Should Janet Reno wrench Elian from the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave to return him to Papa and his hometown, life for the kid will be like this:
His school is directly — but absolutely directly — across the street from a whore house. The best little whore house in Cardenas.
Prostitution is big business in Cuba.
Cardenas, 13 miles from the beach resort of Veradero – where Cubans are forbidden unless they work in tourism – is a town of sugar mills, small shipyard, small oil refinery. Pop. 75,000.
A short drive from Havana, it’s circa 1950’s. Like time stopped with the revolution that brought Fidel to power. Transportation means bicycles, horse drawn carriages, maybe a ’50s Dodge or Chrysler.
Houses have few telephones or televisions. Internet?
The homes, one and two rooms, are shambles. The bathroom is a curtained-off area. Behind the curtain, a hole in the concrete floor. Stairwells are in disrepair. Electricity is minimal.
The air is clouded with black smoke from the rum factory behind the row house Juan Miguel Gonzalez calls his casa.
Small fish swim in a gutter in front of the house. Small children play with homemade toys in the narrow roadways.
An apple costs 1 dollar. Kids hustle strangers for money, soap, pens, notebooks, aspirin.
The prettiest building in the area is the brothel.
Karen Feld of Washington, D.C., is a free-lance reporter I met years ago. We share mutual friends and we’ve worked together before. On a recent National Press Club trip to Cuba, she broke away from the government sponsored tour to see for herself. Some of it she wrote for the Orlando Sentinel. Much of it she told me personally.
Per Karen Feld:
“Surrounded by drab dark houses that seemed to be boarded up with wood was this only one nicely decorated building. Besides the school which is pink, it’s the only painted edifice.
“Compared to the neighboring structures it’s elaborate. Sandy color. The stone front actually has sparkles in the rocks. The art-deco facade is a light sandy color. It definitely stands out from all the rest.
“I knocked on the door and asked to use the bathroom, which I never did, just to get in. I knew right away what this was when the woman came to the door.
“She wore black crocheted fishnet under which there was a black bra. From this bra peeked one- and five-dollar bills. U.S. currency. Her Capri pants were black spandex.
“Through a corridor was this main room with a couch and a couple of chairs. Sitting in it were three women in their 20s wearing T-shirts and spandex.
“The wall held pictures of the woman who opened the door. Clearly she was the madam. Her photos were in very seductive poses.
“Beyond that you could see what looked like a kitchen. Its prominent feature was a huge box of Tide. That’s the kind of thing locals can get in the dollar store, the store where you shop strictly with foreign currency not the peso.
“I asked if they spoke English. They said yes. They appeared chatty until I asked what they thought about Elian. Then they became scared. They motioned they could not speak.
“One said, ‘We are not free to discuss capitalism, prostitution or drug use.’
“They have no phone so they handed me cards to give out, ‘If you have any male friends who want to stop by.’
“I gave them my cosmetics. They wanted lipstick.”
Back to the unpretentious school smack across the street. The small building has 900 pupils. Children wear red and white uniforms. Nobody will give the teacher-student ratio. One teacher said he was “was not permitted to give out such information.”
Two pictures adorn the front hall. One, Castro. The other, Elian.
The entrance corridor leads to a basketball court and more signs of “Mi Amigo Elian.” Translated, they say:
“Free Elian … Bring Elian back to his father.” A bulletin board is filled with penciled notes to the little boy in Miami.
The rest of the town features one movie house, admission one peso or roughly five cents. Plus an open-air market. You can rent space for 60 pesos per diem. A big seller is a T-shirt bearing Elian’s face.
There is one Soviet-built hospital. Surgical patients must supply their own sheets.
Juan Miguel’s tiny house — who when he got it was earning $8 a month as a waiter — was recently painted by the government.
Its exterior now shines in two tones of turquoise. On its doorway the sign: “Elian, you will return to the bread of your family, of your people, of your homeland.”