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Revisiting Cuba

Fifty-six years after his first visit, a writer returns to see what's up (and what's not).

Cuba Get its Rhythm Back, illus. by Neil Gower
Photo caption
Cuba still charms with music and baseball.

We sit transfixed, sipping our minty rum cocktails, on this typically humid Havana evening as Café Taberna dancers snake sinuously past our table. They writhe to the seductive crooning of Nicolás Mena, the leader of the band Conjunto Son del Trópico and a legendary interpreter of the Afro-Cuban folk music called son. It matters little to the prevailing mood of tropical sensuality that at age 89 Mena is senior by only a few years to his fellow bandsmen and that the purity of the son tradition—which has spawned such musical offshoots as salsa, rumba, mambo, and even Dizzy Gillespie's "cubop"—is occasionally breached by renditions of "As Time Goes By" and "The Shadow of Your Smile." Indeed, as we had been informed earlier by an authority on Cuban culture, "This is a very sexy island." Our night in the airy tavern tucked into an alley off Plaza Vieja strongly supports that assertion.

As Mena wails, trumpets blare, wooden claves click, and bongos are banged. A few members of our party bounce onto the floor to form a conga line and are soon joined by one of our group's leaders, San Francisco's KRON television personality Henry Tenenbaum, and his wife, Melanie. The line grows incrementally, drawing in young Cubans from the bar and a smattering of German tourists who hurry forward from the back of the room. It's a grand night of merrymaking to an Afro-Cuban beat, a sort of hands-across-the-embargo unifying moment.

This is the Havana I'd hoped to find again. For reasons not entirely clear even to me, I tend to drop in on our estranged island neighbor every 30 years or so. I first came to Havana in 1948 as a teenager fresh out of high school. It was truly a wild place then, an unabashedly corrupt, if strikingly beautiful, metropolis peopled by mobsters, hucksters, streetwalkers, procurers, corporate vultures, tinhorn gamblers, and con artists of every stripe—a sort of Sodom of the Antilles. In other words, it was everything I'd hoped it would be. Fulgencio Batista, the once and future dictator, was in Miami, and Fidel Castro was in college. The government, if there actually was one, was bought and sold. And the streets were alive with music and dancing. I'd never seen anything quite like it—not that at age 17 I'd ever seen much of anything.

I found a far different place when I returned in 1977 to write a magazine story on Cuban baseball. Only the American cars that Cubans bravely drove were the same as in 1948. The once- vibrant city had fallen under the leaden influence of the Soviet Union, Cuba's ally and benefactor. The streets seemed dead, and the lights went out at an hour when in the 1940s they would have just been coming on. The baseball was exciting, Havana depressing. The Kremlin's chilly emissaries, strangers in a strange land, had become party poopers. I was reminded of an old Cuban ballplayer's wry observation on the culture clash: "The Russians have yet to come up with a good left-handed pitcher."

By the 1990s, the collapse of the Soviet Union had plunged the island into a depression that is still euphemistically re-ferred to as the "Special Period." Although food rationing continues, Cuba seems at last to be emerging gingerly from the depths, thanks mostly to increased tourism from Europe, Canada, and the rest of Latin America.

And so it was with great curiosity and some hope that I recently signed up for a trip to Cuba from California. It's not easy getting to the island from anywhere in the United States these days. A license issued by the U.S. Department of the Treasury is required for traveling groups, and anything smacking of pure tourism is banned, since that would put frivolously spent American dollars into Castro's communist coffers. But with the right license, some organizations are permitted to bring in groups for cultural, educational, humanitarian, or even journalistic reasons. And the Cuban people, if not their rulers, are happy to entertain visitors from our shores, despite more than four decades of the U.S.-imposed economic embargo.

Miguel Coyula, an architect heading a group charged with restoring Old Havana's classic buildings, believes that the United States and the island nation 90 miles south of the Florida Keys have a special affinity. "We have a love of baseball, jazz music, and movies in common with Americans," he says. "The wall between us must come down. You cannot ignore history."

The 35 travelers in our group would take part in a cultural exchange and humanitarian mission. We had permission to deliver medical supplies to a couple of charities in Havana and educational materials to a school outside the city. At the school, second graders in natty red-and-white uniforms serenaded us beneath massive murals depicting Castro on one wall and the late Celia Sánchez—suspected of having been his onetime mistress—on the other.

We enjoyed ourselves tremendously at every turn in a country that, in my view, had happily come back to life in the 27 years since my last trip there. Even the traffic looked different. In '77, it seemed to me that Havana streets were jammed with tail-finned monstrosities—'56 Dodges and '59 Buicks that summoned memories of backseat smooching with would-be prom queens. Many of these now-decrepit machines are still on the road, but they are equaled or surpassed in number by newer European and Japanese models, as well as by dwarfish puddle-jumpers of Eastern European origin.

In 1977 Cuban men were about as fashionably attired as U.S. sportswriters, and the women, though somewhat more creative in their dress, seemed dowdy when compared to their iridescent forebears of '48. Today the streets are once again a riot of color, and señoritas promenade along the boulevards in high heels and form-fitting frocks.

Cubans find much of their social life in the streets. In addition to baseball, dominoes is a national pastime, and stone tables are set up in all the parks for participants in this contemplative game. Ball diamonds are everywhere and, unlike so many U.S. baseball fields, they are the sites of continuous pickup games.

