Beautiful Ruin
by Richard Sanger

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Balconies in a house in front of the Capitolio. Havana (La Habana), Cuba

“Whew! Did you see that?” We’re driving to Havana and Debbie, my wife, is speaking. I’m sitting in the front seat of our taxi with Luis, the driver, who has just been explaining to me how Raul Castro’s daughter Mariela is in favour of “homofobia.” I endeavour to correct him: “Don’t you mean she’s against homophobia?” but he, bent on re-educating an unenlightened foreigner, insists “no, in favour of.” Luis, who has the conversational tic of poking me whenever he wants to make a point, is pro-Fidel (“he wants to help the poor”), but “homofobia” is a long word and, for a generation raised on Marxist polysyllables, easy enough to confuse with its antonym. “In favour of homophobia.” Fist in my thigh, and his eyes meet mine, as he scrutinizes my face for moral outrage. The highway is empty—in the four-hour drive from Trinidad, we can’t have seen more than ten vehicles. But now Debbie has seen something. “It was this big black Mercedes just blasting by us.” I squint my eyes and look ahead down the autopista and see nothing but heat fumes rising from the tarmac. Esfumarse: the Spanish verb seems to suggest exactly what’s happened, a mirage evaporating. How could there be a big black Mercedes in Cuba? Our Peugeot diesel clunks along at 80k.

***

Before I leave, a poet friend sends me his version of “Volverán las oscuras golondrinas.” It’s one of the most famous poems in the Spanish language, written by the fin-de-siècle Sevillano, Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer. A week later, in the beautiful front hall of a private hotel in Cienfuegos called “las Golondrinas,” Victor the owner-dentist is explaining to me why he has named his hostal for those birds. They’re migratory birds, he says, that fly north in the summer to Florida and Texas (where they breed) and then return every November. And unlike sparrows and swifts, swallows fly very high, which, Victor says with a meaningful look, reveals something about human nature: some people can only see what’s right in front of their noses while others (he looks over his glasses into my eyes) are able to see things in perspective and take the long view. I realize I don’t really know the difference between swallows and sparrows, that even in Spanish “golondrinas” and “gorriones” might be easy to confuse.

***

I’ve wanted to go to Cuba for a long, long time. Debbie went to an all-inclusive resort in Varadero in the early 1990s. Her friend Debbie wanted to go and needed a companion, and so my Debbie agreed to go along as long as they could escape for a few nights to Havana. Joining us in Cuba are our friends Ilan Averbuch and Alka Mansukhani: Ilan is a New York-based Israeli artist whom we’ve known since we both lived in West Berlin in the mid-1980s, and the Mumbai-born Alka is a biologist and medical researcher at NYU. Ilan has been to Cuba once before, to visit their daughter Maya, now in her final year at Yale—Maya spent three months there travelling, studying, and doing research on Cuban bloggers and the internet. Neither Alka nor I have ever been.

***

Books: I can’t find a copy of José Martí’s poems in Toronto but figure there will be plenty in Cuba. Martí, after all, is the country’s national poet and the author of its unofficial anthem, “Guantanamera” (“Girl from Guantanamó”), lyrics that mix romantic self-expression (“antes de morirme quiero / echar mis versos del alma”) with revolutionary solidarity (“con los pobres de la tierra / quiero yo mi suerte echar”)* in the best nineteenth-century fashion. Out of fear it will be confiscated, I decide against taking my copy of the exiled Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s Vista del amanecer en el trópico (A View of Dawn in the Tropics), his subversive history of Cuba in slides and vignettes. This leaves me with Cristina Garcia’s excellent English-language anthology ¡Cubanísimo!, which features the work of many exiled Castro critics, including Cabrera Infante, and Pico Iyer’s 1996 novel, Cuba and the Night, about a worldly, jaded photojournalist who falls for Cuba, particularly as incarnated by a certain Lourdes.

