Memoir

Fear in Havana

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"SIR, OPEN YOUR bags, please." My father lifts his enormous suitcases up on to the counter and unzips them. The customs official's eyes widen.

"What's all this for?" he asks my father. He does not wait for an answer, but thrusts his hands into the first bag and examines the CDs, perfume bottles, watches, jewellery, packets of spaghetti, toothpaste, cosmetics, boxes of tampons, shoes and women's underwear. "Do you intend to sell any of this?"

"No, it's all for my girlfriend ... and a few things for her sister and mother ..." my father's voice is calm and friendly. This is Bruce's eighteenth trip to Cuba; he knows the protocol well. The customs official eyes my father suspiciously.

"Who is this?" he points to me.

"She's my daughter. We're taking a vacation together, and she wants to meet my girlfriend, seeing as she might become her stepmother soon enough." I glance at my father, who smiles, impressed with his own joke. I am not amused. Fatima is almost a decade younger than me, and I am dismayed by their relationship. I have come to Cuba to make a film about Bruce – my non-conforming, white-collar criminal father – and his bizarre relationship with a young street-wise Cuban woman who he now intends to marry.

The official remains steely-faced. He rummages further into the bottom of my father's bag and pulls out a black plastic box from under tightly packed clothes and a cooking pan. Bruce sighs.

"Is this is a VCR player?" he asks my father.

"Yes. My girlfriend requested it – she says she gets bored a lot and she likes to watch movies."

"This is not allowed!" the official barks. He takes the VCR across the room to a uniformed official and hands it to him.

"Well, there's another VCR for an official's family," Bruce tells me without moving his lips. "This is the third one."

"Why?" I ask. "What's the problem with a VCR player, for God's sake?"

"Castro wants to control what people see ... let's hope he doesn't find your video camera. Whatever you do, don't tell them you're making a documentary. They'd definitely be suspicious of that." The customs official returns to the bench and tells my father he will be fined for importing undeclared goods into the country.

"I see," my father says politely. "Perhaps I can pay the fine right now?"

Without waiting for an answer my father slides a US$50 bill – pre-folded and waiting in his shirt pocket – across the counter to the official. He takes it without hesitation and motions for Bruce to close his bag, waving us away with a dismissive hand.

 

DURING THE TAXI ride into Havana, I consider my preconceived notion of this country, instilled by beautiful images from television travel shows, glossy coffee table books and magazine articles. Buena Vista Social Club brought the romance of Cuba to our movie screens. My imagination had been piqued by images of warm people, quaint cars, dancing in the streets and wonderful music spilling from every home – my sense of nostalgia satisfied by a place frozen in time. I am excited to finally be here.

It is almost dark when we pull into Daisy and Victor's street. Bruce tells the taxi driver to stop at the corner. "Their house is up there," he tells me, pointing further up the street. "We don't want to be seen getting out in front of their house."

As the driver helps Bruce with his cumbersome bags, I look up the narrow street, flanked by closely packed two-storey terrace houses with crumbling façades. Colourful peeling paint reveals perished mortar and brick. Small balconies face each other and hang lopsided over the street, with clothes drying on makeshift string clotheslines slung between them.

A group of young teenagers plays a ball game, barely moving to let smoke-belching vintage cars pass. The cars move slowly, navigating the deep holes and crevasses in the road. The explosions from their over-spent mufflers mix with the din of music – a cacophony of frenetic Latin beats – which spills from every second house.

My father pays the driver. He motions with his hand for me to follow. "We have to get into the house without anyone seeing us."

"Why?" I sigh. "What's the big deal?"

"We're not meant to stay with them without permission from the government. If someone sees us going in with all these bags they might dob us in to the officials. They're called chivatos – protectors of the revolution. They can be anyone on the street ... your neighbours."

I drop my bag beside me and look at my father. I can see he is enjoying the subterfuge. Typical, I think to myself with irritation.

"What? You mean Cubans aren't allowed to have guests?"

"Castro wants a cut of every tourist dollar coming into the country; they don't want anyone paying for accommodation without handing over a hefty portion. The government owns all the hotels, and that's where they want us to stay – and they're expensive. On top of this, Cubans aren't allowed to stay with tourists in their hotel rooms, which is no good for me of course."

