Our Man in Havana – Graham Greene. Cover by Derek Birdsall, 1975.
Greene served with MI6 during the Second World War and worked in the department dealing with the Iberian Peninsula. One of the German’s agents in Portugal, “Garbo”, was a double agent who pretended to control a ring of agents all over England. To support his story he invented troop movements and operations from maps and standard military references. It seems that Garbo became the inspiration for Greene’s protagonist, the reluctant secret agent James Wormold.
The novel was published before the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 but aspects of the plot anticipate the crisis in which the US and the Soviet Union came alarmingly close to nuclear war.
I visited Cuba in 2007 with my eldest son who was then 17. Will was keen to see the Bay of Pigs, scene of the failed invasion of Cuba by a CIA-sponsored paramilitary group, and to smoke the largest cigar he could get his hands on. Our plan was to travel independently, avoiding the big, “all-in” resorts. We wanted to use the network of cases particulates, rooms in private homes that the government had recently allowed Cubans to rent to tourists.
Raised on stories from the Cold War we both believed that most of what characterized Cuba in the first decade of the 21st century – crumbling buildings, old American cars, food shortages – was the result of the US trade embargo that followed the 1962 Crisis. We were unaware that much of what we would experience – including the casas particulares – stemmed from a much more recent event in world history. The dissolution of the Soviet Union led to the período especial, the economic crisis that followed the withdrawal of Soviet subsidies. We didn’t realise how bad the resultant hardship had been until we met the Cuban people who welcomed us into their homes.
Although most ordinary Cubans avoided starvation, persistent hunger was a daily experience. People ate anything they could find. Someone told us that many of the animals in the Havana zoo “disappeared” and domestic cats became sources of protein rather than affection. A taxi driver enquired how old Will was. He had a daughter the same age “but”, he asked me, “how could we bring any more children into the world when there was no food to give them?”
Malnutrition caused epidemics, but it had positive effects too. The período especial radically transformed the Cuban economy and led to the introduction of sustainable agriculture, less reliance on motor transport and the strengthening of the National Health System; Cuba’s average life expectancy is now close to that of the US.
However, in 2007, Will and I discovered that it was still much easier to buy an expensive cigar than fresh vegetables in Havana’s markets.