The All-You-Can-Eat Communist Buffet

It only takes a quick walk around my Anchorage neighborhood now, in the spring slush, to make me think of all the other places in the world I could be. And if I *could* go anywhere else, transported by a snap of my mittened fingers, I know where you'd find me: sitting on the patio of the Hotel Inglaterra in Havana's old city, sipping a cafe con leche, watching the parade of hustlers. The air is moist there, redolent of salt and rotting vegetables. I love that smell, the way someone loves the mole on their lover's hip.In fact, I went to Cuba just after Valentine's Day this year, to report a story for a British fashion magazine. Several years ago I wandered into Havana's principal wedding palace one day and was fascinated by the ornate backdrop for every marriage, even though most Habaneros were poor by almost anyone's yardstick. When the magazine's editors said they needed material for their June issue, which has a wedding theme, I told them I knew just the place.I packed a bag with pens, nail polish and soap, and flew from Alaska to Cancun to Havana. For U. S. citizens it's the easiest thing in the world to book a flight from Mexico to Cuba. Technically, it's a violation of U.S. Treasury Department regulations to spend money in Cuba, but in my case there's an exemption, since I'm a journalist on assignment. Still, there are tens of thousands of U.S. citizens visiting Havana these days whose closest relationship to journalism is watching CNN. That puzzles me, actually. Other vacation spots are easier to reach, and even cheaper. Now, when capitalism has triumphed around the world, is it possible all these Yanks are nostalgic for the beautiful losers? Is it imperialism, or just *shadenfreude* (that syndrome Freud described as 'You have fallen, and I have not')?I arrived and checked into The Riviera hotel. It wasn't my first choice, but the travel agent I use in Mexico assured me every other suitable hotel was filled owing to some sort of convention. The Riviera was American gangster Meyer Lansky's showpiece, completed shortly before the revolution, in 1959, when it passed forever from his grasp. It was renovated and reopened a decade ago. The whole place -- lobby, furniture, rooms -- has the proportions of a 1950s coffee table. It's like being in Miami Beach ten years ago, before the makeover.I telephoned the photographer I'd be working with, Mark, and arranged to meet him for dinner. Then I showered and took a walk on the Malecon, the wide seafront avenue that encircles part of Havana. Young women in skimpy outfits hissed at me, trying to get my attention. At one intersection a tall girl in a very short dress (and no underwear) was standing before a cop, who is writing her a ticket. In Cuba, it's a crime for women to display "a lack of decorum." Just before the revolution that swept Fidel Castro to power, in 1959, there were hundreds of sanctioned brothels and live sex shows in Havana. Castro's government has made much of this over the years, as a pretext for the communist state. The government was expiating the stain of the old Havana, even if that meant going without some things. But now it seems every other girl between the ages of 12 and 30 is on the streets flaunting herself, trying to wave down foreigners' cars, or approaching them at the entrances of hotels. Perhaps there's something residually licentious in the Cuban character, something that can't be legislated away, even after almost four decades' rule by a prudish government. If so, that tendency has merged now with a kind of protest and become cartoonish.Mark and his girlfriend, a writer, have been living in Havana for nearly six year. Oddly, he speaks very little Spanish. He doesn't have very many friends in Havana, he says. "Sooner or later, after six months, they'll rip you off -- borrow money, and then you never see them again. If they'd ask I'd probably give it to them. But they're killing the golden goose, do you see?"MTV & Personal AccountabilityBreakfast the next morning at The Riviera is obscenely generous by Cuban standards. There are rolls, mini croissants filled with jam, strong coffee, pancakes, juice, eggs, ham. And I wonder: Were two concepts ever more opposed than communism and the all-you-can-eat buffet? My sister Judy had flown down to Havana to spend several days with me. She works at a bank in New York. She's never been to Cuba before. She thinks a woman sitting next to us at breakfast is Alanis Morissette. I write music reviews from time to time but I don't have a TV. I have no idea what Alanis Morissette is supposed to look like. (Angst-ridden?) "Don't be silly," I tell her. "Why would Alanis Morissette be at the breakfast buffet at the Hotel Riviera at seven in the morning?"Mark and I decide we'll go to the main Palace of Weddings in Old Havana and hang around, waiting to see what happens. The Wedding Palaces were begun in the mid-1960s, to replace the Catholic Church, which had been suppressed. The one in Old Havana is