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An Englishman in Havana (from my book, Life On Mars)

View from Coco Cab Havana. Photograph copyright © Darcie Goldberg

When the Rolling Stones played their historic concert in Havana on Friday, it marked, for many Cubans, a major turning point:

“This will be one of those weeks that people will use to measure other events. In the future, they’ll ask, was it before or after the Stones played,” predicted Tania Livia, a businesswoman attending the concert. “This is the biggest moment in my life,” said tattooed club owner Ferrer Castillo, who had travelled 200km by bus and taxi to see his heroes. (Quoted in the Guardian article, Pleased to meet you: Rolling Stones treat Cuba to spectacular and historic gig)

Likewise, President Barack Obama's visit of the preceding days - the first by a sitting United States president since Calvin Coolidge in January 1928 - underlined the huge changes in the US-Cuba relationship that Obama's policy toward Cuba has brought about:

“Obama is doing this not for Cuba’s sake, but the US’s sake," [said Kevin Casas-Zamora, a director of the Inter-American Dialogue thinktank in Washington DC, and a former vice-president of Costa Rica] "because this had become an embarrassment for the US – a major obstacle in the relationship with Latin America.”
The sense that US politicians are like lost Japanese soldiers, stumbling from the jungle to discover the war ended decades ago, was compounded last week, when one of the fiercest critics of Obama’s strategy, Florida senator Marco Rubio, was thrashed in the state’s Republican presidential primary by a much more relaxed Donald Trump. Rubio, a Cuban American who called for more sanctions on Havana, dropped out of the race after losing his native state. (Preceding two paragraphs from the Guardian article, Obama lands in Cuba as first US president to visit in nearly a century)

Photograph copyright © 2016 Alexander Chow-Stuart.

As someone who lived for many years a little over 200 miles from Cuba, in Miami Beach, and who visited Cuba twice, perhaps somewhat less historically than President Obama or the Stones, I thought I would post here one of my chapters about Cuba from my predominantly Miami-themed book, Life On Mars.

I originally went to Cuba many years ago, in 1990, after the Soviet Union had just fallen and when food was very scarce. I was sent there by GQ Magazine, which had written very positively about my novel The War Zone, and which invited me to go anywhere I wanted in the world for them.

I chose Miami, to meet British boxer Nigel Benn, and GQ threw in a trip to Havana as a bonus. 

A few years later, I was lucky enough to return to Cuba with filmmaker Danny Boyle (recounted in a later chapter of Life On Mars; I am planning a Kindle edition at some point soon), but the chapter I am posting here is called An Englishman In Havana, and largely concerns my adventures with a group of young black marketeers I met who took me on a trip across nighttime Havana.

This is a long read for a blog post. I hope you enjoy it, and also the wonderful photographs of Havana, taken for the most part by Darcie Goldberg (, who was kind enough to let me reproduce them here. Thank you, Darcie!

Taxi ride Malecon Baracoa, Cuba. Photograph copyright © Darcie Goldberg

An Englishman In Havana 

(extracted from the book Life On Mars by Alexander Stuart)

But of course I have already been to Cuba, in my first month in Miami – a trip organized by GQ, which seemed a gift from the gods. ‘While you’re in Miami,’ they said, ‘would you write a piece on Havana as well?’ I jumped at the chance: Cuba had long fascinated me. I had even outlined a novel set partly there.

That early trip to Havana lives in my memory as a jolt from the underworld, or another world, at any rate: a country steaming with a sticky, sweaty mix of exuberance and enforced restraint, of tropical color and a kind of communism that I doubt was ever grey and austere; a land where politics could never drown out the more vital forces of sensuality, salsa and an all embracing lust for life...

Six o’clock in the morning, and I’m in a taxi bound for Miami International Airport. It’s a Monday in late October 1990, I’ve been up half the night writing, and only now do I discover that I have absolutely no idea which airline I’m flying to Havana.

‘When I flew there in 1960,’ says Maurice, my French-Canadian taxi driver, ‘it was American Airlines. Of course, that was 1960...’

