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State Security; The Fate of the Furious; Ron Planchao; a massive Soviet Chaika

Chanel selfies, Havana, April 2016, by Rose Marie Cromwell
  • By Iván de la Nuez
  • Issue 21
  • On BeautyDecember 2017

In Cuba, everything that moves can be a taxi and everything that doesn’t can be a rental property (a restaurant, a bar, a hair salon, a gym, or a clandestine store). In a building where almost every one of the owners rents to tourists, I’m on the balcony of an apartment belonging to a veteran diplomat who has mentored several generations of Cubans working in the foreign service. It’s his birthday.

The conversation of the old guard turns to politics. Children. Businesses. One side is rhetorical, the other pragmatic. The soiree is being held just a few days before U.S. president Barack Obama’s visit to the island. At one point, someone checks their cell phone, only to find a memo from the government sent to everyone who rents out their home.

It’s...an anti-terrorist measure! A warning about potential tenants from Middle Eastern countries—Israel, too, has been included—and an instruction for people to remain alert. The message suggests a tropical Axis of Evil in which, sooner or later, the usual local suspects will play a role.

“They’re preventing Havana from becoming another Dallas,” a teenage girl says, alluding to the assassination of JFK.

“Don’t worry, baby. Dallas didn’t have State Security,” her boyfriend replies.

***

My mother stands at her window, looking out at the teeming street. She doesn’t dare go outside and doesn’t understand the neighbors’ explanation for the mounting chaos outside their homes: “They’re filming the Fast and the Furious in Havana.” (It is actually the eighth installment in the franchise, to be called The Fate of the Furious.)

Today in Cuba, everything is considered a turning point, an event we imbue with transcendent power to denote a before and an after in the life of this country. It might be geopolitical in scope, cultural, or purely frivolous; so it doesn’t matter whether it is Obama’s visit or a Rolling Stones concert, the opening of Galleria Continua or a Chanel runway show.

The Fate of the Furious is no exception. In this neighborhood there are rarely many people outside very early, but now the inhabitants have to negotiate dozens of motorcycles, race cars, vans, “luxury” vintage convertibles, ashy dudes reeking of Prada, models, paparazzi, private security guards, extras . . . and the countless curious onlookers for whom all of this is “an unnameable esta,” as the poet José Lezama Lima would say.

Not quite sure what to make of the full-fledged occupation of the neighborhood, my mother comes to the conclusion that we are witnessing the “American invasion” live. She’s not wrong. For more than half a century, apart from exceptions such as the docuseries Cuban Chrome (about the vintage cars found everywhere in Havana), we have never had American productions of this scale in Cuba. But now, one of the many business opportunities this country hopes to exploit is that of becoming an enormous Hollywood set, a virgin stage on which its unlikely superheroes can race—fast and furious.

***

A group of old revolutionaries carry on their favorite pastime: fixing the country from a bar in Havana. This is an ever-shrinking group, shaken by the permanent age-related departures it is experiencing. (“I’m next in line,” my father used to say, until his turn came.) All these men rose up against Batista. Many of them carry the weight of more than one war on their shoulders. Almost all of them have children or grandchildren in Miami. Those whose homes are still respectable supplement their meager pensions by renting rooms to tourists. They are trying to retrain for these new times, never quite adapting, never quite surrendering, criticizing everything all the while. (Or everything that’s “not the same but equal,” as the singer-songwriter Silvio Rodríguez would say.) Along with discussions of la cosa—things, the situation—there is always rum. And an ambulance whenever one of them goes too far.

In Cuba, there is a rum that marks the border between acceptable and dangerous. It is called Ron Planchao and a 250 cc Tetra Brik carton costs one Cuban convertible peso (CUC), or about a dollar. Connoisseurs of the spirit say these little Tetra Briks conceal a decent (though not always respectable) rum. The problem is that some of the veterans in this bar have, financially speaking, fallen below the waterline of Ron Planchao. And the combination of age and the harshest of spirits—that cocktail of hard liquor and soft currency—puts them in a difficult situation. Their distress also has to do with the passion of their arguments regarding economic reform, Obama’s cleverness, the lack of a tangible plan for the future, and the fact that the new inequalities have placed them—“us, those of us who risked our lives for this”—in a precarious state.

In their twilight years, these old men ponder a revolution that, to their grandchildren, is nothing but an echo. They keep waiting for a sign from their brethren in power about which political model will be followed, but all that comes out of the government are signs of economic reform. These men hold tight to the days when Cuba proclaimed itself the first free territory in the Americas, yet the television at the bar portrays it only as the number-one destination for foreign investment in the Caribbean.

***

Outside the bar where the old veterans are steeped in their alcoholic battles, you see the typical row of taxis waiting for tourists. It is a varied lineup, always a vintage American car, or a Chinese Geely, even a massive Soviet Chaika. In Cuba, outlandish cars are nothing new. But this Russian limousine goes beyond mere extravagance. There are now ten Chaikas available for hire in Havana. The fleet was a gift from the top Soviet brass to allow Fidel to travel in safety. (No other taxi could presume to have such an illustrious pedigree.) Should you hire one, the driver will explain how this Communist limousine works, pointing out spaces for radio receivers and the escort detail, compartments for the auxiliary weapons. “I have to pay thirty CUC to the company every day,” the driver says. “Twenty-seven, to be exact.”

The sperm whale of Cuban taxis drops us at the door of TaBARish: a “Soviet” bar filled with Communist memorabilia, where one can order caviar, vodka, soup, or pickles and sit surrounded by walls plastered with copies of Pravda. Yury Gagarin smiles down from them, and the red flag—complete with hammer and sickle—adds the finishing touch to the combined aesthetic of Soviet nostalgia and the new Cuban reality.

Iván de la Nuez is an essayist, art critic, and curator. A version of this essay appears in Cuba on the Verge: 12 Writers on Continuity and Change in Havana and Across the Country, edited by Leila Guerriero, and out this month from Ecco (an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers).

Translated by Lisa Carter.

Chanel selfies, Havana, April 2016, by Rose Marie Cromwell