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How Cubans’ gift for improvization sustained the politics and pleasures of Havana

How Cubans’ gift for improvization sustained the politics and pleasures
of Havana
By Michael Mewshaw March 3

Michael Mewshaw is writing a memoir about his friendship with Pat Conroy.

A happy hybrid, “Havana: A Subtropical Delirium” invokes the Cuban
capital as an occasion to discuss the country’s history, politics, ,
architecture, music, religion and passion for baseball. No author is as
well equipped to take on this task as Mark Kurlansky, who has previously
published half a dozen books on international cuisine, two on baseball
and one — “A Continent of Islands” — that surveys the Caribbean
situation. The danger is that such a polymathic author has no fixed
identity and might fall between categories and be dismissed in this case
as a mere writer. That would be a great shame, given the manifold
pleasures of his brief, breezy new book.

Kurlansky approaches Havana like an Impressionist painter, building the
image of this metropolis of 2 million inhabitants with subtle
brushstrokes. He quotes the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, who
wrote that “Havana has the yellow of Cadiz, the pink of Seville turning
carmine and the green of Granada, with the slight phosphorescence of
fish.” Visible from almost everywhere, the sea provides a blue surround,
one that is ironically empty of boats. As Kurlansky explains, Cubans are
wary of the ocean, the source of many murderous invasions — the Bay of
Pigs was one of many — and killer hurricanes. Then too, after Fidel
Castro took power and the United States cut off contact, authorities
from both countries have patrolled the Straits of Florida, capturing all
but the luckiest immigrants trying to reach the American mainland in
rickety improvised crafts.

While Cuban exiles might complain that Kurlansky doesn’t sufficiently
catalogue the cruelty and repression of the Castro regime, he does note
that “Che Guevara — a man with the looks of a cinema hero — held his
tribunals and executed so many people by firing squad that Castro
removed him from his post.” Che then moved on to South America, trading
his role as the Robespierre of the Cuban revolution for his lasting
iconic image as a martyr for socialism.

With estimable even-handedness, Kurlansky remarks that Cuba’s previous
, Fulgencio Batista, richly deserved to be toppled. He ran “a
murderous kleptocracy in close partnership with American organized
crime. . . . Foreigners remember the Havana of that time as a kind of
romantic brothel.” Kurlansky points out that prostitution continued to
flourish under Castro, and he offers fascinating insight into how the
history of commercialized sex on the island was an outgrowth of slavery,
which wasn’t abolished in Cuba until 1872. Under Spanish rule, slaves
had advantages over their counterparts in the United States; they could
legally sell things on the street, “including their bodies.” If they
managed to earn enough, they could buy their , and any children
they had by white men were “automatically considered free.”

Transplanted African culture pervades society at every level and in
every sphere, and Kurlansky describes at length its influence on Cuban
food, music, dance and religion. Indeed, he spices his chronicle of the
city with recipes for favorite Cuban dishes and drinks such as picadillo
and ajiaco, and the rum-based beverages the daiquiri and the mojito. A
meticulous and tireless researcher, he discusses the restaurants and
bars where this fare originated and notes that in the 19th century, ice
was imported from New England directly to Havana, then crushed for
thirsty American soldiers — remember the Maine and the Rough Riders? —
who favored Coca-Cola liberally spiked with rum. Well hydrated, the
United States controlled the island for decades and of course still
clings to Guantanamo.

Cubans liked Coke, too, and this presented a problem during the U.S.
— but not one that couldn’t be surmounted. With a typical flair
for improvisation, they produced Tropi-Cola, which ultimately became so
popular that it was exported to other countries. This talent for
adaptation, Kurlansky points out, served Cuba not just when the United
States isolated it, but when the Soviet Union collapsed and could no
longer subsidize the Castro regime with billion-dollar infusions of food
and fuel. Schools and hospitals continued to function at high levels,
and if the national diet was diminished, at least this resulted in a
drop in cases of diabetes and heart disease.

Kurlansky is hardly an apologist for the Castro regime or a Pollyanna
about conditions in Havana. The sight of ’57 Chevys and Ford Edsels
rolling through the cobblestone streets may give the town the
sepia-toned allure of an old photograph, and the vast architectural
disrepair can provoke in some the same sublime response as Goethe
experienced when viewing the Roman Forum. But the reality is laid out by
the author in numbers — “20 percent of the population lives in
that has been deemed ‘precarious’ ” — and in powerful descriptive
passages. “With structures sagging on their sturdy columns, sunken
roofs, stained gargoyles, and cracked and blackened stone ornaments,
Havana looks like the remnants of an ancient civilization in need of
teams of archeologists to sift through the rubble.”

Kurlansky doffs his cap to indigenous writers ranging from José Martí to
contemporary poets and novelists. He also pays deference to foreign
authors associated with Havana. Ernest Hemingway comes in for
much-deserved discussion, although he seldom wrote about the place where
he lived for three decades. Graham Greene, whose novel “Our Man in
Havana” was made into a movie in the city with Castro’s permission, is
quoted as enjoying the capital’s “louche atmosphere” and “the brothel
life” — which makes him sound like a lounge lizard. For once Kurlansky’s
thoroughness goes missing; he fails to mention that Greene ran supplies
to Castro’s men in the mountains — or at least claimed he did, most
recently in Gore Vidal’s memoir “Point to Point Navigation” (2006).

“Havana” ends without a dramatic crescendo or sweeping conclusion. This
is no criticism. It could hardly be otherwise now that Barak
Obama’s opening to Cuba is being reassessed by the Trump administration.
But readers interested in the debate couldn’t do better than inform
themselves with Kurlansky’s book.

HAVANA
A Subtropical Delirium
By Mark Kurlansky
Bloomsbury. 259 pp. $26

Source: How Cubans’ gift for improvization sustained the politics and
pleasures of Havana – The Washington Post –
www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/how-cubans-gift-for-improvization-sustained-the-politics-and-pleasures-of-havana/2017/03/03/62d135c6-f53d-11e6-8d72-263470bf0401_story.html?utm_term=.dd7c190131af

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