Tropic (Sunday Magazine of the Miami Herald) pp. 6-7. August 3, 1997.

 

This was our simple little home on the Isle of Pines, Cuba, as we left it. This is the way it looked when I went back 35 years later. The family that lived there was away in town the day I visited.

"The Isle of Pines, Cuba
— Thirty-Five Years Later"

 

After thirty-five years, I returned to my childhood home. It used to be called the Isle of Pines, Cuba. The Communists have renamed it the Isle of Youth.

When I was a child, I blended right in. There were all kinds of people on the island from all over the world. We bought our vegetables from an old Russian woman and our bread at the Chinese bakery. My sister's girlfriends were Japanese. A German woman down the road kept cows and sold milk. On a neighboring farm was a family from the Canary Islands.

This remarkable diversity is gone now. The people on the island now were imported by the government from the far eastern tip of Cuba, near Haiti. Over and over I noticed them staring at me. I stood out.

It used to be that you could not walk down the street of the main town of the island, Nueva Gerona — which in those days was only a fraction of its present size — without being assaulted by the most wondrous array of aromas and smells and sounds. Everywhere there was economic activity. Vendors with little roadside carts were sizzling and cooking and frying things and selling them. In every doorway there was a store or a cafe. The array of goods for sale was nothing short of incredible. It was a delight to the senses, the whole thing of going to town on Saturdays.

Now there are no stores. At first, I couldn't really understand how the people got the things that they wore or ate because all along the street everything was boarded up.

It used to be that we could leave the keys in our car. No one would bother it. We could leave the doors to our house open. There was a kind of innocence in those days, a trust, a code of sorts.

And so it came as the greatest surprise to me, when I went out into the back country, where I had once lived, and visited the same peasants I had known as a child, to find that they were being robbed blind. One man wouldn't even leave his house to take me across the field to where his brother lived. First he locked everything up. Now this was a little thatched hut with a dirt floor. He closed the shutters, closed the door, put on a padlock. But then he wouldn't even leave the place. He couldn't bring himself to. And with a brief explanation how two of his young oxen had been stolen the week before, he stayed behind as I set out on my own to find my way to the little shack where his brother lived. The brother, it turned out, had almost been killed a few nights ago by some chicken thieves. "Billy", confided the old barefoot peasant dressed in rags, with a rope for a belt and a tattered straw hat on his head, "If I had ever imagined it would all turn out like this, I would have gone to Miami with the rest of them."

In the old days, this same man's farm had been a specimen of peasant productivity.

Now, except for a small garden close up against the house, the fields were barren. There was nothing planted. I quickly came to understand why.

It doesn't do to plant. Somebody else will just steal your crop.

I visited the farm of childhood friends on the opposite side of the island. Someone had broken the lock on their storeroom two nights before and made off with their harvest of black beans. At the next farm I visited, a large sow had somehow been carted away the previous night from right under their noses. In town I found a childhood acquaintance of mine, a man of position, had turned his entire yard into a garden. After a day's work in the office, he spent his evenings hoeing and raking. But as soon as there was a pumpkin ripe on the vine or a stalk of bananas — they were snatched in the night.

One evening at the house where I was staying someone came quietly knocking. This is the underground economy. The man worked at a government job, like everybody else. Like everybody else, he was not really paid enough to get by. So he stole. This particular man came with squid. The next night there was somebody else at the door with something else. People live by selling on the black market what they steal from the workplace. I guess they justify this because they feel the government is stealing everything from them. "We were young," a friend from my childhood explained. "We gave our lives over to this experiment. The experiment failed. We feel we have missed living."

The Isle of Pines was an exciting place for a child to grow up. I used to ride on horseback through a landscape of park-like savannas and pine forests that went on forever. The land was hilly and down along the clear-flowing streams there was the freshness of the lush hardwood forests. The landscape I met when I returned broke my heart. As far as the eye could see, the natural vegetation had been summarily leveled. It was gone. It was completely gone. All of it. There was nothing there. I didn't really feel that I was in the place I knew and loved. But it seemed I was in some more generic place, some place exactly like so many others I had subsequently passed through. It saddened me that the small children growing up here now would think that this was all there had ever been.

The only pines I saw were in a lone rectangular field of trees planted close in on one another in straight rows. So much for anything that comes up from below or is natural, or spontaneous! Everything has to have an order imposed upon it from above. No matter that this imposed order is pathetically inadequate to perform the most basic functions of what it proposes to replace. What is in its way is mowed down. Like a juggernaut, the defective and inadequate vision has ground forward for some thirty five years now on this hapless island, impoverishing everything in its path, crushing whatever or whomever got in its way.

In the past, no matter to what extent the land had been cultivated, there had always been some measure of preservation of the wildlife as well as the unique indigenous look of the landscape. No peasant who knows the land and knows to work the land has to be told, in this region of torrential downpours and floods, the benefits of leaving the riverine forests along the many streams snaking across the land. It was the natural thing to do. It was the intelligent thing to do. Well, those in charge of carving out the government farms on the north part of the Isle of Youth didn't deem this necessary. Everything, as far as the eye could see was summarily clear-cut. A forest-lined stream that as a child I used to kneel down and drink from, I found reduced to a slimy and foul gully lined with an introduced species of weed grass.

