May 4, 1999
(In November the author of this article and several other Mobilians visited Cuba on a trip arranged by the Mobile-Havana Sister City organization. A US government embargo prohibits most travel to and other relations with Cuba by American citizens. This is the seventh episode. Further tales of the journey will follow. Click here for the previous episode.)
by David Underhill
The Havana solidarity powwow opened with the sort of ornate welcoming blather so familiar that it must lurk in the genes of the human species. Then events veered in a different direction. The international movement allegedly dead rose and strode to the podium in the form of speakers, mainly from Latin American and Europe, declaring their fidelity to Fidel and The Revolution -- in Cuba and elsewhere.
These delegates were not cranks or kooks flown in to stage an illusion of support. Most were officials of local governments or national organizations of cities in their countries.
A Dominican said that "in a world in which capitalism wants to dehumanize us and make us renounce our national independence, we must preserve the Cuban revolution and its leader Fidel Castro (applause)."
In a jab at Uncle Sam a Bolivian said that some can be militarily mighty and rocket to the moon, but others choose to defend their sovereignty while providing their people health, education, and dignity (applause).
A Brazilian brought solidarity greetings from "the communist and socialist parties, which have been governing the city of Porto Alegre for three terms (applause)." He assured that they join Cuba in resistance to international capitalism and its yoke of exploiting debt (applause).
A French official omitted such pledges but honored Cuba as a country "we love and respect" and said "we are highly proud (as the translator phrased it) of the successes achieved here in recent years."
How could the Mobile contingent (AKA the US delegation) merge into these proceedings? We had no structure, no officers, no agenda. Most of us hadn't even met before signing up for this trip.
Mousy silence in the anonymous audience was one option. But what if somebody requested remarks from the Americans? In anticipation of that I intended to quiz Jay Higginbotham. If we had a leader, he was it.
By day he's the director of Mobile's municipal archives. By night and on vacation, who knows? Higginbotham is a trim little man of unremarkable appearance, except for the round face and glasses that make him resemble some cousin of the blind, bumbling cartoon character Mr. McGoo. He includes canned cat food among the selection of chip dips for guests in his home, as I discovered at a pre-voyage gathering of shipmates. But he's also been a chum of US Senate majority leader Trent Lott since childhood. And he's prone to buzz off on solitary jaunts across the globe. He rode a train through Russia in the deep freeze stage of the Cold War and wrote a book about the journey. He'd visited Cuba several times before and was intimately implicated in fathering Mobile's sister city junction with Havana, among other places.
So when the crowd received a break to surface for air the torrent of praises for Cuba showering us, I glanced around. But Higginbotham had disappeared. Typical.
When the meeting resumed, there he was seated at the front with the speakers for the other delegations. Typical.
And he just happened to have in his pocket a prepared speech, in Spanish, should the occasion to deliver it appear. Typical.
He stepped to the big podium -- reputedly used by Castro to address the Cuban National Assembly -- which he could barely peep over. They should have brought him a soapbox to stand on.
But his address contained no calls for a revolt by the Yankee masses. Nor did he fawn over revolutionary Cuba or skewer capitalist imperialism. He dwelled in history and pictured the sisterly Mobile-Havana connection as a new chapter in our ancient affiliation with the island (polite applause).
Higginbotham's tone harmonized deftly with the melodious words of the various Cuban speakers. They paid ritual -- and probably sincere -- homage to the fruits of The Revolution while focusing on the future. This conference was a chance to market their country and network with foreign prospects.
The Cubans didn't beg. They were doing a discreet, official version of the hooker come- on in the tourist havens. Cuba is ripe and ready. Sample our free trade zones. No taxes, no tariffs, and cheap, educated labor for your factories. Enter into a satisfying joint venture. Our treasury gets a share of the profits, and you can take yours home feeling fine. But don't affront our pride and dignity. We insist on that. (No applause from delegates still fervid about The Revolution, in Cuba and beyond)
Higginbotham lingered after the meeting to do whatever he does. The rest of us split to explore. (A day later we attended one other function of the solidarity conference, a lively reception with a torrid dance band at an elegant old hotel downtown. Elsewhere in the building a French computer company was entertaining Cubans eager to do business.)
At night I returned to the Havana Libre hotel and evaded security. I slept unregistered in Higginbotham's room to conserve dollars. It's a joint venture actually run by a Spanish hotel conglomerate, I'd learned. Paying their tourist-gouging rates would soon have made us both paupers. But that afternoon, by chance or divine intervention, I'd located likely salvation: a Baptist church with cheap bunks for financial exiles.
This epiphany occurred because I'd gone on a pilgrimage in search of Santo Che. Castro's dashing, doomed comrade Ernesto "Che" Guevara was martyred in 1967 by the CIA while trying to foment revolution in the Andes. He lives in images. Some are printed on T-shirts peddled to tourists. I spotted another on a post card. It showed an immense outline portrait of Che rising up the front of a modern structure. Beneath his face was an inscription I translated as: Until the eternal victory.
That echoed Christian theology enough to account for his secular canonization. And the card said this sight was at the Plaza de la Revolucion, the very place where the pope had appeared just months before. Imagine the Holy Father and Saint Che staring each other down across a sea of Cuban faithful! This location jumped to the top of my itinerary.
I bought a Havana map and started walking. A block or two from the tourist zone all foreign traces vanished -- except me. I was a lone gringo with camera, tape recorder, and map groping through unknown territory. Nobody helped or hassled me. They scarcely seemed to notice me. And why should they? I was just another of the oddities that cramped urban life serves up everywhere.
Along the way I passed grand monuments to patriots of this and that glorious old cause. I was on the lookout for ones honoring Castro but saw none. No statues, no billboards, no murals, nothing. Just a few painted slogans on walls with sentiments like: STRUGGLE FOR THE FUTURE, FOR A BETTER WORLD.
Along the way I saw the only soldiers visible throughout the visit. They were standing guard at a few government buildings, though standing is the wrong word. Slouching isn't correct either. But they lacked that crisp, erect style of American troops with similar assignments. And they, too, paid little attention to me.
The wide, paved Plaza de la Revolucion was deserted. But, yes, Santo Che was there, staring across the empty expanse waiting for it to fill with what celebration of eternal victory for whom?
On the long way back I took a different route at random across the city, soaking up whatever I saw, which included the University of Havana. Then something brought me to a complete halt. Down a narrow side street taken for no particular reason, I was suddenly eyeball to headlights with a big American-style yellow bus. Pastors For Peace its painted slogans read, among other things. I knew this group! A caravan of its donated vehicles bound for Cuba via a Mexican port had passed through Mobile earlier in the year.
The bus was parked outside a plain, square building labeled (in Spanish) the William Carey Baptist Church. I recognized that name! He was an American missionary. A Mississippi college not far from Mobile also bears his name.
On a whim I entered the church and tried my Spanish and my luck. Both worked. Yes, they rented lodging. The quarters were spare, verging on Spartan, but cost only $12 a night, breakfast included. And attendance at services was optional. The next day Higginbotham and I would save our budgets, if not our souls, by moving into the Havana Baptist barracks.