Maurice had once gone to Havana and had apparently met Castro. ‘My cousin owned a hotel there and phoned to say that things were getting bad, the government was going to take it away from him. He said I should come over, so I went, and while I was there, Castro came to the hotel. He came with his men, drinking whisky and smoking big cigars. He was hung like a bull! He was standing in his army fatigues with a girlfriend – a secretary or something, a scrawny woman – and my friend said, ‘‘Do you see that? He has a penis like a missile!’’’

The size of Castro’s dick is not uppermost in my mind as I rifle through my papers in search of some clue as to which terminal we should try. All I have is a name, Suzy, and a number at Airline Brokers, useless at this hour, plus a note instructing me to pay two hundred and forty-eight dollars cash over the counter for my return ticket.

‘Don’t worry, we’ll find it,’ says Maurice. ‘Maybe someone at American can help you?’

But the American Airlines staff seems affronted that I want to go to Havana. Finally, someone at Air Venezuela points me in the direction of Terminal B, and I find an Eastern Airlines clerk who reluctantly admits this is where I check in for Cuba.

‘Are you an American citizen?’


‘Why are you going there?’

I remember my Cuban tourist card, hastily arranged in London; there wasn’t time to organize a journalistic visa.

‘Tourism,’ I say. ‘I’m British.’

‘You’re not allowed to go there as a tourist from here.’

‘Well, actually I’m a writer, working on a magazine article.’

‘Fill out this form.’

The form reveals just how restricted travel is between the US and Cuba, only ninety miles distant from Florida’s southernmost tip, but light years apart ideologically. Unless you have close Cuban relatives, the US Government restricts travel to journalists or professional researchers. A fact which becomes abundantly clear as I prepare to board the plane: everyone else on the flight is Cuban, they’re all in their sixties, and they’re all wearing the same hat.
Touching down in Havana less than an hour later, America quickly fades to dust. The flight from Miami is hardly enough to drain me, but the culture shock is immediate. The heat seems somehow more tropical; the people less affluent. The first thing I notice are the cars. The cars are incredible: a reminder of America, but not the America I’ve just left.

I stand staring at beautifully maintained Dodges, Plymouths and Chevrolets from the 1940s and 1950s, feeling as if I’ve stepped through a time warp. Thanks to the US embargo, no new American cars have been imported into Cuba since the revolution in 1959. Cuba’s trading problems have limited the import of new cars from other sources mostly to Soviet-built Ladas and a few highly prized Japanese models, so the Cubans have been forced to keep their prerevolutionary American classics in tiptop condition.

The sight of a gleaming white 1941 Plymouth makes me happy in a way I don’t think any new car could. Its owner approaches and laughs, saying, ‘The whole of Havana, the whole of Cuba, is a museum!’ He asks where I’m from and immediately wants to discuss music: ‘You like rock music? Rush, I love Rush!’ I tell him I prefer soul and jazz, but he knows what he likes. ‘Z Z Top. Jimi Hendrix. The Doors.’ He starts singing Light My Fire. I can’t help but join in. I haven’t left the airport yet, and already I’m singing along to Jim Morrison’s greatest hits. I’m going to like Cuba.

In truth, I want to like it. I’ve always had a sympathy for socialist causes. I believe in public health care and public education, two areas in which Castro’s Cuba has, for the most part, earned international respect. I find romantic the image of Fidel Castro and Ché Guevara setting sail from Mexico in 1956 with a force of eighty-two men on board a tiny American yacht called the Granma, their intention being to overthrow the corrupt and repressive dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. And I find Castro’s success in holding out for thirty years against a neighbor as powerful, as hostile and as close as the US impressive to say the least.

So it is with some excitement that I look out of my taxi as we drive into Havana, past murals of Ché and Fidel and posters asserting, ‘Socialismo o muerte’ (‘Socialism or death’). I am aware that I have come at a difficult time. The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe has led to massive cuts in Cuba’s foreign aid. Castro is under pressure from just about everywhere to reform his hardline stance. A whole generation of Cubans has grown up to whom the revolution is history, making it difficult to blame the sacrifices expected of them on US interference.

Add to this the ever explosive political maneuverings of the Cuban exiles in Miami, and the fact that, by opening itself up further to tourism as it hopes to do, Cuba is exposing itself to the values and temptations of a more affluent and materialistic lifestyle, and it is hardly surprising that the country is widely reported to be straining at the seams.

