55-Year Embargo Ends: Visit Cuba Before It Becomes Like Everywhere Else

Havana, Cuba
Havana, Cuba, Photo: robilusso/iStock Editorial/Thinkstock

By Dan Rattiner-

When things get slow in the wintertime at Dan’s Papers, I head off, as most locals do, to other places to either play tourist and lie on the beach or enjoy some sort of adventure to add a little spice in my life. I stayed one winter at a fishing village on the Canary Islands. I was at the Berlin Wall for New Year’s Eve when the locals celebrated having brought it down and bringing East and West together. I spent a winter in Moscow in the 1980s during the Soviet era. I’ve been going on these sorts of adventures for 50 years now. And I’ve seen much of the world this way. Last year it was Ireland and Northern Ireland.

One of the most remarkable trips I took was to Havana in 2000. It was illegal to go to Cuba then because the United States had embargoed trade with Cuba 40 years earlier, but there were two ways to go anyway. One was as part of a “cultural” exchange mission. The other was to fly to Mexico City and then enter Cuba from there. Mexico let you fly out. The Cubans weren’t crazy about anybody with an American passport coming in, but they let you in anyway from Mexico. I went that year to Cuba with a cultural group, as press, just a 60-minute flight from Miami into a totally other world. Custom agents at Havana Airport treated us roughly, but in the end, with a clear attitude of disgust, after deliberately banging suitcases and bags around, they let us in.

For those not familiar with what had happened 40 years earlier, I will tell you about it briefly. In 1959, Cuba’s heroic rebels came down from the mountains and wrested away the government of that country from a brutal dictator. This dictator had been America’s friend for a long time. He was corrupt and vicious, but he saw to it that the rich got richer and the poor stayed poor. After the overthrow, Fidel Castro arrested, lined up and shot many of the former regime members, much of it documented on film. Most of the rich fled to Miami after this. A year later, Castro became friends with America’s bitterest enemy, the Soviet Union. As a result, America embargoed all trade to Cuba, and this embargo remained in effect until just three weeks ago. That’s a 55-year long embargo.

Anyway, at the airport, I figured, maybe we should turn around and go home. But we didn’t. And I am so glad we didn’t.

We took a taxi, a 43-year-old 1957 Chevy, to Havana and the hotel where we would stay, the Hotel Sevilla in the center of that city. What a city. It is like no other. Imagine a beautiful European city of 2 million people largely built during the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with cathedrals, markets, plazas, parks, Spanish forts, boulevards, pensions and grand hotels, after which, in 1959, time stopped. Everything in 2000 was just as it was 40 years earlier but in shambles. It had never been cleaned or repainted or repaired and it was just rusting away, walls peeling, windows broken and held together, shutters and doors hanging at crazy angles. Also, there were few cars on the road, and those that were there were half a century old. About the only thing still as it had been was the great seawall along the boulevard in the center of town against which the ocean crashed. America was just 90 miles away.

We drove through the suburbs of Havana, where the rich once lived in very fancy mansions with swimming pools and servants. Those buildings are still there. But in each as many as a dozen families lived. This is communism, after all. The wash hung on clotheslines attached to the fancy Greek columns that sheltered the front door entrance. The kids played soccer on the worn out lawn.

Then, into town, a surprise. The people were NOT downtrodden. People were everywhere on the streets and there was lots of music. A man strode along carrying a 4-year-old on his shoulders, two 15-year olds were jockeying a small hand wagon along the sidewalk with an old TV on it. Standing alone in a doorway was a woman in full white bridal regalia. Men sat at a table on the sidewalk playing checkers.

We checked in at the hotel. The Hotel Sevilla was the grandest hotel in Havana when it was built in 1908. It was the winter playground for the American mafia. (There was no Las Vegas then). On the walls were black-and-white framed photographs of Al Capone and all the other gangsters, together with showgirls in feathers. Upstairs, the rooms were large and the windows very high up, as you might see at an old elementary school. The hotel was 10 stories high.

On the rooftop was an aviary where the hotel guests ate. It was not intended as an aviary. It had originally been a giant glass palace up there. But with the broken windows and all, the birds flew in and out now, often landing on your table in the hopes you wouldn’t shoo them away. I recall big black crows with sharp beaks and beady eyes looking at my food. Meanwhile, during the meal musicians played salsa music. Looking out and down, the historic rooftops, domes and steeples were gorgeous and filthy as far as the eye could see.

