OUR WOMEN IN HAVANA 

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         Back in the 1960s, Fidel Castro’s bearded Old Testament face appeared in student bedsits more dependably than rising damp. He was one of the last true dictator-nationalists anywhere. His 1959 revoluçion was not socialist but nationalist in origin. It was only after Cuban exiles attempted their disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in 1962, three years later, that Castro aligned himself with the Soviet Union. By then the Fidelistas were united in their fear and loathing of Uncle Sam. Castro closed the casinos, got rid of the Las Vegas dancing girls, and encouraged a Dunkirk-spirit as his people were made to face ever more drastic belt-tightening.

 

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Now that the man in the olive-green fatigues has died, however, it may not be long before the heirs of Lucky Luciano move into Havana with their go-go geishas and casinos. Graham Greene, an old Havana hand, intuited as much as long ago as 1961 with some doggerel of his in the London Times:

 

Prince of Las Vegas, Cuba calls;

Your seat is reserved on the gangster plane:

Fruit machines back in Hilton halls

And at the Blue Moon girls again.

 

I first visited Cuba in the winter of 1993 when the Soviet market for Fidel’s sugar had dried up and despair hung over the Caribbean island. At Stansted Airport a group of middle-aged women manoeuvred down the airplane isle wearing COAL NOT DOLE stickers. “There’s good snorkeling in the Bay of Pigs”, said one. “Oh aye?” burred the other.

 

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They were part a delegation of 25 British miners’ wives on a charity mission to donate obsolete coalfield equipment – drill bits, ear-muffs, hard hats – to Cuba’s ailing copper industry. Sitting by an emergency exit was the portly, ruddy-faced Frank Cave, vice-president of the National Union of Miners. Presumably he was there for the ride. A beautiful Air Cubana stewardess served boiled sweets before take-off. “Leg room’s a bit poor, ‘nt it, luv?” said the woman next to me. To my surprise, she was the NUM president Arthur Scargill’s wife, Anne Scargill. On her lap was a copy of the Cuban Party daily Granma, named after the ship that ferried Castro and his left-hand man Che Guevara from Mexico in 1956 with the aim of toppling the pro-US President Fulgencio Batista. The miner’s strike of 1984-5 and closure of collieries in Lancashire, Barnsley, Doncaster and other old Labour heartlands had provoked sympathy for the Cuban copper miners.

 

Havana Club rum punches flowed as we bumped through a patch of turbulence over Newfoundland. “Wehay! Eh oop!” said Mrs Scargill as we banked abruptly to starboard. To my right was an elderly Englishwoman who had visited Havana, she said, in the early 1950s during the Batista despotism. “I was in the Merchant Navy then and I must say Havana was absolutely the most perfect place for a bachelor on the loose. The girls were cheap (particularly at the Blue Moon) and they wore the most marvellous spangled headdresses.” On her lapel was a badge calling for an end to the US trade embargo on Cuba. Was she with Anne Scargill’s group?

 

“You mean she’s on the plane?”

 

“She’s sitting next to me.”

 

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“Good Lord!”, she whispered. “I did wonder about the SAVE OUR PITS badges.” My women neighbours seemed to be quite sanguine about Cuba’s future after Castro had gone. The country was unlikely to become a globalized outpost of Las Vegas because the sainted El Comandante had immunized his people against “Capitalism Rampant”. Castro – a man of “great modernity and cleverness”, according to Mrs Scargill – was seen by many Cubans as a comradely father figure, tough yet benevolent, with a paunchy epicure’s relish for pasta con vongole (apparently his favourite dish).

 

At the dollar-only resort of Varadero, however, prostitutes as young as 13 hovered outside my hotel and their pimps were not much older. The scramble for greenbacks had created a new Cuban sex industry. The Women Against Pit Closures drank Tropicola cocktails on the white sands and spoke dreamily of Fidel. “No, luv. We’re unlikely to meet him. But I’m sure he knows we’re here.” The beach (12 miles of paradise with insects) heaved with pink and peeling leftist-trendies and sex tourists wearing Che Guevara T-shirts. The revolutionary spirit was giving out: all talk was of the Yanqui dollar and how to obtain it.

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