Two South African Visitors to Cuba
Two South African Visitors to Cuba
September 3, 2012
Tourist Tales from Cuba
Vincente Morin Aguado
HAVANA TIMES — Having found these two South Africans was true luck, one
of those unforgettable moments in life. This was during one of the worst
times to live in Havana – at least when it came to interacting with
tourists [tbe mid-1990's].
Ingha was a social worker and Guy a doctor. Both were white, according
to the traditional canons used for labeling people. Their souls, though,
ran the entire spectrum of possible tones of human beings.
Thinking back to my three semesters of university English and
demonstrating an infinite willingness to interact for them, we started
walking around Old Havana.
My head was something like the Morro lighthouse: revolving to each side,
first attending to their every question, slowly making abundant gestures
with precision; and then revolving to the opposite side, seeing the
newly deployed members of the specialized police force charged with
keeping tourists from naturally coming up to Cubans.
The contradiction is that Cubans were and continue to be of special
interest by visitors who come here from other countries.
For these South Africans the matter took on special meaning, since they
came from a country that had just gotten rid of apartheid and they
recognized something emblematic in Cuba, where efforts had long been
underway to eliminate all forms of discrimination between humans.
There question about the racial problem here was raised directly,
therefore becoming the first serious dilemma I had to confront: Is there
racism in Cuba? I answered yes…and no.
It doesn't exist if we approach it as a matter of law, constitutionally,
but it does exist when it comes to everyday life.
They then asked for a demonstration of this second part and, walking a
bit, we found some interesting examples.
I asked them to give me a second so that I could call my house. I was
going to the pay phone when there, against the wall, I found a poster
calling on young people to take classes in dance and classical ballet.
I noticed that among the requirements was the clear and specific
exclusion of people with dark skin. Guy eternalized this injustice with
a flash from his big "Canon Eos-300" camera.
Shortly after, when taking the usual route from Obisbo Street towards
the Plaza de Armas, at two blocks from our destination we came on the
second example: the inevitable police check.
A young police officer asked me for my ID while trying to ask Ingha how
our relationship had been established. Being a social worker, she knew
how to deal with the situation, also using the excuse of her lack of
Spanish. The uniformed female officer finally concluded that I wasn't a
"social threat" and allowed me to move on.
I took a deep breath, but after that I lived in a permanent state of
uncertainty, at least during the several days of intensive exchanges
with the South Africans.
We fixed dinner for them at the house of a relative of mine, a retired
soldier, had fought in Angola, in addition to having served in missions
in other African countries.
Along with his experiences on the so-called "Dark Continent," they had
brought a good stereo, furniture and other important items for attending
to visitors back in Cuba – things I'm missing in my home, since I
haven't traveled beyond Baracoa, in eastern Cuba.
It turned out to be quite a pleasant night. With Bob Marley thundering
from the four speakers and more and more of the neighbors gradually
showing up, it didn't matter to the visitors how many were participating
in the evening festivities, let alone the natural increase in diners and
Translators appeared who were better than me, which allowed us to
conclude a real debate, from which all of us came out culturally
enriched, in addition to well fed and a little tipsy.
At dawn they went back to the hotel by taxi after agreeing to meet with
me later that morning. They wanted to visit a place that's impossible to
forget when it comes to foreigners in Cuba: Revolution Square.
In an American car, we arrived at the Jose Marti monument, where Ingha
and Guy showed their genuine satisfaction. But the real challenge for
the car's driver was to avoid the police controls in place at that time
(that prohibition was eventually eliminated by the current government,
which now allows cars operated by licensed self-employed workers to
carry tourists as passengers).
After scanning across the Havana landscape from its highest point, the
tower on the square (whose base is shaped like a lone star, the symbol
of the unity and independence of our nation), we walked toward a line of
taxis with the aim of returning to the hotel. That would be the formal
farewell between us, though it was briefly interrupted by yet another
This time it was a law enforcement officer in plain clothes, who showed
me his official ID after drawing it from the almost transparent pocket
of his white shirt. He asked me a few questions, the kind that can have
any answer because of their incongruity: "What are you doing? How did
you meet? Where do you work? Are you a professional tour guide?"
Fortunately I managed to promise to leave them at their hotel and to
conclude the tour that way, because otherwise it would have been be
extremely rude. Plus, my friends from South Africa stood firmly beside me.
This officer knew some English and understood the situation. He jotted
down my personal data in a little notebook, and gave me something that
was between a warning and a recommendation: "Please, involve yourself in
other activities. For attending to tourists, the state has a
professional staff whose specific responsibilities are seeing to them."
Vincent Morin Aguado. August 2012. firstname.lastname@example.org