Events of a distant nature have an abstract, even occult quality in Cuba, as of things glimpsed through a scrim of fog. Last June, Granma, the country’s only newspaper, reported the death of Whitney Houston four months after the fact, like a suddenly declassified state secret, in an edition otherwise devoid of anything resembling news. (Granma features plenty of statistics, state and municipal documents, decrees, ‘human interest’ stories and recipes for pork. News, not so much.) The paper was keeping its readers current with the latest tweaks in Holguín poultry farming, and running Fidel Castro’s memoirs.

I have only spotted Castro once, 12 years ago, at a patriotic rally on the Malecón: a new statue of José Martí was being installed. Martí’s new replica pointed an accusing finger towards Florida and held the repatriated boat child Elián González in his other arm. (‘What on earth are you doing here?’ I asked a Cuban friend in the crowd. ‘If we come to this we get the morning off work,’ he said. ‘Also, a free sandwich and a T-shirt.’) Castro didn’t address the rally. The keynote speech was given by what appeared to be a Cuban Girl Guide, in a green uniform.

The statue of Martí has migrated to a traffic island in front of the Cupet-Cimex petrol station at Calle 15; it was originally planted below the cliff where the Hotel Nacional sits. At least I think it was. I’m not really sure. I spent much of 2012 in Havana writing my own memoirs, and the fact that I’m not sure only adds to the dismal impression I had as I was writing them that memory is never anybody’s friend.

Luis (my compañero, if you like) had just moved into a new house in Cerro. Men were there every day ripping gouts of plaster and rusted wiring from the walls, replacing tiles and pipes, while Luis’s sister, mother and father lived in the torn-apart rooms. Luis stayed at my place, but had to leave every morning to keep an eye on the workers. If we wanted to go out at night we called Miguel, who drives an unlicensed taxi that will come at any hour. If we wanted to push on from one place to another we called him again, to avoid being hassled in the street. If we absolutely have to walk anywhere, Luis walks several yards in front of me. Cubans are discouraged from mixing with foreigners and police often demand to see their identity cards, sometimes accusing them of ‘molesting’ foreigners. Despite the predominance of coloured Cubans the police are often racist as well, and Luis is very black. The police stopped us several times last year. They detained Luis once for seven hours. In each instance he was with me, or his friend Leo from Montreal. And in any case whose business is it? Things have loosened up in recent years, but everyone knows the real social change will happen after Fidel dies. There was never any formal charge against Luis, but they made a notation on his identity card. It cost $300 in payoffs to get it removed.

When we decided to find Angel, ‘the little one’, who’s deaf-mute and has one blue eye, one brown, his mother said he’d gone to Pinar del Río to stay with an aunt for the holidays. We decided to go out there ourselves, but when we went back to his house to get his aunt’s address before making the trip we found he’d already returned. When I asked him why, he made a gesture of pushing away something inedible.

Angel is a different order of being from some other deaf-mutes I know in Havana, who belong to a gang. The gang travels in a subworld of pickpockets, robbers, handbag snatchers, fences, housebreakers and informers. The sordomudos gather information for more daring petty criminals by casing tourist apartments, the so-called casas particulares, or running to police, even to the military, with information. They are famous for blackmailing people they don’t like who happen to be renting out unregistered apartments, driving unlicensed taxis, doing unofficial currency transactions; also diplomats and civil servants who hire rent boys. In Havana everyone does something slightly illegal most of the time, either for money or convenience, and there are often ridiculously serious penalties for very frivolous transgressions. Cellphone cameras are a ubiquitous tool of the shakedown trade.

When one sordomudo finds out something, the others know it in a telepathic instant, if she or he wants them to: where a person lives, where he goes, whom he talks to, whom he sleeps with, what he likes to do in bed, which country issued his passport, who his friends are. If the gang focuses on you you’re finished. They swarm around mooching drinks, packets of cigarettes, the car fare home to Casablanca, all the while setting up deaf-mute surveillance – it’s only with the sordomudos that I’ve ever felt like Sebastian Venable in Suddenly, Last Summer. It’s not a welcome feeling. I was followed home one night by a pack of drunken sordomudos and had to hurl leftover food at them from the terrace to make them go away.