The hotel had plenty of help, but when a time came, in the middle of the night, that I woke up with mosquitoes biting me in bed, there was a spray that a cleaning lady had in her bag, but it was a local concoction of liquids, none of which were bug spray. There is no bug spray in Cuba, or at least there wasn’t in 2000.

The people simply make do. How do you do without things such as soap, hair conditioners, coffee makers, crayons, deodorant, paint removers? I saw caps from old deodorant bottles used as game board players, aluminum soda cans made into coffee makers, spoons fashioned into bottle openers.

And the people loved it all. I talked to lots of them on these streets, in bookstores, libraries, old beat up city buses, at outdoor cafes, in schools. They were well-fed, had good schools, free medical care, a leader who did not work in a palace but in an office like the rest of them. When I talked to them about their failure to have democracy and their failure to even have newspapers that wrote about the issues of the day, they replied that when you face a country like the United States, you had to be of one mind and you had to pull together. During all these talks, in the background, always, you would hear Cuban Caribbean music playing somewhere, with people singing along and clapping and stamping their feet. (A few years later, I saw a movie called The Buena Vista Social Club, which was filmed in Havana. It brought back the entire experience I had down there.)

A number of adventures I had stand out. Two blocks away from the Hotel Sevilla is the old Palace where Batista, the dictator lived. It is now a museum to the triumphs of 1959. On the front lawn are an American propeller fighter plane they captured, next to it is an enclosed black van with holes in the side adjacent to gold lettering that read HAVANA LAUNDRY SERVICE from a surprise attack on the palace that failed and everybody died. There is the speedboat (now on a trailer) that Fidel used to come into Havana and an anti-aircraft gun that fired on some planes at sometime somewhere.

An American fighter plane captured in Cuba's 1959 rebellion
An American fighter plane captured in Cuba’s 1959 rebellion, Photo: Dan Rattiner

One day I went to a baseball game in the main Havana stadium, which seated about 15,000 people. I went with a friend from the group, our interpreter, and a young backpacker I had met who had come in via Mexico City. It was the Havana Metros vs. Granma. In the fourth inning, after some 12-year-old boys sold us an autographed baseball for $3, asked if we could take their picture and whether they could get any food for us from the vendor (hot dogs, soda), my backpacker friend, Jerry Brown, discovered that upon leaving, one of the 12-year-olds had left with his backpack. There were only two things in it: A paperback book he was reading and a journal, handwritten, of the last 45 days of his travels. “That, I want back,” he said. And he got up and told an usher about it. The usher led him to a policeman who he told about it.

Our desire to see the rest of the game ended after that, and so we left, only to see a group of people on the sidewalk just outside the entrance to the stadium. It consisted of two 12-year-olds, three police officers and two women, one of whom was crying hysterically. Next to them were two police cars and a military troop carrier with a canvas covered back. As we came over another police car arrived.

“It’s about your backpack,” our interpreter said. “The crying woman is saying it’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to her in her life and her boy is bringing shame to her family.”

The boy next to her, who she was holding by the shoulder, was looking at his shoes.

The police invited everybody into the back of the troop carrier, including us, and off we rattled to a nearby police station. A whole investigation, including a conclusion, transpired at that police station. Brown filled out forms, with the help of the interpreter. The boys were taken into an interrogation room for a talking to. I sat on a bench. At one point, I was told the arresting officer was having difficulty understanding the words “travel diary.” As it happened, I had a shoulder bag with mine in it. So I gave it to the officer at the desk. He looked at it, nodded, and then put the palm of his hand over it. He was not giving it back. Ten minutes later, the officer asked Brown to sign his name on a piece of paper so they could see if it matched the handwriting in his diary. They were looking around for paper. I had a brainstorm. I told them to sign one of the blank pages of my diary. So they took my diary off the desk, did that, and with that, I got it back.

In the end, after much more paperwork, the mother took the boy home. And we left too, in a 1955 Buick Roadmaster taxicab. I don’t believe that boy would be hanging around with that crowd again anytime soon.

I went by myself to the Hotel Nacional, high on the hill, for tea one afternoon. There were still rich people in town who go for tea. Maybe tourists, I don’t know. Apparently Castro tolerated it.

