Michael Landis interviewed by Erasmo Calzadilla
HAVANA TIMES, July 18 — When I first began writing for Havana Times, I was especially attentive to the comments from readers. Anyone who disagreed with me would send me into an exaggerated depression, and alternately, I’d become as cheerful as a child when someone else offered an understanding voice.
Michael Landis was of the first ones to support me and help lift my spirits. He didn’t say it with words but I felt a certain understanding. It was like he was there with me, always understanding when I’d fly off at the handle, with him maybe doing the same, but always in an encouraging manner.
A few months ago Landis came to Cuba and I went to see him at “La Casa,” where he always stays (you’ll soon see why I put that in uppercase). What I found was a jovial man, younger and chubbier than what I had imagined, with a noble and healthy spirit that is uncommon in this burning and aggressive atmosphere.
I requested an interview with him for Havana Times and he accepted instantly, but to realize it has been an entire communicational Odyssey. We’ve been sending email back and forth for more than six months between his frigid home in the north and this island “baked by the sun.” Finally, after tiring efforts and much patience on his behalf, we’ve gotten it all down on paper.
I hope you will enjoy this interview as much as I did communicating with this yuma (foreigner) who’s in love with the Cuban people and our efforts. He is a person who has experienced our island through its high and low points of his life, including the moments with his first girlfriend.
HT: When and where did you grow up?
MICHAEL LANDIS: “I was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Until I was 14, I lived in the suburb of Bala Cynwyd. Later, my mother, two sisters and I moved to Miami, Florida, to the neighborhood of Cutler Ridge, about 20 miles south of the center. In Philadelphia my family lived a comfortable middle-class life, but in Miami our economic existence was much more precarious. While still in high school, I had to work a variety of jobs in the evenings, weekends, and during the summer, including selling ice cream at the Port of Miami, assisting in construction, and doing lawn and garden work.”
HT: What brought you the first time to Cuba?
MICHAEL LANDIS: Growing up in the 1950’s, I began following events in Cuba as soon as the Miami Herald began carrying news of the rebels in the Sierra Maestra. I was interested in politics even before (and had already read some works of Papa Marx). I even remember donating my son Stephen’s 12-guage, single-barreled shot-gun to the Movimiento 26 de Julio, dropping it off at Restaurante Paulo, one of their Miami support centers.
After the triumph of the Revolution in January 1959, I was determined to go to Cuba. I saved my pennies from work (selling ice-cream at the Port of Miami and elsewhere, working as a vendor during football games at the Orange Bowl, doing lawn maintenance work, building trenches for patios, etc.), and after the end of my sophomore year at Palmetto High School, in South Miami, in June, 1959, I took a Greyhound bus to Key West, then hopped on an old Areonaves “Q” DC-3 airliner, which landed not at the Jose Marti Airport, but rather at what was then Camp Columbia Airport (later a school, now a museum, etc.)
I spent the summer of 1959 in Havana, living at the old Hotel Roosevelt (on Amistad and San Miguel street, in Centro Habana), but I spent many days — and evenings — at the house where my friend Franco Franco, his wife, father, and nephews now live, though at that time a US American family lived there.
I had a letter of introduction to this family. They had two daughters, and the older daughter and I were attracted to each other. She was 14, I was 16. Romeo and Juliet. It was the first romance for both of us. We always remember our first romance.
HT: What was convulsive Havana like during that time of your first romance? Did your girlfriend support the revolution?
MICHAEL LANDIS: Of course I was excited to see the revolutionaries in power. I would often see the young “barbudos,” (bearded ones) who had been fighting in the mountains less than a year before, now walking the streets of Centro, Habana Vieja or Vedado. I took a lot of photos of them (But alas! I later lost them when a hurricane destroyed my mother’s house in Florida).