Last summer I tried to interest some of them in performing a play in Spanish sign language. I would describe that experience like herding cats, except that I have had some success at herding cats, and none at all with the deaf-mutes. They got lost trying to find the main entrance to the Necrópolis de Colón, which is really hard to do. Yet in their central Havana beehive they know everything that’s going on.

The zone around the Capitolio, the tourist hotels and Central Park swarms with young men looking for other males to have sex with. Contacts are furtively established and quickly relocated to private settings. Homosexuality itself hasn’t been officially disparaged, and certainly hasn’t been punishable, for many years, a fact depressingly occluded a while ago by Julian Schnabel’s film Before Night Falls, a mostly accurate but unfortunately timed portrayal of gay persecution in the early 1970s. Since then Fidel himself has issued many mea culpas about the machismo and homophobia of the early Revolution; thanks mainly to Raúl Castro’s daughter, Mariela, director of the Cuban National Centre for Sex Education, LGBT rights have advanced amazingly in Cuba, more so on a national level than in the United States. A bill legalising same-sex unions is part of this year’s pending legislation, with an outright gay marriage bill, which has Raúl Castro’s endorsement, soon to follow. Gender re-assignment surgery has been available free of charge since 2010 as part of the universal healthcare system.

I went back to New York after New Year’s Day. After Havana the city always has the look of a mausoleum for termites. Nothing ever happens in Havana, but when I’m in New York I believe that something will, and that I’ll miss it. I immediately missed the Malecón at 3 a.m. and the pelicans diving in the harbour. I feed several families of cats at night on Calle G, and missed them too, as well as the bats that streak through the sodium glare of the lamp on my corner. I missed the crime-scene feeling on my skin in the Kid Chocolate boxing arena colonnade, where the poorest hustlers trawl until midnight before jumping on a bus to the Malecón.

I was curious to know if the migratory reform that went into effect on 14 January caused any sort of island drama. It’s not the kind of thing I can ask Luis on the phone. His English and my Spanish are equally defective; our conversations are fairly telegraphic because of the expense at his end, and the connection is always crackly and tentative. Before the migratory reform, Cuban citizens needed official permission, in the form of the so-called tarjeta blanca, the ‘white card’, to travel abroad. It wasn’t as restrictive as is often claimed. Between 2000 and 2012, 99.4 per cent of applications for the white card were approved, and 941,953 Cubans travelled abroad: 12 per cent chose not to return, which is either a lot or not so many. Now any Cuban with an air ticket and an entry visa for another country would be able to go, including members of professional elites who were formerly restricted.

There was a predictable, advance flurry of internet postings by Yoani Sánchez, dissident doyenne of the Huffington Post, who announced her plans to fly off – unless physically seized on the runway by Fidel Castro and beaten up by his goons! – to gather up the many uncollected trophies awarded her for exposing crimes of the regime. Sánchez claimed that epic lines had formed at all the passport offices in Cuba; a friend in Havana who lives one block from a passport office told me she hadn’t seen any such thing. Sánchez’s blog posts weirdly mirror the blocky prose of Granma in hortatory mode, suggesting a high-concept kind of dissident who throws herself under a stationary tank if she can’t find a moving one. But it’s often possible to keep up with blackouts and concerts and the ordinary movements of life in Havana by picking through her website, always allowing for the mindset that attributes every pothole and rupture of a sewer main to a government conspiracy.

Luis is an estate agent. (I should note that the concept of ‘real estate’ is of recent vintage in Cuba, and whatever image ‘agent’ conjures isn’t him.) He told me in December that a few of his clients were swapping houses and flats for stashes of hard currency, and preparing to scramble after 14 January. Where they were going, he didn’t know. When he asked them, they couldn’t tell him either.