"Are you serious? You mean the government controls who tourists can have in their hotel rooms?"

"Yep. Castro wants to make sure Cuba doesn't become a kind of Bangkok of the Caribbean. But the people are desperate, so of course a lot of them turn to foreign visitors for 'sponsorship'."

"Uh, don't you mean prostitution?" I say sarcastically.

"Well, I like to think of it more as a kind of sponsorship – a symbiotic relationship where we both benefit in different ways."

I roll my eyes. "Oh right, and what does she get exactly?"

"Well, she gets gifts, trips away, new experiences, music, books ... and I get ..."

I cut him off before he can finish with a matter-of-fact description of her sexual prowess – something I have heard before, and don't relish hearing again. "It's pathetic. Don't try to cloak reality with smooth words like 'sponsorship'."

Bruce does not reply, but only chuckles. He walks to the corner and peers down the street. "OK. Let's go."

Daisy meets us nervously at the door and tells us to be quiet as we enter. Her husband, Victor, is sitting with their three children in front of a black and white television in the cramped living room. Apart from the wooden chairs they are sitting on, there is little furniture. The room is dark, illuminated by a bare globe hanging from an exposed wire in the ceiling. They greet us warmly.

"What did you bring us, Bruce?" the children ask my father. Their eyes are bright and hopeful.

"Oh, the usual. Shoes, some clothes."

"CDs?" the oldest girl asks.

"Yep, I brought the ones you asked for."

Daisy pulls open a flimsy partition off the living room and motions for us to go in. "Su dormitorio," she smiles at me. "This is our room," my father translates. It is dark and stuffy. A ladder leads to a tiny loft which will be my father's room. Astained mattress lies on the floor of the main room. This will be my bed for the next three weeks. I am only mildly surprised; Bruce had warned me that this trip would not be luxurious.

 

DESPITE MY RESERVATIONS about my father's relationship with Fatima, I am eager to meet her – after all, my father wants to marry her. Maybe if I get to know her, I will be able to accept their relationship more easily.

Without a telephone, we cannot call Fatima to let her know we have arrived, so we go out in search of her. I follow my father around the chaotic streets of Old Havana. He knocks on doors and asks after her. We visit her sister and her girlfriends – they all claim not to have not seen her. We are met with suspicion and fear. "Bruce, someone might see you coming to visit us!" the young women implore from behind unopened doors.

Unable to find Fatima, we return to Victor and Daisy's house. Victor is waiting for us at the top of the stairs.

"Fatima is here!" he whispers.

"I thought she would be." Bruce raises the corners of his mouth. I am not sure whether it's a grimace or a bemused smile. "It's usually like that; she hears on the grape vine that I have arrived and she comes scooting over to the house to inspect the new arrival of suitcases."

Fatima is asleep on Bruce's bed. While we were searching Havana for her, she had been waiting patiently at Victor and Daisy's for hours. I am nervous: finally I will meet this woman whom I have heard so much about. I have been waiting for this moment for a long time.

I look at her with wonder; she looks like a child, naive and innocent. She wakes, startled. I feel embarrassed to have been caught observing her.

I watch the way my father greets her, studying every nuance. He kisses her. I am not used to seeing my father display affection. He introduces us. We give each other a quick and awkward hug, we smile and I attempt a polite greeting in faltering Spanish. I tell her I am pleased to finally meet her.

In the morning, I slip out into the street, hoping I have not been seen. I want to give Bruce and Fatima some privacy, and avoid the repulsive possibility of hearing them having sex. I wander the streets alone, fascinated and intoxicated by the atmosphere, the people, the architecture, the cars, the music, the faded communist murals and frayed posters of the handsome Che Guevara.

Women strut and saunter the streets in brightly coloured spandex and skin-tight jeans, and men respond freely and openly with compliments, which are warmly received. I am unaccustomed to such attention. My fair skin and fair hair draw attention, and men stop to speak to me, asking: "Where are you from? Do you need some help? Do you like to dance? Do you like Cuban men?"

