My friend Richard takes a room at the Capri. After three sleep-deprived days in our noisy, group-rate Havana hotel, he has grown restless and grumpy. By his own admission, Richard "doesn't care about politics." He is a romantic, not a revolutionary. He wants a quiet room, a clean bed, and good room service. Finding bourgeois accommodations is a tall order in this ancient city, but Richard is determined to surround himself with the comfort to which he is accustomed, socialism or no socialism, blockade or no blockade. After a meticulous exploration, Richard chooses the Capri.
Built with Mafia money in the early 1950s, the Capri was designed to celebrate the dawning of the space age. The entire hotel looks like it is ready to blast off from a low-budget sci-fi flick. Outside, its balconies fly upward toward the Cuban sky in perfect symmetry. Inside, walls, staircases, and countertops sweep past each other like the tailfins of a rocket ship. A chandelier spiked with incandescent antennae floats in the lobby like a satellite.
The Capri remains as a symbol of the mob's former dominance in Havana. An Italian restaurant survives on the top floor of the Capri, an old-country retreat where the goombahs could eat family-style. If you've ever eaten Cuban pasta, you probably have compassion for their needs. From the 1920s until January, 1959, when Fidel and the revolutionary forces finally swept into Havana, the Mafia enjoyed carte blanche in this eternally exploited city. Operating hand-in-hand with Cuba's own gangsters, corrupt ruling families, and a sleazy duo of dictators, the mob financed and operated a fleet of hotels and casinos that seduced tourists with sumptuous accommodations, exotic sexual objects, twenty-four-hour gambling, and glitzy entertainment.
Cuba's revolution made big waves for the mob. In April, 1959, the government seized control of the casinos. Las Vegas grew exponentially after the revolutionary government outlawed drugs, gambling, and the exploitation of women in Havana. Some people say that the Mafia, infuriated by the loss of their Cuban cash cows and money laundromats, assassinated John F. Kennedy when he betrayed the CIA invasion at the Bay of Pigs. For decades after the revolution, Havana's hotels stood untouched, monuments to the exploitation that the revolution fought to obliterate.
Now, Cuba is struggling to regain its economic balance after the fall of the Soviet Union. Tourism and the dollar have become major tools for economic recovery. Although the Capri is not remodeled, it is once again, a tourist haven. And Richard, safely ensconced on the fifteenth floor, has invited us to see the floor show at El Salon Rojo, the night club that now occupies the old gambling casino downstairs.
"Let's see what Havana was like in the good old days," he says.
Unlike Richard, I am a romantic and a revolutionary. For me, Cuba and Havana represent the manifestation of a dream, where the poor were given the opportunity to fight for their lives and they took it. Where everyone, regardless of their color-or their gender-has been educated, clothed, housed, fed, guaranteed equality, given control of their lives. Where, for the first time since the Inquisition, the Cuban people celebrate redemption from poverty instead of begging for redemption from sin.
For me, Cuba represents a clever David who stands in the streets and sings crazy songs in proud and delighted defiance of the angry Goliath that looms over her, ninety miles to the north. For me, Havana is Avalon, where the people are healthy, the kids are happy, and where no one goes homeless, nobody starves to death, and there is no violence in the crowded, dimly-lit streets.
So, when Richard says, "let's go," I am not sure that I want to step back into Havana's Mafia-driven "good old days," but what the hell, the floor show will be driven by an ass-kicking Cubano big band. Richard and I stand with our friends in the warm Havana night, joking and goofing until the doors open for the ten o'clock show.
Inside, El Salon Rojo is shaking with recorded salsa. Salsa is not Cuban music, but everyone in the gathering audience seems to know the words, something by Ricky Martin, something about la vida loca. They lip-synch the verses with joyful, mocking sincerity. The entire room is painted an elegant blood red.
The band, resplendent in red jackets and white slacks, sits on the bandstand, waiting for the show to begin. They lean back in their chairs, arms folded across ill-fitting uniforms and watch the audience shake their booties as they file to their seats at stageside tables. We order drinks and french fries and wait for the show to begin.
The lights dim, the recorded music dies. Tene cuidado, muchachos y muchachas, take care, boys and girls, it's showtime! The band rises as one person. The bass player telegraphs the downbeat with a single twitch of the bass neck. Tight, together, deadpan-cool, all seven musicians blow a rapid-fire, syncopated introduction and the band jumps into the first tune.
Smoke pours through a jagged hole torn out of the bottom of the bandstand, and eight be-u-ti-ful senoritas step on stage. From our angle, they are all legs, asses, and bellies. The smiles on their faces vary from dancer to dancer. Some have the frozen grin of the professional who just had a fight with the boyfriend but knows how to put on the style, regardless. Others smile in that relaxed manner that lets you know why people work so hard to learn how to dance.
