Saturday,23 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1357, (17 - 23 August 2017)
Saturday,23 February, 2019
Issue 1357, (17 - 23 August 2017)

Ahram Weekly

A night in Havana

 The State Department has expelled two diplomats from Cuba’s Embassy in Washington following a series of unexplained incidents in Cuba that left U.S. officials there with physical symptoms.
The State Department has expelled two diplomats from Cuba’s Embassy in Washington following a series of unexplained incidents in Cuba that left U.S. officials there with physical symptoms.

After a bizarre “incident” in Havana, two Cuban diplomats were expelled from their embassy in the US. Is it any wonder?

With his brash smile and smooth talk, a naïve Barack Obama in 2015, believed that a “rapprochement” with the communist country, the establishment of mutual embassies, travel, industry and commerce, would improve the Cold War status that has existed between the two countries since 1961. 

Following complaints of unexplained medical symptoms by US personnel based in Havana several were recalled quietly last May and investigations are underway. Now the word is out, the media is curious, the State Department is noncommittal, but The Washington Post reported that Cuba used “some weapon that left the victims with severe hearing loss”, so severe that diplomats’ terms were cancelled early. It is believed that Cuban intelligence officers attached an advanced sonic weapon that operated beyond the range of audible sound, deployed outside their residences.

As for spying, Fidel Castro built one of the world’s most active intelligence services in surveillance able to penetrate the highest levels of governments. Some of the biggest crises in the US can be traced to the involvement of Cuban spies — the Bay of Pigs (1961) and the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962). Was not Obama familiar with their regular use of diplomats as spies? 

Did Obama think Cuba would bide by international rules?

To those who thought the country would implode after Castro’s death, think again! Brother Raul, minus the charisma and style, is as strong as steel at 85. He accompanied his brother throughout their long revolutionary years and guerilla warfare. He ordered the executions, fire squads and torture of tens of thousands of their own compares, who fought with them side by side.

Since Castro’s death, life in Cuba has not changed much. A few cell-phones, some cyber cafés and the pleasure of watching Venezuelan TV, which is more glitzy than their 1950s’ Soviet-era propaganda channels, is all the change. Life remains a repressive communist regime.

This intriguing little island of 11, 484, 242 million, a Caribbean wonderland with sugar white beaches, dotted with tobacco fields, has stirred the interest of the world and its leader Castro, nationalist daring revolutionary, known for his audacity, fearlessness and love of country — but what is his legacy? Except for the sugar plantations and Havana cigars, which existed long before him, it is a poor legacy he leaves.

No leader of such a small island nation kept the world engaged and the US fearful than did Castro. 

Dictator or liberator he could only stop his people from choosing a Western-style economy, forcing them to embrace his own ideology of communism against their will. 

Almost two million of them left their homes, in big boats, small boats, even canoes to cross the 141km of water and land in Florida.

Lined with pastel houses of the 1950s era and Spanish colonial architecture of the 16th century, the capital Havana still stands. Ranked as one of the world’s greatest and dynamic cities in 1959, the buildings and vistas of Havana have neglected to heed the passage of time. Like a legendary ageing beauty, it covers its face by day hoping the wrinkles are somewhat obscured. 

The buildings and vistas of Havana are still so overwhelming in their magnificence, ignoring their present dilapidation and the poverty surrounding them. Perhaps the Imperial glory has faded but the buildings haughtily stand guard to La Plaza de la Catedral, Teatro de la Habana or El Capitolio.

During the 1950s Havana was paradise for the rich. A trip back in time will find warm, kind, fun-loving people. The city sizzled with passion, romance, cabarets, casinos, gamblers, swindlers, not to mention 11,500 legal prostitutes, adding to the mystery, intrigue and endless clandestine deals. Every pleasure is provided, including delectable food, glittering jewellery and breathtaking beauties. 

The sparkling Caribbean beckons, so clear, you can see right through the bottom. Avoid looking at the modern homes that look like low-income tenements. Wander through Necropolis of Cristobal Colon better known as Christopher Columbus, City of the Dead, a cemetery grave where native tribes, now totally vanished, are buried.

Wait for the night. As the sun descends into the sea it signals that life has begun — nightlife that is. The glittering nightlife gave Havana its irrepressible reputation. 

“At night the neighbourhood recovered its old majesty. Darkness hid the cracks and grimes and from a distance it took on again its old splendor,” wrote Cuban author Heberto Padilla.

If nothing else, you shall rhumba, despite yourself, to its sensuous strains. If you prefer, salsa or soukous, Spanish fusion, flamenco Afro-Cuban Jazz, or whatever your heart desires. Cuban music is highly popular and influential throughout the world. It’s the most popular regional music since the introduction of recording technology.

Cuban music helped make Havana the largest city in America.

To walk where various Meso-American peoples walked in 4000 BC, or sail where Columbus sailed up and down the coast or shake to a salsa, without a care in the world of a coup or a spy or another revolution, is lulling — and not inconceivable.

For now just dreaming of a night in Havana before the struggles, the upheavals, the bloodshed and the poverty — and the spying — will have to do.

“All modern revolutions have ended in a reinforcement of the power of the state.”

 Albert Camus (1913-1960)

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