Home > Essays > Havana City Limits
Published: Sun Oct 15 2006
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, El Fracoso de los Texeles / The Failure of the Church Women (detail), 2004, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
Havana City Limits

There is only one entrance to the lush grounds of the historic Hotel Nacional de Cuba, in Havana’s Vedado district, and a uniformed guard is posted there at all times. Which is not surprising, since there are guards at every border in Havana. There are guards at the airport, of course, but also at the bus stations, where city people depart for the countryside in search of fresh vegetables and country people arrive in search of tourist dollars. There are guards in the parks and plazas, where black markets in goods as pungent as homemade rum and as humdrum as AA batteries thrive. There are guards at intervals all along the Malecón, the broad, seaside boulevard that serves by day as the city’s main thoroughfare and by night as its gathering place for conversation, seduction, and hustling. There are guards at the telephone-call shop, the post office, and the two poky Internet terminals at the back of a café. There are guards anywhere that people, money, or information cross over from one realm to another: tourist to native, city to country, conversation to dissent, official economy to black market. Some guards wear blue shirts, some green, some brown, and some white. Their insignias say “Guardia” or “Protección,” or nothing at all. I never saw “Policía,” though they must surely exist. The guards are old or young; black, white, mulatto, or mestizo; male or female. None are particularly threatening, except perhaps in the latent, sleepy way that alligators are threatening. They appear to be unarmed, and make no effort to disguise their deep boredom.

When I visited Havana in August 2004, the only guards who seemed to take their jobs seriously were those assigned to the armored cars that raced through the city every afternoon to collect the day’s receipts from businesses that traded in U.S. dollars. These guards were armed, heavily, with handguns and automatic rifles. American dollars were illegal in Cuba until 1993, when, reeling from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the consequent loss of subsidies, President Fidel Castro legalized dollars to prop up the Cuban economy.* The desperation showed in the quick and nervous efficiency of these guards. I watched with a friend as a group of them pulled up sharply in front of a dollars-only tourist restaurant near the Bacardi Building in Old Havana. Three men scanned the street from behind dark glasses while two others rushed inside to retrieve the fula that tourists had spent that day on ham sandwiches and cold Cristal beer. (“Fula,” meaning “bogus,” is slang left over from the days when possession of dollars was a crime.) The speed of the operation would have been striking anywhere, but was particularly jarring when set against the backdrop of Havana’s normally lugubrious street life. “It looks,” my friend said, “exactly like a robbery.”

The sentry at the entrance to the Hotel Nacional displayed no such alacrity. In fact, if I hadn’t looked for him, I probably wouldn’t have realized he was there, sitting in a lawn chair under the shade of a poinciana. But to Cubans on the other side of the gate, his presence is obvious. As long as tourists remain within the Graham Greene­–novel-come-to-life that is the Hotel Nacional—swimming in one of its pools, taking in a show at the Cabaret Parisién, strolling beneath the towering royal palms on paths that everyone from Ava Gardner to Winston Churchill trod during the hotel’s mid-century heyday, or sipping rum on the patio overlooking the Malecón and listening to the chatter of European and South American tourists at the neighboring tables—they will see almost no Cubans who are not employees of the hotel, because everyone knows better than to try to walk past that single, unassuming, almost invisible guard. What would happen if he wasn’t there one day? What if he called in sick? My guess is that the Habaneros would still keep to their side of the fence. After all these years, the literal guard is less important than the one posted in their minds.

When I stepped beyond the gate onto Avenida O, I left the guard’s protection—if that’s what it was—and instantly found myself with a Cuban companion. Where are you from? Are you in Havana on holiday? For work? What kind of work? Do you need directions? Would you like to know the history of the city? Do you have a cigarette you can spare? An ink pen? A dollar for food? A dollar for powdered milk? A dollar for rum? Are you looking for a restaurant? A jazz club? Cigars? Girls? Boys?

No, gracias, no, gracias. I wanted to wander at twilight through the streets of Vedado, the newest section of Havana, developed in the mid-nineteenth century as a graceful, middle-class neighborhood punctuated by broad, tree-lined, commercial boulevards and plentiful parks and gardens, and I wanted to walk alone. I would be in Havana for just a few days, with a group of colleagues from the university where I teach, and most of our time would be taken up by efforts to arrange future exchanges between our school and the University of Havana. That evening, my first ever in Cuba, I wanted just to savor the fact that I’d finally managed to travel to this place that had long loomed so large in my imagination.

I am the kind of traveler that researches his destinations to absurd lengths before he ever gets on the plane, and so, by the time I arrive in a new city, I have built in my mind a comprehensive but imaginary version of it, complete with favorite restaurants and parks, opinions about the desirability of this or that neighborhood, even imaginary memories. One of my great pleasures in travel is the sensation of mild disorientation that comes over me as the borders of my phantom city gradually dissolve and the actual city begins to take its place, here harmonizing with my expectations and there jarringly contrasting with them.

In Havana, there would be nothing gradual about this process. The place’s reality swept over me, immediately inundating and washing away the city in my mind, just as Hurricane Charley was to sweep over the island the week after my visit. Perhaps because there are so many hard and fast borders in Cuba, visible and invisible, that if crossed can get you into instant and serious trouble, Cubans have compensated by erasing as many boundaries as they can, including those of personal space. In other words, whether I wanted companions or not, I was going to have them. There was a game I liked to play while exploring Havana. I’d stop walking, lean against a wall, and begin counting in my head. Usually I would not get to three before someone approached me with a smile and started asking questions. The longest it ever took was eleven.

You might attribute this to the fact that I was so obviously a foreigner, pasty white and wielding a camera. But Cubans don’t allow each other much personal space, either. Men and women both comment openly on the sexual desirability of passersby; children playing in the street are just as likely to be scolded by a stranger as by their own parents; in the parks, on the buses, and along the Malecón, anyone can strike up a conversation with anyone else, and does. Because of the transportation shortage, people who want to get from one place to another stand alongside the street and flag down any passing vehicle for a ride. It’s extremely unusual to see a single passenger in a car. (Unless he is in a tourist taxi. Tourist taxis, gleaming late-model Mercedeses that charge New York City rates, do not stop for Habaneros, or even slow down.) And because of the lack of housing in Havana, it’s not uncommon for divorced couples to continue to live together, or for extended families to share a small apartment. The government runs posadas throughout the country, where rooms are rented by the hour so that people can have sex. This may strike you as seedy, but these are not (or not only) brothels; the customers are often married couples who have no privacy at home.


My new friend on Avenida O, Carlos, was a handsome man with skin the color, as the saying goes, of _leche con una gota de café—_milk with a drop of coffee. His handshake was firm and businesslike, as if our meeting had been by mutual arrangement. His clothes were neat, but worn. He had the aspect of a man who has laboriously taught himself, against his natural inclination, to expect nothing from life. He was a classical guitarist, which struck me as a good omen, since I share a name (though no blood) with Cuba’s most famous guitarist, Leo Brouwer. After I managed to communicate this coincidence to Carlos, via the Rube Goldberg machine of my Spanish and his English, he was duly impressed with the coincidence. In answer to my questions, he told me he was forty-two and had a wife and two sons, eight and twelve. He taught guitar classes at a conservatory, and also gave private lessons, off the government books, at his home. But this was August, a holiday month in Cuba, which meant that his classes were not meeting, and so the conservatory was also taking a holiday from paying Carlos any wages. Would I like to know the history of the city? Would I like some cigars?

No, gracias, I would not, but I was happy to walk with Carlos down La Rampa, Vedado’s main drag, which was beginning to fill with people as darkness fell and the cooling sea breezes picked up. If I had to have a companion, Carlos seemed like a good one. As we walked, making stunted conversation, I would sometimes turn to find that he’d vanished. Half a block later, he’d be back beside me. I soon realized that he would disappear whenever someone in uniform came into view. I hadn’t been aware of how clear the border was between us—I hadn’t noticed anyone looking at us with any particular interest or curiosity—but Carlos had.

A rare deserted stretch of sidewalk. “Is this government good for you?” Carlos asked.

“Is it good for you?”

He laughed. A loud laugh, seemingly free of irony, too genuinely mirthful to have its origins in bitterness. What, then? We turned a corner. Dozens of kids were playing a wildly disorganized game of soccer in the street with a volleyball that had been repaired so many times it was more electrical tape than leather. The scene seemed to spur Carlos to even greater laughter.

