Cuba Over the Wall: Looking for Che Guevara–and a Decent Meal

The most relevant fact that most ordinary Cubans know about Canada—other than our preoccupation with hockey and our cold winters—isn’t that our government invested millions in Havana’s José Martí airport. “Canada,” muses our airport taxi driver, flipping through his collection of pirated cassettes before settling on Snoop Dogg. “You have big chickens there.” 

This is the first sign that food is an obsession I will come to share with ordinary Cubans. I am visiting Havana to make a radio documentary about Che Guevara, the fiery Argentine doctor turned guerilla fighter who helped liberate Cuba from the corrupt Batista dictatorship during the 1959 Revolution. Out of deference to Che (known by his first name in the revolutionary fashion), I have chosen not to stay at the luxury tourist resort of Varadero, Cuba’s Sin City of champagne and showgirls. In Varadero, the only locals you’ll meet are the chambermaids who make the beds and the prostitutes hoping to find their way into them.

I’d prefer to meet average Cubans, minus the roar of jet-skis—and the sizzle of gourmet meals. It turns out that Cuban ambivalence towards foreigners is well-founded: all the finest food goes to the resorts.

At the local supermercado, I line up to buy orange juice, yogurt and water. It could be any small-time supermarket in North America, except that the only well-stocked shelves are on the “rum” aisle, where there’s never any shortage of world-class Havana Club. Young women in hotpants gaze longingly through glass cases at lingerie priced in American dollars. The Bee Gees are crooning over the sound system while shoppers take turns staring at the solitary slab of beef in the freezer, priced well out of reach for most locals.

In front of me, two Americans in army-recruit haircuts and T-shirts imprinted with Bible verses have commandeered the remaining shelf of bottled water, leaving none for the rest of God’s children. I resist the temptation to ask if they’re planning a full-immersion baptism. Anyway, Cubans already have a religion: at the art market in the Old City of Havana, where original paintings run less than $40 U.S. (twice a doctor’s monthly salary), Che is depicted with a halo.

As part of my documentary, I meet with Dr. José Tabares, head of the History Department at the University of Havana where I am studying Spanish, and a former colleague of Che. We meet at his office to discuss the “cult of Che,” whose dashing countenance graces T-shirts, government buildings, souvenir maracas and Cuba’s national bank. Dr. Tabares smuggled rifles for the revolution and later collaborated with Che on a leftist magazine. Che went on to appoint Tabares Cuba’s ambassador to Hungary and then Bolivia, where Che was assassinated—allegedly in the presence of a CIA agent—during an ill-fated attempt to export revolution.

Today Che is a logo for a thousand causes. In the West, his face has appeared on pop cans and Spicy Smirnoff—precisely the sort of capitalist endeavours Che hoped to overthrow. For youth attuned to the fashionable-again anti-establishment politics of bands like the late Rage Against the Machine, he represents rejection of the status quo. In Cuba, where schoolchildren pledge to “be like Che,” his image sells socialism and sacrifice.

Dr. Tabares describes Che’s austere lifestyle. “I remember sometimes we had a working lunch. He ate a very little amount of fish, two potatoes. Well, that is enough for him. After I finish, I have to go to another place to eat.”

Me too. After the interview, I stop by El Rapido, Cuba’s effort at fast-food. Miami Cubans love the T-shirt that portrays Havana’s elegant seawall, the Malecón, lined with American fast-food chains. Not while Fidel lives, but in the meantime Cubans seeking a taste of the “good life” line up for “pizza”: a soggy disk dolloped with pinkish sauce and cheese product. The next day, I discover a more appealing alternative near the university. An entrepreneurial woman operates a stand beneath the banyan tree outside her home, where I enjoy a lunch of steaming pizza smothered in feta. Real tomatoes. No Lionel Ritchie soundtrack. Ahh…

Vegetarianism, often impractical in developing countries, is out of the question in Cuba. Frankie Oliva, a local who has befriended me, holds out a paper cone of translucent cubes that might be potatoes, but aren’t. “It’s not meat,” Frankie insists, “It’s fat.”

