An American in Cuba

Remembering my visit as the Cuban people call for freedom

Cuba has been waiting. No more.

A new generation of young people have no emotional connection—good or bad—with The Revolution. And now, these Cubans are engorged with the possibilities of freedom. The pandemic has exacerbated the country’s problems and misguided strategies. The promise of a new life for this beautiful country following the brutal Batista regime was never fully realized. The Revolution went off the rails. And now its inherent issues are revealed like long-oozing wounds.

Not long ago, I was in Cuba. I have had an affinity for its history and especially its people for as long as I can remember. The Cubans are warm, inviting, passionate, and spirited. On my visit I saw all of those attributes every day, but I also saw the painful restraint in the dreams of these good people. It was if every one in Cuba was in a state of waiting—waiting for something, for a better day, a better life, a new sunrise, for hope.

Maybe it is finally the end of the waiting.

Below is an essay I wrote a few years ago after my visit. It’s part of a book of personal stories on the theme of home—The Consequence of Stars. I believe the experience continues to prove a point about Cuba and its people—laden with so much longing, a desire simmering just below the surface.

The road to the beach was closed. A white police vehicle was parked on the shoulder, another partially blocked the street, and a trio of Cuban authorities, members of the Policía Nacional Revolucionaria—the National Revolutionary Police Force—in gray and black uniforms, stood nearby, one in the middle of the road. He watched us move closer, pointed an index finger at the car, and motioned sharply to his left. We were being ordered to pull over.

“Hmm,” said Renaldo, our driver. “Something’s up.”

My two sons and I had just arrived in the Cuban city of Trinidad after several days in and around Havana and were hoping to swim in the clear sea along the beach at Ancón, one of Cuba’s more beautiful stretches of coastline. In the previous days, we had immersed ourselves in cigars and rum, silky black beans and sweet plantains, the sights of strikingly beautiful women, giant ceiba trees, royal palms, and the taste of sugar cane. We walked in Hemingway’s footsteps and drank the liquor he drank. We had swayed to Cuban rhythms at every turn and had come to Trinidad to see the centuries old colonial city, climb its towers, and stay with a Cuban family in a small cement home painted Caribbean green on a cobblestone street near the Plaza Mayor. Renaldo was our guide, a pleasant man in his 40s, fast to notice what he referred to as a “cañón”—a young Cuban woman with plenty of curves, explosive, and “fumar calliente.” He was also quick to smile, but that smile now seemed like a mask as he moved the car in the direction of the policeman’s finger.

“Is everything okay?” Casey asked, turning toward Renaldo. My oldest son, the tallest of us, had taken the front passenger seat for the long, bumpy drive from Havana to gain as much comfort as possible.

Renaldo hesitated, his eyes remaining on the road and the officer. “I don’t know,” he said.

While planning this trip, my sons and I had joked about being arrested by the Cuban “Federales,” which is not the word for the Cuban authorities or even correct Spanish. “Federales” was popularized in movies like The Wild Bunch and The Treasure of Sierra Madre. In the Spanish language the word is “federal” with the stress on the last syllable and Mexican authorities are called Policía Federal, not the “Federales.” Each of us had traveled to many places before, separately and together, but Cuba was still in many ways a forbidden land to Americans.

The officer approached the driver-side window, and Renaldo rolled it down. The heat rolled through the opening like an ocean wave.

For what seemed like several minutes, Renaldo and the officer spoke in Spanish. Casey, Graham—my younger son—and I remained quiet, eyes on their mouths as if we might somehow be able to translate. We knew little Spanish, although Casey was recalling some of what he had learned in high school years ago. Still, not enough to discern what was occurring before us.

I had been long for Cuba. Since my university days studying Hemingway’s writing, fishing, and his tumultuous love life on the island, I had been in her charms. Cuba—its violent and passionate politics, its revolutions, its dictators and freedom fighters, the lure of its vices—had me good. My man-crush on Ernesto “Che” Guevara was not love at first sight. It came to be cemented only after reading The Motorcycle Diaries, the story of his revolutionary coming of age, traveling in South America in 1952 as a 23-year old medical student from Buenos Aires on a gasping and stammering 1939 Norton 500cc. He and his friend, Alberto Granado, planned to see the land and the people they had read about in college history books. Instead, they unexpectedly discovered the oppressed, the marginalized, and the sick. It changed Ernesto. It changed everything. He joined Fidel Castro to liberate Cuba from a military dictatorship. Like so many others, Che’s idealism made an impression on me, although the realities of his revolution never matched the dreams. Still, with all of this, I knew I wanted to visit Cuba before it changed. Fidel was dead. Raul, his brother, was now in power and appeared more open to the world. The U.S. was slowly loosening fifty-year-old trade embargoes. Time was of the essence. Get to Cuba while it was still magically trapped in a bottle, before Starbucks took over every corner in Havana. 

