Into a Land of Incongruities

During a summer stint on the island nation the U.S. government loves to hate, a student finds something of the promise and the failings of Castro’s continuing revolution.

It was my fourth day in Havana when the soldier took my visa and passport, asked me who was the woman with the empty vodka bottle, and suggested that conducting a filmed interview right across from a police station in a police state was perhaps not such a good idea. For the record, I had no idea that I was anywhere near a police station, and I had only noticed the vodka bottle about halfway through the interview.

I had come to Cuba with Students of the World, a Duke undergraduate organization founded in 1999 by then-sophomore Courtney Spence. Spence thought undergraduates should leave college with a more global perspective, and SOW was designed to allow students to immerse themselves in cultures different from their own.

Each summer, ten undergrads travel to a different place in the world, equipped with pens, paper, and lofty ambitions. Though cultural immersion is a big part of SOW’s mission, it is equally committed to encouraging students to bring something back to the larger Duke community: Last year, after the group’s inaugural trip to Russia, SOWers presented a slide show at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies and spoke about their experiences at area elementary schools.


Karla Portocarrero '03


Armed with a digital video camera, tripod, and microphone, I had come to make a documentary about some aspect of Cuban life. My co-director was Mariana Carrera, a sophomore of Peruvian descent whose translating skills made the project possible. As Mariana and I would quickly discover, bandying about a video camera in Castro’s Cuba would be more difficult than we had anticipated. But our travels would also help show us the tremendous contradictions that embody this mysterious island.

Neither the repressive Third World slum that the U.S. government makes it out to be nor the peaceful and prosperous Communist utopia that Castro’s propagandists suggest, Cuba is a land of incongruities. It is a place where men and women enjoy free education and health-care services that would make American proponents of a Patients’ Bill of Rights jump for joy. It is also a police state, offering its inhabitants no civil liberties, and held together by a black-market economy based in U.S. dollars. It is an island populated by people quietly critical of their government, yet proud of their past—and of their common resiliency in the face of the longstanding, U.S.-inspired, economic boycott.

It is this element of pride that we were introduced to first, in a little taxicab in Central Havana with a driver named Fernando, who just couldn’t seem to keep his hands on the wheel: “I love YOU, I love ME, I love CUBA, I love AMERICA.”

I glared at Mariana. “He is going to KILL someone,” I said.

We hadn’t been driving more than five minutes, but already I could tell that in Fernando’s car, pedestrians didn’t have right of way. In fact, in Fernando’s car, only one person ever had right of way: Fernando.

We first met our eccentric driver friend outside the home of a Jewish veteran of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. The day before, Mariana and I had decided to focus our documentary on Cuba’s small Jewish community after passing by a synagogue next to the apartment where we were staying. We spent our days in synagogues and cemeteries, with people struggling to balance their allegiance to Communism with their loyalty to God. The veteran had been the first to agree to an interview. Afterward, he provided us with a list of people to contact for our project. Mariana and I wanted to get back to make some phone calls.

“I love AMERICANS, I love the LANGUAGE of ENGLISH.” Fernando had taken to us as soon as he learned that we were Americans, and he vowed to practice his English on us for “the WHOLE ride home.” He had been trying to increase his vocabulary for months, hoping to learn the language as a birthday present for his daughter, an English teacher.

“He wants you to ask him a question,” Mariana said, “so he can practice answering.”

I thought for a moment, my brain initially drawing a blank. “Do you like Cuba?”

“Do I like Cuba? I LOVE CUBA!” He told us about his home and family. “You can have dinner with me and my wife if you’d like,” he said. Fernando was eager for us to question him more. “Do you mind if we pick up my boss?” he asked us. “No charge extra to you, of course.”

“I don’t get too many Americans in here,” Fernando told us, “but I LOVE Americans. This is my lucky day! I want to tell EVERYTHING.”

