The Maids of Havana covers a period of time in which the magnitude of political events could not have been greater, and yet these political developments are presented in a way that indicates both how much and how little the lives of people like Marta were affected by the changes brought about by the triumph of a Marxist Revolution on the island.
Waldo Frank’s Cuba, Prophetic Island was in many ways prophetic itself. Written at the express invitation of the revolutionary government that had only recently established itself in Havana, the book was expected to be a portrait of Cuba—and a snapshot of the Revolution—similar to other books Frank had written about Latin America and Spain, books the “younger generation, now in command,” had read and admired.
The invitation, of course, would not have come if my past work had not revealed simpatia and what to them seemed comprehension of America Hispana. But there was never the slightest inquiry as to what the book would say, what it would be.
These were heady optimistic days, and the Cuban leadership wanted their story told by someone whose sympathies were obviously with the Revolution. Apparently they were able to pay for the job as well, with a two year grant.
That being said, the book is not dishonest. In some ways it is, however—like so much that has to do with Cuba today—stuck in time. But it is no less interesting or informative for that.
On the contrary, Frank’s study of Cuba’s unique history among the Spanish colonies and the effects of the peculiarities of this history upon the formation of the character of the Cuban people provides enduring insights that you won’t find anywhere else. This, and a sense of the widespread enthusiasm and hope among intelligent and informed observers of the time that with the Cuban Revolution a new world might be dawning.
Of course modern Cuba’s “birth”—as Frank regarded the Revolution—occurred at the worst of times, the height of the Cold War, when everything that happened everywhere was understood in terms of black (Soviet and Communist influence) and white (U.S. and Western Democratic ideals). And Frank was quite simply wrong, or at least mistaken, on a number of issues.
Che Guevara, for example, was never a “psychiatrist, practicing psychoanalysis in Buenos Aires.” Nor did he have “blonde disheveled hair.” But these are petty, though difficult to understand, errors. Most of what Waldo Frank says in Prophetic Island has stood up to the test of time.
And that’s only part of the reason this book makes for a fascinating and indispensable read for anyone interested in Cuba and its history. The book is full of eloquent insights that are the product of an extremely well-read and deeply observant mind.
There are far too many of these sentences and paragraphs to quote, but Frank points out, for example, that “in economics and political mood, Cuba differed deeply from the greater colonies of Spain; and in its preponderantly European ethos, differed from the slave-run factories of the Caribbean.”
For an empire hungry for gold and silver Cuba was regarded as a failure. There were no riches to be mined and no massively profitable latifundias on the island, as in Mexico and Peru, but instead smaller more modest hacendados concerned with the raising of cattle. Although sugar cane production was labor intensive and Cuba imported more slaves than the United States, prior to independence from Spain in 1898 there was no monoculture as in the neighboring islands. Even during the half century of U.S. domination—during which most of the land on the island and most of the major companies operating there were American owned—the tobacco industry, and particularly the rolling of the cigars for which Cuba remains famous, was operated with a largely non-slave craftsman-like labor force.
Cuba’s independence from Spain was late in coming, and during the sixty or seventy years that separated that event from those which resulted in the independence of most of the other former Spanish colonies in the Americas, a class of patriots—led by the words and foolish example of José Martí—emerged, thirsting after waiting far too long for the day when Cuba would finally be free of its former master.
I say foolish because Martí died in the first battle of the third war of independence, an engagement that ended in a draw. His death was pointless, even absurd, and unnecessary.
But as Frank points out “Cubans are bearers of the Hispanic culture, whose hero is Don Quixote, the knight who assails windmills and frees a gang of brutish convicts in the desperate effort to bring justice to the modern world.” Martí’s death—like Castro’s storming of the Moncada barracks fifty-eight years later; and his return to Cuba with a small band of seasick fighters in December of 1956—was senseless but not futile: for it inspired the men who came after him and helped enable them to embrace what Unamuno called “the tragic sense of life,” and overcome the odds that were stacked against them.
Cuba was weak—and somehow strong; Cuba was minor—and somehow major.
And with the triumph of the Cuban Revolution this statement, regarding the situation in the country in the 19th century, became prophetic.
But when Frank wrote his book he didn’t know this. He knew only what he had learned of the history of Cuba, and what he saw firsthand of the Cubans. What, he asks rhetorically, do the largely inexperienced leaders of the new Cuba have in common?
They are improvised agronomists, economists, bankers, buyers, soldiers, leaders of industry and of labor. They are improvised statesmen and diplomats: one might almost say they are improvised Cubans in their exalted meaning of the name. Doubtless they make mistakes, for while they act they are still learning. Time will judge their capacities of mind in their perilous undertaking. What composes them together on so many and such complex levels is their sharing, at deep sources of energy unknown to the conventional office-holder, in the immediate work inspired by Cuba’s political, industrial and cultural incompleteness. Wonderfully surviving the centuries of blood, of piracy (old and new), and of corruption, the Cubans emerge into history with an experiment—not of mere production, not of mere political independence: an experiment in goodness.
Frank knew that these eager, highly idealistic young men and women might fail, just as Don Quixote failed. But he felt—passionately—that they should be given a chance.
“This is what I mean by goodness,” he wrote.
