WITH the Cuban revolution in full bloom, and the deposed General Batista living in luxurious splendor amid European dictators of the time, the Castro brothers and their guerrillas force engaged in ridding the Island of all opposition. They did it in the name of the people. In time, Cubans will come to understand the code implicit in the rhetoric of the guerrilla force.
Traditionally many Native American tribe’s names meant The People, Us, Human Beings and the like. This inclusionary designation of their society indicated a subconscious acceptance of the value of human cooperation. It was masterfully expressed in the motto Un pour tous, tous pour un (one for all, all for one) in the meeting between Catholics and Protestants in the 1618 Kingdom of Bohemia. Then, just as today, such noble ideals tend to foment disastrous consequences.
For the Castro guerrillas in the 1960’s and until today, the term The People had a narrow, less sublime interpretation. For them, THE PEOPLE referred to their supporters, their militias, and that part of the populace committed to serving the regime in exchange for privileges.
This earthbound, self-serving interpretation breeds resentment, division, and envy. It lowers the peoples’ essence until they become the masses, and a large portion of them devolves into a mob, and the mob turns into a sounder of swine wallowing in the mud.
In 1962, a friend gave me a copy of Animal Farm by George Orwell. After that I saw the animated movie. Dejected, I left the theater and rode home. I realized I was already a citizen of Orwell’s imaginary state. It scared me. Two years later, imagination and reality merged.
The telegram arrived at the house on the second of April. I came home late. When opening the door, the grandfather clock’s gong marked the half hour past twelve. My sister Rita waited for me in the living room, listening to the huge vacuum-tube radio my mother had purchased before I was born.
“A soldier went around the neighborhood today delivering those envelopes,” she said without preamble, pointing to one on the mahogany table. “A small mob chanting political slogans followed him.”
“When was that?”
I reached for and read my name on the manila envelope.
“Grandma and I heard the street noise from the dining room. All she said was, ‘bad news.’ Then we stood up and came to the living room.
“I looked out through the window, and recognized some of them. The soldier knocked at our neighbors’ doors. The mob quieted down and pushed each other to see who opened each door.
“Let’s go to the porch,” Grandma said, and we watched them come closer. The soldier was that red-haired guy you used to be friends with. Most recipients took the envelope and quickly shut the door; some acted nervously, except Rafael, our next-door neighbor.”
“What about Grandma?”
“You know her. She walked to the garden’s iron gate, looking at the soldier’s face like a general.
She said, ‘Good morning, Miguel.’ And smiled.”
Miguel and I had been friends since we were ten-year-old boys playing in the tree house in our mango tree. He dropped out of high school. I went on, but our friendship cooled. Now, at twenty-four, in fatigues and carrying a pistol, he had become a fanatical follower of the new strongman, regardless that he joined the rebel army after they won the war.
Rita continued. “He hesitated, and said, ‘Good morning. Here, take this and give it to him’. He didn’t even mention her name or yours, Ed.”
My sister clung to my arm. Together we ambled through the house in search of Grandma Josefina.
That day, I had worked until five in the afternoon. After that, I walked to the historical district, where four-hundred-year-old colonial plazas, palaces, convents, and military castles erected by the conquistadors, still stood. Massive, weathered wooden doors guarded the entrances to the moss-covered stone buildings. My favorite watering hole resided in the area.
Centuries-old cobblestones had been polished and grooved by horse-drawn carriage wheels. History’s ghosts prowled about me as I walked in shaded galleries supported by rows of stone columns and arches. On the Plaza Cervantes, pigeons refused to yield the road; the coo-cooing little beggars gathered around my feet.
I plunged into the narrow streets beyond the plaza. Twilight shadows clawed their way up the walls. This evening, as in the yesterdays of my great-great-grandfathers, embracing couples inhabited the wide portals’ shadows.
I raised my eyes toward the still, cloudy sky. A seated, elderly, bronze-colored woman with a red scarf tied around her white curly hair stared at me from an ornate balcony.
She seems old and frail.
For a second, a flying bat distracted me. I looked at the balcony again. The woman was gone.
Old couples strolled the streets. They ignored the contemporary concrete sidewalks in favor of walking on the cobblestones that shared with them the scars of time. The balmy air wafting from the Bay carried the tang of the sea.
I can’t decide if I like that smell or not.