ProfessorJames F.Bonk in stands in front of the blackboard


Karla Portocarrero '03


ProfessorJames F.Bonk in stands in front of the blackboard


Alex Fattal '01


We were staying in a modest casa particular in Vedado, probably the most upscale-looking section of Havana. Legally, visitors to Cuba are only allowed to stay in hotels or in private homes that are registered with the Cuban government and whose owners pay significant monthly taxes (regardless of whether they have found occupants for the month). A fair number of Cubans rent out space in their apartments illegally, pocketing the cash and running the risk of getting arrested. Most “underground” proprietors seem to agree that the practice is relatively safe, as long as both host and guest are discreet about the arrangement. At our illegal casa particular, for example, the owner, a corpulent, rather jovial woman, Lidia, even had business cards advertising “a place with hot water” and aire acondicionado. Lidia’s only request was that we not congregate as a group outside the apartment, and that we not bring unfamiliar Cubans back to the house.

Lidia claimed that most of her guests were tourists with good intentions, but according to other owners I spoke with, prostitution in Cuba is on the rise. (One woman described it as a burgeoning “Latin American Bangkok.”) More and more European men are coming to Cuba exclusively for sex, renting rooms in casas particulares to avoid the expense of bringing Cuban prostitutes back to ritzy hotels. The word on the street is that AIDS is on the rise in Cuba. But in a country that has a history of homophobia and an aversion to self-criticism, I’ve found it almost impossible to get accurate statistics on the subject.
Lidia’s apartment turned out to be a prime location for our project, because two of Havana’s three synagogues were within walking distance. The house was also relatively close to the area supermarket, where residents use their ration cards (or cash if they’ve got it) to buy rice, beans, eggs, pork, and other Cuban staples. American brand names are nowhere to be found in Cuban supermarkets (though the ubiquitous Coca-Cola somehow manages to make its way onto store shelves), and make-up, tampons, and over-the-counter drugs are virtually nonexistent on the island. Still, the supermarket offers the essentials for cheap: A 1.5-liter bottle of mineral water costs sixty cents, they sell eggs by the dime, and imitation Cocoa Puffs go for two or three dollars. Everything else—from pizza and ice cream to mangoes and milkshakes—can be purchased from street vendors for pesos.

There is also no shortage of restaurants, though like all other businesses on the island, a fair number of them are “underground,” with many located inside people’s homes. Illegal restaurateurs commission street hustlers to go out and bring back customers. At one eatery in Trinidad, a colonial town five hours out of Havana, we actually walked into a man’s house, through his living room, past his mother watching cartoons, past his children playing games, and onto a patio, where we were greeted by waiters and waitresses with soft drinks, printed menus, and warm rolls.

Alex Fattal '01


What surprised me most about our outings for food was how much of it there actually was. Granted, there wasn’t much variety. But for the most part, the supermarket aisles were pretty crowded, and people’s carts seemed relatively full. Cubans by and large seem to have the basics—a roof to cover their heads, food to eat, health care, and education. In Habana Vieja, Havana’s historic district, the Office of the City Historian fully funds day-care for children with Down syndrome and mental retardation, as well as assisted-living facilities for pregnant women and the disabled. College students don’t have to worry about financial aid, working-class folks don’t have to worry about who will take care of their dying moms and dads.

It’s not free, though—that’s for sure. Even though it doesn’t cost the Cuban people a dollar, a penny, even a peso, to put their parents in nursing homes and their kids in school, it costs them something much more valuable. It costs them their freedom. To some Cubans, the trade-off seems worth it. To others, it’s a raw deal. 

The view from the Malecón is beautiful at almost any time of day. A vast sea wall separating Havana from the Atlantic and connecting Vedado with Habana Vieja, it is the jumping-off point for Cubans hoping to evade authorities and sneak into America on homemade rafts. It’s a popular place for men to fish, for mothers to bring their young children, for European tourists to take photographs and say, “I wouldn’t want to live here but this view is something else.” To some Cubans, the wall symbolizes isolation, separation. To others, it represents the island’s exoticism.

Mariana and I had designated four days at the start of our trip to meet with potential subjects and get a sense of the island. We spent much of our time in Habana Vieja, where our fellow SOWers were helping construction workers turn a convent into a home for the aged. Half-a-million people live in Habana Vieja, which in English means Old Havana, but at times it felt like being in a small town in the Deep South where the same faces pop up time and time again—the grandmotherly figure selling newspapers for as much as you will give her, the mousy waitress at the open-air café in the middle of the city. I even came to recognize the street dogs.

