Santeria – part one

On arrival in Cuba, Yuri, my woman, asked if I remembered that I would consider paying quite a lot of money for a massive santeria campaign for her, involving over one week’s intensive treatment: clothes, occupation and all the paraphernalia that went with it. I remembered the email conversation of six months before but there had been no discussion since, and I had forgotten about it. Yuri hadn’t. I quickly calculated the reliability of the request, the chances of her staying faithful to me and agreed to finance the santeria. It would mean less money to spend on whatever, but I hadn’t intended much in the way of entertainment anyway.


The santeria involved two afternoon preparatory sessions. I was persuaded to attend the first one. I was not a stranger to santeria, having undergone sessions in 2001, 2009 and 2012. I was not a believer – well, certainly a sceptic – but as my experience grew I realised just how firmly entrenched the religion was in Cuban culture. My 2001 experience, though extensive, paled in comparison to late experiences. In 2009 I encountered, more closely, the thoroughness of operations, undergoing a two hour session involving the sacrifice of a young goat, a chicken and a goose. Although the sacrifices took up only a small part of the operation, most of which involved two santeria practitioners repeating from the book of Yoruba, a series of litanies. I had no idea what was being said; I was ordered to bow, touch, speak, perform strange rituals, and touch objects, symbols, dust, powders and liquids. I kissed the severed neck of the young goat. At the end I was told that I was capricious and would need to be careful of my health. I didn’t need santeria to tell me that. Yuri could have told them that. But one of the practitioners told me several times that I was crazy, which may or may not be true, and also I didn’t understand ninety per cent of what they told me. My Spanish is very, very basic. Yuri speaks little English. Despite both of us taking lessons in each other’s language we have so far failed to learn much beyond the absolute basics, although we communicate between each other pretty well, mainly using my rudimentary Spanish.


The next occasion entailed santeria for Yuri. We visited a spacious and airy building where a man began preparations for her ritual. He was impressed by my book on Cuba, Caliente; at least he appeared to be. He was accompanied by at least two women who seemed to be there permanently. While we were there he was visited by several other people; there seemed to be a constant flow of people, mainly white Cuban, during the time I was there. Some spoke English, some did not; the age and occupation varied but I was left with the impression that santeria was not a minority interest, but that practically all Cubans followed it to some extent.

123We took two bicycle taxis, first to a nondescript building where a few people waited outside. The man knocked several times and we waited several minutes before someone opened the double-doors. A very sleepy, attractive young woman opened the doors, very reluctantly allowed us access. The interior was completely dark with three walls lined with cages. The cages contained goats, chickens, cockerels, geese, and other varieties of bird. For reasons of which I know not, perhaps price, we didn’t stay long, and rejected what was on offer. Off in the two bicycle taxis again, for about a mile where Yuri, the main man and an assistant, much older, found another place. I was told to wait in the taxi. After about thirty minutes they arrived back with two chickens and a goose. A motor taxi was hailed, the animals, tied by the feet were thrust into the boot and we set off elsewhere.

Elsewhere turned out to be about fifteen miles away, on a beach, although not facing the sea. A small lake adjoining the beach was chosen and preparations made. One of the chickens immediately escaped. I thought this funny, but just watched with amusement as they tried to catch it. They didn’t. I was secretly pleased. I have no particular fondness for chickens but I was happy to see it make its burst for freedom. Perhaps it’s still there or thereabouts. I hope so. No such luck for the remaining chicken and goose, both had their heads removed, the blood sprayed over Yuri’s legs among the usual chants and exhortations. The ceremony lasted about thirty minutes. I have no idea what it was about or what it was supposed to achieve.

We later stopped at one of the several little shops or holes in the wall (one at least on every street) to renew my bracelet, a yellow and green beaded effort that I had been wearing for three years, to protect me from I know not what.  The shop contained every trinket imaginable. We also visited, by taking the harbour ferry to its other side, the Catholic Church where Yuri lit candles for my book and briefly prayed at the altar. The santeria religion is a mixture of the Catholic faith and the beliefs that countless slaves bought with them from Africa. As far as I can tell the religion is perhaps twenty percent Catholicism and eighty per cent an unfathomable mixture of African beliefs, but be sure, it is widespread and inseparable from the rest of Cuban culture.


