Wednesday 23 October 2013

Our Man in Havana

This was first published in Vivid in 2004.

Life in Bucharest has been transformed since the bloody events of December 1989 but three large apartments in a 1960s block in Mihai Eminescu have escaped the changes. Marked only by a discreet  flag and a yawning squaddie on guard they house the Cuban Embassy, a serene place where nothing much has altered since Fidel Castro’s Cuba and Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania were friendly socialist countries. I was received there recently with
immense kindness by the only two members of staff not on summer leave who spent some hours helping me find a cure for cancer.

In six years living in Romania my only regret has been for the Bucharest, ill-lit, somnambulant, other, that I glimpsed on a short and enthralling visit in 1990. That world by the time I came to live here in 1998, seemed one with Babylon and Nineveh, but very occasionally I remembered that that world had not wholly vanished. China and Vietnam might be parts of the global village, North Korea might perhaps be too sad a place even
for me to enjoy, but there was still Cuba, now a fixture on the tourist circuit.

Romania shot her dictator and turned Westward, but in Cuba socialism in one country defies the zeitgeist, despite or because of the  unremitting US blockade. And Cuba fascinated me too for many reasons, including an affection for Graham Greene’s timeless description of expat life in a seedy country in Our Man In HavanaI resolved to go there on holiday but in fact I went at very short notice in the height of summer, which in Cuba is the rainy season, and for an unusual reason.

Someone close to me has cancer. A couple of months ago I was rang up late one night and told a story that sounded more like a scene from a film script than real life. My informant, who had lost her voice and was barely audible, told me that she had been told that a cancer remedy supposedly existed, which was available only in Cuba but available there for free, derived from the venom of the blue scorpion.  

The  next day the internet revealed  that a scorpion venom remedy indeed exists purportedly able to ameliorate the symptoms of cancer, slow its progress and even sometimes effect total cures. It is called escozul  and up to 60, 000 Cubans (a lot out of a population of 12 million) have taken it since it was which was first developed in 1980 by biologist Misael Bordier in Guantanamo. In Cuba educated opinion is divided and no animal tests have yet been carried out. Outside the island little was known until, earlier this year, a celebrity appeared on Greek television claiming that escozul had entirely cured his cancer. Great numbers of Greeks had immediately descended on Cuba to acquire the medicine.

the operation in Guantanamo had recently and mysteriously been closed by the authorities but another state enterprise in Havana also produced the medicine. It was unclear whether or not any was available.

As quickly as my work permitted I had had the patient’s medical history faxed to me, a splendid lady translated the seventeen pages in hours into Spanish and I tried valiantly to fax it to Havana to see if this were a suitable case for treatment.

None of the telephone and fax numbers I had worked. Only later on the other side of the Atlantic did I discover that fax and telephone numbers in Cuba rarely work. Strange how you forget things. It was exactly the same in Romania in the early 90s. In  Havana they say that if a girl offers a man her telephone number he thinks she’s giving him the brush-off.

I wasn’t hopeful that the Greeks had left any escozul, I expected at best some kind of black market where I could acquire medicine of doubtful provenance for an inflated sum, but Friday morning I decided over my early morning cappuccino to try my luck anyway. I bought my ticket and visa. On Monday morning I flew off learning only when I opened the guide-books on the plane that Havana has by far the most interesting architecture and history of any city in North or South America.

Sitting at breakfast in his hotel overlooking the sea an Armenian businessman who knew the ropes gave me the information I needed. The next day I found the medicine much more easily than I had hoped, not in Havana but in a village two hours drive away through the flat vulture-strewn countryside from ‘Dr’ Jose Filipe Monson. 18 years ago his fifteen year old daughter Mudis was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer in every part of her body and given three months to live. Monson went to Misael Bordier and Mudis was the first human treated with escozul. I met Mudis in August aged 29 completely cured although still taking escozul daily for good luck.

Monson, with Mudis’s help, now manufactures escozul himself from scorpions he keeps in his back yard. and he supplies the medicine to long queues that form outside his house four days a week. The medicine is given away for free although grateful customers are free to make donations. Readers may be glad to know that the scorpions are not killed in the process. They are merely stunned by electric shock.

