Cuba's Fumbling Marxism: An Eyewitness Account

Born in Scotland, educated in France and England, JAMES CAMERON has been a reporter for more than twenty-five years. As chief foreign correspondent for the London NEWS CHRONICLE, he was one of the first Western observers to travel freely in Red China, and his account of what was going on inside this Communist country was set forth in his book MANDARIN RED, published in 1955. Now a free-lance journalist, he traveled recently to Cuba at the ATLANTIC'S invitation. Here is what he found.
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The sun comes down like an operatic curtain, subsiding into the Gulf in an oversumptuous ostentation of purple and orange, dragging away the clay from Havana as, an hour or so later, it will do over Mexico; as it is now doing, doubtless with less drama, over Florida, ninety miles away across the strait. The tops of the high buildings continue to glow for a while as the warm, eroded houses of the waterfront grow pastel and dusky. By and by the long rampart by the sea is silhouetted with sitting figures like a frieze: clerks, peddlers, soldiers, lovers, girls with long brown legs, old men with nothing on their minds. The sun vanishes like a falling stone.

At the corner of the two main streets an illuminated sign obligingly points the way to seven—or is it eight—nightclubs. Atracciones. Le Show a 22 hrs. One of them is, quite irrelevantly, called Le Red. There will be practically nobody in it at twenty-two hours; perhaps not even afterward. Over the housetops glow the signs: "Viva la Emulacion Socialista," "Ganemos la Batalla," and "Hemos Hecho una Revolucion Mas Grande Que Nosotros Mismos"—"We have built a revolution bigger than ourselves."

Outside the hotel (it is late) a young woman in the blue denim of the militia holds a very old Lee-Enfield as if it were a bouquet. "You want?"

"Very soon, my bill, with discount for good behavior." I recognize her as the assistant cashier I see every day behind the desk; she is married and has one small baby; this is her guard night. "You are the Inglés; you are crazy. Go to bed." "And you?" "Watch my gun, compañero."

Upstairs the loudspeakers start again, playing the "Internationale" with a rumba beat.

The rather eerie jest in the airport of Madrid is that the Spanish aircraft about to leave for Cuba is to all intents and purposes, the same that bore Christopher Columbus on the same haul four and a half centuries ago. After the first few hours waiting, one begins to feel that this may indeed be so; the noble old flying machine waits on the apron among the glossy jets like a hansom cab among the racers, a vintage Connie of the tribe long ago in the United States relegated to the New York shuttle service. Yet it is committed to the longest and most taxing transatlantic service of them all: anything up to twenty-two hours from hemisphere to hemisphere. One normally does London to New York in seven hours, but that is with post-Columbian machinery. The airline's rationale is simple: if you want to go to Havana, how else do you do it? You can, of course, go from Prague, or from Moscow. You can go from Mexico City and contribute your photograph to the picture gallery of the CIA. In spite of its acerbities, for me the Madrid run seemed simpler.

Not many passengers catch the weekly westbound flight. Those who do must be in no burning hurry. The delays on the schedule are frequently counted not in hours but in days. This is not surprising; at the end of its four-thousand-mile trip this dogged old vehicle must turn around and return to Spain—with the same crew, a stint that seems somehow to have escaped the notice of the pilots' unions. The archaic airplane was a credit to Lockheed; inspired by the tradition of the conquistadores, it got there. Each time we took off- at Madrid, Santa Maria, Bermuda—the roof panels fell off with a clatter, adding an extra dimension of drama to the contest with gravity.

Now it came to pass that of the handful of passengers on this plane six were British workers from the industrial Midlands of England, engineers and shop stewards from the factory that makes the celebrated buses, the export of which from Britain to Cuba has caused so much repining in State Department circles in the United States, and an equally overemphatic enthusiasm in official Havana. The invitation of these workers to the land where their handiwork was going was part of the euphoria.

I became somehow involved. No plea, no argument could persuade the exuberant reception committee that I was not of the bus men's company, that I had no association whatever with the manufacture of buses, that I was not even a guest of the government. My explanations were merrily swept aside; I also was embraced by the Cuban union representatives, and deftly whirled through the customs and immigration; my baggage was cleared unopened and my documents taken care of. I didn't see my passport again until the day I left; my typewriter I never saw again.

