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I would like to thank Louise Durkin, Robin Myers, Jackie Cannon, Maggie Carr and Elizabeth Torres for helping me complete this English version of the Spanish original. Without their time, patience, valuable advice and useful interventions I would still be struggling with words.
To my wife Liz and my children Daniel and Amelia,
for the time this book has taken away from them.
The Press Release
Down with the Worms
That Settles It
In the Footsteps of Francis Drake
Cuatro Ruedas - El Mosquito - Mariel
Gilbert and King
To the Smell of Sardines
All Roads Lead to the Seawall
Ships in the Night
Beauties on Duty
Time to Row
Be Careful What You Wish for
Beyond the Ninety Miles
Krome - Miami Beach
Interaction with the Author
The Press Release
In view of the tragic death of a guard at the Peruvian Embassy and given the tolerant attitude adopted toward such criminals by the Peruvian government, the government of the Republic of Cuba has decided to withdraw protection from said diplomatic mission. The diplomatic staff will, henceforth, be fully responsible for what happens in the embassy. We cannot protect embassies that do not cooperate with their own protection.
(Granmadaily newspaper, Havana, Cuba, Friday 4 April, 1980)
As the sun sets on Saturday, April 5, the number of asylum seekers approaches ten thousand. Swarms of people are battling their way to the embassy in pursuit of exile. Among those who have managed to make it inside are a group of students from Havana University who arrived at around nine in the morning, three bus drivers who abandoned their vehicles mid-route, and a tanker driver who came to deliver water and decided to end his rounds right then and there.
Three young men have just arrived, half naked, straight from the beach. Before heading in, one of them flags down a taxi, scribbles his family’s address on a scrap of paper, and asks the driver to bring them to the embassy. He also gives him a watch, a baseball cap, a snorkeling mask, and the promise that this will be the best fare of his life.
“Remember the woman who said she’d given birth here and asked to be urgently flown out to Peru?” a white-haired woman asks another leaning against the dog kennel. “Well, turns out she made off with the baby in a sheet all covered in blood from the maternity hospital on Línea.”
“Oh, yes, my dear, there’s not a word that isn’t true.”
A few yards from the two women, a man wrapped in a Peruvian flag is shouting into the crowd.
“No one can shoot at me. Not the police, not the army. No one! I am Peru itself. No one can touch me.”
In the grounds of the mansion, Ángel looks on in awe and pity at the spectacle he is a part of. He’s not at all convinced by what the nutcase with the flag is saying, but he has more pressing things to worry about — such as the dangerous proximity of a man eyeing him fixedly from the ground, with a nose that looks as if it’s been flattened in a fistfight. The guy, he notices, is carrying a long, sharp-toothed saw with a bandaged handle. Is he really looking at Ángel, or is Ángel imagining the evil gaze? Could it be fear playing tricks on the mind, fabricating threats that don’t really exist?
Fear, sweat and hunger. Perhaps these are the primary elements, the building blocks of life. What else is there between the tip of Maisí and Cape San Antonio? In Guantánamo, Holguín, Camagüey, Cienfuegos, Matanzas, or Pinar del Río? Is there anywhere, any corner of this island, where hunger, sweat and fear don’t rule our lives and invade our dreams?
With every passing minute, people arrive in their hundreds. The mood is electric. On Saturday, a young couple who wanted to go home were given a serious beating by a bunch of thugs. No knives were used on that occasion but, yesterday, a poor wretch who had climbed a mango tree found himself faced with an angry mob threatening to slit his throat — and all because a bit of dirt had fallen from his shoes. This was not how Ángel had pictured asylum. He had imagined a haven of peace and unity, not a preview of hell itself. Even going for a drink of water or taking a pee was becoming dangerous. God knows what might happen if you were to accidentally bump someone’s elbow or step on their toes. The survival strategy is to form groups and guard the spot of anyone absent for a few minutes, but even this has led to clashes. What if his foot inadvertently brushes against the leg of the pug-nosed guy and he ends up with a gaping wound on his heel that won’t stop bleeding? He’d have to leave the embassy, dragging his injured foot behind him.
