Through Alfredo José Estrada, Havana speaks freely
"You can easily find Havana on the map of the imagination," opens Alfredo José Estrada in his latest book, Havana: Autobiography of a City. More than a prosaic history of the Cuban capital characterized by illusions and stereotypes, Estrada's Havana tells its own story, beginning with the history of its "discovery" by Christopher Columbus in the 15th century and ending with the Cuban revolution of the late 20th century. Having been born in Cuba but fleeing with family from the revolution at the age of 2 and only returning 30 years later, the jokingly self-described expert on Cuba and Ernest Hemingway writes with a candor, wit, and purposeful personal interest in the country wishing to assert its relevance on the world, especially with the looming death of Fidel Castro and the inevitable lifting of the U.S. embargo. After stops in several cities across the U.S., as well as in Europe, Estrada has recently moved back to Austin, where he's working on a new novel about the Cuban revolution and its aftermath. Over coffee, we chatted with Estrada about Havana (Palgrave Macmillan, $24.95) and Cuba in general.
Austin Chronicle: So your father worked for Che Guevara?
Alfredo José Estrada: He worked briefly for Che Guevara as an engineer when Guevara was the minister of industry. And Che Guevara is a very interesting figure. Because the myth is so different from the historical Che Guevara, the reality of Che Guevara.
AC: I was actually glad that you mentioned the ridiculousness of Guevara's stamp becoming such an icon for clueless hipsters. Where do you think all of the affinity for Guevara, especially in the U.S., comes from? Do you think he's deserving of such cultural-icon status?
AJE: Why he became a cultural icon, it's impossible to say. There's no question Guevara was a very romantic figure. [He] came to symbolize the romantic side of the Cuban Revolution, but of course the reality was very different. I mean, Che Guevara himself was personally ruthless; he was the guy who was in charge of the executions. Probably of all of the comandantes, including Castro, he was probably the best military leader. What I find ironic is the sense that Guevara himself would, first of all, be totally flabbergasted by the myth that he became because it's so far from what he was, and second, I think he'd be horrified because he's become a capitalist symbol. He's used to sell everything from T-shirts to lighters, and Guevara hated capitalism, and he hated America.
AC: You write, "One of the inherent difficulties of writing about Havana is finding a middle ground between political extremes." Was this true in your case?
AJE: Absolutely. Cuba is so politicized and whatever you say about Cuba is interpreted as a political stance, whether it's in the United States or in Europe and Cuba itself, so the difficulty for me was I'm trying to describe the city. The political side of it, in terms of the revolution, is only the last chapter, so nine-tenths of the book has nothing to do with the Cuban Revolution, has nothing to do with Castro. There's a lot of culture there that I wanted to talk about, but the way it's interpreted is if you say something that's good about Havana and Cuba, then you're a communist; if you say something bad, that means you're an anti-communist. In the book, I'm trying to start a dialogue as to what's going on in Cuba beyond these fairly empty political categories and stereotypical images. Part of the reason why I wrote it is that when you look back at the whole scope of Cuban history, certain periods have been really obscured and manipulated by historians in Cuba, Spain, and the United States. And some of these periods today, when I talk to people about them, they don't know about. They've forgotten.
AC: Why is the cigar "the ultimate symbol of unrestrained capitalism"?
AJE: Where does that go back to? You know, it's these images of Richie Rich and his uncle with a big cigar. It probably goes back to people like J.P. Morgan and Winston Churchill. The cigar was very democratic. The first people smoking cigars were the black slaves and the poor in Havana, so the cigar was never an aristocratic thing, but somehow it acquired that image.