This was perhaps a small price to pay for the effervescence of the welcome, the daiquiris thrust into our hands, the guitar players who encircled our group of dazed, delighted British workers, playing an air which I shall treasure all my life, since it can have been none other than the "Red Flag Cha-Cha-Cha" Few of these honest Englishmen had ever before left their homeland; they were mesmerized by the glories of travel. "Tha wouldn't get this in Birmingham," said an entranced shop steward as a zealous Cuban Negro official kissed him on the ear.

Still in my role as an honorary bus man, I was ushered into an enormous Cadillac. It looked almost regal. Suddenly the engine came to life with a sound like the crash of gunfire, the deafening roar of a Sherman tank. It had, it seems, long ago lost its muffler. I was later to learn that virtually no automobile in Cuba below those reserved for the leaders had a muffler; the things had fallen off. One of the ten thousand paradoxes of Cuba is that the revolution inherited hundreds of automobiles of quite remarkable luxury and ostentation, most of which now, for want of spare parts, run like jalopies. The characteristic sound of Havana today is the explosive uproar of very expensive cars, unsilenced and running on five cylinders. The Cubans love it. They have a tolerant and engaging quality of becoming fond of the inevitable.

This fashion I came at last to the Hotel Habana Libre. This of course had been the Havana Hilton, and still retained most of the overblown splendors of its species. Already, however, it had begun to acquire that indefinable air that pervades hotels in Popular Democracies the world over: a slightly gray patina of the drab, the unmistakable atmosphere of the utilitarian taking over from the sumptuous. It is hard to describe this very recognizable condition, which has nothing to do with socialism but a good deal to do with carelessness; it comes when an institution intended for the use of the rich is adapted to the use of all corners; it is not particularly disagreeable, and it has perhaps a certain useful social symbolism. It manifests itself in a casual austerity, a vague corruption of detail, a general suggestion of what can only be called efficient run-downness. Mr. Hilton's architects are not likely to flinch from the flashy, and flashiness to be effective requires some attention to upkeep, which the Habana Libre was clearly not getting. Nor, one felt, were the showy surfaces of the hotel lobby improved by the random addition of huge billboards proclaiming the management's enthusiastic adherence to the revolution. But the staff were charming and hospitable. The señor's room was ready; would I please sign here, and to the account of which ministry or department should my bill be charged?

Here we drifted into the troublesome contretemps that has recurred for me all over the Eastern European world, but never before in the sunshine of the Caribbean: I had, finally, to extricate official Cuba from the illusion that I was an honored guest, and that so far from having my checks picked up by the administration, I was actually paying for myself. This caused much head-scratching; the clerks, taken aback by this unorthodoxy, retired to the office for consultation. It is the case that in establishments where almost every guest is exactly what the word implies, as a member of some delegation or advisory committee, the machinery for mulcting people of genuine money becomes rusty.

Yet here, as everywhere else in Cuba, the new disciplinary compulsions seemed to have very thin roots in the natural insouciance of the people. To have pointed out this quaint state of affairs to an Intourist official would have elicited at most a wintry smile; here, everyone saw the point and laughed merrily. Well, since I had money, perhaps I also had some British or U.S. cigarettes? No—too bad; they are of great value.

The bedroom was excellent, spotless, overlooking the great curve of Havana Harbor. A most undoctrinaire abstract print hung above the bed. Then, as I went into the bathroom there came a curious subconscious sense of anticipation -and sure enough, it was fulfilled: among the fine appointments was the bathtub, and it had no plug.

I was uplifted with a sense of absolute propriety. For a generation the old tourist joke had been that no bath in all the Russias ever had a plug; it was the one infallible certainty that everyone knew and no one could explain. And here, in Havana's brand new, efficient, and up-to-date hotel, this dotty irrelevancy had reproduced itself. Was pluglessness part of the arcane symbolism of the Marxist-Leninist proposition? Must there be, with the onset of a People's Democracy, a ritual destruction of bathtub plugs? I find the phenomenon totally baffling; I present it as socialism's most beguiling mystery.

