Friday, March 09, 2007

Of Art and Revolution
Selling Off a Family's Treasured Art

Photo: Ruben (C) is joined by Emilio (L) and another employee during the measurement of a painting purchased in central Havana.

Emilio navigated his vintage Russian Lada along muddy back roads flanked by weeds and shrubbery that hid every side road and makeshift house in a typical rural Cuban community. Here, away from the prying eyes of the Committees for Defense of the Revolution, out of earshot of the National Revolutionary Police, everyday men and women had constructed their own homes from concrete brick and corrugated tin. No special government licenses here, no need to fear what you said regarding the “Commandante.” This impoverished community was one extended family, hiding out amid a forest of reeds and trees only a few miles from one of Fidel Castro’s own private compounds on Avenida Quinta.

In my lap on the passenger’s seat, I held a painting I’d recently purchased at an art fair in central Havana. After having mentioned to my cousin Emilio that I’d like to find someone who could build me a suitable frame from Cuban cedar, he replied that he knew just the man.

Ruben is a slight, quiet man with a rolling paunch of a belly whose missing fingers are a tell-tale sign of his trade. A carpenter all his life, he had been born into a typical middle-class family at the time of the revolution’s triumph in 1959. Now nearing 50, Ruben lives with his mother, wife and children in a small but well-built brick home, surrounded by tall weeds near the waters west of Havana. He had toiled over the course of a year to construct the home on his own and took great pride in showing me the beautiful cedar trim he had shaped by hand in his backyard workshop. There, several friends assisted Ruben in a rudimentary carpentry shop, building everything from doors to caskets, all from beautifully fragrant Cuban cedar. The workshop wasn’t state-sanctioned so its location, hidden off his town’s main drag, Avenida Quinta, kept him far away from prying eyes.

Photo: Ruben (L) measures a painting before creating a new frame.

Measurements taken, deals struck, we cracked open a bottle of Havana Club rum and took a break from Cuba’s intense June heat, sitting down to chat beneath the blue tarp that cover Ruben’s benches and machinery. Setting down his empty rum glass, Ruben stood up and walked back to the workbench. A smile appeared on his face as he pulled a cardboard tube out from a pile of picture frame moldings and raw cedar stock. Ushering me over to the bench he unrolled a painting that had been a part of his family’s collection since the initial years of the revolution. There before me sat an original Wilfredo Lam painting dated 1961.

Photo: The painting in question.

“Listen,” said Ruben . . . “you can have it for ten grand. This thing’s probably worth four times that but what the hell am I going to do with a 40,000 dollar painting when I can barely support my family? If you can smuggle it out of here, it’s yours.” I knew the painting was valuable and I also knew that several thousand dollars in Ruben’s pocket would go very far in supporting him and his extended family. The money I could make putting the canvas on the auction block could also have done a great deal of good for my own aunts, uncles and cousins but, how to get it out? Upon my return to New York City I consulted the sister of a dear friend, a prominent painter who shall remain nameless. “Jean” had several contacts in the seedy world of smugglers and I figured “what the hell.” My plans were ludicrous to say the least. I had run through a number of scenarios from buying another painting in Havana in order to obtain the necessary stamp needed to export art from the national territory to hiring a small yacht on which I could hide the painting in a secret compartment but nothing convinced me that I’d ever be able to pull off such a hair-brained scheme. And then there was the question of Cuban patrimony. The idea of actively working to take a piece of Cuba’s national heritage off the island seemed more than a bit distasteful. I certainly didn’t want to sink to the level of the revolutionary hierarchy that had seized hundreds of valuable paintings from Cuban families in the early 60s, only to begin selling some of the confiscated works via the world’s most celebrated auction houses 30-plus years later. This was not for me.

That summer, Ruben became what I consider a close friend. He had known my cousin Emilio for years and always treated me like a brother. I wanted nothing more than to help him but, well, shit. I’m no art smuggler and I suppose you could say my moral compass was more than a bit erratic when I attempted to justify my plans.

The painting? Ruben was never able to find a buyer – too dangerous. As far as I know, that $40,000 masterpiece is still rolled up in a cardboard tube, lost amid a stack of hand tools and wood, destined to remain in the dark until God knows when.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The 40-Year Wait
A Collision of Two Worlds

As a young child, Cuba was nothing more than a fictitious place that existed only the minds of my mother, grandparents, aunts and uncles. The representation of Cuba in the media and in school textbooks was that of an impoverished third-world country, and not the prosperous society of my family’s memories. Cuba for me simply boiled down to a variety of items in the New Jersey home of my grandmother Lola; a few framed photographs hanging on the wall of her TV room, a safe full of jewelry smuggled out of the island in the early sixties, and a dog-eared book held together by Scotch-tape, titled “Memories of the Cuba We Left Behind.”