***

One of the reasons I’ve delayed visiting Cuba for so long is the politics. I had read Juan Goytisolo’s, Cabrera Infante’s, and Mario Vargas Llosa’s respective criticisms of the Castro regime’s human-rights abuses and crudity, particularly its anti-gay crusade, the purges of 1960s and 70s, and the demeaning public repentance forced upon the dissident poet Heberto Padilla. I didn’t want to be one more Canadian leftie propping up a dictatorship while making excuses. At the same time, the loudest voices in the anti-Castro camp appeared, if anything, less appealing with their tunnel vision and sense of entitlement. If Castro’s government seemed overwhelmingly white, male, and senile, the Miami gang didn’t look any better, especially when they throw figures like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio on the national stage. There seem to be few figures like Cristina Garcia or Cabrera Infante, who can see beyond the dichotomy.

It’s perhaps no surprise that Garcia has fled Florida and its exiles for California and feminism—her most recent novel, King of Cuba (2013), is an entertaining romp juxtaposing the impotent, blinkered senilities of an unnamed Comandante back in Cuba, and his furious antagonist, an exile turned crass millionaire who still religiously attends his paramilitary training sessions in the Florida swamps. (The US government is said to have long tolerated all kinds of arms infractions by Cuban exile groups such as Alpha-66.) If anything, it’s this impotent exile that is most pointedly skewered by García. As Cabrera Infante wrote of Padilla, exile has defeated him. The two old men are still desperately hanging on, but have definitively lost it. But who’d have thunk that, six years after its publication, the novel’s satire of macho vanity and senility would be more applicable to the American leader than anyone else?

***

¡Cubanísimo! arranges its twenty-five extracts of poetry and prose from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries according to the rhythms of Cuban popular music. This may sound contrived, but García describes the history and nature of each rhythm so well that it all makes sense and deepens one’s understanding of the country and its history: the courtly danzón dates from the 1800s, the hypnotic rumba derives from African slaves… etc. The great virtue of García’s anthology is that it covers all major figures from José Martí on (balancing revolutionaries and dissidents), chooses its extracts very well, unearthing some lesser-known treasures (early poems by Dulce María Loynaz, a talk by Cabrera Infante on Lorca’s visit to Havana) as well as the infamous Chapter 8 of José Lezama Lima’s novel Paradiso (1966).

***

Old Havana is in a fantastic state of decay. The towering balcony doors I open on our first morning lead out to an elegant perch with curved, wrought-iron railings—we’re three storeys up but would be five or six anywhere else after all the flights of stairs we climbed last night. Directly across from us is an apartment building that’s just as high-ceilinged. At first glance, it looks abandoned—a broken window, plants growing out of cracks, rusted ironwork, and dusty ornamentation. But then I notice a laundry line on the roof, an unhurried, statuesque woman in a yellow housecoat sweeping. This will happen again and again. On the way to breakfast at the Pasteleria Francesa near the Hotel Inglaterra, we pass an abandoned building with its walls partially collapsed, and a tree growing out of the third floor, its green branches spreading out through rooms and windows on the fourth and fifth floors, its roots tunnelling down through the plaster and lath of the century-old wall. Later, we’ll walk past a grand, hollowed-out eighteenth- or nineteenth-century institution spread over a downtown block whose walls still stand, Colosseum-like, propped up by a scaffolding on which decades of vines and lianas have so entangled themselves that their thick trunks and dangling limbs obscure the building’s square metal framework.The emergency supports and beams installed to prop up history thus become a part of it. Even the one or two Soviet-era apartment blocks and hotels we see that evening along the Malecón have aged enough to require these supports.

***

Hemingway reportedly refused to read Cuban authors on principle. One assumes this was largely a survival ploy to save himself from being continually importuned while on the island. But it doesn’t mean that Cuban writers haven’t read him. Leonardo Padura (b. 1955), probably the island’s best known and most respected living writer, is the author of a series of crime novels featuring the detective Mario Condé as well as The Man Who Loved Dogs (2007), his acclaimed reconstruction of the life of Trotsky’s assassin, Ramón Mercader. His brilliantly titled Adios, Hemingway, is a kind of historical detective novel: it begins with a gesture—the obviously troubled old Papa waving at a young boy as he walks away from his fishing boat at Cojimar, sometime in the 1950s, and the cheeky street urchin calling out after him “Adios, Hemingway.” Years later, that boy is our narrator, a Hemingway-obsessed aspiring writer called back to his old day job with the Havana police to investigate the provenance of a corpse that has been dug up on the grounds of the writer’s old finca in the hills above Havana. The body turns out to be the only big game Papa ever kills in his life and it’s one that haunts him—an assassin that a McCarthyite CIA sent to dispatch the great writer because of his leftist sympathies. If politically palatable, it also has a devious and plausible plot that features a pair of Ava Gardner’s panties and a study of the great writer’s final malaise.

