It was an early Sunday morning and our last full day in Cuba. The Viva la Revolucion revelers of Carnival de Habana had long since packed their drunken bodies away to sleep off the thousands of gallons of brown beer they’d filtered through their collectivist livers. That winding boulevard alongside the harbor — packed a million strong with celebrants hours earlier — had miraculously been scrubbed of all traces of the raucous street party.
Tomorrow we’d be going home, assuming we could scheme out a way to pay off our hotel and other sundry bills we’d accumulated during our week. We’d been cashed out to get into the country and, once we’d checked into our hotel, discovered that the U.S. embargo prohibited us from using our American credit cards.
Oh. And we hadn’t yet succeeded in procuring a single stogie for studio honcho, Mike Medavoy, who was expecting my partner and I to deliver him boxes of hand-rolled Habano cigars.
But never fear, Propaganda Tony had some hopeful helium to fill our balloon. He’d concocted a cigar-seeking adventure that began with a three-hour drive in our rickety rental bus. Along for the trek were Tony’s physician wife and his two adorable boys. One of his promises for the day was a visit to Varadero Beach, advertised by our host as one of the most beautiful stretches of sand on the planet.
As waterfront real estate goes, yes, Varadero Beach is pretty damn special. Miles and miles of powder-white sand and blue-green water that is as warm as a mother’s embrace. Only the portion of shoreline allotted for recreation was rump-to-rump with sweaty Cuban men who, like Propaganda Tony, had each slipped into his one and only banana hammock and rustled his family, friends, and distant cousins to the few acres of beach the government had dedicated to swimming and sun worship.
In order to be a licensed doctor in El Republica Mrs. Tony was required to be a loyal member of the Cuban Communist Party. But as pristine as Propaganda Tony’s English was, Mrs. Tony spoke nary a word. Or at least didn’t want to get caught speaking the language of the Great Western Satan. We’d dined with her early in the week and I’d found Mrs. Tony to be taciturn, a bit mousy, and quite suspicious in nature, only allowing her personality to spark when she could tout the “unsurpassed quality” Cuba’s nationalized health care system in answer to our translated questions.
That said, Mrs. Tony was none to pleased when her husband informed her of his clever plot to assist his Hollywood guests in procuring boxes of cigars for the studio jefe. His simple ruse went like this. Some twenty kilometers down Varadero Beach was a spanking new hotel owned and operated by an Italian company. Surely the Italians would allow his trio of cash-stripped Americans to use their credit cards to purchase a few boxes of souvenir Habanos.
Mrs. Tony flew into a rage, spewing a fusillade of angry Spanish mere inches from her husband’s face. The argument lasted only seconds, but the divide it highlighted was crystal clear.
“Wanna explain the domestic disturbance?” I later asked Tony.
“My wife is a loyal Party member,” said Propaganda Tony. “Of course, so am I. But she’s afraid of how it might look.”
“How what might look?” I asked.
“The Italian hotel is off limits to Cuban citizens,” explained our host. “But you are neither Cuban nor restricted. And since I’m your official host, I see no problem with our visiting the Italian hotel while you purchase cigars for your studio president.”
Sure. Propaganda Tony was splitting hairs. But the hairs in question were Cuban and marital and none of my business. We needed smokes for Mike Medavoy and if Tony thought we’d succeed at some Villa Italia, who were we to turn him down? For the ride to the new hotel, Mrs. Tony sat in the very rear of the bus in silent protest.
Fade up on the Italian Hotel or, errr… Five-star resort.
But first a little context. At that time, Cuba was in a state of arrested development. Sure, with the revolution came the end of a corrupt regime. But with the dictator came decades of poverty. What was once a country rich in resources and trade had become a western pariah. And after forty years of “better red than dead,” pretty much everything from buildings to cars needed new paint and a valve job.
So here we were, in Cuba and subject to the communist rule of collectivism, yet parked at the gates of a gorgeous new hotel that was modern, built for luxury, and unambiguously designed to serve the vacation whims and desires of European capitalists.
So much for the revolution.
“Well,” I said, clapping my hands. “Let’s go buy Mike some cigars.”
While Gary, my wife, and I strolled in as comfortable in the opulent surroundings as Paris Hilton’s dog in a Prada purse, Propaganda Tony trailed with his two boys looking like they’d just been transported into the Emerald City. Of course, Mrs. Tony refused to get off the bus.
And then we found the cigars. Just around the corner from the lobby was a beautiful walk-in humidor stuffed with boxes of hand-rolled Habano smokes. But as much as we pled our poor Hollywood case, the Italian hotel manager was as restricted as the next Cuban businessman when it came to accepting American credit cards. Damn the embargo.
“So sorry,” said the hotel manager, “but please. Feel free to explore our beautiful resort hotel.”
Why the hell not?