We went to a weather station on a mountaintop outside of Havana where, three months earlier, the weather station had run out of the kind of paper their machines needed to keep the weather data, and they couldn’t get more. But we saw how it worked. As we ate lunch at a picnic table under a tent out front, a man in a straw hat pulled up the driveway in a jeep, and we were told this was Fidel’s younger brother Raúl, a farmer.

“He wants nothing to do with government work,” we were told. And we were also told he was as bad a person as Fidel was good and they hoped he wouldn’t just takeover after Fidel passed. (Well, three years ago he did, and he wasn’t bad at all.)

We sunbathed in a huge park outside Havana with lots of local families who were having picnics there. There was a river where we swam with the others, lots of flowers and birds and greenery. I thought it looked like a Walt Disney park. But everyone was enjoying themselves immensely. And the music played.

One afternoon, tens of thousands of people, mostly farmers in the backs of trucks, came into the center of Havana to demonstrate in front of the Swiss Embassy where there were a small group of American diplomats, together with about 20 American marines to protect them, who ran the “American Interests” office.

We were off at the baseball game when the demonstration took place, so we missed the two-hour harangue against America that Castro gave to his people there in front of that embassy. It was about 6-year-old Elian Gonzales, who had escaped with his mother to Florida but she had died on the wayand he had made it. The Cubans in Florida now had Elian, and they weren’t giving him back to his father. We were later told that the farmers came from all around Cuba because they were paid for the day to come, and also because there was lots to eat and drink.

On another day, we were at that Swiss mission and I saw on a bulletin board a poster inviting families of the American Marines to a barbecue and softball game at their barracks out of town. I wanted very much to go, wrangled an invitation to it from the captain there, but in the end, never went.

The highlight of this trip, for me, anyway, was the visit to the home of the late Antonio Nunez Jimenez. It was a modest home on a quarter acre in downtown Havana that was now a museum to the exploits of this important man.

It was not just Fidel Castro who came down from the mountains. It was three leaders—Fidel Castro, who was 33, Che Guevara, 31, and Dr. Jimenez, who at that time was the intellectual leader of the revolution and 36.

The home was filled with his books and writings and every award he had ever received and every nametag from every meeting of the Communist Parties around the world he had ever attended. He saved everything. He was a packrat.

On a porch, there was a 25-foot-long carved-out mahogany canoe that Jimenez and a photographer had paddled with some South American natives from the headwaters of the Amazon River out into the Caribbean in 1980, when Jimenez was 57. The photographer who had been on this trip with Jimenez was present that day at the house and told us about this three-month-long journey. It was a goodwill trip. And when it ended, they rowed up alongside the string of Caribbean islands and made landfall at Puerto Rico, the American possession, or tried to. According to the photographer, the word from the Puerto Rican mainland was that everyone was welcome to land “except the two Cubans.” So they paddled on and finally landed somewhere else.

My favorite thing at this home, however, was a golf scorecard that Jimenez had kept. It was from a game the three of them played, with an American, at a golf course owned by the IBM Corporation, just outside of Havana.

There had been a time, between when the rebels came down from the mountain and Castro began to talk to the Soviets, that it seemed like this new regime in Cuba might make friends with America. And so, during this interval, which lasted about 10 months, there came a time when IBM executives invited Fidel and Che and Antonio to play a game of golf.

Nearby to this golf scorecard was an IBM company monthly magazine that was published after the game. A page inside showed a photo of the foursome all friendly like, standing on the green holding their clubs for the camera.

The IBM man, in his tie and jacket, is holding the grip of his club the special way that golfers do, with one hand overlinked by one finger with the other hand. The three others, all in their military uniforms, held their clubs like baseball bats.

Apparently, the Cubans never had played the game before, ever. They knew nothing of mulligans or do-overs. They counted every shot. Here were the results, in pencil, right there on the card displayed under the glass of the museum case. John Miller of IBM, 92. Fidel Castro, 138. Antonio Nuñez, 158. Che Guevara, 122.

It’s been two generations since the American government announced the embargo against this tiny nation. I can understand why they did it, although punishing the people to get them to throw out their new leaders is a pretty bad idea in my opinion. It’s long since time it was ended. And now, as the two countries come near to establishing full diplomatic relations, it has.

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