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Havana: Two Tales of a City 

Three experts offer a rich counterpoint to the whinings of a wealthy housewife trapped in Cuba

When Isadora Tattlin (a pseudonym), goes looking for ice cream, she whines that all Havana has is cheap street stands dispensing tiny vanilla cones. But when Joseph Scarpaci, Roberto Segre and Mario Coyula want ice cream, they head straight to a shop called Coppelia, selling world-class gelato that is a must for most international visitors to the city. That pretty much sums up the difference between these two books, one the latest edition of a fascinating portrait by experts on Havana's architecture, city planing and urbanism, the other a caricature drawn from a collection of petty gossip, hearsay and cheap shots by a pampered American princess with a fake name.

In Scarpaci, Segre's and Coyula's words, "San Cristóbal de la Habana is a beautiful world city where history's hand has left a mark on every corner. For nearly half a millennium, its built environment has shown capitalist grandeur and plunder, as well as the mediating successes and failures of socialist planning. Havana is unique in many ways, and this book explores those defining features." In Havana: Two Faces of the Antillean Metropolis, they trace the city's history, geography and society from Spanish conquest and domination through the U.S. intervention in the Cuban war for independence in 1898 and our subsequent occupation and hegemony until the U.S.-supported dictator, Fulgenio Batista, was overthrown by the Castro-led revolution Jan. 1, 1959. From there on, we get an in-depth study of socialist Havana, its government and administration, its socialist dreams and realities, social functions, changing economy and finally a vision of the city's future.

That's in stark contrast to Tattlin's depiction of Havana in Cuba Diaries: An American Housewife in Havana, which comes across as her revenge on a place she never wanted to live and could hardly wait to leave by distorting virtually every place and person she encountered, not only in Havana but across the entire island. At the same time, she studiously avoids even mentioning, never mind admiring, their accomplishments. Further, she repeatedly expresses contempt for their first-class ratings in health, literacy, education, science, and the social values imbedded in their culture, institutions and government. Her portrayal of Cuba, its leaders and its people appear to be little more than the all-too-familiar Castro bashing of the American government and media. The book has gotten decent reviews across the country, plus one from a Miami paper calling it a soap opera--all of which says something about the commercialized minds of publishers and critics ever-ready to crank out what they conceive to be a saleable product to a propaganda-saturated public.

I sent a copy of her book to Miguel Coyula, an architect and city planner in Havana who is director of the Group for the Comprehensive Development of Havana. Miguel and his cousin, Mario, one of the authors of the UNC Press book, are members of the distinguished Coyula family. Their grandfather, a noted journalist, fought in the first war of independence from the Spanish, served as mayor of Regla, the city across the bay from Havana, and then in a number of positions in the Cuban Republic. Since his death, he has been honored with a statue in the Regla city square and his name has been given to a park, an avenue and a number of schools in Havana.

"Well I'm back from my vacation during which I tried to read more about ourselves, the poor Cubans so well described as a people of thieves, hustlers, jineteras (prostitutes) and dull and stupid governmental officials, 'nomenklatura' wearing very tight guayaberas, by the amazing and talented housewife who reveals an incredible ability to write," Miguel Coyula wrote after reading the book. "I have been making notes on almost every page where I found a mistake or something dubious. The more I read the more I can't understand why Algonquin published something so shallow and perverse."

Apparently, Tattlin lived in Havana for some three years between 1995 and '98 with her husband, whom she describes as "a European businessman" and their two small children. However, Scott Simon, who interviewed her on NPR in May, told me in a phone interview that her husband is really a diplomat from "a left-wing country." Simon asked her to read a selection from her book, which he found "heartbreaking".

There, she tells how their pediatric allergist, whom she calls "Yamila Lawton," came to their mansion one day to tearfully plead with "Isadora" to buy her a radio cassette player, which she can't afford but wants to give to her son on his graduation from medical school. Never mind that his entire education through college and medical school had been free, as is health care for all Cubans. And although "Tattlin" is forever belittling the system and its facilities, that didn't prevent her from taking advantage of it rather than paying for private care at the clinics and hospitals for foreigners. So throughout their stay, the family received the free services of, not only specialists such as "Dr. Lawton", but of a pediatrician who made housecalls day and night and even a veterinarian who came to the mansion to give their cats injections for mites.

But those were tough times for Cubans after the collapse of the Soviet Union and loss of their trade with Eastern Europe, if not for our princess, who was living there in luxury. As the UNESCO economist Julio Carranza informed me in Havana last December: From 1990-93 Cuba's GDP (gross domestic product) fell by 35 percent and imports were down 80 percent while the exchange rate dropped from 5 to 150 pesos to the dollar (but was back to 26 pesos to the dollar by last Dec. 1). Unable to import adequate supplies of petroleum for fuel and to produce electricity or replacement parts for vehicles, farm and industrial machinery because of the U.S. embargo, they were subject to frequent blackouts and unable to produce enough food and other basics. So Cubans, including the professionals, were malnourished, losing weight and in addition, had to resort to heavy, imported Chinese bicycles as virtually their only means of transportation. It wasn't the best of times, but it wasn't like living in London during the blitz.

