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 Photo by David Schuster

Cuba Libre


By David Schuster

I - In the Copa Room







In the crush
of the velvet muscatel
at the Copa Club
in the pale green Riviera Hotel, New Havana
the young hookers take your hand
They ask if you have ever been with a Cuban woman they touch the inside of your thigh
and in their wide beaded eyes – adoration
such adoration to make you warm
you only met seconds ago, yet
they adore
they twitter and caw
Thhaank yoo ba-aby


And you whisper
the few words you know
Tu eres muy bonita
Her hips on the dance floor

way faster than double time

whiplash nostrils, an integer

you are certain is indivisible

Her palm against your chest

to back lead the step
You hear the rhythm talk –


Stupid Americans

Grubby Russians

Oh, Americans again


and you still confuse

desperation for adoration

Thhaank yoo ba-aby


She places her red fingernail against your lips
and pops it
just inside

Enough for you to taste a place
you awaken to without desire
but of which you are now irrevocably bound

in rhythm and sway


If you said
you paid her five pesos for a dance

then left
I would not believe you

Cuba Libre 1 - Schuster

II – The Question







Old Havana, 2:00 a.m.

The Question

hangs over this island


The Question

batters me like a storm front

When Castro dies will this
place dissolve into a commercial?


We whisper
through cobblestone alleys

pick our way over dog shit

rotting plantains...Living rooms

spill light into the street
Iron balconies fly overhead


Someone says, “Right now Cuban art

is an incubator, but when Castro dies art will go like everything else:
sugar cane

Che T-shirts



The Question?

No one seems too worried

The artists have put Castro

in his place, beard flowing

into abstraction

Cuba Libre 2 - Schuster

III – Propaganda







In the square
beside the concrete US Mission
138 black flags
flap like crows
against electronic signs
in the dark American windows
A Free Country Would Let you Travel


Each flag contains a white star

For Those Killed by US Sponsored Terrorism

A Cuban airliner was bombed

I vow to research this
when I get home


The flags flap like my mouth

like the mouth of Castro
like the mouth of Bush
real and fake at the same time

I am sick of leaders


Where all else is crumbling
Castro had the flags go up overnight

The most
post-modern thing
on this island


As I look up
to the black and whiteness
I imagine Matthew Barney

climbing each and every flagpole

The guards shoo me away
like a pigeon

Cuba Libre 3 - Schuster

IV – Salada Beach







on a deserted beach

with René
my chest flutters


that question of safety
common rules?
he doesn’t even know my words –

rock fish? grouper? moray eel?


the edge
of a shell-filled blue Cuban

horizon, my naked toes

yes, our common rules:

never stop breathing
rise as fast as the bubbles


René flips on his scuba tank

backwards in one easy motion

that tells me
no more talking safety

or how to be safe
or what it means to be safe


get                  underwater


I kick to the bottom
claw at the current
...drift toward the surface

why can’t I submerge?


René signs OK

scoops a large rock

and stuffs it in my vest

I tense             panic

try to break free


then muscles give way

more weight
more weight
here, that is safety


buoyancy leaves me

I signal OK

Cuba Libre 4 - Schuster

V – Context and Conceptualization







Toirac has been censored
exiled to his second floor studio
for painting leaders of the revolution fading

into the canvas, a succession
of ghosts


He shows his new video –

black screen, Castro’s voice,

bold white digits flash
5 minutes of excerpts from

a 4-hour speech
pockmarked with statistics
5 minutes of number after number

recited by the leader
Oh I get it, clever


But to the side of me
a rumble from our guide Giovanni
first chuckling softly
then laughing out loud
as each statistic rolls off Castro’s mouth

Giovanni laughs and laughs
until tears flow
and he bursts like a thunderstorm:

“Genius! Genius!
This artist’s a genius!
All my life those long speeches!”


On our way down

the narrow stairs
I finger
brown twine strung

along the wall



Giovanni pays it no mind
but as I stare out loud
he explains:
One pull from even the top

will undo the front latch, see?