Fast forward to today and the preparation for Yuri’s week long santeria initiation. I hadn’t intended to go, not knowing what to expect. First we visited the top flat of an overweight young woman, her Madrina. I was given coffee and there was much talk about what was to come. After about thirty minutes we moved to another top floor flat, the stairs to which would have been condemned anywhere else, wooden and rickety and only vaguely attached to whatever they were supposed to be attached to. The last leg of the journey upwards involved a spiral staircase covering three floors. We finally settled into a small room where the young woman and one female, very attractive assistant, prepared for whatever was to come. Although the size of the room made it impossible, I sat as far away from the action as I could. The two women were later joined by two others – so four practitioners and one subject, with me sitting in the corner with my book and cigarettes trying to pretend that nothing was happening.

What followed was three to four hours of intense chanting and activity. The overweight woman seemed to go into a trance of some sort for at least two hours. Whether she became people from the past (the dead), one person or several people, I don’t know. I was trying to avoid involvement. The other three women and Yuri followed many of the chants and vague suggestions. They all knew exactly what was going on and how to respond. The overweight woman inhabited other personalities. She shouted, screamed, had minor fits and seemed very much to be genuine. If it was at all fraudulent then it was exhaustingly so. She involved me a couple of times but I tried to remain invisible and take no part at all.

Three days later at twelve o’clock, Yuri left. Eight days were to follow of intensive treatment. She left on Tuesday. I was to join, reluctantly, on Thursday. Alone in the flat was both pleasant and unpleasant. I missed Yuri but I also enjoy being alone. Every provision had been made. I had food to last. Yuri’s mother, who had come from Bahia Honda to assist with the santeria, would come in every day and cook.


Santeria – part two

This is progress?


The buildings here are much the same as they were when the revolution occurred. They have been extended upwards and backwards, but the main structures are the same as they were then. Many are in disrepair. Three, four or five stories have been added to most of the buildings. Most have gas and electric systems that would be illegal in most other countries: wires and tubes protruding everywhere. Even on Obispo, the most touristy of streets, there is nothing new. Away from Old and Central Havana there are fairly new flats, but it is hard to find any progress.


The building opposite us is empty. Some of its balconies are shored up. It must have been some kind of government building, whatever, definitely not inhabited. Perhaps one hundred years old, on a list somewhere for renovation. I have only seen what there is between Jose Marti Airport and central and old Havana. But I have not noticed any change; there are many derelict factories, many more signs of dilapidation than progress. Occasionally there is a newish building with a newish business, but it all seems a bit depressing. Perhaps progress is being made, but in a depressed world economy and a collapsing Cuban economy, it is hard to find it. Apart from tourism, I’m not sure that the Cubans have much going for them.


I don’t really know anything beyond Old, Central, Bahia Honda, Villa Pan Americana or Guanabacoa, I don’t know much about Cuba. I lived in Villa Pan Americana for a year; I lived in Guanabacoa for six months; I stayed in Bahia Honda on several occasions, Lugareno too; I stayed in various places in Havana many, many times. I noticed much about those places, felt at home in them, was part of them. But I still feel that I don’t know much about Cuba. I know a lot more than most foreigners, but still not much.


I’ve seen how the very poorest live and the rich too. Some clearly stayed rich after the revolution – I don’t know how. Some get money sent to them from the United States, many don’t. This trip I had been unsure until the last minute whether I wanted to come or not; I have been bored by my last few visits. But then I had a different outlook; I was mainly clubbing and drinking and getting up at midday. Now, I have adjusted to the pace of life here; I’m looking at it from a different point of view. I like it. It needs money. Not a great deal, but more than I have, so far.


According to Graham Greene,

‘The Spanish, the French and the Portuguese built cities where they settled, but the English just allowed cities to grow.’

I hadn’t thought about that before, but it is true. This is a Spanish city that has had a Cuban makeover, but very little has been added; most of what has been added is for the benefit of tourists, not Cubans. I think plans are afoot to improve the Cubans lot, but they will be slow and very gradual. Much will depend on the success of quasi-socialist governments in South America. Can they hold out against US influence or will they find a way to succeed? If they do succeed, even partially, then Cuba will have friends and allies. If the embargo were to end (without the US taking over), that would help tremendously too.