Although the economic condition had improved somewhat by '95, this was more or less the Cuban scene when the "Tattlin" family arrived and settled into their elegant, marble-floored mansion in the upscale, diplomatic section of Havana with their Toyota Land Cruiser and new Mitsubishi. But they had to wait some two months for the shipping container to arrive with their furnishings and supplies, which included 24 liters of silver polish, 1,200 bottles of wine, 3 cases each of gin, whiskey, vodka and vermouth, 2 kilos of anchovies and 672 rolls of toilet paper. (If nothing else, "Isadora" is a meticulous list-maker). In any case, while waiting for its arrival, they somehow managed to get by with the help of a fulltime household staff of seven plus a driver, a nanny and shopping at the Diplomercado, the special market for diplomats and other foreigners.

Despite her life of luxury, wherever she goes in Havana, "Isadora" never lacks for a disparaging word about the scarcity of consumer goods. However, thanks to her regular shopping trips to New York and Miami, vacations in Europe and summers in the U.S. to escape the heat, she can continually re-stock nearly all of their supplies. Except, near the end of her husband's tour of duty she runs out of some supplies. So she faxes a list to guests she's expecting from the U.S.: Zip-loc snack, sandwich and freezer bags, plus photo pages, all with the precise dimensions for each. But the guests arrive with all of the wrong sizes, whereupon "Isadora", ever the polite diplomat's wife, has her tantrum in the bathroom. "Shit," she exclaims to the mirror, as she grips the sink, "I am a privileged foreigner... I am a privileged foreigner and I will be out of here someday."

However, while in Havana she proves herself to be an avid shopper for antiques. Thus, in the course of her stay, she accumulated quite a collection: from works of art, ancient books and diamond bracelets to no less than 40 Murano ashtrays which some bygone aristocrat must have imported from Venice. And upon their departure from the country, she was thrilled over her success in smuggling a small Cuban mahogany table past the cultural heritage inspectors. (Removing "caoba," the now rare Cuban mahogany, from the island is prohibited.)

Tattlin says Old Havana reminds her of "Berlin 1945." That's not how Scarpaci, Segre and Coyula describe it. Rather than being a bombed out shell, they point out that it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982 and is well on its way toward being restored to its former splendor. It features Baroque churches and museums full of historical treasures and contemporary arts, antique mansions transformed into charming hotels and upscale galleries, restaurants and boutiques, plus renovated apartments for impoverished Cubans and affluent foreigners around the Plaza Vieja, together with attractive schools for the neighborhood children.

Thereafter, Scarpaci, Segre and Coyula quickly sweep the malevolent distortions of this frustrated American housewife out of sight. With their decades of work and research in the city and their keen vision, they guide us across the panorama of Havana from its founding by the Spaniards in 1519 to the contemporary socialist scene and through the intricate paradoxes of this enigmatic city.

Although this is not a picture book, we are treated to colorful, post-revolutionary scenes from the triumphant to the tacky. We visit the Coppelia ice cream parlor in Vedado just west of central Havana. Here gather diehard government officials, soldiers, and other compañeros of the revolution, as well as jineteros (black marketeers), high school and college students, and a small concentration of homosexuals who have staked out the park as gathering point (the backdrop for the opening scene of Gutiérrez Aleas's 1993 film Fresas y Chocolate, or Strawberries and Chocolate).

But moving on with Scarpaci and company, we come across another face of Havana--"an example of how the dollarization of the economy and the globalization of retailing surface in the Cuban capital." There's a chain of state-run Rápido fast-food restaurants done up in 'ketchup' red and 'mustard' yellow, each topped with "a pitched thatch roof, serving as a symbol of the Cuban peasant's straw hat" and plugged into loud music. Thus, "the chain has done in Havana what McDonald's is not allowed to do in Barcelona." So how did it slip through the fine mesh of the socialist sieve, we wonder?

Now the trick is, how do you slip past the U.S. travel ban? Well, if you can't get a legal visa or join a licensed tour, you don't have to marry "a European businessman" (or was he a diplomat). You can just latch on to these expert guides and explore Havana from your own armchair. EndBlock

Jean Ranc, psychologist/writer, worked in the Departments of Psychiatry at Dartmouth then UNC for almost 20 years.

  • Three experts offer a rich counterpoint to the whinings of a wealthy housewife trapped in Cub

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