a former Spanish casino that was appropriated after the Revolution, an ornate three-storied cake of a building. We meet with Patricia, the director of the Palace. She's been there for the last 30 years. In that time they've held 93,173 weddings, according to her ledger, and she's officiated at most of them.In her satiny dress and pearls, she sits at a marble-topped desk at one end of the uppermost floor of the Palace. There are great murals and filigree work on the walls and ceilings, and gilt-framed paintings, marble floors and stone columns. A well worn red carpet runs the length of the room, stopping in front of Patricia's desk, where there are two orange-covered French provincial chairs for the bride and groom. It may be the most lavish room in Havana. Couples pay 30 Cuban pesos, about $1.50, to get married. They assemble before the desk and Patricia reads from the Cuban Family Code: "Both members of this couple are obligated to care for the family that they create, to help one another, and to educate and guide your children according to Socialist principles," she says. Then the groom kisses the bride. We watch as she marries Oscar Vega Perez, a 48-year-old Party leader, to Mileidy Romero Tellechea, an 18-year-old student. I cannot help but notice that Mr. Vega is wearing a suit with a large "Guy LaRoche" label sewn to the outside of his sleeve.The palace fills up quickly. In the street below, a shiny 1956 DeSoto pulls up and, with some difficulty, disgorges yet another bride. For some reason the driver is playing "Taps" on his air horn. Between ceremonies Patricia takes a breather on the antique settee off to one side of the main salon. When she shifts her considerable weight, one of the settee's arms falls off. "Ay!" she says. I try to hammer the arm back on. "Stop, you're breaking it," she says.Later, I'm having lunch at the Inglaterra with Patricia when I run into my sister. She tells me she saw Leonardo DiCaprio at the piano bar in the lobby of The Riviera. I'm beginning to think Judy has celebrity delusions. "Maybe it's just someone who looks like him," I say. "No, " she says, "it was him! I'm not crazy. I went up to him and asked him. He looks like he's 12! I couldn't believe it. He said he's here on some kind of cultural exchange. It was ... weird." As she's telling me this, Matt Dillon walks by our table, holding a big cigar. I turn to Patricia to explain Matt Dillon, and catch her putting the uneaten half of her sandwich in her purse. She has no idea who Matt Dillon is."And," Judy says, "that *was* Alanis Morissette at breakfast. I saw her in the lobby and asked her." Reinaldo* [footnote: "some names in this story have been changed"], my driver, says he's heard Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss are in town, too, doing a shoot for a fashion magazine. "Are you sure?" we ask him. (But it's true; I read about it later in Mexico, in the Miami newspapers. Leonardo DiCaprio and Alanis Morissette were there, too. And so was Matt Dillon.)"This is just so strange," Judy says.The next day, Mark, Reinaldo and I are in the business center on the 20th floor of The Riviera. We need to have a formal letter of introduction typed and copies made of a magazine article. While the clerk is attending to this, I walk to the window and look out across the Malecon, into the Gulf of Mexico. The waves are breaking over the seawall, splashing into the street. The rocks below the wall look jagged. I can see small moving specks of people swimming there. Rafters have left from this spot for Florida. "Don't they worry they'll be smashed on the rocks?" I ask no one in particular. "No," Mark says, "they don't. And do you know why? They have no sense of consequences at all. They spill a glass of water and then they wonder why the table's wet." Mark is sweeping his hand across a linen tablecloth as he says this and I wonder for an instant if he isn't going to give a demonstration. Then I look at Reinaldo. He shrugs. He's watching MTV's "Teen Idols" with one of the secretaries. Shaun Cassidy is lip-syncing something. "This recent?" he asks."No," I say, and start to explain Shaun Cassidy, but by now they're showing The DeFranco Family singing "Heartbeat -- It's A Lovebeat," so I stop and change directions. "Look," I say, "we made a mistake, OK? A few mistakes. But we're going to make it up to you. We're giving you Alanis Morissette, who is angry, and when I go home I'm going to see if I can't get Marilyn Manson to come down here. Because that's what you need here, you know, a real pseudo-Satanic rocker." I am saying all of this in Spanish and I'm not really certain I'm saying what I mean. It must be all those strong little cups of coffee at breakfast. Reinaldo and the secretary nod gravely. Then the Village People come on and they giggle. "Stop laughing at capitalism," I say. This makes them laugh harder.The *Harlistas*The magazine tells me there's another story in Cuba they'd love for me to get as long as I'm there. It involve a group of