This would not, however, be your first impression at the quietly elegant Hotel Inglaterra. Situated in the old part of Havana, the Inglaterra’s nineteenth century exterior is no match for the impressive Gran Teatro de Habana next door, but inside it is a different matter.

One glance at the high-ceilinged, Moorish-styled bar and I envisage an endlessly rolling tab of mojitos, daiquiris and Cuba librés, followed by a dawn disappearing act leaving the bill in the hands of the Cuban government. If challenged, I will simply claim to have been disorientated by the bar’s Moroccan tiling: ‘I thought I was in Marrakech. My credit’s good there.’

I take the elevator to the third floor, discovering that the control panel has a logic of its own: the indicator shows ‘3’ when in fact you are on ‘2’, so to get to ‘3’, you press ‘4’.

My room is fine by any standards, with a large bathroom, marble floor and a balcony overlooking the palm trees and Spanish colonial splendor of the Paseo de Martí (the old Prado) and the Parque Central. Havana was once considered the jewel of the Caribbean. Despite a good deal of climactic wear and tear – and, if you listen to the exiles in Miami, a criminal lack of maintenance under Castro – it still rates as one of the world’s most beautiful cities.

I turn on the TV, keen to get my cultural bearings. Seven hours ago, I was watching MTV while I packed. Now I’m confronted by a fast-cut sequence which, given my atrocious Spanish, I can only guess is a trailer of some sort, since it combines fragments from a Goofy cartoon with footage of family life in an impoverished village and a clip from an Hispanic soap opera. The pace isn’t quite as frenetic as a music video, but not far off. It’s followed by another montage, this time of black-and-white images of Ché and Fidel in army fatigues, accompanied by children cheering, then a young Castro in action with a gun.

Old Havana. Photograph Public Domain CC0

I spend the rest of my first day in the city wandering around Habana Vieja, observing just how close some of the buildings are to crumbling into dust and watching out for falling masonry from cracked balconies.

I also get my first real sense of Cuba’s most serious problem: a shortage of food. Having failed to find a café, restaurant or pizzeria with anything to offer, I return to the hotel in the hope of eating there. I realize I have missed both breakfast and lunch and feel extremely hungry, but the Inglaterra’s restaurant is not open for another two hours, and when I ask at the bar for a snack, I am shown the one remaining sandwich: an unappetizing affair which consists of two slices of dry bread, a chunk of ham worthy of a funeral parlor and some gelatinous cheese.

Grateful even for this, I offer to buy the bartender a drink once he has toasted the sandwich. This has a magical effect in terms of my popularity, though it produces no hidden cache of more edible snacks – and from now on my arrival in the hotel bar is treated as an excuse for a party.

The bartender, Raul, introduces himself and shakes my hand, while his colleagues joke about his family ties with Fidel, Raul being the name of Castro’s brother, the Minister of Defense.

Over the next few days, I check out the old town, the decrepit glories of the Plaza de la Catedral, the Hemingway haunts – his favourite watering hole, La Bodeguita del Medio, is one of the few restaurants where you can still regularly find food in Havana, if you’re prepared to wait. (His opinion regarding this and another favorite spot a few blocks away is immortalized on a plaque inside the restaurant: ‘Mi daiquirí en el Floridita, mi mojito en la Bodeguita’ – ‘My daiquiri in the Floridita, my mojito in the Bodeguita’. A mojito is a rather splendid concoction consisting of white rum, sugar and fresh mint.)

The feel of the streets is very much that of any Spanish colonial city. The architecture is beautiful, the colors suitably dusty and Caribbean, the streetlife busy, with children everywhere in their government subsidized mustard-and-white uniforms.

The strange thing is, just as in Miami Beach, I experience a kind of geographical dislocation. Here, I’m reminded more of Morocco than of Spain. And this isn’t simply the influence of the Inglaterra’s bar. The poverty here, the bustle, the ethnic mix of Hispanic and African, all make Cuba seem far more a part of the Third World than its often unwilling role in US and European history might suggest.

It could also be the constant assault of the street hustlers that brings to mind Marrakech. Here, as there, it is impossible to walk through the city without at least half a dozen people trying to change money, sell you marijuana or show you around for a profit. The approaches are mostly friendly and diminish once you’re recognized, but the pressure is greater than in most capital cities.

