Havana – Along the seawall called the Malecón that rings the north edge of the Cuban capital, the nighttime frivolity goes on and on. There’s no last call here, only sunrise.
The walkway has always been a magnet for tourists, but so it is for young gay Cubans for whom a rendezvous with a foreigner is not only a taste of an otherwise impossible outside world, but also a chance to sample the good life if, as etiquette requires, your amigo picks up the tab.
For all the tribulations of life here, there are few other cities with the joyful abandon of crumbling but still beautiful Havana. The Malecón at the foot of Calle 23 at night becomes a gay, bi-, anything-goes hangout lubricated by cheap Cuban rum and local cola.
Not only is this the most strategic spot to pick up a friend for the night, but it’s also an excellent vantage point to get a read on recent change in Cuba.
On May 17, four decades after gays were sent to forced labour camps, and two decades after people with AIDS were forcibly hospitalized, the country celebrated its second international day against homophobia.
On the occasion of the country’s largest-ever gay event, hundreds flocked to a Vedado convention centre, summoned by loudspeakers on trucks circulating through Havana just like on May Day.
On the Friday night before, Brokeback Mountain aired on prime-time Cuban TV, and on the evening of the 17th, Cuban cabinet ministers were in the front row of the National Theatre enjoying a gala drag show.
The fact that the rainbow flag is flying at government-hosted events comes courtesy of Mariela Castro, director of the Cuban National Centre for Sex Education and daughter of Cuban president Raúl Castro. The government has begun paying for sex change operations, and there’s talk about allowing same-sex unions, though not marriage or adoption rights.
These developments are part of the steady stream of changes that have occurred since Raúl took over the president’s office – everything from allowing cellphones and removal of limits on top salaries to the right of farmers to reap the profits of their own land. (Travel tip: if you go to Cuba, bring an old mobile phone with you and make a Cuban really happy.)
But if the new political page is meant to salvage the standing of the revolution, it’s not going down well among the people I meet. Cubans are more overtly cranky than on my last trip a few years back, none more so than the young gay guys on the Malecón.
After all, the new official support for queers doesn’t mean much in daily life. True, sodomy has been decriminalized since 1979, paving the way for a form of cultural acceptance made apparent when Strawberry And Chocolate won a major prize at the Havana Film Festival in 1993.
Young queers here, though, seem less interested in gay-friendly government pronouncements than they are in the material benefits of the wider world. This evening, the symbolism couldn’t be more striking. Only 90 miles away from the nighttime blackness at our backs lies homo haven Key West, Florida.
“This is a shit country,” one guy tells me as five of us get to the bottom of our second bottle of rum. It’s an hour before daybreak, and there’s an edge to the proceedings now.
My travelling companion has already drifted off to bed with his new friend, to whom he expects to pass 10 CUCs (convertible pesos) in the morning for “taxi fare.”
Through my alcoholic haze, I understand that for me the Malecón is the best party I’ve been to in a while, but for those who come every night because they have no particular reason to get up in the morning, this hangout is a reminder of the limits of life rather than an escape from it.
And for all the change coming from the president’s office, the ever-present police and their sinister grey vehicles are a constant caution.
The next night, I see the police in action just up the street outside the Hotel St. John. They’re questioning a tall black Cuban we’d run into the night before. Tonight, though, as the police scrutinize his identity card, he pretends not to know us. From the steps of the hotel, we watch as he’s bundled into the back of the police wagon, which trundles up the road with one of its tail lights out.
By happenstance, I see him again the next day as I try (unsuccessfully) to get money out of a bank machine on my credit card. He apologizes for giving us the cold shoulder the night before, and explains unnecessarily that he would have been in a worse predicament if he’d been chummy with foreigners. He says he’s from Cienfuegos and so not permitted to be in Havana. He spent the night in jail, he says nonchalantly, but was released after the cops talked to his parents. “What are you doing later?” he asks.
Meanwhile, Cuban experts try to make sense of what’s happening in the country. How one sees things depends on ideological vantage point. On the one hand, there’s Andy Gomez of the University of Miami, who was born in Cuba and disavows the possibility of change in a “totalitarian regime.”
Gomez works as a consultant with the U.S. Coast Guard and reports increasing numbers of defectors arriving in the U.S., not only trying their luck across the Gulf of Mexico but also taking the riskier route through Mexico’s Yucatán. “What we’re seeing in Cuba is limited reforms,” says Gomez, far from what’s required to stem the exodus.
Dalhousie University’s John Kirk, a noted Cuba scholar, feels the reforms are significant, including those relating to gays and lesbians. Kirk, who has collaborated on a book with Cuban writer Leonardo Padura Fuentes featuring interviews with prominent gays, says the culture, more than communism, has been the main foe. Still, he says, “gays and lesbians in Cuba are in a far better place than elsewhere in Latin America.”
On the Malecón, a grandmotherly woman sells plastic cups to hold the rum and cola, and comes back later with sandwiches, just in time for the late-night munchies. Another woman does a brisk trade in individual cigarettes. It’s all officially illegal.
The bulging Northern wallets of visiting queers will be their most attractive feature. But there are few nightclubs anywhere – no matter how high the cover charge – that offer the poignant parade of pleasure and pain you’ll see on the Malecón.