I don’t think Cuba will change quite as quickly as some people suppose. There are plans in place for gradual change, but what influence will the new entrepreneurship have on the people? Will the taste of money change everything? Or will they continue with a vaguely socialist outlook? Whatever happens, I hope that change doesn’t come too quickly, that Cubans somehow find a way to retain their uniqueness. It really is unique here; it would be awful if Cuba were just to become like everywhere else.

What do People do here?


I didn’t really ask myself in the past – what do people do here? I still don’t know but I have much more idea. What almost everybody does is something. Starting at around five in the morning, a constant stream of people pass beneath my balcony; just one street of millions in the city. Among the first to arrive are the taxis, not taxis in the imagined sense, but ordinary low level private cars. They use the seventy yards or so just before the corner as a queuing spot for customers, perhaps eight or so taxis at any one time, constantly changing as customers take the first in the queue, all day, six or seven days a week. Although this happened before; there were always willing drivers to take people on whatever journey they wished, this is more official. I don’t know how much they charge because we only take bicycle taxis, of which there seem to be many more than were here a few years ago.


Whatever they charge, they are just part of the burgeoning private enterprise; along with the taxis are soft drink sellers, fruit sellers, cloth sellers, trinket sellers – anything sellers. All this activity takes place non-stop, every day, along with what must be the normal day-to-day activity of everyone else.  The daily pushing of carts, trolleys, the carrying of goods, those who work and those who don’t – a constant stream of people – in one street, my street, one of many, many thousands.


There are more people begging on the streets, more selling Granma, the daily paper here, more persistently, more of a nuisance and mostly completely tolerated by hotel staff and anyone else involved. Perhaps that is the result of a more tolerant attitude to free enterprise. While they were once stopped or discouraged by police, they are now more ubiquitous. Nothing like as bad as in almost any other country, but certainly more here, more real and more confident.


The Capitol is closed for renovation, as is a very big shopping centre close by and many public buildings. No matter what else is happening here the country is gearing up for more tourism. The shopping centre contained six or seven floors above it, also closed and empty. What happened to the people who were in those rooms? I don’t know. Were they moved elsewhere? Will they be able to return? I don’t know.


It is hard to tell what is going on here. Most people take no interest, too busy in surviving, getting by. There are more paladares, more taxis, more stalls selling bits and pieces. I asked Yuri if life was easier now or more difficult than, say, 2006. She says things are easier. What of the buildings? Coming in from the airport there seems to be no difference in anything: people still stand by the road waiting for lifts or rare buses; people still seem to struggle with their daily lives. Our lift from the airport stopped along the way to carry out some private business or other. Old and central Havana, where I spend very much most of my time, is different. More people have more, though not so that most people would notice.


With the world economy in a complete mess, demonstrations and revolts occurring everywhere: Egypt, Spain, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Greece… what are the Cubans doing? Yuri has not the slightest interest. At the moment I don’t know anyone that has, although if I make contact with more English speakers or find an interpreter then I’m sure there will be a different story. At the moment I don’t care. I am curious though. I know only what I see. Some of that I may interpret correctly, much I’m sure that I don’t.


The police have new cars. There are new buses although they are as full as ever and the queues remain long. There are designer stores, many more now than before, and not just for tourists. This is one of the big contradictions here: How can ordinary Cubans, on a wage of ten dollars a month, afford the prices, which are much the same as any other store worldwide. But many Cubans do afford the prices, perhaps with money from the United States or perhaps through employment in the more profitable parts of the tourist industry or perhaps through the new entrepreneurship, although I very much doubt it.


Everywhere you go is fantastically clean in Cuba. A woman comes every other day to clean our apartment. If it were left to me I would probably give it a very quick once over, maybe once a week. Just tidy the bathroom and the kitchen and a quick sweep elsewhere. She takes between two and three hours every time. Everything is spotless. You do come across the odd mosca (fly) and very occasionally a mosquito; otherwise I have never seen an insect in any Cuban house.


