We invited Walter and Betty Parks to join us on Tom Miller’s Literary Tour of Havana in early January. Miller published Trading with the Enemy in 1992. It is the best single piece of writing we have seen on Cuba in the Castro days. When we returned, Walt (The Miracle of Mata Ortiz, Rio Nuevo Publishers) shared his personal trip journal with the other travelers in our group and now agrees to share it with you. A wonderful trip, a wonderful read. Ross Humphreys and Susan Lowell, Rio Nuevo Publishers.
By Walter Parks
At breakfast, we heard the story of the Tropicana from Milton and Joyce Duesman. They, along with their friends Steve and Sandy, had attended the extravaganza the night before. The Duesmans live on a farm in Pilot Point, Texas, north of Dallas. When my friend Jim Ward and I go to Dallas to see the Bush library, I want to visit the Duesmans in Pilot Point. We enjoyed them both, but they admitted that no one before me had ever teased them about the literary connection of their names. We also talked more with John Treat about his experiences at Yale.
Regla greeted us on the bus in a beautiful all-white dress in honor of this afternoon’s Santería ceremony. First, we toured the Museo de Bellas Artes. The building was a good modernist structure completed before the Revolution. However, the elevator did not work and the prearranged guide did not show. It did not matter. Illeana knew the work well and did an excellent job showing us the important Cuban artists. Many paintings celebrated the Revolution, as expected. However, several paintings and installations criticized the regime. The key point fell back on Tom’s remark that irrelevant dissent is tolerated. One avant-garde sculpture suggested Cuba was in a cage, and another, consisting of a mine field of bear traps, suggested the conditions the Cuban people must face.
We went on to one of Cuba’s shrines, the 1810 house where national hero José Martí was born in 1853. Photos and interpretive material in the various rickety old rooms tell the story of this poet, writer, exile and “apostle of independence,” who martyred himself against the Spanish in an 1895 battle. Two things impressed me. One was the Georgia O’Keefe look to the back areas of the house. The other was the reverence for this place where Martí only lived for a few years of his early childhood.
At some point, we walked past the Museum of the Revolution. I really wanted to see more of this, but we were on the move. The outside exhibit had two prop planes. Did Castro have airplanes? Past the main building that had been the presidential palace was a Soviet-era SAU 100 tank. The interpretative material said the tank had been used at Playa Girón, The Bay of Pigs, in 1961.
We spent a few minutes in the little square that featured El Floridita, the bar where Hemingway invented the daiquiri. I expected a total tourist trap. A bronze Hemingway, his daiquiri held high, does greet everyone from the end of the bar. Yet the place was full of well-dressed Cubans – and it was still morning –another paradox.
Lunch was at the thatched-roof El Aljibe in the Miramar district, an upscale area near downtown. One rumor says Castro lives in this area. Some of our group sat with a woman who is reputed to have been a girl friend of Castro. She was married to a doctor and met Castro while working in an embassy. I did not get the full story, but whatever their relationship, Castro took away the husband’s hospital and he left the country.
After lunch, Darwin drove us into a deep, jungle-like forest. Signs indicated that we passed or were in a military zone of some sort. In a clearing, we were met by a group of musicians and dancers ready to guide us to the Santería ceremony. They gave each of us a sunflower and a cigar. Charlie, who always wore a Panama hat, jammed the cigar in his mouth and immediately became Meyer Lansky, or better yet, Mickey Cohen. I did not let him forget this for the rest of the trip.
Regla explained that spirits lived in the forest. The ceremony communicated and paid homage to the Supreme Being. In procession, we followed the celebrants and the pounding drums down to the edge of a substantial river, the Almendares. The celebrants waded in the river then came back and gave each of us a small river stone. They began to chant and play the drums and a young woman danced. There was something about the manifestations of the Virgin that I did not understand. We were expected join the dance, but the slope to the river was too slippery. At the end, we threw the sunflowers in the river and walked back. I think we had a glimpse into a part of something very deep. The path was littered with chicken feathers.
The activities for this long day continued but with a diminishing group. Most got off at the hotel. Tom, Mike, John, Jill, and I stayed for the trip to the writers’ union building to meet with some of Cuba’s official literati. The National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba, Unión Nacional de Escritores y Artistas de Cuba, UNEAC, is a state organization, founded in 1961. The building was beautiful, in beautiful condition with the most massive marble staircase I have ever seen. Our hosts greeted us graciously, offered coffee, and made us feel important.
After we settled at a large conference table on the second floor, our host Pablo Armando Hernandez told the story of the founding of UNEAC and outlined the history of Cuban writing over the past 55 years. He had a book store in New York for 15 years but returned to Cuba in 1959. He writes poetry, novels, and essays. State-controlled UNEAC conducts all sorts of cultural activities, publishes its writers, and regularly prints 5 million copies of something called “La Gazeta.” The comparison probably is not totally apt, but I could not help but think of Reina María.
Suddenly a man swept into the room who was clearly the “man.” He took over, initially teasing Tom especially about the title of his book, “Trading with the Enemy.” He kept asking, “Who is the enemy, Tom?” This was Miguel Barnett, a very important writer most noted for “The Autobiography of a Runaway Slave” based on his interviews in the 60s with a 103 year old former slave. He told some of the stories of these interviews. I was getting used to people in our group knowing famous people, but one of Miguel Barnett’s lines is hard to top. He mentioned the recent handshake between President Obama and Raul Castro, saying the press had it all wrong. “As Raul told me, this is what happened.” He explained what Raul told him, but it was anticlimactic. He then swept out of the room.
There were a number of UNEAC people around the table and they could not have been more gracious. However, Jill said later that we heard a sanitized version of the writers’ struggle during the Revolution. The truth was much more brutal.
Betty had a good rest, and I guess so did others because everyone turned out in force for the dinner at La Guarída, the site for part of the movie “Strawberry and Chocolate,” in Centro Habana. The first two floors of the dilapidated building appeared abandoned except for a line of laundry. Up broken marble stairs to the third floor revealed a very large restaurant packed with people. I departed from my shrimp diet and had a good rabbit dish. Danny volunteered to be the treasurer for the evening and probably wished he hadn’t as a supplemental contribution had to be made after the initial collection.
Later a group including Danny, Becky, Charlie, Carol, and Mike invited me to go to La Zorra y El Cuero jazz club. Katy had gone there and recommended it. The place was like jazz clubs of old, jammed with young people sitting at dime-sized tables drinking over-priced watery drinks. The mojito that came with the $10 cover was full of ice. I left it alone. When the jazz finally started after 11:30, we were too far away to see. Finally Mike grabbed me and bulled his way through the crowd to the front of the bar opposite the stage. I don’t know how he did it, but suddenly I had a primo seat with a Bucanero in my hand. The musicians played well, but their style was very progressive, beyond melody, and beyond me. I did enjoy the scene until Charley rescued me and we left – all but Mike.
Tomorrow: One last trip through Old Town, the farmers market, and a little more art