro’s first day in power thus began.

Fast forward 49 years to Saturday, Feb. 23, 2008, the last full day of Fidel Castro’s government.

The Hilton, with its stylish 1950s design, was, soon after Fidel checked out of the presidential suite, expropriated and rechristened the “Habana Libre.” Photographs of Conrad Hilton’s opening reception, two years before the revolution, still grace the mezzanine level, but, like an impoverished dowager dressed in a decades-old, threadbare gown, the hotel has the painful appearance of decades of neglect. The lights are turned low to hide the dirt, cracks and coats of cheap paint; the furnishings, haphazardly assembled from different rooms, are strewn about the lobby; doormen in coats with frayed sleeves man the doors. It is like walking into the bedroom of an elderly relative who lives alone, and has long been sick. It smells of mold and disinfectant in the humid air.

This reporter wanted to be there, at that hotel on the mezzanine level looking down on the lobby, to witness the last day of Fidel’s rule as Cuba’s leader.

The waitress at the bar was blissfully unaware of the historic meaning of the lobby where she served tourists drinks — rum and generic cola (no Coca-Cola available), beers and mojitos. “How interesting,” she said, when informed that Fidel’s administration had begun here, rolling her eyes. “Lord, give me patience.”

The mojito she delivered had to be sent back; parsley had been substituted for mint — which is not abundant.

Tourists from Korea, Venezuela, Germany and Canada lingered about, under the watchful eyes of hotel security. Defeated workers mixed drinks, their sad expressions betraying the weariness of living in a perpetual revolution, and as dusk arrived, the sounds of birds in Quijote Park competed with the belching sounds the diesel buses made as they passed down the streets, could be heard.

It was clear that the hotel management had no plans to commemorate this historic day.

Outside the hotel, the same indifference prevailed. People walked by, with bored expressions, or in a hurry. Buses filled to overcapacity rolled by, blank expressions on the faces of the passengers, who avoided eye contact with each other. Tourists, dressed inappropriately, as if they were at the beach, consulted guidebooks to get their bearings. Police officers pretended to patrol the streets, but just marked time, hanging in small groups, talking. Only the children, like children the world over, smiled and played with each other.

The greatest excitement centered on the movie theater across the street, where “Rush Hour 3,” starring Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker, had finally arrived in Havana. “It’s a stupid movie, but it’s better than nothing,” a black teenager said, standing arm in arm with his girlfriend. The line snaked down the sidewalk, and not one person was prepared to concede that Fidel’s final day in office portended any change.

A few blocks away, the former American Embassy, now the U.S. Interests Section, was visible. An older gentleman, moonlighting as an unofficial taxi driver, expressed frustration as he drove there. “My wife and sister are sick, and I need to get ‘convertibles’ [hard currency pesos] to pay for their medicines. And I’m not well myself, driving all day, breathing this diesel exhaust.”

When asked what it would take to fix things, the reply comes: “No way, this place is over. Havana is like Pompeii — future archaeologists are going to dig it all up and wonder what disaster struck here! But we know what calamity destroyed this place: Fidel.”

Workers were busy raising Cuban flags on a field of flagpoles raised in front of the U.S. Interest Section — the Bush administration had ordered an LCD display running across the midsection of the office tower with headlines from the outside world, similar to the displays found on Times Square in New York. The Cubans retaliated by raising flagpoles designed to block the stream of uncensored headlines.

Across the street, along the Malecón, the broad seaside wall that hugs the city, young people sat in groups, listening to rap music in Spanish, drinking bootleg rum from open bottles, and talking softly. An old man, who claimed to have done heroic things during the revolution, was selling bags of popcorn for a peso, or four cents at the rate of exchange from pesos for Cubans and “convertible pesos” for imported consumer groups. “I have to sell 25 bags of popcorn to buy one beer,” he said. “At my age, I’m doing this. The only consolation I have is the knowledge that when I die, I’m going straight to heaven — being in Cuba has been purgatory enough!”

A teenage couple looked out onto the Straits of Florida, the sea as calm as glass. “We make believe we’re in the U.S, and we tell stories of what we would do,” the boy said. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to go to a store and just buy anything?” the girl rhetorically asked. “I’ve seen pictures of shopping malls in Italian magazines. I know what the rest of the world has.”

The peanut vendor looked on, amused. “Youth, they don’t know we once had everything, too. The Manzana de Gómez was a beautiful shopping center, the envy of Latin America. There was once a real country here, but that was before there was Fidel.”

Dusk had arrived, and the city was darkening. Many streets are without street lights, and an eerie darkness consumes the capital. It was a quiet, fifteen-minute stroll back to the lobby of the Habana Libre. Two fat tourists looked at the photographs on the mezzanine level, while a security guard stood in front of the bank of elevators, lest a Cuban dare attempt to accompany a foreigner into a hotel room.

Prostitution rules where Fidel first governed.

This was Fidel’s final day in power, and there was a lingering sadness at the denouement of how it unfolded. Where once there was adulation and hope, now there was exhaustion and indifference.

This time the following day, Fidel’s reign would be history, and no one gave a damn.

Louis E.V. Nevaer, published February 29, 2008 by Pacific News Service, San Francisco, California.

Fidel Castro

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