“79 views in full natural color,” boasted the little tattered booklet. My grandmother had paged through its depictions of the Cuba that once was on countless occasions and it showed. There were no photographs of decaying facades in Havana, no depictions of tourist-only hotels in Varadero, rather, the image presented was that of a bustling nation of middle-class workers, old world architecture, clean streets and Woolworth’s five-and-dimes. I was never quite able to wrap my head around “the two Cubas.” Until the Spring of 2001, the Pearl of the Antilles was nothing more then a few dozen musty items withering away in dark drawers and dusty bookcases.

Photo: Crowds pass by a Woolworth's five-and-dime at the intersection of Galiano and San Rafael in pre-revolutionary Cuba."

After news arrived from relatives in Miami that my grandfather Gerardo’s brother Emilio and sister-in-law Cuca had finally been awarded exit visas to travel to the U.S. from Cuba for a ten-day visit, I realized that after 20-some-odd years of wondering about what Cuba had become, I’d be able to truly understand. Emilio and Cuca were for me, the embodiment of what had happened to the island. Already married with children at the time of the revolution, they had experienced the full circle of recent Cuban history: from first-world economy to third-world disaster. They had seen it all.

Photo: Gerardo Quintanal addresses a business meeting in 1960.

At first however, Gerardo wanted nothing to do with the reunion. Looking back on the Spring of 2001, his daughter Rosi theorizes that he feared the arrival of Carlos would spark his death. Eventually however, he relented to fate and agreed to meet a man and woman he hadn’t seen since the Winter of 1960.

When the door opened at the Quintanal residence on May 26, 2001, two worlds collided. Gerardo grabbed his cane and eased his tired body up from a chair in the corner of the living room and set eyes on what had become a stranger. Emilio was not the 40-year-old pediatrician who bade farewell to his brother in 1960, thinking he’d be hack in a matter of months. Rather, he was a wrinkled man of eighty who had watched over the ancestral home their father had built 60 years earlier as it decayed in a syncopated rhythm with the revolution. For 40 years, Gerardo’s chair at the head of the Sunday dinner table in Havana had sat empty – Emilio refusing to take his place at what he felt was rightfully his brother’s spot. Now, amid the manicured lawns of suburban New Jersey, the brothers Quintanal would sit together at the head of a new table, surrounded by an even larger family than the one that ceased to exist after Fidel Castro had rolled triumphantly into downtown Havana decades earlier.

Photo: Emilio Quintanal, at his residence in Cuba.

What struck me the most about the reunion that day was the initial lack of tears. I had expected a symphony of welled-up waterworks but witnessed a sort of quiet shock instead. Gerardo stood silent and wide-eyed throughout the first moments of the reunion, seemingly unable to speak. He knew he wouldn’t last past Emilio and Cuca’s return to Havana and it was alright. They had done what the Castro regime had tried so hard to prevent for so long. For seven days in May, they had rebuilt a bridge torn asunder by a revolution’s broken promises, and less than two years later, I would find myself sitting in the chair my grandfather once occupied every Sunday more than four decades earlier during those compulsory family meals in Havana.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Night Castro Came Calling

In an effort to set the scene for yesterday's article, titled "The Night Castro Came Calling," I've posted original Universal Newsreel footage from 1959, chronicling the events of New Year's Day 1959 in Havana.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Night Castro Came Calling

Photo: From her home in suburban Pennsylvania, Rosi Quintanal remarks: "It was a joke that turned real."

“It was a joke that turned real, nobody thought these guys were going to win. They would walk into the Catholic churches, trying to win over the clergy and end up genuflecting on the wrong knee. They marched into Havana wearing rosary beads and look at what they did.”

My mother was old enough to remember the early days of the revolution with vivid detail. On New Year’s Day, 1959, the family awoke at home in Miramar without the knowledge that Batista had fled. The prior evening, they had enjoyed a typical Cuban New Year’s Eve meal of pork, black beans and rice and the essential 12 grapes eaten typically by Spanish families at the stroke of midnight. The only difference this time was the uncertainty that pervaded the festivities. It was quieter than usual on that night. For months, the rag-tag group of bearded rebels, holed up in the mountains were considered nothing more than a farce by the island’s middle and upper class citizens. An upstart like Fidel Castro didn’t have a chance against a Cuban behemoth the likes of Fulgencio Batista. Corrupt or not, he was a powerhouse in those days, a man who had presided over the island nation’s most prosperous years and besides, everyone knew Fidel was a communist. The evidence went all the way back to the Bogotazo riots of 1948, when Castro, then 21, was part of a group of rioters that destroyed the Colombian capital following the assassination of liberal leader, Jorge Eliecer Gaitan. The evidence was all there. Why on Earth would Cuba’s citizens allow a rabble-rousing Fidel to take hold of the reigns?