Outside, the sun blazed, the music thumped. The streets of Havana seemed in most respects as crowded and colorful as I remembered them, vaguely, from thirteen years before. There are serious difficulties in observing a Bolshevik theorem adapting itself to a Latin-American society: a marriage of incompatibles that fills the air with hilarious paradox. I found it very moving. I have sojourned in all the comrades' lands, and have come over the years to associate the revolutionary air with something autumnal and chill. I was somewhat dazed by the novelty of a revolutionary society in the sunshine, by all the austerities and disciplines so long identified with the harsher North here interpreted into something curiously at odds with conventional Communism. Here was a revolution that for the first time inherited a capital city largely created for self-indulgence; a regime necessarily stern imposed on a place dedicated for years to ostentatious expenditure. Everything was backside first and inside out: the warmhearted friendliness abruptly stilled by impenetrable bureaucracy; the bizarre effect of a kind of amateur Marxism falling heir to all the gaudy, meretricious properties of what had been the most blatant and spurious of all rich men's playgrounds and jackpots for foreign racketeers. The wonder was that neither phenomenon had wholly canceled the other out.

It chanced that the next day Fidel Castro was to make a great speech—as when, someone remarked, does he not? The day had a great air of steam heated good humor, even of carnival; the sun blazed on a square more densely packed with people than I believe I have ever seen; there was much random conviviality, and the theme was, when would the war begin. Everywhere there were hundreds of dashingly pretty polychrome girls wearing the sort of holiday hats that in Coney Island would have read Kiss Me Quick. Here the legends read: Socialist Emulation to Victory, Proletarians Unite, and All Behind Fidel. Havana includes the greatest incidence of attractive young women in my statistical experience, though too many carry guns for my taste. Despite the imposition of a cloth ration that is punitively small, they all appeared to dress with an impeccable chic, and it was doubtless the strictness of the rationing that resulted in all Cuban girls seeming to have been poured into their costumes with a fountain-pen filler. At the pools and the beaches they would appear in bikinis of almost unbelievably gratifying economy. They would explain: "We must obey the law; we must not waste material."

On this occasion, however, they had gathered only to cry "Fidel, Fidel!" and to listen enraptured to his tour de force. The man himself was up there on the plinth before the vast bust of José Martí: Castro, the shock-haired, bearded, uniformed wonder, arguing, rambling, jesting, threatening, exhorting, mesmerizing above a crowd of at least three hundred thousand, who made the Plaza de La Revolución like a vast bed of multicolored flowers.

To sit immediately below Fidel in full spate is an extraordinary experience. His technique is unique and clearly hypnotic. For two hours he spoke below the brazen sky—the sky which, he cried, is daily profaned and violated by the Yanqui spy planes, "to destroy which," he demanded, "who of us is not ready to die?" As he shot his furious finger aloft, one almost expected to see the microscopic speck of the U-2 drifting balefully by at 60,000 feet, bristling with cameras.

Behind him the enormous poster said: "Si Quieren Paz Con Nuestro Pueblo Pueblo Habra Paz: Pero si Quieren Guerra—No Tenemos Miedo a la Guerra!" Castro echoed it: "We want peace, but we don't fear war!" and they roared approval. "Peace, but only with dignity!" and the applause was like the beat of the ocean. The contemporary word for it all was charismatic; a virtuoso performance, without notes, improvised, histrionic, masterly. The scene was so suggestive of fiesta that it was hard to absorb the truly chilling burden of the occasion: that for eighteen months Cuban gunners had been training on their Russian ground-to-air missiles and will one day try to destroy any reconnaissance plane they can track "however great the international risk."