At the watering hole and restaurant, one could always be sure to find a quorum for a lively interchange of ideas, as well as rumors proliferating around the city like cockroaches in the sewer. Not all members of the group were present each night. I had been coming in for years.
No one knows when these reunions had started. Over the decades, faces changed but the tertulia had continued in the same locale.
Of late, although no one had requested it, the conversation was conducted in low voice. The political atmosphere dictated prudence.
Calvert Casey, the writer, was speaking when I sat. “Today at the paper they brought a new guy. All written material must be approved by him before going to press.”
“No surprise in that,” responded Carlos, a well-known young actor. “Since the beginning of the year, all television and radio programs must have socially meaningful content. ‘Young worker denounces brother for Contra-Revolutionary activities and becomes hero of the people.’ That sort of crap. Where have you been?”
“Not watching television, that’s for sure,” Casey said.
Raul, an abstract painter, interrupted, “They removed some paintings from the National Gallery. Non-figurative works, and…”
Casey interrupted: “All of them? Including the contemporary room?”
“Of course not,” said Raul. “They left the work of the young friend of you-know-who.” He tapped his left shoulder with the index and middle finger of his right hand.
Fearful of mentioning names, the people had developed a sign language. This gesture indicated the shoulder pads of a particular commander in the armed forces. The high-level officer was rumored to be attracted to young males of mixed race.
Irma, a singer-dancer with a contagious laugh and waist-length hair, smoked a cigar out of the corner of her mouth. She was explosive in manner, delicious in appearance, and free of spirit. Her voice had made famous more than one composer on the island. She exuded sexuality, but only the few of us she had invited to her inner sanctum knew her mastery over the world of satin sheets.
She drew on her cigar, blew a smoke wreath toward the high ceiling, and watched the fan blades dispel it. The ritual was meant to gather attention so she could speak uncontested.
“The painter you are talking about lives in my building’s penthouse. It’s being renovated. The officer in question comes around.” She drew on her cigar again. “By the way, both are married.”
Amador, a young musician, changed the subject. “You have noticed that tonight no one is playing. It’s the first time in two years the musicians have missed their show.”
We all looked in the direction of the small stage. With a lonely guitar on the chair by the piano, its silence was a loud call to the customers’ ears. Many came to drink and listen to the house trio—guitar, piano, and drums—whose records sold all over the world and with whom Marlon Brando had shared raucous nights of drinking and bongo playing during his Havana escapades.
“What happened to them? Do you know?” I said.
“They escaped the island during the night after their last performance,” somebody in the group said. I did not see who it was, and did not care about how he knew.
“Lucky bastards,” I said.
Raul looked at me. “Shhh, not so loud; the waitress has been paying attention to our chat.”
I glanced in the direction. “She is young, maybe eighteen.”
“The younger they are, the easier to train as throat-cutters,” Irma said.
Casey continued. “I’ve heard the UMAP is rounding up dissidents and homosexuals. So just in case, it’s been a pleasure to have known you all.”
“I can’t figure out what the State Security department has to fear from homosexuals,” I said.
He lifted his glass; filled with mojito, above his head. He had consumed several of those and his voice was beginning to garble. He kept gazing at the century-old marble table of the venerable bar and restaurant.
“As you can see, I’m practicing to drink my hemlock.”
The marble table had her memories too: I’ve heard thousands of stories. Famous hands, from Errol Flynn to Meyer Lansky and Josephine Baker, have dulled my surface. The poet’s pen, the artist’s pencils, have rested on me. Novels and plays have been written on top of me, but now, all I hear is sorrow—no creative ideas, no passionate prose are discussed around me. The times are changing, and fear is all I hear.
“Time for me to go,” I said. “Goodbye.”
* * *
Cuban Author Eduardo Cerviño Alzugaray was born in Havana, Cuba. His latest novel, Cuba the Crocodile Island, is based on real events in the life of the author, and for that reason this work is published under his real family name.
The characters’ names, except his own, have been changed to protect the identity of those persons still residing in Cuba. Although a few of those persons have passed away, they are still present in the author’s memory, some with enormous, and others as a significant part of his spiritual growth.
The author has traveled extensively throughout the US, Europe, and Latin America. He has lived in several countries, but his principal residence has been in the US since 1968. He resides in Arizona with his wife and writing collaborator, Les Brierfield. The author appreciates with all his heart the time you may dedicate to reading his work.
You are invited to visit: www.ecbrierfield.com