Havana, 2004

Profa perches on the edge of a desk, long tawny legs crossed under her miniskirt. She’s around forty, with wavy black hair and a faint mustache on her upper lip. She expounds on Marx’s theory of alienated labor between drags on her cigarette. In her Cuban accent, Marx sounds like Mars.

The classroom walls are blue grey, except where desks have chipped away sedimentary layers of green and burnt orange. The only light comes from four tall, narrow windows, screened by an overgrown palm tree. Electricity has been shut off for renovations in the next wing, and the muted thud of hammers reverberates through the walls. No electricity means no fan. The palm fronds rustle against the wooden shutters, but the air in the classroom doesn’t move. The heat presses on my eyelids, even though I downed two shots of sugary espresso before class.

Marry, Fuck, Desert Island, Kelly scribbles in the corner of my notebook. Marx, Engels, Lenin?

I consider the black and white portraits of Marx and Engels on the wall to our left. Dust frames the negative space where Lenin should be. Someone has kindly propped our fallen comrade against the baseboard, where he can glower at our feet.

Marx has a certain animal magnetism, I have to admit—“like fucking a bear”—Kelly concurs in the margins. Engels, with a little work, looks more like someone you could take home to Mom. Lenin, well, he doesn’t look hardy enough to survive for long on a desert island, but that might not be a bad thing.

“I know some of you will have had difficulty with the reading, as you lack the philosophical framework to understand Marx’s premise.” I nudge Kelly. Profa is looking at us. There are several other US students in the class, also enrolled through the Butler University Institute for Study Abroad. Profa doesn’t usually acknowledge our presence, except to bat her eyes at Rob, a Che Guevara lookalike from the Bronx. “It’s not your fault,” she says. “that the capitalist propagandists have controlled everything you’ve seen, read and heard.”

Our friend Marjorie’s hand shoots up.

“Actually, my department chair back home is a Marxist,” she says. “Marx and Lenin are required reading for my program.”

Profa studies Marjorie, sucking on her cigarette, as if deciding whether she’s a comrade or rival. Born in Peru, Marjorie grew up in New York and speaks perfect Spanish with a hint of a Puerto Rican accent. With wavy black hair and dramatic, heavy-lidded eyes—everyone says she looks like the rapper MIA—Marjorie is beautiful enough to compete for Rob’s attention and racially-ambiguous enough to pass for Cuban, except for her wardrobe. She favors tailored blouses, designer sneakers and matching socks. She’s the only Marxist I’ve ever known who plays golf; she even owns a set of pink golf clubs.

Profa exhales at last, smoke curling toward the ceiling. “Then Marjorie, you should be able to help your less fortunate classmates.”

Me and Kelly look at each other, eyebrows raised. A history major at Yale, Kelly is writing her honors thesis on Maoist China. As for me, my parents subscribe to The Nation. My professors back in Madison routinely critique American capitalism before packed lecture halls. Even Cuba, they like to say, has universal healthcare, not to mention the highest literacy rate in the developing world.

 

I used to be more revolutionary, if licking envelopes at the Dane Country, Wisconsin, Democratic Party headquarters could be called revolutionary, or standing outside with a clipboard when it was twenty degrees, urging my fellow students to vote for the Lesser of Two Evils, a.k.a. Al Gore. I even interned at Wisconsin PIRG, and demonstrated in front of BP headquarters in Chicago against plans to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Then 9-11 happened, and it felt almost petty to concern myself with the plight of the musk ox and the porcupine caribou. The yellow ribbons on backpacks and United We Stand lawn signs didn’t help. The more the country united against the Other, the more I felt alienated. Disillusioned by US politics, I turned my attention abroad.

But after two months in Havana, I still don’t know where I stand. Part of me hoped I’d be swept away by Marxist ideology, but the longer I’m here, the more the slogans on the billboards—Onward to Victory, Homeland or Death—seem out of sync with reality. I remember a quote from my favorite Graham Greene novel, The Quiet American, “Sooner or later one has to take sides, if one is to remain human.”