Early that morning, my grandmother Lola heard voices on the second floor of the house. Her brother Ernesto and father, Ramon were in the midst of a serious conversation when she snuck down the steps from her third floor bedroom and tip-toed barefoot to her father’s bedroom door. At the foot of his bed, Ramon Villalobos, one of Cuba’s most powerful industrialists, sat with a look of disbelief on his face. Running a hand through his disheveled hair, he listened as Ernesto told him the news. Batista had fled, providing Fidel with a de-facto win. The revolution was over. Ramon sat silently for a moment, gathered his composure and remarked. “Now begin the bad times.”

Photo: Lola (C) with daughter Rosi and son Gerardo at the
family residence in Miramar.

He wasn’t born into money. Those serving as apologists for the revolution often remark that Cuba’s middle and upper class population deserved what they got from the Castro machine. They were born into lives of privilege, never having worked a day in their lives. The revolution was for the downtrodden and if those of financial means were taken down as scapegoats in the process, so-be-it. Ramon Villalobos however, hadn’t come from a wealthy background. He was a penniless immigrant from the Mallorcan village of Estellences when he arrived in Havana at the age of 15. Mallorcans, like many of Spain’s inhabitants at the turn of the 20th century, were enamored by Cuba. An ironic fact considering that only seven years earlier, Spanish soldiers had a fought a bloody war against a Cuban insurgency backed by the United States in a bid for independence that would later seal Cuba’s fate as a pseudo-colony of her immense brother to the north.

Photo: Ramon Villalobos (2R) aboard a ship undergoing repairs in his Havana shipyrad. Circa 1955.

Villalobos had begged his father to allow him to make the lengthy journey alone. In April of 1905, his father, a Mallorcan tomato farmer, gave his oldest son his blessing. To ease the voyage for him, Atanasio Villalobos arranged for a prep cook on board the steamship to look after the boy. Half a century later, Ramon, by that time, a well-known Cuban industrialist, would return to his hometown with a family of his own in tow. While en-route to Mallorca aboard a cruise ship, his chauffer was busy washing one of the Chevrolets brought along for the trip when an elderly man approached, asking to whom the two shiny new vehicles belonged. Upon hearing the response, he replied that he would have to see Palmer at once. It was imperative.

Ramon was a man of formalities and etiquette, the spur-of-the-moment request was met with confusion and just a bit of disdain. Taking one of his sons with him, he set off from his private quarters for the ship's garage. There, seated beside a 1953 Chevrolet sat the aged prep cook. His face had wrinkled and creased with the passage of time but he was instantly recognized. Five decades later, he still worked aboard a trans-Atlantic ship. Sheer luck had brought the men together again. As a child, I was told of a lengthy embrace between the two men, a detail that flabbergasted my grandmother, as her father was known for his stoicism and not his outward expressions of emotion.

Fifty-four years after his arrival in Cuba, Ramon Villalobos would suffer a massive stroke as a result of the stress produced by the communist victory in Cuba. No, Fidel hadn’t yet declared himself a Marxist-Leninst in the Spring of ‘59, but many on the island already feared the worst, something that was confirmed when the reports of mass executions began to emerge from the dark corners of Cuban prisons the likes of Havana’s infamous La Cabaña fortress.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Kodachrome and Silver
First of a Series

Photo: Ramon Villalobos (L), founder of the Villalobos Shipyards, the largest industrial shipyard in Cuba at the time of the revolution, standing beside a wooden vessel undergoing repairs, circa 1957. Villalobos would succumb to a stroke less than two years after this photograph was taken, overcome by the stress incurred as a result of the victory of Castro's forces on January 1, 1959. He had harbored fears of the rebel leader's communist bent and watched one-by-one as longtime friends - who up until that point had remained apolitical in their lives - were rounded up, imprisoned or summarily executed. Until recently, the Cuban government ran the shipyard in a joint venture with the Curacao Drydock Company.

The visual disparities between Cuba in the days before Fidel Castro and today are usually quite striking. In speaking with curious minds who possess no connections with the island or perhaps haven’t studied her history, I’m always surprised at the common perception of Cuba having always been a backwater third-world country.

