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Wondering... My Cuban Holiday - Part Two

Hanging out with Hemingway and getting mobbed by hustlers.

by Bruce LaBruce
08 February 2012, 3:15pm

The Paris Gentleman. This statue honours a homeless Parisian nobleman who went crazy and wandered the streets of Havana (my husband used to see him around town in the 1980s). If you touch his finger (or, presumably, stick it in your ass), it is said you will return to Cuba.

As Cuba is relatively cheap, we were able to pay a driver to shuffle us back and forth between Bauta and Havana City, where we were obliged to rent a hotel room as part of a package deal with our flight. Although the Cuban communist system has opened up significantly in the past decade or so, there’s still a residual suspicion of foreigners being granted too much access to certain areas of the city, and gringos are vaguely encouraged to stay relatively close to tourist spots and luxury hotels. But being with a native Cuban, I pretty much had free range.

One of the first things we did was attend the Santeria memorial service for one of my husband’s dancer friends from his days as a chorus boy at the infamous Tropicana Club. It was a somberly celebratory event, and the guests looked askance at the lily-white Canadian shooting video of the occasion, as my husband had instructed me to do. Apparently, he neglected to tell everyone he’d cleared it with the family. Sadly, there are prohibitions about filming Santeria rituals, so I couldn’t shoot the most interesting parts. Maya Deren I’m not.

The scary Ministry of Health building, Havana City.

One of the many crumbling buildings in Havana City.

My husband and I in a restaurant in the Siboney neighbourhood, Havana City.

Typical apartment building, Havana City.

Fidel is everywhere.

When my husband and I checked out the hot gay spot called Bimbon one night on La Rampa, near the waterfront of Havana known as Malecon, imagine my surprise when we ran into a dear old Canadian friend of mine, hustler in tow. My wealthy friend, who has always been known for his largesse, was in a generous mood, so he began handing out free Cuban dollars to the many hustlers hanging around the busy outdoor bar. Then, a scene straight out of Suddenly, Last Summer started to play out, with the hustlers becoming overexcited and aggressive, prodding my friend and grabbing for the money. Just as the atmosphere started to get really nasty I, along with my husband and a few sympathetic hustlers, managed to shuffle him into a cab and make our escape before he was devoured like Sebastian Venable.

One of the most mind-bending events for my husband was the night we attended the closing party for the International Congress on Sex Education at the gay club Las Vegas, featuring performances by Havana’s most famous transsexual entertainers. Castro’s Cuba has a monstrous history of discrimination against homosexuals and transsexuals, including former virtual concentration camps for people with HIV/AIDS, where infected people could be locked up indefinitely. (For the whole horrible story, check out the book Before Night Falls by Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas, or the film based on it by Julian Schnabel.)

Taxi driver catching 40 winks, Havana City.

With Hemingway in the Floridita Restaurant, where he drank daiquiris daily with the likes of Errol Flynn and Joan Crawford. My husband says the story goes that Hemingway and Flynn used to hire hookers in Old Havanamale and female for private orgies. Note the photograph of Hemingway with Castro in the background.

Mechanic with adidas fixing an old Lada, the Russian clunker that is still ubiquitous in Havana.

The scary Russian Embassy.

The revolution is everywhere.

This house collapsed the previous week, killing four young students.

Homophobia and discrimination were so severe that my husband applied for asylum in Canada on the basis of homosexual discrimination in the mid-90s. Miraculously, however, thanks largely to the political intervention of Raul Castro’s daughter, Mariela Castro-Espin, now the director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education in Havana and a fierce activist for LGBT rights, the situation has completely reversed. (Remember, it has long been rumoured that Fidel Castro’s brother, Raul, now acting president, although married with four children, is gay, or at least bisexual. His effeminate demeanour has earned him the nickname “La China”, or Chinese girl.)

People with HIV/AIDS now receive free medication, and transsexuals are no longer subject to habitual violence and persecution. For my husband to see the daughter of the president of Cuba attend this supergay event along with the Vice Minister of Sexual Education was like a strange dream. Cuba has become a world leader in LGBT rights, with sex reassignment surgery covered by health care and Cubans allowed to change their gender on their ID cards with or without SRS. The days of Che’s macho contempt for the maracones are definitely over. Remember, as Gudrun says in my movie The Raspberry Reich, there will be no revolution without sexual revolution, and there will be no sexual revolution without homosexual revolution!

Cute kids in Havana City.

Che is everywhere.

Sala de Recreaceon where we saw the Cuban rock band perform "We're an American Band".

Statue recalling the existence of slavery. Cuba was the last Latin American country to officially abolish slavery in 1868.

Tribute to President Obama, Bauta.

Cultural Center, Bauta. My husband used to teach salsa here.

Martyrs of the Revolution on the road to Bauta.

Sadly, other parts of the dream of the revolution lag behind. On a drive back from visiting my husband’s relatives in Luyano, another extremely impoverished suburb of Havana, at dusk, when the streets were eerily dark, we heard the horrible squeal of tyres directly in front of us, a loud thump, a muffled scream and then pulled up to see a woman crumpled in the middle of the road, her bags scattered behind her. From the look of the mangled fender and hood of the truck that struck her, it’s unlikely she survived. Almost before we knew what was happening, the body had been picked up and deposited into a random car and the scene cleared as if nothing had happened. I didn’t see or hear a single ambulance the whole time I was in Havana, and seatbelts are as rare there as toilet seats – the downside of the revolution.

On our last night in Bauta we attended a dance at a local watering hole that featured a Cuban rock band playing American standards. When the singer sang Grand Funk Railroad’s “We’re an American Band” phonetically in English, my Cuban mindfuck was complete.

Previously: Wondering... My Cuban Holiday - Part One


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