I visited Havana to research a novel. I went to see what remained of pre-revolutionary Cuba—once the epitome of the lush life of acceptable sin in a tropical paradise that lured Americans seeking that taste of scandal they couldn’t get at home. In 1958 it was a country whose principal business was selling itself to America—its sugar, its rum, its beaches, its women. In Havana, anything was possible. That was the line taxi drivers used from when they took a traveler from the airport to the Hotel Nacional for a scandalous fare. It was a line used as a boast. White sand beaches, live sex on stage, razzle dazzle casino gambling. It’s all gone now. And no one wants it back. But Cubans are restless and they want more than they have.
Havana is a city in transition, busily trying to assert itself, and it is a hard place to decipher, especially for the visitor who has just arrived. What you find is a place that has expanded over hundreds of years from a small protected harbor. The old city has colonial churches, dark alleys, and fortress defenses left over from pirate attacks. The newer western districts of Vedado and Miramar have modern glass edifices built by American corporation, joined in the 1970s by the Soviet Embassy, a hideous example of Brutalism, and everywhere fleets of vintage American cars. Locals say there are more antique Cadillacs on the road in Havana than in Miami, New York, and Los Angeles.
Havana has the irresistible appeal of a city frozen in time, its skyline unchanged in 50 years. Central Havana is a time capsule of Beaux Arts architecture, having the most complete inventory of early 19th-century buildings in the New World outside of Buenos Aires. Untouched, unrestored, decaying in the salt air that comes in from the Caribbean. A beautiful ruin. It wears its melancholy proudly. The charm of the city and its misery are the same. It has the vibrant quality of a city waking from a long slumber, eyes and ears alert to the world beyond its shores.
Comparisons in Cuba are all to the neighbor to the north, which is excoriated, dismissed, and admired, but it is always there in any conversation. And Spain is here too, not only in the language and the churches, but in the guitars, the colorful clothing, and the Latin moods. It is a blithe city, carefree and fun and you see that in the bars, the lively street life, and the billboards declaring socialist prosperity to a poor people.
It’s a young country bursting with ambition trying to find itself as a nation without the burden of communism. Everywhere there is the origin story of the Revolution in stone monuments, streets named for martyrs, and parades honoring the defeat of dictator Batista. And everywhere, too, there are the police ready to sweep in and arrest beggars, or prostitutes, or women protesting disappeared relatives. The Revolution is old like its leaders, like the city’s architecture, and Cubans are eager for the next chapter in their history. Eager for Internet connections, for dollars, for opportunity, for expression.
For the visitor the contrasts are profound. The fine artist in Cuba is part of the nouveau riche. She sells her work for dollars to tourists, or in galleries in New York or Paris, which remit hard currency, and she lives in a finely refurbished Beaux Arts home in Vedado and eats in the best restaurants. Painters, musicians, baseball players have their exit visas.
It is still possible to experience Havana as a traveler, not a tourist. It is a distinction between sitting in an air conditioned hotel lobby with a tall drink and a depleted wallet, and making a rendezvous with an angry local writer who insults you and then pleads his case. The first is more comfortable, the latter more exhilarating. Both are memorable. You do one in the company of friends and the second you do alone. Alone you are an invisible observer. You can eavesdrop and see more of the city, its sadness, its people, its truth. And being the solitary traveler in Cuba is the best way to encounter the unexpected adventure.
Cuba’s writers and poets chronicle the soul of the city. Before you travel to Cuba read these remarkable voices, little known in America, but required reading for any thoughtful traveler who wants to understand the long worm of an island 90 miles from Florida.
Leonardo Padura is best known for his quartet of detective novels featuring lieutenant Mario Conde, a cop who would rather be a writer, and admits to feelings of “solidarity with writers, crazy people, and drunkards.” Try Havana Fever or Havana Blue. And there is Cabrera Infante’s Three Trapped Tigers, a playful book filled with puns, wordplay, lists upon lists. The novel has been praised as a more modern, sexier, funnier, Cuban Ulysses. Poet Nicolas Guillen, born in 1902, is probably the most influential of those Latin American poets who dealt with African themes and re-created African song and dance rhythms in literary form. Virglio Piñera, known for his caustic wit and acerbic tongue, was a prolific writer: he left behind more than 20 plays, three novels, tomes of short stories and a vast number of poems. After Castro assumed power in 1958 there was no space for Piñera, a gay man, and he was arrested under the government’s clampdown on prostitutes, pimps and “pájaro”—homosexuals in Cuban Spanish slang.
Eleven American presidents have come and gone, but Fidel hangs on like an aging patriarch straight from a writer’s imagination. Now, thawing diplomatic relations pull the imagination back to the old Havana with its slot machines, floor shows, and the intoxicating rhythms of the mambo.
Paul Vidich’s debut spy thriller, An Honorable Man, is out now from Atria. Feature image is a still from the 1964 film, Soy Cuba.