I came to Cuba with my heart in my mouth. Ever since my first contact with the ‘Third World’, in Jamaica in 1971, I had been aware how burningly important it is for the developing nations that Cuba not be a fraud or a failure. As the years passed and I wandered through slums in Bombay, past windowless huts in Morocco, Tunis and Yucatan, through the dust of Uttar Pradesh and the infested dirt of the Brazilian north-east and the menace of Bogota and the Guatemalan highlands, every step showed me that paternalist development aid is worse than useless. In the eighties, as the external debts of the developing countries mushroom over them while their people grow steadily poorer and the number of landless multiplies daily, the need of a genuine alternative is agonizing. If Cuba had shown me nothing but the institutionalized poverty and bureaucratic rhetoric and repression that Western mega-media taught me to expect, a brain-washed militarized population living by hypocrisy and fear, the dark future would show no sign of dawn. If Cuba’s was really a revolution of the people, then even if a malignant power should blast Cuba out of the Caribbean, its people will be invincible.
My arrival coincided with the Fourth Congress of the Federation of Cuban Women, the FMC. Billboards and posters announced it all over Havana. Toda la fuerza de la mujer en el servicio de la revolutión (‘The entire women’s force in the service of the revolution’). The logo was an art nouveau-ish montage of Kalashnikov rifles and Mariposa lilies. I was not keen on the implications of either. On the Rampa, the floodlit exhibition pavilion was turned over to the exploits of women. Banked television sets showed colour videos of the history of Cuban women, and a succession of booths displayed everything from the techniques of screening for breast cancer to scent and hair curlers. Women whose bottoms threatened to burst out of their elasticized pants tottered round the exhibits on four-inch heels, clutching their compañeros for support. Their nails and faces were garishly painted. Their hair had been dragged over rollers, bleached, dyed and coloured. Their clothes, including their brassières, were all two or three sizes too small and flesh bulged everywhere. Most people rushed past the educational exhibits to where a painted, conked, and corseted trio bumped and ground its way through an amorous rhumba. At the sight of an unattached woman, the loose men began a psst! psst! and beckoned to me, as if I had been a dog.
The next day, my minder from the Ministry of Exterior Relations came to take me to the Palacio de Congresos for the first session of the FMC Congress. Security was tight. I was directed to a press box in the back of the vast auditorium, with no facilities for simultaneous translation. A policeman ordered me not to put my tape-recorder up on the parapet. Later I discovered that one such instrument had been accidentally knocked off and narrowly missed braining a delegate seated thirty feet below, but then and there it seemed that Cuba was determined that I would see little and understand less. The whole day was taken up with the reading of the informe central, the 157-page official report to the congress. The reader was Vilma Espín, president of the FMC, alternate member of the Politburo, member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, and wife of Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother. She read correctly and quietly, a calm, matronly figure hard to associate with the slender girl who had organized the medical support system during the lucha clandestina and joined the guerrilla fighters in the Sierra Maestra. I complained that she was hardly a charismatic speaker. ‘She doesn’t have to impress us,’ answered one of the delegates. ‘We know her. She is our Vilma.’