A few weeks back, President Barack Obama became the first US president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge made the trip 88 years ago. The Rolling Stones recently played a free concert called the Concert for Amity at Havana’s Ciudad Deportiva de la Habana, the first time a British rock band has played in Cuba, and Major League Baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays recently played the Cuban national baseball team in an exhibition game at Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana, the first time an MLB team has visited the country in 17 years.
It has been nearly 40 years since I first stepped onto the tarmac at José Martí International Airport in Havana, and I’m excited to be going back, although I doubt it will be quite as exciting or romantic and it certainly will not be as politically risky as my first two trips in the 1970s with the Venceremos Brigade, a project founded in 1969 to show solidarity with the Cuban people while defying the US economic blockade.
Cuba is on the cusp of changes not seen since Fidel Castro and his band of revolutionaries marched into Havana.
In both 1973 and 1977, I, along with hundreds of Americans surreptitiously — that is, as surreptitious as one could be with the FBI watching — flew to Cuba via Mexico. Recently, Cuba and the United States reached an agreement allowing scheduled commercial flights to resume this year. In 1973, we arrived in Havana in the middle of the night; we were processed — our passports weren’t stamped — and we boarded buses for the ride to our camp, located not too far from the city. Studebakers, Chevrolets and Fords from the 1950s, some up on cinder blocks, dotted the early morning landscape. Those cars were symbols that defined Cuba for Americans for decades as a country seemingly lost in a time warp since the Eisenhower administration imposed the blockade. We were, to borrow a term from James Baldwin, in “Another Country,” a place of taboos and unknown realities. While we were building houses in Cuba, the FBI was visiting many of our parents’ homes in the United States.
Our mission in 1973, and again in 1977, was to break the US information blockade, discover as best as we could what was happening in Cuba and bring that information back.
Our mission this spring is to get there before — as the narrative has it — everything changes.
Now that the Obama administration has begun “normalizing” relations with Cuba, the wall the United States erected is slowly coming down. Travel agencies handling trips to Cuba are booked up many months in advance. Television talk show host Conan O’Brien brought his late night talk show there last year, the History channel recently filmed an episode of “Top Gear” there, GQ sent actor Bobby Cannavale for a fashion shoot on the streets of Havana, and this season’s first episode of Anthony Bourdain’s CNN show, “Parts Unknown,” was shot in Cuba. The New York Times recently reported that for the first time in 50 years, new US Treasury Department regulations allow “Americans to shoot scripted movies and shows in Cuba.”
In just about every travel magazine and travel section in newspapers across the country the word has gone out: Change is on the way. As Sen. Al Franken put it during a pilgrimage to La Finca Vigía, Ernest Hemingway’s Cuban home, “I just wanted to get here before the Chipotle.” What are these mavens of travel concluding? Popular wisdom has it that change will be fast and furious.
Cuba is on the cusp of changes not seen since Fidel Castro and his band of revolutionaries marched into Havana on New Year’s Day in 1959. The “essence” of “Cuba itself,” as Stephen Marche wrote in an Esquire magazine essay titled “The Ghost of Hemingway,” is “raw, unhinged and trapped in several different histories, and handmade and gorgeous and fleshly and occasionally cruel.” Will it be goodbye to all that, including socialism? Will it be hello to unfettered capitalism? Will everything be up for sale?
The goodbye-socialist-Cuba narrative is simple, unadorned, relatively nuance-free and perhaps even somewhat fact-free. For many, that outcome is unthinkable. It genuinely appears, however, that nobody really knows what’s coming down the pike. Not visiting Americans, aspiring entrepreneurs, pouncing corporate honchos, cultural icons or everyday Cubans, and probably not even Cuba’s leaders.
In 1977, and before that, in 1973, I went to Cuba with a set of specific political goals. As a member of the Venceremos Brigade, we set about to break the US information blockade and in some small measure aid in the development of the country — in our case, building houses at a planned agricultural community outside Havana. We met and worked with Cubans from all walks of life; I learned more than I ever hoped to learn. In 1973, after six weeks of work, we spent two weeks traveling the length of the country. My first trip to Cuba spurred my packing up my blue Chevy van and moving from Lawrence, Kansas, to Oakland, California. It was partly responsible for me joining the United Farm Workers movement — as in my mind, the struggles and cultures intersected.
This time around, I am going on a tour. I don’t expect to get pigeonholed, as a small group of us were on a Sunday afternoon in 1973 outside the Hotel Nacional by a staffer from the North Korean embassy, who took us to the embassy, where we spent an afternoon in deep, alcohol-fueled political conversation about the antiwar movement in the United States. Our visit with the North Koreans resulted in the arrival of Kim Il-sung’s collected works — book by book — in my Oakland mailbox for several years, and a detailed report of the embassy encounter in my FBI file.
Nor do I expect to experience the absolute wonder of reading Gabriel García Márquez’s masterwork, One Hundred Years of Solitude, while riding a rickety bus across the amazingly beautiful Cuban landscape.
From the bus, May 1977:
Every sentence became a pronouncement, not carefully thought out, but constructed within its own limitations. Through the bus window, the greens were sharper in late Saturday afternoon sun. Unlike other days, Saturday afternoons could not be easily diagrammed; marked by a special silence, opposites in time and space. At the edge of town, red roses stared in silence from the bush; Bohios hung from the tip of a hillside; cheering children were strung across the countryside like stands of tiny palm trees; a cemetery whose crosses were bruised by a slow wind; an orange 1955 Chevrolet and a horse being washed. What could have been a splendid golf course had cows eating the greens. The cut cane, the sugar mill, the jet-black smoke. La Estrella Roja. And the rain of the day? Not in drops but slashing diagonal lines bouncing off the tired bus and dusty town. El Figero and El Aguila with Spanish columns, and Virginia ham sandwiches. A new apartment building pasted between the cobblestones and a pensive maiden thinking in cement in the square. Children swam in the mud.
As if reading One Hundred Years of Solitude was not an experience isolated completely unto itself, to be reading it as we hurtle through Cuba by bus, passing countless Buendia mansions and banana farms, and five minutes of a torrential downpour that didn’t even stain my green pants drying on barbed wire at camp. Rain coming so fast it passed through that which it met — pants, towels, socks and the earth itself — yet not a rain of four years and eleven months. The entire country, tierra, as weather, as sweet earth, as experience, as solitude, as rotting banana leaves. Paper cups fly out the window and piss and shit are symbols of our presence. Late night conversations punctuate the fact that we arrive in a place or return from somewhere. As we wander the beachheads and go through the museums it is striking how young they were, those leaders of the Cuban Revolution.
This time around, we have a full agenda and some time to wander around. We will see what we see, visit what we visit and probably have few opportunities to fully understand rapidly unfolding political events. While we are touring, Cubans living in Florida, New Jersey and other states will also be visiting. Would-be entrepreneurs will be charting their paths to riches. And politicians will be plotting their next moves. It is likely we will be getting there before Chipotle. But will Chipotle be far behind?