Chapter 1. "These People Dance"
Like most nights in Havana, this one started late. First came a long cab ride across the city, not in one of those huge, chrome-dipped Chryslers from before the Triumph of the Revolution, but in a tiny red Kia that was still under warranty. The backseat was somebody's idea of a joke. I had to sit up front, beside the driver, and even then my knees dented the dashboard and my head brushed the roof. Every pothole was pain.
It was hot -- it's always hot in Cuba in the spring -- but there was a godsend breeze that cut the humidity, or at least moved it around, drawing a lacy scrim of cirrus over the moon and stars. We sped past gloomy courtyard tenements, glimpsed through narrow doorways that were like the mouths of caves; past the faded high-rise that had been the brand-new Havana Hilton before Fidel Castro rode into town and christened it the Habana Libre, the "Free Havana"; past midcentury cabarets and cinemas with neon signs in jewellike colors, script written in rubies and emeralds. We skirted the Colón cemetery, Havana's walled necropolis, with its rococo crypts and tombs where the Triumph of the Revolution had never been announced and the rich were eternally rich. We crossed the little Almendares River, high above its narrow gorge, and careened into the genteel, shabby sprawl of a desirable neighborhood called Buenavista, whose state of decline said a lot about the nature of desire in contemporary Cuba. It was a fast trip down empty boulevards -- few Cubans have the government's permission to own cars, much less the money to buy them, and gasoline is too expensive to burn on short trips around town. Even at night people wait for the bus, and when the bus doesn't come they try to thumb rides, and when all else fails they give up and walk, half-seen figures making their way along sidewalks and medians. The night is dark in Havana, much darker than first-world night. Streetlights are anemic and few, homes sparingly lit and often shuttered. Nobody seems to sleep so there are always focal points that blaze with light and motion, but to move from one to another is to speed through a ghostly void, an emptiness peopled by shadows.
"We're going to the Tropical," the driver said as we crossed the bridge.
"Not the Tropicana."
"The Tropi-cal, right?"
He looked to be in his fifties, white enough to be called blanco, gray-haired, trim, no-nonsense in the way he worked. Up north in la Yuma, as Cubans call the United States -- the reference is from 3:10 to Yuma, a 1957 Glenn Ford Western, and no one in Cuba can explain why -- he might have been a midlevel insurance executive in a suburban office park. These would be his peak earning years at Wonderful Life, the time to really sock it away for the condo in Florida he had his eye on, a lovely unit off the eighth fairway in a non-sea-view development with a Seinfeldian name like Del Boca Vista. Instead he was driving halfway across Havana in the middle of the night for six or seven bucks, with practically no hope of a return fare.
If I'd said "Tropi-cana," that would have been a different story. The Tropicana was one of the most famous nightclubs in the world, the crystal Xanadu where perfect cinnamon showgirls paraded down the aisles wearing chandeliers on their heads and very little anywhere else, where Meyer Lansky and Santo Trafficante and other mobsters of renown had once commandeered the very best tables, and where tour buses now nightly deposited loads of earnest Canadians and randy Italians prepared to pay the seventy-dollar cover charge and sip mojito after overpriced mojito without complaint. There were always foreigners with pockets full of dollars coming and going from the Tropicana. My driver wouldn't have had to hang around long to find some work. But I was going to the Tropical, which was mostly patronized by Cubans -- black Cubans, at that -- and Cubans weren't supposed to take cabs like this one, which were reserved for tourists. Turi-taxis, they called them. He'd end up going all the way back downtown empty.
The driver didn't complain, though, because in turn-of-the-century Cuba his was a success story. He probably lived in a nice house, supported his wife's parents, and had enough left over to keep a mistress or two. To an average José, a run-of-the-mill patriotic worker trying to support his family on a state salary in pesos, the six or seven dollars I'd pay for this ride was half a month's pay. Even after settling up with the cab company for use of the car and the gas he burned, he could still claim membership in the elite class of this classless society: the dollar class.
We pulled into a smallish parking lot where a few dozen Cubans were lined up at a ticket booth. Behind the booth was a high wall, and there was just enough light to see that it was painted a violent pink.
"The Tropical," the driver said.
The cover was ten dollars. I bought my ticket, gave it to the man at the gate, and was swept with the crowd down a walkway, emerging into the concrete splendor of what might just be the best dance hall in the world.