In five minutes we discovered the real Varadero Beach. Not only had the Cuban government sold the rights for this Italian company to build a luxury resort on its Leninist shore, but they’d also agreed to give up the most spectacular strip of sand in their real estate treasury. I can seriously say I’ve never seen a beach so stunning or well appointed, complete with tented sun shelters fit for oil sheiks and rows of linen-covered loungers tended by cabana boys and girls dressed in vintage 1950’s whites.
“Hey, Toto,” I said. “We’re not in Kansas anymore.”
Meanwhile, Propaganda Tony stood stock still, stared for the longest while, and for the first time in a week, his perfect English escaped him, replaced by a few choice Spanish curse words.
As spoiled Americans, we thought nothing of staying awhile on the Italian Hotel’s private beach. We swam, frolicked in the sand, and gamely tried the fine rum concoctions offered by the management as an apology for not being able to sell us cigars.
And Propaganda Tony joined in, insisting his two boys had a chance to swim and play with their old man on Cuba’s finest slice of shoreline. All the while, Mrs. Tony, afraid she’d be jailed for even knowing that such a luxury resort existed, remained hunkered under her floppy straw hat next to a stand of cork trees at the edge of the property.
“So help me out,” I said as Propaganda Tony watched his boys splash in the crystal surf. “What’s it say about a government that, on one hand, practically starves its people in the name of the common good, then with the other hand sells its finest real estate to build a resort that caters to a bunch of rich European capitalists?”
“While the rest of Cuban people aren’t even allowed to set foot here,” Gary chimed in.
“I’ll tell you what it says,” said Tony. “It says that things in my country are really fucked up.”
It was as if all that had been bottled up inside of dear Tony was released in an avalanche of angry invectives toward his beloved government. We sat at the edge of those luxury loungers, stared out at a setting sun and listened to years of pent-up-propaganda-fatigue release into the atmosphere. To Tony’s Moscow-educated mind, what had begun as a good idea had naturally devolved into a system as nearly corrupt as the last.
“Cuba really needs America,” said Tony. “She is a better mother for us than Russia.”
With that, our Cuban adventure pretty much came to a close. Though the research for the movie had gone better than expected, we’d failed in our mission to procure boxes of cigars for studio boss Mike Medavoy. As for the hotel bills and beaucoup dollars we owed for other services, Tony asked us to leave it all to him. With some luck and sleight-of-hand, he’d find some grease to make our exit persecution-free.
Our last goodbyes were at the airport. Propaganda Tony wished us well but didn’t let on if our Cuban exit had been properly foamed. Fully expecting to be arrested at any moment, we began to thread our way through the security gauntlet of khaki uniforms and AK-47s. Once again there was an issue with our three heavy bags of dive gear. We were ordered to hand over American cash or risk having the equipment confiscated as they jack-booted us from the country. Our only play was to repeatedly drop Tony’s name in a panicked chorus, which led the Sarge-in-Charge to eventually get on the phone.
“Swell,” I said to my wife. “This is where they discover about all the bills we just skipped on.”
It was a breathless hour. All the Miami-bound passengers had boarded but for the three Hollywood treasure researchers. Finally, the desk phone rang and, moments later, we were allowed to hike across the blazing tarmac to the old Russian aircraft without a clue as to whether or not any of our luggage would be traveling with us. At that point, we really didn’t care a whit about suitcases. We were a mere hour away from touching down on our home soil where I had every intention of kissing the ground.
As we parked in our assigned seats, I remarked to Gary how we’d failed in our cigar quest. He patted his jacket pocket, then revealed a cheesy Habano three-pack of stogies he’d spent our last few dollars on.
“Least we’re not coming back empty handed,” Gary said.
He was so right.
That said, Bossman Medavoy was disappointed in our token trifecta of novelty smokes. Then, by the time I’d delivered a script about a pair of brothers on a quest to find the sunken treasure that had sent their father to an early grave, the studio maven had shifted his interest and wanted the subject matter to serve as a backdrop to a tale that would appeal to his married friends, Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan. Let’s just say Gary was willing to bend to the honcho’s whims and I wasn’t. Thus came the end of our producing partnership. We didn’t talk for years.
As for Propaganda Tony? We later succeeded in smuggling some cash into the country via a foreign news crew. Our outstanding bills were finally paid and Tony’s neck was no longer hanging from the deadbeats’ noose we’d fashioned for him.
Aside from memory and some old photos, my only remnant of the trip is Soviet-styled propaganda poster celebrating Revolution Week. It was hanging from a derelict doorway when I remarked how much I admired the artwork. When I asked if I could snatch it as a souvenir, Tony warned me that removing it would constitute a crime punishable by years in prison. With that, Tony strode across the street, plucked the sign from its mooring and handed it to me.
“Something to remember Cuba by,” said Tony in his pitch perfect English. “Hang it on your office wall when you write the movie.”
I did hang it on my office wall. And there it remains to this very day.
Read my new thriller, THE SAFETY EXPERT. Available in trade paperback and ebook at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.