 

Profa slams her fist on the desk.

“Revolution is inevitable!” I glance at Kelly. Is Profa for real? She seemed to have stepped off a propaganda billboard. Could it all be a show, orchestrated for our benefit?

Profa hops off the desk, grabs a stick of chalk, and strides to the blackboard, where she draws two large interlocking circles: CAPITALISMO and COMUNISMO. She shades in the center of Venn diagram and labels it, “Socialist Transition.” Inside the grey area, she numbers three bullet points.

“We are here.” She grinds down on bullet number two. The chalk squeaks. The class winces collectively before shoulders sag forward again. I look at my watch. It’s only 4 p.m. The palm fronds rattle against the shutters but the breeze doesn’t penetrate. The air is blood temperature.

 

I have most of my classes with the same group of Cuban students, third years in the department of Artes y Letras, who will go on to serve the revolution as teachers or editors. They look out for me–especially Hailee, the mother-hen of the group–making sure I know when exams are and what to study, since there are no syllabi to go on. But we don’t socialize much outside of class. One reason is that Butler houses its students in the Miramar suburb—a twenty-minute ride from campus, if and when the bus arrives. But it also has to do with the dual economy; as foreigners we have access to the most pristine beaches, and dollar restaurants serving a variety of food, which our classmates can’t afford, and where they feel uncomfortable. One time I convinced my friend Leo came out with me, Kelly, and some other US students to the Gato Tuerto, a famous jazz club with a one drink minimum. Leo was the only black person there, and more than once he was asked to show ID. Surrounded by foreigners, the staff assumed he was a jinetero, a street hustler, out to swindle unsuspecting tourists, and/or seduce them, in hopes of being whisked away from the island.

Leo left early and never came out with us again.

 

The most time I spend with my classmates is at the department library. The library is in the basement of the Artes y Letras building, a grey, Soviet-era monstrosity, one side covered in rectangular window slots, like a crypt. A wooden partition separates the reading area from the stacks, and the resident black cat leaps back and forth, chasing reflections from the street level window slits. We have to request  books from the librarian at the desk, and wait, sometimes up to twenty minutes, as she leisurely searches the stacks. Sometimes she returns shrugging and empty handed. Because books are scarce, the whole class shares one copy of the required texts. We take turns reading and copying each other’s notes until everyone has completed the assignment. I have to squint to decipher my classmates’ writing. To conserve paper, they crowd the pages of their notebooks, even the margins, with tiny script. We talk quietly as we wait our turns.

On one of these long afternoons in the library the conversation turns to the US. “The hard part is getting there,” Hailee says. “After that, it’s easy. I mean, you have to work hard, but at least you get somewhere.” Leo agrees. A few years ago his cousin built a raft, and Leo was all set to go with him. “I just couldn’t imagine things getting any better,” he says. But then he passed the university entrance exam, and decided to give Cuba another chance.

The Clinton administration’s so-called “wet foot, dry foot” policy means that any Cuban who reaches US soil is automatically eligible for permanent residency. Every year, thousands of Cubans risk their lives crossing the Straits of Florida in improvised rafts—for freedom? for a job at Walmart, making six dollars an hour? I wish I’d brought books as gifts, instead of the toothbrushes and tampons recommended in our Orientation Manual, books I’d been assigned by the “propagandists” back home: The New Inequality, Nickeled and Dimed: On Not Getting by in America.

Like me, my Cuban classmates were children of the ’90s. For me, that meant wearing flannel shirts, mini backpacks and destroying my eardrums listening to Alanis Morissette on a Discman; in Cuba it meant growing up during the Special Period, the years of economic hardship following the breakup of the Soviet Union. While Marjorie, Kelly and I tuned in to see if Ross and Rachel would finally get together, Leo and Hailee sat in the dark, sipping sugar water to control the hunger pangs. Power outages lasted up to sixteen hours; citizens waited in line at the state-run bodega to purchase diminished rations, only to get back in line at the black market food stalls so they could buy enough to survive. People walked or biked miles to work or school, because there wasn’t enough fuel to keep the buses running.

