“I got drunk with Castro,” bragged the e-mail I sent from the Ambassador Hotel in Cuba; and for days, I’m sure, my friends and family in America thought to themselves that I had lost my mind. Perhaps I was inventing—or exaggerating? But then the photos followed. There I was.
In spring 2004, I was one of several hundred faculty and students aboard the global academic program Semester at Sea, granted special permission by the U.S. State Department to begin our hundred-day sea voyage with a stop in Cuba. Our ship, the S.S. Universe Explorer, slid into Havana’s port like a quiet loaf of long white bread. The sky at dawn was both blue and orange: refinery flames licked upward, and I detected the unmistakable Third World harbor smell of floating, rotting garbage. Below us, on deck, a giant lunar moth lay dead below the floodlights. But our shipboard community shuffled forward in mute awe, digital cameras extended, groping toward the possibility of global tenderness and companionship with other college students here, something tangible in place of suspicion and embargo and warfare.
Havana was a worn-down chess set: faded and flaking structural magnificence, turrets and balconies, plazas and carved steps. Old Pontiac and Buick finmobiles wobbled beside donkeys, mules, horses, carts, bicycles, motorbikes, two-person “coconut” scooters, truck-shaped city buses; people surged from crumbled interiors into the streets, eating, drinking, dancing, playing baseball. Tourist restaurants and hotels—where normal Cubans were not permitted—served excellent coffee and strong mojitos, revealing the island’s desperate food shortages only through tiny portion sizes. I knew some of the meat served here was horsemeat. And some, no doubt, was pigeon.
Alley after alley burst with life: black and brown handsome children in wrong sized shoes, feral cats and puppies, birdsong, dangling coconuts, laundry flapping from intricate Spanish-style balconies. Boys played soccer with a deflated ball, soldiers dozed in doorways, little girls practiced salsa and samba steps, old, old men puffed cigars. Photos of Fidel appeared in every shop window, but food shelves were bare. Ancient abuelas sold tiny bags of popcorn. There was coffee, but no cream, and sugar was expensive. I gave away my full, ultrasize jar of Coffemate, an American indulgence meant to last me through the entire hundred-day voyage (this would have been day two) to Che Guevara’s daughter, who I met at a lecture; she clutched it like a trophy. I smoked part of a cigar in the rooftop bar of the Ambassador Hotel.
My role, in Cuba, was to lead our students on select trips (dance performances, Santeria museums, baseball games, University of Havana exchanges), but I squirreled away some free time on my own and used it wisely, going out exploring with colleagues like Tim Walker, who knew where to find fruit and pork markets, cigar rolling sweatshops, music stores packed with conga drums. He pointed out a spot near the government plaza where rooster blood was splattered: “Probably a voodoo curse.” Women cut the pampered government grass by hand, with machetes; vendors hawked fried tripe and coco helado. Simply by saying hello in Spanish, I met some schoolgirls and their teacher, a grave eighteen-year-old, who invited me back to their crumbling elementary school to talk with his third and fourth grade students. Moved by the dearth of classroom supplies, I gave away every pen and stash of paper I owned, and, ripping pages from my journal, taught the kids how to draw Mickey Mouse—a good choice of universal language, for these children so close by (and politically far from) Florida all knew Mickey. We kissed and hugged goodbye like long-lost relations, the children signing their beautiful names in my journal: Sarai, Anays, Ziola, Yadrian, Oshin, Leandro, Gabriel.
On January 21, 2004 word came down that we were summoned to hear Fidel speak at the Palacio de Convenciones center; once in the past he had similarly elected to meet a Semester at Sea delegation, and from that experience we were warned that his style of greeting was to speak for hours at a stretch, nonstop. The complicated honor of this invitation to drop in on a dictator had many of the students, some of whose families were Latin American, arguing about whether they should attend. Most of the Miami-born Cuban-Americans, already conflicted over being in this port at all, remained on the ship. I went, sitting in the second row, writing in my notebook, “I am about to have private faculty audience with the most despised state leader in American foreign policy.”
