Here are a few personal anecdotes from a trip I made to Cuba in the early 1990s, offered in no particular order and recalled purely from memory over 20 years later. I’m slightly hazy on some of the more granular detail, but the wider truths are here, exactly as I saw them.
1. At our resort hotel in Varadero, locals were prohibited from using the beach. They were usually local teenage girls, trying to catch the male tourists’ eyes. Guards were posted to shoo them away. Our breakfast buffets were astonishingly lavish. Everything uneaten got whisked away by the staff and taken home.
I learned that that was part of their compensation. (It helped that I spoke serviceable Spanish and didn’t look immediately foreign: Some people talked to me, but conversation was always mannered, delicate.)
2. I took a small sum of money -- I think it was $200 -- from a Cuban exile in Madrid to his elderly aunt in Havana. She held my hand for about five minutes and wept in gratitude. She lived in a small apartment that had been partitioned out of a larger one, once grand no doubt.
In New York, it would have been regarded as unfit for habitation. She had, she told me, a doctorate in literature. She was living on $20 a month -- and the kindness of friends.
I was convinced that it was the music that made Cuba even remotely bearable for its cruelly thwarted inhabitants
3. My flight from Madrid was packed with single Spanish men, all traveling to Cuba for sex. Many boasted that they were looking for teenage girls. The going rate for a teenage prostitute in that período especial -- or Special Period, Cuba’s official euphemism for that time of drastic impoverishment, caused by the end of Soviet subsidies -- was $5-$10.
Some girls did it for a hot meal. I was travelling with a then-girlfriend, and a Spaniard on the flight, on learning that I was travelling to Cuba with a woman, poked me laddishly in the chest and called me an “idiot.” I remember thinking harsh things about Iberia, the Spanish airline, and its role in enabling sex-tourism.
4. I recall walking for over an hour in the decent-sized town of Cardenas, which I’d got to by getting off the tourist route on a sputtering local bus, without being able to find a cup of coffee or a barbershop for a haircut. We found one “supermarket” -- whose shelves were entirely bare except for an aisle of socks and another of match-boxes.
5. By sheer coincidence, a donation of wheat from India had arrived in a large container-ship at the Havana port on the day before my visit. Everywhere I went, people would shake my hand on learning I was Indian: “Gracias por el trigo!” they would say. “Thank you for the wheat!”
At a musical show for tourists at a Havana restaurant, the crooner pointed to me and improvised a line of song: “Gracias mi amigo, por el trigo concedido!” (Thank you, my friend, for the wheat granted us.) Our waiter had sent word to the band that there was an Indian in the house.
6. Everywhere ... but everywhere! ... there was beautiful music. I was convinced that it was the music that made Cuba even remotely bearable for its cruelly thwarted inhabitants. Without music, it would have been no better than a tropical version of Communist Romania.
Tunku Varadarajan is the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Fellow in Journalism at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. This piece is adapted from an earlier Facebook post by the author.