In 1959, I was shocked by the extreme poverty I saw, especially each day I traveled, by the old #22 line bus, from Centro Habana to La Lisa (where I changed to another guagua that took me to the Arroyo Arena). In many neighborhoods there were no houses, not even shacks, just “hovels” haphazardly thrown together out of tin and boards. I had seen poverty in my own country, in the south, but never this extreme Third World poverty. Also, there were many children begging on the streets.
It seems to me that later generations, the “children of the revolution,” despite the horrors of the “Special Period” economic crisis, have never really experienced extreme poverty like many pre-revolutionary Cubans had. It was heartbreaking…and overwhelming.
On the other hand, my girlfriend and her family lived a comfortable and insulated life in their home on 51st Avenida. Hence, going from Centro Habana to Arroyo Arena was like changing dimensions. The hotel where I lived was a modest one. The Hotel Roosevelt was built in the first decades of the 20th Century and its heyday probably lasted up until the 1920’s or 1930’s. By the late 1950’s, however, it was in decline.
[An interesting fact: During that same summer of 1959, when I lived at the Hotel Roosevelt, it was also home to a young black college student, Julian Bond, who was also visiting Cuba from the USA; he later became a leader in the US Civil Rights movement and was one of the first post-Reconstruction Black congressmen elected to the US Congress. Of course at that time I didn’t know this would come about, and though we probably passed each other in the hallways, on the elevator, or in the lobby of the Roosevelt several times, we never met!]
During that summer of 1959, Cuba was filled with new and novel sights, sounds and smells. Then, as now, I loved to walk: up-and-down the Prado, along the Malecon, through the narrow streets of Havana Vieja and Centro Habana. My Spanish then was even more limited, so I really couldn’t hold a conversation with most Cubans. I had taken a semester or so of Spanish in high school, but my ability to speak and understand it were woefully inadequate.
Unlike the main female character in the American movie “Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights,” my girlfriend didn’t have much — if any — political consciousness. Still, she was in the first stages of moving towards personal independence and away from her family. She was a student at the Lafayette Academy, which we once visited.
One night, while we watched Fidel on television with her family at home, her father pulled me aside to whisper: “Don’t say anything against Fidel! Our maid is listening, and she’s a Fidelista!” (him not knowing that I was a Fidelista too!). This was only seven months after the triumph of the Revolution, and his warning indicated a certain tension already developing between the Revolution and the US American ex-patriot community.
Later I learned that when Iris and her family hurriedly left Cuba in late 1960 or early 1961, they left one of the keys to their house with the maid, telling her that they would return (laughter) “in a few months” [to get it back] after Fidel is overthrown.”
Hormones and passions, rather than politics, characterized our relationship during that wonderful summer of 59! Though I know where she lives now, I haven’t made any effort to contact her. I feel it’s best to let the phantasms of the past remain in the past. Memories should remain sacred and unchanged. Both of her parents are now dead, as may be the case of her younger sister, since any record of her seems to have disappeared. So my first girlfriend seems to be the only survivor of her immediate family.”
HT: I know you came on the first Venceremos Brigade in 1969 in support of the revolution. What other reasons did you have at that time?
MICHAEL LANDIS: The Venceremos Brigade seemed to offer not only a means of accomplishing this, but also a way to channel my energy into practical support by participating in the “Zafra de los Diez Millones” (The sugarcane harvest of 10 million tons). Plus, I wanted to see what changes had occurred in Cuba during the intervening ten and a half since my first visit in 1959. I wanted to speak with and listen to Cubans about their experiences during the revolution’s first decade.
Incidentally, only once, and very briefly during my almost two and a half months in Cuba in 1969-70, did I have the chance to see my former girlfriend’s house.
One night, after we participated in the formal inauguration of the new town of Ben Tre, north of Bauta, as our buses returned along 51st Avenida on their way back to Aguacate, they passed the house, but there wasn’t any time to stop. Also during those months, on Saturday and Sundays afternoons I would sometime ventured into Old Havana with friends, or alone to do independent sight-seeing. I spent most of my time with both the North American and the Cuban members of the brigade. The Cuban members were of course enthusiastic supporters of the revolution and, for the most part, members of the Communist Party or the Young Communist League.