 

I WAKE THE next day to the sound of Jennifer Lopez blasting from a stereo across the street. "Oh baby baby, my love don't cost a thing ..." I can smell the daily pot of rationed black beans cooking on Daisy's stove. The pig, which Victor keeps in a corner of the house, grunts as it fossicks through fresh kitchen scraps. I hear footsteps in the loft above me.

"Are you two awake?" I yell out.

"Fatima's not here," Bruce calls back. He pops his head out of the small doorway while he buttons his shirt. His face is heavy. "She didn't come home last night. She said she would be back here in the afternoon but she never showed up. She's done this before."

Bruce clambers down the ladder. "I have a suspicion she's got another ... sponsor. I'm going to go over to her mother's house to find out if she stayed there last night – do a bit of detective work."

"I'm coming with you." This will make a good scene for my film, I think to myself.

As we approach her mother's house, we see a policeman standing outside. He scrutinises us with suspicious eyes: foreigners are rare in this part of Havana. Bruce walks past and does not look up.

"Just keep walking. This means trouble," my father tells me under his breath. We turn the corner. "I don't want the cop to know which house we are going to. Fatima's been in trouble a few times with the police for being seen with foreigners. Last time she got into trouble she'd been sitting outside a fancy hotel with a girlfriend, waiting for another friend. The cops assumed they were there waiting for foreign men. It didn't look good, even though it was only a coincidence that they were outside that hotel."

"Did she go to jail?" I ask.

"Oh yeah, she's been in a few times," Bruce replies casually. "Cuban women only get three warnings and then they can go to jail ... That's why Fatima won't walk anywhere with me in public, and that's why it's not good for a cop to see me visiting her house."

I am filming my father as we walk. He falls silent and I see fear in his eyes – something I am unaccustomed to. I zoom in to his face. Feelings of guilty glee fill my mind: great, this'll make a juicy scene in the film, I hope the cops are still there when we get back – then my conscience responds, you're so exploitative, you're as bad as him ... This whole thing is pathetic ... I can't wait to get out of here.

We walk around the block and make a second approach. The cop has gone. Bruce glances up and down the street before he knocks. Fatima's mother answers and her eyes widen with surprise. She hurries us into her house. "No, I haven't seen Fatima, she said she was staying with you," she tells us.

"Well, there's a smoking gun," my father says as we begin the long walk back home. Walking is easier than attempting to hail down a publictivo – a '50s American car converted into a taxi which carries twice the capacity. We walk in silence.

The streets become more chaotic as we enter Old Havana. It is stiflingly hot, my head swims with the frenetic activity and noise. We approach a large group of tourists gathered on the street with their guide. They are speaking Italian. The sight is jarring – a stark contrast to the environment they pass through. I study them carefully; their polished shoes and pressed linen pants, their fine gold jewellery and manicured hands. Many tote Havana Rum shopping bags. I watch them with disgust and envy. I want to stay in a fancy hotel, sip icy rum mojitos and go on excursions in an air-conditioned bus. But they will never experience the "real" Cuba, I console myself. Yet – I ask myself – do I really want to experience the real Cuba?

My thoughts are interrupted abruptly by a police car, which has pulled up short on to the sidewalk ahead of us. Two uniformed men jump out and rush towards a woman sashaying down the street, teetering on high heels. She is wearing fluorescent pink hotpants and a small black top which reveals her midriff.

"Do you think she's a prostitute?" I ask my father.

"Naw ... I dunno, maybe. She looks like most Cuban women to me. I think the average young woman here displays an ease with her sexuality that you don't see in many other places."

"Why would it be different here?"

"The culture here is not dominated by sexually repressed Catholicism ... that's my theory anyway."

One of the policemen puts his hand on the woman's head and pushes her into the back seat. She does not resist. Her face shows a weary "here we go again" look of resignation.

"Who knows what that was about," Bruce says as we walk on. "You see things like that a lot here. Cubans have to randomly show their identity cards to cops standing on street corners. But they never ask foreigners – Castro doesn't want to upset us in case we stop bringing those valuable greenbacks into the country."