Trying to unnerve them, I ask several of the dealers what it’s like to live in Cuba, how happy they are with Castro, and discover a distinct lack of paranoia about speaking out.

‘I like Havana,’ one of them tells me, ‘but I don’t like the system. Too much burocracia! Still ricos y pobres – rich and poor. This is not socialismo, everybody equal! No perestroika for Cuba. Castro would not like! Many people come to Havana just to survive. There are many problems in the countryside, much poverty.’

The young man smiles at me over his wispy goatee. I ask if he has travelled outside Cuba at all, and he says, ‘Not possible for Cubans.’ He laughs. ‘Maybe Angola. Many Cubans in Angola – in the army!’

I talk to another moneychanger, Eduardo, about music and tell him I’m interested in what’s going on in the clubs here – not the overpriced tourist shit at the Tropicana, but the sort of place he might go to. A couple of his friends join us and we start talking about reggae. One of them is a musician, and we make a date to meet the next night and check out a little entertainment.

I walk along the Malecón, Havana’s magnificent seafront promenade, and watch fishermen in ‘boats’ made from the huge inner tubes of trucks with canvas tied across the bottom – the same crafts the rafters use to try and cross the shark-infested waters to Florida.

Behind me stand truly handsome colonial buildings, ravaged by time and the Atlantic spray, but with a sense of history and an emotional impact far removed from even the prettiest ‘Island Style’ wooden houses in Key West, just ninety miles across the water.

I think about conversations I have had in Miami with young Cuban-Americans such as Dulce, whose family left Cuba in the 1960s, but who has never seen it herself.

‘Havana was once the jewel of the Caribbean,’ she told me. ‘Now everything is crumbling, the stores are empty, the people are hungry. My uncle went back to visit and cried to see what it had become.’

But I have been reading Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, published in 1958, a year before the revolution, and from that it’s clear that Havana has long been in disrepair:

‘The pink, grey, yellow pillars of what had once been the aristocratic quarter were eroded like rocks; an ancient coat of arms, smudged and featureless, was set over the doorway of a shabby hotel, and the shutters of a nightclub were varnished in bright crude colors to protect them from the wet and salt of the sea.’

At least the Malecón’s facades seem vaguely suited to decay. Exploring Vedado, the more modern and residential quarter of Havana, it is impossible to avoid the Habana Libré – the Hilton in prerevolutionary days.

Its rundown tower block exterior looks as ugly as hell, but it can’t have looked much better when it opened in the 1950s. Although still in theory a luxury hotel, it has the cosmetic charm of an airplane toilet, only with rather more dubious water in its pool.

I sit beside this grey-green murk and try to imagine what Havana was like when it was a playground for rich American tourists. Gambling and prostitution were rife under Batista (the latter is now making a sweeping comeback under Castro), and where official American investment left off, the Mafia took over. No doubt to the tourist it all seemed like innocent, heady fun, but at the same time a vast proportion of the population lived in the direst poverty and ignorance, while Batista was imprisoning and torturing his opposition.

Of course, Castro’s own human rights record is far from immaculate, and he is under constant fire from Miami’s largely ultra-rightwing exilio community. In the international arena, one of Castro’s most vocal critics has been Armando Valladares, a former US envoy to the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva under President Reagan.

Fidel Castro. Source: Museo de La Revolucion, Havana, Cuba. Public Domain.

Imprisoned by the Fidelistas for twenty-two years, and only released after pressure from President Mitterand of France, Valladares’ book of prison memoirs, Against All Hope, was a firsthand account of the violent and inhumane treatment of political prisoners in Castro’s Cuba. But other leading Cuban human rights activists and former political prisoners outside Cuba cast doubt on Valladares’s own behavior in prison. And even within the US, he has come under fire for his increasingly vocal attacks on Castro’s opposition and the Cuban human rights group which made his work possible.

I ask Arturo, the young Cubatur guide sitting beside me at the poolside bar, what the feeling is within Cuba towards Valladares.

‘The man is a delinquent!’ Arturo complains. ‘You cannot trust anything he says. While he was in prison, he claimed to have been paralyzed by a hunger strike. He was in a wheelchair. So the prison authorities set up a concealed video camera in his cell. When he thought he was alone, Valladares got up out of the wheelchair and walked fine!’