Cuba Libre 5 - Schuster

VI – La Cabaña







The Fort of San Carlos de la Cabaña is on its best behavior
walls and walls of best behavior Paintings for the Biennial

hide the iron bars
The art lovers laugh
Do they know?
Prisoners of the Revolution were kept here

The shadow of Ché
passes to my left pushing a mop – mumbles something like
‘To send men to the firing squad judicial proof is unnecessary’

Oh be quiet, Ché, and look The floors, the walls spattered with blood
Is this how history punishes?

Primum Non Nocere First, do no harm

level the paintings
they have tilted off center

the floors please someone may slip

go to the gift shop
and buy a t-shirt
the black one, Ché
the one with your name Stare at it
like a complete man
until you understand
how They
market a Revolution
until you can answer
Is this how history punishes?

Cuba Libre 6 - Schuster

VII – The Cigar







Laborio says

The true measure of a man
is if he can smoke a Cohiba
and live
He used to ride motorcycles across the countryside
taking pictures for the newspaper


I light up
and stare at his photographs –

slicked back hair, nightclub trumpets

combat fatigues –
all of Cuba
through a smoky haze


When visitors arrive
with young models on their arms

Laborio leans forward and whispers

Those girls you know
like Cuban motorcycles, big tanks

and lots of mileage under their seats

I should know, I’m 72
No, 74, his wife corrects
No, 72


I puff on his words
try not to inhale
yet am overtaken, sucked in

like this cigar


I weave back and forth between

this life and the next –
tobacco leaves on virgin thighs

Cuba Libre, conga drums...and

cannot must not slip but I do

in this Cuban history


this Cohiba manhood

and faint dead away


When I awake

Laborio leans down

and hands me
a glass of sugar water


Am I alive or dead, I croak


I hope so Señor

I hope so

Cuba Libre 7 - Schuster

VIII – Kcho







I walk through the door
of a mansion given by Fidel

to his favorite artist


And brace for socialist realism:

steroid-pumped campañeros
giant red scythes, proud sugar harvest


Instead I fall into a swimming pool filled not with water
but with tires


A whirling dearth of water spills over the eaves
and Kcho paints with it


The absence of water flows

uphill from the beach

depositing its jetsam:


Fractured oars, plastic bottles geometric fish swimming
at impossible angles


Leftovers become

something else
but just as important


Like this island filled

with landlocked
empty swimming pools


An island
a step removed

from what it was

Cuba Libre 8 - Schuster

IX- Havana Mogadishu







The boys on the tour bus

are from LA
they boast
about a place in Havana

they name Mogadishu

a place where the B-girls

take them


Somewhere deep they know
this is not Somalia
nor Black Hawk Down
but knowledge of the ground
is not important, not here
not in the crawl of Hollywood eyes Bollywood sighs

and oh god
I want to be like them


I want to be like them
so I can say this place is fucked up
but in a good way, so I can play baseball with kids in the street and believe it is more than baseball in the street, so I can ask

our guide why everybody stays


So I can see
through my own Hollywood eyes

hear my own Bollywood sighs

and believe I am a prince
of Mogadishu

Cuba Libre 9 - Schuster

X – The Paladar







Paladar: Family-run restaurant in a Cuban home;

illegal, but unofficially tolerated.


Come into the paladar make yourself at home

we ran out of food
but it doesn’t matter

rice beans and fish

pile high in our heads


Party members, police?

oh, don’t worry
they eat here too on

our green Formica

and bright orange chairs

sit with us, talk
see the Cuba in you


Plates in the sink
let us wash them
the musician engineer
will dry, a taxi-driving doctor

will stack – clink clank
hear that?


(See the Cuba in you

bangs in my head, asking

for a piece of my flesh)


Come let us walk
find hidden beats
the gentle weave of the crowds

the narrow streets
the flood of water crashing

down the Malecon
wearing it impossibly smooth


Goodbye for now, but promise
promise you won’t forget
the swish of a yellow washcloth
on a table that has served more

guests than we have memory


(See the Cuba in you

nudges pushes

piercing my flesh)

Cuba Libre 10 - Schuster

David Schuster, pictured here in Cuba in 2006, is a writer and a physician who teaches at Emory University. He is the author of the novel See The Thread Drop. Please visit

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