Herman Portocarero, a Belgian-born writer and former diplomat of Spanish and Portuguese descent, likes to say his new book about Havana picks up where the travel guides leave off.
Part memoir, part history and part travelogue, “Havana without Makeup” (Turtle Point Press) will take you places you would never find in a guide book. Portocarero explores what he calls the cave at the end of the world where Cuban Revolutionary Che Guevara holed up during the Cuban Missile Crisis, buildings “gone organic,” and “decidedly un-touristy barrios” like La Vibora, Lawton and Diez de Octubre.
The retired diplomat had two distinct incarnations in Havana. He served as Belgium’s ambassador to Cuba from April 1995 until August 1999 and then returned in October 2012 to spend almost five years as the European Union’s ambassador, coinciding with an era when Cuba has been on the cusp of transformation.
The publication of Portocarero’s latest book had to wait until his retirement from the diplomatic corps. It came out shortly after he left Havana in late August.
This is not a book about rum drinks, classic cars or cruise ship passengers being guided through Old Havana. Instead, it’s an exploration of a moody, exuberant and sensual city that is full of contradictions. Portocarero says he tried to go beyond the stereotypes as he examines racism, the Revolution, art, Santería, budding entrepreneurs, bloggers, baseball, Hemingway in Cuba and more.
“I hope it offers a better understanding of the complexities of Havana,” Portocarero says.
So instead of advising visitors to have their mojitos in La Bodeguita del Medio, a Havana tourist trap, and their daiquiris in El Floridita, as legend says Ernest Hemingway did, Portocarero casts doubt on the myth that is so attractive to tourists.
Drinking episodes away from his finca outside Havana had become “increasingly difficult” in Hemingway’s latter days in Cuba, Portocarero writes, and his Cuban staff said “he never did understand much about the country, apart from cockfights and struggling swordfish.”
“I tried to describe Hemingway as Cubans saw him,” he says. “Hemingway was always a stranger in Havana. He lived in his own universe. Toward the end of his life he had a lot of things to think about and digest. In real life, he wasn’t too connected here.”
In fact, he says, one witty bar owner recently put up a sign that says “Hemingway never entered here.”
As for that cave out in the Sierra Candelaria in Pinar del Rio province, west of Havana, where Guevara took up residence in October 1962, Portocarero calls it “one of the crucial locations of twentieth-century world history.” Most of the Soviet missiles were located in the nearby hills and it is here in the Cueva de Portales that Guevara set up headquarters for the western front.
While here, Portocarrero says, Guevara wrote “one of the scariest pieces of writing” of the 20th century that “says in essence, that the people will march unafraid into the nuclear holocaust as the final redemption of the just.”
Portocarero made many of his discoveries about the heart and soul of Havana during walks through the city and nocturnal rambles. “I love to walk in any city. You’re less protected and therefore more exposed to all types of exchanges. It’s a slower pace so you take in more detail. You’re more into organic things,” says Portocarero.
He counts Havana as “one of the three great mythical cities of Latin America,” along with Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro. But he says each has very different charms.
Portocarero finds Habaneros to be an “incredibly talented, creative people.” Despite the restraint of Communist social controls, “creativity is never held on a leash. There is a lot of joy,” he says. “But Havana is also a mixture of raw energy and melancholy.
“All these contradictory elements blending together are what makes Havana so seductive and appealing,” he says.
“I am convinced that Havana is all about people,” he writes in the book. But he also professes a fascination with the city’s built environment. In Havana, he says, “the border between flesh and stone is blurry.”
Even in their rundown state, says Portocarero, the city’s many crumbling buildings “exude a radiance.”
Unlike New York, where he also lived, he says Havana was never gentrified or sanitized, allowing many layers of history to coexist. “You see the passing of time and what it does to beauty,” Portocarero says, “but even as a ruin, Havana is still very elegant. There is beauty in decay and there is also truth in it.”
For the most part, he says, he tried to stay away from politics, preferring to concentrate “on the deepest roots of the city and her people.”
But asked about the delicate moment that Havana and Cuba as a whole is now living with the détente between the United States and Cuba in jeopardy, he says: “I hope Cuba and the United States find a way to get along. You cannot undo history and you cannot undo geography.”
Speaking now as a private citizen and not an EU diplomat, Portocarero says, “I think any step backward from dialogue is a mistake. When we disagree, we have to talk the most.”
But even when he discusses architecture, politics creep in. “Everything is political in Cuba and architecture is certainly often a political signature,” he writes.
While he says the grand buildings of the colonial era have found respect again and are being refurbished, “other architectural epochs and systems may have been at least unconsciously political.” He thinks that until recently there wasn’t as much political will to preserve some 20th century buildings “because the Revolution deeply disapproved of the sophisticated, bourgeois life and leisure reflected by those decors.”
Portocarrero is especially enthusiastic about the Art Deco buildings from the landmark Bacardí Building to the headquarters of the Cuban Freemasons.
“If you think you’ve seen the best of the tropical-deco movement in Miami’s South Beach, now think Havana,” he writes. “There’s an incredible treasury of the best examples of the style spread out all over the city.”
But it is another built structure that truly attracts him: the iconic Malecón seawall, which is sometimes compared to the wall that came down in Berlin in 1989. “We sit on the wall along the Malecón and watch the ocean and the clouds, waiting for the future to arrive like a ship from another world,” he writes in the postscript of his book, “but uncertain as to the color of its sails.”
Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi