A Visit With Castro
But there may be another dimension to unhappiness like his. I walked around near the lovely old Hotel Santa Isabel, where we were staying, and a few blocks away sat down on a park bench facing the pleasantly meager traffic on the Malecón, the broad road around the harbor. Presently, two guys showed up and sat beside me, deep in discussion. They were exceedingly thin, neither had socks, one wore cracked shoes and the other disintegrating sandals, their shirts were washed and unironed with shredded collars, they were both in need of a shave. They had a way of sitting crouched over crossed knees while sucking on cigarettes and staring at the flowing away of time as they talked, reminding me of street people in New York, Paris, London. A taxi pulled up to the curb in front of us and a lovely young woman stepped out.
She was carrying two brown paper bags full of groceries. Both men stopped talking to gape at her. I saw now that she was beautiful and tastefully dressed and, more noticeable in this proletarian place, was wearing high heels. One white tulip arched up from one of the bags and drooped down from its long slender stem. The woman was juggling the bags to get her money purse open, and the tulip was waving dangerously close to snapping its stem. One of the men got up and took hold of one of the bags to steady it, while the other joined him to steady the other bag, and I wondered if they were about to grab the bags and run.
Instead, as the woman paid the driver, one of them gently, with the most tender care, held the tulip stem between forefinger and thumb until she could get the bags secured in her arms. She thanked them--not effusively but with a certain formal dignity, and walked off. Both men returned to the bench and their avid discussion. I'm not quite sure why, but I thought this transaction remarkable. It was not only the gallantry of these impoverished men that was impressive, but that the woman seemed to regard it as her due and not at all extraordinary. Needless to say, she offered no tip, nor did they seem to expect any, her comparative wealth notwithstanding.
Having protested for years the government's jailing and silencing of writers and dissidents, I wondered whether despite everything, including the system's economic failure, a heartening species of human solidarity had been created, possibly out of the relative symmetry of poverty and the uniform futility inherent in the system from which few could raise their heads short of sailing away.
The poverty is apparently close to catastrophic. On this same lively harbor road are stoplights that, when they turn red, are a signal for a dozen or so young women and girls to approach the halted cars as though out of nowhere. They are not garishly dressed and their makeup is subdued. I asked our driver what they were doing, and he said they were "hitching rides." He did not turn to meet my gaze but kept his eyes straight ahead, obviously unwilling to pursue the subject. This kind of display was forbidden during the Soviet-dominated years, probably because the economy was not quite so desperately bad and perhaps as well out of deference to Soviet puritanism. Now the pressure of outright hunger was too great to hold back.
I met with an acting class in the theater school after they had shown me a beautifully modulated performance of a surreal student play in which a crucifixion suggests a symbolization of the HIV/AIDS anguish. On the lawn outside, I faced about a hundred of them, young and avid and bursting with hope and energy, wanting to know all about "Broadway." When I told them that "Broadway" had been captured almost exclusively by musicals and pure entertainment and that the few straight plays were limited runs for stars, they looked unhappy and really didn't want to hear the bad news. Nothing, it seems, can tarnish the success and hopefulness that most things American convey. One thing is sure, given the chance they'd have rushed in a body to Times Square.
On arriving in the Palace of the Revolution for our dinner, my wife was immediately required to give up her Leica before meeting Castro. The man taking the camera promptly dropped it from a high bin to the stone floor. The palace is pre-Castro, very modern and aggressively opulent, with gleaming black stone walls and checkered floors, all of it immaculately kept. We entered an anteroom leading into the dining room and suddenly there was Castro, not in uniform as one always sees him in photographs but in a blue pencil-striped suit that, unpressed as it was, must not have been worn very often. Despite the suit, my quick impression was that had he not been a revolutionary politician he might well have been a movie star. He had that utterly total self-involvement, that need for love and agreement and the overwhelming thirst for the power that comes with total approval. In this crowded antechamber his retinue, as with most leaders everywhere, were supremely agreeable and one sensed immediately their absolute submission to the Leader. Whatever else he is, Castro is an exciting person and could probably have had a career on the screen.