Entry 4

This entry was written on Monday, July 26.

I’m on my way into Santa Clara—a provincial capital 300 kilometers east of Havana—for Fidel’s annual speech celebrating the kickoff of the revolution. What should have been a three-hour trip has now taken us six hours. The highway is in horrible shape, and we had flat tire. As T., my driver and a former general who had somehow fallen into disgrace, was fixing it, an Austrian couple who had joined us for the trip decided he was charging too much. A lengthy argument ensued, the tension broken only when we noticed a fleet of Mercedes roaring by. “See that,” said T. “That’s Fidel’s caravan.”

The festivities are supposed to be at the Revolution Plaza, abutting the big, spooky Che Monument. (He fought a battle here during the revolution. Large bronze statues resulted.) About 50,000 people are expected. The town center is filled with cheery Cubans sporting red shirts, making their way to the event. But it looks like it’s going to rain. And soon I hear that the speech has been moved indoors to an auditorium that only holds 900 people. It’s not first come, first serve. You need an invitation. There go my chances of seeing the spectacle.

I head back to my hotel, the Santa Clara Libre, a seemingly Soviet-era monstrosity. (It turns out to have been built just before the revolution—by the same architect who built some Cuban prisons.) There’s no air-conditioning, nor, for the moment, running water. I go to watch the speech on my TV; except it turns out to be just a mantle piece—the power cord has been snipped.

I head downstairs to lodge a symbolic complaint. The lobby is filled with foreigners milling around, presumably in the same situation as myself, all hoping to catch a glimpse of El Jefe. Judging by the number of mullets, it’s mostly Europeans. Many holding celebratory flags, some sporting Che shirts.

In the hotel lobby, watching Fidel  
In the hotel lobby, watching Fidel  

There is a TV in the lobby. It offers nothing but snow until one of the hotel staffers stands with a six-foot high tall antenna, twisting it here and there until he finds the sweet spot.

Nuestro Comandante, Fidel! Castro! Ruiz!” says the M.C.

Fidel comes up to the podium and clears his throat, at length. Twice. Then he starts speaking v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y. It’s a Bush bash-arama: Dubya addled his brain on beer, says Fidel, hence the WMD scandal. (Slight paraphrasing.) The disquisition takes the better part of an hour. Eventually, even the Euro-groupies—drinking and smoking up a storm—get bored, and the chatter in the lobby begins to drown out Fidel’s monologue. I walk outside, as much to escape the stinking smoke as the tirade.

Listening on a car radio, I head back into the lobby just as Fidel is wrapping up. “Let’s hope that, in Cuba’s case, God does not ‘instruct’ Mr. Bush to attack our country,” he says. “Long live the truth! Long live human dignity!”

The mullet-crew lets out a sustained applause.

The next morning, I wait at the bus station for … something to take me to Havana. There are a few buses per day. All are sold out. There are also private cars that take people—illegally, of course. I’ve been here, along with a few other foreigners, for three hours, and we haven’t seen a car leave. That’s when the tourists revolt. One Colombian woman complains how hard it is to travel here.

“You have to listen to the music,” responds one friendly Mexican academic. “Cuba is a special place.”

“Yeah,” retorts the Colombian, “especially hard.”

There’s a graduate student from Quebec waiting with us. He had planned on traveling around the island for a month. He’s going home after two weeks. That is, if he can get a ticket. Cubana airlines says he’ll just have to show up at the airport. “The logistics here are a nightmare,” he says. “And I had heard about how friendly Cubans were. I don’t know. I’m sick of getting hustled.”

Twenty dollars and three hours later, I make it back to my B&B in Havana. (The Canadian, the Mexican, and I had finally found a private car.) I decide to try to rent a cell phone, even though doing so requires a few hundred dollars deposit. I’ve become friends with the B&B’s owner. We had spent many evenings chatting honestly—about the economy, the U.S., and Fidel. So I ask her if she has any tips for picking up a handheld.

“I have two cell phones,” she offers, “You can take one of mine.”

I hesitate.

“Are you going to meet dissidents?” she asks.

I never told her I was reporting. Don’t ask, don’t tell, I figured. But now that she’s asked, I don’t want to lie, especially when doing so would put her at risk. “Yes,” I say.

 “I think it’d be best if you found someplace else to stay,” she says, “You can find one in the guidebook.”