 

WHEN WE ARRIVED home, Fatima is upstairs in Bruce's room. He greets her warmly but is reserved. After a few minutes, he casually asks her where she spent the night. She does not look him in the eye. "At home with my mother." "Oh? What did you do?" "Watched TV."

Fatima is noticeably uncomfortable. She leaves the room. Bruce sits heavily on his bed.

"So we've proved that she's not telling the truth." His face is drawn and I see a sadness and vulnerability I have not seen before. "There will be some changes now, because when someone lies it's like they have a black hole in their mouth; you can't believe anything they say."

To escape the paranoia and scrutiny of police and disguised informers in Havana, we take a trip to the southern coast. I sit up front in the 1952 Chevy Bruce has rented from an old man on our street. Fatima sits in the back, slouched low so as to not be seen in a car with a foreign man.

We pass through the outskirts of Havana and eventually leave the city. It is a relief to be out of the constant noise and choking pollution of central Havana. We pass fields of sugar cane and farmers ploughing their bare fields with oxen. The land rises up, turning to lush mountains and subtropical forests and then ocean. Fatima looks happy for the first time.

After a relaxing day at the beach, we drive to a small tourist town. My father warns me that we may have difficulty finding accommodation. "We have to find a casa particular," he tells me. "A hotel will never let us stay. It was impossible last time I took Fatima here."

"Casa particular? What's the 'particular' mean? ... they're particular about who stays?" I smile at my own joke. My father does not laugh.

"It means private house, and like everything else they're owned by the government. But some, calledPaladares, are owned by individuals, and supposedly you can take Cuban guests into your room. But I've never found one of these."

We pull up outside a small house with a Casa Particular sign out front. Fatima stays in the car.

"Hello, we are looking for a room for one night," Bruce inquires in Spanish. The large women smiles warmly and invites us in. "However," he continues. "We have three people ... we have my friend with us ... she's Cuban."

"Cuban!" the woman spits out with disgust. She looks at the ground. "We have no vacancies." She does not meet our eyes as she closes the door.

Fatima sinks into the back seat of the car. She has been through this before. She looks like a scared child. We try another guesthouse, and another, and another. Each proprietor happily offers us a room until told of our Cuban companion.

My father attempts a variation on the story: "My daughter has her Cuban friend with us. They will share a room and I will take my own," to no avail.

"Why?" I ask my father. "What's going on here? Fatima is being treated like a leper by her own people. This is disgusting! What's wrong with these people?" I am enraged, and I feel for Fatima who is huddled in the backseat with a baseball cap pulled over her eyes.

"It's not really their fault, it's the government ... These people are afraid of being busted for having a Cuban in one of their rooms. They can be fined a lot of money and have their accommodation licence revoked."

It is getting late and has long since turned dark. We sit in the car in silence for several minutes while Bruce drums his fingertips on the steering wheel.

"We have one last option. There's a casa particular we've stayed in a couple of times in the past."

"Well why didn't we try there first?" I snap. I am tired and irritated.

"It's not here, it's about ten miles away. The owner was reluctant last time, but in the end he allowed us in ... we could try again."

Bruce translates our plan to Fatima, who is now lying in the back seat, one arm covering her face. She sits up suddenly. "Bruce, I want to leave this place immediately. I am the one who will be fucked, not you! I don't want to stay here one more minute! Remember what happened last time? You bribed the judge and I got out of jail, but it might not possible a second time!"

"We don't have much choice now, unless you want to sleep in the car," my father replies calmly. She does not respond. I see rage and fear in her face.

We drive for half an hour and pull up outside a small house with a hand-painted sign.

"Hola," Bruce greets the owner at the front door. "We're back again ... we are having some trouble, can you rent us a room?" My father glances over his shoulder at Fatima in the car.

The owner follows his gaze to the car, and then folds his arms and studies us. "This could be dangerous for me ..." He rubs his chin with two fingers. "OK ... last time ... come in and register first. It'd be worse if you were found here unregistered," he mumbles over his shoulder as he disappears.

I am woken by a loud knock at the door. Dawn light filters into the room from behind threadbare curtains.