bikers. "Bikers?" I say. "Where would they get motorcycles?" "Yes, I know," says my editor in London, "but you see, that's what makes it so interesting, isn't it? Apparently they all ride Harleys and get together. Could you see if there are any sort of strong women in the group that you could write about?" I ask Reinaldo. It turns out he knows exactly who she's talking about. But then, it makes sense that the *Harlistas*, as they're called, would be well known; they're louder than everyone else. Despite a tightly-packed population of more than two million people, Havana can be a very quiet place. Because of gas shortages, even the city's broadest roads sometimes seem like country lanes on a weekday afternoon. So when Miriam Hernandez straddles a wide red motorcycle in her run-down 10th of October neighborhood, and kicks the engine to life, its rumble echoes for miles.There are motorcycle enthusiasts all over the world, many of whom believe American-made Harleys are the only bike worth riding. There are also increasing numbers of women who drive motorcycles. But perhaps none are quite as unexpected as the Cuban women like Miriam, who are devoted to their antique Harleys. In one of the world's last communist states, a country that has long stressed the subordination of the individual will to the state's imperatives and thundered against Yankee imperialism, Miriam and her daughters and girlfriends seem as fanciful as a tabloid headline: "CUBAN BIKER CHICKS!"Miriam, 46, lives in a small, crowded house with her husband and two grown daughters. She wears reading glasses on a chain around her neck and is partial to T-shirts and bike shorts. Although she and her husband, Sergio, are poor compared to even the poorest North American or European, she gaily offers us demitasses of strong, sweet Cuban coffee. That she eagerly welcomes foreigners into her house may say something about her sunny disposition, but it also seems to reflect the way Cuba has been changing in this decade. There was a time not so long ago when Habaneros were extremely circumspect, even with their neighbors, for fear they would be denounced as traitors to the socialist state. To be sure, Cuba remains tightly under Castro's grip, but it appears a new openness has taken hold willy-nilly in the 1990s along with the influx of foreign tourists.Miriam, for her part, was openly exhibiting her passions simply by having visitors. On her wrist she wears a small motorcycle on a strap; its engine opens to show the time. Her living room is dominated by a black velvet painting of a motorcyclist pursued by a grim reaper, surrounded by skulls. Beside it is a blown-up photograph of a new Harley-Davidson. Next to that, a sampler states, "God created the world in seven days -- and on the eighth, Harley-Davidson." Where one might expect to find a sofa or a table, there are two large, shiny Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Visitors sit on them like furniture.At one time, before the Revolution, there were thousands of Harleys in Cuba. After Castro rose to power, and the U.S. imposed its trade embargo, most of them fell into disrepair owing to a lack of replacement parts. It was during these dark days, in 1975, that Miriam's husband, Sergio Morales, bought a 1947 Harley from its original owner and set about restoring it. Miriam was skeptical. "I've got to admit that now, yes," she says sheepishly. "We were just trying to get by, you know, things were hard enough, and his priority was *motorbikes* ... "In 1977 they bought the big red bike, a 1946 Knucklehead with a sidecar. That's when Miriam and her girlfriends discovered Harleys were more than just a greasy hobby. (In the U. S. the company only needs two words to pitch its expensive motorcycles to women: "It vibrates.") "We're fanatics," Miriam says. "This girlfriend of mine, she won't let her man sell his Harley. Apart from what the law says, she considers it her right to have it."Two years ago Miriam bought her own bike, a red 1950 model, for $3,000. She got the money from her mother, who lives in Miami. At about the same time, Sergio and Miriam formed MOCLA, a club whose name is a Spanish acronym for the Association of Classic Motorcycles. To date they have 43 Harley-owning members, nine of whom are women. Another forty-odd members have British bikes ("Inferior," Sergio says). Still other members -- optimists, fans -- have no motorcycles at all.As the Cuban economy stumbles, the *Harlistas* must leap hurdles unknown to bikers in the U.S. On one weekend of the month, they gather in Havana and ride en masse, assuming they can find gasoline. Just now the country is undergoing another fuel crisis. The supply of gasoline on the black market has dried up, which means the *Harlistas*, with their gas-guzzling machines, must either purchase fuel at the official rate, ninety cents a liter, or be content to regard their vintage bikes as glossy furniture. Since a tank of gas at the state rate is exorbitant for most Cubans, who earn on average