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Rosa Lowinger on Cuba Before Castro
Posted on Oct 10, 2008
Yet, as enjoyable and well researched as this book is, and as much as its author expresses clear empathy for the island that is at the center of his drama (he also dedicates the book to “the Cuban people”), it is sometimes an uncomfortable read for a Cuban. Admittedly, this is partly a function of having one’s story told by an outsider. Nearly every Cuban story has a political slant, and Cubans like myself who are neither Fidelistas nor supporters of the U.S. embargo of Cuba are always alert to nuances that would suggest, on the one hand, that Cuba before Castro was a cesspool and we got what was coming, or, on the other hand, that Cuba before Castro was a paradise. English takes great pains not to put forth either extreme; however, the story line implies that our country’s political upheaval was the fault of outside forces, i.e. the American mob, and not a function of our own willingness to turn a blind eye to our leaders’ rapaciousness and mendacity. Framed thusly, Cuba of the 1950s appears as the prototypical damsel in distress, bound up on the train tracks and waiting for a rescuer, in this case Fidel Castro. English’s description of the ribald cornucopia that was Havana in the 1950s as “the sexual degradation of Cuban citizens for the entertainment of North American and European tourists” might seem to support this point of view, but it also reveals an outsider’s view of the socio-sexual complexities of Cuba. After all, Cuba is a country where, in early 1998, when the Clinton-Lewinski scandal broke, I was not only asked repeatedly by both men and women “what the big deal was,” but was told outright that Americans should have been more suspicious of a president who did not take advantage of an intern’s sexual offering. Sex was and is an easy commodity in Cuba, as it is in Las Vegas, as it is on the Internet, as it is in many people’s minds. In Cuba, however, it has always been more or less out in the open. And whether or not one considers it demeaning for women and men to sell their bodies is beside the point. The fact is that the revolution did nothing to change that attitude. Cuba continues to be a place where planeloads of male tourists arrive from Europe to meet young women for sex. Only now these women are not “declared” prostitutes. They’re students, nurses and Tropicana dancers who are desperately looking to hook up with a foreigner who will get them out of the country.
The idea of Cuba as this loose, licentious broad who needed to be whipped back into shape by revolution is a more overt subtext of Peter Moruzzi’s “Havana Before Castro: When Cuba Was a Tropical Playground.” Though it’s hard for a Cuban not to bristle at the implications in the subtitle, this is a visually delightful volume, beautifully laid out and abundant in annotated photographs and memorabilia. Some of this material, particularly the memorabilia, has appeared in previous sources, most notably Steven Heller and Vicki Gold Levi’s “Cuba Style”; however, Moruzzi, who is an architectural historian by training, does a laudable job with sections on Modernist architecture, particularly his innovative “then and now” pairings of images of buildings from the present and past. The text is fairly elementary, but the images—which include such little-seen jewels as the calling cards from Tia Nena’s bordello and period photographs of the Caribe Suite at the Havana Hilton—provide a rich visual narrative about Cuba before the revolution as it would have been perceived by a visiting American. Moruzzi, who has been to Cuba only once, makes no bones about this point of view. Yet some sections demonstrate an irksome paternalistic outlook toward the behavior of Cubans in the 1950s. In one chapter, titled “Life as a Habanero,” Moruzzi states, “While Cuban politics roiled in the background (and sometimes in the foreground) Habaneros went on with living.” On the next page, an image of Cubans shopping in an appliance store is captioned “stoking the consumer culture in 1956,” as if an image of people buying washing machines is evidence that something is amiss with a society. It’s hard not to miss the moralizing implication of these statements, especially in light of a previous section, entitled “A Man on the Make,” where Moruzzi envisions a night on the town for a male tourist in the 1950s:
By T.J. English
William Morrow, 416 pages
Havana Before Castro
By Peter Moruzzi
Gibbs Smith, 256 pages
“… [T]here are plenty of girls at the bar—a couple of them real lookers. … One of them, her name seems to be Juana or Wanda or something like that, is real friendly, sort of a Cuban Jane Mansfield. Not really. But she’s got nice curves and platinum blonde hair and she laughs a lot. Her English isn’t so great, but who cares? … You head out for the Sans Souci. … The show has lots of good-looking gals with plenty of thigh and pleasing backsides and knockers to boot. But you’re too busy with each other to pay much attention. … You wander over to the Club Room … and watch her jiggle as she wins on number thirty-three. …”
The author might think he’s doing a great literary turn with this hard-boiled Raymond Chandler-style ennui, but it’s clear to any reader, and certainly this Cuban woman, that this passage is laden with a throwback form of wishful thinking that is meant to be both titillating and disparaging. Taken together with the comments about capitalist consumption and the author’s obvious appreciation of the period’s artistic splendor, it paints a murky moral picture of Cuba as a delicious, naughty girl (wink, wink) who might have been spared years of Castroism and embargo if only she’d been less profligate. This story line makes for a nice narrative, but it fails to see us as we see ourselves—both then and now. And that is as a people that despite Spanish colonialism, American intervention, a half-century’s worth of kleptocratic oligarchies and another half-century of Stalin-style communism, still knows that sex is fundamental and New Year’s Eve is for partying.
Rosa Lowinger was born in Havana and grew up in Miami. She is the co-author (with Ofelia Fox) of “Tropicana Nights: The Life and Times of the Legendary Cuban Nightclub.”
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