As we walked, he pointed out the invisible borders that divide the Malecón. Along this stretch, police turn a blind eye to prostitution; along this stretch, they don’t. In this area Cubans may speak to tourists without the police interfering; in this area, they may not. I was reminded of the way friends savvier than I coached me when I moved to New York City years ago. Don’t get off at that subway stop after midnight if you’re alone. Lock your car doors when you take this exit off the FDR. The difference being that in New York you’re warned away from lawlessness, and in Havana you’re warned away from the law.

After an hour of walking and talking under the stars and the darkened streetlights—rolling power outages are part of daily life in Havana—Carlos became increasingly frustrated with me. Could this really be all I wanted, to walk aimlessly through the streets asking about his students and his elderly parents back in Santa Clara? Did I want a girl, perhaps? Pushing my Spanish to the limit, I tried to explain that I didn’t want anything, but that I had enjoyed his company, and wanted to give him something for the time he’d spent with me, perhaps this five-dollar bill, if that would be all right. It felt awkward and strange to be offering the bill to a dapper, educated man five years my senior, and my embarrassment showed. It took me a moment to realize that Carlos had interpreted my nervous gibberish to mean that what I wanted was him. We were standing in an ill-lit doorway near the Malecón. Hip-hop music blared from an impromptu party farther down the seawall. I was holding out the bill, and Carlos was looking at it. Time slowed down. In the instant after I realized the misunderstanding and before I could try to explain—No, no, Carlos, solamente quiero darle esto regalo—I saw the question move over his face, and he looked up from the bill to me, and he nodded.


Back at the hotel, I told my colleagues the story, assuming they would be as shocked as I was by the lengths to which Carlos was prepared to go for five dollars. Those new to Cuba were suitably amazed, but those more experienced with the country were unimpressed. For one thing, they explained, Cubans don’t take sex nearly as seriously as Americans do. In a country beset by poverty and scarcity, sex is a cheap and readily available form of diversion, and can be as casual for Cubans as going to the movies is for us. Furthermore, there are only so many ways to earn dollars from tourists. To sell things you have to have things, and things—any things—are hard to come by. But you always have your body, and you can always find a tourist who will pay to cross its borders. I have no way of knowing whether my colleagues’ assessment of Cuban sexual mores was correct, and I doubt it can be as universal as they suggested, but my experience with Carlos would seem to support it.

Carlos was not a prostitute, however. He was, when he needed to be, a jinetero, which translates literally as “jockey.” “Hustler” is probably the best word to communicate the meaning of the slang term, but “jinetero” doesn’t necessarily share that word’s pejorative aura. The jinetero is an expert in hay que resolver, a common mantra in Cuba that translates roughly as “it must be resolved,” but is better expressed as “whatever works,” or better still, “you gotta do what you gotta do.” Selling a half-dozen eggs yesterday, a little bit of marijuana today, and who knows what tomorrow. Staying flexible and alert, always ready to trade your shoes for a shirt or your shirt for a chicken or anything for a dollar. Everything the jinetero owns is for sale. Not just his worldly goods, but his time, attention, intelligence, body, and expertise. Carlos needed money, and I had some. If I’d wanted sex, a bottle of aspirin, a tour of the city, a box of cigars, a history lesson, a home-cooked meal, an air-conditioner, a Spanish-language edition of Schopenhauer, a ride to the airport, a guitar lesson—or, for that matter, a guitar—I’m sure any or all of it could have been arranged before dawn.

The most inventive jinetero scheme I’ve ever heard is one I very much hope is a fiction. Pedro Juan Gutiérrez, Cuba’s answer to Charles Bukowski, has a terrific novel called Dirty Havana Trilogy. In one chapter, a young jinetero from the countryside arouses the main character’s curiosity by somehow securing a steady supply of excellent fresh pork livers, which he sells at suspiciously low prices to all the people in the neighborhood. The young campesino‘s rising standard of living is the envy of all, until someone realizes that he started selling the pork livers around the same time he got a job in a hospital morgue. Sure enough, it’s not long before the police arrive and arrest the man for feeding his neighbors the organs of their deceased fellow citizens. The neighbors react with predictable disgust, but don’t bother to disguise the fact that they’re almost as disappointed as they are horrified. After all, that liver was delicious, and the kid sold it at such reasonable prices! Hay que resolver.

