THE malapropisms (and misspellings) of United States politicians provide late-night comics with a rich and endless vein to mine. Just ask Vice President Dan Quayle.
But in communist Cuba, openly poking fun at El Jefe Maximo, Gen. Fidel Castro, could land you in maximo trouble. So, what would one find in Cuba's Humor Museum?
During the hour-long taxi ride to San Antonio de Los Banos, in the province of Pinar del Rio, the cab driver, Mario, shared a few jokes pertaining to what occupies the thoughts of many Cubans these days: the next meal.
"What's difference between a Cuban and a pig?" asks Mario, interrupting his monologue to point out how wide the road has become: "It's built to be a back-up airstrip in case the gringos invade.
"Tell me," he continues, "what's the difference between a Cuban and a pig?" I plead ignorance. "The Cuban is better educated, but a pig eats better."
The caliber of humor in the museum, located on a side street in a small town once famous for its mineral-water baths, is slightly more refined than our would-be Carson cabby. Actually, it would be more appropriately named a museum of political satire than humor. The bored, middle-aged woman at the entrance where one registers says this is the only permanent exhibition of cartoonists' works in Latin America. And the reason the 13-year-old museum is here, she explains, is that this town is famous for the c aricature artists born here. Unwilling or unable to answer further questions, she refers me to the museum director, who "won't be in until later. Perhaps this afternoon." Pause. "Or tomorrow."
In the first room of this converted home are caricatures of famous artists: Michael Jackson, Placido Domingo, Picasso, and various Cuban singers. Another room hosts mild caricatures, by US and Latin American standards, of some leading past and present Cuban politicians. Tucked away in a corner near the courtyard, Generalissimo Fidel makes his only appearance: a single-line profile hanging godlike over a jungle scene.
Other rooms contain political cartoons from Mexico, Bulgaria, Brazil, Czechoslovakia, and the former Soviet Union. The target of ridicule is generally the US military threat or capitalism: for example, a US-made package of cigarettes is seen being sold to a starving child. Another shows US warplanes swooping down on a poor Cuban, stealing his bread.
The most recent and, to my sense of mirth, the most original work, is a temporary exhibit by fourth-graders in a room farthest from the entrance. One portrays a woman in a string bikini saying: "This year I made four dresses and this bathing suit with just two meters of cloth." Canoas Medina garnered first prize with a drawing of a boy rubbing an antique oil lamp. The caption: "Aladdin, Aladdin! Please light the lamp because there aren't any matches!"
Mario is anxious to head back. He's hungry and doesn't have his ration card. "Can't buy anything to eat here with cash," he grumbles. A grimmer museum
Back in Havana, Mario pockets a wad of dollar bills and announces he's off to buy shoes for his six-year-old daughter. I get out on La Quinta Avenida, a stately boulevard of embassies, diplomatic stores, and old colonial mansions just 10 minutes from downtown Havana. One of the mansions is home to the year-old Museum of the Ministry of the Interior.
The first rooms are homages to the founders of the Castro intelligence service and early victories over counterrevolutionary groups. On display are grenades, Thompson submachine guns, and bloodied, bullet-holed shirts of "heroes of the revolution" or martyred agents. The identification cards of a "Charles Wilson" are shown as evidence of his role, not as a diplomat in the US embassy, but as mastermind of a US counterintelligence spy operation. There are photos of a "Ronald Patrick," branded as a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) recruit and part of a foiled attempt to smuggle in explosives, grenades, and bombmaking apparatus hidden inside 18 jumbo-size Lindsay olive cans.
Another room catalogs the assassination attempts made on Castro's life. During the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, there were at least eight plots to kill Castro, according to US Senate hearings in 1975.
One display chronicles an attempt using Mafia members who once worked in the Havana casinos. It maintains that the CIA sent them poison pills mixed in with a shipment of aspirin. The pills were to be distributed to various locations and when the opportunity arose, used to "season" Castro's last meal. They were discovered hidden in a freezer at the Hotel Habana Libre. Another diagram details a plot to throw a grenade at Castro when he was sitting in a sports stadium. Also shown are various terrorist attac ks on Cuban diplomats around the world. Recently, Cuban government officials made a well-publicized attempt to extradite from the US one of the men they believe was responsible for the bombing of a DC-8 passenger jet in 1976. They compared their efforts to that of the US trying to get Libya to turn over those accused of the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. A poster carrying the last words of the DC-8 pilot and a piece of aircraft fuselage are on display.
The next room is devoted to purported CIA spy paraphernalia. Maxwell Smart and Agent 99 fans will be in their element. No shoe phones or domes of silence, but there's a miniature camera wedged inside a disposable lighter, a shoe-polish brush and a chess board with secret compartments, a transmitter found stashed in a fake rock, codes hidden in photos, and detonator capsules discovered in a Hershey's Cocoa tin. Also included are photos of US embassy personnel making "drops" or document "pickups" in the w oods in 1987. And, of course, two shirts (one red and yellow, the other blue and white) used by "Agent Mateo" to signal if it's safe to meet or not. Also, don't miss the framed reprint of "Covert Action Magazine," which outlines possible US complicity in a Dengue fever outbreak in 1981.
On the second floor, one can relive the Bay of Pigs invasion, which is adjacent to the Border Guards room chronicling failed attempts by Cuban exiles to make an armed return. A building next-door houses the police, forensic sciences, firefighters, and rescue exhibits. The police room is guarded by "Dan," a stuffed German Shepherd, who until 1968 enjoyed more active duty as a homicide investigator.