Obama and the Rolling Stones are coming to Havana in the same week. I gotta go. I know them both.
Well actually, I only know Barack from TV but I feel especially close to him after all that hugging of Canada’s new prime minister, Trudeau deux.
Mick and I went to school at the same time to the London School of Economics. To own up, we never actually met, but we did have the same tutors. To explain, we had to report to our tutor once a month. The tutor had some power over us. Mick needed permission to drop out of school with the right to come back if he wished. At this time British students got paid to go to university. Jagger wanted to work with his new rock band. The tutor gave his somewhat reluctant permission, saying: "I do warn you young man. Those bands don’t go anywhere." Sir Mick is now the chancellor of the L.S.E.
The Stones concert was to be free, but I wanted to see first their opening act, the President of the United States. A smooth redeye WestJet flight takes me to Toronto and then down to Varadero, Cuba, from where I hitched a two-hour ride into Havana.
There I’m met by my former assistant and dear friend, Sharon Olsen, who spends the winter now in Cuba like a lot of Canadians. I join her in her daily walk down the Malecon, the beautiful stretch of seafront roadway that takes us down to Old Havana. It’s a beautiful sunny morning but the streets seem oddly deserted, tour buses gone, and book sellers nowhere to be found. Many of the old buildings gleam with new paint. The Cubans have spruced it up for the Prez. We run into a woman journalist with a camera. She explains in English that she is Russian but is now working for Voice of America. Jeezus, is the C.I.A here already?
She interviews Sharon. (God, it’s hard for me as a former politician to shut up). Sharon gives a great clip, looking over her shoulder and pointing out the United States is only 90 miles from here and it’s about time that America and Cuba made up. I think she's had a good teacher! Sharon does warn that the Cubans should get ready for the Starbucks, McDonald's and Walmart, and Canadians will lose a Yankee-free vacation.
Later that day, a storm blows in. We retreat from the cold and rain just as Air Force One arrives. The Obamas—Michelle, the two daughters (it’s spring break) and the mother-in-law—go to Old Havana but miss some of the splendour. I say to my Cuban friends that night that the Cuban government must feel bad. "No," one replies. "The Castros will blame the bad weather on the Americans as they have done with any other problems for the last 58 years!"
Next day it’s sunny again and I’m on way to pick up a press pass. I present a letter from the Georgia Straight, an "award-winning, widely circulated, independently owned news and entertainment weekly".
The letter is in English and Spanish and signed by the editor, Charlie Smith. That should do the trick.
Three young female press officers greet me, one of whom tells me in perfect English that press registration closed a week ago. I plead that I once was a socialist MP in the Canadian Parliament (Was the NDP ever real socialists like these guys here?) and even once tourism minister for British Columbia, tourism being their biggest industry. No luck.
Can I at least get a ticket for the baseball game between Cuba and the Tampa Bay Rays? Another one of the women asks says whether I can bring the Toronto Blue Jays down to play. I promise to do just that. Personally. Still no luck. But I do manage to get Obama’s schedule, which is very helpful since the Internet is difficult here, and there is a ton of security.
Visit to a historic hotel
I walk up to the Havana Libre Hotel where all the international journalists are hanging out. This is the same hotel where in 1959 Castro’s peasant army encamped after taking Havana and overthrowing the corrupt American-backed dictator. Then it was called the Havana Hilton. Fidel Castro had to form a government so he began doling out the jobs. The story goes that he asked if anyone was an economist and Che Guevara put his hand up and was promptly made governor of the Bank of Cuba. (Look at his signature on a 1960 Cuban peso note.) Later a friend of Che’s said he thought he was doctor. Che replied: "I am a doctor. I thought Fidel asked if anyone here was a communist!"
I see a bunch of journalists lining up in front of a cigar shop at one end of the lobby. I guess they’re stocking up with Cohibas, only to find out they are going through tests for explosives. I go to the lobby bar and order a bottle of Cristal beer then look up at their TV screen. It’s CNN. There’s Wolf interviewing Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat. She speaks from a Cuban street and gushes about the big investment opportunities for American business with "the 500,000 Cuban entrepreneurs who are eagerly waiting for them". She doesn’t mention Cuban health care, education, jazz, or dance, and she’s on the American "left".
Enough. I don’t need a pass to speak to Cuban people. Besides I need a back massage so I go to the lower-scale Hotel Vedado and speak to Alfredo, who’s worked there for 15 years and comes close to the average Cuban salary of $20 per month. On the Obama visit? A thumbs up and a simple "it could make things better."