Three days ago, Ángel could never have pictured himself in a situation like this, not even in his wildest dreams. But perhaps we never really decide anything. Circumstances. Everything is always ultimately governed by circumstances, he thinks. And Mireya, who has dragged him here. Is Mireya a circumstance? What a stupid thing to think, he quickly tells himself. At any other time, he would have laughed, but this is no time for laughing. He’s sweating and hungry. And frightened — why deny it? He’s very frightened. He’s gotten to know the place quite well, having been here three days now, roughing it, without a shower and barely a bite to eat, and he’s seen a stretch of fence he could jump to get out. But the crowd responds violently to the slightest hint of desertion.
Ángel gets on his toes and stretches his neck, but he still can’t see much further through the crowd. He thinks he should muster the courage to check out whether the latest uproar has anything to do with the few measly boxes of food supplied by the government, but tells himself that, at barely forty, it’s not worth risking his skinny neck for such a meager reward. In any case, it’s always the thugs who end up with the food. They sweat just like everyone else but are not as frightened and don’t go as hungry.
Mireya’s daughter, who just turned twelve, isn’t saying much — but she’s not looking too good either, her eyes underscored by dark purple shadows, her gaze sad and dismayed. Ángel strokes her hair. It’s strange, he thinks, that he should be worrying about Sofía when he’s about to leave his own kids behind, maybe forever. If he weren’t so tired, so overwhelmed by the goddamned circumstances, he might shed a tear for them, but he knows that his internal lament has been stifled, choked up for far too long; it won’t come to the surface now.
He wonders whether Eduardo has been given a pass. If he goes to the tenement room, he’ll find the farewell note Ángel left on the table for him. And what about Emilia? Ángel is confident that his daughter and Pepe will get by on their own, as they’ve done so far. He’s not as worried about them as he is about little Eduardo, his Eduardito. When the boy is faced with the fact that his father has gone into exile behind his back, he’ll never forgive him.
A gentle breeze carries a smell of vegetation that takes Ángel back to his childhood, to the exhilaration he would feel when he helped clean and prepare a pig just killed by his father. He remembers shaving it with a razor and piping hot water, carefully placing a branch from the guava tree in the slit of its throat and turning it on the spit.
While Ángel reminisces, a female voice begins to sing the Cuban national anthem and the song spreads listlessly among the asylum seekers, as if their weary bodies were resonating, the sound waves reverberating in their bones. Eyes meet and console each other. Expressionless. Impassive.
It’s now approaching six o’clock in the evening and, from his place in the line to use the water tap, Ángel sees two Alfa Romeos arriving at the corner of 72nd Street and Fifth Avenue, alongside asleek black car. Word quickly spreads that it’s Fidel’s famous ZIL. At various times in his life, Ángel has entertained the notion that the Commander-in-Chief is a deity clothed in olive green, but he is now able to see, as plain as day, that The Man exists in the flesh. It is the first time Ángel has been so close to him and he wonders what made him decide to come to the embassy in person. One thing’s for sure: the asylum seekers’ fate will be sealed by what the Comandante says and does in the coming hours.
The synapses collide in Ángel’s brain. What might have brought Fidel to the embassy? Amid mounting tensions with Venezuela and Peru over the right to seek refuge in their diplomatic missions in Havana, The Boss must have met with the high command to discuss the possibility of withdrawing police protection from both embassies.
“My advisors think there’ll be trouble if we withdraw the guards,” someone like the Minister of the Interior or the Head of State Security may have warned.
“We have to step carefully in a situation like this. Removing protection from any embassy, not just the Peruvian one, has its risks,” Fidel’s brother, army general and Minister of the Armed Forces, may have cautioned.
This morning, however, perhaps on seeing a report strewn across his desk in the Palacio de la Revolución estimating the number of asylum seekers at ten thousand, the Comandante probably decided he should go and see for himself.