 

The second half of semester, for reasons that get lost in translation, we change professors. Profa still makes the occasional guest appearance, but most days she’s replaced by her drab male counterpart. Medium-height, medium-aged, Profe sits behind the desk, gripping a sheaf of notes tightly in both hands, from which he reads verbatim. When he does glance up at the class, his eyes widen in panic–or is it indigestion? He sweats profusely, clumps of medium brown hair stuck like seaweed to his forehead, but that could also be attributable to the heat and humidity, which climbs steadily as the semester stretches toward summer. In the afternoon, clouds gather over the Straits of the Florida, just visible from the top of University Hill, blurring the line between water and sky. The shutters creak open a few inches, and palm fronds reach inside, stroking the turquoise desktops.

MFDI, Kelly writes. Hugo Chavez, George W., Fidel?

I groan. What kind of choice is that?

I grab my pen and write, Strom Thurman, Fidel, Gandhi?

Rob, Che Guevara, Profe? Kelly counters. We glance up at Profe, cheeks sore from holding in laughter. What could he be shielding behind his oval frames? What pathos seethed inside that intellectual shell, making his brow furrow and voice quiver as he explains the philosophical implications of Maoist agricultural policy? Was it unrequited love for Profa the Marxist MILF? Or could he be a closeted homosexual? A dissident, afraid that any emotion might betray his true political leanings?

 

For my term paper, I write about the Cuban Missile Crisis, known in Cuba as the “Crisis of October.” I like that name better. I can imagine those brisk autumn days, the leaves bursting into color as the world perched on the brink of annihilation. It reminds me of that other perfect autumn day, in 2001, when it felt like the end of the world.

I open the paper with stories from my mother’s Cold War childhood; duck and cover drills at her East Lansing, Michigan, elementary school, the canned goods my grandmother kept in the basement in case they had to shelter in place; Fidel on TV, the eloquent, cigar-smoking horseman of the apocalypse. I contrast her accounts with the Cuban perspective: a tiny island nation, threatened by the world’s largest superpower; a fearless commander, determined to protect his nation’s hard-fought sovereignty at any and all cost. “I felt the pride of belonging to our people in the luminous and sad days of the Caribbean Crisis,” “el Che” Guevara wrote in his farewell letter to Castro. “Rarely has any statesman shone more brilliantly than you did in those days.”

 

On May Day, signs around the city announce “una cita con la patria”—“a date with the nation”— as if the Castro had invited the populace over for brunch and mimosas, instead of a compulsory propaganda extravaganza. We have to be at the University by 3 a.m. in order to be in position for the march to the Plaza de la Revolución. A bonfire lights the quad;, the flickering shadows make the doric columns and park benches look unfamiliar. In one corner, a US made tank, captured by Castro’s forces in 1958, languishes under a laurel tree, surrounded by raised flower beds. Leo, who’s waiting on the library steps, hands me a little Cuban flag, and a can of cerveza Cristal. He’d rather not be here, but his neighborhood CDR chair is a hard-ass, and he needs to stay on her good side so she won’t report his black market DVD rental business.

We march behind a large contingent of Venezuelan exchange students, who take turns hoisting two giant banners, hand-lettered in Spanish: Yankee Imperialism, until when? and Bolíver is with all of us, beside a portrait of Simon Bolíver, who liberated Venezuela and much of South America from Spanish rule. The procession funnels through the narrow streets. Laundry drips from the balconies, sepia toned in the streetlights.

“Bajo el imperialismo!” the Venezuelans shout. “Bajo Bush!” We echo. Marjorie gets out the camera. I pose with my Cuban flag, but Kelly waves the camera away. What if she decides to run for office someday?