The moment began to develop an air of fantasy. It was manifest that there was not a soul there who did not believe that Castro and his revolution were imminently to be attacked again; why else was the population under specific orders to stand at action stations, to appreciate and value the likelihood of dying, since sweet and decorous it is to be killed for one's country? It was something quite outside the sullen routine attitudes of the cold war: a small and somewhat irrational nation in the grip of an almost medieval national fervor, so obsessive that it actually appeared to mean what it said. When Fidel said, "If the price of peace is to bend the knee, then that peace we do not want; better the peace of the tomb," he was certainly arguing less as a Communist than as a Cuban. There was something quite sublimely elemental about it, so grandiloquently crazy it had to command attention: that someone should dangle the destinies of a nuclear generation in the language of Henry V.

The food at the hotel was beyond belief. Over the years I have become something of a connoisseur of dreadful eating, but never—even in the late British colonial empire, where gastronomic standards reached a nadir of the odious—had I encountered a place where the cooks had so demonstrably given up in despair. Because of the international character of the customers, almost entirely fraternal delegates or technical advisers from all over the world, a Spanish menu was dispensed with, and instead, a waiter wheeled around a trolley on which prototype platefuls of the half-dozen dishes of the day were displayed in all their cooling horror. You pointed at whichever sample seemed momentarily the least noxious—rice and dried fish, rice and pounded meat, rice and beans -and by and by a passable replica would be produced. The only mellowing factor of mealtimes was that one was allowed a bottle of beer. (Beer was not purchasable anywhere except with food; this was not puritanism but simple scarcity.) I came to look forward to mealtimes for this reason alone, but it was an expensive addiction. Nowhere else since perhaps the days of the Siege of Paris had one paid more dearly for more terrible commons.

I learned very soon that my arrogant insistence on not being a state guest would surely cost me dear, as always where a wholly unrealistic exchange makes currency meaningless. The Cuban peso rates at parity with the U.S. dollar, but its purchasing power is around twenty cents. No ordinarily inedible meal, with a bottle of beer, cost less than six or seven dollars. When I looked around at my cosmopolitan companions, the Soviéticos, the Bulgars, the Japanese, casually signing their bills for future redemption, I sometimes felt I was the only stranger in the republic who was actually paying for anything. It gave one at least the right to sulk or to protest; but this one could never do, so willing and amiable was the service, so certain the knowledge that badly as one was faring, the Cubans fared worse.

How to convey the strange sense of affection and irrational understanding engendered by this extraordinary place. It was very far from comfortable. There was virtually nothing of any practical value that one could buy. The blockade had succeeded in that respect at least: clothes, bread, butter, cereals, anything—they were all rationed to a degree sometimes worse than the roughest British wartime exigencies. To ask for almost anything produced the reflex, No hay, with an odd throat-cutting gesture. A trip around the supermarket was a lesson in humility—"Sears Roebuck: Nacionalizado," full of dreary pieces of notepaper and gritty soap. The elevator man at the hotel smoked Corona cigars, but he would seek long and far for a razor blade or a tube of toothpaste. There was plenty of money and nothing to buy; it was spent in the scores of bars that were the vestigial relics of the Havana of once upon a time—a slug of Bacardi cost a dollar twenty-five; you could get it more cheaply in London or New York.

When there was nothing else to do, the Cubans danced. I could have thrown a bomb at the People's Nocturnal outside my window: the thud of twist music that went on until the small hours. Yet it was gay. Their new buildings were cheap and flimsy, but they were adventurous and exciting. Outside the new Museum of the Revolution they had relaid the sidewalk with half a mile of individual and different mosaic panels, meter-square designs of uncommon merit and charm, throwaway gestures that were the nicest things in Havana. The billboards were brilliant. It takes a smart designer to make a Marxist slogan worth a second look these days, especially here. How fatigued one gets with the hortatory slogan, the wholly ubiquitous claim on loyalty; everything printed embodies the hard sell. In the locker rooms of the hotel pool the notice read: "AVISO—Para mayor seguridad rogamos a los Banistas dejen sus Pertenencias an la Oficina. PATRIA 0 MUERTE—VENCEREMOS." That is to say: "Please leave your valuables in the office. Fatherland or Death—We shall overcome."

