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Black flags and Vigia rum

Reflections on a visit to Cuba

We were sailing round the Cuban coast off Havana. With the wind in my hair and the sun at my back. I asked Sesun, "What are those black flags, there?"

I had seen them before from the window of my hotel room. The Hotel Nacional is a national monument. It has a 1930s charm combined with a very Cuban, socialist warmth. High on one of its walls is a huge poster: "Viva La Patria!" Near the hotel, right on the coast, is the American Embassy.

Sesun was the boat's entertainer. She was teaching my granddaughter to dance in the Cuban manner. "Use your shoulders!" A cross hung round her neck and I guessed she was not a wholehearted supporter of Fidel's government. But she knew all about the black flags.

"They are for the five heroes. You do not know about our five heroes?" She was talking about the Miami Five, arrested by the US government nine years ago and imprisoned on spurious charges and after a flawed trial. "And their children have not seen their fathers for nine years.And what they are accused of - that is not true. So we built the black flags in front of the American Embassy and we have went there - gone there - and made a spectacle, you know, a show - "

"A demonstration?"

"Si, a demonstration, many, many of us, to say we support our heroes and we do not agree with the Americans."


The next day I went to photograph the black flags. A Cuban soldier guarded the American Embassy and some boys jostled along the pavement, laughing and joking. The soldier reprimanded them for impolite behaviour in front of a tourist.

In the hotel is a large poster headed "FREE THE FIVE" and below the pictures of their families and the short text is the slogan: "ROMPIENDO EL SILENCIO - BREAKING THE SILENCE".

We were in Cuba for six days to celebrate my daughter's wedding. Her father, Mike, had worked in a scientific capacity for ICIDCA, the Cuban Institute for Investigations into Sugar Derivatives, which had been set up by Che Guevara in May 1963. Mike had gone to Cuba in the mid sixties and stayed there till his death in 1979. She had visited him during most of that time and through a large part of her growing up she developed an attachment to Cuba and its way of life. She had witnessed how her father and his colleagues worked very hard in difficult circumstances, selflessly, to support socialism. She contacted ICIDCA and a couple of her father's colleagues came to the wedding, and invited us to the Institute.

The day we visited the Institute was very hot. They sent a car for us, gave us a wonderful lunch provided by the Institute's canteen, and Amaury (Dr Amaury Alvarez, sub-director in charge of investigations) talked a little about his dead colleague whom he remembered with great affection, and a lot about the work they had done and were still doing. He told us there was a policy not to use sugar itself for anything but food. "Feeding the people is the priority," he explained. Thus, Cuban rum is made, not from sugar but from molasses. And Cuba now makes plastic from bagasse, the fibrous material left after the sugar has been extracted from sugar cane.

Amaury talked about the connections the Institute has with many Latin American and South American countries, and I remembered how the Cubans had sent their young soldiers to fight and die alongside the Angolans, in the days before the defeat of apartheid in South Africa. Now they give their discoveries, scientific and particularly medical, to the whole world, but they are a tiny country and the United States looms menacingly on their doorstep. One can't help but be afraid for them.

It was a strange and unforgettable visit, part family reunion and part formal international contact. They gave my daughter and her husband a bottle of their best, unimaginably precious rum, and told her how they remembered her as a child.

Another day, on our way to the Habana Libre Hotel to buy souvenirs, we were accosted by purposeful women in uniforms, handing out leaflets. The women were obviously in possession of the high moral ground. Their leaflets were addressed to drivers: "Respect the traffic lights. Respect the rights of pedestrians. Remember the speed limits . . ."

They have a way to go, as Cubans' natural tendency is to drive like maniacs. That tendency is somewhat hampered by the ageing car population - Ladas represent almost one third of the cars on the road by my count, most of them lovingly cared for and painted in bright jewel-like colours - and by the strict enforcement of the traffic laws.

The same day, returning from the Habana Libre with our Cuban cigars and Che Guevara t-shirts and salsa CDs, we walked right into a street party. There were clowns and dancing, and policemen on motor bikes who performed manoeuvres, like a fly-past on wheels.

On our very last day one of our party was mugged. The hotel staff were shocked and apologetic, one almost in tears. "For this to happen - and you were so happy...." We were still happy. A mugging can happen anywhere, and our unfortunate was expertly cared for, his broken collar bone strapped up and his arm in a sling. He declined to stay an extra day to help catch the thief. Of course, with the increase in tourism, which Cuba badly needs, there has been an increase in crime. Even so, it is  better to be in the world than shut away from it, and Cuba's example, its people's warmth and dedication, must count for something against the stark abomination of Guantanamo Bay.