“The CIA probably already has a file on me,” Marjorie says, posing with her fist in the air. The Venezuelans change up the chant: “Viva Fidel! Viva Chavez! Viva la Revolución!” At first I echo automatically, but when I think about what I’m saying the words stick in my throat. I stay silent during the “Viva Fidels,” and chime in with extra gusto on “Viva Cuba!” Nobody seems to notice.

The rally is scheduled to begin at 8 a.m., but Fidel will not speak until ten. We make ourselves as comfortable as we can the concrete. I stretch out between Kelly and a Venezuelan girl I just met. I ache with tiredness but my mind won’t let me sleep, and miss a moment of what I know to be a once in a lifetime experience. It’s well after 9 a.m. when regiments of adorable Cuban school children ascend the stage to sing, dance and recite patriotic poetry. Then come the communist party dignitaries introducing other communist party dignitaries. The sun burns hotter. I’m wondering how much longer I can go without a bathroom, when Fidel appears at the podium.

I don’t doubt for a second that it’s him, the Boogeyman of my parents’ Cold War childhoods, the man who would bring about the end of the world. There’s the long nose, fuzzy beard, frail body reinforced by a stiff olive military jacket, and the voice. The gravelly voice is ageless, unmistakable, refracting with wavelike force across the plaza. But my tired brain wanders, soaring with the heat waves above the concrete. I take in the scene: children riding on their fathers’ shoulders, the Cuban flag waving, the banners bobbing like jetsam on a sea of red.

Fidel grips the podium with one hand and points his finger with the other: “The world knows that the horrible crime committed against the Twin Towers in New York was unanimously condemned by all conscious people on the planet. Nevertheless-” His finger shakes as the rhetorical clauses mount, building toward a climax of righteous indignation, “-the government of the most powerful nation on earth, showing contempt for all norms concerning what the world understands as the elementary principles of human rights, created this horrible prison…” I picture George W. Bush, on a golf course somewhere, suddenly clutching his ears as they tingle uncontrollably.

We leave before it’s over, after only a couple hours. Leo wants to get a taxi before the rest of the patria. Thank God Fidel was slowing down, he says, he used to go on for eight hours at a time! As we rattle away in a Model T, I can still hear the rise and fall of Fidel’s voice resounding through the streets of Central Havana: “Cuba is the most peaceful country in the world for several reasons: our policy, our kind of struggle, our doctrine, and also, comrades, for the absolute absence of fear.”

 

The morning of May 10, 2004 feels different, as if the seasons have changed. I awake to the sound of birds singing in the trees, normally drowned out by the neighbors singing along to the radio.

When I step outside I see the line at the convenience store across the street. Mostly catering to residents of our hostel, the store sells basic necessities in US dollars: soap, shampoo, toilet paper, bottled water, plus a few luxury items like Havana Club Rum, and Nestle’s ice cream. But this morning the line stretches out the door and around the block. Families emerge one by one, hoisting cases of toilet paper and Ciego Montero spring water. We see more lines on our way to school, inching along the cracked sidewalks outside La Puntilla shopping center, and Supermercado 3ra y 70. I’m even more self-conscious than usual, riding past in the Gerardo bus. Because our housing is so far from campus, the program employs Gerardo, a grizzled revolutionary veteran, to shuttle us to and from the university in a battered green school bus. Otherwise, we’re at the mercy of P1 bus, which has no schedule, and might come at any time, or not at all, or be too full to squeeze aboard.

The Gerardo bus is never more than half full. At traffic lights, people bang on the door. “Sorry, compañeros,” Gerardo says. This is a guagua particular.” We tell him that it’s okay, we won’t tell the directors, but he shakes his head, and we learn to plug in our headphones and look straight ahead.

It’s Gerardo who tells us that the night before, while we were binge-watching The Real World via the hostel’s satellite dish (the Miami signal comes in clearer than the local state channels which broadcast mostly Brazilian telenovelas and reruns of Fidel speeches) the rest of the island had learned of the George W. Bush administration’s new restrictions on travel and cash remittances. In response, Castro announced that sale of dollar goods would be suspended until further notice, with the exception of food and personal hygiene products. Rations would not be affected, at least for now, but citizens should be prepared–“There will be days of work and sacrifices, but also of glory and victory for our heroic homeland.” This had prompted the run on dollar stores.