Although I worked hard, I’m sure I didn’t produce that much. Some of the other brigade members showed lackadaisical performances. I felt guilty that in order to meet our production goals the Cuban members of the brigade’s kitchen and cleaning staff had to cut cane in addition to their regular duties.
After cutting cane in and near Aguacate (outside of Havana), we toured the island from end-to-end (except for Pinar del Rio). This included the Isla de Juventud, Havana Province, Matanzas, Las Villas, Camaguey and Oriente, and most of the Cubans that we met with were of course enthusiastic supporters of the revolution. Many had benefited from new housing, health care, education and employment. I did meet several Cubans who criticized the revolution; however they felt they had to make their criticisms in whispers, under their breath.
Rather than participate in scheduled Brigade activities and tours, sometimes on Saturday afternoons and Sundays, either with friends or by myself, I would take the local bus from Aguacate to Havana.
Curiously, at that time I never revisited the home of my first girlfriend in La Lisa/Arroyo Arena. One night, while waiting in line for ice cream at Copelia, some ICAIC (Cuban Film Institute) students we met invited us to a special screening of a film at their campus (then located in Vedado).
This “special screening” (laughter) was the US-made film “Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959 version) where one of the principal “actors” was the singer Pat Boone! He was the ‘rock ‘n roller’ our parents loved, but we of course hated him! My generation preferred Elvis Presley much more, or better yet Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly! Today, most male teens despise Justin Beiber in much the same manner!
I also remember leading a group of my fellow “brigadistas” on a visit to the embassy of the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea, where I received Volume I of the “Biography of the Great Leader, General Kim Il Sung” as a gift. It was a book that reached new heights in over-the-top “purple prose!”
HT: Wasn’t that the occasion that something “surreal” happened to you?
MICHAEL LANDIS: Yes, sometime around December 25,1969 (my 27th birthday), Fidel came to visit the Venceremos Brigade at Campamento Averhoff in Aguacate. On the day he cut cane with us and I was one of the seven lucky “brigadistas” selected to cut cane with him. Either during a break in the morning or afternoon, or perhaps while he was cutting cane, we were allowed to ask him questions. I was too shy, so I only listened to other people’s questions.
That night, we were allowed to sit at the same table with Fidel in the eating area and, uh (this is probably the high point of my life!) at his request I passed the salt to Fidel! Later there was a program in the social hall, and Fidel answered questions at length! I remember the question-and-answer session going on for several hours and in the middle of this event there was a blackout.
Un-phased, Fidel continued answering the questions (the simultaneous translation headphones must have gone off) and the only light in the hall was the tip of Fidel’s cigar, with its embers bobbing up-and-down as he spoke.
Of all the questions during this session, I only remember one. Someone asked him if, as leader of the revolution, having so much power might “go to his head” and whether he was in danger of being corrupted by it. As is his habit, he answered at length (I think his answer to that question alone took the best part of an hour!), but his answer demonstrated that he had thought about that question long and hard; he had thought about the implications and the dangers of possessing so much power, and he articulated them.
He was well aware of the dangers of wielding so much power. Still, he felt obliged to use these powers, but he hoped he was using them in a way that would benefit Cuba. Both before and since, I’ve felt that Cuba was fortunate to have such a leader. Of course there have been errors too! (An understatement!) Why? For just this reason: the concentration of power in one man, in one class (the “Guardians,”) etc.
Then, as now, I remain ambivalent about this concentration of power.
Were you concerned about the freedom of Cubans in a system with such a concentration of power?
MICHAEL LANDIS: During my visit in 1969-70, the revolution had already started cracking down on some of its writers, poets, musicians, artists and other intellectuals, and when the revolution supported the Soviet Union’s intervention against the reformist government in Czechoslovakia I didn’t like it, nor did other members of the brigade.
