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Cuba Libre

July 2024
12min read

Sexy and melancholy, festive and forlorn, the island has always heated the Yankee imagination. The author visits there in the late afternoon of a straitened era and looks back on four centuries of passionate misunderstandings.

In those days, back in the thirties, the forties, the fifties of this century, Cuba was Havana, and Havana was a dream.

I went to Havana On one of those cruises, Forty-nine fifty To spend a few days.…

The dream was set to music—Xavier Cugat playing Ernesto Lecuona’s “Siboney” and “Malaguena” and “You Are Always in My Heart,” Bing Crosby crooning, “They’re glad to see you, in See-You-Bee-Ay.”

In those days Havana could be smelled and felt and tasted like a tropical fruit. Its flavor was in a daiquiri cocktail mixed to your order at the Floridita, Ernest Hemingway’s hangout on Obispo Street. The bartender made your drink with Cuban sugar and the juice of Cuban limes and a wallop of Havana’s own Bacardi rum, and he shook it on the ice by hand. Havana’s touch was in the sun and wind along the Malecon, on the beaches at Miramar and Siboney. Its fragrance was in the blue-gray smoke of a corona, a panatela, a perfecto—seductive names that made an ordinary stogie sound as rich and mellow as it looked.

Reckless, contradictory, sensuous Havana! A young naval officer, steaming into port on an American cruiser in 1946, could sense its allure miles away: “The mixed aroma of coffee, tobacco, sugar, and rum was so strong that I can smell it still. And when we entered the narrow passage between the city and Morro Castle, the water around us was jammed with rowboats full of clamoring prostitutes!”

That was the trouble with the dream. Unpleasant realities kept seeping in. Cuba was a slave, and Havana was a whore. Most of the carefree American visitors were able to persuade themselves that the Cubans liked it that way. Every so often there would be a palace coup. New Bad Guys would replace the old Bad Guys. Editorial writers up north would express satisfaction that Cuba had finally changed its wicked ways, and the jolly steamers would glide to and fro, across the ninety miles between Havana and Key West. In 1953, the year that Fidel Castro and his comrades failed in their first, fatally botched attempt to overthrow the government of Fulgencio Batista, there were eighty tourist flights a week from Miami to Havana (forty dollars roundtrip, including a five-dollar U.S. travel tax). Down in Havana you could bet the horses, play the lottery, fry your brains with dope, or watch an exhibition of sexual bestiality that would have shocked Caligula. Orchestras of moist-lipped senoritas in low-cut scarlet dresses played rumba music in the cafés on the plaza. George Raft, the movie actor, ran a casino that everyone knew was owned by the mob.

I did not make it to Havana in those days, I was too young, too poor, too far away. But like most Americans, I carried in my mind a small assortment of blurred images of Cuba, like a packet of smudgy postcards from someone else’s vacation trip. There was a snapshot of Teddy, the Republican Roosevelt (the one whom my grandmother did not refer to as “That Man”), in pince-nez and wide-brimmed hat leading his Rough Rider cavalry up the jungly slope of San Juan Hill. (That picture was almost the extent of my knowledge of the Spanish-American War of 1898, except that we had invaded the island and taken it from Spain because somebody blew up our battleship Maine in Havana Harbor and the jingo press of Hearst and Pulitzer, on no evidence, had blamed the disaster on the Spaniards.)

The Cuba in my mind was luscious but unreliable, a noisy, slovenly next-door neighbor, too close to be ignored, too strange to be em braced—a Spanish-speaking, Roman Catholic, Afro-European neighbor, with a feudal society, plantation agriculture, tyrannical institutions, tropical diseases, and bad habits. Over the years the Cubans seemed to waver unpredictably between ardent love and bitter hatred for the United States, sometimes begging for our attention, sometimes lashing out at us and inciting other nations to oppose us, and America had responded by alternately bossing and bribing, threatening and ignoring Cuba, like a distracted parent trying to control a spoiled child.

What I did not know about Cuba was that during all those lilting years of daiquiris and rumbas, $49.50 weekend cruises and tea dances at the Havana Sevilla-Biltmore, American businesses, American banks, and American gangsters had owned Cuba just as surely as Britain and France owned their colonies in Africa and Asia. Fidel Castro laid out his case against the American regime in a four-and-a-half-hour address to the United Nations General Assembly in New York City in 1960, the year after he had seized power. All the public services in Cuba —electricity, telephones, transit lines- were owned or controlled by American companies. Most of the banks, the import-export firms, the sugar and oil refineries, the arable land—those, too, were owned by Americans. The standard of living, especially in rural areas, was primitive: More than a third of Cubans were illiterate, 70 percent of rural children had no teachers, nine out of ten rural children had parasites, and 2 percent of the entire population had tuberculosis. Close to half the liand was owned by 1.5 percent of all the land-owners, and 85 percent of the small farmers paid a third of their gross income in rent.