"Senor, get up – it's the police!" the hotel owner hisses through the door.

Fatima springs out of bed like a scared animal. She dresses silently, and frantically pulls on her shoes. We are met by two police in the hallway. They direct us into the living room where the guesthouse owner is sitting at his desk with his registration book. One of the policemen turns to my father.

"Who is this woman?" he dips his head towards Fatima but keeps his eyes on my father.

"She is my daughter's friend ... this is my daughter," my father points at me. "She met this woman in Havana and invited her to come on a little road trip with us."

The policeman tilts his head back slightly and looks at my father with narrowed eyes. "Passport please. And her identity card."

Bruce takes his passport from his money belt and hands it over. The policeman turns back to the registration book and leafs through its pages, using his index finger to scan down the entries.

He studies the pages slowly and then shows them to his partner. They speak to each other in rapid-fire Spanish. The first policeman turns back to my father. His voice is cold.

"We can see here that this woman has stayed here twice before, with two different foreign men." He jabs his finger at the entries for my father to see. "Has she been here with other men?" he asks the guesthouse owner.

"No, she has only been here with him." The owner points at my father.

The policemen speak to each other again and then turn back to my father.

"Can you explain this? Why are there two different names here, but he says both are you?"

My father looks out the window and nods his head slowly, formulating his answer. "Well, as my country's ridiculous government doesn't allow its citizens to visit Cuba, I have to enter on a false passport sometimes ..."

The room falls silent for a confused moment. The policemen stare at my father as if they cannot understand the words coming from his mouth.

Finally one of the policemen speaks. "You must come with us to the station ... also your Cuban 'friend'." He flicks a thumb in Fatima's direction. "Your daughter can go."

Bruce and Fatima are taken in the police car while I follow in our rented Chevrolet. At the station, I am told to wait while Bruce and Fatima are taken into a small room behind the main building.

Two hours pass.

Bruce finally appears from behind the building. He tells me we are going.

"What about Fatima?" I ask.

"We have a problem." He motions for me to get in the car. "They're accusing her of prostitution, even though I told them she is my fiancée. They were pretty irritated that I'd lied in the first place and told them she was your friend. Guess that was pretty transparent ... they'll keep her here in jail overnight and then send her back to Havana tomorrow, hopefully with just a warning." He starts the car and pulls out on to the road.

"And that's it – they just let you go?" I ask.

"Well, they thought that I was a terrorist or that I worked for the CIA or something because they saw so many visits to Cuba in my passport, and in different names ..." He chuckles. "My Spanish came in handy though and I managed to impress them with my anti-Bush and anti-CIA sentiments ... I pointed to a window right behind one of the inspectors and said 'right here on the beach was where my ugly government tried to invade your country in 1961'. They seemed to like that ... they told me I've got twenty-four hours to leave the country and they let me go."

"Unbelievable ..."

"It was just incredibly bad luck ..." my father muses. "It's just a coincidence that we happened to be there the morning the cops decided to do a dawn raid ... but then again, maybe someone saw us arrive and told them."

I watch the cane fields. I think of the glossy photos in my Cuban guidebook – laughing people, beaming musicians, old ladies smoking cigars, dancers in colourful costumes, beautifully restored cars and smiling travellers sprawled poolside in deckchairs, cocktails in hand.

My father studies the road in front of him as we make the rest of the long drive back to Havana in silence.

 

POSTSCRIPT: I LEFT Cuba the following day and flew back to Australia. The next two years involved a great deal more time with my father in the United States – camera in hand – in an attempt to understand who he really is, and how his unconventional, law-breaking life had affected me. After obtaining support from five international broadcasters, my film, Bruce & Me, was completed in 2005 and broadcast on television stations around the world. During this time, my father continued to visit Fatima in Havana every few months, and after enormous persistence and a great deal of red tape, they eventually married and Fatima was granted a US visa. Ecstatic about finally being free to leave Cuba, Fatima arrived in California, where my father had set up a cabin in a redwood forest on a friend's property just outside the cosmopolitan town of Santa Cruz.

At the time of writing, Fatima is deeply depressed and longs to return to her life in Havana.

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