Monson has done no analysis of the results but he guesses that it improves the quality of life in maybe 80 % of cases and 20% go into remission. Some complete cures are claimed. I returned to Havana with my precious cargo and became a tourist.

Havana is about the size of Bucharest, was founded a century or so later but is much older.  It’s full of seventeenth- and eighteenth century churches, monasteries and palaces, fortresses reminiscent of the set from The Mark of Zorro, and its own architectural style, the distinctively heavy Cuban baroque. The twentieth century, when Havana was the playground for prosperous American tourists, the mafia controlled the casinos and bordellos and Frank Sinatra crooned at the Hotel Seville,  added miles of sumptuous suburbs resembling mid-century Beverley Hills, but  now housing wretchedly poor inhabitants.

You have a sense of déjà vu in Havana. All those things you’ve seen so often in half-remembered photographs: the chevvies and Buicks from before the US blockade, lovingly restored and garishly coloured, their chasses uplifted by the Soviet diesel engines powering them. I put up at the Inglaterra the oldest hotel built in 1875 where I had another sense of déjà vu. Tiled walls, fans, a verandah facing the main square. It  might have been the backdrop for one of innumerable black and white films set in exotic locales. The bedrooms only somewhat reminded me of how hotels used to be in Eastern Europe. And that’s the strongest sense of déjà vu for travellers from the former Second World. We were back in the USSR or at least back to Communism again.

For thirty years Cuba was subsidised for strategic reasons by the USSR. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 Cuba’s export market ceased to exist and the country went through a period of abject hardship worse than in Romania in the 80s. the solution adopted by Castro in 1993 was to allow US dollars to circulate freely and to gear the economy towards tourism. This was an admission of failure for a country whose economy had once been much stronger than the other islands in the Caribbean but an effective life-support system for Marxism-Leninism. Nowadays the country earns hard currency from tourists attracted by a sense of adventure but who don’t actually take any risks. Cuba  is a police state where even the most louche areas are extraordinarily safe. And  from remittances from the half million or so of Cuba’s bourgeoisie who fled after 1959 mostly to Florida and who send dollars home to their relatives. The American Government’s policy is curious as it aquiesces in this cash flow while  preventing Americans from spending a dime in Cuba in person. The few American tourists who get caught face draconian penalties.

At a first, superficial glance, Cuba might appear to have a decentralised economy, but the truth is different.  Some private restaurants and guest houses are permitted but must conform to tight guidelines.  While the government is adept at ensuring your tourist dollar finds its way into state coffers, the dollar earning underclass - taxi drivers, prostitutes, workers in international hotels - are among the country's wealthiest groups. 

Here was one of the most stark contrasts between Cuba and Romania: the new rich, the ostentatiously wealthy, was missing in Havana.  In fact I was told that there are a handful of people making a lot of money, but they are careful not to display the fact.  Needless to say this group included bureaucrats capable of expediting tedious red tape for a handful of dollars.  (Doesn't this sound at least half familiar?)

Much of the best colonial architecture of Old Havana as been studiously restored. even in the deliciously derelict labyrinthine streets you may stumble across  an astonishingly perfect hotel like a concealed palace in the Arabian Nights. But I preferred most of the time to steer away from the restored  parts, beautiful but too freshly painted and inhabited by flocks of holidaymakers. Havana attracts a better class of tourist, many late 20s to mid-30s, without children, guidebook in hand and often bespectacled. They mostly looked as if they might be interesting to meet at a dinner party back home, wherever home was. I just preferred not to be with them there and then.

Escaping them was easy. They obediently keep to the newly painted parts of the old town. If they accidentally slipped into the dark interior of the unrenovated streets they immediately turned back. with application I succeeded in finding little bars where I could sit drinking for Cuban currency rather than dollars. in one derelict bar I particularly liked, decorated with football shirts, Nat King Cole played from an ancient phonograph, customers stubbed their cigarettes on the floor, lovers quarrelled and  we waited for the rain to stop.

