Cuba, here I come

God willing, I will be in the Republic of Cuba next week. Cuba, our half-sister; we revolted against Spain at the same time, fought for our independence in the same manner; the villainous Weyler was there and  replaced by Blanco at the request  of the United States of America that conquered Cuba, like it did the Philippines, for the same reasons – the search for sugar lands, sources of raw materials and markets for their surplus manufactured products, not to mention military and naval imperatives.

In the 19th century, Filipinos knew about Jose Marti and met Cuban revolutionaries in Europe; Mariano Ponce corresponded with some of them. Jose Rizal once wrote to Antonio Luna about his plans of settling in North Borneo and rather cryptically said “…it could be our ‘Cayo Hueso,’” those islands off the coast of Cuba (now the Florida Keys) where revolutionaries would regroup and refine their strategies against Spain. In fact, Rizal asked to be sent to Cuba with the Spanish army ostensibly to serve in the medical corps, but in truth, he wanted to see the Cuban revolution up close. Permission was rescinded; instead, he was imprisoned in Montjuich.

There will probably be a few vestiges of those turbulent times; I want to see the harbor where the USS Maine was blown up.  In preparation for my trip, I have been reading an assortment of material about Cuba and came across an excerpt from the journals of Henry Cabot Lodge (the elder) who was working closely with Pres. William McKinley.  He said the Spanish colonial administration had rounded up the American residents  in Cuba, packed them in camps where they were maltreated and left to starve. As a result, the USA was constrained to send the battleship Maine which arrived on 24 January 1898; to reciprocate the “friendly visit” the Spanish cruiser Viscaya was sent to New York. Unfortunately, there was an explosion in the Maine on 16 February, which caused the death of 264 crewmen and 2 officers; it was considered a treacherous provocation by Spain.

In his memoirs, Lodge described the incident:  “The gigantic murder of sleeping men in the fancied security of a friendly harbor was the direct outcome and the perfect expression of Spanish rule, the appropriate action of a corrupt system struggling in its last agony….  A wave of fierce wrath swept over the American people. But a word was needed, and war would have come then in response to this foul and treacherous act of war, for such in truth it was.” However,  we know now that there was no sabotage involved, one of the boilers on board the ship exploded, it was really an accident.

On the lighter side, “What to wear,” an article by Consuelo Hermer and Marjorie May, published in 1911, warns American tourists about being objects of derision for wearing the wrong things in Havana.  In those days, “Turista!”  was the favorite Cuban epithet for what was considered socially incorrect.  Said the authors: “There isn’t a more forlorn spectacle than a boatload of [American] tourists descending upon the Prado in January, decked out in the white linens, the Panama hats, and all the Southern trappings foisted upon their unsuspecting persons by the resort departments of home-town shops [in the USA].”

Interestingly, at the turn of the 20th century, Cubans punctiliously dressed according to the 4 seasons of Europe.    January was also winter to them, so they would wear suits, dark colors, felt hats, and suede suits, the very clothes those tourists left home. Even in summer, Cuban men in Havana would never go around in shorts, slacks, and tees in city streets; they would wear linen drill suits, impeccably pressed; women were just as proper, no backless, skimpy sun dresses, only elegant frocks appropriate for warm weather. “Remember that Havana is as large a city as San Francisco,” exhorted Hermer and May, “We can’t sufficiently deplore the bad taste shown by so many Americans who loom across hotel lobbies in messy, unpressed lounge suits, notable for un-chic.”

Of more recent vintage is Martha Gellborn’s “Cuba Revisited.”  She was a war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War and first visited Cuba in 1940, with Ernest Hemingway whom she later married but divorced in 1946.   When she returned to Cuba in 1987, she wrote: “Cuba now is immeasurably better than the mindless feudal Cuba I knew.”  She looked for Gregorio their former chauffer-handy man, and told him, “It is a comfort that nobody is hungry,” to which the man replied, “You remember? Pues sí, Marta, nobody is hungry now.”

Imagine, despite more than 50 years of an economic embargo imposed by the United States!  I have to see this Cuba before the invasion of MacDonald’s and Starbucks.

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