After two days of roaming the crumbling streets of Havana I settled down on a patch of sand near the harbour entrance and reflected on my all-too-brief encounter with Cuba. For the previous two weeks I had travelled the length of the island, walked along miles of country trails, and talked to scores of people whose personal stories and opinions about Cubas place in the world were as varied as the landscape itself. But my first awareness of Cuba goes back to 1952, long before a young lawyer named Fidel Castro posed any threat to the iron-fisted dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista.
I was a young graduate student with a teaching fellowship at Princeton University and one of my geology students was Ruben Batista. I remember him as a good looking, intelligent, popular young man who wore the cloak of dictators son and heir-apparent with the class and panache of a court jester. A natural standup comic, he entertained by parading the stereotypical dictator, stiffly barking mock orders to his classmates or waving condescendingly to people we passed on field trips in the university bus.
As part of my course each student was asked to do a small research paper on some aspect of the geology where they spent their Christmas holiday. Ruben presented me with a bound and embossed treatise on Havana Beach Sand. It came complete with professionally-mounted microfossils identified with their scientific names and geological ages. When asked the obvious, he replied with a wink and a smile, a combination of charm and deceit, that dad had indeed put him in touch with some very helpful people.
I never saw Havana as Ruben knew it, the rollicking playground where sun, sand and sin could be found only a few hours south of Miami. Known as the "Monte Carlo of the Caribbean," Havana during the 1940s and 50s was dominated by U.S. interests. Its streets hummed with the latest American cars. American tourists flocked there to gamble and mingle with the gangsters and mafiosi who controlled most of the casinos, cabarets, and plush lounges where rum flowed like water. The grandiose villas and ostentatious colonial-style mansions in the Mirimar neighbourhood were home to the wealthy elite. But not far away, in the fetid streets and tin-roofed shanties of the barrios, thousands of other Cubans clung to a subsistence life of abject poverty.
I tossed a handful of sand back onto the beach and moved up to one of the parapets of Castillo del Moro where huge cast-iron cannons once helped protect the harbour from marauding pirates. From there I could watch the waves breaking across the Malecon where the battered seawall seemed to offer little more protection for the stately, columned buildings facing the ocean than the rusting cannon beside me. Forty-three years of neglect have left Havana in need of more than just a coat of paint.