On the way to the embassy, he must have felt the grip of the tires on the road as the ZIL crossed Miramar’s even-numbered streets. Ángel imagines this part of the journey impregnated with the smell of the sea but perhaps The Man was too distracted to notice it. Maybe he delighted in the fact that the neighborhood’s grand buildings, the former hotels and casinos, no longer serve their original purpose? He has rid the place of its white-collar thieves and now the streets are filled with uniformed schoolchildren with books and smiling faces, friends of Cuba from foreign shores, and workers committed to the socialist cause. The palatial homes abandoned by the wealthy Cubans who had fled the island with the triumph of the Revolution were initially turned into schools or dormitories for students from outside Havana, and then, as educational centers were progressively built across the country, into embassies or the offices of foreign companies doing business in Cuba. There is no trace of the seedy gambling dens and brothels that, prior to 1959, unashamedly lined the south side of the avenue. They were no more than a stone’s throw away from the exclusive nautical and social clubs on the north side, after the roundabout next to what used to be the Coney Island amusement park.
As Ángel silently recites thisparty line patter, conscious of it replaying in his mind like a catchy tune, like the nursery rhymes his mother used to sing to him when he was a child, the Comandante rolls down the back window of the ZIL, which has now come to a halt. He can see the people on the roof of the building, their arms raised, forming the victory sign in defiance at the helicopter hovering overhead. The Man must be wondering whether he’s gone too far. All he probably wanted to do was teach Peru and Venezuela a lesson for backing repeated attempts by islanders to seek asylum. But now this mess threatens to overshadow his efforts at détente. The island has not only been enjoying a honeymoon period with its powerful enemy, but even moments of outright glory on the international scene. It’s successfully taking on one of the world’s strongest armies in Angola. It has hosted events such as the 11th World Festival of Youth and Students in 1978, or the Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in 1979.
The Comandante gets out of the car, closes the door with purpose and takes a few strides toward the embassy gates. The hundreds of asylum seekers pressed against the fence move back in silence. An official makes his way through the crowd and out onto the street. Ángel wonders if it’s just any old staff member or the business or cultural attaché, as the ambassador wouldn’t be there at such an unearthly hour. In any case, Fidel says a few words to the Peruvian, puts an arm around his shoulder, and leads him to the ZIL.
An eerie silence has reignedfor most of the morning. Until a sentence — a short series of simple sounds arranged to obey an arbitrary order and meaning — breathes new life into the eleven thousand bodies packed together on the lawn, the roof, the dog kennel, and in the trees.
“They’re giving safe-conducts!”
The rumors are confirmed in under ten minutes: the government is giving out permits that allow the asylum seekers to go home and come back whenever they like; all they have to do is ask for one. The embassy will take care of the formalities and they’ll be allowed to leave as soon as the host country approves their application. It can’t be another “report” from “The Telephone Man” — the guy who managed to get hold of a phone from inside the embassy and connect it as an extension in the garden — as the Peruvians retrieved the device a couple of days ago. It was thanks to him that news of any negotiations between the Peruvian and Cuban authorities had been leaked to the crowd, which then broadcast it, commented on it and distorted it at will, within seconds.
A number of asylum seekers have already been interviewed by embassy officials and are going home. The interview, they say, consists of an informal chat during which one of the Peruvians tries to talk them out of seeking political asylum and then, on seeing that they insist, gives them a letter of safe conduct. The meeting is then politely brought to a close without further ado.
Some are starting to leave and have no intention of coming back unless it is strictly necessary. Many others are refusing to go.
“Ángel, this girl is going to pass out on us,” Mireya snaps. The frown remains etched on her face. “Go and check things out, for God’s sake, and see if you can get something to eat.”
“But I’ve just walked around and didn’t find anything. I’ll bring a wet handkerchief to cool her down. If they’ve started giving out letters of safe conduct, it means things are beginning to move.”
“The problem with you is you don’t have the balls to face those guys and tell them there are kids here who haven’t eaten for days.”
