I was stuffed into the front seat of the van between Jorge and Leonardo. Never mind that there were some empty seats in the back. Jorge wanted me to have the best view as we drove out of Havana and on to the four lane highway toward Holguín.
As we picked up speed outside the city, voices rose to compete with the wind whipping past the open windows. Directly behind me Curtis was working hard to keep up with his translating duties, coordinating two or three conversations at once.
There was very little traffic, some bicycles, a few old cars, a horse drawn cart. In the median there were men carrying rounds of white cheese, big blocks of guava paste and long belts of garlic strung together with twine. Once they could see we weren’t soldiers, they held them high to encourage the sale.
I heard Evan explaining to Michael how to set his camera to get pictures from the moving van as Curtis translated billboards for them. “¡Patria o Muerte!” I had seen this one often, Country or Death! But the next one was new to me. It was a neon green and bright orange billboard that read: “¡Vamos Bien!” Next to those words was a ten foot tall picture of Castro’s face. Curtis offered the translation; “we’re doing well, things are great, it’s all good.” Jorge elbowed me and chuckled at this adding, “Si, vamos bien. Sure, “he said, “. . . if you’re the man with the beard.”
I leaned back thinking about the bright green sign with its fluorescent orange letters and its arrogant contrast with the grey and beige of Cuba’s houses and crumbling hotels that hadn’t been painted in 50 years. Other than Castro’s billboards, the only other consistent color in Cuba is the sea of t-shirts donated by well-meaning tourists and missionaries.
Then a relative silence replaced the sweet chaotic blend of Spanish and English. Leonardo slowed the van. We were approaching a bridge that shielded at least two dozen people from the hot Cuban sun. The bridge was not connected to any roads and stopped abruptly on either side of the highway. It was as if it had been built only as a shelter from the sun. The bridges were built many years ago to connect roads that were never built.
We rolled closer and I could see that a soldier was standing inside the right lane of the highway. He held his AKM assault rifle the way a pessimistic fisherman holds his pole. The soldier was stopping cars and filling them with people from the crowd. He stopped a ’54 Ford that was blowing dark blue smoke from its tailpipe. With his free hand he opened the front door and ushered in a woman with a baby in her arms and a toddler in tow. He closed the door after her and pointed at two men in grease covered clothes. He directed them to the next car in line. They shared the last drags from a cigarette and tried to open the back doors of the car. The handles were broken, so they climbed through the window into the back seat next to the driver’s son.
The driver pulled away leaving a cloud of exhaust for the next car, a small Russian-made Lada. The soldier opened the back door and told the occupants – two young boys – to get in front with their parents. He chose three women from the crowd who happily squeezed into the tiny back seat.
We were next, and Leonardo pulled the van forward. I turned around to see Curtis gently push Annie’s hand and camera back down to her lap. When we got close to the soldier, Leonardo gave him a slight expressionless nod. The soldier didn’t acknowledge him except to look past us toward the next car. We pulled away with our empty seats still vacant.
Before we were back up to full speed, Evan leaned to the front seat and said, “what was that?” Jorge continued to look out the front window.
“Those are botellas,” he said.
“Yes, but in Cuba we also use the word to mean what you call hitchhikers. Mostly they are workers trying to get to their jobs in a field or a shop where they can earn some pesos. The young woman and her children were probably going into Holguín to see a doctor or visit some family.”
The rest of the van was silent now, everyone listening carefully to Jorge speaking in his best English.
“The soldier is stopping drivers and making them take riders. He also makes sure the riders have a peso or a few coins to pay the drivers for their trouble.”
Evan pushed his sunglasses back to keep his curly blond hair from blowing in his eyes. “What if the driver doesn’t want to take them? Does he have to?”
Jorge glanced past me toward Leonardo, the driver. Leonardo worked for the University and Jorge didn’t know of his alliances or his politics and was not sure how freely he could speak. But Jorge was an esteemed professor. He could get away with more than most and was willing to risk more than most.
“Evan,” he said, “there is no law in Cuba that says you must take the Botella. In Cuba, most laws say what you cannot do.”
Leonardo was looking straight ahead and driving fast, occasionally honking to warn a biker, a walker, an ox cart, or a slow moving flatbed truck overloaded with sugarcane workers.
“For example,” Jorge said, “there is a law that says you cannot drive a car that throws dark smoke, like the Ford we just saw. And maybe the driver also has no brake lights. It is very difficult, maybe impossible, to get new lights or other parts. But it is illegal to drive with these problems. And likely the driver has no license or no ownership papers. And maybe, just maybe, an inspection will show illegal food in his trunk. Maybe beef, God forbid.”
Jorge was on a role. He glanced at Leonardo and saw a supportive nod and maybe a grin. That was all he needed. He was now a fully sanctioned professor, believing at least for the moment, that in this car, outside of the eyes and ears of the Committees in Defense of the Revolution, he could feel free to make a simple point, tell a simple truth.
“In Cuba,” he said, “everything is illegal. To survive is to surpass the law. To live is to live outside the law. To breathe is to break the law. So when my brother in the Ford is stopped and asked to accept a few pesos to take his fellow countrymen to their jobs, to see their doctors, or to visit their families, does he have a choice? Sure he does. He can make this small sacrifice for the good of the revolution or perhaps he will be fined or jailed for some infractions that might otherwise go unnoticed. Sure, he is free to make that choice.”
“And this is also why we were released without filling our empty seats. It was clear to the officer that you are tourists. You are not part of our ‘public transportation system.’ We have bridges without roads, we have travelers without wheels, and we have soldiers with rifles. This is our system. . . this is Cuba. ¡Que País! What a country!”