Cubans imagine a world where old enemies come together

By Chris Cloonan

Ricardo Borges poses for a portrait behind the Hotel Inglaterra's rooftop bar. Paul Harding/JWW

HAVANA – To the outside observer, Ricardo Borges is just a bartender working the overnight shift at a hotel in Havana. Take a closer look, however, and it becomes clear he is much more than that. He is a man who embodies a revolution, a man who has much more to offer his customer than a Cuba Libre.

Borges is a 53-year-old man who has lived his life under the rule of the 26th of July Movement, that of Fidel Castro. He doesn’t have many material possessions. But what he has, he loves. His most prized possession is an old acoustic guitar, received from a German tourist looking to give the gift to someone who’d surely appreciate it.

As he sits behind the bar with his guitar on his knee, Borges recounts childhood days spent listening to The Beatles, sometimes off an LP record his older brother bought while traveling abroad, other times from radio signals picked up from Miami. He was careful to keep the volume low so the authorities wouldn’t hear.

The Beatles’ music was banned in 1960’s Cuba and he did not dare defy the law.

As he serenades his guests with Beatles cover songs, a customer mentions the statue of John Lennon located in Havana. Borges’ face lights up.

He beams as he tells the story of attending the statue’s dedication — the highlight of his life. Borges was fortunate enough to have a friend in the Ministry of Culture who knew of his passion for the musical icon and gave him VIP tickets to the ceremony.

The dedication took place on Dec. 8, 2000, the 20th anniversary of Lennon’s death, in a park named after the Beatles legend. It was a rainy day that “looked just like Liverpool before Fidel arrived,” Borges said.

He swears that as soon as the revolutionary leader appeared, so did the sun, reminiscent of the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun.”

Borges’ seat put him practically an arm’s length away from Fidel Castro, then president of Cuba, something that meant just as much to Borges as the statue dedication.

It was ironic that Castro was dedicating the statue to a man whose music he once banned, because that very day of the dedication Borges heard Castro tell a reporter that he was unaware of such a ban.

Borges said the Cuban government agreed to have the Lennon effigy because he was more than a musician. Lennon stood for “revolutionary ideals, and ideas of peace, love and understanding.”

Carolina Hidalgo/JWW

The statue, by Cuban artist José Villa Soberón, is of Lennon sitting on the right side of a bench, left arm resting on top of the backrest as he gazes over at whoever sits next to him, as if listening intently. The government has a guard stationed 24 hours a day to place glasses on the Beatle when people walk by. (Soon after the statue was dedicated, the glasses were stolen several times.)

Borges’ heartfelt passion is evident as he tells of how he learned English so he could understand the Beatles’ messages. He struggles when asked which of the many Beatles songs is his favorite, saying he could have thirty different answers before settling on “In My Life.”

He played all night long, covering, among others, “All My Loving,” “It’s Only Love,” and “Here Comes the Sun,” played in the key of A major just as the band recorded it, even though it was written in D.

Before the end of the night, Borges made sure to impart a meaningful life lesson and a powerful reminder to his American guests. He pointed out something they had noticed anecdotally: that Cuban people are genuinely happy and significantly more so than Americans, in spite of the fact that they are much poorer.

Borges explains that having fewer material items has taught the people to appreciate the things they have, especially the people in their lives. Capitalist societies like the United States, while wealthier, are emotionally poorer and often lose sight of what is really important in life, especially their loved ones, he says.

When Castro was asked what he would say to Lennon if he had the chance, according to Borges, the former leader replied, “”I would say ‘I am a dreamer, just like you.’”

Borges, too, is a dreamer, He dreams of one day visiting the U.S. and seeing Paul McCartney in concert. When asked what he would say to Lennon, Borges replied, “I would shake his hand, sit down and talk to him about peace and love.”