Fortunately it’s organic fat, since Cuba can’t import the chemicals prescribed to North American bovines. Frankie has invited me and my travelling companion to dinner at the home of Diego and Daisy Valdes, two Cuban professionals. He brings cigars reserved from the monthly rations that ensure no citizen lacks basic necessities. We walk past aging colonial mansions that have made Old Havana a UNESCO World Heritage site. In the dusty streets, barefoot children play stickball while their mothers sit on front steps of cracked marble, talking and watching. Card tables are set up on side-streets where men play dominos and drink white rum from kitchen glasses set at their feet. Other men cluster around the husks of 1950s Chevrolets, kept running with the equivalent of sweat and a shoelace. Since 1959, Cuba remains frozen in time, its architecture preserved, if held together by successive coats of bright paint.

At Diego and Daisy’s, we sit down to a Cuban version of Stone Soup. From peppers, plantains, garlic and tomatoes, Daisy creates a sumptuous stew while we watch Cuba’s most popular soap opera, a medieval drama, on black and white TV. Below the TV is a Betamax VCR. Daisy works for a pharmaceutical company while Diego teaches Sai-Do, a Cuban martial art. Diego has a rare blood disease, we learn: he is kept alive by Daisy’s access to medication and an American friend who sends embargoed supplements.

Their table is so small that they insist we eat first. For all this, the conversation is warm, the meal delicious, the dessert icy lime daiquiris. “My daiquiri at El Floridita,” said Ernest Hemingway, referring to his favourite drink at his favourite watering hole, the dimly-lit Havana bar where the daiquiri was invented, and where we take refuge on many a sultry afternoon. But the daiquiris the Valdeses serve are at least as refreshing and don’t involve costumed musicians playing revolutionary songs for tips in American dollars.

On another evening, we’re invited to a party at the residence of Pawel Krewin, a Berkeley student in Havana to learn Spanish. Pawel rents a room in a rundown mansion for six dollars a night. Such rooms must be registered with the state, but this one—priced at a quarter of the going rate—is not, so Pawel feels within his rights to invite the neighbourhood: the landlords are too concerned with being caught to stop him.

Salsa rhythms fill the house while two experienced Cubans blend drinks and others patiently proffer dance lessons to the salsa-challenged. Lime husks cover the kitchen table as cuba libre blurs into cuba libre. Pawel bribed an elderly woman for her sugar ration to make the mojitos and persuaded the bartender at the Habana Libre Hotel, prerevolutionary haunt of the American gangster class, to donate ice. The owners watch nervously as Cubans and foreigners crowd into their house, transforming scuffed marble into a dance floor. If they seem to have no idea why we are here, it’s because, as Pawel, looking blondely innocent, explains, “I don’t know the future tense so I couldn’t tell them about the party beforehand. I can tell them now.”

Pawel, ever fearless, has a unique solution to the hustlers who hit up every tourist with, “Friend, friend, you want cigars? Cohibas? My uncle, he works at the factory.” Pawel turns the tables: “Friend,” he says, “let’s talk. I’ve got an exciting multi-level marketing plan that can make you up to $32,000 in the first year. And that’s just the beginning!”

The next day we join Pawel and a Scottish expatriate filmmaker named Andrew at the best restaurant we’ve yet to find: Monguito. Say the name again: Monguito. Across from the Habana Libre is the best paladar, or family-run restaurant, in the city. A white 1953 Chevrolet sits in the driveway, sacks of onions strapped to the roof. From a plastic table covered by red and white checkered cloth, we can see into a kitchen where three matronly women talk and laugh as delicious aromas fill the air. At a nearby table sits a middle-aged foreigner with a schoolgirl in her teens. (It’s as common to see women tourists accompanied by local men half their age.) I order an omelette, Spanish rice and pan-fried plantains. Ordinary ingredients in the hands of extraordinary cooks: it’s not what you have, it’s what you make of it.

After midnight, we stroll through Havana. It isn’t the contrast between the architectural beauty of the city and the want of its residents that lingers with me, or thoughts of home, where we lack for nothing. It’s the pleasure of the moment and the Cuban ability to seize upon it, to drink every drop. It’s the strains of a love song floating through an open door, and the sight of a boy and a girl, dancing close, in the middle of the street.

-Vancouver magazine, March 2003