***

May 1 falls on a Sunday this year and we’re warned we’ll have to get to the Plaza de la Revolución in Vedado early to catch the action. Each sector of the economy marches together, workers with fellow workers, and the current issue of Granma lists where each group is supposed to assemble: health workers at one block, sanitation workers at the next, education at the next. It’s barely 8:30 am when we get there, and already whole sectors are streaming past us, dressed in matching uniforms and t-shirts, heading back to the buses that brought them in. A group of loud primary teachers with bright shirts and scarves goes past, and then, in flashy sky-blue uniforms, the unsmiling Cuban track and field team. By the time we actually reach the Plaza, it’s only the foreign delegations that are left: a big contingent of Turks, some female Argentine supporters of Cristina Kirchner, Brazilians pledging support for Dilma, some French communists and syndicalists posing for a photo. All round the now empty stage and grandstand (from where the leaders presumably watched each group parade past), looking like night-club bouncers, spaced at five-metre intervals, are the security men—dark glasses, tight t-shirts, trimmed hair—looking down on us rag-tag stragglers.

For anyone familiar with Havana’s infamous past, its brothels and gambling dens, even for someone who’s walked along the Malecón on a Saturday night and seen the jineteras in their loud lipstick and skimpy outfits and heard their furtive whispers, there’s something inspiring in this early morning display of revolutionary fervour, this new day dawning. And for many Cubans, it must offer an appealing image of their homeland. Even if some have been press-ganged by their workmates, there’s a palpable sense of national pride. Still, the revolution is fifty years old and the economy’s a complete mess: perhaps the reason those track stars didn’t smile was their knowledge that they could take much more money doing other things with their bodies.

***

After the rally, we visit the Necropolis de Colon and are shown the grave of Ibrahim Ferrer by a charming cemetery sweeper who sings “Dos Gardenias” for us and then repeats the formulaic “if it were possible, could you help me out a little bit”? I hand over a CUC (convertible peso, approx. $1 Canadian) to curtail his abasement. On our way back to Old Havana, we drop by Callejón de Hamel, which Ilan visited on his last trip—it’s a gaudily painted alleyway where a bunch of Afro-Cuban musicians hold a continuous jam session, and tourists congregate to dance to the trance-like rhythms. There are pork sandwiches and beer for sale and a few little annexed art galleries. In one, a fifty-ish male artist is talking to some well-dressed older African-American women. Once they’ve left with the print they bought, I have a long talk with Hugo Fernandez, a doctor, also in his fifties, whose business card identifies him as psiquiatra/sexologo and who appears to be supplementing his income by selling bright, tourist-friendly silkscreen evocations of Cuban life and music. Hugo tells me about his experiences as a young doctor in the 1980s Sandinista/Contra war (“the Nicas are cruel people… I saw things I wish I had never seen”) and I ask him, sexologist that he is, how he feels about all the prostitution we saw along the Malecón. With a look more pained than denunciatory, he says “Hombre, no es por necesidad”—the jineteras have chosen the easy way because of their lack of dignity, not economic hardship.