Over the years Cubans seemed to waver between ardent love and bitter hatred for the United States.

No one argued that Castro’s complaint was untrue. Most of us Americans were concerned only that Castro was, or might become, a Communist. He had come to New York in the uniform of a guerrilla. He and his delegation had chosen to stay in a hotel in Harlem, from which they seemed to thumb their noses at the power and splendor of midtown Manhattan. He had publicly hugged the ruler of the Soviet Union. He was a revolutionary, and he would undermine our power in the Caribbean and turn the rest of the Western Hemisphere against us and against democracy. Fear of Cuba choked us like blind rage.


Our fear, exaggerated as it seemed, was real enough. Its historical roots went back to the founding of the English-speaking settlements in North America, when Spain was the enemy of England and the Spanish colonies in the Caribbean were older, richer, and considerably stronger than the struggling Anglo-Saxon outposts in Virginia and Massachusetts. Cuba was the base from which the Spaniards had invaded and conquered Mexico. Cuba could become the base from which the Spaniards might attack the English colonies. Long after Spanish power had declined, leaders of the vulnerable young American republic were haunted by anxiety that Cuba might be captured by some hostile foreign power—France or Britain in the nineteenth century, Germany or Russia in recent times.

Then, too, there was the problem of piracy. For two hundred years predatory buccaneers roved from the Bahamas to Central America, looting towns, murdering garrisons, and helping themselves to other people’s ships. Most of the buccaneers were British or French. Their name came from the smoke ovens (buccans) of Santo Domingo, and their refuge was the island of Tortuga, but it was Cuba that grew rich on their privateering and their illicit trading, and it was Cuba that was remembered for their crimes. Bucanero, one of the leading beers in Havana, is labeled with the face of a snarling pirate in a three-corned yellow hat.

Toward the end of the eighteenth century, while Britain was losing its North American colonies and France was rumbling with revolution, the European powers continued to meddle in the Caribbean, hoping to break Spain’s rigid control of trade with its colonies. The United States, newly independent, adopted a cautious attitude toward the continued presence of Spain in the New World. President James Monroe’s so-called Monroe Doctrine of 1823, stating that we would consider any extension of European power in the Western Hemisphere “dangerous to our peace and safety,” was intended primarily to warn other countries not to capitalize on Spain’s weakness. As for Cuba, the last remaining jewel in the Spanish crown, Monroe’s Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams, thought the island would eventually gravitate peace- fully and naturally to the North American Union.

There always were Americans who hoped to speed the process. The acquisitive President James Knox Polk, after annexing Texas and California, offered Spain a hundred million dollars for Cuba. (No deal.) And in the decade before the Civil War, self-appointed liberators from the American South launched a filibustering expedition to bring the blessings of civilization to the Caribbean and add a few more slave states to the Union. With similar intent our minister to Great Britain, James Buchanan, who was later to be President, joined the American ministers in Paris and Madrid in 1854 in signing the notorious Ostend Manifesto, which, to the delight of pro-slavery expansionists, urged the United States to acquire Cuba, by purchase if possible and by force if necessary. Down in Dixie, people figured Cuba could be divided into at least two new slave states.


The Civil War put the issue temporarily out of our minds. Encouraged by Lincoln’s emancipation of the slaves of his enemies, Cuban separatists rebelled against their Spanish governor and fought from 1868 to 1878 for national autonomy and a gradual end to slavery. The United States, exhausted by its own struggle, looked the other way. The Cuban rebellion ended with the promises of amnesty, obedience, and reform, but within a few years the promises were dust and most of the rebel leaders were back in exile, conspiring again to overthrow the Spaniards.

Although they were nationalists rather than social reformers, the nineteenth-century rebels remain the historical idols of Castro’s socialist dictatorship: Floating above the others like the icon of a martyred saint is the gentle poet José Martí, who was killed in a Spanish cavalry charge a few weeks after he returned to Cuba that from years of lecturing, organizing, and pamphleteering in Europe and the United States.

In the thirties, forties, and fifties Havana could be smelled and felt and tasted like a tropical fruit.
Havana got so rich selling sugar in World War I that Cubans called the times the Dance of the Millions.

