Driving out of Cuba’s capital city, La Havana, one immediately encounters the chaotic bustle of a developing country. Having just come from living in Paraguay for 8 months, I was much less shocked by the people and landscape than my father and grandfather seemed to be. Still, Cuba hardly fits the mold; it is a country like none other on Earth. As many Cubans will tell you, through hushed whispers and barely parted lips, this is the land of contradictions.
For those still preoccupied with Fidel Castro, I would like to offer this bit of solace, though it comes perhaps 50 years too late: Cuba is not Fidel’s island. Cuba is growing up and finding itself full of a younger generation that doesn’t remember the communist revolution of 1959. This generation is becoming increasingly tired of the intellectual and social restrictions imposed by the very state that has given them an education that is equaled by few countries in the Americas. (Cuba’s literacy rate is higher than that of even the United States.) Dissent is brewing, fueled by the regime that it will one day topple or otherwise transform deeply. Castro represents the old, tired, and variably successful politicians of communist Cuba. He and his numbers are aging, soon to be replaced by an unknown future. There is still one potent symbol for this next generation, however, and especially at this time in Cuban history, it seems both extremely appropriate but also quite ironic: Ernesto “Che” Guevara.
Driving around Cuba, one thing is almost immediately evident: Che is the symbol and the martyr of the Cuban revolution. He was memorialized idealistically, like a delicate flower in amber, at a time when the guerillas were still young, progressive, and shaking up the modern world. On every available surface on the island—on the walls of aging, Soviet-era factories, on streets and dumpsters, in homes and on tourist souvenirs—the face of Che appears in defiant, immortal glory. The man whom Jean-Paul Sartre once described as “the most complete human being of our era” reigns over an island that is sauntering into an uncertain future.
It is curious to wonder what the revolutionary would think of modern day Cuba, were he alive today. As members of this young generation flex their well-educated minds (which, according to Cuban communist philosophy, are actually the property of the state), the old regime trembles. And yet, the world continues to move on. —Mario Machado
I recently took time off from work in Paraguay and spent 10 days on the island of Cuba with my father and grandfather. It was a very intense, if also brief, trip that took these three generations of my family back through our personal history—my grandfather was born in Cuba—as well as through the maze that is Cuba’s political, economical, and cultural reality. My next several posts will represent an honest, though inadequate, attempt to put that story and my experience into words.
The humidity feels like a blanket. At the Jose Martí International Airport in Havana, basset hounds make up the K-9 unit. The whole situation is like organized chaos: “locura con orden” (madness with order), as my grandfather says. The inside of the terminal looks like a makeshift import-export business with hoards of expatriate Cubans running neon-plastic-wrapped bundles of goods past ambivalent customs agents. In quantity, it would alarm and enrage those remaining stubborn proponents of the United States embargo. In principle, it makes all too much sense. Economics is simply running its course.
The great Cuban experiment, which has played out on this small island just 90 miles off the U.S. coast since the revolution of 1959, is as tangible as ever. Low, sea-swept clouds play games with the tropical sunlight as we drive across rickety roads. In typical developing-world fashion, horse-drawn carts and hopeful hitchhikers crowd the shoulders, sometimes wandering between the lanes of a sparsely traveled and sluggish freeway.
For those with a mind to history, a certain feeling is quickly evident—the smell of saltwater and fumes from ancient automobiles (running on aviation fuel) fill the lungs with it. It is the need to figure it all out. The island seems to echo, enveloping one’s mind with this great imperative to understand the reality of the forbidden country of the Americas before it crumbles under the weight of time and economic inevitability.
I have family on this island—great aunts and uncles, their children and grandchildren, who have waited 60 years for my grandfather to come home. They have heard stories about me, seen my pictures, and heard about my life and the life of my family. And though we are connected by blood, we are separated by worlds of politics and culture and economics. Just 90 miles away, but somehow, our lives could not be more different. Where in the world am I? —Mario Machado
In preparation for Semana Santa, or Holy Week, Paraguayan families prepare gratuitous amounts of chipá, a traditional Paraguayan food I described in a previous post. Such a quantity of chipá is necessary because, in addition to the fact that it is consumed all week, it is also the exclusive food eaten on Good Friday—a Paraguayan version of fasting.
On the Wednesday before Easter, the chipá bonanza begins. It starts by firing up the tatakuaa, a large igloo-shaped mud-brick oven used for baking chipá and only chipá.
Next, the chipá batter must be mixed. Several kilograms of pig fat (both solid and liquid) are put into a large wooden tub and stirred into a soupy blend. Dozens of eggs are mixed with the batter while cheese is crumbled in as well. Then, several packets of anise are added. I had never seen or used this spice before coming to Paraguay, but here it is extremely common in almost all types of bread.
Next come fresh milk and almidón, flour made from cassava roots. Ground corn is the last addition before the mixture’s moisture content is adjusted slightly with more milk. Family members—kids included—work the pasty, speckled dough into shapes, usually circles or loaves, but also into birds or crosses or other such shapes with religious symbolism in reference to the coming Easter. The dough is baked and in 20 minutes the chipá is ready.
The first bite of chipá is delicious, I discovered during this year’s observation of Holy Week. It is warm and gooey on the inside, crispy and crunchy on the outside, and very filling. After two or three pieces, however, things go downhill quickly. Chipá is heavy on the carbohydrates and fat (pig fat, to be more precise). Therefore, eating it in huge quantities feels (to me at least) like eating a comparable number of McDonald’s cheeseburgers. I learned to draw my limit at one or two, knowing that each family I visited would insist that I try some of their chipá (despite the fact once you have tried one, you really have tried them all). I spent the week after Easter recovering from the food shock my body had experienced. —Mario Machado
A group of kids from my community, Guido Almada, has made a habit of joining me when I play my guitar. I try to teach them a few notes and chords, but they much prefer to just strum away or yell along with whatever it is I am playing. It’s all part of integrating. —Mario Machado