This is Part 3 in a series about the time I spent in Cuba not long ago. To see all posts in chronological order, Click Here.
There are two questions I start asking everyone I meet: “Why are the women so flamboyant in flaunting their bodies?” And, “Can the Cuban government change its spots?”
When I tell our tour guide, Liliana, about the women I saw at the Casa de Musica, she shakes her head. “Those were jinateras, girls who sell themselves to make extra money.”
“But most of the women around here dress like that. Why?”
“Ask the men,” she says, turning to a group of locals drinking coffee at the next table. They give several reasons: “the climate,” “it’s the style,” “the custom,” and “the men like it.” Laughing, one adds, “We don’t have dangerous animals in Cuba. Only women.”
Liliana says the two major forms of entertainment are music and sex. At most clubs they have condoms on the menu, and sex education starts early. “They use a banana,” she says.
Raul Castro’s daughter, Mariela, who’s widely loved, is director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education.
A willowy, freckled brunette, she campaigns for AIDS prevention and LGBT rights. She led the first parade—a conga dance through the streets of Havana—against homophobia, and was instrumental in getting a law passed that allows transgender people to legally modify their gender and receive sex change operations at no cost.
As to whether Cuba’s government is changing, I hear two narratives: “It’s changing fast,” and “It will never change.”
Artists like Larramendi—rather than hedge fund managers and bankers—are the privileged, the 1% in Cuba, who for years have been allowed to travel and sell their work abroad, which cushions their life at home. Larramendi says, “My parents and I were part of the revolution. We still have commitment.” He shakes his head. “Our children don’t. They want to go live in Miami or California, but I decided to stay here. The future is here.” He says Cuba today is not what it was two years ago, and “next year there will be greater changes.”
I hear the opposite on the plane we take from Havana to the Eastern city of Holguin, when I ask a 26-year-old chef, Juan, if the government is changing. He gives his head a firm shake. “Maybe when I die. My father is 56 and all my life, he’s been saying things will change, some day it will be different.”
Juan, who wears a gold earring and his hair cut and gelled to stick straight up, had to pay a fee to be admitted to culinary school, where he studied four years to get a job in a restaurant that pays him $15 a month. He would like to visit relatives in New Jersey, but to apply for a visa, he says, “You have to go to Havana two times, buying two round-trip tickets, and pay the application fee of $160, whether you get the visa or not. That adds up to a whole year’s salary.” He frowns. “Nothing’s changed.”
From Holguin, we take a chartered bus on the rough, two-lane road—the only road—that runs the length of Cuba. A billboard proclaims, “Siempre adelante”—always forward, which seems like cognitive dissonance. A horse-drawn wagon is pulling a flatbed on which a dozen working men are standing up, jammed together, and in the fields men are cutting cane with machetes. Along the sides of the road they’ve planted a living fence—a continuous row of sharp-thorned cactus—to prevent livestock from crossing.
In the countryside, the only cars we see are beat-up junkers, not the slick, refurbished gems of Havana. But the landscape is bucolic: fields of corn, hollyhocks and sunflowers, roosters crowing, cows mooing, mountains rising on one side and on the other, the sea.
When we reach Santiago de Cuba, our hotel offers dial-up Internet on an antique computer for $8 an hour, but I avert my eyes. I don’t want to go near it. Contrary to what I’d expected, being unplugged has been a relief. I hadn’t realized until I was forced to withdraw from it how much the Internet keeps the brain and nervous system on edge, alert to the dinging, ringing, and tapping in the never ending cycle of receiving and responding. Just a few days after disconnecting, I could feel my body letting down. It was a level of relaxation I hadn’t experienced since the 90’s, before email, before the 24-hour glut of information.
I’m awakened the next morning by the sound of drums. Walking out on my balcony, I see four groups of musicians gathering in the square, drumming, singing, and I feel my body entraining with the music.
As I walk about the streets, I’m holding myself taller, aware of my hips, the length of my steps, the loosening of my shoulders and neck. And I’m actually beginning to enjoy the way women dress. It’s not subtle but vibrant and fanciful, and it’s inclusive. A man I meet at a music club says, “Our first principle is: Every woman is beautiful.”
On several nights we go to dance performances and each is radically different. The Afro-Cuban dancers are fierce and raw, acting out stories of the gods struggling with each other. But the Tumba Francesa, developed in the early 1800’s, is polite and formal. On French plantations in Cuba then, the slaves would gather at night to make music and imitate the court dances they’d seen their owners doing—minuets and quadrilles. At a club in Santiago, we watch pairs of dancers sashay out in costumes made of cheap fabric but styled like those of the slave owners, with ruffles, sashes, and petticoats. The dance looks like a mix of African, 18th century French, and American square dancing, to the beat of giant drums.
After the last number, the lead male dancer reaches for my hand to lead me to the floor. I hesitate; I’ve had a bout of intense vertigo recently, and I’m nervous the dancing might bring it back. But I can’t help myself. I rise, and as the drums grow louder, the Cuban is so masterful that it’s like playing tennis with a strong player—you hit better—and with a great dancer, you can’t make a mistake.
Of the numerous men I’ve dated, there was only one who liked to dance. Most men don’t understand that they don’t have to be Fred Astaire; if they can lead and keep the beat, any woman in the room will be their partner. Knowing this, I tried to encourage my son to dance but he never quite took to it. So to be in a country where men are enthusiastic to dance with me…. well, it’s the closest I’ve come in quite a while to bliss.
TO BE CONTINUED.