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Wondering... My Cuban Holiday - Part One

I've always been something of a Communist sympathiser.

by Bruce LaBruce
06 February 2012, 9:05am

I’ve travelled to six continents now (Antarctica, you’re on notice), but there’s something special about Cuba that I haven’t found anywhere else in the world. Sure, it has something to do with the temperate climate and the incredibly open and friendly people, but it’s also due to the awareness that you’re experiencing a living, breathing Communist experiment that has withstood the imperialistic aggression of the biggest, most powerful capitalist country in the world – which happens to be located a mere 90 miles away – for over 50 years. It’s one of the greatest David and Goliath stories in history.

Of course, when I say “breathing”, it also necessarily involves choking on an inordinate amount of exhaust fumes, unregulated gas emissions, chronic pollution and the smell of raw sewage – at least in Havana City. But it’s impossible to say how much of that is the fault of a failed Communist economy and how much is the strangling effect of embargoes and sanctions imposed on a small agricultural country by its powerful and influential northern neighbour. (A country itself, let’s not forget, whose unregulated free market capitalist system doesn’t seem to be working so well either – its infrastructure is crumbling and half its population is currently living with low income or in poverty.)

Things also began to deteriorate in Cuba in the 90s, during the Special Period, when the fall of the Soviet Union, a corrupt Communist system more akin to state capitalism, essentially put the kibosh on its strongest economic support. But that was hardly Cuba’s fault. Who knows, in a perfect world, without the world and history against it, maybe the Cuban Communist revolution could have worked. I can dream, can’t I?

A retooled American 50s motorcar.

Hogs in the backyard of a Bauta neighbor.

Places to avoid: the Bauta court building.

Children after school, Bauta.

Evidence of Santeria rituals is everywhere in Havana City.

I’ve always been something of a Communist-sympathiser. In 10th grade, I wrote an essay for my Russian history class entitled “Communism: World Saviour?” that my teacher said was preposterous, but he gave me a good grade anyway because it was well argued. Obviously I’m not about to defend a dictatorship, even a left-wing one (it’s supposed to be the dictatorship of the proletariat), but I still have a soft spot for the romance and idealism of the revolution. Call me a cockeyed Commie optimist. 

If anyone has reason to resent the Communist revolution in Cuba, it’s my Cuban husband, who left his country during that not-so-special period to escape dire poverty and homosexual discrimination, and ended up in 15 years of torturous immigration limbo in Canada (long story). But miraculously, after we’d been married for three years and I sponsored him for citizenship, he finally got his landed immigrant status this past March, and I returned with him to Cuba last week to see his mother, family and friends after what seemed an eternity for him. For some reason, however, he doesn’t have the same antipathy toward Castro and communism that many Miami ex-pat Cubans have. He’s ambivalent about it, but still has some fond memories of the original ideals and principals of the early days of the revolution when he was a tyke in public school in the 1960s, wearing his adorable little green and white uniform with the blue and white neckerchief and reciting the phrase “Pioneers for the revolution, we will be like Che” (except, as it turned out, for the part about Che being a raging homophobe).

The most wigged-out Christ I've ever seen in any church, Bauta.

Dirt roads in Bauta.

MJ lives on in Bauta!

One of many crumbling houses in Bauta.

Horse-drawn carriages are still a favoured mode of transportation in Bauta.

Cemetery in Bauta.

I confess I felt a bit of culture shock when I accompanied my husband to Bauta, a small town outside of Havana City that was once, under the right-wing Batista dictatorship in the 1950s, relatively affluent. Today, Bauta reminds me of certain parts of Soweto in South Africa, the enormous, economically depressed suburb of Johannesburg. The wide streets – some dirt, some paved – are filled with American motorcars that are almost all retooled relics from the 1940s and 50s, and there are still many horse-drawn vehicles, not to mention tractors, rickety bicycles, taxi-bikes and huge trucks used as public buses. The dirt roads and crumbling buildings are decidedly third world (or, to be politically correct, “underdeveloped”), and three and four generations of families live in squalid houses barely big enough for one. I knew my husband came from poverty, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the scope of it. I was also raised under the poverty line, on a farm in Canada, but by comparison my upbringing was positively genteel.

We stayed with my mother-in-law a couple of nights, and as I stupidly speak no Spanish, I ended up acting as my husband’s personal photographer, shaking hands and kissing what seemed like hundreds of his relatives, friends and former neighbours in Bauta. My husband was obviously a popular fellow when he lived there; I felt a bit like a member of the media following a politician door to door, although one only campaigning in nostalgia and good will.

Taxi! Trucks repurposed as public transportation in Bauta.

Neighbour in Bauta.

Neighbour in Bauta.

Neighbour girls in Bauta.

Bruce had so many photos and so much to tell us about Cuba that we couldn't stuff it all into one post. Click back on Tuesday to look at more snapshots and read about Bruce's harrowing experience at a gay club in Havana, where he and his friends barely managed to escape a beating from a cash-hungry mob.

Previously: Wondering... What the Phone Saw