"Hall" isn't quite right because the Tropical is open-air, fully exposed to the heavens. To my left was an array of tables, and behind the tables a long bar. Ahead there was a railing -- I had entered on the upper level, I now realized, and was on a balcony -- and a set of stairs on the right that led down. That was where the crowd went, so I followed. At the bottom it was clear just how vast the place was, maybe a third the size of a football field. On the left and right were rows of tables, and at the far end a big stage, trimmed in pink, bearing the legend Salón Rosado Beny Moré -- the Beny Moré Pink Room. In the middle of the space was the biggest dance floor I had ever seen.
The Tropical had been the place black Cubans went for relaxation and release back in the day, before the Triumph of the Revolution, when the Tropicana, the Montmartre, and the Sans Souci had special sections reserved for blacks -- the stage and the kitchen. Of course, President Fulgencio Batista and a few other brown-skinned officials of the republic were most welcome, but Batista preferred to curl up in his official residence or his mansion in Florida and spend the evening counting his money. Great black musicians like Chano Pozo, Israel "Cachao" López, Celia Cruz, and even Beny Moré -- Beny Moré, the genius of rhythm, the Cuban equivalent of Charlie Parker and Frank Sinatra and Chuck Berry, and Elvis Presley too, all rolled into one -- would finish their sets at the fancy clubs and then come to the Tropical and jam until dawn. The beer was ice cold and the atmosphere as hot and funky as a Mississippi juke joint. Rare was the night back then without at least one knife fight, at least one other-woman slapdown with intent to kill, and at least a handful of patrons deposited in a corner to sleep it off. Since Castro and his moralizing rebels arrived, nights at the Tropical offered less drama. But there was still something raffish and wonderful about the place, still an electric charge of possibility in the air.
The tables were almost all full, and this was a different crowd than at the other music halls around Havana, where sometimes there were more tourists than locals. The Tropical crowd was mostly black and practically all Cuban. Recorded music was playing over the sound system, recent hits by the great Cuban salsa bands. I sipped beer and watched the two couples at the table across the dance floor from me. One of the men, overweight and dressed in a light-green polo shirt and faded jeans, was already quite drunk and kept getting up to dance alone in a wobbly, meandering little three-step. He kept perfect time, but always a consistent fraction of a second behind the beat. Every once in a while he would lean so far off the vertical that I was sure he would fall, but he always caught himself, barely, as if his internal gyroscope had just enough spin left to snap him upright one last time. At that point his wife would roll her eyes, get up, dance with him for a moment, and then lead him back to the table, where he would pour another drink from a fast-dwindling bottle of three-year-old Havana Club rum.
The music stopped, the lights went down, and an announcer with the deep voice, toothy smile, and perfect hair of a game-show host came out to launch the preliminaries.
First, believe it or not, was a fashion show. After forty years of socialism, economic embargo, and principled rejection of bourgeois comforts, nobody should go to Cuba for the fashion. The clothes on display at the Tropical looked unexceptional and the fabrics were cheap, clinging where they should have draped and draping where they should have clung. Women in the audience paid rapt attention, though, and clapped warmly at the end, proving that all fashion is local.
Next came a comic who spoke so fast and used so much slang that I missed every single one of his punch lines. I did make out that part of his act was a long nostalgic bit about the old days, when Cuba was a mighty weapon in the Cold War and Havana was full of clumsy hayseed Russian sailors. The crowd found this material hilarious, proving that all humor is local too.
Finally the announcer came back to bring on the headline act: Bamboleo, one of the hottest salsa orquestas in Havana. The lights dimmed. The musicians came out, a dozen shadow-men taking their stations, quietly preparing for battle. There was a pause, and then a male voice said, "Un', dos, un', dos, tres..."
The horns played a fanfare, the bass answered with a bluesy lick, the four percussionists set up a mighty clatter. Four singers bounded onstage, two men and two women. For a moment I don't think I was able to breathe.
The two female singers were the focus of the show and the cause of my asphyxia. Both were lithe and brown skinned, both were surpassingly beautiful, and both had their hair cut very short, mannishly short, which is a rare look in Cuba. They weren't quite a matched set -- one, whom I later learned was named Vannia, was tall and leggy; the other, Yordamis, was petite and pixieish. Vannia had taken the further step of straightening her hair and dyeing it a rich and shocking blond, while Yordamis kept hers in a short dark afro, but they wore identical slinky silver gowns that sparkled in the stage lights, and they moved in perfect tandem. They seemed unreal, idealized, as if they were avatars or sirens instead of real women. They were transfixing.
I looked around and realized that the Tropical, in that instant, had exploded in sound and movement. The band was playing with power, filling the open sky with music so loud it made ripples in a glass of beer at twenty-five paces. The crowd screamed as if for life itself. Scores of young people had rushed the stage and were already standing four deep, moving to the music, singing along with the tune. And the endless dance floor had magically filled, giving itself over to some powerful enchantment.
