Palm Beach, Florida, June 14, 1947
The tide was the color of rust. Virgílio Barbero lay by the pool, sipping a daiquiri. Mid-afternoon boredom was setting in. The oval pool bordered a trail of sand that meandered down to the red ocean. The algal bloom was killing the sea life. Kelp and snapper and grouper turned up dead and bloated and full of flies each day along the shore. The former Cuban president enjoyed walking up and down the shore, puttering around. He stood, picked up a piece of driftwood he had fashioned into a walking stick, and headed down to the water. Barbero walked with a slight limp, the result of an accident when he worked on the railroads in his youth, fastening iron ties over heavy lengths of oak. He had been alongside a moving train when the hem of his right pant leg caught on an axle and he was dragged more than a fifty meters before grace or suerte or whatever infinite force had decided to spare his life that day.
Barbero usually spent his mornings practicing the Yanqui sport of the elite: golf, but his recent duffing left him frustrated. He usually played in a fallow field next to a series of tin-roofed homes. At this stage in his life, Barbero had enough money to buy a private club but no club would have him because of his mixed features and Spanish tongue. Greenbacks went a long way, but they weren’t enough in Jim Crow Florida. The trouble had begun a a few months after his family moved in.
First someone dusted a hunk of raw meat with arsenic and thad poisoned the family mastiff. Then somebody burned something into the front lawn. His son had watched from the window as Susana the maid and Máximo the chauffeur tossed buckets of water over the flames, extinguishing the epithets letter by letter. His son was traumatized by the experience and the lawn was scarred for weeks. Yet Barbero was familiar by now with the absurd position of being a rich, powerful índio. During his presidency, he occupied the highest seat of power on the island, but he was disallowed from entering the clubs and fraternizing with the American millionaires who frequented the island. That was fine by him, though. As long as they wanted their card games, cabarets, and beaches of white sand, their cash would flow into his pockets.
It was windy on the beach that day. He rested a white towel he had borrowed from the nearby Ritz-Carlton and walked east, pushing dead fish out of his way as he went. He was partial to expensive sunglasses and had spent the better part of his morning trying to locate his favorite pair. Even his wife had failed to turn up anything and she was especially good at finding things.
Barbero checked in with his cronies from time to time and they came to visit him, of course, but retired life in Florida proved increasingly dull. The latest news was that General Roberto Campos, an untalented former lackey of his (he had named his youngest son after Barbero), had begun retiring old-timers in the army and purging the forces of those still loyal to Barbero.
Ahead of him, there was what appeared to be a young, white mother of two, sunbathing while her children jumped and splashed in the rising and falling tide. A young boy with a white hat and blue shorts was investigating the sea foam. Every time a wave receded, a finite, but uncountable number of holes opened at his feet, each the diameter of a pencil barrel, each disappearing within a matter of seconds.
“Those are where the little crabs are,” Barbero said, pointing to a hole where bubbles formed. “Do you want to see?”
The boy said nothing. After a moment, the tide receded again and Barbero scooped two handfuls of sand held them out. The boy stared back, confused. Barbero sifted the wet sand between his fingers until two small white crabs were visible.
The boy shook his hands with excitement and giggled. Barbero smiled and continued on his way down the beach. The mother must be asleep, he thought.
Barbero believed that fortune shines on those who seize it. He was living proof. He had grown up in a small eastern town in the shadow of the United Fruit Company. As a boy he had woken each morning at sunrise and carried a machete to the cane fields. Cutting, splitting, tossing. He used to hum to entertain himself during the days. Wind rustling through swaying stalks of cane as field hands cut and split and tossed the stalks in airy piles.The cane-cutters had used the same same machetes to cut down Spanish soldiers in the War for Independence at the turn of the century. Their movement was quick. Mechanical. Violent. With each slash, sweetness was freed from the Earth, sweat collected on the cutter’s brow, and the plantation master grew richer. With every spin of the roulette wheel in the Republic of Cuba, dollars swam to Barbero’s swollen pockets. He had always been a hard worker. There had been no alternative. But he had done what no other man could, save for Napoleon or his idol, Lincoln. As the Yanquis liked to say, Barbero had pulled himself up by his own boot straps, all the way to the presidency, being recognized by Roosevelt himself as the de facto leader of Cuba.
God had blessed Virgílio with looks, brains, and magnetism—qualities that most of the Castilian fly-weights running around the congress lacked. Those clueless, corrupt Auténticos. After all, who had actually implemented the Constitution of 1940? A bunch of whiny politicians? No. It took a cane-cutter from the East. Who had organized the colored soldiers? Who created an across-the-board pay raise for enlisted men? For these things the common soldier would always be loyal to Virgílio Barbero, regardless of what Campos and the Auténticos tried.
“I can promise you three to five a year, President Barbero. Million. In exchange for exclusive operating rights of the Cuban gaming industry.” The agreement was sealed with a handshake. The hotel room had been inconspicuous for the sake of propriety. Except for a ray of dust-speckled light, the room was mostly in shadow. Barbero and his entourage left first. He was in a hurry but he stopped for a second to chat with a porter. He genuinely enjoyed talking to people and he knew that his political power came from channeling the plight of the common man. It was no longer a question of if he would rule again, but when.
“Hey! You there. What did you say to my son?” It was the sun-bathing mother. Something had disturbed her slumber and she was annoyed. Barbero’s English was serviceable but it took him a moment to switch from thinking in Spanish to English. He adopted a deferential and apologetic tone, out of habit.
“I was just showing your son the crabs,” Barbero said.
“What?” she asked.
“The crabs. In the sand.”
“Mind your own children,” she said and warned her son about talking to strangers.
Barbero ignored her and continued on his way. How he missed Cuba, he thought to himself as he made his way back to his home. As he walked up the path to the pool, he saw his young wife waving her hands in the air. His sunglasses! She had found them!
Things would change, of course. Barbero was going to announce his candidacy for the Cuban Senate seat. Once he won the seat—which he surely would, as the pueblo Cubano still viewed him as a one of their own, despite his affluence and influence—he would serve from Florida. After a few years in the Senate, with his power base reformed—a triumvirate of American corporatist interests, offshoots of the American mob, and old-line military loyalists—he would announce his candidacy for president and he would reclaim the seat of power from the corrupt fools he had relinquished it to. Once in power he would put an end to the scourge of Communism that had been plaguing the island for decades and achieve his dream of making Cuba the true gambling capital of the Caribbean. He just needed to bide his time.