On the other hand, since the Soviet Union was subsidizing the revolution and was also supporting the struggle of the Vietnamese, we opportunistically swallowed our criticisms. Anyone who has studied history knows that revolutions often eat their children.
Still, we have hopes that revolutions and the people who make them will not keep making the same mistake. On the other hand, what do “we” know about wielding power, being so far from ever being in that position ourselves?!
I think Fidel and perhaps a few other leaders have what Papa Freud calls an “oceanic” view of “freedom” and “liberty.” Most interpret this as having the “freedom” and “liberty” to impose their own views on everyone else, by force if necessary. This was the case in the former “Socialist camp” (and, less nakedly here in the US, and Western Europe too). In the former Socialist camp people merely exchanged one set of political and economic thugs for another. As Janis Joplin once crooned, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose!”
HT: Has your enthusiasm for Cuba changed over the years? Did you find the platonic ideals that you were looking for?
MICHAEL LANDIS: Yes…and No! Yes…and No! The “tint” on my “rose-colored glasses” has worn away. Still, Cuba has come a long way in overcoming many errors. It still has a long way to travel, but we (i.e. lefties like myself) hope that it has the potential to go that distance. If we were religious, our hopes would be transmuted into prayers, but as dialectical materialists they must remain hopes, even if these hopes are as insubstantial as the mystical thinking of religious believers. Because the world has changed, Cuba has had to change and follow a more pragmatic path.
The revolution’s original impetus was to remake Cuban society into one characterized by greater economic, social and political justice. These (platonic) “ideas” are still there – they’ll always be there. They just need to spread around to everyone, not just to the “guardians.” And the latter need to incorporate all citizens into that process of “guardianship” if they wish their ideas to flourish and triumph. In short, political, social and economic justice must become a truly dialectical process.
Perhaps during my 1969-70 visit — and certainly during subsequent visits in 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2010 — all Cubans I came into contact with were too busy just trying to survive on a day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month basis. Despite pragmatic necessities, there is still much altruism in how Cubans treat family, friends and neighbors. As the saying goes, “Cubans have nothing, but they’re glad to share it with you!” As far as the platonic “ideas” are concerned, didn’t Socrates himself say at the end of The Republic that “perhaps (this) ideal state will never exist, but this shouldn’t prevent us from attempting to make it a reality!” (to paraphrase him).
HT: I know your daughters have visited Cuba. Do they think like you?
MICHAEL LANDIS: My daughters don’t share my obsession with Cuba. Both daughters, and my wife, visited Cuba for two weeks in 2004, and my oldest daughter, Daphne, revisited Cuba with me in 2008, when she was 16. Both hope to return for future visits, since for them Cuba isn’t so charged with denotative and connotative meanings, and intellectual and emotional experiences. My youngest daughter, Dorothy, now 14, is taking Spanish in high school. A group of her classmates, including some friends, recently visited Cuba, where they volunteered at two centers, one in Pinar del Rio and one in Havana, where children with Down syndrome work in creating art. During our visit in 2008, like me, my oldest daughter realized that daily life in Cuba is a struggle.
HT: Would you like to spend your old age here as one more Cuban? If you decide to we’d be happy to have you!
MICHAEL LANDIS: The time for such a change would have been 1959, or even 1969-70. Now, I’m too much a part of where I’ve lived most of my life. Besides, while my wife is still working and my daughters are still going to school, it’s not possible. Also, I can’t really “retire” since — besides my social security pension — I only have a modest additional pension. I have to continue earning additional income to assist my oldest daughter when she starts at the university in the fall of 2011. Then too, there’s my youngest daughter who will begin the university three years later. In short, I’ll have to work ‘til I “drop” or become too senile or frail to continue working!
As I’ve said, I’m the only one in my family who is obsessed with Cuba and its revolution. So it’s unfair to force my obsession on other family members. Although both daughters have social consciousness, with Daphne’s being the most developed, their paths are still different.