Looking back on the years before 1959, Cuba was one of the most prosperous nations in Latin America. An island composed of a vast middle class and a rather substantial upper class, Cuba’s progressive labor, education and health laws rivaled those of any of the world’s nations at that time. The Cuban peso was often on par with the U.S. dollar and at some points, was actually valued higher. Look at it this way, imagine a comfortable middle class existence in the United States. You’re essentially looking at Cuba in 1959.

Photo: A Villalobos Line freighter in Havana Harbor, circa 1955. The line, one of the largest in the Carribbean, was once a frequent carrier of cargo between the ports of Havana and Pensecola, Florida.

Of course one can’t bring all this to light without mentioning the fact that President Fulgencio Batista – himself a dictator – had opened the door to Castro’s revolutionaries with his undemocratic rule. Suspending the 1940 constitution, a progressive document well respected in the region, was the death knell for his administration and the beginning of the end for any sort of real positive change on the island. This was one of many breezes that fanned the flames of a revolution which later helped install a dictatorship that continues to this day.

With that I offer you an image of the “days before Fidel.” I’ll be revisiting this topic once a week, each time with a different photograph culled from my archives. Enjoy.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Flying the Coop
Part IV of IV

Photo: The waters off the Havana suburb of Santa Fe served as the setting-off point for Matos' adjutants in 1960.

For two more nights, Matos’ adjutants remained hidden in their lavish hideaway. A block away, Villalobos’ brother, Balle had a clear view to the back side of the house. Every evening, he watched for the pre-established signal – the flip of a light switch – that all was well. Although the gunfire of the first night had gone unnoticed, worry continued to grip the household. The jailbreak had rocked the revolutionary government and become the primary source of gossip throughout Havana’s café’s and bars. Finally, on October 14, 1960, Barandela, Bequer, Suarez and the others were transported to the nearby beach town of Santa Fe, just west of Havana. It was from there, in the light of day, that the men took leave of Cuba in a small motorboat. Running out of fuel near a U.S. Navy bombing range off Marquesas Key the following day, the men were recovered by a Coast Guard vessel that towed them to safety and were eventually transported to Miami. Aside from the initial Coast Guard mishap at Morro Castle and Matos’ unexpected transfer, the plan had been executed flawlessly, with no one the wiser of Villalobos’s involvement. He returned to his normal routine for several days until Rene Suarez, an official with Castro’s G-2 military police unit paid him an unexpected visit. Handing him an arrest warrant detailing the actions he’d undertaken, Suarez asked him for a reply regarding the accusations. In a brief fit of anger and condescension, Villalobos replied that the allegations were all true, “Where do you want me to sign?” Surprised, Suarez pulled back to chat with another officer that had come along to make the arrest. After a few tense moments he returned to Villalobos, confessing that in the days before the revolution, he’d worked for a commercial fishing supply house that had dealings with the Villalobos shipyards. Suarez went on to admit that he too had experienced a change of heart regarding the revolution after having taken notice of the political purges and arbitrary imprisonments that were becoming all too common on the island. Ultimately, he revealed his plans to flee Cuba and told Villalobos he would report to his superiors that he was nowhere to be found. At the very least, this would buy him some time to arrange for a seat on the 9 a.m. Pan-American flight to Miami.

“In those days, the Pan-Am flights were booked 3 or 4 months in advance,” says Villalobos. Owing to the high demand for seats by those fleeing the new government, the idea of securing a ticket within 48-hours must have seemed ludicrous. Never-the-less, he approached Laurriano Fernandez, president of Havana’s Dussaq and Torral travel agency. An old friend who had received a great deal of business from the Villalobos family over the years, Fernandez replied that a it would be impossible to book a ticket on such short notice.

Photo: A 1950s-era Dussaq and Torral ticket envelope.

Villalobos describes what happened several hours later as a “miracle from God.” After imploring Fernandez to do anything possible, he waited anxiously with his brother in a rear office until a seat was finally procured. The fact that a booking was finally arranged – under a fictitious name – seemed impossible however. “I was terrified that this was a trap they had set for me to get me in the airport and arrest me in a big publicity stunt.”

At 8:45 in the morning, Eugenio Villalobos stepped into a Pan-American airplane at Jose Marti International Airport. He would never touch Cuban soil again. About two hours later he rang the doorbell of 7820 Collins Avenue, Miami, Florida. A squat woman with kind eyes answered the door. Surprised and happy to see him, she asked how long he’d be staying. Embracing her, he replied ,“Forever, mother, forever.”

Photo: The Villalobos residence in 1957 and again in more recent years.