The feminine form of the term is even more nuanced. You see jineteras of every shape, color, and age (some are upsettingly young) all over Havana, along the Malecón, in the nightclubs, at the hotel bars, in the parks and plazas. They’re dressed like prostitutes—skintight skimpy clothes and lots of makeup—and they are prostitutes in that they are willing to have sex for dollars. But many of them are no more prostitutes than Carlos. Many are students. Many have husbands, families, day jobs, college degrees. The irony of the word “jockey” becomes apparent. These women might lack the brute economic power of the European, Latin American, and Canadian tourists they ride for dollars, but when you see a handsome, middle-aged, educated Cuban woman enduring the caresses of a pudgy, balding Italian middle-manager in the hotel bar, you might reasonably ask yourself which of the two is really holding the reins.

Pico Iyer has written that Cubans are “so openhearted that self-interest and true kindness blur.” I experienced the truth of this over and over. Jineteras would approach me with one of the opening gambits, asking for the time or a cigarette, as I sat along the Malecón or on a park bench. After a few pleasantries—where was I from, wasn’t it terribly hot outside—would come the pitch, an offer of companionship or drugs or cigars, or just a straight-up request for money. Nothing too surprising here; the same sorts of scenarios are played out every day in every city in the world. What I found unique in Havana was that after I’d made clear I wasn’t interested in buying whatever was for sale, my companion, instead of moving on to find another potential mark, often seemed visibly to relax, as if we’d gotten past our obligatory roles and crossed into a zone where we could regard each other not as predator and prey but as two people mystified by and curious about each other’s lives. It’s difficult to imagine that a prostitute in New York, Berlin, or Tokyo would sit on a park bench and chat for half an hour with a man who’d plainly refused her services. In Havana, I was approached by any number of jineteras who seemed relieved to have their offers rebuffed, and were happy to sit and talk and smoke a couple of my cigarettes. When one young couple walked by, and the girl began harassing me to buy packets of potato chips, her boyfriend repeatedly told her to cut it out, because he wanted to ask me questions about America. The opportunity to talk with a real live American was, to him, at least that day, more valuable than dollars.


Near the Parque Central I came across a sign planted on a small patch of lawn outside a government building: Respete por favor nuestros jardines. “Please respect our gardens.” A polite way to say “Keep off the grass.” A juvenile thought flitted through my mind when I saw it: Aha! Private property! So much for the state belonging to the people! Then, immediately, a second thought. The “we” implicit in the sign’s injunction—nuestros is the first-person plural—could be read as inclusive, not exclusive: Please respect these gardens; they belong to us all. Passing Habaneros could read this sign both as a reminder that they are prohibited from crossing the border into the workings of the state, and as an affirmation that they are the owners of the state. I looked up and down the street. Machine shops, apartment houses, a small museum, a pizza restaurant. A white marble bust of José Martí stood watch over a half-dozen taxis behind a chain-link fence. I had identified the building with the lawn as a “government building,” but in truth every building in Havana is a government building. They all both belong to the people and may be used by the people only as the government allows.

There was no guard posted at the doors of La Moderna Poesía, the grand art-deco bookshop that anchors busy Calle Obispo in Old Havana. Cubans are welcome to go in and buy books, magazines, and art supplies, and while the store’s stock has surely been ideologically vetted, I found much more for sale than just Marx and Che, from extensive offerings of European, Latin American, and North American literature to philosophy, romance novels, cookbooks, and atlases. Yet I saw no Cubans inside, and it wasn’t hard to understand why. The prices of the books were in dollars, and were similar to the prices you would pay in an American bookstore, anywhere from eight to eighteen dollars for a paperback. Cubans are paid in pesos, and the average wage is about 200 to 250 pesos per month. The exchange rate hovers between twenty and twenty-five pesos to the dollar. Any Cuban who wants to buy a bit of capitalist decadence in the form of a Spanish translation of Bridget Jones’s Diary can do so, but it will cost him or her nearly a month’s salary. It becomes clear why it’s not necessary to guard the door.

