Havana, somewhere in 1978, and in the background is the small yacht Granma , a yacht in which Fidel Castro and his revolutionary sailed to Cuba in 1956 from Mexico. Rebels lended at spot called Playa de los Colorados and troops began to move toward the Sierra Miestra. Rebels lended at spot called Playa de los Colorados and troops began to move toward the Sierra Miestra, together with 82 men.*
My father was such a desperate photographer, and back then it was possible to buy only Agfa slides from DDR for photography on Cuba. This is one of the rare photos taken in Habana/Havana, while my father was employed there by the United Nations as supervisor on house buildings, provided by UN aid. Otherwise when I wore this dress half of Havana looked back at me with a comment que linda vestida (what beautiful dress), and the sandals were the subject of attention since the clothes and shoes were not available in Cuba. When I left that summer, I gave a dress and sandals to a girl who was studying architecture but came every day to do housework. We knew that girl is completely controlled by police, and so did our driver.
In Cuba, I learned from Russians/Soviets that Yugoslavia is a capitalist country, or so they said. By the way, I learned Russian because I lived in part of the city so called (parte de la ciudad – district ) with Russians for the first years in Havana. I gave them English and French classes and they would bring me an apples, onions, some kind of house stuff (middles for stitching, nut mill, candles, etc., gasoline small lamps, gasoline in small bottles in case of electricity shortages, which you need for daily purposes). My father was in relationship with Elaine, who was Ukrainian because my parents were divorced. Elaine was a pediatrician from Kiev, doctor specialist also divorced with one daughter; employed by USSR government as technical staff on Cuba.
It was a great friendly community that we accidentally found! Russians, or citizens of the former USSR, liked international friendships, particularly with young people. So they adopted me very quickly since I was from Serbia and statelessness, in a sense, from the former ex-Yugoslavia. My family survived prosecution by new communist government after the end of WWII war so they left Tito’s Yugoslavia as soon as they could. My native language beyond Ivrit was Serbian so I could understand and learn fast Russian language. There were collective buses to the beach, so my father willingly allowed me go swimming with Russian family members, even a communist party secretary. The beaches were exclusively reserved for foreigners and the Caribbean Sea was beautiful. It is etched in my memory.
While Cubans didn’t go hungry, they lacked many things from clothiers to shoes. To give a Cuban a cassette player was like an emperors gift! They also willingly would trade if you wanted, for example, a good piece of art — either exotic shells, silver old earrings, etc. Bureaucrats from the ministry staff would give you for some good peace of clothing special “tarheta’s” as cards which we used as ID for entrance in some luxury restaurants, beaches, supermarket’s. There existed a weird Soviet system where a so-called captain called your name in order to enter in restaurant. It could happen that you were kept waiting for hours. But produce a pencil with several colors or even women’s stockings and, suddenly, that solved the problem. The favorite restaurant for my father and me was called Versailles in Santiago de Cuba where they served excellent fresh fish and other good prepared food.
Music and songs often filled nights. And then there was carnival time when foreigners were forbidden to enter certain parts of the city. Carnival was on July and lasted several days, much smaller and more modest versions than the grand one in Rio de Janeiro. Still, the Cuban version was exciting and attractive, featuring nice songs, exotic dances, big cars, beautiful women and surpassingly nice dresses. It was like a big fiesta for each member of Cubano working society from Habana, Santa Clara, Sine Fuegos to Santiago de Cuba.
