Vincent Morin Aguado
HAVANA TIMES – When I asked him his name he replied: James Sexton, Anglo-Saxon surname. I live in Oakville, on Lake Ontario, near Toronto. I told him where I was from, remarking that his town was close to the famous Niagara Falls.
But he wanted to make sure I was who I said I was so he said: We’re not far away from the Maine on the map. Doesn’t that suggest something to you? What do you know about the events surrounding the battleship Maine?
He spoke Spanish slowly, abbreviated almost, typical of English when faced with a Romance language like ours, marked by conjugations that are generally non-existant for them.
I understood that he was studying our culture and talked to him the way I usually do, modulating my voice, which was pleasing to his ear, making it easier for him to understand, I, of course, asked him to do the same if he felt he had to speak in his native language.
Empathy was established immediately as I told him the story of the “Maine” in Havana harbor, avoiding the usual stock phrases coined over the years, reflecting political prejudices but lacking in hard evidence.
In fact the latest research indicates it was an accident which was directly manipulated by the imperialist press of Hearst and used by the interventionist faction to pressure a hesitant President Mc Kinley.
Months before I had read the latest reports on the battleship Maine in Spanish magazines, when the Spanish Cultural Center in Havana was offering free media library services to Cubans. Unfortunately the place was closed by the Cuban government on dubious grounds without putting anything in its place to substitute for those excellent cultural facilities.
It turns out that the vessel in question, a Class II battleship exploded in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898, killing 266 members of the crew, almost all of them soldiers since the officers had the customary privilege of going ashore to enjoy themselves and attend a dance being held in the city.
Randolph Hearst used his powerful media empire to accuse the Spanish of treachery at a time when the last thing the Iberians wanted was American intervention in the war we Cubans were fighting for independence.
With both sides exhausted, Spain’s General Valeriano Weyler, dubbed “The Butcher” by the Hearst press, introduced his reconcentration” policy with concentration camps in which hundreds of thousands of Cubans died, a forerunner of the Nazi concentration camps. A push was all that was needed to tip the balance and ultimately the Americans made the move.
I explained these things to my friend Sexton, pointing out that the common sense explanation was the technology of the time, based on coal fire boilers, the material receptacles of the energy needed to drive the ship’s engines but really dangerous because of the amount of highly explosive gases released and still present when the boilers were shut down. A long list of accidents are reported with this as the cause.
But some people were having none of it. An incident was needed for intervention and one was duly manufactured. Others were invented and added by Hearst, founder of media manipulation: The rescue from prison in Havana of the beautiful Evangelina Cisneros Cosio from Camaguey who was exibited all over the the United States as a victim of Spanish oppression, was one.
Needing more to stoke the fire, a personal letter from Spanish diplomat in New York, Dupuy de Lome was stolen. Addressed to his own government the letter was critical of President Mc Kinley and underlined his weaknesses in governing.
The table was now set. The explosion of the Maine was served up as dessert. My friend James was celebrating his 80th birthday on Cuban soil and invited me to share it after our chat about Cuban history.
I have always admired the man for the fact that, retired and of a respectable age, he had come to Cuba to learn Spanish. He thanked me kindly for recommending “Jardín” a novel by Dulce Maria Loynaz, as a real course for anyone wanting to learn our language. Before going to the restaurant, I gave him a history book on the Spanish-American war to which, I believe the Cuban, war should always be appended.
I chose a restaurant inside the famous fortress of La Cabaña, a place with lots of history. Sexton came fully prepared to pay for the best without asking the price. He was a simple man, not at all mean, incapable of an arrogant gesture. He liked the atmosphere, away from the bustle of Havana, where we could talk quietly without being propositioned by someone wanting to sell you something or other.
Being his birthday celebration, we drank a few toasts which, ultimately, requires a visit to the toilet or the bathroom as we say in Cuba. I went first, thinking how I had not seen the usual doors in the interior of the restaurant with their internationally known logos. I walked about a hundred meters along historic hallways, only to find some public toilets but they were closed off with bars and padlocks.
Looking for another solution, one of the night watchmen showed me the perfect outlet: an interior courtyard with a – at that moment – beautifully moonlit garden with leafy trees in abundance, enough to camouflage anyone having a pee.
I returned to the table making my excuses for the delay, after the shrimp and the excellent lobster praised by James, until my friend raised the inevitable question: “Where is the bathroom, because I don’t see one inside? ”
“Well Mr. Sexton, just remember that we are in a fancy Havana restaurant where you have the opportunity of experiencing a romantic Cuban toilet, sanitary and very special.” And off we went. The waiter did not bat an eyelid. There is no way of escaping without paying from La Cabana, and anyway we looked pretty alright.
We returned by taxi, James Sexton obviously happy the way the night had gone and me too. He took his leave without further personal revelation. I don’t know if he is still with us but I truly hope so. I admire his boundless joy for life and his determination to get acquainted with Spanish culture at an age well beyond the average of most of the inhabitants of our planet.
Vincent Morin Aguado: firstname.lastname@example.org