Anna Husarska,

Anna Husarska,

A weeklong electronic journal.
Jan. 9 1998 3:30 AM

Anna Husarska,

VIEW ALL ENTRIES

       You probably spent yesterday evening watching Iran's president speak to the American people (well, actually, to Christiane Amanpour), and so you couldn't care less about my Cuba diary. But imagine, please, how it feels to watch him chat with Christiane on a TV set in a Havana hotel room! If after all the hostage-taking, all the chanting of "death to America," and all the other hostilities, a new president of Iran can speak about dialogue with Americans, then perhaps it's not out of the question that Fidel (all right, let's say his brother Raul Castro) might express a desire to speak to the American people, and that he, too, would recommend Tocqueville as a "valuable book," as President Khatami did.
       Speaking about democracy, Cuba has elections this Sunday, and not insignificant ones, either: for the National Assembly. After Khatami's interview I switched to a Cuban channel and found on my screen a thing that looked like a form to apply for Social Security: a black-and-white ID picture (the quality was comparable to that in those photos of missing kids on milk cartons) plus four or five lines listing official functions (in acronyms) and decorations earned. It took me a moment to realize that this was an electoral campaign of sorts--the presentation of candidates. Until now there had been only one candidate for each available seat, so it wasn't viciously competitive (not an ounce of mud slugged around in these elections!). Was it somehow different this year?
       As soon as I learned about this major exercise in things dear to Tocqueville, I ran out of the hotel to get some vox pop. It was a flop: None of the people I asked outside even knew what I was talking about. None of the six girls and two boys sitting around on the border of the huge palm pots could answer my questions about these elections. Of course, it was not a statistically neutral sample insofar as all my interviewees were exercising a profession that is at least as old as democracy, if not older.
       On my first evening here I saw the same beehive of prostitutes outside other hotels and tourist traps. I confess that this spectacle made me very sad, because I like Cubans enormously. These prostitutes are called jineteras (or jineteros, for masculine versions), which literally means "horse-rides"; outside my hotel, it's a veritable racetrack. The service costs $50, payable in hard currency, of course (and bring your own paraphernalia if you care about life), but sometimes the client is expected to contribute to the cost of the room, since hotels do not let Cubans come upstairs. I spotted two Russians from my hotel fighting over a prostitute. (I think the issue was that they had shared the lady and split the cost, but now one felt the other had had a better time, and he wanted to be paid the difference.) I couldn't stop thinking about the irony: Russia was responsible for the decay of Cuba, and now its people come here to be treated like pashas! Cubans get screwed by Russians either way.
       Unforgettable moments with prostitutes and their Russian clients weren't advancing my understanding of the electoral system, however, so I went back to the real-estate-exchange market on Prado Boulevard. It is a great place to chat people up, because everyone standing there is waiting to be spoken to. I soon had a whole group around me, but nobody was sure whether these were very, moderately, or noncompetitive elections. To compensate for their ignorance, people were eager to teach me a trick of the trade: how to double the surface area of your flat in Havana. This is called barbacoa and consists of dividing the high-ceilinged rooms in Habana Vieja horizontally, creating an attic (80 percent of the windows have a visible barbacoa). Exchanging apartments is all you can do in a country where buying and selling real estate is forbidden, lest speculation (read: the market) creep in. At this point I could write a Ph.D. on flat exchanges in Havana. One man, Reinaldo, had a friend with a notebook in which he had handwritten hundreds of "ads," and he told me that his friend once connected 18 clients in a merry-go-round flat-exchange chain. The friend was beaming with pride as he told me this. It was as if he'd won a chess match with Deep Blue. But there is one thing that none of my newfound friends in the ad-hoc real-estate market could grasp, no matter how clever they were: Why would an election need more candidates than there were seats to fill? Wasn't one candidate per seat perfect? What was all the fuss?
       As it turns out, the elections are the same this year as they have been every year, which is to say, not elections at all. Tocqueville is definitely not our man in Havana.

Anna Husarska has been covering wars, civil conflicts, and elections in Central America, Central Europe, and Central Asia for American magazines since 1979. She currently works as a political analyst for the International Crisis Group, a nongovernmental organization that is monitoring the implementation of the Dayton Peace Agreement in Bosnia. She is visiting Cuba on assignment for the Catholic Church.