Arturo might well, of course, be a victim of his own government’s massive propaganda campaign against Valladares, but he is nonetheless a fairly open critic of Castro himself:

‘We must wait till Castro dies for there to be change in Cuba. Or we must have another revolution. The principles of the revolution were good, but it’s not socialism when you have party leaders with a Mercedes and maybe two or three other cars, sending their family on holiday to Europe. There will have to be change. A few months ago, food was rationed perhaps sixty per cent. Now there is one hundred per cent rationing. You can take many things away from people – petrol, other goods, maybe even their home – but you cannot take away food.’

The following night, I meet my dealer friends outside my hotel and go off with them in search of good music. I am more than a little wary of what to expect – not so much musically, as from my companions. They are essentially smalltime crooks and anything could happen. As a result, I have left my wallet behind and carry only a small stash of dollars, divided between different pockets of my jeans.

To show some degree of trust, however, I have brought them packs of Marlboro from the hotel shop. There is a different economy for tourists in Cuba than for the Cubans. Tourists are expected to spend US dollars, and in hotel shops can buy products such as European chocolates and Marlboro cigarettes at less than the prices Cubans would have to pay on the black market. Of course, the biggest irony of all is that Cuba is rapidly becoming a dollar economy. There are rumors that Castro even prints counterfeit US dollars himself, although no one I spoke to would confirm this.

The Marlboros go down well with Eduardo, Carlos and Miguel, despite the fact that they have to bum lights off passersby, since one of the shortages Cuba is suffering from is an almost total absence of matches. They lead me through the hot, shadowy streets of central Havana, lit in many cases only by the headlights of parked cars.

I ask Eduardo why it is so dark.

‘The oil shortage,’ he explains. ‘We get less oil from Moscow, so there are many economies. Even the street lighting is cut.’

He asks if I will pay for some beers. I give Miguel five pesos – less than a pound – and wait while he disappears to get four unlabelled brown bottles.

We drink these standing waiting for a bus. One arrives within minutes, its front emblazoned with multicolored lights, like a police car gone crazy. The buses in Havana – known locally as guaguas (pronounced, ‘whahwhahs’) – consist of two carriages, linked by an articulated section. During the day, they are packed to capacity. Now, at 10:30pm, there are only three other passengers, and we make our way to the back.

The guagua rattles across Havana at quite startling speed for about fifteen minutes, heading into the modern blandness of Vedado. The houses here are one or two storey and set back from the road by small gardens. They were once the homes of rich men, now they house Cuba’s equivalent of a middle class.

Eduardo ushers us out onto a gloomy residential street, opposite a building site. There is not a nightclub in sight, and I begin to wonder what the hell is happening.

‘Where are we?’ I ask. ‘Where’s the club?’

The three of them sense my anxiety and laugh, slapping me on the back.

‘We have to walk,’ says Carlos. ‘Five minutes!’

We follow the road up a hill, ducking under palm fronds.

‘What kind of music will it be?’ I enquire. ‘Son, salsa, reggae?’ We have been talking about Bob Marley.

‘A mixture,’ Miguel, the musician, replies. ‘Maybe some jazz. It’s a local band.’

When we get to the club, it’s not what I expected. The atelier is situated in the basement of a modern high rise and seems disturbingly respectable inside.

Things potentially look up when Carlos has an argument with the manager, who informs us that we can’t order a bottle of rum unless we are accompanied by women.

At first, I assume this to be a prelude to the arrival of management supplied, high cost hostesses, but instead it seems a policy designed to limit the excesses of groups of men drinking alone. Two of the band’s girlfriends who are sitting at the next table start up a conversation with us, and a bottle is brought.

What kind of joint is this, I wonder, where not even a gringo tourist is hustled?

The kind of joint where, for reasons left unexplained even to their girlfriends, the band has decided not to play tonight. I look at Eduardo, Carlos and Miguel, who seem faintly embarrassed by this development.

‘Would you like to go to another club?’ Eduardo asks.

‘A better club,’ Miguel adds.

‘Or perhaps you would like to get high?’ Carlos suggests. ‘Ganja!’

And so we hightail it back across town in a guagua, then thread through the mazelike streets of Old Havana on foot. Fourteen pesos change hands and a paper tube filled with grass is bought. A few more pesos and a bottle of rum is obtained, then we head off again, stopping now while Miguel disappears inside an ancient apartment building.