“It’s not that, Mireya. They only throw a few cartons of food over the fence. And I bet you anything they only do it to watch us killing each other over them. Have you seen one? Do you know what’s in them? You know you can go to the medical checkpoint to have your blood pressure taken and get a glass of water with sugar. Why don’t you go and see if you can bring it for Sofía? You have to try and understand…”
“You’re the one who doesn’t understand anything. You’ve always got your head in the clouds. I don’t know why the hell I brought you with me. All you do is get in the way.”
Ángel says nothing. What can he say? He has only himself to blame for blindly going along with her. He wonders what possessed him to get caught up in such a mess.
Back on Friday afternoon, he had reached Mireya’s place covered in sweat, exhausted after a hard day’s slog at the workshop and a long walk in the blazing sun. Closing the door, he stopped for a few seconds to take a deep breath and feel the cool of the marble stairs and the tiled walls, leaving behind the dust, heat and noise of the street. Already feeling some sense of relief, he slowly started to climb the stairs, announcing his arrival as he went. When no one replied, he decided to pause again and enjoy the peace and quiet. It felt good to have a moment alone.
“You’re early, hon! I’m so glad! You must have read my mind!”
Ángel responded with a heavy sigh. He could just make out Mireya’s outline at the top of the stairs, the natural light of the inner patio shining behind her.
“Did you hear wha’ happened? They’ve withdrawn protection from the Peruvian Embassy ’cause a group of guys crashed the gates with a bus ’n’ killed one of the guards.”
It was unusual for Mireya to come out onto the landing to welcome him, and puzzling to hear her struggling to get the words out quickly enough as she started down the stairs toward him.
“Alfredo brought the newspaper. I had to beg him to let me hang on to it. Here, read it for yourself.”
“Give me a minute, will you? Give me a chance to get in first,” protested Ángel as he made his way up the stairs.
“He told me he couldn’t wait, honey, but, if we go with him, he says we can stay at his family’s house in Hialeah when we get to the States.”
“Hang on a second. Have you both lost your minds? What is Alfredo going to do in the States with only one eye and no English? And that’s just for starters.”
Agitated, Mireya turned and marched back up the half-flight of stairs. On reaching the landing, she drew a deep breath and retorted, “His brother is head of maintenance at a hotel and part-owner of a garage in Miami Beach, did you know that? He can help you get a job as soon as you get there — for starters. So don’t be so flippant.”
“Hotel? Garage? What the…?”
“I’ll tell you what it is. Just listen to me for a minute, will you? Tons of people have already gotten in and there are truckloads more coming from the provinces. Once you’re inside, it’s Peruvian territory and the government can’t do anything. We need to move fast though. You know how these things go.”
Ángel went to sit down in one of the two wicker armchairs close to the balcony, holding theGranmashe had thrust into his hands. He started to read the government communiqué and, unable to explain why, began counting the times the words “government” and “embassy” appeared, going over them with the tip of his index finger.
“Have you read it or not? What are you doing?” Mireya asked, disconcerted.
“Trying to count some words,” he muttered.
“What? Is that all you can do at a time like this, Ángel Ribot?”
Rather than attempting a response, he put the newspaper down on his knees, rested his elbows on the arms of the chair, lowered his head until his face lay buried in his hands, and tried to gather his thoughts. With a decision like this, Mireya and her daughter were risking their future — and his too, for that matter.
He took a cigar from his shirt pocket. He’d been looking forward to the idea of sitting back and enjoying it, but any hopes of a relaxing evening were gone, no matter how good the cigar. Using his front teeth, he made a small opening just above the line where the cap met the wrapper, then gently pressed the cigar, rolling it between his thumb and index finger. It wasn’t a select Habano, but it was well finished, had a good sheen, uniform color, and smelled of fresh tobacco. On top of that, it had been given to him, and you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
Noticing Mireya coming over to him again, he spoke to her in a calm, steady voice.
“Why don’t you sit down and relax for a minute, Mireya? This isn’t as simple as it seems. We’re both nearing forty and don’t speak a word of English. If by any chance we can’t get from Peru to the States, we’ll be even worse off than we are here. That’s if we manage to get out of the country at all. If we don’t, we’re going to be in real trouble.”