It is JosÉ MartÍ whose life-size marble bust stands at the door X of every school in Cuba, and the fight that he stirred up in 1895 is well remembered, both in Cuba and in the United States, although the significance and even the name of the conflict are different in Key West and Havana. Here it is called the Spanish-American War; there it is called the Second War of Independence, part of a ninety-year “revolution” that continued from 1868 to 1959.

The American version of the war story is that the Cuban rebels had been fighting against entrenched, experienced, well-armed Spanish forces for three agonizing years and were pleading for help. Almost a quarter of the Cuban population had been killed. Thousands more were dying of dis- ease and starvation. To a few Americans it appeared that we had a moral duty to rescue the Cubans; but most of us preferred to stay out of foreign wars, even the wars of tiny neighbors. The peaceable President William McKinley reluctantly sent the battleship Maine on a “friendly visit” to Havana, miles away from the fighting, to nudge the Spaniards toward a settlement. On the night of February 15, 1898, three weeks after her uneventful arrival, the Maine blew up in Havana Bay, killing 260 officers and crewmen.

Irrationally, but opportunely, we blamed the Spaniards for causing what was probably an accidental explosion in a coal bunker. (In Castro’s Havana it is widely believed that Americans blew up the Maine and sacrificed its crew to give us an excuse to invade Cuba.) In three months we stripped Spain of its colonial possessions in Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam.

Our attack on the ghost of a dying empire was in fact pure imperialism, but most Americans believed at the time that the war had served the interest of the Cubans as much as it had served our own. Proud of our role as liberators, we took over the old Spanish forts and barracks in Havana and occupied them for three years. We closed the bullfights, cleaned the filth from the streets, built roads and schools and sewers, and set the Cubans to work drafting a constitution for themselves, modeled on our ideas of representative government. Most important, we sent a team of Army doctors who eradicated the mosquito that carried yellow fever. Seeing ourselves as generous caretakers soothed whatever guilt we felt about that brief but ugly war.

In 1902, professing that we wanted no territorial gains—and imposing on Cuba an agreement (the Platt Amendment) that would allow us to maintain military bases on the island and to interfere in Cuban affairs if anyone smelled trouble—we withdrew our troops. A few years later the first Cuban president called back our Army to put the lid on a new rebellion; but we kept our word, recalled our soldiers, and thereafter ran our Caribbean colony (which called itself an independent republic) on a system of moral neglect and economic exploitation.


Havana got so rich selling sugar in World u I War I that the Cubans called the times the JL, JL. Dance of the Millions. Sugar daddies (the term may have originated here), Cuban and American, built pink marble villas in the new suburb of Miramar and booked entire floors of hotels when they went to Paris to shop. Before long, competition and overproduction knocked the props out from under the world price of sugar, the sugar daddies went broke, and Havana was suddenly poor again and eager to sell itself for Yankee dollars.

By the late 1920s the quintessential Habanero had become a New York businessman in a starched white collar and a striped cravat, a doublebreasted navy blazer, white flannels, and black-and-white wingtip oxfords. He owned a hotel, a string of ponies, a power plant, a sugar mill, a piece of the Havana Jockey Club. As he saw it, Prohibition had taken all the fun out of America, and Havana was now the international playground of blithe spirits. An energetic dictator named Gerardo Machado, known in Cuba as el gran carnicero (“the great butcher”) was maintaining law and order and sprucing up the streets. He ran a secret police force called the porra, which specialized in kidnapping students and torturing them until they confessed to having rebellious intentions. American tourists were warned to wear hats and speak English so they would not be taken for students and muscled off to jail.

But oh! That Havana! You could drink Bacardi and play baccarat, roulette, hazard, craps, birdcage, electric poker, bookmaker, or wheel-of-chance at the casino, waltz at the roof garden of the Sevilla-Biltmore, or pick up a blonde (forty cents and up) on Virtue Street. Irénée du Pont was building a seaside house at Veradero Beach, a few hours west of the city. At Veradero there would be a yacht harbor, hotels, tennis counts, golf courses, and the vacation cottages of American millionaires—a winter New- port on the Caribbean.

A British journalist named Basil Woon wrote a book about it, enticingly called When It’s Cocktail Time in Cuba . He checked out the grand lottery, the January social scene, and Sloppy Joe’s bar. He concluded that Havana was becoming the Monte Carlo of the Western Hemisphere.