I don’t know anyone who wants to leave for political rather than economic reasons. These days, anti-government people in Cuba want to stay: society is generally moving in a direction advantageous to them, however instinctively they decry every change as a diabolical ruse. More than a few hearts in Cuba have long repined for the days of Meyer Lansky and Batista – which they could have enjoyed all along by crossing the Florida Straits to the Mafia version of Colonial Williamsburg, if only they had had the daring.

Since some Cubans want to emigrate and few can afford international vacation travel – the case in any so-called Third World country – places they might consider going to, and not returning from, will probably screen visa applications just as selectively as Cuba issued white cards. Nearby Mexico, the most plausibly affordable destination for a legitimate Cuban tourist, doesn’t welcome Cuban travellers, for the understandable reason that Mexicans who cross the US border without visas are deported if they’re caught, whereas any Cuban who manages to set a ‘dry foot’ on US territory is treated as a political refugee eligible for legal resident status. The ‘wet foot, dry foot’ policy means Cubans picked up at sea are taken back to Cuba, and those who make landfall get to stay. Coming in from Mexico, they wouldn’t get their feet wet at all.

It’s a stupid policy, down to its infantile name, but then all US policy towards Cuba has been stupid and spiteful since the Cuban Revolution. The policy on American citizens travelling to Cuba is so stupid that even the people who enforce it have difficulty keeping a straight face when they’re explaining it. Every Washington tweak of the trade embargo (the Torricelli Act, the Helms-Burton Act etc) foisted on Congress by the Cuba lobbies has encouraged countries that don’t have a vendetta going on – that would be all of them, from Israel to China – to expand their trade agreements with Cuba, pre-empting the opportunities the embargo was contrived to sequester for the US in the first place.

Given the less and less repressive state of things since Fidel handed over power to Raúl in 2006, it’s unlikely that reform will send thousands charging for the airports. But if history is anything to go by, the ‘dry foot’ US welcome wagon will head for the hills anyway. Whenever great numbers of Cubans have departed for the US in the past, their arrival (or non-arrival) has wrought havoc in both countries. Hundreds of Cubans drowned in the Florida Straits in 1965, after leaving Camarioca harbour with the Cuban government’s blessing, in makeshift boats that sank. The so-called freedom flights Lyndon Johnson and Fidel agreed on to relieve the drowning problem brought a massive influx of unskilled labour to South Florida and New Jersey, while draining the island of professional and technical resources. Rioting arrivals from the Mariel boatlift cost Bill Clinton his re-election bid for the governorship of Arkansas in 1980; the baleful consequences of Mariel for South Florida were illustrated in the movie Scarface. The last passively sanctioned mass migration, in 1994, resulted in only a few drownings, ergo thousands of new, not especially welcome, economic refugees. This caused a temporary suspension, by a wary Clinton, of the ‘automatic right to asylum’ encoded in the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act. It’s my guess that the US Interests Section in Havana has already cut back its hours for interviewing visa applicants.

The first post-Revolution exodus, following Batista’s departure with the national treasury on New Year’s Day 1959, resulted in the ongoing disaster of what Allen Dulles, director of the CIA, referred to as ‘the disposal problem’: a large cadre of former Batista torturers and enforcers. This restive core of fanatics includes Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada Carriles – terrorists by any credible definition – and has controlled South Florida for decades through byzantine corruption, intimidation and shockingly gleeful violence, sponsored at various times by the CIA, the Bacardi rum family and the vast, sleazily acquired fortune of the exile capo Jorge Mas Canosa, from the time of the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 until Mas Canosa’s death in 1997. Thanks to their Washington lobbies, primarily the now splintered Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), the Miami Cubans have kept the US embargo in place for more than fifty years, sabotaging every effort towards Cuban-American détente, and ensuring an institutionalised, knee-jerk hostility towards the legal government of Cuba by buying or intimidating a majority of the US Congress.