“But, Ángel, don’t you realize that entering the embassy now that they’ve removed the guards is not what they call an ‘act of force’? They’re not going to take reprisals, quite simply because they can’t. There are already hundreds of people in there and thousands more are on their way. Ángel, we can’t afford to mess around. Eduardo, poor soul, is stuck in the military and Emilia is off at the beach in Boca Ciega or Guanabo.”
Poor soul, he thought. Poor souls, all of us; lost souls in a living hell. But he kept his thoughts to himself and simply asked, “Didn’t Emilia leave you an address or a phone number?”
“Oh, Angelito! You know your daughter, don’t you?”
“Dammit! Just when we need to be together!”
“You’re telling me.” Mireya paused, went to him, and stroked the back of his hand. “Listen, hun. Emilia has a life of her own now and a future with Pepe. He’s been a political prisoner. Their exit papers could come through anytime.”
“I know,” he says, shaking his head helplessly. “It’s just…”
“Shh. I’m telling it like it is because you’ll regret it later. You’ve never had a chance to leave the country before. You don’t have anyone abroad, no one to get you out. Neither you nor Eduardo. Not even anyone who’d invite you to go just for a few months. You can apply to have Eduardo join you once you’re in the States or, at worst, in Peru. You just make up your mind while I get some jewelry and documents together.”
Seeing the minutes pass and with no sight or sound of Ángel, Mireya stormed back into the living room. There he was, right where she had left him, stock-still in the armchair, the folded newspaper in one hand and the lit cigar in the other.
“Look, Ángel,” she snapped, “I didn’t go without you because I’m not the kind of person who does that shit. I knew it wouldn’t be long before you got here, so I didn’t want to go and get you from work and raise suspicion. I was planning on stopping by your room if I saw you were running later than usual. But you’re here now, that’s what matters, and there’s no more time to waste. You can stay here, relax and smoke your cigar if you like. My conscience is totally clean. This is the chance we’ve been waiting for, the opportunity we’ve been talking about for so long; and I don’t intend to waste it. I swear this on the life of that daughter of mine, who matters more to me than anything else in the world.”
That daughter of hers has now gone for almost a week with barely any food or sleep and looks like death. It breaks Ángel’s heart just to look at her. She’s nothing but skin and bone, poor thing. He remembers her at the dining table Friday afternoon, sharpening a pencil and tracing a map. But her mother’s short temper is too hard to cope with and it makes no sense for him to stay with her for the rest of his days. There was a time, after so many uphill battles had left him sapped of strength and hope, when he found just what he needed in Mireya. It was she who had saved him from bitterness, solitude and self-destruction. But things had changed over time, and not for the better. Now, to top it all off, she wants him to abandon Emilia and Eduardo.
“You’re the one who doesn’t understand anything. You’ve always got your head in the clouds. I don’t know why the hell I brought you with me. All you do is get in the way.” Her scornful words continue to reverberate in his ears. To shake them off, he rallies his lungs, vocal cords, tongue and facial muscles. Only then does his voice come to him, as if belonging to someone else.
“Things are not always the way you want them to be, Mireya. I don’t even know why I’m wasting my breath trying to get through to you. Anything I tell you goes in one ear and out the other. Listen, since you say the only thing I do is get in the way, let me tell you that I only came to protect the two of you. You have no idea what kind of mess you’re getting yourself into — and dragging Sofía along with you. Just look around you.”
“Let me finish. You can go to Peru, to the States, to wherever the hell you want. But count me out.”
It feels, indeed, as if he’s not the one stringing together the sentences but an inner demon on a rampage he can’t control.
“I’m going back home the same way I came, with no letter of safe conduct, no passport, no nothing. And I’d better shut up now because my blood pressure is going through the roof.”
His last words, uttered with labored breath, fade out as he turns his back to the woman.
