Caracas-Havana: The Dirty Word Exile
On December 9 or 10, 1986—I don’t remember exactly when—I left for San Antonio de los Baños to study film. At the time, I was a pretty bourgeois punk who wanted to change the course of history in South America. At least, I wanted to change my own history. I was madly in love with MK, a Venezuelan anarchist poet who eventually became institutionalized at a psychiatric hospital. As soon as I left, she started to send love telexes to Havana quoting Apollinaire’s calligrams.
I know the trip to San Antonio happened after December 8 because on that date I’d received a letter from the Film School asking me to leave the Hotel Nacional “for the purpose of beginning the process of adaptation.” I quote this phrase verbatim. The night before, I’d wound up at a party at the house of an “official” Cuban poet, whose invited guests included Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, Suzana Amaral (the sister of the Brazilian art historian Aracy Amaral), and many other international luminaries of the Havana Film Festival and members of the nomenklatura of the Cuban Writers and Artists Union (UNEAC) and the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC); the majority of the attendees were men dressed in bright colored guayaberas, drinking mojitos and daiquiris made with Matusalem rum. The poet’s daughter, at the time an unattractive yet not devoid of humor professor of comparative literature at the University of Havana, undertook a Shahrazad-style plan of seduction, drawing upon unknown tales of the revolution like the one about the paintings decorating her house in El Vedado, all of them fake: fake Picassos, Mattas, Lams, Légers. I asked her who could have made copies sufficiently convincing as not to alarm the Cuban authorities over the disappearance of their patrimonial assets. She answered that the master forger of paintings worked in ICAIC’s art department, sharing the profits with her father in a Swiss bank account. “They have an understanding, you know.”
I awoke in a daze very early in order to gather my stuff and leave the unbelievably lavish suite where the Cuban government lodged me for three days. I left on foot to the parking lot of the modernist-style Coppelia Ice Cream Store on Calle 23 and L, a few blocks from La Rampa at the Malecón where the Havana Cinemateca was located. Despite my sleepiness and the unusual cold front of the Caribbean winter, the listlessness of the moment was palpable to me in the zombie-like movements and gestures of the assembled people, who scrutinized us with distracted curiosity despite the ungodly hour. The Czech-made bus, with a capacity of thirty passengers, left almost empty at 6:30 a.m. on the dot, noisily hitting the road with a strong smell of cheap gasoline, while the driver expertly dodged the series of potholes pockmarking the broken surface of the pavement. Dawn had not yet broken when we passed at top speed through the districts of El Vedado, Playa, and Cubanacán, and went in the direction of a suburban road dotted with residential buildings built after the 1970s, which we would later call sarcastically “Bay of Pigs architecture.” I remember that the noise of the motor took up all the space and time of those lengthy trips, making any conversation almost impossible. During this very first trip, the young passengers slept or simply gazed absorbedly through the windows at the unchanging landscape outside.
The driver slowed the speed of the vehicle to a bumpy crawl. A moist, fresh odor of earth made itself sensed. The first morning sun came out and revealed to us a broad, unpaved road on which we moved with difficulty as we entered a flat landscape surrounded by pastures planted with sugar cane. There were no billboards on the road or coffee shops with vernacular signs. We went down a long, monotonous stretch of that rural two-lane highway, until upon reaching a crossroads where the road widened, the driver abruptly slammed on the brakes, causing suitcases and handbags to fall, which roused us from our morning lethargy. Without a word, the driver turned off the motor, leaving us stranded in the middle of the road, and lighting a cigarette, got out to chat calmly with a group of soldiers assembled on the roadside. Somebody asked if we had arrived. Arrived where? I thought. There we were, in a bus that sounded like a rusted coffeepot, in the middle of a desolate spot, nine or ten young people, no older than twenty-two, from various Latin American countries, along with the Francophone or Lusophone Africans, half-asleep, perhaps hung over from the night before, without knowing why the hell we had stopped here. We got out to stretch our legs looking at each other with a bit of incertitude, only to be immediately reprimanded by the soldiers and the driver, who warned us to get back in the bus for security reasons. The moment we started boarding, one of the few white passengers, looking out towards a point on the highway, said in a strong Argentine accent, “A MiG, it’s a MiG 29.” We all looked in that direction and saw a dilapidated military truck towing a fighter plane by a rope. The blond pilot, tall and heavy-set, was outside the plane and surveyed the scene with the same fascination as we did. Day was breaking. The rocambolesque scene came back to me thirty years later with the taste of the dirty word exile on my mouth, the burned lawn of the suburbia and the acrid smell of vintage clothing in a New York subway crowded of millennials.