Today the house on Fifth Avenue that saw so much drama in the autumn of 1960 is no longer a private residence. Run by the Cuban Ministry of Education as a hotel for visiting foreign students, the topiary bushes that were once kept immaculately trimmed have long-since grown up and over the property’s wrought iron gates. The marble staircase that Barandela, Bequer and Suarez climbed on that fateful evening has long since lost its lustrous polish. In a twist of irony, the hotel was named Villa Eulalia, owing to that designation having been incorporated into the main gate by Ramon Villalobos in homage to his wife, Eulalia Roca. In 2001, the American descendants of Ramon Villalobos - myself included - visited the home that they’d grown up hearing so much about for the very first time. As I sat listening to a hotel employee’s account of having heard the ghostly footsteps of my great-grandfather while standing in what was once my grandparents’ bedroom, a knowing smile ran across my face when I looked up toward the rear wall of the room. A small pock-mark scarred the old plaster and I couldn’t help but wonder whether or not it was a bullet hole.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Flying the Coop
Part III of IV

Photo: The Villalobos family residence in Havana's Miramar neighborhood. Circa 1957.

At around 1 a.m. on the morning of October 10, 1960, the prisoners, accompanied by four complicit guards, made their way down to the shoreline below Morro Castle with several uniforms safely packed. Hiding amid the shoreline rocks, they could see the faint lights of a ship far off in the distance and began to send the pre-established signal. Whether the signal light was obscured and not visible by the cutter, or the Coast Guard had pulled the plug on the operation is unknown. No raft ever arrived to recover the group. From then on, the men would have to resort to fallback plans and improvisation. Taking to the water, the group swam a few hundred yards to a stretch of shoreline near an auto tunnel that cuts through the Bay of Havana. Donning the stolen military uniforms, they were able to hitch rides into the city’s downtown area sometime later in the pre-dawn hours. From a safe-house, the men made contact with Villalobos, who would await the arrival of half the group at the family residence in the city’s Miramar neighborhood, then home to Cuba’s most prominent families. Some time later, the gates of 601, Fifth Avenue creaked open. The headlights of a car illuminated the darkened home’s interior as Villalobos emerged from the mansion’s garage-side entrance to usher the men inside. The mansion, with its lights extinguished, took on a forbidding air as the men found their way up a winding marble staircase into what had once been the bedroom of Eugenio’s sister and brother-in-law. Only two months earlier, they had fled to Miami along with their children and Eugenio’s mother, and were unaware of the developments back in Havana. Villalobos gave Captain Raul Barandela a revolver to use in case anything went awry. With that, the fugitive collapsed on a soft bed for the first time in months and drifted off to sleep, the revolver safe below his pillow.

Photo: Huber Matos' adjutants were housed in a second floor bedroom highlighted in this black and white photograph.

The following morning found Villalobos in his Havana office, awaiting further instructions on how to smuggle the men out of the country when his phone rang. His sister Nena shouted frantically on the other end of the line that a gunshot had gone off in the bedroom upstairs. Terrified that the shot might have been heard by Havana’s now ubiquitous militiamen, she begged her brother to get back to the house as quickly as possible. Entering the house, Villalobos went straight for the upstairs bedroom where he found all five men, alive and well. At some point during the early morning hours, while the exhausted men slept, one of the guards, doubting the promises of a space on the boat out of Cuba, had attempted suicide. Fearing he was about to be left behind and sold-out, he pulled the revolver, ever-so-gently, out from beneath Barandela’s pillow. A struggle ensued as the five men fought for possession of the gun and a shot pierced the quiet of the vast mansion. Barandela eventually regained control of the weapon but it took Villalobos some time to reassure the frightened guard that no one would be left behind before he was finally put at ease.

Photos: Villalobos family photos taken at the family's residence, where Matos' adjutants would later be hidden.

In the early years of the revolutionary government, militiamen were a common sight in Havana’s neighborhoods. The ever-present threat of a U.S. invasion or an internal uprising was constantly on the minds of the revolutionary hierarchy, which dispatched pairs of eyes throughout the capital city’s many neighborhoods. Villalobos would have to concoct an excuse for the sound of gunfire that had pierced the quiet of the upscale neighborhood. Taking a starter’s pistol as well as several other toys from his nephew’s bedroom closet, he littered the floor of the foyer with every manner of toy car, plush animal and, of course, the pistol. Reasoning he would simply explain to any curious police or militiamen that the boy had been playing with the starter’s pistol inside the house, Eugenio Villalobos, his sister Nena and their nervous guests settled down for another night at the house on Fifth Avenue. It would prove to be a nerve-wracking evening of waiting for a knock on the door that luckily, never came.

Please return for part IV on 2/1/07
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