Part one of two. Read part one: A long evening with Fidel Castro
Relations between the United States and Cuba were as chilly as an Iowa blizzard when we sailed into the Havana harbor aboard the SS Universe Explorer on December 5, 2001. President Eisenhower had severed diplomatic relations with the Castro regime decades before and President Kennedy followed with a trade embargo and a travel ban prohibiting Americans from visiting Cuba. But with an invitation from the University of Havana and special permission from the State Department, 750 students and we accompanying faculty from the University of Pittsburgh’s Semester at Sea program disembarked on the forbidden island.
Three months before we had left from Vancouver on a 110-day voyage around the world, stopping along the way in ten countries to allow students first-hand educational experiences. After crossing the Pacific Ocean and two days short of Kobe, Japan, we received the awful news of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. That tragic day was behind us, but never to be forgotten as we arrived in Havana.
Our three-day agenda consisted of a visit to the University of Havana on the first day, various tours of the city on the second day, and on the third day I took three busloads of students to the Bay of Pigs. On a very long shot, we also requested a meeting with the Cuban president, Fidel Castro.
The university experience ranged from the comical to the appalling. We had been requested to donate books to the university library, and many of us did so. As we descended from our buses, we handed various literary works to uniformed government inspectors charged with reviewing the contents to ensure they were not contrary to government Marxist policy. But the inspectors did not know English. They leafed through the materials in a matter of seconds, uttered “está bien” (it’s okay), and threw them into a large box. They didn’t turn down a single one. A title could have been “The Joys of Capitalism” and they would not have known the difference.
The university setting had more in common with a military supply depot than a typical American campus. Tanks, troop carriers, and other military hardware were stationed about, apparently as monuments to the Cuban revolution.
We were ushered into an auditorium for a long lecture about the accomplishments of Castro’s Cuba, and then treated to an open-air concert on a make-shift stage. As we gathered to listen to the music I noticed a number of students, both musicians and those in the audience, wearing T-shirts with the portrait of a man. I moved closer to identify the individual and, to my horror, recognized the face of Mohamed Atta, one of the terrorists who killed thousands of Americans in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. While Americans viewed Atta as a villain of the ilk of Hitler or Stalin, Cubans apparently recognized him as a hero..
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The same students who wore the picture of Atta smiled, shook our hands, and sang for us. The contrast penetrated. Only 100 miles from American shores, as close as Cedar Rapids to Des Moines, Cuba remained decidedly hostile to the United States. And yet we found the friendliness of individual Cubans sincere and appealing.
I had visited the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. There I did not find friendly people. The young Russians were curious and approachable. The older folks were wary, kept a distance, and said little. Although both countries had communist systems at the time of my visits, the atmosphere of the two differed markedly. I found the Soviet Union of 1964 drab, dull, and eerily hushed. Cuba, in contrast, was relatively colorful, friendly, and abounded with music.
The second day we were taken on a tour of the city and then, quite surprisingly, allowed to walk about on our own. Because of import restrictions newer autos were hard to find. Instead, the light traffic consisted of American autos dating back to the 1940s, yellow three-wheel “banana” taxis, and occasional horse-drawn carriages. Live music spouted from restaurants and taverns. Lingering American influence appeared in the form of Ernest Hemmingway, as several bars displayed photographs of him and boasted of having been his favorite spot for a mojito.
While the communist regime in the Soviet Union had largely stamped out religion as a rival to its ideology, the same did not prevail in Cuba. Christmas decorations of all sorts were prevalent, including an impressive Christmas tree in the lobby of the Hotel Ambos Mundos.
Street vendors, unlike the old Soviet Union, were everywhere. We approached one operated by a plump woman wearing a long, colorful skirt and smoking a cigar. A bobble-head doll of Fidel Castro, also with a cigar, caught my attention. I picked up the doll, wiggled the head, and chuckled. The lady vendor joined in and shared my amusement with a hearty round of laughter.
Again, I noted the contrast between communist Cuba and the Soviet Union I had visited. No street vendors in Moscow were selling bobble-head dolls of Nikita Khrushchev, and Russians did not laugh at their leader.
On our third day in Cuba we took a two-hour bus trip to visit the Bay of Pigs, the site of the ill-fated anti-Castro invasion of 1961. No indications of that bloody battle remained. We strolled along a peaceful, serene setting until a Cuban television camera crew and reporter rushed toward me. With no introduction, the reporter shoved a microphone in my face and asked, “Are you not opposed to the American economic embargo against Cuba.”
It seemed he had concocted an answer before I could open my mouth. I dodged the question. “We have enjoyed our visit to Cuba and its friendly people,” I responded.
“But don’t you think it’s time to lift the embargo?” he demanded.
“We are really enjoying the Cuban hospitality,” I replied.
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When I didn’t take the bait, the reporter and crew disappeared as quickly as they had arrived. I’m sure I didn’t appear on the evening news.
Military equipment, much like we saw at the University of Havana, surrounded a museum commemorating the Bay of Pigs invasion. I asked Eliza, our guide, if I could take her picture. A grey-haired man in jeans and a short-sleeve shirt stood nearby. I motioned for him to move into the photo and he quickly obliged. Eliza seemed enthralled, but I didn’t understand why. When I entered the museum and saw photos of the same man in a military uniform I caught on. He was José Ramón Fernández, Castro’s commander at the Bay of Pigs and a Cuban war hero equivalent to our General MacArthur.
In the museum auditorium, a lecture by the casually-clad General Fernández provided an insider Cuban description of the battle at the Bay of Pigs. A movie titled “The First Defeat of American Imperialism in the Americas” followed, but we never saw the end of it. Eliza came running into the auditorium and almost shouted in my ear, “We’re gonna see President Castro. We have to leave right away. They’re sending a police escort.”
“Let’s go, let’s go,” I called to the students. “Get on the buses. We’re going to meet with Fidel Castro.”
• Carroll McKibbin is a native Iowan who lives in San Luis Obispo, Calif., as a retired Cal Poly dean.