“Don’t you dare,” she shouts, after mumbling an insult too faint for Ángel to hear. “We haven’t spent a whole week here just to split up now. We have to hang in till the end if we want a better life.”
But Ángel is no longer listening. He has started to make his way through the crowd. He doesn’t want to hear this group’s radio or the other group’s gossip. He shoves, pushes, and manages to head toward the escape route he’s already spotted. As he goes, he reflects that his ideas have been clashing with those of his fellow asylum seekers for a while. Of course, they’re bound to clash. There’s nothing heroic, brave or patriotic about the absurd demonstrations of force he’s witnessed over the last few days. The Revolution is right to constantly remind the public about the real acts of bravery demonstrated by the Cuban people.
“You can all go to hell!” he exclaims under his breath, just after bumping into the pug-nosed guy who had whiled away the time staring at him.
If I have to die here with a knife in my gut, so be it, he ponders a few yards from the fence. His heart is pounding and regret slithers through his innards like a snake. The blood throbs in his temples and beads of sweat roll down his face, stinging his eyes. Suddenly, with a spryness he could never have imagined, he jumps over the fence and onto the street.
“There goes another infiltrator!”
He starts to run, not looking back.
“Son of a bitch!”
Stones roll by on either side of him. One of the bigger ones comes to rest beside the remains of a Young Communists Union card lying next to a drain.
Down with the Worms
Isabel punches down on the blade of the knife laid flat over two cloves of garlic after slicing off the ends. She removes their skin, chops them into fine pieces and adds them to the diced onion already frying in lard. Before starting on the green pepper, she glances toward the half-plastered living room, where her brother-in-law is taking a telegram from his shirt pocket and laying it on the table in front of Felo.
“They’ve given me seventy-two hours to get to the gas company and pay up, otherwise they’re going to cut me off,” she hears Ángel say.
She checks to see whether the rice is done and the chickpeas soft, adds the fried onion and garlic into the pressure cooker, and leaves the stew to simmer with the lid off. Then she takes a cloth and wipes down the white enamel of the Boss range cooker, still almost as good as new after thirty years. The two kerosene burners give off a dirty but powerful flame thanks to her brother-in-law, who adjusts them regularly.
“It’s all work, work, work. And they never lose. They never make a mistake in your favor. They’d rob their own mothers. Who the hell do they think they are?” Ángel shouts, waving the piece of paper in front of his brother’s face.
“Oh, no. He’s started talking shit again,” Felo protests, looking up at the ceiling.
“I’m not talking shit. Hear me out, will you?How much do I earn a month as an A-grade mechanic? Two hundred and forty pesos. OK? Keep that number in your head and now start from zero and add these up. A pack and a half of cigs a day, seventy-two pesos. Plus the thirty pesos I give Eduardito, that’s a hundred and two.”
Ángel’s words are slowing — not because he’s calming down but because he’s drunk, assumes Isabel, who can smell the reek of alcohol from the kitchen.
“At least fifteen pesos for food rations,” he carries on. “That’s a hundred and seventeen, plus about thirty to buy extra oil, rice, sugar and coffee, and we’re already up to a hundred and forty-seven. Are you following me? Now add the fifty cents a day spent on lunch, plus coffee, snacks and the bus fare to work. Let’s say fifty pesos a month. That’s already two hundred. Then ten for electricity and the sixteen I’m paying toward the fridge. Two hundred and twenty-six. Add the gas bill and what’s left? Next to nothing! And I haven’t even been out to a restaurant, bought myself a shirt or had a shot of rum.”
Isabel looks on, secretly admiring Ángel’s features, more regular and chiseled than her husband’s. She thinks back to when Ángel stopped by a couple of days ago, drunk yet again, boasting about the money he was making on the side, on top of his official wage. He’d better not ask Felo to lend him any because he’s not going to like it. It’s not Felo’s fault his brother is already broke a week after payday. She also watches her husband’s tired gestures of resignation, until the irritation welling up inside him erupts.
“Restaurant? What the hell are you talking about?”
“Let me finish.”