My Visit to Cuba: A Time Capsule Experience
I was five years old when Fidel Castro left the Shelburne Hotel in Midtown Manhattan in 1960 citing what he said were unreasonable demands of upfront cash ($10,000) from the Cuban delegation against possible damages to the luxury hotel, and headed uptown to the Theresa Hotel in Harlem.
There, he was greeted by cheers from African Americans who welcomed his arrival with the kind of enthusiasm usually reserved for the homecoming of a long lost son.
During his stay, he met with everyone from Langston Hughes to Malcolm X and Nikita Khrushchev, the First Secretary of the Communist Part of the Soviet Union, who is widely known for making his point by banging his shoe on the lectern during a speech before the United Nations.
Castro's visit left such an indelible mark on African Americans that it has become legendary as a symbol of both resistance and validation from this world leader who turned his back on the wealth of Manhattan to spend time with the “folks” Uptown, and have a ball.
It was that memory that stayed with me throughout a visit to Cuba a year before President Barak Obama announced the dismantling of 56-year-old sanctions against this Caribbean nation.
My Daughter and I in Cuba
Cuba, at the time I visited was still a somewhat arduous route to get permission from the U.S. to visit, so instead, I boarded a Canadian cruise ship in Jamaica headed to the largest island in the Caribbean. It was a simple matter of booking the cruise in advance, showing your passport, getting a temporary visa at the port in Havana, and being allowed to move freely throughout the country.
My daughter, Jamila and I visited the major cities of Havana and Santiago, several smaller villages and the town of Biran where Castro and his brother, Raul, were born.
Marks of the Revolution
From villages in rural areas like Biran, to communities all over the cities, there are “revolution” squares that are frequented every evening by families and friends to talk, eat, and listen to live music, or simply smoke a Cahaba and watch the evening activities unfold.
Cuba is a country where the bullet marks are still visible on the walls of the Moncada Barracks in Santiago where the Castro brothers first took up arms against the Battista regime. Though the attack failed and they were captured and thrown in jail, like the reliefs of images of the revolution that can be found on any wall that has space, the bullet holes act as a guide, memory and compass that simply states “we are still here.”
The Cuba after the sanctions will no doubt be different than the Cuba during the sanctions.
The fact that there are so many old cars is a testimony to the impact of not being able to import new ones, but an even stronger testimony to the resilience of the people in creating parts and maintaining the cars in mostly mint condition for close to 60 years.
Not to say that Cuba has not had its share of problems economically and politically. There is an obvious need for environmental improvements as the smog is thick in parts of the country because it still depends heavily on antiquated coal plants to provide electricity, and for many it's still a hard-scrabble existence where food is tight and poverty is as visible here as in any American city.
I had heard that visiting the country was like going back in time, but I had always thought it an exaggeration until I stepped on the streets of Havana and became immersed in a country and people where time seemed to have indeed, stood still.
In bustling Havana and Santiago, every other car was either a Detroit-built behemoth from the 1950's, or a Russian or Eastern European “economy” model of a basic car with few frills.
Evidence of Bygone Eras
The Spanish-styled buildings, from cathedrals to theaters and villas, were symbols of a bygone area that merged fluidly with yet another bygone era of mobsters, gambling, and corruption that literally paid for the nightclubs and hotels that surround Havana like a wreath. Note that Spain ruled Cuba from the 16th Century to 1898.
Here, you can still attend a lavish performance at the Tropicana Night Club where American gangsters like Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano profited immensely from this style of entertainment, which, frankly, continues to be as impressive as any Las Vegas show I've ever seen.
A bottle of Havana Cuban rum is placed at each table for tourists along with a couple of cans of Coca-Cola, glasses, cigars and a smile and wink from the waiter. Food is optional.
It was an authentic throwback to an era where showgirls performed in chandelier headdresses, skimpy costumes, and the male performers sported colorful flamenco shirts and the type of charisma worthy of the shirt and the dance.
Everywhere there were song and odes to the revolution that liberated them from the U.S.-supported regime of Fulgencio Battista in 1959, and gave birth to this current, complex Cuban mixture of pride, independence, and a deep love of country and family.
When You Go
There is, of course, good food to be found everywhere and music and people who are genuinely friendly and welcoming. The spirit of the Cuban people is palpable, as the sanctions gave no room for the import of cell phones, portable music devices, cable TV and other distractions that have made the art of conversation in the West a quickly dying form of communications that requires thought, interest and manners.
All they have is each other and it is, perhaps, the true strength of this country—family and focus.
I strongly suggest that when you visit, you stay clear of the corporate tours and buses. Instead, hire one of the many taxis, perhaps a 1959 Buick, that are registered with the government, privately operated. They also offer personal tours that include the homes of people who are registered and licensed to serve you an authentic Cuban meal and rum to wash it down.
Cuba, I hope, will always remain a country of contrasts, pride, love, song and a charisma very much like the stories of its now deceased leader who chose to liberate a stereotype for just one moment by paying homage to the voices of a community in Harlem that understood what it meant to be denied a seat at the table.
Years later, I was in Harlem visiting friends and that visit was still a topic of pride and joy among aging Black journalists who recounted the day Castro held court in the Theresa Hotel as one of the highlights of their often segregated society.