I've never been to Havana, though I've long wanted to go. It's one of those storied cities of the mind that you're afraid an actual visit might spoil like Buenos Aires or Alexandria.
I almost had my chance one year when the National Conference of Editorial Writers had put together a Cuban trip. But the representative of the Miami Herald was denied a visa. It seems her editorials had been too close to the truth for the regime's comfort. So I chose to decline the invitation. If the lady wasn't welcome, I wasn't going.
Indeed, I proposed that we all stay home and demonstrate that there was honor even among editorial writers. Or at least solidarity. But, after a good deal of backing-and-forthing, the decision was made for us by the Fidelistas; they disinvited all of us.
You can hardly blame them. Think of all minders it would have taken to show a bunch of newspapermen only what we were supposed to see in the Workers' Paradise.
Yet the other day I got the distinct impression I'd been to Havana. It hit me as I was reading a piece by Oswaldo Paya, the Cuban dissenter who was awarded the Sakharov Prize in 2002 for his refusal to be cowed by Cuba's commissars. His petition calling for free elections and a decent respect for human rights garnered 11,000 signatures an impressive tribute to the courage of those who signed it.
These days you can almost feel the hope in Cuba as it dawns on people that the Maximum Leader may yet prove mortal. Imagine: Havana without his omnipresence. It would be like Moscow without Stalin.
Paya begins his article by quoting a friend visiting Cuba from Chile. Asked what he thought of Havana, the visitor replied:
"Well, it's an impressive city, but it gives the impression of having been evacuated 40 years ago by people who when they return will find it frozen in time and in ruins."
That's much the same impression St. Petersburg left when it was still Leningrad. Touring the city when there was still a Soviet Union, you could see what it must have been like once upon a golden time the graceful Georgian architecture along the Neva, the grand prospects, the broad boulevards and great squares. ... It had been the Venice of the North, a vision of Peter the Great realized.
But by 1983, when I was there, the city had been overtaken by war, revolution and the greatest scourge of all: Marxism-Leninism, a criminal conspiracy in the guise of a socio-economic philosophy. It held sway for the better part of a century. Or rather the worse part.
Stalin was long gone by the 1980s, thank Heaven, but the Great Thaw was only slowly under way. The dual nature of Soviet society was still clear even to this naive visitor: There was one Russia for the favored class (party members, compliant intellectuals, KGB types the nomenklatura) and another for mere Russians.
We foreigners were in the privileged class. The huddled masses at the museums were shoved aside to let us enter first. We could shop for luxuries in the dollar stores while the mere people had only worthless rubles. After dark the streets of Moscow and Leningrad were filled with black marketeers, prostitutes of any and all sexes, penny-ante speculators who wanted to buy our dollars or blue jeans or anything else from the West. Another familiar type came out at night, too: ordinary Russians who wanted only to leave, and hoped we could help them.
To quote Oswaldo Paya: "The government might as well post a sign: 'Citizens of Havana, this is not your city. It is a playground for foreigners. You are merely background. ... Your money is worthless. Press your face against the glass and watch the outsiders who, by despotic decree, are your superiors.'"
Sr./Comrade Paya even tells the same bitter joke I first heard in Moscow: A little boy, asked what he wants to be when he grows up a policeman, a fireman, a doctor, a soldier? replies: "A foreigner!"
To think, this is the capital of what was once the Pearl of the Antilles a center of commerce and education. There was a time when Havana was a magnet for refugees from Europe's tyrannies; now its own people flee on flimsy rafts.
To quote Paya: "It is worth recalling that there was once another Havana, one that possessed 10 daily newspapers and many more radio stations. It was a place that had a huge, reliable system of public transportation. The poor had a few pesos in their pockets that could be used to buy something. Havana was never a place that scorned people from the provinces, although today the government prohibits Cubans from moving into the city. The government tells us that Havana is better today. Those of us who know otherwise should raise our voices against such denigration. We have a right to defend our parents. ..."
One day, because of voices like Oswaldo Paya's, Cuba will be free. That day may come sooner than anyone dares hope. Because of voices like Andrei Sakharov's, Leningrad is St. Petersburg again. And one day Havana will be Havana again, and Cuba Libre will be more than the name of an old-fashioned cocktail.
I'll drink to that.