Cuba: A Dry Run

North of Havana is a fantasy world of mangrove-lined cays and green water flashing with tropical fish—perfect sea-kayaking country. But the line between what's permissible and what's not in Castro's kingdom falls in a gray area, and comings and goings by water always mean trouble.

Aug 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

WE ARE TEARING through sugar country. The mountains of the Escambray, where Che Guevara trained his guerrillas, rise ahead, forested and rugged. Randy Travis blasts on the tape deck. All the windows are open and cigar smoke billows.

"My love is deeper than the holler, stronger than the river, higher than the pine trees growing tall upon the hill..."

Fernando is bananas over Adam's Randy Travis tape. Inside the Lada, the mood swings vertiginously between country-lovesick and Elvis Crespo's power salsa.

We've given ourselves up to Fernando's care. He's savvy and well connected in the province; he'll work the system for us as best he can. In Caibarién he'll take us to a government Fishing Authority, where we'll buy fishing permits that should justify our boats and, we hope, allow us to paddle around the cays. The little car is heavy with the weight of our kayaks and water containers, our dry bags and tent and drift sails.

We pass a mock village built of concrete, totally deserted. There's a church, houses, and a square, all surrounded by barbed wire. It's one of many such sites in Cuba where civilians meet for national-defense drills. Hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children big enough to hold rifles are organized into militias, which train regularly. They can be armed and deployed within hours. Underground bunkers honeycomb the countryside. It's mind-boggling: This island the size of Louisiana is prepared for an invasion by the States at any moment.

The Revolution is still very much alive in Cuba, galvanized by the U.S. embargo and repeated attempts at insurrection and assassination. Adam and I believe that one reason wily Fidel remains so potent is that he has taken the country's deep (though discouraged) Catholic beliefs and used them to his own advantage: He has co-opted the Trinity. Castro is God. You don't see or talk about him much. Che is Jesus. He is everywhere, on posters and billboards, eternally young and handsome. "CHE—SER COMO ÉL" ("Che—To Be Like Him") is scrawled across a thousand concrete walls. The Holy Ghost is José Martí, Cuba's greatest poet and the leader of the 1895 uprising that nearly shook off the colonial yoke of Spain. And there's a host of Revolutionary saints, all of whom live in the daily conversation of farmers as well as city folk. I think, Why can't the U.S. be like this? When was the last time a bunch of American schoolkids went out to play and one yelled, "Hey, I'll be George Washington, total badass, and you be Paul Revere, and Jason—quit sniveling, dude!—you be wicked Lord Dunmore"?

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