***

Pedro Juan Gutierrez’s Nuestro GG en la Habana (Our GG in Havana) takes on the other English-language novelist most associated with Cuba, Graham Greene and his famous Our Man in Havana. Very different from Padura, Gutierrez’s Dirty Havana Trilogy chronicles the lives of the generation that grew up during the special period of the early 1990s—when sex was the one pleasure freely available, and condoms and semen were rumoured to be used as common pizza toppings. In Nuestro GG, he focuses on Greene’s reported fascination with the seedy side of 1950’s Havana, drawing as much on accounts of Greene’s visits there as on the tropes of his comic novel. The book begins with a certain unassuming G Greene arriving in Havana and being sent by a barman to the Teatro Shanghai to see the notorious live sex shows there. By page twenty-four, this inhibited Englishman is in raptures at being penetrated by none other than the famously well-endowed Shanghai performer Superman. “For him, it was the most profound experience of his life; for her, it was just another stupid 15 minutes,” Gutierrez writes, the “her” in this case being Superman in his off-stage drag persona of Caridad. By page thirty, Caridad and Englishman are arrested. Soon enough, the real Graham Greene turns up only to find himself courted by the dark forces then operating in Cuba (FBI, KGB, Nazi-hunters, New York Mafia) and befriended by an ex-boxer, Crazy Boy, who introduces Greene to the city’s true delights, insatiable and multi-hued. If Gutierrez strikes a more dissenting note than Padura (his Greene will not be coopted by right or left and composes his essay on “The virtue of disloyalty”), there’s also a hint of national pride in his Cubans’ sexual pleasures and performances: we Cubans might not be able to feed ourselves, but we sure know how to fuck.

There’s a delicious irony (and perhaps a subtle self-portrait) in the way Gutierrez inverts the usual metaphor of the artist’s disguises in his description of Superman/Caridad undressing to go to work: “he was the anti-artist: Superman went on stage without make-up and clothes to play the role of a supermacho; but after he dressed up as a woman and adopted a new identity for his daily life.” Perhaps, in an age when memoir and confession threaten to overwhelm the novel, the drag queen Caridad can be seen as an exemplary figure, putting her talent into her art and her genius into her life? Who bares all to play the role of a macho stud on stage, then dresses up to become her real self?

(In his 2015 online article “Superman of Havana,” the American journalist Mitch Moxley traces the fate of the real-life Superman, probably murdered by a jealous lover in Mexico City in 1966, and describes watching the only known film of his performance, now owned by a Florida lawyer—though the article feels, dare I say, just a bit long)

***

Learning that Monday, May 2, will be a holiday, we decide to flee Havana a day earlier than planned and visit Cienfuegos, attractively described as a French colonial town built by sugar barons fleeing Toussaint Louverture’s slave rebellion in early-nineteenth-century Haiti.

As we’re negotiating prices with the various drivers outside the Hotel Inglaterra, Debbie feels a tap on her arm. She instinctively brushes the hand away, assuming it’s another hustler/taxi driver, but it turns out to be an old friend of ours from Spain, Miguel Gallego Roca, who’s in town to give a talk on Alejo Carpentier. We laugh and hug and share impressions of Havana, which seems no less crazy and foreign to Miguel than it does to us. The young taxi driver we choose will drive us for to Cienfuegos for 80 or 100 CUC. Maiko looks as North American as possible (and as smiling) and deploys his few English phrases with conviction. But it’s all bluff: I try to teach him some basics (all the W question-words) on the three-hour drive with little success.

***

On a holiday Monday, the grand central square in Cienfuegos has only tourists in it. We drink a beer and tour the main square with its Arc de Triomphe replica. There’s an old theatre built by some benevolent nineteenth-century merchant, and a Museo de Bellas Artes, where Ilan notices an exhibition of graphic work by a leading Cuban artist and sculptor, Kcho, called “Anclado por un sueño” (Anchored to a Dream). The show’s poster features the image of an old speedboat floating in the air amidst the tops of five giant palms. It’s closed till tomorrow, but the galleries and artisans down Calle Santa Isabel are all open and hawking their wares. There are two intriguing local painters in Galeria Resistance; one, Camilo Villalvilla, has painted a series called “extrañas aves migratorias” (strange migratory birds): one painting shows, in two panels, a bevy of dark swallows standing or pecking the ground against an ochre-yellow background. These swallows, you soon realize, trace the shape of Cuba—it’s as if the island’s entire population were waiting to emigrate. Another in the series shows an old American roadster from the 1940s being lifted in the air by swallows pulling little strings in their beaks.

