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End of the Castro Era?

“Your first visit to Cuba?” asked the check-in clerk at O’Hare Field. It was a question my wife Rose and I would field frequently during a week-long visit to that beleaguered island nation.

“No,” I said. “Second.” But the correct answer to that question was much more complicated.

My first Cuban visit came in the 1950’s, the Pre-Castro, Pre-Revolution years.  Dictator Fulgencio Batista ruthlessly ruled Cuba, aided and abetted by the Mafia. With two weeks to waste at the end of a college vacation, three friends and I drove to Florida, sleeping on beaches to save money, eventually reaching Key West, where we learned that for $14, we could fly round-trip to Havana.

Fidel Castro was off somewhere in the Sierra Maestra; Che Guevara had not yet become a T-shirt icon. We said, “Let’s go!”

Cubans swarmed around my friends and I like bees as we arrived at the Havana airport, hoping to part us from our pesos. That included a taxicab driver named Benny, who promised to take us everywhere and show us everything. We climbed into Benny’s cab (which still may be navigating the streets of Havana). Other than Benny and night clubs that cared not that we were underage back home, my most lasting memory of Old Havana remains banana chips and Cuba Libres (Rum and Coca-Cola). At least as far as banana chips. I would not savor that tropical delicacy for seven decades. Then I learned of a tour to Cuba sponsored by The Author’s Guild of which I am a member.

An educational tour, that is. One does not any more decide on a whim to fly from Key West to Havana. Toward the end of his presidency, Barack Obama opened a door to Cuba for American tourists, but his successor quickly slammed that door shut! To travel now to Cuba, you need to join an organized tour that includes lectures praising the pluses of Fidel’s socialist revolution, which include:

  • Free housing
  • Free education
  • Free medical care

But not much salary. A surgeon, we learned, earns little more than a janitor or a streetsweeper or a bartender. In fact, a bartender (or anyone who can collect tips from tourists) earns more. “Cubans love Americans,” explained Christopher, the Cuban who guided our Author’s Guild tour. “They tip well.”

That may or may not be true, but consider the irony: Despite the United States having its boot on the throats of the Cuban people for seven decades, they welcome us generously. We felt safe walking the streets. Cuba has a low crime rate, claimed Christopher. During our weeklong tour, I saw only one policeman carrying a visible automatic weapon.

Educational propaganda aside, one thing struck me during our visit to the towns of Cienfuegos and Trinidad as well as Havana: The country was clean: Very little litter. And the people seemed happy. Also, reasonably well dressed. “Cubans are very proud people,” boasted Christopher.

We were not the only Americans in town. Staying at our hotel were a dozen beekeepers attending meetings organized by the Cuban government. The decline of world bee populations is a serious problem, but not in Cuba. Cuban farmers apparently cannot afford chemical fertilizers; their crops remain organic. Organic food (along with honey) someday may become a major export. Years ago, sugar cane was Cuba’s major export with prices propped up by the Soviet Union. That no longer is true. Among Cuba’s leading exports now are pharmaceuticals.

And tourism. Havana has a certain Old-World charm that you do not find elsewhere in the Caribbean. It is like stepping back into the middle of the last century, the time of my first visit. On our last day in town, Rose and I allowed the driver of a lilac-colored, 1955 Buick convertible select us as his next passengers. Only 15 pesos; about what I paid to fly from Key West to Havana during my college years.

The car rattled and rumbled. An iron bar between front and rear seats apparently held the frame together. I remembered Benny, the cabdriver of my youth. Could this have been the same car?

Despite travel brochures, ancient cars do not dominate the streets of Havana. More visible are bright, yellow taxicabs, many imported from China. Does our current President realize that in continuing the embargo, he allows China access to a market within 90 miles of our borders? At least Chinese taxicabs are less threatening than the Russian missiles that President John F. Kennedy faced down in the 1960’s.

One wonders what might the relationship between Cuba and the U.S. be today if JFK had picked up the telephone and said, “Hey, Bobby. Call off that Bay of Pigs thing.” In February 2018, the Cuban people will vote to select the country’s first non-Castro leader since 1960. Cuba and the United States must become friends again. The question is, when?

Hal Higdon is the author of more than three-dozen books, including “Bobby Kennedy and the Politics of the Sixties.”