Tourist Tales from Cuba
Vincente Morin Aguado
HAVANA TIMES — Having found these two South Africans was true luck, one of those unforgettable moments in life. This was during one of the worst times to live in Havana – at least when it came to interacting with tourists [tbe mid-1990’s].
Ingha was a social worker and Guy a doctor. Both were white, according to the traditional canons used for labeling people. Their souls, though, ran the entire spectrum of possible tones of human beings.
Thinking back to my three semesters of university English and demonstrating an infinite willingness to interact for them, we started walking around Old Havana.
My head was something like the Morro lighthouse: revolving to each side, first attending to their every question, slowly making abundant gestures with precision; and then revolving to the opposite side, seeing the newly deployed members of the specialized police force charged with keeping tourists from naturally coming up to Cubans.
The contradiction is that Cubans were and continue to be of special interest by visitors who come here from other countries.
For these South Africans the matter took on special meaning, since they came from a country that had just gotten rid of apartheid and they recognized something emblematic in Cuba, where efforts had long been underway to eliminate all forms of discrimination between humans.
There question about the racial problem here was raised directly, therefore becoming the first serious dilemma I had to confront: Is there racism in Cuba? I answered yes…and no.
It doesn’t exist if we approach it as a matter of law, constitutionally, but it does exist when it comes to everyday life.
They then asked for a demonstration of this second part and, walking a bit, we found some interesting examples.
I asked them to give me a second so that I could call my house. I was going to the pay phone when there, against the wall, I found a poster calling on young people to take classes in dance and classical ballet.
I noticed that among the requirements was the clear and specific exclusion of people with dark skin. Guy eternalized this injustice with a flash from his big “Canon Eos-300” camera.
Shortly after, when taking the usual route from Obisbo Street towards the Plaza de Armas, at two blocks from our destination we came on the second example: the inevitable police check.
A young police officer asked me for my ID while trying to ask Ingha how our relationship had been established. Being a social worker, she knew how to deal with the situation, also using the excuse of her lack of Spanish. The uniformed female officer finally concluded that I wasn’t a “social threat” and allowed me to move on.
I took a deep breath, but after that I lived in a permanent state of uncertainty, at least during the several days of intensive exchanges with the South Africans.
We fixed dinner for them at the house of a relative of mine, a retired soldier, had fought in Angola, in addition to having served in missions in other African countries.
Along with his experiences on the so-called “Dark Continent,” they had brought a good stereo, furniture and other important items for attending to visitors back in Cuba – things I’m missing in my home, since I haven’t traveled beyond Baracoa, in eastern Cuba.
It turned out to be quite a pleasant night. With Bob Marley thundering from the four speakers and more and more of the neighbors gradually showing up, it didn’t matter to the visitors how many were participating in the evening festivities, let alone the natural increase in diners and rum drinkers.
Translators appeared who were better than me, which allowed us to conclude a real debate, from which all of us came out culturally enriched, in addition to well fed and a little tipsy.
At dawn they went back to the hotel by taxi after agreeing to meet with me later that morning. They wanted to visit a place that’s impossible to forget when it comes to foreigners in Cuba: Revolution Square.
In an American car, we arrived at the Jose Marti monument, where Ingha and Guy showed their genuine satisfaction. But the real challenge for the car’s driver was to avoid the police controls in place at that time (that prohibition was eventually eliminated by the current government, which now allows cars operated by licensed self-employed workers to carry tourists as passengers).
After scanning across the Havana landscape from its highest point, the tower on the square (whose base is shaped like a lone star, the symbol of the unity and independence of our nation), we walked toward a line of taxis with the aim of returning to the hotel. That would be the formal farewell between us, though it was briefly interrupted by yet another avatar.
This time it was a law enforcement officer in plain clothes, who showed me his official ID after drawing it from the almost transparent pocket of his white shirt. He asked me a few questions, the kind that can have any answer because of their incongruity: “What are you doing? How did you meet? Where do you work? Are you a professional tour guide?”
Fortunately I managed to promise to leave them at their hotel and to conclude the tour that way, because otherwise it would have been be extremely rude. Plus, my friends from South Africa stood firmly beside me.
This officer knew some English and understood the situation. He jotted down my personal data in a little notebook, and gave me something that was between a warning and a recommendation: “Please, involve yourself in other activities. For attending to tourists, the state has a professional staff whose specific responsibilities are seeing to them.”
Vincent Morin Aguado. August 2012. [email protected]