about fifteen dollars a month, the *Harlistas* are presently reduced to riding only on very special occasions.Nevertheless, some of the female *Harlistas* gather on the Malecon. Miriam is there, as well as Iliana Cuesava, looking sporty in her striped bike shorts, and Gilian Hernandez, who, in addition to her Harley, had her two-year-old son Julian in tow. It may be another mark of the way Cuba is relaxing that Gilian works for the once-feared Ministry of the Interior when she isn't spending time with her fellow bikers. Still, three women on Harleys remains a curious sight in Havana, and they quickly draw a small crowd. They're scrutinized by the *jineteras*, the very young women who traipse around Havana's tourists sites these days in miniskirts and high-heels, trolling for foreign men. By contrast, the Cuban biker women look a little older, and much more solid and settled. The *jineteras* and *Harlistas* regard each other with a blend of curiosity and wariness.Passersby, mostly men, want to know about the machines: How much are they worth? How do they keep them running? Will they sell them to the rich foreigners? A vintage Harley in good condition is probably worth from three to four thousand dollars in Cuba, and as much as $20,000 abroad, although it is difficult to export one. Miriam's husband Sergio is a genius with a wrench and has single-handedly kept most of Havana's Harleys on the road. As for the last question, the answer is "never" for the record, although one wonders: Even $4,000 is at present roughly fourteen times a Cuban doctor's annual wage.When there's gas, the *Harlistas* also like to ride on the Ocho V’a, an eight-lane highway on the city's south side. Miriam sometimes rides behind Sergio as a passenger, but on the broad, straight highway, she drives. For nearly forty years the Cuban state has maintained that it has eliminated inequality, between the dark- and the light-skinned as surely as between men and women. Beneath the level of official rhetoric, however, are centuries of stubbornly embedded Latino chauvinism. The government has no official position on the *Harlistas*, perhaps because there are so few of them, but one imagines the ideologues would be torn between deriding such an obviously trivial hobby -- surely one's time could be better spent denouncing capitalism at neighborhood meetings than tinkering with foreign motors -- and applauding the image of a woman piloting such a big machine. Of course, it would be much easier if the women drove tractors.Miriam gets out her photo album. Among other mementoes, she has a postcard >from a Miami Harley dealership. "We dream of travelling," she says, "visiting other *Harlistas*, exchanging impressions. More than anything, we'd like to visit the Harley factory, in Milwaukee. *Aii*, that would be something ... " Last year, Sergio travelled to Daytona, Florida, for a biker rally. Miriam would have liked to go too, but she hardly needed to ask for permission from the government, as she knew what the answer would be. No. A girlfriend of hers explains what she says everyone knows: The state fears that if both members of a couple are abroad together, they're more likely to defect. If only leaves, the other is essentially a hostage. The *Harlistas* may not be model communists, but the government would rather they were bikers in Cuba than abroad.Miriam has pictures from another Florida rally. In half a dozen shots, a blonde in a black string bikini reclines on a Harley. Her breasts look like basketballs. Several men from the neighborhood crowd in to stare at the pictures. Miriam, by contrast, looks like a woman with two grown daughters. She waits patiently until the men are through winking and nudging each other about the Florida blonde, and flips ahead a few more pages. "Here, look at these," she says, pointing to several black and white pictures of a woman astride a Harley in Cuba in the 1940s.The woman, Lourdes Bretos, is beautiful in the way movie stars of her day were. She is wearing cat-eye glasses and a leather jacket, a risque outfit for the time. She is the heroine of Miriam and her biker girlfriends, a sort of cross between a saint and a dominatrix. The pictures constitute virtually all they know of her: She was a woman who rode a Harley in Cuba a long time ago -- before Fidel and the Revolution and communism, back in the days when little Cuba was America's playground. "I think she's still alive, but I don't know," Miriam says. "I got these from a friend of her family. Her father, Lu’s Bretos, used to be the Harley distributor in Cuba. Lourdes was famous. She rode a Harley and rode it well, but more than that, she rode her bike on the wall of the Malecon. She won a Harley race in Daytona once, too, in the 1940s, I think -- *competing against men*."As it turns out, Lourdes Bretos, 72, is very much alive. She lives in Miami, where all kinds of Cubans fetch up. Reached by telephone, she is not eager to talk about the life she left behind when she fled Cuba in 1961; shehas