Enchantment, witchcraft, magic, Santería -- these were the only possible explanations for what I was witnessing. Across the extent of this huge space, filling it to capacity and beyond, couples were dancing. But "dancing" does not begin to tell what they were doing. They were whipping, they were twirling. They were circling, diving beneath locked arms, embracing. They were bumping, grinding, releasing, spinning, caressing, all but making love. They were doing all these things in a dense crowd, somehow coordinating their moves so that whenever a man swung his partner toward a given point on the floor, the man or woman in the neighboring couple who was occupying that space somehow moved out of the way just in time, gracefully shifting into another space that a millisecond earlier had likewise been magically vacated. At first it looked to me as if some higher intelligence were guiding the movements of each of these hundreds of people. But then, as I continued to watch, a new metaphor took over: This was an exercise in massively parallel computation, many minds each solving its own bit of an otherwise unsolvable problem. No one genius could have attended to so many vital details so perfectly. This group movement was decentralized but coordinated, almost like flocking or schooling but not at all instinctive, not in the least unconscious. It was brilliantly human and clever and aware, both spontaneous and purposeful, and it was one of the most stirring and beautiful sights I have ever seen.
Individual couples were no less amazing. All good dance partners look as if they're reading each other's minds, but this was speed reading. These people were channeling Evelyn Wood. A man would spin his partner, and while she was spinning he would circle to the left or the right, and when she came out of the spin she'd know just where he was, know that he had gone left and not right, or right and not left. And then without pause he'd spin her the other way, only this time he wouldn't move at all, but she'd anticipate that too and know where to find him. Then they'd cross hands and start circling each other, at the same time rotating so that sometimes they faced the same direction and other times in opposite directions, passing their locked arms above their heads and across their shoulders and behind their backs, managing to go around and around, back and forth, always to the beat, without ever breaking their gentle grasp. They'd separate, riff for a while, then rejoin. They'd hear a particular rhythm from one of the drummers and it would suggest an appropriate dance step, and they'd ease into it simultaneously, seamlessly, before flowing on to the next. This was not just about moving to the beat, or even about looking graceful in motion. Event followed event followed event in this dancing. Each couple was writing its own private narrative, a tropical saga told in a language that an outsider like me could appreciate, even begin to understand, but never really learn to speak.
They say that great salsa dancers are made, not born. Feeling the rhythm is hardly even a beginning; there is an enormous amount of technique to learn, a huge vocabulary of moves and a complicated syntax for stringing them together. Application counts more than talent. But as with gymnastics or tennis, you have to start young. It was obvious that anyone who hadn't learned this language from birth could drag his bones across dance floors night after night until the end of time and never learn to do it like the crowd at the Tropical.
Bamboleo would have blown the roof off the joint, if it had had one. The band was tight and disciplined, instantly responsive to nods and gestures from the keyboard player, a stocky chestnut-skinned man wearing red pants, a red vest over a white T-shirt, and a bright red do-rag on his head. These clearly were fabulous musicians, with the kind of technique that comes from years of scales and finger exercises. But this show was as much about dance as music. Vannia and Yordamis had a signature move, a kind of exaggerated, undulating, dirty-dancing grind that made men desire, women aspire, and chiropractors see dollar signs. Most of the youngsters in the crowd could do it too, and there were moments that night when the Tropical was like a waving field of sea grass, washed by a powerful current that pulsed to a three-two Latin beat.
The energy level actually rose as the morning rolled on. When Vannia sang the opening bars of Bamboleo's biggest hit, a hit-the-road-Jack revenge anthem called "Ya No Hace Falta" ("No Longer Needed"), the kids up near the stage, hundreds of them by now, crowded in so tightly that someone could have been trampled. They knew every word of the song, and they caterwauled along so loudly that Vannia finally gave up and held the mike out over their heads, giving them their glory.
The show ended at half past three.
After the finale, as patrons filed out and waiters collected empties, the members of the band began to assemble at a big table in the back. They looked happy and pumped, chattering about the show as they mopped their faces with towels and guzzled bottles of water. I walked over, introduced myself, and got a phone number from the bandleader, whose name was Lázaro Valdés and whom the others called "Lazarito." There was no point in trying to talk to him tonight, after a show that must have left him and the band completely drained, so I went out to the parking lot, flagged down a cab, and took the long, dark ride back to the hotel.
The next morning, looking over my fragmentary notes, I found a page where I had written just three words:
"These people dance."
Yes, they do. They always did.