My father moved in ’79 to Santiago de Cuba where living conditions are better. For example, in Habana we had a large apartment as roomy as a condo, appearing luxurious with rustic furniture and big baths. Soon we found all round us were roaches/cockroaches and rats in the corridors. Meanwhile, in Santiago de Cuba we lived more comfortably in same district of the city with Soviet citizens (rumors at the time placed the number of Soviet technical staff at about 150 000). Santiago is the Cuna la Revolucion (Cradle of Revolution ) and sometimes loud speakers in the city center used to blast songs about Guillermo Moncada, a hero of the Cuban war of independence, and the brave fighters of the revolution.*
Santiago de Cuba was a smaller city than was Havana, for example, but it offered beautiful sandstone beaches, made safe by wire to guard against the sharks. Most tourists knew of Varadero, which covered Cuba’s narrow Hicasos Peninsula along the 20 km of Atlantic Ocean. Another tourist favorite was Guardalavaca (cow keeper) on the northern coast in Holguin province. But I found the small beaches around the Santiago de Cuba to be like small jewels of the Caribbean seashore. They were more enjoyable because there were fewer tourists. Locals advised of these quiet beaches. This city is located in the southeastern province of Santiago de Cuba, which faces the bay of the Caribbean Sea. Founded by Spanish in 1515, it’s known for colonial architecture and, naturally, Fidel Castro’s revolutionary history. The city’s distinctive Afro–Cuban cultural is on full display during July’s Carnival, a festive time with the beating of conga drums and parades that bring together costumed dancers, a precursor to salsa.
In Santiago de Cuba, father got from authorities a cottage in a small, luxury. It was in a district for foreigners — mostly Russians, Slovaks, Serbs, Italians, Canadians, etc. Citizens of the USSR were in the majority. They had their own schools, transportation, and health care. So during my summer visits, I continued to spend time mostly with Russians. It seemed to me that locals were forbidden to mix with foreigners because Cubans would keep a distance and only wave or shout “hello.”
For my 15th birthday, father bought me old-fashioned piano from a Cubano family. In exchange, he gave two pair of shoes, trousers, shirt and one old transistor. Aldo, the owner of piano, was a piano player and he readied the piano for me, though he wasn’t allowed to give me lessons. So daddy found a professor for piano from the Russian community.
Our apartment in Santiago was furnished and equipped with American things from the 1950s: furniture, fridge, mixer, and iron. It included a TV where I could watch Disney’s Mickey Mouse shows in their original productions. Some TV programs were long, like Spanish soaps. There also were many American-made cars from this same era like Chevy, Cadillac, and Ford. It was like everything was frozen in time. Still, the modern world would creep in as when Art Nouveau buildings were painted for a Conference of Non-Alignment movement held there in 1979.
When you visit Cuba perhaps you should prepare yourself for such shifts in the time as well as accept the modest life offered by your Cuban hosts. What is available, accept it, and then enjoy the beauty of glorious nature. Some like Cuba on first sight. But they must quickly become acquainted with known and unknown rules. At that time as young girl, born in UK and growing up in Swiss boarding school, I thought of Cuba as a paradise on earth. But beyond all the warmth and beauty, we also knew that prisons held those who had spoken against Castro, and those arrested included artists, poets, and writers. It was a time when churches were closed and human freedoms forbidden. We constantly were followed by police and they could report our speech and actions. One time when my father was on his way home after work, kids on the streets asked him for Chiclets chewing gum. Father didn’t have any and just made a joke. Afterwards, he politely was asked to visit some government officials. Father was surprised by this “invitation” and learned from the police that giving gum to kids — something he never did — was not permitted.
But if you want to visit or to live in Cuba you have to accept rules and to be aware that police follow your every step, every word, and your attitude towards people and circumstances involving Cuban citizens. We assumed microphones were installed secretly in our apartment so we took care about what we said.
Even so, I enjoyed every moment of being in Cuba, beyond missing certain commodities: seasonal food, we have running water just between 5 am til 10 am, toilet paper, tampons, shaving foam, deodorant, soaps , etc. I felt a lot of empathy for Cubans, even if I was not in a position to help them, other than to offer small gifts, favors, sympathy and being respectful and polite to the staff that served us. It was a pleasure the few times we could bring items sent by their cousins from Miami in the U.S. Usually, families from USA used to send money on father’s bank account, in Swiss, and he would buy what did they asked. Then father or I would deliver the goods.
I spent each summer holidays between 1978/1982 and Easter and Christmas as well visiting Cuba; for me it was love at first sight with this exotic country!