Let’s say that — and this is magical thinking — if I were to win the lottery, which would allow me the opportunity to help my daughters and live in Cuba, would I? Yes! I would like to give that a try.
It’s extremely hard for the average Cuban, surviving on the equivalent of $20 (USD) a month – or even worse, as a pensioner, sustaining themself on $12 or $14 a month? In fact it’s impossible. That’s why people have to work “on the left” [on the black market]. For me this would be hard. Very hard.
On the other hand, unlike in the US, in Cuba I could live comfortably on my monthly US Social Security pension. Living like a Cuban though (and without any remittances from family members abroad), that would be very difficult. It would mean living without many material things, not only those I might want but also those I would need, like sufficient food, adequate clothing, etc.
Could I do it? I don’t know. Recently, an US journalist tried this for just one month, and wrote an article about his experiences in Harper’s Magazine. During that month he lost 18 pounds. He even “cheated” by “working on the left” when he was fortunate enough to meet some friends, act as their guide, and receive payment from them in the form of several restaurant meals and even some CUC’s [Cuban hard currency].
On the other hand, my best friend, who passed away in 1999, continued to simplify his life and live a Gandhi-like life, especially during his final decade of life, and I admired him for this. Still, he was single and didn’t have family responsibilities. Even if I could retire to Cuba, like up here, I would continue working and contributing to society in some constructive way, by tutoring or volunteering.
In the end, however, I would still have the option of boarding a plane and landing back in the First World four hours later! I’ll always feel at least a bit guilty about being able to do this, despite guilt being a counter-productive emotion, of which I am averse!
Cuba is an anomaly. It has one foot in the First World, another in the Second and yet another in the Third! (making it a truly freakish anomaly!) My hope is that Cuba will continue following its own pragmatic path in making progress towards a better standard of living for its citizens while at the same time increasing the participation of all of its citizens in governing themselves.
HT: One more thing Michael. Where do you stay each time when you come back to visit Cuba?
MICHAEL LANDIS: As mentioned earlier, I only had a brief opportunity to pass by the house of my first girlfriend one night during late 1969 or early 1970, but I didn’t have any time to stop by the house.
Towards the very end of my three-week visit to Cuba in April and May of 2006, I took a coco-taxi from Habana Vieja out to San Augustin. I’ve a good memory, so even after 47 years I quickly found the house, and introduced myself to its current owners: “Franco Franco” (Franco Sangles Fonseca), his wife Siria, and Franco Franco’s father, Juan, [who turned 90 on June 23rd]. I told them the story about my relationship to their home.
Franco Franco’s father had been given the house by Celia Sanchez in 1965 “for services rendered to the revolution” during the period of the guerilla insurgency. (One way I confirmed that their house was the correct one was by identifying a certain little shed behind the house, which still exists today.
At that time we exchanged addresses and began e-mailing each other shortly after my return. Two years later, during my last visit, Franco Franco invited me to stay at his home. I stayed in a room normally occupied by his cousin, who was able to stay with his mother during that time. Franco even said that he could build me a “condominium” on the roof of his house.
Although I would really love to live there during my visits, unfortunately for the next decade almost all of my disposable income needs to go to pay for my daughter’s university tuition. She has a few scholarships, but my wife and I still have to contribute $1,000/month! Also, I still want to explore other areas of Cuba, especially those provinces I haven’t explored extensively, like Ciego de Avila, Sancti Spiritus, Pinar del Rio and Guantanamo.
In addition, I’d like to return to Santiago de Cuba, the Sierra Maestra, the south coast of the Oriente, between Santiago and Pilon, Guantanamo and Baracoa. I’d even love to make the hike from Santo Domingo up to Pico Turquino and down to La Mula. I think I could do it, but at my own pace, which at this point is as s-l-o-w as molasses, especially uphill, where I walk from rock-to-rock, tree-to-tree, “resting” a minute or so between each segment! Still, like the famous race between the tortoise and the hare, eventually I’ll make it to my destination. And besides, life is a journey, not a destination!