***

Next morning: lavish breakfast at las Golondrinas, which includes all the usual fruit: papaya, mango, melon, pineapple as well as a fresh guayaba (passion-fruit) drink. We meet Swiss fellow-guests at the hostal—they’ve been travelling for three weeks, have just driven back from Santiago. Ilan and I lament that the season is past for our favourite fruits: chirrimoya (or custard apple) and níspero (loquat). Then it’s off to Museo de Bellas Artes to see Kcho’s show, which has graphic work in a variety of techniques (drawings, silkscreen prints, woodcuts) and is hugely impressive: some thirty or forty large works with recurring motifs—boats, oars, birds—displayed beautifully in the five high-ceilinged rooms and museum. The works somehow connect with the historical moment and with Cuba. There’s a crucifix fashioned out of oars that looks freshly improvised—the helpful guide tells us it’s a drawing of the crucifix Kcho presented to Pope Francis when he visited Cuba. There’s one very powerful drawing of a swimming pool (in Miami, one assumes) filled with the detritus of a shipwreck: overturned boat, oars, drowning sailors. There are boats that resemble coffins, human figures made of oars, the reappearing birds. Another drawing is of a skull fashioned from Kcho’s motifs (oars, boats, etc.) and entitled “haciendome el muerto para ver qué entierro me hacen” (Pretending to be dead in order to see what kind of funeral they’ll give me). Ilan and Alka, veterans of New York gallery openings, are very impressed—Ilan seems thoughtful and quiet: “A very good exhibition.” He works in the same media (drawing and sculpture), works large-scale like Kcho and, like him also, infuses his work with a sense of myth and poetry. After a good hour or two, we leave, convinced that Kcho is an important artist unafraid to criticize his home country.

***

Alexis Leiva Machado, born in 1970 on the Isla de la Juventud, comes by his boats and politics honestly. The son of a telecom worker and a popular artist, he began to achieve international success in his mid-twenties, placing work in the MOMA’s permanent collection and winning prizes in Germany, France, South Korea, and elsewhere. His biography also tells us about his political activities: he’s the Isle of Youth’s representative in the Popular Assembly, and, in 2008, organized a brigade of some five hundred artists to help those affected by the hurricanes in Cuba and Haiti. And his artist name, “Kcho,” or, spelled in the traditional way, “cacho,” means “a little bit or a slice of something.”

***

Hostal los Balcones is in the centre of old Havana and must have been a bordello at one time—with ancien régime velvet, and rooms higher than they are wide or long. Alka tells us that in Mumbai all houses used to have these high ceilings to allow circulation before air conditioning. The seventy-seven-year-old owner, Pepe, tells us he’s American (his dad was from California) and is an anti-communist, but he speaks not a word of English (he may never have known his dad). That night we take a taxi westward to a supposedly happening spot called FAC (Fábrica de arte contemporaneo) on the border between Vedado and Miramar, which turns out to be a multi-storey warehouse-turned-nightclub/gallery behind a gate guarded some imposing bouncers. There’s obviously some excitement tonight, and lots of people wanting to get in, including two Belgians who’ve paid for and printed out tickets in advance. But the bouncer is unmoved: there’s a private function on and the public isn’t allowed in. I ask who’s inside but get just a smile in response. We end up returning in a long walk along the Vedado Malecón, where waves crash over the seawall and soak not only the entire ten metres of boardwalk but also two lanes of traffic as well. Free car wash! We banter with and then befriend Lino, el trompetista del Malecón, as he calls himself—a tall, older Black man with a trumpet who tells us he’s done a few tours in Canada, plays some classics for us (“Dos Gardenias,” “Veinte años,” “Inolvidable,” “la Vie en Rose”) and then refuses the CUC we’ve been conditioned to offer in thanks. I apologize for implying he’s on the make. “Hombre, no lo hago por eso!” (Hey guy, that’s not why I’m doing this!)

***

Next morning, we head off to the modern art museum, the Centro de arte contemporaneo Wilfredo Lam, named for the modern painter who’s become the most famous representative of Cuba’s large Chinese community. But first we stick our heads into the enormous Cathedral and hear the choir—there are displays concerning a papal visit and the church’s activities. It occurs to me that in a conflict as polarized as Cuba’s—the sclerotic, doctrinaire Marxists vs the rabid, revanchist right-wingers of Miami—a progressive Catholic church might provide some middle (as well moral) high ground.

