Travel Notes: The dancing pigeons of old Havana
Monday 01 November 1999
For years Havana Vieja presented a parade of unlikely May and September couples, red-faced visitors from Hamburg and Bath with beautiful, nearly miniature Cuban girls. The authorities used to assert that with the Triumph of the Revolution there was no prostitution, which was like standing in the middle of the Piazza San Marco and claiming there were no pigeons. And, if there were, they said that Cuban jiniteras weren't real prostitutes because they were genuinely loving.
Then this spring friends and I were sitting in the Plaza de la Catedral sipping mojitos and listening to the languid strumming of a guajiro band when we noticed something odd. It was midnight - early by Cuban time - and there was hardly a jinitera in sight. In fact, except for the musicians and waiters, there were hardly any Cubans at all.
I looked around and noticed behind me a pair of police not wearing the usual blue baseball caps of the Policia Nacional de la Revolucion but in uniforms with snappy berets. Then I noticed there were more of these new gendarmes in ever corner of the plaza demanding IDs from everyone but tourists. We were surrounded, protected from sin no doubt, also isolated from Cuba in general.
Street crime had been rising, true. Also, crackdowns on crime are popular around the world and offer a chance to round up political dissidents as well as the violence prone, an opportunity Fidel has not missed. But the boys in berets, his new incorruptible corps of police, are especially recruited from outside Havana and paid twice the salary of a university professor for one larger purpose, to preserve Fidel's grand contradiction, the premiss that he can revitalise the economy by luring tourists to Cuba and at the same time keep them away from all but the most innocuous and politically correct Cubans. Which is why the locals are barred from tourist beaches at Varadero and why the Maximum Leader loves tourist destinations like Cayo Largo, an island resort with more Italians than Cubans.
Havana is different. Havana is full of dark streets, smoky cafes, music that invites confusion. The cadres in berets harass young Cubans, blacks especially, in the Plaza de Armas, detaining them overnight on the vague charge of "pre-delinquent behaviour". (The behaviour locals indulge is asking the country-boy police for directions just to hear their "duh".)
There is still too much of Havana to patrol completely. Jazz lovers meet downstairs at midnight in a club called "La Zorra y El Cuervo". Sunday afternoons the devotees of rumba gather at the Callejon de Hamel, an alleyway of extravagant Afro-Cuban murals. And there are beaches at the Playa del Este only a dozen miles out of Havana where younger visitors and Cubans lay their towels on the sand side by side.
As for the crackdown, last week I returned to the Plaza de la Catedral. The soft music, mojitos and smooth cigars were still there. And at a nearby table was a trio of sweaty European males with three brown girls, possibly inflated in white Lycra. Lubricity charged the air. Out of the shadows of the cathedral marched a pair of public guardians in berets.
A year ago the jiniteras would have stared the police down. A month ago they wouldn't have dared be seen. This time the girls discreetly turned their eyes away until, at a certain midway point, as if they had run out of revolutionary steam, the police hesitated, shrugged, retreated. And when the music began the girls rose and moved to a beat that would have raised Lazarus.
Martin Cruz Smith is the author of `Havana Bay' (Macmillan, pounds 16)
tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods
tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas
comedy Erm...he seems to be back
tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa
tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 The Boy in the Dress, TV review: David Walliams' Boxing Day treat is a celebration of being different
- 2 Exclusive: Abusers using spyware apps to monitor partners reaches 'epidemic proportions'
- 3 Andy Murray takes to Twitter to show off his Christmas jumper
- 4 Katie Hopkins speaks out on childhood obesity: 'Parents of fat children should be prosecuted for child cruelty'
- 5 Top 10 travel destinations for 2015: From Haiti and Alaska to Namibia and Iceland
Downton Abbey Christmas special 2014, review: Love is everywhere, actually
The Boy in the Dress, TV review: David Walliams' Boxing Day treat is a celebration of being different
The Interview finally gets US release after Sony hack and terror threats – but reviews of North Korea satire are mixed
Vagina canoe artist defends herself over ‘obscenity’ charges
Doctor Who Christmas special, review: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa
British actor Idris Elba cannot star as James Bond because he is black, says shock jock Rush Limbaugh
Rozanne Duncan: Ukip expels councillor for 'jaw-dropping' comments made in BBC TV interview
Germany anti-Islam protests: 17,000 march on Dresden against 'Islamification of the West'
Ukip member gets into Christmas spirit with Union Flag plea to Santa 'for our country back'
BBC director Danny Cohen: Rising UK antisemitism makes me feel more uncomfortable than ever
Immigrants make UK racist, says Ukip councillor Trevor Shonk