When in Havana, you drink Havana Club straight,
sipping, swirling high in the light, tasting the balance
of caramel and oak from twelve years captive in cask.
The rum master does not apologize for the numbness
on our tongues or for his four-pocket shirt,
but he pulls our attention to the warmth and the long finish.
He explains all rum is a blend.
This distillery, born in the 1800’s is,
“historically, the best blender
of the soil, the sun and the brown sugar of Cuba
together with the jazz drums, salsa dance
and the unabashed friendliness of the Cubans.”
We drink our large samples and try, but fail, to blow off the excess alcohol,
and before long our host smiles to tell us
that we have, together, “woken up the Devil.”
free education and free
health care but the busses
are all from China,
the communist country
that is far ahead of Cuba
on the concept
of exports for cash.
You list your top three preferences
and are told what your career will be.
You do take a test.
So, they do know what you can and cannot do.
The ballet or the sugar cane field,
somehow, they know,
like the bananas or avocados growing almost wild,
everything travels centrally according to ability
and is distributed remotely
according to need,
thus, fresh only if you grow it or catch it
yourself, and illegally, selfishly, eat it.
(The lawyer moonlights as a bellhop at the tourist hotel, and the
high school English teacher cranks the pedicab tour.)
Religious beliefs and practices
we’re banned by the revolucion
as the opium of the people.
So, there is no reason for the horse and buggy, bouncing along
on the farm, no Amish discipline outlawing the truck,
just the onerous two-hundred-and-forty-percent import tax
and the complete lack of personal wealth. Also,
a Sputnik gas station in Camaquey is a rare sighting,
in that town of the pre-soviet sugar barons. Maybe the cane farmers
use horses instead of trucks because horses manufacture themselves,
and need no government import permit.
But no, God did not forbid new trucks or tractors in Cuba.
The Godliness of Fidel and Che, though, is taught in the schools.
Other than those songs and stories of victory and salvation
the people mostly choose no God of their own
because, by law, there is none.
Yet the Pope came to visit
and was allowed in for some reason.
An unknown number of people re-found a Spanish faith,
or, secretly, their Santeria slave voodoo,
which hundreds of years ago was disguised to look like Catholicism,
so it would not be banned, even then. Now
some churches have opened again for business,
allowed perhaps because there is an empty and collapsing church
in every town square, with internal artwork looking for a purpose,
or perhaps because Karl Marx also wrote:
Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature,
the heart of a heartless world,
and the soul of soulless conditions.
Between the Mangroves
There is often a reef between the clumps of mangroves,
maybe a few acres per island of trees with the roots
that begin latticing before entering the water.
Sometimes the shallow bottom between these patches is sand
with beds of sea grass. Sometimes there is coral.
Without the mangroves, the baby lobsters, goliath groupers,
and the endemic species have no place to grow up
with protection from the bigger reef fish.
The mangroves are the nursery, the only nursery.
The endemic species happen because the island itself
is an ecosystem, and the shallows just around its terrestrial edges
are private. The suction of the island keeps the organisms
mixing their gene pools close to home,
creating the Cuban golden basslet, one-inch long,
yellow with a splash of purple and black,
and keeps the majority of Cubans still hoping that
the Muse of Socialism is beautiful, with the flowing hair
they see in the history books of Greece and Rome,
and she is not the hollow and stern stepmother
living with them.
There are no walls around the prisons
because they are not prisons
for criminals but housing
for citizens of Cuba.
The soviet-era block-style architecture,
multi-family cubes of eight
units per floor and eight stories tall,
trap the men, women and children
offering minimal food on the local store shelves,
even when the forty dollars a month
per worker, and the ration coupons, are available to buy it.
There are not many overweight Cubans.
But the people are happy. The ones who
still hear the muse or just have not escaped
during one of the releases
to reduce the pressure.
Although there is no incentive to work
the people are not lazy. Although there are
few visas to Mexico for shopping, they don’t seem
to be angry. But neither are they content.
The lawyers drive cabs in Havana
and the doctors complain they are not allowed to be
a bellhop at a resort, and wish they were untrained.
Tips are always hard for a government to track.
Entrepreneurism might melt this socialism,
we’ll see as it trickles in. But until then, the cars are frozen
in pre-1959 model years that the mafia drove before La Revolucion.
They are the cabs that drive the Canadians to warmer places,
these cars constantly rebuilt with home-made parts
and painted the colors of tropical fish and the light blue of the sun
reflecting off shallow sand. The Snow Bird touristas drink the world’s best rum,
and, of course, smoke the cigars the Cubans cannot afford.
“Havana Club,” "Jobs," and "No Religion," were first published in 2018 by Wanderlust Journal.
Kingdoms in the Wild was the first to publish “Between the Mangroves” and “Prison Walls”