In some ways, I felt safer on the streets of Habana Vieja than anywhere else I’ve ever been. With soldiers on every sidewalk and policemen trailing close behind, only the most talented (or perhaps the most ignorant) criminal would ever attempt a mugging. Even the beggars and hustlers, who are strikingly aggressive and easily outnumber the military men, know when enough is enough. One man, William, followed me five or six blocks trying to sell me cigars (cigar aficionados can find Cohibas for $35 a box if they know where to look and how not to get ripped off). When that failed, he followed me into a bar and tried to sell me his “sister.” A police officer came in and sat down next to us, and William ran out before I could even say, “I don’t think so.”

The police and soldiers are not a particularly affectionate lot, especially toward white people with video cameras. Though we were in the country legally, with student visas, we did not have the licenses journalists need to shoot the type of documentary we eventually made (they’re hard to get). Our plan, therefore, was to find an interesting and willing subject, and then to do all of our shooting indoors or in well-hidden outdoor settings (i.e., a person’s backyard). Most Cubans we spoke with agreed that if we didn’t focus on an overtly controversial topic (anti-Castro revolutionaries, for example), no one would give us a hard time, especially if we were discreet.

For the most part, they were right. We found tons of people willing, even eager, to speak their minds on camera. But everyone, with few exceptions, placed some (highly understandable) restrictions on us—“No questions about Castro,” “Don’t use my real name,” “Shoot with the lens cap on.” Once we were well into production and realized that we needed a good shot of a soldier, we climbed into a taxi and took off through the streets of Central Havana, the camera subtly peeking out through the window.

We were walking from Vedado to Old Havana when we noticed a young woman sitting on the edge of the sea wall, a striking figure with a devastatingly sad expression on her face. The woman, who we quickly learned had been drinking, was not exactly the poster child the Cuban government wanted us bringing back to the States via mini-DV.

The soldier, when he stopped us midway through our interview, was blunt. “Que hacen? La estan entrevistando?” He wanted to know why we were interviewing the woman.

“A project,” said Mariana. “For class.” 

“Tienen papeles de autorizacion?”

The soldier wanted nothing more than to give us a hard time and to make clear that our activities wouldn’t be tolerated on his turf. Apparently, he thought arresting two American students was just as bad an idea as we did. After a few more minutes of answering questions, he gave us our documents and told us to go on our way. 

The incident was jarring. But more than that, it made me wonder: What is the government so afraid of? Cuba is 96 percent literate, according to the Boston Globe. Every Cuban I spoke with knew that the newspapers were filled with propaganda, every Cuban I spoke with knew that their country—though advanced in terms of health care and education—was well behind others when it came to cars, to computers, to up-to-date, accurate news reporting. Why does Castro need soldiers on every block to curtail criticism? 

It was our last Saturday in Havana. At an early-morning protest against America’s occupation of Puerto Rico, two soldiers who hadn’t seen each other in a while were catching up. A small boy tugged at his mother’s blouse and asked if he can have some money to buy peanuts. A young couple on a bench pawed at each other. No one seemed to notice.

According to Lidia, these government-sponsored demonstrations happen every few weeks. As we got closer to the rally, a man handed us each miniature Cuban flags to wave. Everyone appeared to be holding them. The clip we saw on TV showed what looked like thousands of people waving the flags, ranting and raving about America’s flaws.

Like so much of what I’ve seen in Cuba, the clip on TV didn’t tell the whole story. While three or four hundred people participated in the protest, the 4,500-person mass behind them paid little attention to speechmaking from the official platform. Most were more interested in catching up with old friends or in getting their kids out of the house.

We had been a little nervous about heading straight into a throng of alleged America-haters. But once there, we realized that no one seemed to care who we were. This wasn’t a protest event. It was a social event. It was a giant block party and the whole country was invited.

It was confusing, frustrating. And it symbolized so much of what I had learned during my short time in Havana. Cuba is not an easy place to understand; it’s the world’s largest gray area. This country, with its beautiful beaches and crumbling buildings, with its bustling black market, with its secrets, will continue to intrigue and confound the rest of the world. In the end, I am left with the words of a European who sipped mojitos at an underground bar with us that first, balmy, star-lit night: “Cuba will seduce you, and then break your heart.” 

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