It is not just the cleaning lady who is so conscious of cleanliness. We have her because I rent a room, otherwise the lady of the house would clean everything every day. Many years ago, when I was with Yamilia, although she was basically lazy, she would always clean the house first thing. It is the same wherever I’ve stayed in Cuba – I’ve never seen a dirty house.


It seems to be part of the Cuban DNA. The floor is always covered with water and mopped – all rooms have tile floors. Of course there are many dilapidated buildings which, until they get attention, are left to rot, but any inhabited house, no matter how humble will be clean.


Certainly things have changed since I first came here. Cubans can now stay in their own hotels (if they can afford it), visit their own beaches. Accommodation is much easier to find. All sorts of jobs (about 180) have been added to an entrepreneurial list. In other ways it’s not so good. The bars on Obispo used to stay open all night, now they shut at twelve (so as not to disturb tourists in the few hotels nearby) – why come to Havana if you’re bothered by noise? Now, I don’t mind the changes, but a quiet Obispo does not seem right. Even though I rarely drink, I would like the choice; there are always other places, but it’s not quite the same.


Just now I don’t know. I know a lot and I will learn more, but after fifteen years there’s still loads I don’t know. Yuri knows everything, absolutely everything. I’ll have another go at Spanish (they talk so fast here), but I’ll try.



“I have lived magnificent days.”


I took the photograph above in 2007 in a restaurant on Obispo, in Old Havana. The restaurant hadn’t been there when I lived in Havana from 2000 to 2002, nor was it on subsequent visits in later years; it had, like many buildings in Havana, been derelict and on the verge of collapse. Practical as ever, the Cubans merely helped the building to fall down, cleared a nice bright space, installed cooking facilities and a bar, put up a canopy for shade and in case of rain, provided music both live and recorded, and it became one of my favourite places.

The mural of Che Guevara was painted by Osvaldo. It was about half complete when I first met him and took a few weeks to finish; he had also painted Ernest Hemingway. His payment for the work seemed to be that he was allowed to take a break every five minutes or so to hustle customers, including me. I was drinking alone one night and happy to buy him mojitos – instant friend.

The image of Che’s face is so ubiquitous that Osvaldo painted from memory; images of Che are everywhere in Cuba – they are also to be found throughout the world, but I’ll get to that later. I asked him if he was a painter. He dismissed the idea; the painting was nothing: he was a musician. Osvaldo was 40 but looked younger; he spoke good English and was impossibly lively, laughing and joking constantly as if he dared not stop. For the price of a few mojitos and the entrance fee to a club or two, I found places and people I otherwise wouldn’t have found. Osvaldo was contemptuous of his subject, Che Guevara, along with Castro, the revolution and the entire Cuban system,

“I am a musician, and what do I get for my talent? Nothing”

he told me, many, many times.

ImageHe was desperate to leave and chased a succession of female tourists in the hope of marrying one. He was just as tireless in this as in everything else: dancing (he was a fantastic dancer), joking, laughing, playing his music (he could play several instruments), singing and generally showing probably hundreds of women a good time. Sadly, when their holidays ended, his reward for this devotion to fun was,

“Thanks for the great time Osvaldo, I’ll never forget you.”

and they left, without him. Osvaldo introduced me to the woman I’m still with today. When I returned later, I asked after Osvaldo

“He’s in Spain”, she said, “He married a tourist.”

I’m pleased for him and hope it’s what he hoped it would be, although I miss him. The restaurant had gone now too; the site remained but it was closed. I don’t know why.*

Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara would have returned Osvaldo’s contempt, and disapproved of me also. While not humourless, and certainly possessing an unquenchable love of life, he was a very serious man:

“I do not cultivate the same interests as tourists”

he once said, putting me firmly in my place, although I do not think of myself as a ‘tourist’.