El Floridita, just down the street from La Moderna Poesía, is one of several Havana bars made famous by Hemingway’s patronage. The story goes that he drank his mojitos at La Bodeguita del Medio and his daiquiris at El Floridita. Today, both bars are cultivated as lucrative tourist destinations. I tend to be one of those self-righteous travelers who goes to ridiculous lengths to pretend he is not one, rejecting the longed-for hamburger in favor of the local specialty and the comfortable hotel in favor of the guesthouse a native would use, always hoping for some transcendent, authentic experience but usually winding up merely queasy and sleepless on a mattress made of broken stones and invisible insects. In this spirit, I marched past the doors of El Floridita, sneering at a group of sunburned Danes lined up for their banal photo opportunity: drinking a tiny, sugary daiquiri with one arm slung around the neck of the bronze Hemingway statue that forever occupies the last seat at the bar.

A block later, the blaring sun and midday heat melted my resolve. I rushed back, passed the guard stationed at the door, and took a seat at the bar. It was meat-locker cold inside, and mercifully dim. After I knocked back a daiquiri, a gorgeous lemony slush that instantly bathed my brain in a cool mist, I considered why a guard was needed here, but not at La Moderna Poesía. For the price of one of these daiquiris, I knew, I could have bought several bottles of rum at a peso market. No Cuban would be so foolish as to waste dollars at El Floridita. If the guard isn’t out front to keep the natives away, I reasoned, he must be there to invite the tourists in, acting as a living marker of privilege, implicitly suggesting that by entering this landmark they become part of an elite, while at the same time distracting them from the real reason for the bar’s exclusivity, the fact that no Cuban can afford to drink here. Of course, the guard was also posted to keep out jineteros, who would relish the opportunity to hustle tipsy foreigners at the bar.

It was in El Floridita that I first heard the song I was to hear over and over and over in Cuba: Osvaldo Farrés’s “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás.” Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. The singer can’t get a straight answer out of his lover. When he asks her if she loves him, she’ll say only, “Perhaps.” As Doris Day sang it, “So if you really love me, say yes / But if you don’t dear, confess / And please don’t tell me / Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.” The song soon became my Havana anthem. At restaurants I’d ask if there was any fish. Quizás. I’d ask my translator if I might be able to meet with a particular official at the Writer’s Union. Quizás. Was there any public transportation to Cienfuegos other than the bus? Quizás. Quizás, quizás, quizás. Another border zone, always hovering between yes and no.

Late that afternoon, pleasantly buzzed on El Floridita daiquiris, near the beginning of the city’s long and anodyne twilight, I was back in the Vedado district where I’d walked with Carlos the night before. Coming over the crest of a hill, I discovered a line of people. Lines in general are far from unusual in Havana—people wait patiently for nearly every commodity and service, from mangoes to telephones—but this one was unusual. From where I stood on La Rampa, it seemed to stretch the length of an entire block. As I walked on, I discovered it was longer than that. At the end of the block it turned, continued for another block, then turned again, and continued for half a block more, encircling a large park shaded by leafy trees. In the center of the park was what appeared to be a spaceship, a saucer-shaped pavilion filled with people. What they were doing there I couldn’t tell, but judging by their shouts and laughter it was obviously something festive.

There had to be several hundred people waiting to join those already in the spaceship, but amazingly I detected not a single sign of impatience. Everyone was talking and joking, a few of those fortunate enough to have scratched together a little money were passing around bottles of cheap rum, kids were improvising games with sticks and stones, and even the emaciated dogs waited expectantly, hoping for a scrap. And what commodity was so critical that these people would wait hours for it? Salt? Cooking oil? Bread?

Ice cream. Coppelia is the name of the park around which I’d found the line encircled like a bright, multicolored scarf, and also the name of the ice cream brand that is sold there to 30,000 customers a day. When there is any to sell, that is. Castro built the pavilion in 1966 as a gift to the people, and huge numbers of Habaneros wait every day for their ration. But Coppelia, as anyone who saw Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s film Strawberry and Chocolate knows, is as prone to shortages as everything else in today’s Cuba. Castro famously promised that Coppelia would sell thirty-two flavors, in order to best the yanqui Baskin-Robbins’s thirty-one, but today there are usually just two flavors to choose from, or sometimes just one, or none at all.

When I found the gate leading into the park, I noted that there was no guard in place to regulate the flow of human traffic. People waited good-naturedly until, through some system of signals I couldn’t figure out, they were informed that seats had become available at one of the big marble-topped communal tables. I marveled at the efficiency of the system, and at the crowd’s utter submission to it. The only thing governing these hundreds of people was a sign posted at the park’s entrance explaining, in tight red lettering, the creamery’s elaborate rules and regulations. I thought of lines I’d seen at gelaterias in Rome, more rugby scrum than queue. I watched a woman enter the park, having apparently received a signal to approach the shrine of ice cream. A minute later she returned, hugely upset, and began shouting and complaining in Spanish too fast and angry for me to decipher. The crowd listened to her guardedly, asked questions, and received answers they obviously did not want to hear. The woman stormed off up the street. People looked at each other uncertainly. No one stepped out of line.

