Havana -- a cornucopia of '54 chevys

Where but in Cuba could a sporting, sun-worshiping visitor spend just a single hour at the beach in three days and still come away with a profoundly rewarding set of experiences? Never mind that too many hours were given over to watching high-kicking, 1950s nightclub shows and dining on bland hotel-style food: That was part of the tour. And besides, my Cuban curiosity was so whetted after 20 years I would have been happy sitting on a curb in downtown Havana counting '54 Chevys.

Yesteryear waits around every corner, in the design and decor of the hotels, in the entertainment, and in the lovable, lamented old cars (when was the last time you saw a Nash or a Henry J?) which are kept operable, in the absence of available American parts, by a busy little cottage industry. My second surprise on arriving in Havana, the first being the scarcity of armed, uniformed personnel at Jose Marti International Airport, was the sight of a late 1940s Mercury convertible resting by the curb, covered with a stitched canvas top. I did everything but genuflect before the long lost beauty.

It should be noted that there are plenty of Russian and Polish cars and a lot of Russian-made motorcycle sidecars. At first the sidecars brought to mind World War II and the Eastern Front -- except that in Cuba many of these three-wheelers are brightly painted and carry husband, wife, child, or mother-in-law. In general the Soviet presence (despite an estimated $10 million a day in aid from Moscow) is not overwhelming. There are Russian naval and cargo ships in the harbor, occasional signboards featuring Brezhnev, Lenin, Marx , Engels. Here and there you spot red-cheeked Slavic faces, and on that weekend in late September, photos of two hand-clasping cosmonauts -- one black, one white -- celebrated the first joint Soviet-Cuban space mission.

Behind the surface impressions, at least two thoughts struck home: that Havana is the handsomest city in the West Indies or perhaps anywhere in the hemisphere and that the Cubans, whatever has taken place since Fidel (no one calls him Castro) came out of the mountains in the late 1950s, are by no means a low-spirited, repressed-looking people. It may be that wherever they go, Cubans are too lively and independent, too diverse and intelligent to be cut and stamped by one ideology.

My Spanish deficiencies reduced intellectual contact, but I learned volumes about the Cuban spirit in a rare and illuminating event at Revolution Square on Sept. 27. It was the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the party structure, and Fidel was there to speak to a crowd of 300,000 or more. We had the afternoon off from the tour, and though our leaders -- the head of American Air Ways Charters in Hialeah, Fla., which flies groups from Miami to Havana, and a local guide with Cubatur, the government tour agency -- didn't exactly recommended the rally as afternoon diversion, no one advised us not go go.

By late morning -- Fidel was to speak at 6 p.m. -- flatbed trucks were rolling in from the country with loads of men and women, most of them wearing red berets and bandanas. They waved, laughed, and hollered at us somewhat puzzled, heat-slowed Yankee onlookers. To me they did not look, as one of our group suggested, like a captive audience trucked in to swell the adoring ranks. When I set out at 5:30 from the Riviera Hotel, in the lobby of which scores of Cubans were watching the rally on TV, the streets leading to the square were thick with humanity. Some were standing, sitting, snacking, some were heading toward the square, others strolling away. It was a kind of low-key fiesta.

We were followed, my two friends and I, by curious gazes. I read no hostility. We might have been three Gray Panthers at a punk rock concert. At the edge of the huge paved square the crowd grew thicker, and now I could see on a gassy slope beneath a stone statue of Jose Marti a familiar figure in Army greens, dark beard, and red beret waving from the podium. His voice, that riveting staccato, rang across the plaza to a building hung with a large mural likeness of Che Guevarra, done in pop-art style. From another building a red-bannered mural blared in Spanish: "Against the Blockade. Against the Naval Base. Against the Spy Flights."

So it was not a Welcome Yankee rally. Yet Fidel's speech seemed not to carry an anti-US theme, and as the day's heat faded, and the dropping sun filled the clouds with silvery shafts, I stood among the milling, clapping, leaning, sitting (some were on the pavement, using each other's backs for support) Cubanos feeling a shared peace and harmony. If I carried away a single image it was of a handsome black man standing nearby, a transistor radio pressed to his ear, his eyes cast down, and his son propped on a shoulder waving a large Cuban flag.

After a while, with Fidel still speaking and lights beginning to come on in metal towers around the square, I left and walked back to the hotel, impressed as much as anything with the patience, the stamina of the Cuban crowds. "Patience?" a Cuban said to me that night. "Fidel usually goes on for three or four hours. Today we had to wait only an hour and a half."

As for Havana (and there will be more on that and on the logistics of visiting Cuba in a forthcoming column), it is a capital of surpassing beauty that despite a sense of disuse and decay still brims with well-clipped parks, flowered courtyards, waterfront promenades, unmarred monuments, some third world high-rises, and an automobile fleet that may make you weep for whitewalls, hula hoops, and Sid Caesar.

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