“Gracias,” said Renaldo, rolling up the car window. “Chao.”

We sat in anticipation as Renaldo turned the car toward the short road to the right.

“So?” I asked from the rear seat.

“Drugs,” Renaldo said. “They found cocaine. Packages all over the beach.”

Graham sighed. He had wanted most of all to swim in the warm waters.

“They are checking everything,” Renaldo said. “But, no worry. This is a beach here.” He pointed out the windshield. Some three hundred meters down the road was another beach—rockier, less sandy than Ancón. “It’s for the locals,” he said.

“Let’s do it,” Graham said. Casey nodded.

The beach was narrow and covered in small stones that looked like gray coral and crushed shells. Casey took photos with an antique Leica camera he’d purchased for the trip and found a spot to sun himself. Graham and I navigated ten meters of rocky ocean bottom before reaching soft sand, and for about an hour, we jumped over and over to avoid the rough waves. The water was clear and warm. The air smelled of salt. From a small cabana came salsa music. Three men and four women danced barefoot in the sand, rum swirling in the clear plastic glasses that they held in their hands.

Graham and I had forgotten towels, so we let the sun dry us as best it could and knocked sand from our feet before stepping into the car.

Renaldo was again at the wheel and tried to exit the small parking area by a different road than before, but a rusted metal gate blocked us. He turned down the short road where we had earlier entered and again found the police. An officer, his uniform shirt unbuttoned several holes from the neck, motioned for Renaldo to stop.

“Una vex más,” Renaldo said.

“One more time,” Casey translated.

This was a different officer than before, and this time Renaldo greeted him with a handshake through the open window. Did he know him? Was it a sign of respect? I couldn’t imagine reaching out my hand to shake that of a state trooper during a highway stop on any road in America.

Again, there was a lot of Spanish, but this time the exchange was short and matter-of-fact.

“He wants to search the car,” Renaldo said. “Stay here.” He stepped out and shut the door.          

I had been calm through the earlier encounter, but now it all seemed more serious, foreboding.

“We don’t have anything back there, do we?” I asked, thinking of the trunk, of any rum we may have purchased that was somehow, some way illegal. “Nothing, right?” I asked again, thinking this time of weed. Graham and Casey had smoked before in the U.S., so had I, but they had assured me they wouldn’t be so stupid as to try to bring any to Cuba on a cultural visa or so crazy as to try to buy some on the island.

“Jesus,” Graham grumbled. “No.”

None of us turned around to watch what was going on at the rear of the car. Instead, I kept my eyes forward, glancing at the rearview mirror. I could see the open trunk lid and shadows moving across the gap of light where the hinges met the car’s body.

With the swift sound of metal latching on metal, the car rocked slightly as the policeman shut the trunk. Through the mirror, I could see Renaldo smiling at the officer. I heard muffled Spanish, and in a moment, Renaldo was at the driver-side door.

“Gracias,” Renaldo said as the officer moved toward his previous post and waved us on. Renaldo slipped into his seat and reached for the seatbelt. As we pulled out to the road that would return us to Trinidad, he nodded to the officer, and just as the car sped up, Renaldo pointed his thumb at Casey.

“He’s guilty!” Renaldo laughed. “That’s what I would have told him.”

“Hey, that’s not funny,” Casey snapped.

“Then it was them!” Renaldo said, pointing to Graham and me.

I immediately thought of the new U.S. embassy in Havana. The city tour guide had pointed it out to us two days earlier. It seemed a good thing to remember.

Early the next morning, I met Casey on the patio of our host family’s house. He sat in a cane rocker, reading a book about American Indians. Near him was a rectangular table already dressed with three place settings. Tatiana and her mother worked in the tiny kitchen just off the small living space in the front of the house. Each day the summer air had been an espresso made with raw sugar, thick and heavy but still sweet and recuperative. And it was present again that morning. After several days of the cruelest temperatures, we had come to understand the Cuban heat. On that morning, it was no longer so blistering but instead, restorative, seeping into us like medicine.