Next, I wonder up a magnificent step of stones stairs to the University of Havana. On the leafy grounds I spot a student booth. Ah, the opposition, I think. No, they are selling tickets for a Saturday party. I stop beside an old tank almost buried in the bushes where two students approach me. The guy is studying history and the woman is studying pharmacy and they speak good English. I ask about student demonstrations because, after all, the so-called most powerful man in the world, not to mention the international press, are here. Yes, there is one, at 4 p.m. on El Presidente Street of all places. But the students are planning a counter demonstration against the demonstrators.
"They just want to bring extreme capitalism and we want to preserve the revolution," they tell me.
So I go. No demos at all. I think this isn’t Montreal and I go for another beer and watch on TV a remarkable civilized speech by Obama and an open press conference with my friend Barack and President Raul Castro of Cuba, Fidel’s younger brother, who is only 84. Raul and the Cuban press look uncomfortable at the aggressiveness of the international press. Obama as usual looks relaxed. You got to give the guy some credit here. He walks like he is about to stop and shoot a hoop at any moment.
Raul is fidgety and is asked by a CNN journalist about human rights and political prisoners. Raul fumbles with his translation device but recovers and says, "In Cuba we consider health care and free education human rights." Then he adds, "Give me a list of political prisoners and I will release them this afternoon." Amnesty International says there is no list.
Enough politics. I’m going to the baseball game. More accurately I get to about two heavily guarded blocks from the stadium, which is located in a remarkably poor area of the town. I need to be a member of a Cuban sports team or of the Communist Party of Cuba to get in. I’m good at talking but not that good.
I see the Rays beating Cuba 4-1 while sitting with a Cuban family eating a dinner of rice beans and pork. I learn incidentally that there has only been one major politician who actually captained his own team, the Orientes, and pitched against the national team. Unfortunately, Obama didn’t meet Fidel.
The next day I run into a 28-year-old American from Georgia. He flew in from Colombia for the week. He got into Cuba by saying he was there for educational purposes. Still the American Congress would put him into jail since he didn’t come with a group. He tried to use his American Visa card at a Cuban bank (Canadian Visa, no problem) and the staff were excited. He was the first and Obama had promised this. The card didn’t work. "It’s Cuba," shrugged the bank staff.
I end the day at La Zorra y el Cuervo, the small jazz club on La Rampa Street. A Cuban guy is playing jazz on a flute. The fellow sitting next to me is a music critic from the U.K. I ask him, "Is this guy a good player?" "Best in the world," is the answer.
The next day I watch on TV the Prez and family get into the huge Air Force One, Obama looking relaxed. I’m amazed, given he has to deal with Belgian terrorists not to mention Republicans calling for him to bomb someone, anyone. Raul just looks relieved. It was a successful visit. Now he just has to get the American Congress to legally remove the trade embargo.
As an aspiring journalist I didn’t get everything I wanted, but by going grassroots so to speak, I did get what I needed.
That, of course, is not a particularly deep segue into: "Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones."
Mick Jagger's energy is on display
I’m not a music critic so I can’t review the concert and my last Stones concert was in Anaheim, California, in the 70s but permit me to roll out some images.
Free, no gate security, not many cops, no dope, some booze but no rowdies, audience all 500,000 of them aged 15 to 75, lots of Europeans and Canadians. Some young Cubans left after seeing some rock icons and left singing Cuban songs, other Cubans stayed and danced, Mick looked about 45 and jumped around for two hours like a teenager rather than a 71-year-old, Charlie Watts looked his age, Keith Richards can really, really play the guitar, sound and big screens were great, bitch getting out of there.
From Jumping Jack Flash to two hours later with Brown Sugar. Then two encores: You Can’t Always Get What You Want, and (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction. For Stones fans it doesn’t get any better.
Sharon and I found a unique T-shirt with the tongue logo, of course, but with a big Cuban cigar coming out of it. Played in a huge field outside Cuidad Deportiva de la Habana, the sports stadium, this was no ordinary concert.
Some concluding thoughts:
I met with Yves Gagnon, Canada’s ambassador. He’s a warm guy, reminding me of Jean Chretien. He told me of Canada’s big role along with Pope Francis in bringing the U.S. and Cuba together and how the Cuban people will never forget our early recognition of the Cuban Revolution and the fact that our millions of tourists were pretty well behaved.
Young Cubans badly want the Internet and American technology.
How will Cuba politically evolve when the Castros are gone? Will the country go from Communism back to gangsterism? Social democracy would be ideal but that will be difficult to achieve (see Russia).
Don’t count out the ordinary Cuban people. Anybody who can keep a 1958 Ford still running is a force to be recognized.