Cuba has spent the past hundred years whipping, twirling, spinning, swinging wildly between extremes. It began the twentieth century as an American protectorate, for all intents and purposes an American colony, and ended it as one of the few nations in the world with which the U.S. State Department refuses to have full diplomatic relations. It spent decades under the sway of an authoritarian leader as devoted to private enterprise as any leader could be, and then decades under the sway of an authoritarian leader who so abhors private enterprise that to this day he does not allow Cubans to incorporate a business, purchase a car without permission, or even buy and sell real estate. It went from being one of the richest countries in Latin America to one of the most lacking in all kinds of material goods, from electronics to underwear; from having one of the widest chasms between rich and poor in the region to having no gap at all; from an agrarian society with a largely ignorant peasantry to an urbanized nation acclaimed as one of the better-educated nations on Earth. It saw an effective takeover by the Italian mob, followed by a literal takeover by the Marxist mob; it saw, amid its timeless fields of tobacco and sugarcane, the construction of state-of-the-art missile batteries that brought the world to the brink of a nuclear holocaust. It went from being a playground of sun, sin, and sex for American tourists to a forbidden zone that Americans cannot legally visit -- but that now hosts many thousands of Europeans, Canadians, and Mexicans each year, most of whom come for the sun, the sin, or the sex.
Through all these bipolar lurches, two things have been constant: music and dance. From decade to decade, from decadence to communism to communist decadence, Cuba has been a land of music and Cubans have danced as if their lives depended on it. Now, at the dawn of a bleak new century, the music is faster and harder-edged, and the dancing more frenetic and unceasing. Standing still is no option at all, not during the day, when Cubans scramble madly to assemble the bare necessities of life, not at night, when cold beer and incandescent rhythms bring joyous, blessed relief.
Today all of Cuba dances to live; today all of Cuba lives to dance.
The Hotel Nacional is a grand old pile that sticks out on the low-rise Havana skyline, a huge Italianate palace built the way one of Florida's robber barons would have built it. The approach is down an allée of towering royal palms toward a structure that looks stolid yet also whimsical, with useless balustrades and twin Florentine bell towers that house no bells. The lobby is half a city block long, appointed with handmade tiles and a grove's worth of caoba, or Cuban mahogany. The huge swimming pool once was ringed by private cabañas where big-time mobsters spent long afternoons cheating each other at poker while their bored, beautiful molls lazed in the sun and did their nails. That was in the '40s and '50s, when the Mafia was one of the big players in Havana, along with the Catholic Church, the sugar aristocracy, the U.S. embassy, and the clever, corrupt strongman Fulgencio Batista. The mob felt comfortable enough in Havana to choose the Nacional to stage one of its bloody-minded summits, the one depicted in the movie The Godfather, Part II. The assembled Bosses of All Bosses met on the mezzanine, with its sumptuous meeting rooms and its glorious views of the Florida Strait. Even today, in the kitchens and storerooms of the Nacional, there are still a few employees who remember those heady days, or claim to.
One magical January evening in 1956, a lithe, young Eartha Kitt slinked and purred her way across the cabaret stage at the Nacional. Before her was a packed house that included the cream of Havana society, a smattering of international jet-setters, hordes of American tourists on holiday, a few professional and many nonprofessional gamblers, rich men with mistresses, rich women with gigolos, plainclothes cops, a government spy or two, and a discreet and well-behaved handful of the century's leading criminals.
Kitt was a kitten then, not yet the lioness she would become. But she already knew how to use her claws. She wore a strapless gold lamé dress that somehow stayed put, at least above the waist. Below, there were thigh-high slits up the sides that fell open with each step, revealing her long legs and the five-inch mules on which she managed to dance and prance with feline grace. She had the confidence of young fame, and it was justified; tout Havana, by then used to seeing stars of the first magnitude, was enthralled. Before she even sang a note she had them in her palm, in her little paw, and was toying with them.
It was a special night: the opening of Wilbur Clark's International Casino, just off the Nacional's soaring lobby. This was meant to be an event of significance not only in Cuba but also in the United States, which would supply most of the casino's paying customers, so the owners -- the real owners, who chose not to have their names on any paperwork -- had arranged a junket. They flew more than fifty journalists down to Havana, including editors from the Florida papers, columnists from all over the East Coast, wire-service hacks, and assorted others who had managed to acquire a press card and an appreciation for the sporting life. Also scattered at tables across the big, elegant room were travel agents and airline company officials, also traveling at the owners' expense. The owners had arranged for these guests to be accompanied by beautiful Cuban "hostesses" who seemed in endless supply. If a guy wasn't hitting it off with tall-and-dark, well then, short-and-fair would materialize before he could say "Rum-and-Coke!"