In April 1960, the freighter La Coubre exploded in Havana harbour while unloading munitions, killing at least 75 people and wounding hundreds. Guevara, a doctor, rushed to the scene to treat the wounded. At the memorial for the dead, a deeply affronted crowd were unusually quiet and reflective. Although it has never been proved who exactly was responsible for the explosion, the act was felt personally and viscerally as an attack on the Cuban people, on their efforts to free themselves from years of colonisation. Fidel Castro made a stirring four hour speech (quite brief for him) in which he used the phrase Patria o Muerte for the first time. While attention was focused on Castro, Che appeared briefly and gazed at the crowd for just for a few seconds. Alberto Korda, Castro’s official photographer, took two quick pictures of him before he disappeared again.  It’s probable that Guevara knew of the photograph before he met his death in Bolivia, but, while it hung on Korda’s wall for seven years, few outside of Cuba knew of its existence. Soon after that the whole world knew of it.

cheKorda cropped his original image to show just the face. It hung in his apartment for 7 years.

chepotraitMuch has been written elsewhere about Guevara, the copyright of the most reproduced photograph of all time, and the fortunes made from the reproduction and adaptation of Korda’s work. While Jim Fitzpatrick, who used the image to create his own stylised posters, signed over the copyright of his image to a Cuban hospital,

“because Cuba trains doctors and then sends them around the world.”

Andy Warhol insisted that profits from his own version of the image went only to Andy Warhol; he wasn’t alone. Korda, and his family since, have shown no interest in profiting from the picture. Che’s wife Aleida and his daughter are involved only in trying to limit the image’s misuse.

cheredKorda’s black and white image has been cropped, adapted, stylised, coloured, digitally altered, used, abused and misused for nearly fifty years, but remains essentially the same: an expression of clear eyed determination to fight injustice that has inspired millions. It helps that the subject was charismatic, handsome and enormously attractive to women. Richard Gott, a journalist and writer who travelled to Cuba in 1963 to report on the revolution, met Guevara. In his book Cuba: A New History he wrote:

Guevara strode in at midnight, accompanied by a small number of friends, bodyguards and hangers on. He was impossibly beautiful. Before the era of the obsessive adulation accorded to musicians, he had the unmistakeable aura of a rock star. People stopped what they were doing and just stared. Like Helen of Troy, he had an allure that people would die for.

Unlike many who have been deified after dying young, Guevara was the real thing. He was painfully honest, courageous and completely dedicated. Sickly as a child in Argentina and asthmatic, he nevertheless enjoyed rolling around in the mud, and at the age of fourteen he progressed from mud to an affair with the housemaid. Friends who spied on him described his enthusiastic lovemaking interspersed with blasts from his inhaler, the same inhaler used during the heated battles of his later career as a revolutionary.

His first experiences of poverty came during a 5000 mile road trip through South America, with his friend Alberto Granado, in 1951. Witnessing the crushing poverty of the rural poor set him on a course from which he never wavered. He abandoned his career as a doctor and, via Guatemala and Mexico, joined the Castro brothers Fidel and Raul in the revolution that toppled Batista in Cuba. It may seem naive now, but he wanted to eradicate poverty and create a more just world; people believed in that possibility then. Che was an incurable idealist while Castro was more interested in politics and power, a Fidelista according to Enrique O’Varez, once a student friend of Castro but one of the first who later tried to kill him.

Fidel Castro said of Che that

“he embodies, in its purest and most selfless form, the internationalist spirit that marks the word of today. “

But Che’s unwavering dedication to truth was painful and irritating to many of his colleagues, including Fidel. His rigid honesty spilled over into his personal life when he refused his wife Aleida’s request to go shopping in their official car,

“No Aleida. You know the car belongs to the government, not to me. Take the bus like everyone else.”

Raul Castro said:

“If the day comes when Guevara realises that he did something dishonest in relation to the revolution, he would blow out his brains.”

According to Alex von Tunzelmann, in her book Red Heat, Guevara had,

“always put his principles, however impossible, before the fundamental urge to win, and keep winning. [His] integrity was the problem.”

Integrity and politics do not go hand in hand. Perhaps only half-jokingly, Fidel said to guests at a dinner party,

”I’m going to send him to Santa Domingo and see if Trujillo kills him.”