Later I learned that there was another way to get into Coppelia, for customers who could pay with dollars instead of pesos. The wait there was about five minutes.


You could argue that Cubans will spend hours waiting for a dish of ice cream because deprivations and restrictions are so commonplace in Cuba that they have come to be seen as unremarkable, even natural. But there’s another way to look at it. Perhaps Cubans are such committed devotees of pleasure that waiting seems to them a reasonable price to pay for such a luscious strawberry or chocolate payoff on a blistering afternoon. We in America are accustomed to having many of our desires met not only consistently, but instantly, a state of affairs that can’t help but dull our appreciation for all the good things we enjoy. There are billions of people in the world who would gasp with amazement if they suddenly had in their homes a tap from which they could collect fresh, clean water at any time of the day or night. Perhaps there is a different sense of value in Cuba, one that honors and celebrates the everyday miracles that we in the so-called first world take for granted.

I can sense I’m on the border of pedantry, right on the brink of a diatribe against the gluttonous American way, and a correlative romantic paean to the Cuban spirit of having less but enjoying more. As long as I’m here, I may as well share this story. Friends who had made multiple trips to Cuba told me that before leaving the island they would always contrive to give away as much of their stuff as possible. Socks, shampoo, pencils, magazines—anything, even if it seemed nearly useless, would be a windfall to someone. And so my second-to-last day in Cuba found me carrying a plastic bag of supposedly desirable goods through a neat but clearly impoverished neighborhood, trying to figure out how I could somehow elegantly transfer its contents—a few ballpoint pens, one pair of smelly rubber flip-flops, two small notebooks, some relatively new but dirty T-shirts, a clutch of hotel soaps, and half a bottle of Pepto-Bismol—to someone in need of them, without embarrassing either one of us.

Men sitting in open doorways and women hanging up wet wash eyed me with open curiosity. It was the middle of the day and blazing hot. I was far from any museum, beach, bar, or restaurant. What could the yanqui possibly be up to? The more I walked, the more ridiculous I felt. I was too shy to offer the sack to anyone, but rather than admit it, I worked on convincing myself that this stuff was way too pathetic to be of use to anyone anyway. Finally, I hit upon a solution. I sat down on a bench in a little park, smoked a cigarette, and walked away, leaving the bag behind. Then I crossed a busy street, circled the block, and came back to check my bench. The bag was gone.

We should pity the people of a nation so impoverished that a bag of items many of us would not hesitate to throw in the trash is snatched up quick as money—right? That’s likely your first thought; it was mine. But maybe whoever was following me, waiting for me to finally dump the bag, was also feeling pity. Pity for me, because I was too frightened to cross the border of someone’s yard and simply say, human to human, Here, if you need this, you’re welcome to it.


On my last day in Cuba, I had to pass through the very literal border of airport customs. The officer was straight out of central casting, with dark glasses, dark moustache, dark countenance, and an immaculately pressed beige uniform covered with insignias. As often happens to me in such situations, I was nervous despite the fact that I had nothing to hide. I have an instinctual aversion to customs booths’ confluence of nationalism, bureaucracy, and distrust. I am the only person I know who gets sweaty palms crossing the U.S.­-Canadian border. But then again, Cuba isn’t Canada. My country has officially designated Cuba an enemy state, and Cuban militias are regularly mobilized to drill in preparation for the American attack that Castro believes, or claims to believe, is perpetually imminent.