In the nineteenth century when the Latin American mainland won its independence, Cuba remained a Spanish colony, a fascinating anachronism. Ironically it is once again a museum piece where PCs are expensive on the black market and internet access is permitted only to politically correct senior managers. There is nothing more old-fashioned than a future that has failed and nothing is more old-fashioned than Cuba. This is its appeal to the bourgeois tourists whose cash keeps the whole thing going.

What are the abiding recollections from a short visit to Havana? The bicycle-taxis like rickshaws that carry passengers on roads more potholed and broken than the ones in Bucharest used to be; girls in their rocking chairs behind grilles in front parlours; the bands jamming impromptu in narrow lampless streets; the absolute decrepitude of most colonial buildings; the heat and humidity; the semi-naked passers-by; the weirdly exotic trees; the constant attentions of street-walkers. The sheer vitality of the place but an apathetic, languorous, unwholesome vitality. The paradise seaside is forgettable placed alongside Havana.

Romania and Cuba were  the two Latin countries in the Communist Bloc. Each before Communism had had in their different ways exotic, unrespectable, risqué reputations and each was ill at ease with their Slav allies. And Cuba I’ve noticed fascinates a lot of Romanians. In the chic Hotel Nacional once the headquarters of the mafia in Havana I bumped into TV star Andreea Marin making a programme for TVR and outshining even the Cuban beauties.

What  similarities exist now? The great kindliness and friendliness of people who have a great deal of time on their hands is one thing that Cuba has in common with Romania. In the Romanian private sector it is still true as it is in Cuba that ‘we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.’ In both countries below the European surface exists a great deal of that is unEuropean and pagan. And Cuba is a very erotic country which puts its energies into sex  and this too I suppose is a point in common. The slow pace. the poverty. The human factor, the unabstractness. But most of all go to Cuba to see how very far Romania has come, for good and ill.

What do Cubans think of ‘Fidel’ as Castro is universally known? An impossible question to answer after a short visit unless one speaks Spanish. Like Eastern Europeans in the 80s very few Cubans can speak basic English, but in the street they know the three words ‘Where you from?’ thrown at every foreigner in the hope of drumming up an acquaintance. The few who do speak English are often discreet about the downside and expand on the good things. Yes there is tight rationing but no-one starves. Things are much better than under Batista. The problems are caused by the blockade. But the impression I took away from the few long conversations I had is that young people, whether they  like Castro or loathe him, have no faith in Communism and are waiting  hopefully and at the same time fearfully to join the rest of the world.

It is very easy for the foreigner to take away a rosy picture of a country without commercialism, digital TV or out-of-town shopping centres. The cruelty and stupidity of a system which frustrates and maddens twelve million people were brought home to me while I was being driven to the airport illegally by a delightful man who told me he had been abroad. The reason? He had been Central American table-tennis champion for several years and reached the semi-finals of the world championships. ‘Table-tennis is my life’ and now he ran a table-tennis school with seventeen talented pupils of whom he was very proud. ‘And in my life there is only one problem.’ ‘What’s that?’ ‘No balls’ he replied mournfully. He had spent years trying to persuade local firms to manufacture table-tennis balls without success. ‘But now I am a happy man because I think that in a few months time I shall persuade an enterprise to make balls.’ This, not the persecution of political dissidents about which Washington complains but the thwarting of an optimist  whose only wish is for his country to excel in table tennis, is the real wickedness of the Cuban system.


  1. Please let us know how escozul worked for your friend.

  2. Wonderful piece of writing. You probably missed your real vocation.

  3. Thank you. I am certain that you are right and am trying to rectify this now.

  4. Fantastic commentary piece Paul. Had I tried, I could never have presented it so well. I actually hope Havana never changes, because it is the only place to which I can direct Romanians under the age of 30 to truly understand why they should not be nostalgic about the 'old days' in Romania... Something, I find utterly infuriating in the outlook of those over 50 there and something which, I believe, does those under 30 a great disservice, if they were inclined to believe it.

    1. I went the second time with a bunch of Hungarians. one who was 18 could not believe that Budapest had been a bit like this in 1989. But some Romanians will find Cuba attractive, as in some ways I do. I find it very attractive yet think the system cruel and wicked.