The simple question of what to do with one's spare time could not be wholly answered by politics; even in this period of keyed-up dedication the ordinary urban Cuban was not the sort of person to feel his leisure fulfilled by a program of instant Leninism and adult education classes. The transformation of entertainment was striking, and the hangover quite tangible. Most of the Havana movie houses, for example, were playing films from Czechoslovakia or the Soviet Union. These were excellent of their kind, but their message was obviously enigmatic to the Habaneros, and the theaters were half empty, partly, I was told, because the Castilian Spanish in which the movies were dubbed has much the same risible effect on the Cuban ear as a Mayfair accent might tend to have on an audience of Arkansans. This could hardly have been the whole story, however; the exquisite Japanese film The Island (the triumph of which is that it uses no words at all) was equally snubbed.

On the other hand, the biggest movie house of all, in Vedado opposite the Habana Libre, was showing an oldish U.S. film which even when new must have been moderately obscure since I had never heard of it. It was called The Day the Earth Stood Still, and it was jam-packed every night, with a waiting line of teen-agers outside stretching almost to the Museum of the Revolution. It had been playing for weeks and is doubtless playing still. I never saw it, for I could never get near the ticket office.

The Cuban television was similarly in the doldrums, and the intervals between staging three-hour-long open-end tours de force by the Maximum Leader were filled with what seemed an endless succession of vintage Hollywood films, of the kind I had supposed were preserved only for the weary weekends of England's BBC. The director of the Cuban television service, who chances to be an old-guard Communist of much taste and erudition, told me with a sort of ironic resignation that the customers could not get enough of these archaic productions. In any case there was little else, and nightly the shades of Fred Astaire and Judy Garland gamboled eerily over the shaky screens. This seemed to produce no adverse reaction from the high command. Indeed, it was said that the favorite TV personality of Fidel, after Fidel, was Ginger Rogers. To Cuba, for so long the repository of all the pop art of the United States, the North American film culture had been fossilized in its 1960 period.

It was odd, but hardly unexpected, to realize how greatly, and even sentimentally, the Cubans missed the Norteamericanos. For good or ill there had been a half century of unique relationship, and among the clarion calls of official denunciation there could still quite openly be heard the argument that Uncle Sam must have contributed something to the association. The amputation of Cuba from the United States had some analogies with that of Ireland from England a generation earlier, in that it bred regrets among the chauvinists and a certain disappointment, even a sense of loss. This could be rationalized in many ways, and usually was. Yet even among the younger and more earnest revolutionaries of the governmental hierarchy there were many who accepted willingly that the estrangement meant a great deal more than a shortage of spare parts for Chevrolets.

The deprivation was detectable at many levels, and with many different motivations. At the grossest material level it fell heavily upon those who were dependent on tourists: hotel servants, dispossessed employees of vanished casinos, pimps, and hangers-on from the bordello fringe, whose life under the revolution had become markedly austere. Great numbers of these had joined the early ranks of the gusanos (Cubans call those who fled the country gusanos, or "worms"), but many remained behind to proclaim their grievances outside the big hotels in what seemed to me to be a singularly rash and petulant tone of voice. Nobody appeared to pay much attention.

Of much greater moment was the realization among the professional and even the administrative intellectuals that this preposterous isolation from the United States was a very wasting process indeed. The absence of contact at the university level between academic people who had grown used to each other's ways produced a sense of frustration which had nothing to do with politics. Thus far no similar intellectual relationship has developed, or could develop, with the Eastern intelligentsia many thousands of miles away. I heard it argued many times (for when it was appreciated that I was neither an American nor a Russian, a capitalist nor a Communist, these matters were discussed with complete frankness) that the severance had been too abrupt and indiscriminate. An economic blockade was comprehensible, if unreasonable; the political vendetta was acceptable, if tedious. The total intellectual blockade seemed ridiculous. Why, they asked, must the one scientific channel of communication left open be that of meteorology? For it is a quaint facet of the situation that throughout all the acerbities of this Caribbean cold war, the aviation Met-Stations of Miami and Havana have continued to exchange their information and reports. There were many who considered that this piece of sensible pragmatism might be extended.

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