After a spell in charge of the National Bank of Cuba, where he nearly wrecked the already fragile economy, and disillusioned with realpolitik, he decided to take revolution elsewhere, disastrously to the African Congo and then to Bolivia.  He wrote a farewell letter to the Cuban people and Fidel which included the line:

“If my final hour comes under distant skies, my last thoughts will be for this people and especially for you.”

Castro, while publicly expressing sadness at his departure, must have been glad to see him go.

Later, in Bolivia, he believed that the people would rise up as they had in Cuba, to bring down an oppressive government. Richard Gott wrote that

“He believed with passion that small groups of armed men could defeat established armies, as they had done in Cuba.”

He was wrong. The people were frightened and cowed, too afraid to act; many were willing to betray Guevara and his small band of followers. The end was inevitable. He was isolated with just 24 companions. His death came in a school room at the hands of a Bolivian soldier. Accounts vary, but it is certain that the Bolivians wanted him dead and to make it appear that he had died in battle. They also wanted his face untouched so that they could display him, in death, to the world. It seems certain that he did spit at his executioners and say;

“I know you’ve come to kill me. Shoot. Do it. Shoot me, you coward! You are only going to kill a man!”

A Cuban sniper, Felix Rodriguez, working for the CIA was also present. He claims that he gave the order to shoot Guevara and asked him if wanted to say anything to his family. Guevara replied:

“Tell my wife to remarry and try to be happy.”

In the last letter to his children he wrote:

”Your father has been a man who acted according to his beliefs and certainly has been faithful to his convictions. Until always, little children. I still hope to see you again.

A really big kiss and a hug from Papa.”

chealeidaThere is no doubting his bravery and ability when he had loyal followers, demonstrated when he won a great victory at Santa Clara against all odds. The battle was accurately portrayed in Steven Soderbergh’s epic film, Che. Over 50000 Americans stood, heads bowed, in front of the Lincoln memorial on the news of his death, while ironically it went almost unnoticed in Moscow where disdain was expressed for his adventurism. In the White House, the news was received with satisfaction. Walt Rostow, advisor to President Kennedy, said, “They finally got the son of a bitch. The last of the romantic guerrillas.”

So much has been written about Guevara that would not have been written without the existence of Korda’s photograph. He has become a symbol of revolt, of hope in an increasingly homogenised world, where half the people live dangerous, poverty stricken and fearful lives while most of the other half don’t care or avert their eyes. For a multitude of reasons Cuba’s revolution failed, although it tried, and remains a symbol of hope to many. Cuba can with justification be criticised; Che, through dying young, remains pure; his image portrays the man: his beliefs, his honesty, his courage and his humanity. Whatever happens to Cuba, however history judges Castro (and that argument will never end), that image and its power to inspire will endure. He became worth more dead than alive; not only to Fidel but to radical politics.

That it didn’t inspire Osvaldo is understandable. He wanted a better life. I hope he found it. I’ve seen that image of Che a thousand times and appreciate its power, but I prefer the man behind the legend: the man who set off with his friend to explore South America, who was inspired to action by the poverty he witnessed; the young man determined to have a good time, who fell in and out of love; the man who in battle cared nothing for cleanliness and wagered his compañeros that his shorts would stand up independently if he removed them – they did – and he won his bet; the young man who said after his South American trip,

“I began to realize then that there were things as important as being a famous researcher or as important as making a substantial contribution to medicine: to aid those people”

and never wavered from that promise; the man, who facing death, spat at his executioners and called them cowards. Irritating and unrealistic he may have been, but the image speaks of someone willing to strive for ‘impossible’ principles. Where many revolutionaries have proved to be frauds, fame seekers and sociopaths, Guevara was absolutely genuine.

I told Osvaldo the story of Che’s shorts. He didn’t stop laughing for ten minutes. I think Osvaldo would have liked that young man too, but times have changed. Richard Gott met Guevara just once. Strangely, he was present four years later in the aftermath of his death and, with a Cuban-American CIA agent, Eduardo Gonzalez, was one of only two people present who had seen Che Guevara alive and could identify the body. When Gott asked him where he came from, he replied

“From nowhere.”


“I have lived magnificent days.”


*   The restaurant has since reopened. It’s still great, but in a different way. Osvaldo’s murals have gone.