Our People in Havana
Alcoholics Anonymous in Cuba is the same as everywhere else. Only with more technicolor, enthusiasm and love than I've found anywhere else.
In early 2001 some friends and I planned a sober ski trip to Vermont. That fell through and a few of us decided to go to Rio instead. When Rio lost momentum, a friend and I chose Havana. Sometimes having plans go awry is a good thing.
Cuba. Having been born in the early '50s and grown up in the '60s, the country evoked the missile crisis—which almost ended life as we know it—a communist revolution, a government that was despised by our government and an economy that had been run by gangsters. See Godfather Part II.
This notoriety, exoticism and the fact that we weren’t allowed to go there made the whole idea irresistible to me, and in April we booked the trip. I found a somewhat clandestine travel agent in Lower Manhattan who needed to be paid in cash. He gave me a sealed envelope, which I was not to open, and the name of a specific Air Cubana ticket agent in Mexico to present it to. He also suggested how much we should bribe the passport control men in Mexico. So far, so sober.
That done, we boarded a dilapidated Soviet-era Yakovlev and flew to Havana. At customs, the immigration officer, taking note of my American passport, stamped a piece of paper and slipped it into the passport instead of stamping the passport itself and cheerfully welcomed me to Cuba.
When someone introduced themself and said Yo soy alcoholico! there was a thunderous Hola Javier! or Hola Anne! in response.
After the obligatory first night in an "official" large hotel, we found much nicer and much cheaper accommodations in the Convento de Santa Clara, a restored 17th century convent now used as a conference center mainly for the arts. There was a photographers' conference in progress at the time and the bar was usually filled with European and Canadian attendees. We got a room that was roughly 40 feet square with vaulted ceilings and Spanish oil paintings of the period on the walls. That was eight dollars a night, breakfast included.
Then again, if you want some great Cuban food, you'd be better off in Miami. With the embargo and the economy food was pretty sparse. At one swanky restaurant we looked at five-page menus only to be told there were two options left. The bread is all baked at the state run bakery (it tastes like Wonder Bread, i.e., delicious). Of course, as my friend and I were both sober in AA, our tastes ran more towards ice cream, coffee, cigarettes and cigars. On all those fronts, Cuba had the best of everything—we would find ourselves consuming all five sober-soothers at the same time.
As my friend remarked, Havana looked like a movie set. I was taken right away with the old city and its baroque architecture, the American cars from the 1950s, the ocean view from the Malecon. There was music everywhere and some of the most beautiful people I had ever seen—quite a few of them drinking and dancing in the streets. It was intoxicating. I wanted to join the party. I needed to find a meeting.
Alcoholics Anonymous was officially discouraged by the government—since the island was already a "workers' paradise" and there wasn't any need for it. Despite that, the program did come to Cuba through some Mexican tourists and Havana AA was celebrating its eighth anniversary while I was there. (I still have the small, ceramic jug with the AA logo commemorating that event.) We were somehow able to find an address for their intergroup, which was situated in an old church on the outskirts of the city.
When we walked in there was a women’s meeting in progress and two or three people on the phones. One of them, an elderly gentleman named Raul, became our sober guide to the city. He had a profoundly humble dignity and was very kind. His English was excellent, having worked for 40 years at Western Union, and we spent hours walking with him throughout Havana, hearing about life in Cuba both before and after the revolution and about how AA had taken root there. He took us to meetings; we took him to dinner.
The most striking feature of the meetings was the level of enthusiasm. The meeting we went to was held on the third floor of an office building on a dusty side street. There was a podium and the Steps and Traditions hanging on either side of the room. There was a dearth of literature—Raul told us it was hard to get it shipped over to them. As the meeting began, everyone started laughing and catcalling, and Raul would translate everything that was being said.
Being used to the sometimes blasé attitude of New Yorkers in recovery, I was startled by the energy in those meetings. When someone introduced themself and said "Yo soy alcoholico!" there was a thunderous "Hola Javier!" or "Hola Anne!" in response. These people are grateful and happy and thrilled to have a place to be excited about sobriety. It's an attitude I've drawn on many times in the face of the sometimes cooler-than-thou sobriety of my home town.
One night, we were asked to speak at a fairly large meeting that was held in a very modern looking hospital. Raul stood in front of me and translated every word. I couldn’t tell how my qualification was being received but I was very aware that no one was laughing at my jokes. I felt more tense than usual. But as I listened to a man excitedly sharing from the floor afterwards, I heard "Usted es recuperation, y usted es la revolution!" There was general yelling in agreement and some fist pumping. It was beginning to feel like a rally and I loved it. This was AA and this was Cuba.
We spent 10 days in Havana, seeing the sights, hanging out on the beaches and going to meetings. Usually, I’m ready to get home at the end of a trip like this. Not this time. I made a resolution on the way home to re-visit often, this time with a suitcase full of AA literature. I still haven’t. But someday…
James Giuliani is a pseudonym for a regular contributor to The Fix.