Gustavo PÉrez Firmat

from: HAVANA HABIT (2010)

In You'll Never Get Rich (1941), the first of two musicals in which Fred Astaire teamed up with Rita Hayworth, Fred plays a Broadway dance director who agrees to put on a show at the army base where he is stationed. During the rehearsal, he instructs the stagehands: "I want a tree right here"--and a fake palm tree appears; "Bring me a house"--and a Spanish-style facade slides onto the stage; "Boys, now I want an ocean"--and the boys bring in the backdrop: a large image of the entrance to Havana harbor as viewed from the seaside avenue called El Malecón. Once the scenery is in place, Rita Hayworth appears, looking señorita-lovely in a sheer black dress with a ruffled skirt. Leaning against the palm tree, Fred launches into Cole Porter's "So Near and Yet So Far," whose lyric seems to allude both to Rita and to Havana. After Fred sings, he and Rita dance the most elegant rumba ever captured on film (fig. 1).

Fred's creation of a mock Havana in a movie that otherwise has nothing to do with Cuba--he is about to be shipped off to Panama--not only puts on display American perceptions about Latin America--rhythmic, romantic, fickle--but illustrates the centrality of Cuba to these perceptions. No other Latin American nation has left as pervasive an imprint on this country's cultural landscape as that long island in the Caribbean. Jon Lee Anderson, the author of a book about Che Guevara, puts it this way: "I think Cuba is part of our psyche, our own historical landscape, and it inhabits part of our imagination as no other place does."1 Anderson is right. Few nations anywhere have enjoyed--and endured as close a relationship with the United States. For more than two centuries, the two countries have been linked by what William McKinley in 1899 termed "ties of singular intimacy," a close but contentious relationship that has produced rapprochements, disappointments, misunderstandings, embargos, embarques, and, every once in a while, a military occupation. If Cubans have always regarded los americanos with a mixture of fascination, fear, lust, disdain, and envy, Americans, for their part, have looked on Cubans with mixed feelings of their own. Ever since John Quincy Adams compared the island to an apple ready to drop into the lap of the United States, Cuba has been the object, and sometimes the target, of American desires. For Americans, Cuba has been both mirror and mirage: a magnified reflection of domestic anxieties as well as a beckoning oasis of otherness.