In the midst of these bright expectations, a group of Cubans and Americans erected a monument on the Malecon, Havana’s magnificent seaside promenade, commemorating the loss of the Maine. At the center were two Corinthian columns, topped with a soaring bronze eagle. The inscriptions at the base recalled the war, and there were guns and anchors and medallions cast of metal salvaged from the wreckage of the battleship. Its dedication marked the peak of fellowship between the nations.

The butcher Machado was pushed out in 1933 by another butcher, a young officer named Fulgencio Batista, and the American ambassador, Sumner Welles, was credited with contributing to Machado’s fall. A throng of Cubans tore palm fronds and yellow cannas from the garden of the Presidential Palace and carried them, singing and cheering, past the American Embassy. Sloppy Joe’s survived the challenge of a neighboring bar called Sanitary George’s.

The Maine monument’s inscription has been altered in the style of the revolutionary credos in Orwell’s Animal Farm .

America was beginning to worry about Nazis in the Western Hemisphere. The old fear of foreign influence in Cuba surfaced again. On the eve of World War II, John G’fcnther, the most widely read foreign correspondent in the United States, passed through Havana gathering material for his book Inside Latin America . His questions reflected our historic anxiety: How stable was the government of Cuba? How much did Havana like us? Gunther’s answer was that President Fulgencio Batista, while wrestling with the problems of poverty and a single-crop economy, was “intimate and friendly” to the United States.

It was eighteen years later that Castro’s revolution drove friendly, corrupt, intolerable Batista into exile. Significantly, many of Castro’s earliest and most publicized reforms were supposed to end the social ills of Havana: prostitution, drug abuse, casino gambling, cockfights, and the lottery, all of which the rural revolutionaries associated with the evil city and its American masters.

Not long ago I finally made my cruise from Miami to Havana, not as a tourist but in a party of working journalists on a Bolivian plane loaded with Florida Cubans carrying Coleman lanterns, vitamin pills, electric fans, teddy bears, Pepto-Bismol, and other unobtainable necessities to their relatives in Havana. Havana turned out to be a city of crumbling walls and melancholy boulevards with virtually no markets, no restaurants, no shops, no gathering places, no transportation—almost none of the attributes that make cities endurable. The Cuban people were there, walking or biking with surprising spirit past the decaying facades of the rich old business houses and the pink marble mansions of the sugar daddies, garlanded now with strings of laundry and plastered with signs proclaiming faith in socialism, Cuban independence, and the endurance of the Revolution.

We did what visitors from hardcurrency countries are expected and required to do. We ate small plates of shredded pork, black beans, and rice at the Bodeguita del Medio and drank mojitas , and paid in dollars. We took a taxi (for dollars) driven by a cardiac surgeon who had done a bypass that morning but made his living as a cabbie. We took a bus (for dollars) out to Veradero on a deserted highway and sat on the porch of Irénée du Font’s mansion (a public restaurant now) and watched the quiet sea. We talked for a couple of hours to a Cuban economist who said: “We were a colony of Spain for more than four hundred years, a colony of the United States for sixty years, and a colony of the U.S.S.R. for thirty years. I do not know whether it will ever be possible for us, politically, economically, or psychologically, to be a self-sufficient nation.”


Strolling bands sought us out and serenaded us (for dollars) with “Siboney” and “Guantanamera” and “Tu es siempre in mi corazón, ” and a girl with shiny black hair and flash- ing eyes recited a poem by José Martf in a classroom near Matanzas. We talked about the effect of the American embargo with the editors at Granma , the Communist party’s national newspaper, and went to the Museum of the Revolution and looked at the blood-stained bandages and blotchy photographs and old typewriters and bullet-ridden cars that are the artifacts of the Twenty-Sixth of July Movement.

One afternoon I walked down to inspect the monument to the Maine in its little traffic island on the Malecon. I was thinking about my country’s negligent, heartless, and seldom heroic role in Cuba. The monument, the eagle atop it long gone, looked as forlorn as a lone tree on a stormy shore. Its inscriptions, which have been altered in the fashion of the revolutionary placards in George Orwell’s Animal Farm , describe the men who died on the Maine as victims sacrificed to the cause of American imperialism.

Nearby, on the sea wall, a young man and a woman were sitting close together, staring into the ocean haze alone the invisible coast of Florida. A kid in blue jeans and a white T-shirt spotted me and cut across the boulevard to offer me (for dollars) a contraband cigar. A biker pedaled past without turning his head.

The monument that symbolized a moment of repose in the indifferent, humiliating centuries has become instead a monument to mistrust, a meeting place of strangers on the make.

Havana, Then and Now

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