not been back since, she says. Asked if she is indeed the stunning woman in Miriam's Hernandez's photographs, she says defiantly, "I was born on a motorcycle." Beyond that, she refers callers to her brother Jorge, who also lives in South Florida."She was very famous," Jorge says of his sister. "You know, people still buy me a drink when I go out for a beer here because they say, 'You're the brother of that beautiful woman with the black hair and the motorcycle and the leather jacket. They admired her a lot... But I can understand why she does not want to talk about it. We have a big problem with the government there. They took over my father's business and those motorcycles you see there, that's all that's left."Miriam and Sergio are shoring up the ruins. They've applied to the Ministry of Justice for official recognition of MOCLA, which would allow them to have a headquarters and a bank account. "They haven't said yes but they haven't said no," Miriam says with a shrug. She was once a member of the U.S.-based Harley Owners Group, and she still cherishes her expired member's card, even though her name is misspelled on it. She wanted to renew, she says, but she wasn't allowed to send a check to the U. S. to pay her dues. Dollars are only supposed to flow the other way.ChinatownHavana's once-magnificent homes have fallen into such disrepair that almost any Habanero can tell you a tale of one collapsing, often taking several occupants with it. The Revolution itself has slowly been eaten away from within, like a building consumed by termites. It may seem to be standing, but one day someone will come along and sneeze, and the whole thing will collapse with a whoosh. Around the city there is freshly stencilled graffiti that says "We believe in the revolution." I can't imagine it has any effect on Cubans other than the one it has on me: Each time I see it I wonder why the state and its graffiti-stencilling brigade must work so hard, and transparently, to convince people. It's a funny thing about this new *glasnost* -- it's evident the state can clamp down again at any moment, and consequently Habaneros are carefree and skittish by turns.Reinaldo tells me he knows a good *paladar* -- a private restaurant, the best in Havana, he claims -- in the heart of the Vedado neighborhood. We ring the bell of an impressive mansion and wait. A moment later, an elderly woman pulls the door back a few inches, looks Reinaldo over, and ushers us in. We walk down a narrow, high-ceilinged hallway filled with stuffed animals' heads, woven Indian baskets and medieval escutcheons. The house belongs to the old woman, Reinaldo explains. She's had it in her family since before the Revolution. Her *paladar* was shut down recently because she was selling lobster. Only tourist establishments such as hotels are allowed to sell lobster. The government is also preoccupied with beef, Reinaldo insists. He says he knows people who have been sentenced to ten years in jail for selling a steak from a private home. We have lobster, steak and beer. "So," I say, "since we're sitting here in a completely illegal restaurant anyway, we're all implicated, let's talk politics ... ""It's shit, pure shit," Reinaldo says. This catches me off guard. Such remarks can get a Cuban a couple of years' jail time. "And it's not just me," he continues, "most people think that. No one believes there will be a Communist Cuba in, say, 10 or 15 years -- with the exception, perhaps, of a handful of top Party officials. And even then, who knows? We don't want it, but no one knows how to change it.""You just have to ... do it," I say."Que va," he says. *Get real*.On my last night in Havana, Reinaldo and I get a cardboard carton of rum >from a dollars-only store and split it as we walk around downtown. We're standing in front of the Inglaterra, a little high. I have this idea that I can get the perfect photograph of a young Cuban girl with a fat, graying foreigner. This will be a metaphor, I think. I also think: good rum. As I stand on a corner trying to surreptitiously make my picture, a small Cuban man approaches me and begins to rapidly pitch black-market cigars. "No, no," I say, annoyed because he's stepped between me and my quarry. Suddenly, another man emerges from the crowd. He slaps handcuffs on the vendor and hustles him away."What the hell was that?" I ask. "Plain-clothes police, Specials," Reinaldo says. "They'll charge him with molesting a tourist. He's going to jail for a few days at least."Should I run after them, I wonder, tell the policeman the guy wasn't bothering me? "No," Reinaldo says. "Forget it." *It's just Chinatown, Jake*.Awake and hungover at an ungodly hour the next morning, airborne en route to Mexico, I remember this line from Jose Mart’, the 19th-century Cuban poet: to gaze idly at a crime is to commit it. I'm not really sure how that applies to Havana now or my visit, but I have the suspicion it means I may not be going back soon.

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