We took our seats at the table, and Tatiana placed small plates of fruit in front of each of us—papaya, melon, mango. She served us dark French press coffee and sweet plantains. She was barefoot and smiling. In the kitchen we could hear the muted clinking of pots where her mother was working and a child’s soft voice filling the short space between the living room and the patio. Tatiana’s dark-haired daughter, maybe about five years old, sat on the floor of the narrow hallway, playing with balls on a string. Just behind her on a side table was a large framed photograph of her as an infant, dressed in white with a bow in her hair. Above it on the wall was a small wooden crucifix.

We asked for a bit more coffee.

After a moment, Graham put down his fork. “Could you live here?” he asked.

I wasn’t certain what he meant. Could I live in this house? Could I live in Trinidad? I thought maybe he was talking about the heat. Could I live under the intense Cuban sun? Could I live in a place many saw as less free?

When you visit a new place, you eventually ask yourself if it could be your home. Could you settle here? Vacation or deeper travel touring is not the best preparation for such questions. You need to inhabit a place for a time, let it soak into you, not just brush by it. A friend, who had moved a great deal for his job as a reporter, maybe every three to four years, once told me that each new place had its singular lure; it was always a mistress for a time. But then you had to go to the bank, get a haircut, do laundry, and every town he came to call home for those short stints soon felt like all the others. Still, when I visit somewhere, especially a place like Cuba—this outlawed country, alluring and mysterious—I don’t think of staying. I think mostly of coming back.

“For a time, for sure,” I said, answering Graham’s question. “The people are certainly warm.”

“It is a communist country, though,” Casey said, reminding us.

“The dark halls and menacing beast that is Communism,” I said.

“We are the Federales!” Graham said, imitating the authorities we met on the beach. “May we look in your trunk?”

The boys laughed.

We weren’t going to stay in Cuba. The boys knew that. I knew that. But it was impossible not to think about such a thing. There’s this long-held belief that men are born outside their proper place. An accident of birth hurls us to our hometowns but not our homes. Instead, we travel through life, longing for a home we do not know. The streets where we grew up, the schools we attended, the travel we’ve embarked on are simply doors to open. It’s an odd thing, but maybe the constant craving is what lunges us through our days in search of something eternal, the sojourner forever reaching for what’s not there.

Days later on the morning of our departure from Cuba, the Plaza de San Francisco was damp from overnight showers, and the humidity was vicious. The plaza’s iron chairs were wet, and the water on the seats shimmered in the hazy sun. Standing near a puddle, lapping up water, was a small dog—a street dog—one of Havana’s many. We had seen the dogs each night while walking the cobblestone walkways. Dogs of similar size, weaving in and out of tourists and locals, some with ID tags the size of postcards, marked for care by an animal welfare organization. This dog, however, had no tag. It was stout, shorthaired, and dirty-white. Its ears stood straight up. It looked much like the one that had befriended us earlier in the week in the plaza not far from the ancient statue of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals. The dog had found us sitting in the plaza under the steamy light of street lamps, and it curled up under our feet. It did not beg for food; it did not lean in, hoping to be scratched about the ear. The dog simply wanted to be near, and he stayed with us for over an hour until we left for our hotel around midnight. Maybe the morning dog was the same one from the night before. Maybe not. But it was nice to think it might have been. Like the many Cubans who had asked us about America, about baseball, reminded us of their dislike of Trump and love for Obama, and several times had implored us to stay in their country, this dog, the one that may have returned to the plaza to say goodbye, only wished to be close to something more hopeful. 

Our taxi pulled away from the plaza, and the three of us—weary and silent—watched though the windows as Havana bumped and hustled into the day—the long lines at the bus stops, the pre-1960 American cars darting in central city traffic, a vendor selling large mangos on the corner, rainbows of laundry hanging from run-down second floor apartments, the image of Che at every turn. Everywhere that morning, like all the days before, Cubans appeared to be anticipating something, expecting some elusive change. The country—stalled in its own energy, running in place, enchanting and exasperating—was beginning to gradually stretch out from its isolation, shifting ever so slowly. It was seeking hope that something or someone would be its savior. Its people remained proud of the Cuban revolutions—the three against Spain to gain its independence and the one led by Fidel Castro against a right wing, brutal and authoritarian government, despite its lost idealism—and they were quick to find goodness in Guevara, the country's omnipresent spirit. But the people remained keenly aware that the hope born in these conflicts was never fully realized and because of this, Cuba is still reaching for something else, curling up under the feet of the world like the street dog, waiting to be delivered to the rest of us. 

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Photos: Casey Berner, Photography