My son was 19 when I took him to Cuba, back in 1999. He was a smart kid, and I wanted him to see the island and form his own opinion firsthand, before the embargo was lifted and the island became, inevitably, Americanized. And I wanted to do the same, plus smoke as many fine cigars as possible. It was a good time to be an American in Cuba.
Bill Clinton was president and otherwise preoccupied, and didn’t seem to care about Americans violating the embargo. And strapped for hard currency, Fidel Castro had recently declared the American dollar legal tender. Having it, and spending it, brought us into close contact with many locals we encountered while strolling the streets of Havana, a beautiful but decrepit city. Yet it was less difficult than I’d imagined to engage in candid, if somewhat hushed, conversations about life in Cuba.
We flew easily from Nassau to Havana, where we paid Cuban agents $80 for our official papers, to be carried with us at all times, saving us having an awkward – and treasonous – Cuban stamp on our passports. It was July and hot, but we were excited to be there: my son less so, but our illegal adventure took on greater significance for him as the years passed, as none of his well-travelled peers have made such a trip. Today he recounts it as one of his favorites.
Most everyone in Cuba, save the oldest citizens, spoke English: Cubans are well educated, making the dearth of jobs and opportunity all the more depressing for the younger generations. We were treated very well, especially as we came from Florida. And it’s true what Jimmy Buffett says: everybody has a cousin in Miami! We quickly established ourselves as persons of interest (and to the state police when we left the confines of Havana for the Pinar Del Rio region, in western Cuba, an absolutely stunning landscape, and where it can be successfully argued the world’s best tobacco is grown), sought out for our dollars as much as for news from America.
We spent our first few days in Havana, staying at the beautiful but faded Santa Isabel, once a private home to Spanish nobility but now a boutique hotel. Due to a snafu at check-in, the hotel manager, a wily and refined old Cuban, insisted we join him for a private dinner in the hotel’s small but elegant dining room. Renowned for it’s cuisine, we had a wonderful five-course dinner, where the rum flowed and the cigars burned. (We learned the next day that Lena Horne, the famous singer, had stopped by that night for dinner, but was gracious when told the dining room was closed.) The evening was quite memorable, as the manager appreciated my knowledge of Cuban history, encouraging him to speak freely and candidly about life in Cuba and what her future held once the Castros faded from the scene.
He agreed that the American embargo had little effect on Cuban life: The Soviet Union, Cuba’s benefactor after America turned Fidel’s brand of communism down, was indifferent to the plight of ordinary Cubans, interested solely in thumbing their noses at an America just 90 miles north. They built some of the most depressing apartment buildings, tall and ugly, and an insult to the beautiful Spanish architecture. Their Soviet-made buses were drab and constantly belching black clouds of diesel fumes. The average Cuban had little respect for the Russians.
But most loved America, understanding our country was not responsible for the horrid conditions they found themselves, and their country, suffering. When we spoke to the oldest Cubans, their fidelity to the revolution was strong and unassailable: It was all they had ever known. But those in the middle class, what little there was of it; mostly cigar shop owners, private restaurants, and street vendors, spoke to us guardedly yet excitedly about their future. They didn’t denounce Fidel; they had too much at stake, but were quietly confident things would slowly, eventually, change for the better. Still, they understood much needed to be done, and were resigned to see it unfold at a pace they little controlled. But the younger generation, the one my son and I most interacted with, hated Fidel Castro. With a passion. They were impatient, smart and hungry for change, courageous and bold. And it is this generation, now older and no doubt less patient, that is the future of Cuba. America, and Americans, should embrace them, support them and do everything within our considerable power to make their dreams come true.
As it was back in 1999, it is a good time to be an American in Cuba. So go!
!Viva la evolution!
Editor’s Note: This letter was initially published Feb. 20, 2015.