Always, there is music. Once, on a cobblestone alley in Havana, we encountered a full jazz band marching high above us on stilts. The Cubans, even the Cuban dogs, regarded this bizarre spectacle as nothing out of the ordinary.

Statues, paintings, and murals depicting Fidel and his departed aide-de-camp Che Guevara are, of course, everywhere in this city of crumbling but still-glorious colonial palaces that once housed Spanish nobility. But such statues to military heroes are vastly outnumbered, in my count, by monuments to José Martí, the modernist poet and essayist who fomented Cuba's successful war of independence from Spain, a revolution the United States renamed the Spanish-American War.

Martí returned to Cuba from New York in 1895 to lead the insurgency he'd organized from afar. (While exiled in Manhattan, he picked up a few bucks banging out essays on such unrevolutionary topics as Coney Island and Jesse James.) Barely a month after Martí returned to his homeland, a Spanish bullet did him in. He was only 42. Today a 59-foot-high marble statue and adjacent 259-foot granite obelisk memorialize the young visionary at Plaza de la Revolución in central Havana. You have to hand it to a country that counts a poet its most revered hero.

Our group spent two days west of Havana in the lush valley of Viñales. This is tobacco country, and we dutifully trudged across an immense farm on a particularly torrid day—watched over, I couldn't help noticing, by an attentive turkey vulture and trailed by a representative of Cuba's vast population of pregnant mongrel dogs. Cuban tobacco is still considered the world's finest, the cigar representing, in government prose, "one of the wonders of Cuban engineering."

The scenery in this densely forested valley is spectacular, made even more so by wooded minimountains, flattopped and steepsided, that spring up here and there from the red earth. These so-called mogotes, or haystacks, rise dramatically as high as a thousand feet to their tabletops.

Positioned just below Martí, Fidel, and Che in Cuba's pantheon is our own Ernest Hemingway, and no trip to the island is considered complete without a stop at the great man's 15-acre former estate. Finca Vigía sprawls across the hills above the seaside town of San Francisco de Paula. Bequeathed to the Cuban government by Hemingway's widow, the house, like so many in Cuba, is in sad disrepair, its walls and foundation undermined by rainwater and encroaching vegetation. Visitors typically aren't allowed in, but we could peer through open windows at the bullfight posters and hunting trophies still on the walls. The 9,000-volume library is still there, along with the 900-bottle bar and the author's bathtub.

Finca Vigía was Hemingway's home for 20 years, and he entertained there lavishly, once hosting, in 1942, most of the Brooklyn Dodgers (then training in Havana) for an evening of frozen daiquiris and World Series lamentations. Some say Hemingway never fully recovered from his grief at having to leave Cuba in 1960. As a matter of fact, he committed suicide a year later.

We toasted him in the nearby coastal village of Cojímar with lunch at La Terraza, a favorite hangout immortalized in The Old Man and the Sea. Castro proclaimed Gregorio Fuentes—Hemingway's longtime fishing buddy and the inspiration for his novel—a national hero. The distinction gave Fuentes the right to dine free of charge at La Terraza for the rest of his life. The award proved costly to Castro; Fuentes lived to be 104. Mercifully, a rum drink called a cóctel Don Gregorio survives him.

In the customs line at the Miami airport on the way home, I made the mistake of telling the U.S. inspector that I was returning with a "tour group" from California. He fixed me with a baleful gaze until our intrepid leader, Tenenbaum, intervened. "A humanitarian mission," he corrected.

And so I believe it was. We did some good delivering our supplies, but perhaps more by showing Cubans that far from being greedy imperialists we were, like so many of them, just people trying to find our way in a world that seems to grow messier every day. And far from seeing them as communist drones, we were charmed by their high spirits and friendliness.

A humanitarian mission, maybe. A human one, certainly.

Cuba may be a Caribbean garden, but the United States government permits few Americans to wander it. Restrictions are enforced by the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), and over the years the rules have changed. Here's the latest:

The island is forbidden to U.S. tourists, and those attempting to tiptoe in through third countries such as Canada or Mexico risk fines of at least $7,500 per person. But OFAC does, on a case-by-case basis, license some U.S. citizens to visit. Among them are:

  • government officials, journalists, full-time students, and university professors, so long as they are pursuing their work;
  • athletes and artists participating in competitions, exhibitions, or performances;
  • Cuban Americans visiting family;
  • members of humanitarian and religious groups working to benefit the Cuban people.

In addition to getting an OFAC license, visitors flying directly from the United States must use an approved travel services provider. Further details and a list of providers can be found on OFAC's Web site at

Officials, journalists, academics, and people visiting family in Cuba often choose to travel to the island on their own, although even family members are finding it harder than in past years to obtain a license. Most other visitors to Cuba from the United States are linked to groups licensed to conduct humanitarian work or cultural exchanges. Criteria for these categories have been tightened, too.

Financial ones, mostly. U.S. credit and debit cards cannot be used, and as of last November, neither can U.S. dollars. In any exchange of U.S. money to convertible pesos (the official currency), the Cuban government collects a 10 percent tax.

Travelers from the United States may not spend more than $167 per day on travel-related purchases, including meals and hotel. Additional purchases are limited to items directly related to the licensed purpose of the visit and informational materials such as newspapers, music, books, and certain artworks—all other expenditures are forbidden. You may bring home nothing else of Cuban origin. No rum, no cigars.

To find a pamphlet entitled What You Need to Know about the U.S. Embargo, type "Cuba.brochure" into the search line of the OFAC Web site (

Illustration by Neil Gower

This article was first published in March 2005. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.