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“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” – Mark Twain
I was new and was uncertain why I had been given the assignment. If they were testing me, the potential cost of failure would not be minor. I did not speak Spanish and had only traveled on one international story. Regardless, I was on a Russian Aeroflot flight from Mexico City as it approached Cuba for a landing. The island looked both beautiful and insignificant and I thought back to my boyhood when I went to sleep at night fearing nuclear bombs were aimed at our neighborhood and would launch whenever Castro got sufficiently angry.
The delegation I was accompanying was supposed to be exploring culture and history but nobody ever seemed to visit the island without political intent. The organization was a Latino group from America and they had already made many public statements about normalization of relations with Cuba but they knew the chances were not good for that to happen during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. I did not want to think about the politics but when you walk around old Havana and visit the farms and talk to the people and see how they suffer then you know that everything in Cuba is related to politics.
“We have a problem here on our island.” Our driver, Alberto, began speaking as we rolled away from the hotel. “This artificial sweetener is hurting our people.”
“What artificial sweetener?” I asked.
“They are beginning to use it in some of the Coca-Colas now,” Alberto said. “This is very painful.”
“I guess I don’t understand.”
“We grow and sell sugar here and it is bought by countries all around the world. Now there is less demand. These doctors are saying sugar is bad. Do they know what this sweetener chemical might do to people?”
Alberto turned around to look at me when he finished his question and one of his eyebrows was arched and he had drawn his lips together so tightly that they exaggerated the wrinkles around his mouth. He was surely in his mid fifties but his hair was suspiciously lacking any trace of gray.
“Yeah, probably ought to find that out, I suppose.”
I was thinking, however, that my own beloved country was a bit foolish to be worried about a small island nation that might have its economy brought to grief by an artificial sweetener.
Alberto drove my cameraman Vicente and me along the low stone seawall that traced the curve of Havana Bay and toward the green fields to the east. We were supposed to be getting a briefing from a Cuban government agency and then we all were to be taken to see a master cigar roller. This job was one of the most honored in the island’s culture and required years of practice and accomplishment in turning a tight leaf around the tobacco.
Havana’s Malecon Seawall
I was wondering how I might construct any of this into some kind of meaningful news report but my main interest was in making certain I did not miss any single sight or taste or sound. I had not ever been to such an exotic place and was determined to visit the Floridita, a bar where Hemingway drank, and the Finca Vigia, his farm in the hills where he wrote “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “The Old Man and the Sea.”
Vicente and I had been forced to share a room in the old Riviera Hotel and it towered above the Caribbean Sea and all of old Havana. The rooms smelled of mold and decades of humidity and the paper was curling away from the walls where it had once been seamed. Furniture in the lobby was discolored by time and the Formica on the tables and counters in the café was without color and worn thin. The Riviera, though, had once been glamorous and glorious and was filled with beautiful people with mysterious backgrounds during the years that the American mob ruled Cuba and ran gambling, drugs, and alcohol. I still had trouble envisioning women in low-cut beaded gowns gliding over these scarred floors carrying champagne flutes in their hands with gaudy jewels around their necks as men with greased hair chased after them in tuxedos. Those people shared their money with the brutal US-backed dictator Fulgencio Bautista, who also made the campesinos cut tobacco and sugar cane for pennies a day so he might get even richer.
“When do you think we might meet the premier?” I asked Alberto. Brightly painted buildings were passing behind us and giving way to open country that was outlined by low hills.
“This we cannot know,” he said. “The premier moves about. No one knows where he sleeps. It is a different place every night. Your American CIA tried to kill him, as you know. We must be very careful.”
“But we are going to meet him, are we not? It’s part of why we are here. I think the delegation wants to personally express interest in trade.”
“Let’s hope this happens.”
Vicente was quiet and sat in the back with his bulky TV camera bouncing on the seat. He had not spoken much since the first night because he had a Latino surname and everyone had expected him to know Spanish but he grew up in Texas during a time when Mexican-American parents were embarrassed to have their children speaking anything other than English.
Vicente was wide and strong with thick arms and legs and when he pointed a TV camera at people and told them what he wanted them to do they obeyed his instructions. His constant facial expression was confusion even though he seemed to be trying to make everything in his immediate vicinity fit to a vision he had of what he wanted to happen. All the Mojitos that were brought to us in government and business lobbies did not loosen him up and make him more talkative even though most of our hosts spoke fluent English.
“Where are we going? Is there a problem?” Alberto had suddenly turned into a dirt lane on the edge of a tobacco field, stopped abruptly as if he were in a hurry, dropped the car into reverse, and backed onto the highway to return in the direction of the city.
“I’m afraid I’m not allowed to say, senor.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I wish I could tell you.”
“Hey man, we got a right to know what’s goin’ on.” Vicente had leaned into the space between the two front seats and was trying to be intimidating but there was no response from Alberto.
