Letter from Havana
- Overpacked like a rookie and didn’t sleep at all the night before I flew, trying to figure out whether or not to bring Don Quixote. What to bring to live and work for four months in Havana.
- Dinner after midnight with D, the liaison between my college’s programme and the centre we work with at the University, and her novio and her visiting Brazilian papi, who told us about the elevator operator in Brazil when D lived there trying to convert her to Catholicism. The papi explained No, no, D es comunista – and the elevator man, who loved her, said No, no, impossible, communists eat children, not my D.
- The man sprawled dozing on a bicycle in the old city with a box of mangos on the back, his shirt open and a tattoo of Che over his heart.
- One of Che’s comrades was going to talk with us but couldn’t because he had to speak at a memorial; Che has been dead 45 years. Some of the documents arranging his killing were signed by William Broe who lived up the street in the Massachusetts town where I grew up, who raised roses and worked for the CIA.
- A lecture by a Cuban economist who said that free education and health care are economically unsustainable, there has to be more private ownership, cuts in state jobs. When I asked, ‘What’s the difference between what you’re proposing and the traditional neoliberal agenda?’, he said, ‘Look,’ and made a model with three pens on the desk, ‘I don’t care what you call it, if you have three factories doing basically the same inefficient thing, something has to change,’ sweeping two of the pens away.
- Long talk with my landlady B as she mopped the floor where the toilet was leaking – how she taught her children no work is dishonourable (‘Somos un nido de comunistas aquí Susana,’ ‘We’re a nest of Communists here’). It was paradise, she said about the first years of the revolution, we had nothing and it didn’t matter, we had our project. But now they don’t have faith in the people. That we can figure things out for ourselves. Ay Susana, that’s how you defend a revolution. You have to have faith in your people.
- Woke up the next morning wondering whether or not I have faith in my people.
- R’s friend who said ‘I don’t know how to sell myself’, which I said was a good thing but she disagreed.
- In a book about emancipatory education, on neocolonialism: ‘Okay, so they can’t do it with war anymore, they’re going to try to do it with commerce, with credit, with debt.’
- B told me that Philip Agee, the CIA defector, used to live in our building, and that the desk chair I’ve been using was his.
- Interview with Tomás Fernández Robaina on his friend Reynaldo Arenas:
Q: Did he use a code name for life underground in Havana?
A: I don’t remember, I don’t think so... Rey. He was Rey.
Q: And you?
A: Kidding, in my very closed group, they called me La Comunista, because I was always favorable to the Revolution, I had hope in the future.
- José Lezama Lima: ‘Yo prefiero ver lo cubano como posibilidad, como ensoñacion, como fiebre porvenirista.’ (‘I prefer to see Cubanness as possibility, as dream-knowledge, as a future-minded fever.’)
- C, the bookseller who fought Batista in those streets and showed me his Revolutionary Combatant card, said, ‘Go to Alamar, you’ll see how it is, a cheap bus, a círculo infantil, an assembly and a movie theatre and a pool, in that way the people can live.’
- The thin old man selling Juventud Rebelde, the headline ‘Facing the cruelty and injustice of the colonial hatred that doesn’t end’, with Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism in my bag.
- My country’s way of making all violence and social distress seem without a history and inexplicable, a reason for prayer instead of analysis and change – in Juventud Rebelde someone said, ‘Fue la lluvia que trajo estos lodos’, ‘It was the rain that brought this mud.’
- Alliance Française video in which I heard Aimé Césaire’s voice for the first time. René Depestre: ‘Without Césaire it might have taken us years to understand the world.’
- How Césaire described himself as ‘un petit bourgeois coloniale’.
- Jorge Amado after Césaire’s 1956 letter quitting the Communist Party: ‘He broke off and he showed us the way.’
- Césaire in 1959: ‘Have faith in the people. They know what they need.’
- How someone described him as ‘un homme de demain, malheureusement pour lui’ – a man of tomorrow, unfortunately for him.
- When asked ‘Does poetry still matter? Will it always?’, his guarded look to the side: ‘En tout cas, pour moi, c’est la parole fondamentale – et le salut du monde dépend de sa capacité d’entendre cette parole.’ (‘In any case, for me, it’s the fundamental word – and the health of the world depends on its capacity to understand this word.’)
- Lezama in an interview: ‘One of these days Poetry will surprise everyone with an event of a magnitude similar to that of the atomic bomb.’
- Alliance Française video in which I heard the voice of René Char for the first time: ‘We must write poems but we must not stop there.’
- Césaire’s sense that Marxist-Leninism didn’t come from the Caribbean or Africa and would not serve, and of the unused power of women all over the world waiting.
- In the Playa Girón museum the manuscript copy of the Agrarian Reform Law, Chapter 1 Article 1, ‘Se proscribe el latifundio’, ‘The latifundios are prohibited’. Césaire’s metaphor, ‘beautiful as a writ of expropriation’.
- J the Patrimonial City profe laughing when I asked the word for ‘gentrification’. It’s the same word, he said, but in socialism it’s poor people moving into rich people’s places instead of the other way around.
- Graffiti: IF YOU.
- Two skinny boys, one sitting on a paint can and one on a stoop, playing chess in the street at Habana and Luz.
- The Shalóm Unisex Barbería on Muralla, Wall Street.
- How Carlos the revolutionary combatant bookseller recited from memory in Spanish Eisenhower’s farewell warning about the military-industrial complex.
- Félix Julio Alfonso quoting Eduardo Torres Cuevas on socialism: ‘es la permanente búsqueda de un cambio de situación’. (‘It’s the permanent search for a change of situation.’)
- How the students call the socialism graffiti ‘propaganda’ and A uses that word for Coca-Cola advertisements.
- Everything needs new names.
- ‘El movimiento altermundista’, the another-world movement. Maybe I am an altermundista.
- One of the students on a postcard just before we left: ‘this vexingly beautiful country’.
- Another: ‘P.S. We will build a better world.’
- Kamau Brathwaite, ‘Islands’:
So looking through a map
of the islands
rocks, history’s hot
ting hulls, cannon
wheels, the sun’s
slums: if you hate
if there is delight
in your eyes.