In the winter of 1999-2000, however, the six-month tug of war between the US Justice Department and Elián González’s very loco in loco parentis cousins in Miami gave most Americans a prolonged, belated, scary look at the way the exile lobby operates. Most didn’t like what they saw. The Elián saga also brought TV images of everyday Cuban life into American living rooms, along with the startling perception that ordinary Cubans didn’t view themselves as residing in the Gulag Archipelago. Nonetheless, foreign policy mavens believe that the Bush dynasty’s intimate business ties to Mas Canosa, starting with the Bush family’s major loss of Cuban sugar investments after the Revolution’s land reform, might easily have prompted another American invasion of Cuba by George W. Bush, if another family vendetta, against Saddam Hussein, hadn’t sidetracked him.

First-generation kingpins of Miami’s Little Havana are now dropping dead from old age; their offspring have little interest in blowing up civilian airliners or reclaiming houses and sugar plantations expropriated fifty years ago. Obama’s second-term win in Florida proved that the Cuban lobbies are no longer needed to carry the state in a national election. Despite all this, American policy on Cuba remains mired in ressentiment over the Bay of Pigs failure, paranoia left over from the Missile Crisis, and proprietary assumptions about Cuba that predate the American Revolution. Surveying Guantánamo harbour in 1741 with Britain’s Admiral Vernon during the War of Jenkins’s Ear, George Washington’s half-brother, Lawrence, concluded that Cuba would make an ideal 14th American colony.

Every American president from Jefferson onwards schemed to annex the island, either to monopolise the slave trade and the shipping through the Gulf of Mexico, or to alter its racial composition by promoting white settlement. At the time of the Missouri Compromise, Southern slave owners militated for Cuba’s incorporation as two discrete slave states, an ambition mooted by the Civil War and the Cuban Ten Years’ War of Independence (1868-78), which abolished slavery.

Cuba became a de facto colony under William McKinley after the Spanish-American War. The Platt Amendment of 1901 defined Cuban ‘sovereignty’ in terms that ceded control of the island’s military, trade agreements, infrastructure and most of its agriculture to Washington. It has somehow been impossible for any American government to deal with Cuba, before or after the Revolution, as an independent nation, instead of a fiefdom for American corporations, whose holdings were nationalised after Shell, Standard Oil and Texaco refused to process 300,000 tons of desperately needed Soviet crude oil at their Cuban refineries in 1960.

American mainstream media – not just Murdoch’s revanchist Wall Street Journal and Fox News – instinctively describe Cuba as a ‘Stalinist dictatorship’ or a floating prison camp, and blame the country’s alternately wobbling and lurching economy, sporadic shortages and decrepit infrastructure on ‘the failure of socialism’. The enormous recent structural changes in Cuban society – private ownership of property and businesses, joint ventures between private companies and foreign partners, incremental loosening of control over public expression and internet access – have gone unreported in the US, or been dismissed as ‘cosmetic changes’. The focus has always been on Castro as the sort of dictator America usually sponsors in the ‘developing world’, filling Swiss bank accounts with billions as insurance against the inevitable coup d’état. The standard evocation of a brutal, kleptocratic cadre of communists munching on caviar as they gloat over the miseries of an enslaved people corresponds to absolutely nothing in Cuba, but such is the preferred American narrative. It is less often heard in Washington these days, if only because it is hard to square endless rhetoric about human rights with the operation of a torture camp on the single piece of Cuba the US does control.

Cuba is, as Christopher Columbus said, the most beautiful place on earth. But the history is too heavy for an island, and the place is often daunting and sad. I know Cubans who can go anywhere they wish, who like how it is for them in Cuba, and will stay in Cuba until they finish up. I know others who want to move away and never will, and some who don’t want to leave but think they have to, or else the only life they have will not add up to anything. I tell them, I don’t think you’d like it much better where I live. How do you know? they always say. And I always say, I don’t.

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