The officer and I faced each other across a metal-topped table, with my duffel lying between us as if anesthetized for surgery. He asked me to open the zipper, and I did. He put on rubber gloves. His first question took me completely by surprise: “Do you have any books?” Not drugs, rum, cigars, firearms, computers, cell phones, or explosives, but books. Yes, I had books. I had dozens of books. I had leftover copies of my own books and those by my colleagues that I’d brought as gifts for the writers I’d planned to meet, I had books those writers had given me in return, I had books and literary journals purchased at La Moderna Poesía, and I had a whole shopping bag full of yellowed poetry paperbacks bought from a laconic elderly gentleman in a freshly pressed linen suit at an outdoor market in the Plaza de Armas. The officer began to gingerly unpack all these volumes from among my clothes, extracting them with great care and setting them in neat stacks on the table. When I moved to help him, he flinched, and appeared to consider stopping me, but didn’t. So we worked together, if uneasily, two surgeons up to their elbows in the patient, removing so many tumors.

But benign or malignant? The officer began his analysis, picking up each book in turn, examining the front and back covers and publication information, slowly leafing through them page by page, occasionally stopping to read a passage to himself. My interest in poetry became obvious, and he asked if I was a writer. Having watched him work in silence for some fifteen minutes, I was greatly relieved and encouraged by this gesture toward conversation, and I reached to pull one of my own books from its place. The officer again recoiled at my sudden movement, and looked around uneasily. It occurred to me that his supervisor might be displeased to see me handling the items under examination, so I, too, recoiled and looked around. Not so much because I didn’t want to get in trouble, but because I didn’t want to get the officer in trouble. Still, he had noted the book I was reaching for, and picked it up himself. It has my picture on the back cover, for which, for once, I was grateful. The officer smiled and nodded, either impressed or politely pretending to be, and I smiled and nodded back.

The operation took on a curiously intimate air. I began to offer an unsolicited running commentary—or rather a halting commentary, in my awful Spanish—on each book of Cuban poetry the officer picked up. He seemed pleased that I was so interested in his country’s literature. The stern authority with which he began our interview, almost half an hour before, was gone. He began to offer his own opinions of some of the poets I was bringing back. He liked Nancy Morejón. He had never heard of Reina María Rodríguez. I encouraged the officer to read her, though I knew it was unlikely he’d be willing or able to buy poetry books on his salary. He found in one of the books a picture of my wife that I’d been using as a bookmark. I explained who the woman was. Again he smiled and nodded, and I smiled and nodded back. After he finished going through the books, we neatly packed them all back up, working together smoothly this time, without awkwardness, both of us satisfied and happy with what felt like a job well done. The patient would live.

When the officer had to go through the rest of my things, we were both so embarrassed we couldn’t look at each other. After our unlikely, poetry-inspired détente, the banality of my dirty clothes and the kitsch of my souvenirs—Che T-shirts and Fidel caps for friends back home—seemed unbearable. In self-defense, we reverted to our original roles. He became officious, rifling with aggressive suspicion through my toiletries case. I stood silently with my eyes downcast, as if I’d been caught red-handed. For a short time so many of the borders dividing the two of us had been rendered invisible. I realized that they’d never dissolved, and it overwhelmed me to see them bodying back into view. At last, the officer told me I could close my bag, that I was free to go, and gestured to the next passenger in line.


One afternoon, driving through the countryside outside Havana, I learned that the saplings stripped of branches that Cubans use as fence posts have a tendency, in the tropical climate, to sprout. Discontented with their demotion from tree to stake—discontented, I suppose, with death—the fence posts begin again to produce leaves and roots, and commence growing. Within a couple of seasons they snap through the wires that were wrapped around them to keep in cattle or goats or pigs. The farmers come and collect the fallen wire to pen in the animals elsewhere, and soon the field is not fenced, but instead bordered by unnaturally straight rows of young trees. Once I was alerted to this phenomenon, I began to see them everywhere: long, linear groves, man-made and organic, intentional and accidental, governed and wild, fixed and irrepressible. More borders, but borders that keep nothing out, and nothing in.


* In November 2004, three months after my trip, Castro reversed this decree and again outlawed the dollar. The official reason given for the change in policy was an intention to punish the United States for its increasingly hostile stance toward Cuba, and to reassert Cuba’s “monetary sovereignty.” But there were tangible benefits as well. By banning U.S. currency, Castro effectively drove all the dollars Cubans had amassed from tourists over the previous eleven years into the central state bank, where they were exchanged for newly printed, convertible pesos with a value pegged one-to-one to the dollar. It was a typically brilliant stratagem on Castro’s part: he was able to take the ideological high ground and the money, too.

See what's inside AGNI 64

Joel Brouwer is the author of two books of poems, Exactly What Happened and Centuries. (updated 10/2006)


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