These men have their share of weaknesses and lusts. But preponderantly and devotedly they are in love with Cuba’s incompleteness, and with the task (they have all risked life for it) of Cuba’s self-fulfillment as a people. Alas! Since they are men and women, there is nothing necessarily permanent in this goodness If the day comes when they love Cuba possessively for what it gives them, for what they have given it, and for what it is now, they will cease to be good leaders.
Photograph by Alberto Korda [Public domain]
Those Cubans who have stayed behind and endured—and endurance has certainly been required!—the vagaries and adversities of the Cuban post-revolutionary experience tend to write from the point of view of within, inside, whereas these other writers tend to offer their readers a view, informed as it may be, from without, looking in, and back at the island.
T.J. English’s Havana Nocturne is not only the story suggested in the subtitle—How the Mob Owned Cuba…and Then Lost It to the Revolution—but the story of how Havana in particular came to earn its reputation as ‘sin city’ during the seven-year U.S.-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista.
And yet the book provides much more than even this. English offers readers information ranging from the origins of The Commission founded by Lucky Luciano and the average schooling (and with it the ‘thug’ nature) of American mobsters, to the “ominous mood in the air” as midnight approached on the 31st of December, 1958, when Meyer Lansky—a childhood friend of Luciano’s, and long-time criminal associate—sat down to eat with his mistress, driver, and the driver’s girlfriend at a booth in the Plaza Hotel’s “modest café, near Parque Central in Old Havana.”
Though it was one of the Havana Mob’s chosen spots, the Plaza was not as established as the Riviera, Capri, Tropicana, and other locations. By choosing to spend the evening at the Plaza, Lansky was deliberately hoping to avoid the large crowds that would be gathering elsewhere; he preferred something more discreet and less popular with the high-end tourists and his high-ranking associates in the Mob.
Lansky was never once found guilty of anything more serious than illegal gambling, despite being a founding member in 1931 of The Commission. The dapper, publicity-avoiding, Jewish mobster was regarded as not only clever but intelligent. He might not have known that that night would be Cuba’s last as one of the most glamorous and hedonistic vacation spots in the world, and he certainly didn’t know that Batista had already arranged to flee the country within a matter of hours. But Lansky knew that the end was near.
“The Barbudos (the bearded ones) are close to winning the war,” Lansky told Jaime. The driver was surprised; his boss did not usually volunteer opinions about Cuban politics.
Obviously, he was worried. He told Jaime that although he was familiar with the political inclinations of the barbudos, he didn’t know what the top leadership was going to do. Most importantly, he was uncertain what their position would be on the casinos, whether they would keep them open or immediately shut them down.
Fidel Castro—whose biography and armed revolution are also presented in considerable detail in Havana Nocturne—was also a very clever and intelligent man, adept at playing his political cards. He kept everyone, including the CIA—which provided funds for Castro’s guerillas at one point, and in this way enabled their campaign to overthrow Batista—guessing. So as soon as Lansky learned, about 1:30 a.m., that Batista was gone, he began to collect from his casinos all the cash on the premises and he urged his associates to do the same and to shutter the casino-hotels that had made life in Havana so pleasant and profitable for the mobsters.
And then he stuck around, “out of curiosity,” to witness Castro’s arrival in the capitol, on the 8th of January, 1959. “Lansky…and the other gangsters were convinced that, no matter what Castro said, he would have to allow the casinos to stay open if he hoped to keep the island’s economy afloat.” But within two years of his victory—and within the context of the drastically deteriorating relations with the United States—Castro confiscated and nationalized the Havana Riviera and all the other U.S.-owned businesses on the island, and the Kennedy Administration imposed an economic embargo that remains in effect to this day.
Telling the end of this story cannot possibly spoil it for anyone interested in learning more about how the mafia came to choose Cuba as its offshore base of operations, and the ways in which all foreign interests operated under a corrupt dictator determined to skim his share of the profits on absolutely everything, including the parking meters in Havana.
Because it is those details—their extent and depth and nuance—that enrich T.J. English’s fluid prose, and make reading Havana Nocturne so informative, eye-opening and enjoyable.
These bells of doom sound often in the history of American foreign policy and if anyone doubts this they could start by reading Bitter Fruit, the extremely well-documented story of the 1954 American conceived, inspired, financed, led and dictated coup in Guatemala that set a precedent for future U.S. efforts at ‘regime change’ throughout the world.
The measure of a great novel is its resonance in the reader. Sometimes the reader remembers and never forgets very specific details. But when a sense of the whole story and the experience of reading that story endures, long after the book has been finished and put away on the shelf, long after more forgettable books have been read and replaced on those same shelves, that story has demonstrated its achievement: to live on in the life and imagination of the reader, the only place where any story ever matters.
This, it seems, sums up the deployment experience: the near-constant fear for your life, and that of the others you come to cherish and love, followed by a homecoming that is almost equally traumatizing because while away, serving your country in some capacity that involves this often present threat of sudden death, you fear that you will never go home again and then find, upon returning to that country you have served and the home you left to go off to war, that it’s almost as if everything you did and suffered through over there doesn’t matter at all, since “the world goes on without us.”
Boyd’s work is extremely competent, smart, well-wrought in every way, with fine writing too. Boyd is particularly masterful at employing very short sections to quickly establish and deftly and economically build up his narratives. Some of these stories are composed of paragraph-long sections representing distinct points of view that together produce a sort of pastiche of sensory data and information, and in this way lay out the drama involved.