Jorge was selling his art on a narrow street in Havana Vieja, the historic section of Havana. His art isn’t the usual bold colored paintings of the old cars roaring through Havana streets. His color pencil scenes are softer, deeper. He could tell I wasn’t going to buy any of the art he had displayed, so he pulled out a few more from a battered portfolio behind his chair. The first that caught my attention was of a neighborhood street with a fifty-seven Chevy, hood up and wheels on blocks. It wasn’t caricaturized like his competitors paintings, but simply parked indefinitely behind a 54 Willy’s Jeep that was stripped of all but its essential parts.
“You can see this scene still, near my house,” he said pointing in the direction of his neighborhood. “I just finished this yesterday.”
“I like it,” I said, “and this one too.” I pointed to a picture of the Cathedral. It’s one of the most photographed, painted and drawn buildings in Cuba, if not the world. The building’s disrepair and weathered façade only adds to its charm for tourists and artists. But in Jorge’s drawing it was white again, and perfectly restored. It was healed.
“These are wonderful,” I said, “why do you have them hidden?” I asked in Spanish.
“I prefer we speak English,” he said. “I need to practice.” He looked at me and without saying so, we both knew why he wanted to be good at English. It would mean a better job if he ever made it to Miami.
“I must keep these other drawings behind me,” he said, “because they don’t meet the standards. If the police see them, I will get a ticket.”
“The standards?” I asked.
“Yes, the government gives us license us to sell in tourist districts only if we make the scenes they tell us,” he said.
“How much for both of these” I asked.
They were the equivalent of about $22 together. I gave him $30.00 and we continued to talk as he carefully rolled my new treasures in brown paper.
“Is this your only job?” I asked, “being an artist?”
“No, . . . I mean yes,” he said, “It’s my only real job. I make enough to pay the fees to the government and then a little more.“
After handing me my package, Jorge began to pack up his paintings.
“Are you done for the day?”
“I’ll be back later when the crowds increase,” he said.
I offered to buy him lunch so that we could continue our conversation. I had two hours left before I had to meet the group. I had planned to sit in one of the bars that Hemmingway used to haunt, La Floridita or La Bodeguita del Medio but Jorge told me they were only for tourists and had expensive watered down drinks.
“Follow me,” he said. “I know a good place.”
We walked toward the Malecón, the famous break-wall that protects the roadway and promenade along the northern coast of the city. He led me into a dark little bar that was neither for the “casual” tourist nor the typical Cuban. Jorge noticed my reluctance and assured me I’d be safe and welcome.
“Travelers come here for specific reasons,” he said. “You can talk to the bartender here and find whatever you need if you have dollars or chavitos.”
“See the women sitting over there by the corner window?” he said a little too loudly.
“Yes,” I whispered.
“It is OK,” he said, “she only speaks Spanish, and Russian I suppose.”
“Yes, she came here from Russia in the seventies,” he said. “Thousands of Russian women came when the beard [Castro] was what you call ‘in bed’ with the Soviet Union. They married Cuban men or came as singles looking to find Cuban men. They wanted freedom, socialism, anything but what they had . I think they got a warmer version of the thing they were trying to get away from. Since the Soviet Union fell, they have been stuck here, living on small pensions and unable to return to Russia, even to visit their families. Yulia – over there – is an old woman now, selling imported drugs like ibuprofen and Robitussin to Cubans with dollars, and selling Viagra to the old tourists who come here to find jineteras, prostitutes. Yulia’s husband left her years ago for a younger women. He left the young one too, for a boat made of plastic and powered by an electric engine and the battery from his old Ford. There was talk that he didn’t make it to Miami, and there is no talk that he made it back to Cuba. After he left, the soldiers came to her house and confiscated everything, her furniture, her refrigerator, everything.”
Jorge’s English was very good and his stories had my full attention.
“When the Soviets were here, times were OK for awhile. They brought us the Ladas and Moskoviches,” he said, referring to the boxy cars that still share the roads with the U.S.-made cars from the 50’s. The Cubans say that the Lada is not really a car, but they like them because they are simple to repair and replacement parts can be made from scraps of other cars.”
“The Russian influence is large in Cuba,” he continued. “It is why we wear our wedding rings on our right hands, and why many Cubans born in the 70’s have difficult names that start with the letter Y,” he said laughing.
“Tell me how you survive,” I said.
Jorge thought for a moment and looked at me as if he had some special way of knowing whether I could be trusted.
“My other job,” he said, “is to help people like Yulia do their jobs. I meet tourists all day with my drawings and talk to them. I find out what they are doing here, what they need. If they are looking for a cheap place to stay or a good place to eat, I take them to a casa that has clean rooms, good food and cheap prices. If they need a cab to take them to another city, I find them a driver with a car. If they need a companion, I find them a young girl. If they need help entertaining the young girl, I bring them to Yulia here for a blue pill. Every time I find a customer for one of my friends, I make a small commission.” he said. “And to be honest the bartender here will give me a few pesos for bringing you here to buy food and drink.”
When we finished our plates of roasted chicken, with rice and beans and salad, I told Jorge had that I had to meet our group for a bus tour. He walked me to the Malecón and I promised him that I would bring the group by later to see his art.
“Will you be expecting a commission if they buy something?” he asked with a laugh.
“Yes, fifty percent,” I said.
“OK, fifty percent. Now I will have to raise all my prices before they arrive.”
“Jorge, what is that?” I said pointing to a huge white sculpture of Jesus on hill on the other side of the harbor.
“Ah, that is Jesus.”
“Yes, I know, but what’s the story?”
Jorge was as well informed about Marble Jesus as he was about Russian Yulia. “The sculpture was commissioned by the Batista family and completed in 1958. It was designed by a Cuban sculptor Jilma Madera and made of 67 blocks of marble that were brought from Carrara, Italy. It stands 66 feet high,” he said. “The eyes are hollow so that he appears to be looking at you no matter where you are when you see him.”
“There are many stories about him,” Jorge said. “The statue was inaugurated only a few days before the beard (Castro) and his men arrived in Havana. And on the day Castro entered the city, the statue was struck by lightning, ruining its head. It has since been repaired,” he said.
“Jorge, I want to see it up close, can I get there with the tour bus?”
“This is the best view of it, right here. Anywhere in the city, really!”
“I know, but I’d like to stand under it and see how big it is.”
Jorge seemed a little peeved. “It’s best to see it from here,” he said. “If you go up there, they will charge you just to walk around in front of it and . . . “
“How much?” I asked.
“It’s a dollar each.”
“It’s only a dollar!” I said, forgetting that ‘only a dollar’ is a meal or two for Jorge. “Come with us,” I said. “I’ll pay for you to see it with us, and my group will buy some of your work.”
Jorge’s anger was not directed at me when he raised his finger and said, “I will not pay a single centavo to Fidel Castro to see something that belongs to the people of Cuba.”
The bus horn interrupted my stunned silence and Jorge said he needed to get back to his business. I thanked him for taking time to talk with me and promised to look for him later. He shook my hand and asked if we would be going up the statue.
“Not a single centavo,” I said.