At the Wilfredo Lam, there’s an exhibition dedicated to the “mother of all arts,” architecture, that includes some lively work. One exhibit shows the new uses to which Miramar’s posh villas have been put; another focusses on a weed that flourishes on barren Cuban soil; a third juxtaposes photos of Miami Beach and the Malecón using some telling verses from Cavafy’s famous poem “Ithaca” to address the exiles’ desire to return and repossess the land and property they once owned: “and if you find her poor, Ithaca has not defrauded you… Think of all the experience you have gained… etc.” I chat with a statuesque older Black docent, who knows the poem and is impressed that I recognize it. We talk about history and reparations—she’s very knowledgeable and, like other older Cubans, fears the invasion of Miami Cubans. She seems to think it is inevitable, and is concerned about how it will be done. At first I think she’s worried about losing the revolution’s social gains; then I wonder if it’s not the personal settling of accounts and vendettas she fears. When I mention the Kcho exhibit we saw in Cienfuegos, she tells us to go to his museum-studio out past Miramar. So we do—in a fuchsia-coloured convertible gas guzzler from the fifties.

***

More birds: it’s hard not to see those Miami Cubans through the docent’s eyes, like vultures circling the island, just waiting for the chance to swoop down. Yet I also remember the most extraordinary statistic repeated in one of the guidebooks: during the “special period,” the average Cuban lost one third of their body weight. In his description of the Ukrainian famine of the 1930s, Vassily Grossman talks about how the starving began to look like birds: spindly limbs, protruding eyes, lips pulled back over teeth.

***

In Gutierrez’s novel, all the sex happens between different races: the impostor Greene goes with his Black drag queen; the real Greene lusts for a half-Chinese, half-Black girl but ends up with a mulatta and a Black woman; while the Black boxer Crazy Boy, once he strikes it rich at the track, chooses two white women. One is tempted to say that this racial mixing constitutes Cuba and the Caribbean’s great contribution to humanity. It was certainly one of the key attractions of its brothels in the 1950s, as Alan Ryan’s The Reader’s Companion to Cuba makes clear. In fact, one of the most disappointing things about Cuba Libre, Elmore Leonard’s romp through nineteenth-century Cuban history, is its stagey, straight-talking Southern-belle love interest. One wonders whether this is due to racial prudery or a misplaced notion of historical accuracy—it’s as if he took Scarlett O’Hara off the rack and inserted her in his novel. Pico Iyer’s Cuba and the Night is propelled by his jaded English narrator’s fixation on the ravishing Lourdes. Likewise, in Rachel Kushner’s excellent first novel, Telex from Cuba, which reconstructs the life of an American expatriate family on a sugar plantation near Santiago in the 1950s just as Castro’s rebels are gathering power in the Sierra, it’s the hired help—Black Cuban gardeners and drivers and smooth Latin fixers—who supply the erotic charge, fascinating and shocking the expat wives in scenes of biting social comedy.

***

“Papa, qué quiere el negrito?” (Daddy, what does the Black boy want?) is on a poster I see in downtown Havana—the image, however, is the familiar, three-tone silkscreen of Obama, who made a state visit in March. It seems like the casual, brutal racism of a bygone era—Obama recast as a Havana shoeshine boy who doesn’t know his place. I’m astounded this would be tolerated in a country with such a large Black population—even if the phrase turns out to be a refrain from a famous song. I remember the very simple, very elegant advice Obama gave Cubans during his visit: “Try to copy the things that work, not the things that don’t work.”