Seated at the head table that night were the actress Terry Moore, Howard Hughes's longtime paramour, and her mother from Florida; a smattering of wealthy locals; a couple of American expatriate stalwarts, for respectability's sake; and of course Mr. Wilbur Clark himself, the premier front man of his time, accompanied by his lovely wife.
Wilbur Clark must have been sent by central casting. He had an open Midwestern face, crowned by a thinning silver pompadour. Usually he wore casual clothes, light-colored knit shirts and lightweight Sansabelt slacks, but tonight, naturally, he was elegant in a tux. He looked and sounded like an honest man, but one who was also gloriously ambitious -- the very picture of an American archetype, the heartland entrepreneur whose life was dedicated to hitting it bigger than anyone had ever hit it before. What could be more American than ambition? There was nothing intimidating about Wilbur Clark, nothing alien or occult. People who met him almost always concluded that with a little luck, they too could have had his great success. For years he had managed to convince the Nevada gaming authorities that he, and not certain criminal elements from Cleveland, held the controlling interest in the famed Desert Inn casino in Las Vegas. He was so good at this charade that sometimes he even convinced himself.
He was at the table of honor for the opening of "his" new casino, which he had painstakingly planned and built after long and careful study of Havana's potential as a gambling center. At least that's what he told the newspapers. The truth was that he had set foot in Havana for the first time just a couple of weeks earlier, didn't know a single local, didn't speak a como-está-usted's worth of Spanish, and was set to blow town in a couple of days with no plans to return. His name was on every available surface, down to the gambling chips and the dice -- "Wilbur Clark's -- Havana." But the real proprietor of the new casino in the Nacional -- nowhere in evidence, not at the head table or any other table, perhaps watching from behind some curtain -- was a much less gregarious and much more dangerous man named Meyer Lansky.
Who must have been watching from somewhere at the fringes of the room, out of sight. Meyer Lansky, one of the smartest mobsters of the century, was known for his steely self-control. But how could he have resisted witnessing the culmination of all his labors? This casino, and the ones that would soon follow, represented personal and professional vindication, proof that he had bet the right horse -- that Havana could be, and soon would be, much bigger and better than Vegas, and much more profitable for Lansky and his Sicilian colleagues. It was so obvious: Who, in their right mind, would go out to the middle of the hot, stinking desert to gamble in Nevada, when they could come here, to beautiful Havana? To warm sea breezes and caramel-skinned beauties? To horses, jai alai, and hot jungle-bunny music, less than an hour's flight from Miami?
Lansky must have been somewhere watching, if only because he took care with his investments and had laid out a small fortune for the services of the famous Eartha Kitt. That was one expensive little dame. But was she ever paying off!
After giving the room a big tease, she cued the band and swung into her first number, and the place went crazy. It was one of her signature songs, the one some radio stations back in the States wouldn't even play. They thought it was a little racy.
I wanna be evil, she sang.
I wanna spit tacks,
I wanna be evil
And cheat at jacks...
It went on like that, but you could hardly hear her for the cheering. She was mahvelous, outré, larger than life, over the top, just like the whole evening. It was, in fact, the most glamorous evening Havana had ever seen, not just for the delights it offered but those it promised.
The music that night was sweet and savory. Lansky's managers had hired the best Cuban musicians money could buy, a combo as hot as any band Eartha Kitt would ever front. They gave a Latin twist to the music, spicing it with that three-two rhythm that seems to travel direct and unmediated from the bandstand to the hips, causing them to sway.
Of course, there was dancing.
Why not dance the night away? Havana had become the glamorous playground of the Western hemisphere. Lansky must have beamed at his own genius. Maybe, behind the curtain, he even abandoned his reserve and cut the rug a bit. Yeah, baby, things were just heating up....
But it soon became evident that Lansky, famous for his foresight in matters criminal and pecuniary, hadn't paid nearly enough attention to those bearded schoolboys and barefoot peasants up in the hills with their rifles and their dog-eared books of Marxist philosophy. After being booted out of the country by the victorious Fidel Castro, he explained his failure with one of history's more elegant shrugs: "I crapped out."
The Hotel Nacional crapped out too. After the Triumph of the Revolution, the hotel was used as a guesthouse for foreign dignitaries -- socialist heads of state, honored Soviet advisers, Black Panthers, and other sons and daughters of revolution who had fled the land of imperialist aggression, often by way of hijacked aircraft. Later, after further decline, the hotel became one of the prizes in the government's incentive system for patriotic workers: Help spur your unit to harvest more sugarcane or produce more asphalt and win a two-week stay, all expenses paid. It was also one of the hotels where newly married couples were given rooms to enjoy their honeymoons, courtesy of the state.