“I told you we had to be careful.” Alberto offered nothing further as he sped back toward the city.
“Should we just hop out when he stops at a light or somethin’?” Vicente had lifted his camera from the seat and was holding it in his lap and he was ready to jump.
“I’m not sure what to do,” I said. “We can’t exactly grab a taxi very easily out here.”
“Yeah, but this is a communist country, man. And they mostly don’t like Americans and especially our media. Who knows what they might be planning on doing to us?”
“You’re right. I’m pretty sure they are going to take US reporters to a field and cut us down while they are traveling with a high-profile Hispanic delegation. Stop being ridiculous.”
A long fence line appeared on our left and we drove along its length until a gate appeared and we saw that we were at the remote end of an airport runway. Our delegation was gathered around a white, turbo-prop aircraft and a few of them were already climbing stairs to board. I stepped out before the car had stopped rolling and went directly to the government official who served as our host.
“What’s going on?”
“We are going to Isla de Juventud.”
“Why the change in our itinerary?”
“I cannot say.”
“Of course not. Nobody can say anything in this country.”
The small island was mostly a volcano risen from the Caribbean that was covered with palms and long grasses. Two dirt lanes crossed near what appeared to be the middle of the island and there were a few stucco-walled buildings standing in clearings. I had the notion that Hawaii must have looked this way before the condo-builders arrived from California.
Fidel Castro’s government had decided to use the island off the southern coast of Cuba as a preparatory school for his country’s best and brightest and teenagers lived in cement block dormitories and took classes in rooms with three walls. The taunting sun beat out on the pathways that led to the mysterious jungle only a few feet from where they were opening their books. Our gathering must have looked absurd to them as we shuffled along on a tour and sipped Mojjtos and dark coffee and asked mundane questions. There seemed to be no connection between this place and the contemporary world and I wondered if it were possible these young people had ever seen pictures of Los Angeles or Paris or even had enough information to formulate a dream that might lead them beyond Cuba. Castro had spent a few years here, imprisoned at the Presidio Modelo before he began planning his revolution while in exile in Mexico.
“This place is fascinating,” I said to Vicente that night in our hotel room. “But I’m getting tired of the games and I’m just going to bail out of the itinerary and go to the Floridita tomorrow if they won’t answer questions about when we get to go there.”
“I doubt we’re going to get there,” he said. “Doesn’t seem like they want to emphasize an American writer or anything else American, for that matter.”
“Maybe not, but he was a hero to the Cuban people. He drew a lot of positive attention to the island during the political change.”
“I don’t know nothin’ about that but I’m always up for another Mojito,” Vicente laughed.
In the morning, Alberto gave us the news that we had a visit to a large health clinic on our schedule and then we were to stop at the famous Floridita bar where Hemingway was a habitué during his years in Cuba, watering hole famous for the invention of the frozen daiquiri. When we walked in a few hours later I saw several photos of the writer that were tilting awkwardly along the walls. There were also framed articles that had been published by American magazines and newspapers that profiled the American ex-patriot. I liked the photo of him with his defiant eyes and tight grin as he stared into the camera with his arm around Martha Gellhorn, the glamorous UPI correspondent he had seduced while married to his second wife.
All of the journalists in our delegation sat at the mahogany bar and drank to excess for several hours and ignored the pleas of Alberto and our government host that we return to the cars for a ride back to the hotel. Each one of us thought we might be fine writers, too, and become best-selling authors if only we were able to get away from daily reporting. When you are young and in Cuba and there is rum in your belly you do not think about mortgages and car payments and living on a cul-de-sac.
We finally met Castro a few days after we had stopped expressing interest. My Spanish was not adequate to understand the conversation but he was as animated in the small conference as he appeared in the TV clips that were excerpted from his legendarily long speeches. The premier refused to speak English on his home soil so there were only a few people in our group that were able to later talk about what he had said and how he felt about the current American president. The deprivations of his people would disappear if the US were to simply import cigars and rum and sugar from the island, but he knew no such commerce was likely under a conservative administration.
Castro’s energy seemed to perceptibly change the air in the great anteroom outside of his office and I had no difficulty understanding how he inspired a small band of revolutionaries to cross the Gulf from Mexico. I easily saw him at the helm of the “Granma” as it topped wave crests and he leaned his head in the direction of Che so that they might contemplate the form of their struggle and scenarios for success.
They went to the mountains, of course, and moved closer to Havana with each battle and they owned the hearts of the campesinos almost from the day they landed and stories of their presence spread across the land. Che did not want to govern, though, and left for Bolivia for a new struggle but he was undone by his asthma. He built great fires in the jungles each night to breathe warm, dry air and clear his respiratory system but the blazes enabled the CIA to track the revolutionary and kill him before he achieved another overthrow of another dictator friendly to America.
