There was no place you could go in Havana that day and avoid Fidel’s voice. It was New Year’s Day 1999, the fortieth anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. As he did annually, Castro gave one of his trademark speeches.
I knew enough Spanish to know he was talking about the United States. I knew little enough Spanish that every Cuban I encountered recognized I was from the US. It felt strange walking through the streets of Havana that morning hearing their beloved Fidel blaming my beloved country for the harsh economic conditions confronting Cubans. But patriotic Cubans cheered Fidel even as they graciously welcomed me.
“El Bloqueo” was imposed in the final months of the Eisenhower administration. For the next fifty years supporters of the policy thought the embargo would destroy the Cuban economy, motivating the people to turn against the popular Castro. It never worked.
Castro’s regime survived through the administrations of Eisenhower, Kennedy, LBJ, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, and six years of Barack Obama. US presidents have come and gone. Fidel remains.
Evidence of the embargo could be seen everywhere. The Cubans kept 1950s and 60s automobiles running on gas rations, repaired with bubble gum and duct tape. The embargo prevented them from obtaining gasoline and parts. The streets were filled with bicycles and those who rode them dined on rationed food.
Walking the five-mile stretch along a broad seawall that Cubans call El Malecón, one could readily witness that the embargo and economic strains had left deteriorated what was once one of the most beautiful cities in the Americas. Even so, the architecture of a bygone time was spectacular.
Afterward, I downed a Mojito at La Floridita in order to say I’d enjoyed Hemingway’s favorite drink in one of his favorite watering holes.
Seated next to me were a Cuban doctor and his friend. His English was better than my Spanish. He told me about healthcare on his island. Cuba, it turns out, enjoys one of the best healthcare systems in the world. Its medical schools train good doctors who practice all over the world. Doctors are paid only about $40 per month and live in government housing but are proud of a system delivering as high a life expectancy as we enjoy in the US.
We talked about Hemingway. The doctor told me where the man lived who the great writer used as a model for “The Old Man and the Sea.” We walked to his small house. His wife said while he liked to meet “amigos nuevo,” he was too ill to meet folks that day. “Come back tomorrow,” she invited with typical Cuban hospitality.
Since it was New Year’s Day, we gringos wanted to see the ocean. We searched but had no luck. Finally, we knocked on a door and asked for directions to the beach. Imagine your New Year’s morning. Imagine you and your family enjoying the holiday at home. A group of Cubans knock on your door asking directions. What would you do?
I don’t know what I’d have done, but the Cuban matriarch, whose holiday we disturbed, promptly invited us into his home. He led us through the living room where children were watching TV. We proceeded to follow down a long hall through the kitchen where his wife was making dinner. Finally we arrived at the back door. He opened it. We found ourselves on his back deck looking out across the ocean.
“Perdone,” he excused himself returning with a bottle of rum and a boom box. His wife delivered a plate of food. Neighbors joined us. A New Year’s Day party erupted. To celebrate we drank rum, danced and made new friends without any conversation about the embargo.
It didn’t matter. We didn’t talk about our governments. We were simply people celebrating the hopefulness of a new year. I thought of that day when President Obama announced a new Cuban policy. I imagine another party erupted on that same deck.