The stage was draped in flower arrangements and one enormous banner asserting “AGAINST WAR—AGAINST TERRORISM—WE WANT PEACE.” At exactly 11 a.m., as Castro entered, the Federation of University Students burst into applause, and (in honor of our American contingent) a bevy of young students unexpectedly performed “Camptown Races” in Spanish. We settled in with our translation headsets, vying to see who could be the first to win direct eye contact from Castro.
During the next four hours, I thought many times how nice it would be if El Presidente gave us a bathroom break, but I found his monologue interesting. Among other topics in a very wide-ranging speech, Castro acknowledged that men were the main architects of nuclear destruction and suggested that the world would be better if women governed it. He spoke of the Eurocentric bias of “Western” civilization, its obsession with technology, no matter how ruthless, as a standard of civilized development. “You belong to a sector that cannot be ignored,” he admonished, adding that we in the West had become victims of our own relentless fuel consumption; our destruction of the ozone affected the health of poor people worldwide, people who had never enjoyed refrigerators or air conditioning themselves. These comments rang true. But he also launched into bizarre global asides, such as, “In Tanzania, they produce very flimsy cows. I have meditated a lot about this.” Or, “The first thing to ask about the next fifty years is, will the Cuban species be able to survive?” I tapped my headset. Did the translator mean to say human species? Were we all getting tired after four hours of sitting at attention. “Read the Bible! You will find the radical social message of the New Testament. Now, the Church had no Geneva Human Rights Convention—you were condemned to hell if you sinned. But raise your hand if you have never committed a sin!” Suddenly it was a religious sermon. What next?
And then, it was over. He vanished. For four hours, Fidel Castro had stood center stage, speaking, holding a glass of water in one hand, from which he never took one sip.
Like waking from a narcotic slumber, I peeled myself out of the seat and prepared to head back to our tour bus and the ship. But no! The waving hands of our executive Dean caught my eye; faculty were invited to pose for a group photo, briefly, in the lobby. While our students filed out, destined for a “picnic” where the main entrée was horse, we bumbling academics clustered in the lobby for quick photos with Fidel, including autographs. This would have been fine enough icing on a very privileged cake. But then his chapped lips moved. They were forming a smile. And the translator beckoned us: Come.Upstairs. Mojitos!
Upstairs, then, to a small, unguarded chamber, with one bartender. No security thugs with guns. No metal detector, or wanding, not even a perfunctory bag search—nada! Instead, about twenty of us were handed delectably strong drinks and invited into personal one-on-one debate with our field-uniformed host. Twirling our swizzle sticks ever more rapidly as we grew drunker, we argued and partied with the boss. Everyone wore the glazed grin of incredulity: why, this simply can’t be happening. Geez, I’m just a bookworm who got lucky. Why, thank you, Fidel; I believe I will have another!
This, mind you, was but a few days since I had left America; and the day before I left to join Semester at Sea, I’d had the opportunity to interview Melissa Etheridge by phone as part of a news feature for the Gay and Lesbian Review. Now, in the glow of a Cuban antechamber, I reflected tipsily that if anyone had told me, back when I was a frustrated graduate student wondering if an advanced degree in women’s history mattered after all, that during one short week of 2004 I’d be introducing myself to both Melissa and Fidel, chatting with each about how best to solve global misogyny—well, I’d have had no problem “finding my motivation,” as they say in acting school.
We were the last Semester at Sea voyage to be permitted into Cuba; indeed, to meet with Castro. He stepped down not long afterwards. When we left, our ship of one thousand having easily spread half a million U.S. dollars around Havana, Cubans lined the docks, waving, whistling, cheering us farewell. I clutched the swizzle stick from my mojito with Fidel; I drank my Cuban coffee black, for days, my Coffemate a gift to Communism.
About Bonnie: Bonnie J. Morris is a women’s studies professor at both George Washington University and Georgetown, and the author of eight books: three of which (Eden Built By Eves, Girl Reel, Revenge of the Women’s Studies Professor) were Lambda Literary Award finalists. Her latest book is Women’s History For Beginners, profiled on C-Span Book TV during March 2012. When not partying in Havana, Dr. Bon emcees poetry open-mics, works at women’s music festivals, lectures at sea, scores AP U.S. History exams for the Educational Testing Service, and otherwise by the motto work hard/play hard.