There were only three days left on the island for our trip and we had completed all of the interviews that needed to be taped. My goal was to spend the remaining time as a tourist and walk neighborhoods with a translator or sit on the seawall and drink cold beer and contemplate how I might spend my years traveling to other locales like Cuba.
“We gonna shoot anything else, tomorrow?” Vicente asked as he plugged in batteries for charging in the hotel room.
“Nope. Tomorrow we are going to Papa Hemingway’s farm.”
“Yeah, right; you know these guys aren’t going to leave us alone. They damn sure have other plans for us.”
“I don’t care. We’ll meet them at the car when we walk out and just tell them we are hiring a driver to take us up there.”
“Sure, pal. Whatever you say.”
In the morning, Alberto was sitting in the hotel lobby and sipping a tiny cup of coffee with a broad smile.
“Do you wish to see the Finca today?” he asked.
“Yes, of course, we do; we’ve wanted to see it every day since we’ve been here.”
“Very well, then; let’s go.”
“I thought you had two more government agency visits or something for us today and that we were supposed to see the sports training facilities.”
“No, no, that is not important. Perhaps tomorrow. We’ll go to the farm today, as you wish.”
The Nobel Laureate’s residence was in a serious state of decline and vines were reaching out from the jungle to cover walks and fencing and they snaked up over the edges of the patio. Our tour was not constrained, though, and I saw his bookshelves and the table where Hemingway wrote in longhand at the peak of his literary powers, sober and focused until midday and then drunk and complicated as the afternoon passed. A picture of his boat, the Pilar, hung near his desk and there was also the inevitable photo of him standing next to a great swordfish he had landed with a gaffe somewhere near the Gulfstream. A kind of magic had happened inside those four walls but the uninitiated would have seen only a crumbling farm nestled between low hills. I still see that house some times in my dreams and it appears to be filled with words that are rusting and rotting from going unused.
The Refurbished Fina Vigia
The next few days I slipped away from Vicente and Alberto and walked the old neighborhoods of Havana. The streets were busy with people and 1950s era US automobiles; there had been no American imports since Castro had won control of the government. I did not want to leave because there were endless things to know and life was outdoors and simple. Everyone danced and drank in the streets and there was no place to walk without hearing music. The air was wet and warm and tasted of the ocean and hills and cigars and cooking meat.
After the delegation’s farewell dinner the night before our departure, Vicente and I walked back to the Riviera and argued about socialism and capitalism. Politics is never a good subject but it is even worse when you are debating with a professional colleague and opinions are inflamed by alcohol. We were still bickering an hour later in the room as we packed our TV gear but Vicente had a greater concern than politics.
“We’re idiots, you realize,” he said.
“Yeah, but why?”
“How many weeks have we been here?”
“Several. You know. Why?”
“Because it’s one in the morning and our charter leaves at five and we have no rum or cigars……..”
“And who the hell goes to Cuba and comes back without rum and cigars?”
“We aren’t going to get any either. It’s Sunday night or Monday morning or whatever the hell it is and there sure isn’t anything open at this hour.”
“Guess not. Doubt they have 24 hour 7-11s in Havana.”
“Holy shit. Travel to Cuba and forget to buy rum and cigars to take home. Who in the hell is that stupid?”
“Us, I reckon.”
We finished loading the camera and batteries into Anvil crates and packed the tripod into its tube. I went to the window and stared out at the lights down the shoreline from a vantage point seventeen floors above the surface of the sea. I convinced myself I was to return and know Cuba and that my first impressions were to become a love of the culture and the people. Sitting in the chair by the window I fell asleep for a few hours without undressing and I jumped when the wakeup call came from the front desk. Vicente opened the door to begin stacking luggage and crates in the hallway and he nearly tripped over two baskets sitting outside our room.
“I don’t believe it,” he said. “Look at this.”
“What? I walked out from the bathroom. “That is hilarious. No way.”
There were four bottles of rum, two white and two dark, and two boxes of Montecristo cigars. A small, white card was taped to each of the dark rum bottles. I picked one up and read the words: “Republica de Cuba. Fidel Castro Ruz Presidente Del Consejo De Estado y Del Gobierno.”
Fidel’s 40 Year Old Calling Card
“They were listening to us in the room,” Vicente said. “When we bitched about the Floridita and the Finca, our schedules were changed the next morning. And now they made sure we have rum and cigars.”
I did not have the energy to be angry.
I still have Castro’s calling card, though. I carry it in a ballistic nylon wallet. There are times when I take it out and look at it and wonder what might have been for Cuba. Everyone doubts my story, though, and no one thinks the card bearing Castro’s name is real. I do not care about that indifference but I wish that I had made another trip to Cuba. I still have not returned.
But I know that I am going.