The professor never shows up to my twentieth-century Cuban history class–he’s probably standing in line for soap–so my classmates and I go down to the department library to study for our linguistics exam. We have the library to ourselves except for the black cat who sit grooming itself on top of the stacks.

Leo brings a copy of Granma, the official newspaper of the Cuban Communist Party. The left hand column denounces the US’s “brutal and fascistic” measures against Cuba. In the top right corner is a photograph from Abu Ghraib prison: a naked man raising his hands, surrounded by US soldiers and salivating German shepherds.

“Uck,” Hailee says. “Put it away.”

“I’m sorry,” I say.

“Why?” Leo says. “We know you didn’t vote for Bush.”

“I know. I mean, I’m sorry it’s happening.”

I hear sniffling. I look up and see Hailee’s face scrunched tight.

“I can’t take it anymore,” she says. “it’s like the Special Period all over again.” She rocks back and forth, tears squeezing from her closed eyes. Leo reaches for her hand across the table. The other fourth year girls run to her side and put their arms around her.

“It won’t last that long,” they say. “A month or two at the most, you’ll see, things will get better.” I want to do or say something to comfort her, but I feel awkward. I don’t know Hailee that well outside of school. Would I really be comforting her, or just trying to make myself feel better?

“La patria, la bandera, la revolución, venceremos ja ja ja,” Hailee sobs. “it’s the same thing, over, and over, and it never changes, nothing ever changes.” Her girlfriends say nothing, just hold her. The librarian watches silently from behind the desk. The black cat leaps from shelf to shelf. I fiddle with the seed jewelry festooning my wrist. Leo catches my eye.

“Cuba’s fucked,” he says. “And you heard that from a Cuban.”

 

The next day we learn that our program’s license has been suspended, indefinitely. The program directors, the resident advisor, and even Gerardo, are out of a job, effective June 30, the same day our group flight departs from Jose Martí International Airport, the lights of Miami receding under the wings as we climb to thirty-five thousand feet for the four-hour trip to Toronto.

On the last day of class, Profa returns to bestow our final grades. Profe sat stiffly in his chair while his counterpart sways between the desk handing back papers. It’s a rare stormy day. Gusts of wind send the palm fronds through the shutters, sweeping across the desktops, knocking pencils, notebooks and Rob’s olive beret to the floor.

I flip over my paper, surprised to see a giant A-, not because I expected a lower grade, but because I don’t expect to see a letter. I compare with Kelly; her paper also has an A. “I gave you letter grades because that’s what you’re used to,” Profa explains, as if grading us on the five-point scale standard in Latin America would be too confusing for us.

Our last weekend we go to the “Cuban” beach in Guanabo. It takes two guaguas to get there, pressed by strangers’ flesh on all sides. Chickens cluck in mesh cages crammed below the blue plastic bench seats. Guanabo has the same white sand and turquoise water as Santa Maria del Mar, the beach we usually go to, ringed with state-run tourist hotels. In Guanabo, the white dunes are strewn with empty rum bottles, Tu Kola cans and brittle pork bones. A hip hop beat thumps from a stereo hidden in the jumble of cinder block buildings; leggy boys keep time with sticks on the sidewalk. The plan is to sleep on the beach under the stars. We don’t anticipate the cold wind that sweeps in over the Straits with nightfall. Wrapped in my sarong and towel, I still shiver. Every hour the lights of the army patrol jeeps sweep the sand, looking for balseros—–raft people. At night, the crystalline water transforms into a black abyss. I feel abject terror at the idea of embarking on that dark water. But my Cuban friends speak of it casually, as if it were a viable career option. Leo had come close. I stare hard into the Straits. I try to imagine him there, on the brink, try to imagine what it would take to step into a flimsy raft and push off into the blackness.