Yes, it’s magical realism. Sometimes more evident, sometimes less. But the way one lives on this island at times verges on the incredible, and one has to remember that we live in a land of exceptions, comic or ironic, cruel or terribly sad, where everything can be believed.
It so happens that a friend of mine recently realized that to be able to enjoy certain attractions in Cuba she needs to first show a passport certifying her status as a foreigner or a Cuban residing overseas. She learned her lesson during a visit to one of the hotels of warm beaches and frozen coconut desserts that most of her compatriots have never known.
She was on the arm of her husband, an Italian national she married in 2004, who she lives (to this day) legally in Cuba. Somebody else was also holding her hand: little Dimitri, their son, who’s 4-years-old.
Obviously she was able to visit that tropical paradise, located in Holguin province, thanks to her husband’s money. My friend is a dentist who graduated with a golden diploma. Her husband, a native of Florence, has worked in everything from fixing windows in the Galleria degli Uffizi to working as a mason. Words from his own mouth.
They both knew that her academic achievements were useless when it comes to paying for leisure activities or feeding Dimitri well. (I think I also know that, harsh as it seems, without his money the marriage would never have been possible). But this incident showed them that there were still some things to learn.
Damn the Florentine husband for believing in the enjoyments that one can so easily access in his home country. The moment he asked to use one of those fast jetskis we usually see in the hands of tourists, riding the waves of our beaches, he understood a harsh fact of life in Cuba, a fact George Orwell would describe thus: even though the hotel contract says all guests are equal, some guests are more equal than others.
The friendly hotel employee asked, before delivering the vehicle, to see both of their passports and their son’s. Taken aback, the husband showed him the bracelets worn by all guests. And then the employee patiently explained:
“Only foreigners or Cubans residing overseas can ride motor vehicles. Cubans can ride on a beach bicycle or a surf board, but not on anything with an engine. Cubans have access to the beach bikes, the surf boards, but not to anything with a motor.”
The Italian man tried in vain to explain (first calmly, then feeling insulted) that he had been living in Cuba for years with his wife and little Dimitri, and that this rule made no sense to him.
Of course, the hotel employee didn’t have any obligation to convince guests of the fairness of rules made by his superiors. Even more, he shouldn’t linger on their details to avoid giving away “sensitive” information. So without further ado he put on his tourism worker smile, and apologized for the inconvenience.
The three stared at each other, astonished. The Italian father and the 4-year-old kid (having both Italian and Cuban passports) could ride the waves under the shining sun on the jetski, while the Cuban mother would have to look on from the beach, maybe with a Mojito in her hand, maybe feeling anger and impotence strangling her throat.
Of course, none of this happened. The three went back to the pool, and other less restricted areas of the hotel. But between them, a blurred silence made things different. From now on nothing would be the same, there would be no true enjoyment after the humiliation suffered by the young lady.
Afterwards, talking about the event, someone opened Pandora’s box. A fearless worker dared to tell them about the origin of the rule: After the government allowed Cubans to stay in hotels previously open only to foreigners, the unthinkable happened.
A strong young man took a jetski to the water in an Holguín beach. Beachgoers saw the jetski gaining speed. What they didn’t see was that it stopped, someplace along the beach, to pick up a companion loaded with travel supplies, including fuel, water and food, and then set course for the horizon.
They were stopped by the Cuban Coast Guard, a few kilometers from the beach. Their final destination, and their punishment are unknown. What is known is that they both sent a clear message to the hotel executives, and of course to those of every other hotel in Cuba: in a country with a thirst for freedom, men will try to use even the faintest of opportunities. Sad, but so true.
From then on, the rule was applied without hesitation. Cubans must pay the same price as foreigners to enjoy these places that look like a postcard, regardless of the fact that they are almost unaffordable to most Cubans. Once inside they have the same rights than foreigners… except for the use of motorized water vehicles.
Poor country. It needs to soil the dignity of its children in order to keep them home. It needs to humiliate them, take their worth, put on them the label of potential deserters, because you can’t trust the intentions of an innocent looking beach-goer. And why can’t you? Because behind the look of innocence there might be a soul in need of freedom, of independence, that will risk his life and throw himself, like so many brothers, into the unforgiving sea.
I want to believe that after many Cuba Libres and watching cable TV, my friend started to feel better and decided to enjoy the amenities of the hotel. After all, she should know she was privileged to be able to, during her vacations, do something more than to vegetate in front of the TV, and stew in the heat.
But I refuse to accept that this country where the reality sometimes seems too much like a fictitious face, is the country we Cubans really deserve, and the country for which so many men gave their blood and their lives.
Translator: Xavier Noguer