'When I'm 64': Beatlemania blooms belatedly in Cuba

Carlos BATISTA
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A woman puts glasses on a statue of John Lennon, in a park in Havana, on March 11, 2017

While their American and European peers twisted and shouted to The Beatles in the 1960s, in Cuba childhood sweethearts Gisela and Hector kept their Beatlemania a naughty secret.

Now, still Beatles-crazy after all these years, but with the communist island's Cold War-era censorship of rock music a thing of the past, they are making up for lost time.

"We are very happy that Cuba is becoming reconciled to the Beatles," says Gisela, 64.

She and Hector, 65, have decorated their home with pictures, posters and souvenirs dedicated to the British band.

Whenever they can, they join crowds of fellow Cubans in their 60s and 70s, singing and dancing at the Yellow Submarine bar -- El Submarino Amarillo -- in downtown Havana.

"This is not nostalgia," says the artistic director of the club, journalist Guillermo Vilar, 65.

"This is about them claiming their right to experience what they could not experience before because of all the contradictions of the time."

- You Can't Do That -

Fidel Castro's revolutionary regime banned songs in English, the language of its enemy the United States, for fear such music would spawn ideological deviance.

Gisela Moreno and Hector Ruiz would listen to The Beatles on US radio stations they captured on short-wave radios.

Records lent by the occasional returning traveler were copied in state recording studios, with the complicity of staff, onto low-quality metal discs.

"You put it on the record players we had back then and you just heard noise with the music in the background," Ruiz recalls.

"It was terrible, but hey, at least it was The Beatles."

At their high school, skinny-leg trousers, miniskirts and long hair were also banned.

But times have changed. The Yellow Submarine, opened in 2011, is one of at least six Beatles tribute bars across the island -- all of them run by the culture ministry.

One of them, in the eastern city of Holguin, is said to be an initiative of ruling party leader Miguel Diaz-Canel -- widely touted as the country's possible next president.

- I Should Have Known Better -

On a bench near the Yellow Submarine sits a bronze statue of late Beatle John Lennon.

Fidel Castro himself inaugurated the statue in 2000. In footage of the ceremony, the late leader can be heard bewailing the former censorship of Beatles songs.

"I greatly regret not having met you sooner," Castro told the statue.

The censorship was not his idea, Castro went on: he delegated cultural policy to underlings while he was busy leading Cuba through the Cold War.

Fidel Castro's death last November marked the end of an era in Cuba. His brother Raul, in charge now for more than a decade, has been gradually opening up the economy and foreign relations.

The bronze Lennon has become an attraction for locals and the growing number of foreign tourists visiting the island.

The statue's spectacles have been stolen several times and a guard has been appointed to take care of them, getting them out for passers-by when they want to take photos.

- From Me To You -

Fans trace the rise of Beatlemania in Cuba to 1990, when Vilar organized a tribute concert to mark the 10th anniversary of Lennon's murder.

For many Cubans, that marked the belated birth of rock on the island -- for the old generation and the new.

At the Yellow Submarine, gentlemen's bellies bulge under black Beatles t-shirts and grey ponytails, while the ladies show off their miniskirts and long boots.

On stage, Cuba's top Beatles tribute singer Eddy Escobar, 46, plays the band's hits for scores of ageing revelers.

This ponytailed rocker was not yet born when The Beatles lit up the counter-culture movement before they broke up in 1970.

But he discovered the music, like younger Cubans are doing now.

"Good music will always last as long there is someone who somehow appreciates it, right?" says Escobar.

"The Beatles are here to stay," he says. "I give the bug to anyone I can."