And these women can dance. Gaudily dressed, they still move easily through the authentic steps of rumba, cha cha cha, and conga. Only the ballet-extended lines of their arms, legs, and backs give them away as trained dancers. The crowd is tossing whistles and catcalls like flowers on the stage, but I notice the torn and patched fishnet stockings. The G-strings and feathered headdresses create a garish contrast to the classic grace and honesty of the dancers' movements. A young male in the black, heavy-soled shoes of a punker spins among the women like a de-frocked peacock. Like them, he dances full of the easy energy that comes from years of training and a lifetime of immersion en la vida.
A singer steps on stage, standing tall against his five-and-a-half foot height and the broad misfit of his double-breasted jacket. The band drops into a percussion vamp that comes straight out of four centuries of Afro-Cuban heritage. Four against six, long and short triplets against straight eighth notes, the dense rhythm weaves a fabric from conga, bongo, cowbell and guiro, with a bass drum pattern so funky, you want to tear your clothes off. Everybody is grooving at the tables, moving against each other.
The song is full of la muerte, corazon, y siempres, death, heart, and forever. The band moves easily, smiling at the audience and floating downstream on the river of sound. The crowd loves it. The drunks in the first row stand up from their tables and shout "Eye love youuu," in Italianesque English.
The show moves non-stop through the smoke-filled evening. Strobe lights freeze the dancers in stop action. Pencil spots and pattern lights swing across the stage like tracer fire. The passionate red walls of Salon Rojo fade before the attack. Rum and the rhythm have soaked into everybody's hearts and limbs and the whole crowd has grown loose and flirtatious.
As quickly as it began, the final number slams to a halt and canned music pounds the room again-techno music from the states. The musicians are done for the night; they have shed their jackets by the time they hit the door. They disappear with the first eight bars of the disco beat.
"Wasn't that fantastic?" Richard asks as we tumble outside into the exhaust-filled night air.
It was fantastic. The band was hot, the tunes were steamy, the arrangements sophisticated. The look of the dancers and the musicians, the old-fashioned sequins and fishnet stockings of the costumes, the vampy choreography all flowed together to create a fantasy full of surreptitious love and Cadillacs and gangsters. The ghost of Frank Sinatra sweeps out of the Salon with an entourage of guys and dolls. They dive into a limo parked on La Rampa a main boulevard leading down to the Malecón, the rotting, baroque embarcadero that rims the harbor.
We say goodbye to Richard and walk back to our hotel. We pass through the knots of excited youngsters that crowd the Saturday-night boulevard. The romantic and the revolutionary run around in my head, hands held up in confused supplication. My thoughts find dark shape in the form of questions.
What's going on here? Why are Cuban dancers and musicians using their skill and talent to celebrate a time when people were bought, sold, and thrown away by gamblers and imperialistas, when poverty took over from slavery, and when disregard threw people into the street?
Cuba worships art with a heartfelt, put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is national policy. The state supports artists, pays for their education, and asks them to teach others in return. I have never heard a single Cuban artist complain of censorship. So why are these performers, with talent and training in their bones, beauty in their limbs, and joy in their every move, why are they busting their asses in a tawdry Copacabana spin-off?
What are we seeing here in Havana today? Venceremos? We will win? The slogan is still painted on walls all over Cuba. There are no ads. Only venceremos. Venceremos is about action, it embraces everyone, and speaks of victory and determination. Or is this the victory of la vida loca, the crazy life? This phrase seemed to strike a chord, at least with the people in El Salon Rojo. La vida loca describes a state of being without beginning or end. It describes chaos: It has no direction, no subject; no one and everyone is included. Why la vida loca? Where is venceremos?
I ask these questions out loud. My friends and I take turns trying to answer them. Maybe the new floor shows in Havana are designed for the tourists. They can reminisce about the "good old days" before the revolution, when a dollar stretched for miles and the women were there for the taking. (They are again. Young girls walk the streets in spandex, looking you in the eye. Young men whisper in your ear, offering cigars, women, boys...) Everything having to do with tourism is bought and sold with dollars and the dollar seems to be reviving the economy, at least in Havana.
Some of the audience at Salon Rojo was Cubano. Maybe the Cubans themselves have asked for the return of glitz and glitter. Maybe they want to giggle and stare at the tits and ass with the rest of us. It's a turn-on, and they have no need for political correctness. They have had their revolution and today, Cuban women get paid the same as men.
"I don't know," I said. "I think we're all guessing." It is very confusing to be a romantic and a revolutionary in Havana at the turn of the millennium. I think about Ché, and the poster I once had tacked to the wall. In the picture, Ché was sitting in grubby military fatigues, a boyish smile on his face, a chewed cigar clasped in his hand. At the bottom of the poster was a quote: "At the risk of sounding ridiculous, a revolutionary must sometimes be guided by great feelings of love."
History is full of the ridiculous. Havana has embraced love and revolution, wealth and poverty, machismo and equality, national health care and a relentless love of tobacco. Venceremos y la vida loca. I stand at the window of El Salon Rojo and catch a glimpse of life in Havana tonight, a life full of dollars and exhaust smoke, shortages and surprises, a celebration of la vida loca. Mañana, I go looking for venceremos.
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