Without a Starbucks in sight, with no Dunkin’ round the corner, sans Seattle’s Finest, Cubans are somehow properly caffeinated. Café con leche, café Cubano, espresso, café Americano all come in their proper cups the way the discerning drinker has his white wine glass, his red wine glass, his tumbler, his snifter, his champagne flute. Ordering in fractured Spanish can lead to serious questioning in broken English to ensure that the right order goes in and the right coffee comes out.
Still, a latté at the Hotel Nacional arrives as a measure of espresso in a café Americano cup with a silver creamer of steamed and frothy milk on the side. You stir in your own froth at your own rate, contemplating the fleeting color changes as you nibble the ginger biscuit that has gone only slightly soggy from the overflow.
It was not always so. During the Special Period, those desperate years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, coffee became a scarce commodity. To ensure proper supplies, the government provided additives—a scoop of shelled peas to a lacking-pound of coffee. The flavor may or may not have changed very much, and the volume in the bags of coffee may have remained constant, but an unexpectedly explosive social situation occurred. In households, restaurants, cafés, theatres all over Cuba, coffee pots began to blow up. The common cafetera, like those shown in the photographs below, is the overweight hourglass-shaped metal pot in which a gentle percolation bubbles boiling water through a basket of grounds. The fortifying black gold settles in the bottom of the hourglass, and your morning is well underway.
No more. The peas became a kind of popping corn, then tiny projectiles of steam-borne pellets, then explosive depth charges that blew the lid clear off the pot or deformed the perfect waist, or punctuated the basket with such gaping holes that a perfect coffee became a fractured memory.
A new Bay of Pigs could not have been more devastating.
But how can we criticize a government-sponsored snafu of such magnitude without being tossed in jail? One: one way is to let your nerves jangle more than usual, tie a small fish to your tonsure, bare your teeth, and turn your back on the coifed and ribboned sweetheart who, apparently, has taken to chamomile to sooth her day.
Two: Tie your own locks up in bows with which you may caress the throat of the bare-breasted lady beside you. Let her wonder if it is the tickle along her neck or the aroma of the coffee arising from the cup in which you sit that makes her amorous.
Third: grow an impressive mustache and an even more impressive belly to signify your generosity and your place among the world’s gentlemen. Have your valet de chambre wax your hair into an upswept mane where it is joined to your love’s tresses and embraced by a single ribbon. Affix the ornamental bow, let your eyes fall to silence, inhale the delicacy available only when you gently recline hip to hip, shoulder to shoulder.
Fourth, don your stiff collar and ascot. Wax your mustache, comb your thinning hair straight back over your balding scalp. Raise your eyebrows almost to the supercilious level and posture. Join all four of the acceptable intellectuals you know at the café where you five habitually congregate of a Wednesday afternoon. Sit back to back at five separate tables lest an argument descend upon any two and force the others to ruffle whatever feathers remain in their trousseau.
And that is how the younger artists confront the issues of modern Cuba.
Joaquin Crespo Manzano, known as Bebo, is 87. His etchings are known around the world. He’s been much honored, yet he happily entertains visitors in his modest home in the modest outskirts of ambitious Havana. He’s a gentle sweetheart of a man but, I fear, his reputation as an artist may depend more on his being a revolutionary true believer than on his artistic skill.
Unfair, unfair. While the oil paintings on his household walls are of secondary quality at best, it’s hardly fair to think his best work would be there and not in a museum or private collection. And it is true that his etchings, technically, are very fine indeed. But the criticism arises from the subject matter, the irreducible ideological certainty, the uncritical acceptance of the party’s positions. Shouldn’t an artist of the mid- to late twentieth century be at least semi-ironic? But here we have the four horsemen of the apocalypse (or the four insurgent generals from the Spanish Civil War) galloping through a crowd of trampled innocents. They ride with a banner sporting a swastika atop the violator’s names: Pinochet, the DINA, the CIA, the SS. Not much room for artistic ambiguity here. The portrait of Victor Jara, Chile’s great singer assassinated in the Santiago soccer stadium by Pinochet’s thugs, is more humane, the single tragic loss standing in for all of us who would sing, who would be kind, who would aspire unless we have been frightened, wounded, killed, disappeared. Too bad the etching is flooded with red, with the too obvious blood of the oppressed.
The Neruda portrait I like.
The prison scene is powerful enough, though the evident weird madness of the one figure facing us seems too simple a claim. It looks too much like Tom Rakewell in Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress. And the “Viva Allende” on the wall is a reminder no one needs.
I have done you the favor of not showing the etching of the Chilean women’s prison where the cells come equipped with boxes of rats that the torturers introduced into the bodies of the women they interrogated.
Perhaps Bebo’s work has found a spot in the Museum of Contemporary Art. If so, our urbane young docent did not lead us to it. That in itself is telling. Perhaps he’s well represented in the Museum of the Revolution.
Bebo painted the Cuba he saw even though he worked through the same years as his much younger colleagues. For the younger artists, it seems to me, the Revolution is irrelevant except insofar as it obstructs their practice. I wonder what Victor Jara would think at this point in the twenty-first century.
The other day we were treated to a private performance by a young modern dance company. At the end we were compelled to join the dancers on stage so that Rosario, their founder and choreographer, could teach us a few basic steps of Cuban dance. Soon, both my left feet were in motion, and I felt greater respect for anyone who can simultaneously account for four limbs, a torso, a head, and that elegant curvature of fingers stretching towards eternity. In short, I was miserable and wanted to be anywhere but there. After our structured lesson, Rosario commanded: “Dance. Dance with anyone.” Some of our members happily joined hands with the youthful professionals; legs, hips, shoulders soon became altogether Cuban. I shuffled my feet, chained, lame, disabled.
Then Rosario descended on me, took me by both hands, and began to move. She felt like a swaying glass of milk: no hindrance, no obstruction, nothing but pure fluidity. She could tell just from holding my hands that my shoulders were about to cramp, my hips were frozen, my wrists were terrified, my feet were gnarled, and my knees throbbed as they often do.
Rosario smiled and continued her transformation into something liquid. Then she met my eyes and let me feast on her wickedly happy smile: “Free yourself, Peter,” she crowed, spelling the verb with seventeen “R’s”. “Frrrrrrrree yourself!”
So of course I did.