Girls riding in cars Malecon. Photograph copyright © Darcie Goldberg

Eduardo, Carlos and I sit waiting on a step opposite. People are still wandering the darkened streets. Two soldiers drive up on a motorcycle, slowing to take a look at us. The bag containing the marijuana is on the sidewalk between us. I find myself wondering what a night in a Cuban jail – or perhaps many nights – would be like, but the soldiers drive on.

Miguel is gone a long time. Finally, he emerges with some music cassettes and we walk a little further, down more shadowy streets. We turn into an open doorway and climb a stairway in a partly gutted building, the stairs lacking a banister on one side and offering a twenty-foot drop onto rubble below.

Carlos leads us along a corridor to a large room where we’re greeted by four other young men and two very attractive women. I seem to be something of a novelty, but any doubts as to my soundness are quickly dispelled by the rum and grass.

I am invited, amidst much giggling, to sit on a sofa between Maria and Giselle, who would seem to be prostitutes, but who are relaxed and off-duty. While Carlos rolls a joint, using a torn brown paper bag in place of rolling papers, I take in my surroundings.

The room is tidy and clean, with a balcony opening onto the warm night. The men – apart from Eduardo, Carlos and Miguel – are all stripped to the waist, and the women are wearing short, flimsy dresses. One of the men sitting opposite me has a thin ratlike face and a hyped-up intensity that makes me nervous. When he laughs, revealing stained teeth which seem to have been filed to points, I feel even less easy, but I have no option but to try to relax.

There’s little furniture: the sofa, two chairs, a stereo, and a mirror with a shelf almost at floor level, decorated with a few ornaments. There are also two photographs, of a baby and a little girl. Giselle sees me looking at them and smiles.

‘Where are you from?’ she asks.


‘England!’ one of the men, Jorge, proclaims happily. ‘Do you know Sting?’

‘Not personally.’

More laughter. ‘No, I mean his music.’


‘Do you know he sings in Spanish? And Portuguese. Listen!’

He puts on a bootleg tape of Sting singing Fragile from Nothing Like The Sun, in Spanish. It sounds great – a good deal better than it does in English.

We start dancing, seven or eight of us weaving about the room to the echoing music, smoking spliff and drinking rum. One of the men keeps watch out on the balcony for passing police or complaints from the neighbors, while Giselle reminds us occasionally not to dance too heavily on the floor because the baby is asleep below.

As Sting’s voice continues to bellow out in Spanish, Jorge translates the lyrics for me. At one point, he makes a joke about Sting’s song, An Englishman in New York, pointing at me excitedly and shouting, ‘An Englishman in Havana! An Englishman in Havana!

We smoke all the grass and drink all the rum. Waves of paranoia strike me from time to time, that this is a setup and I am about to get ripped off or busted or worse, then I realize how ridiculous my fears are – if anything were going to happen, it would have happened by now. I have not even been pressured for money: so far this evening I have spent less than twenty dollars. I have perhaps another sixty on me, so there’s not much to steal.

The question I feel most uncertain about is Giselle and Maria. No outright advances have been made to me, and I don’t want to sleep with them, but I waver between thinking that I might be committing some breach of etiquette by not asking to stay with one of them, or feeling that I would be stepping over a line tonight if I made such a suggestion – this is Giselle’s home and I get no sense that it is used for business.

There is also the small matter of AIDS, especially here in the Caribbean. Cuba has a strict but inhumane policy towards Cubans who are HIV-positive, forcibly isolating them for the remainder of their lives in a sanatorium, but that hardly guarantees safe sex among the rest of the population.

So, hoping that it won’t precipitate an ugly change of mood, I announce that I am feeling tired. ‘I can find my own way back,’ I lie, wanting to appear cool. But Eduardo, Carlos and Miguel insist on accompanying me.

We stroll through the quiet streets, blitzed out of our minds, and say goodnight a block from my hotel, after I have given Eduardo twenty dollars to change at slightly below the going rate.

Extract from Life On Mars by Alexander Stuart, copyright © 2016 Alexander Stuart.

Havana Book Store. Photograph copyright © Darcie Goldberg

If you enjoyed this post, please follow me on Twitter @alexanderchow. 


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