But when tourism became the new national economic strategy, the Nacional was too much of a potential asset to ignore. The hotel was closed and given a superficial renovation, and then another superficial renovation, the final result being to restore its splendor and glory, but only to a depth of about one inch. The rooms look worthy of the hotel's five-star designation, but the plumbing always delivers too much water or too little, the windows don't seal when they close, the phones are balky, the equipment in the "health club" is wobbly, the pattern on the restaurant china has begun to fade. At times these lapses only reinforce the hotel's stately grandeur, and at times they are nothing more than annoying lapses. Like the rest of Cuba's best hotels, the Nacional is reserved exclusively for foreigners. A patriotic worker can still go there for a good meal, but it will cost him a month's pay. The food is mediocre, the service uneven, the elevators antique and distressingly hesitant, and all in all I considered it a fabulous place to stay.
The Nacional sits on a rocky little bluff overlooking the Malecón, Havana's seafront esplanade, and my window happened to overlook a huge empty plaza called the Piragua. And so, one night, I got a jolt at bedtime when I heard a blast of loud music.
The government had scheduled a free concert on the Piragua, and four of Cuba's top bands would perform. The great Herbie Hancock, in town for a jazz festival, was expected to drop by. Downstairs, I fetched myself a mojito -- a Cuban mint julep, with rum instead of bourbon and a special kind of mint -- and found a spot on the well-tended hotel grounds where I could watch and listen. I was looking down from behind the stage, and I could see the musicians, VIPs, and hangers-on all milling around in their roped-off corral.
The Piragua was packed, the music was incredible, Hancock sat in on a couple of tunes, everybody danced, and the concert ended, yes, after three. But what I remember from that evening is not the electricity generated by some of Cuba's finest orquestas, or even the spirit of a crowd that numbered in the thousands, but the dancing of one couple.
They were backstage, and they weren't really a couple at all. The woman was middle-aged, somewhere around fifty, and caramel skinned -- in the rich and complicated Cuban lexicon for race and skin color, she would have been called a jaba. She was rail-thin, with black hair that she wore in a flip. She arrived with a corpulent man, at least in his sixties, who looked unwell. He moved slowly to a chair right behind the stage, sat down heavily, and didn't move the rest of the evening. The woman, by contrast, was pure energy. She sat on the man's lap, but every few minutes she would get up to move to the music. No matter which band was playing, whenever she heard a song she liked she was compelled to jump up and dance. Both she and the fat man seemed to be having a great time. Everyone at the Piragua seemed to be having a great time.
The protean salsa band Los Van Van was the closing act, which was as it should be. If you were to combine the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, you'd have an idea of what Los Van Van have meant to Cuba over the past thirty years. When they started playing, the woman I had noticed, whom I now thought of as the Dancing Woman, could no longer even pretend to control herself. She jumped off the fat man's lap and started dancing in earnest, not just moving her feet in time to the music but dancing, shimmying, shaking, and spinning. Every once in a while she threw her head back and laughed with spontaneous joy. The fat man didn't budge but he did bob his head in time to the music, and he watched with apparent pleasure as the Dancing Woman went through her moves.
Then a young guy walked by -- much younger than she, probably no older than thirty. He was of medium height and very dark skinned, and he was cooler than ice, with a shaved head, dark sunglasses (it was nearly two in the morning), and a single gold hoop earring. He might have been a musician with another group, or maybe just a member of somebody's posse. At any rate, he was walking past when he saw the Dancing Woman and had to stop.
I could tell from their body language that they didn't know each other, but without a word they started dancing, this supercool young man and this woman who might have been old enough to be his mother.
She wasn't young but, boy, could she dance -- and boy, could he dance too. The Dancing Woman and the Dancing Man knew the whole vocabulary and had gotten A's in grammar. They also supplied context for the narrative they were composing: this was her show. The Dancing Man could spin and twirl and bump and grind, all right, but he held his own moves in check and instead partnered the Dancing Woman as if this were classical ballet on amphetamines. He let her lead, let her decide when the spinning phases would begin and end, when to mambo and when to guaguancó, when to separate and when to rejoin, when to circle to the right and when left. He even followed her as she invented a step, a kind of head-shaking double-time shuffle that went perfectly with a particular song from the Van Van oeuvre. He let her teach him.
