A half century and a couple of years ago, I was eagerly, pleadingly trying to get to Cuba.
In the spring of 2011, I finally made it. So, what did I miss?
At first glance, not much. But upon a second look, quite a bit.
The magnificent Roman, Spanish, Moorish, French, Dutch — tinged architecture of Old Havana’s 200, 300, 400 — year old buildings is still there – just a half century more decayed. Detroit’s best of the ‘40s,‘50s, ‘60s , especially those “big boats,” the Pontiacs, Buicks, Oldsmobiles on stretched — out wheel bases, are very much in evidence on her streets — a little noisier, burning a little more oil. And Havana continues to hum, buzz, even rock with life’s day time routines as well as night time pleasures in her themed restaurants, her night clubs, her world — famous artistic venues.
But, it’s also spectacle in a police state, a sheen over a third-world nation, a necessary keeping up of appearances by a substantial portion of the population, beleaguered and impoverished, but intensely patriotic about the homeland – and yearning mightily for free enterprise, property rights, a better deal for their children.
Many Habanans equate lifting the U.S. embargo with realization of this improved state, while some Cuban Americans vociferously disagree. I am not immune to the pain sustained by the ex-patriots who lost so much in Castro’s “revolucion,” in the subsequent seizure by nationalization of all private property, forced to start over in America with few resources and resentment that still boils.
Yet, I found it exceedingly difficult to walk with Habanans through their disintegrating city, listen over strong Cuban coffee to their stronger words, visit with them and their families in what they call home, and not conclude it’s time the embargo go. Cuba’s working class – peoples anywhere, for that matter — deserve better than they get in Cuba today. Gradually lifting the embargo would help – and there are slivers of hope on the horizon.
The beginning for me
In 1959, the heavily bearded, battle-hardened young Fidel Castro and his “revolucion” are on the verge of overthrowing finally the island’s military dictator, Gen. Fulgencio Batista, who was somewhat reluctantly backed by U.S. policy. That exquisite tropical paradise less than a hundred miles off our southern tip is going to be free…free… free, returned to the people of Cuba. Or, so it seems that spring in West Central Florida.
I am a young, far-from-seasoned intern schlepping copy and coffee to hard-bitten editors and real reporters across the vast second floor newsroom of the old St. Petersburg Independent, that city’s famed afternoon daily. The Indy’s select contingent of male reporters stomp across the uneven floorboards in combat boots, their green fatigues tucked into high tops, preparing for their Cuban assignments. I can only watch, listening in envy as the banter swirls, cameras are checked, film canisters counted, orders shouted, gear hoisted. I so want to go, too; I ask, even beg. But, there’s no way a slip of an inexperienced girl from north St. Pete is going into a hot Cuban combat zone. “No girls allowed,” the guys smirk, with knowing winks, as if we’re talking backyard tree house. “Not outta my newsroom,” the managing editor growls with finality.
A few years later, in nearly lawless Alaska as drunken threats fill the air and blood flows, men of the same stripe will stand with me, surrounding me to protect my honor, very possibly preserving my life. But those warm days in 1959, I am nothing but unwanted excess baggage on their excursions of a lifetime.
Finally, objective achieved
Fast forward fifty odd years. It’s mid — May, 2011. I’m in Havana, Cuba – for the first time. I’ve accompanied a Florida League of Women Voters delegation on a cultural exchange mission. Our U.S. State Department visas classify us as engaged in professional research for diverse purposes: education, journalism, professional-to-professional interactions. The group consists largely of mature achievers, many with backgrounds in law, corporate management, community organization. We’re supposed to be shuttled around each day and night on one of the thousands of government-operated busses that fill Havana streets and Cuban roads, cued and queued, shepherded and surveiled by government-employed guides.
But early in the eight-day trip, the itinerary quite unexpectedly undergoes radical adjustment. I take it as a nudge from the gods, the best opportunity I’m going to get to vacate that bus, to go my own way. Dusting off my rusty high school Spanish — “Hablo usted en Inglis?” — I set off to wander the old city alone, to connect with native Habanans, many who speak some and some even fluent in English. I ask them to share their country, their city, their lives with me a few hours at a time.
Copyright 2011 Melody Jameson
To Be Continued
Next: Havana at 500