***

The Museo orgánico romerillo, Kcho’s compound, seems to occupy a whole city block in western Havana, beyond the military airport and a new development called Ciudad Libertad, where Fidel is rumoured to live. Nearby is the unfinished Instituto superior del arte, with its extraordinarily innovative 1970s architecture: organic shapes in concrete and brick, designed by Catalan and Italian architects of the period, evoking an alternative future, before Cuba embraced the Stalinist New Brutalism of the blocks along the Malecón. We are waved through a turnstile as if they’re expecting us. A guide then comes up and I have to explain we’re not part of the group coming. Some hesitation and we’re allowed to stay. The museum has partnered with Google to provide free WiFi to the youth of Cojimar, and the courtyard café is full of young people absorbed in their screens. They hardly look up when we join them and don’t seem very interested in art. We’re starving, and for our lunch order the most substantial dishes on offer—fried-egg sandwiches, and coffee—but, unlike everywhere else we’ve been, there’s no CUC price list, so the pretty young server converts the national currency prices into CUC at the regular rate, and we end up paying three dollars for our entire lunch. As we cross the courtyard, Debbie notices a big black Mercedes.

We stroll round the various adjoining rooms—one has sketches for a big new project in Shanghai, another an installation in which a remote sensor sets a cast-metal bird off pecking the ground. The familiar motifs are repeated: boats, oars, birds, shipwrecks. The group of expected tourists comes through—they are obviously progressive older Americans—and then a large, unshaven Cuban comes bustling out of an office, cell phone in hand. It’s Kcho himself, a guard confirms. I wait till he finishes his call, and overhear him saying “I was in the country, but I had to return yesterday for an event.” When he hangs up, I tell him I’m here with an artist from New York who admires his work and wants to meet him. He says he just has to arrange a few things and he’ll meet us at the café. I find Ilan, Alka, and Debbie and tell them.

Before coming over, Kcho goes behind the bar to get a soft drink and then rouses an iguana the size of a small alligator that seems to have fallen asleep there. The iguana charges out between the café’s tables, the kids on their phones look up, shriek, and disperse, while Kcho barks commands, tears up a bun, and throws bread at its open jaws. When he joins us, Ilan tells Kcho he saw his show a number years ago, in New York. I’m doing a show for Shanghai now, he tells us, as if New York were so yesterday. He and Ilan banter back and forth about technique and materials, and then he takes us over to the bookstand and presents us all with multiple copies of books about him and Wilfredo Lam, one of which is a colouring book intended for children. Just before he leaves, I ask “those birds that turn up all the time in your work, what kind are they?” He has his answer ready: “It’s the sinsonte, the Cuban nightingale.” “And does it migrate?,” I ask. “No,” he says with an ironic smile. “It stays in Cuba.”

***

When we return to Toronto, my youngest son asks if we happened to see Kanye West and Kim Kardashian in Cuba. What? He shows us pictures of the two celebrities swanning about on the Malecón in a ’50s convertible. Their entire trip, which took place while we were there, seems to have been one long photo shoot. It all falls into place: the big, black Mercedes; why Kcho had to come quickly back into town; why the funky Fábrica was closed for a private event that night.

***

Six months later, Fidel dies. At a Christmas party in Toronto, a Spanish journalist tells me about the crazy week he spent following the funeral from Havana across the island to Fidel’s home near Santiago, where the revolution started. A few months after this, we hear about Kcho’s precipitous fall from grace. The exemplary artist, brigade leader and deputy, is now being accused of the most lurid crimes: drug trafficking, procuring and corruption of minors, influence peddling… If it was hard to believe the heroic image put forth, this catalogue of tabloid sensationalism and depravity seems equally implausible. I remember the Mercedes and the monster iguana emerging from under the café tables like an erection. Apparently Kcho is now being held in a mental health centre and treated for severe drug addiction.

The Miami-based Diario las Americas has all the details. Kcho’s coke habit was well-known. As long ago as 2000, Fidel himself had insisted the artist be locked in a villa to clean up. Kcho had also once set up a restaurant and a business exporting redecorated 1950s gas-guzzlers. His neighbours in Romerillo are saddened and stress the good things he did for the neighbourhood. “If Pablo Escobar was a god in the slums of Medellin,” a local shop assistant says, “Kcho had his people in Romerillo. Maybe he was a drug addict who liked young girls or young boys, but here that’s no big deal. He solved lots of problems for people. He said hello to everyone and would buy anyone a litre of rum… Now he’s been disgraced we can’t forget the good things he did.”

—From CNQ 108 (Fall/Winter 2020-2021)

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