A narrowness of vision has the "Isle of Youth" in its clutch. This is an island unique among Caribbean islands in so many ways. It has a rich tourist potential. And yet there is everywhere apparent a barbarian insensitivity to natural beauty in any form. For example, there had been an exquisite little forested marble mountain right beside the main town. As a teenager I used to go up that mountain to collect endemic orchids which grew wild in the trees. Not considering splendid scenery as a function of any merit — and a potential money-earner that any administration governing any island anywhere in the tourist-hungry Caribbean would hardly turn a blind eye to — someone in charge of road building had decided to turn this quaint little sugarloaf into a rock quarry. And there it sat, an ugly eyesore spoiling the view of the whole valley, half cut-away with the bare rock stained unsightly shades, and an access road spiraling up its side for trucks. They were using marble rock to make gravel for land fill! There were plenty of little quartz hills out of sight all throughout the southern part of the island that could easily have been used for this purpose. But here was this quaint diminutive marble mountain, forested with virgin growth just as it had been the day Christopher Columbus first set foot on the island, and no one had the foresight to see its potential — perhaps as a public park, or as the site for a world-class luxury hotel overlooking the whole town. No, there is a stupidity afoot here — a kind of blindness to the larger wholeness of things — and you could see it not just in the way the system had treated the land, but in the way it treated everything that was free and natural and alive, whether within the person, within the family, or within the commercial structure of the island. I can't go into detail without endangering my friends on the island.

At one point we were driving by a grove of mangoes. "Whose grove is that?" I inquired.

"Theirs."

In that one word! You can see what has become of it all. "Theirs" means "The government's." There is "us" — people laboring under this system, trying to get by underneath the labyrinth of rules and restrictions in which there is no way in hell anyone can earn a decent living or perform a productive day's work, and there is "them". "They" eat shrimp and lobster. "We" are lucky if our beans are not stolen in the night. "They" drive around in cars with special license plates. "We" can't even buy gasoline. "They" have everything. "They" are in power. "We" have nothing. "We" are the people. It was our revolution. "They" stole it for themselves. Now "we" are reduced to snatching whatever we can get our hands on. As a result, real productivity has virtually ground to a halt.

You see people everywhere sitting around — waiting. They've given up waiting for it all to be over. ("He's never going to die," someone confided to me, stroking the symbolic beard. "He's got all the best doctors in the country for himself.") Now it seems they're all just waiting out of habit. …or because there is nothing else to do. It's sad.

I was in the car with a group of my friends. We were in a residential area. The driver made a wrong turn. Halfway down the street a soldier stepped out into the road with a submachine gun. To me the whole thing wasn't too surprising. After all, this was Cuba. We'd apparently strayed into a military zone of some sort. But what did astonish me was the palpable chill of fear that permeated the interior of the car. I was surprised to feel how afraid these people are — in their own country. I asked about this. If a policeman or a soldier decides to drag you in, I was told, there is nothing you can do. You rot in jail. You have no recourse. You have no rights.

I remember — I was fifteen at the time — how the very air around us seemed to have caught flame with a wild and carnival enthusiasm in the early days of the Revolution. I even saw Fidel Castro once, up close. It was like seeing a god. "Bread", he promised, "Land and Liberty."

Thirty-five years later I can report from my own sad experience that there is no liberty on the Isle of Pines, Cuba. What's more, the land has been ruined. And the bread… To someone who remembers the delectable Cuban bread of old, it's a shock to see what they're eating now, when they can get it. Always at a meal they would give me the biggest chunk and I would have to chew the dry and lifeless thing down to the end out of mere politeness.

At one point, just before I left, I let slip a comment about the conditions. Someone in the car piped up with the obligate scapegoat: "The American blockade…"

I said I didn't really think the blockade could be to blame because with dollars you could buy almost anything you wanted.

She immediately changed her tune without thinking, without pausing to think, so strong was her feeling on this point. "I wish they'd drop that stupid blockade," she blurted, "because then these people here wouldn't have anything to blame all this on and everyone would see." She became suddenly quiet.

The quiet lasted in such a way that I got the clear impression she had inadvertently expressed what everybody else in the car — and perhaps in the whole country — felt.

I was only on the island a few days. I cut my stay short. I couldn't bear to stay. I didn't see everything. I saw too much as it was. I couldn't take any more.

The day I was to leave they told me some tall black man said he knew me and would be waiting in a certain place. I said I didn't know any tall black man. I didn't want to see him. But later in the day we stopped by that place anyway to pick up some beers. The Negro was sitting on the curb.

I don't know how long he'd been waiting. He got up and approached me. I withdrew. But the moment he opened his mouth and uttered the first word, my heart melted. This other graying man before me and I used to play together as little children. We embraced. It was at that moment, for some reason, that I finally felt I had come home.