I have no idea who the Dancing Woman was. She could have been somebody's mother, she could have been a bureaucrat in the Ministry of Culture, she could have been a chambermaid at the Nacional. All I know is that for one night only, she was a queen. In socialist Cuba, where "citizen" is a correct form of address, she was a true and noble queen.
They danced for three or four long songs, a little more than half an hour, and I couldn't take my eyes off them. He began to flag before she did. When the Dancing Man finally decided it was time to move on to wherever he had been going in the first place, he stood back, blew a kiss, and applauded the Dancing Woman. He kept applauding until, smiling triumphantly like the prima ballerina that she was, she rewarded him with a bow.
These people dance.
In earlier trips I had found Cuba absorbing but elusive, and contradictory to the point of madness. It was a foreign language for which I had no dictionary, like the narrative form of dance I'd seen at the Tropical.
Cuba looked like a third-world country, mostly, but Cubans weren't third-world people by miles. They were educated, sharp tongued, worldly, a bit arrogant, as quick to expound and lecture as a freshly minted PhD on his first teaching job. They didn't walk so much as strut, with a chest-first swagger that other Latin Americans found worthy of burlesque. To meet them you'd think they might be a people that once had ruled a great empire, but for much of their history they hadn't even ruled their own little alligator-shaped island.
There was less litter alongside Cuban roads than you'd find in Singapore, unless you counted the cigarette butts, since everyone smoked. The definition of a nonsmoker was someone who didn't light up between courses of a meal. If your smoking caused you to suddenly collapse on the street from a heart attack, however, there was probably no better place on Earth to be stricken, since it was likely that there were two or three doctors within sight. Cuba had such a surplus of doctors that it routinely sent them away at government expense to minister to the wretched of poorer countries halfway around the world, just to give the medical professionals something to do. The doctors were well trained and dedicated, and if they couldn't save you from your smoking-induced heart attack it was only because there was no medicine. Cuba had mastered state-of-the-art biotechnology, had developed an innovative surgical treatment for Parkinson's disease that drew patients to Havana from around the world, but somehow managed to suffer a chronic shortage of basic medicines. First dibs went to the "international" pharmacies that catered to foreigners. One of the nicest gifts you could bestow on a Cuban family was a big bottle of Tylenol.
There were no street kids in Havana. The only children you saw out and about during school hours were being escorted on field trips, dressed in their neat school uniforms, white shirts and maroon shorts or jumpers for the little kids, white shirts and gold pants or skirts for the teens. One afternoon in Old Havana I watched as perfect strangers yelled at a school-age boy for not being in the classroom where he belonged. After school, though, the streets were full of young people. They would play outside as long as they were allowed to, because their homes were scandalously cramped and dilapidated. Buildings that would have been condemned and knocked down in Peru or Bolivia, to name two genuine third-world countries, were jam-packed and teeming with life.
That was all just background, though. More confusing still was the foreground, the moment in Cuba. President and Commander-in-Chief Fidel Castro Ruz, the great mechanic who somehow willed this amazing, inefficient, Rube Goldberg machine to function, was nearly eighty years old, and any reading of the actuarial tables would tell you that he was in his twilight. But who, or what, would be arriving on the dawn? And would this stranger be carrying a beacon or a sword? A torch or a machete?
The future could be chalked up as unknowable, but the present was hardly less obscure. How did these people live, right now? Communists in a capitalist universe, salaried employees of the workers' state at fifteen or twenty or twenty-five dollars a month, curators of a grand al fresco museum of architecture and automotive design, scholars of a broken system, engineers of a fully functioning society -- how did they do it? How long could they keep the contraption running? How did they make it through the day?
And how on earth, at the end of the day, did they have the energy to dance?
The answer is that four decades after what all good patriots call "the Triumph of the Revolution," life in Cuba is best understood not as tragedy or comedy or farce, not as an exercise in marxismo or fidelismo or even geopolitical machismo, but simply as a dance. It's all those other things too, but nobody has time to worry about any of that. Everyone is too busy dancing.
The thing is, though, that even while they dance as fast as they can, Cubans know that soon the tune will change. Every Cuban knows it, every Cuban can feel it. The master of ceremonies is in his late seventies; the musicians on the bandstand are old and exhausted; the sound system is failing; someone in the wings is flashing the lights on and off, the way chaperones at the senior prom do to announce that this dance, boys and girls, will be the last. And that just begs the question, one that frightens even Cubans who eagerly look forward to the end of the song: What comes next? In a nation capable of the most violent swings of mood, what on earth comes next?
