An American Housewife in Havana: A tale of Hardship and Beauty
Excerpted by Melissa Santley
Isadora Tattlin has created her own genre of a non-fictional work accounting each astonishing day for four school years living in Cuba as a housewife, mother and writer. Cuba Diaries is a Cuba noir – honest and graphic depictions of her observations taken from a dismal Cuban lifestyle, but often with a deeply sarcastic undertone.
Tattlin jumped blindly into Christopher Columbus’s picture-perfect discovery of this Caribbean island, and concluded that the natural aesthetic quality of the country acts as a deceiving advertisement; the fine print being the terms and conditions of a grave social and economic society.
Experience with Tattlin her first impressions of Cuba when her husband’s job relocates her family to Havana. Read her account of the exploitation of the Cuban people by the rest of the world, the irony of the government’s policies, and the entertaining of Fidel Castro as he nonchalantly attends her dinner party. Below is an excerpt from Cuba Diaries: An American Housewife in Havana, by Isadora Tattlin.
Landing in Cuba
Can this be real? Am I looking at what I am looking at? I have never been to Florida or the Caribbean: I never felt the need to go, but no one ever told me that the sea was violet. I have seen photos of the Caribbean in magazines but always thought the colors were enhanced. I feel aesthetic floors, ceilings, and walls being snatched off me like dry mats, leaving me in a giddy new space.
How can anyone have a problem, living here?
Closer, we see houses and roads. We search for cars. There are none; then, closer we see one, moving patiently. Closer, we see Olympic-sized swimming pools with (now it begins) no water in them, with high platforms for diving boards but no diving boards, just bent, rusted metal supports. We see rusted metal supports for billboards, the billboards having fallen off long ago.
Closer still, the real funk begins… Now here we go: rust, lack of paint, mildew stucco falling off, grass and trees growing out of roof drains, large rusted tanks and twisted metal structures – supports for more billboards, which have fallen off, too.
A 1956 two-tone Chevrolet, a hospital green brush painted mid-1940’s Oldsmobile, a canary yellow 1957 Ford, the year of the first tail fins, and a Studebaker, a Studebaker, with its bullet nose, moving majestically. Nick and I contemplate it as if it were a Titian. And we’ve only been on the road for three minutes. And there’s a gas crisis.
It’s Moscow, but instead of grim-looking white people walking down the road, you have happier-looking white and black and brown people walking down the road, waiting for buses in groups in front of giant slogans painted on walls or plastered on billboards. HASTA LA VICTORIA SIEMPRE (Always toward victory) one slogan reads, and another, VIVA FIDEL Y LA REVOLUCION SOCIALISTA (Long live Fidel and the socialist revolution).
You think, for the first two seconds that you see the slogans, that the people who made the slogans, the people who put the slogans up, and the people standing in front of the slogans are somehow kidding, but then you realize, just as quickly, that they are not kidding.
There are advertising billboards, too, on trusses that are still intact, which we see after a while, for Habana Club rum, Pepsodent, and Cubatur, a travel agency. Some thoughts about Pepsodent’s being an American brand, and about there being a U.S. embargo against Cuba, rise desultorily in our conversation, but we are too jet lagged to speculate seriously.
Seeing advertising billboards among the slogans brings on another private wave of thinking-they-must-be-kidding, but again, the thinking-they-must-be-kidding vanishes in one second more.
Baracoa is the nearest town to the beach where Columbus landed in 1492, where he said, as his ship approached the shore, “Never have human eyes beheld anything so beautiful.” If Cuba were a regular country, Baracoa would have been discovered in the sixties and have become a Kathmandu or a Goa or a Maui and then a Majorca, or a Patmos.
It has the right elements: the beaches are vast, deserted, and clean; four utterly clear rivers flow for tens of kilometers through virgin-forested ravines into the sea; and the population is innocent but catching on fast. The architecture is in the requisite range, from adorable to impressive. As it stands now, Baracoa is one of the poorest towns in Cuba. There is no commercial life, as far as we can make out. Stores are absolutely empty. Gaunt people shuffle down the road and mill in the squares.
Benetton published a travel magazine devoted exclusively to Baracoa, in which Baracoa’s poverty level and degradation are presented as colorful tourist attractions to be exploited. There is an article on a coffin maker who makes five dollars a month. It is presented as a good thing, such a salary, as something that keeps him pure and unspoiled.
There is an article titled “I Like Sex,” showing the good-looking young men and women of the town. In it, they are quoted as saying that sex is their source of entertainment. Several young men and women are quoted as saying they especially like having sex with foreigners. It’s encouraging the dregs of Europe and every other place to come here. It will also cause the spread of AIDS.
My family arrived in Cuba at the time of liberalization. The time of economic liberalization allowed for cuenta propistas, or self-employed workers usually for foreigners. Cuban shoppers no longer had to rely solely on undersupplied bodegas, or neighborhood food stores, where Cubans shopped for subsidized basics with ration books.
Agropecuarious brought variety to Cuban diets and helped to alleviate malnutrition. The American dollar was legalized and led the liberalization of the economy to a rise of inequality between Cubans with access to dollars and Cubans possessing only pesos.
The relationship between salaries became skewed. People in less-skilled jobs but in daily contact with foreigners, such as domestic servants for foreign families, hotel workers, and taxi drivers, made salaries up to twenty times greater than the pesos only salaries of doctors and engineers.
Foreign investment was encouraged, dollars were legalized, cuenta propistas were permitted or tolerated, and agropecuarios were opened as direct decisions of the government.
Further developments, however, in which it appeared that average Cubans seemed to be taking the reins of society in their own hands, seem not to have been intended and seem to have been the result of the government’s inability, for a brief but raucous lag time, to integrate the myriad ripple effects with the goals of socialism.
Excerpted from Cuba Diaries, An American Housewife in Havana, by Isadora Tattlin. published by Algonquin press, 2002. 320 pp, $24.95
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