I had always thought that the key to understanding Cuba was one towering, complicated, stubborn old man, Fidel Castro, maker of revolution, torturer of American presidents, icon of the Left, target of exploding cigars, genius, dinosaur, rock star. The single indomitable force that animated Cuba for better or worse, said the conventional wisdom, was Fidel.
So I went in search of him and his country. In the end, the conventional wisdom turned out to be right: Cuba is Fidel, Fidel is Cuba. The only thing the conventionally wise hadn't told me, perhaps because they didn't know it themselves, was that just like his eleven million compatriots, Fidel spent his days dancing as hard and fast as he could, spinning and twirling to make it through the next day or month or year, sometimes even through the next hour.
Cuba equals dance. Dance equals movement to music. To understand Cuba, you have to understand not only its indispensible Maximum Leader, but also the music -- the glorious, indomitable music -- that makes the island move.
Copyright © 2004 by Eugene Robinson
Introduction: Drum Roll
In 1997, a Cuban musical phenomenon called Buena Vista Social Club was born. The album was the unlikeliest of hits -- a bunch of aging, forgotten crooners singing songs few had ever heard of in a language most Americans don't even understand. Despite all that, it was wildly successful. The music was the thing. It was music that compelled you to move, compelled you to dance. Gently sexual and savory-sweet, the album's sounds and singers came from Cuba's musical golden age -- a time before revolution, before communism, before the missile crisis and the Mariel boat lift and the Helms-Burton Act. A time even before anyone had ever heard of a tall, ambitious, socially awkward rich kid from the sticks named Fidel Castro.
Today in Cuba, those sweet Buena Vista songs are played around the clock in tourist bars, expensive restaurants, and five-star hotel lobbies, but hardly anywhere else. The rest of Cuba dances to more urgent sounds.
After forty-four years Fidel is still in firm control of Cuba. He faces no serious challenge; the dissident movement is tiny, largely ineffectual, and was recently shown to be riddled with government spies. More than a decade after the Soviet bloc collapsed and international Marxism died, Cuba remains a defiantly communist state; long after nominally communist China embraced the free market, Cuba still does not allow its citizens to buy and sell property, establish private companies, or even purchase a car for private use without permission. It would be easy to conclude that amid a swirling, transforming world, nothing much is happening in Cuba.
But that easy conclusion is wrong. The sudden cutoff of lavish Soviet subsidies created massive economic and social dislocation, plunging the average Cuban citizen into poverty -- cultured, well-educated poverty with good health care, to be sure, but poverty nonetheless. So that his people might eat, Fidel was forced to allow limited exercises in free enterprise. He had to let two highly suspect influences -- foreign tourism and remittances from Cuban exiles -- become the twin pillars of the economy. In what must have been a galling move, he had to legalize the holding and spending of U.S. dollars, and then watch as the currency of his imperialist enemy captured ground from his own battered peso. He turned a blind eye as Cubans invented their own ways to get by. When asked about the thousands of young women who had flocked to the cities to tease love and money out of visiting Spaniards and Italians, he remarked that at least they would be the healthiest and best-educated prostitutes in the world.
All this happened, and also something else: Fidel got old.
When he passed seventy-five, the unthinkable suddenly became the inevitable. Someday, not long from now, there will be no Fidel. Most Cubans have known no other leader, no other system. His brother Raúl, the designated successor, is just five years younger and has none of Fidel's magnetism, cleverness, or eloquence. What on earth will happen then?
Cubans worry about the future. Meanwhile, they do the best they can, scraping and scrambling to get through the day, through the month.
And whenever they can, they go out and dance.
Two generalizations about the Buena Vista era hold true today: Cuba is a land of music, a thick stew of African and European elements that is astoundingly rich and influential to have come from such a tiny island. And Cuban music, even more than American music or Brazilian music or any of the other comparable strains, is dance music. Cubans move through their complicated lives the way they move on the dance floor, dashing and darting and spinning on a dime, seducing joy and fulfillment and next week's supply of food out of a broken system. Then at night they take to the real dance floors and invent new steps.
Today's dance-floor sounds are harder-edged: a furious brand of salsa called timba, a brassy update of the traditional Cuban son, a still-nascent native brand of hip-hop whose lyrics take up topics like racism and police harassment, subjects that couldn't have been addressed from a stage a decade ago.
There's a national newscast on Cuban television every night at eight, but it's slow and stilted, and everyone knows it's far from complete. The music of Cuba is the real news. Those who make the music are the real journalists, analysts, social commentators. To understand what's happening in Cuba, you have to meet the musicians and listen to their fabulous music.
Then you have to go out and dance.
Copyright © 2004 by Eugene Robinson