TIMES CHANGE: The last time I saw Havana, I was lugging a thick wad of greenbacks, U.S. credit cards not being accepted in Cuba due to the crazy economic boycott. Sue and I rushed to the Hotel Nacional (a copy of Palm Beach’s Breakers) to pay our week’s tab in advance. Otherwise, if I lost the dough somewhere on the Hemingway Trail and were broke, we’d still have room and board and plane tickets to get home.
But all that and much more is changing, due to President Obama’s overdue action easing the 1960s boycott. Now, due to Obama, I see that U.S. credit cards will be accepted. The Internet? Google’s on the way, I hear. You want to bring home Cuban cigars, fine! Rum? Okay. Banks are already talking. (Money talks even if politicians don’t. But that’s changing too.)
But as for Yanks jetting en masse to CastroLand to see a hot country frozen in the 1950s — not just yet. Obama is allowing a laundry list of categories of Americans to visit, but as for an all-out lifting of the travel ban — that’s up to Congress. (Good luck with that. If Obama’s for it, the GOP’s agin it.)
Even today, an estimated 100,000 Americans visit Cuba every year. Some are attracted by sights and sounds, the music, the fun taxi rides in clanking 1950s U.S. cars, some for the pleasures of beautiful girls eager for the company of men with money.
Prostitution is illegal, but exists, though the women are fearful of being arrested.
And as for crowds of Cubans climbing on a Cubana de Aviación jet to go shopping in Miami — not just yet.
And it looks as if Cuban baseball players will still have to float to Florida on leaky rafts or hop fast cigarette boats to Mexico (and pay a hunk of their hoped-for contracts, as Dodger star Yasiel Puig did).
So far, the door to and from a nation that’s suffered for decades under Castro is open a crack, but getting wider. Not, of course, if the Republicans can slam it back. The GOP is screaming. If the Cuban people are captives on their own island and suppressed, that’s their tough luck for having the Castro brothers as dictators in a police state.
Sue and I visited as journalists, as allowed under the U.S. ban. But in recent years, tourism has loosened, and tours are being allowed. “See Cuba before Castro is overthrown and the island looks like Coney Island.”
HEMINGWAY TRAIL: There’s much to see, the Hemingway Trail for one thing. The author lived there for years until the early 1960s, and you can spend your money at his hangouts, meeting other tourists. Everyone has to down a watery mojito at the famous La Bodeguita del Medio, write on the walls, and stand around talking to other tourists who may or may not have read any of Papa’s books.
Up the street and higher on the food chain is his other favorite bar, El Floridita, and here you can have your picture taken next to his statue sitting at the bar. Another must is his room at Hotel Ambos Mundos, now a virtual museum, where he used to share a very narrow bed with ex-wife and fellow journalist Martha Gellhorn.
If you’re a dedicated Hemingway fan, as I am, you’ve got to take a taxi out of town to his former home, Finca la Vigia, owned by the state, where you can peer in through the open windows but not enter. It looks much like it did when he and wife Mary left in 1960.
There’s a cracking swimming pool, and up on stilts is his famed fishing boat, the Pilar. We had a beer at the nearby La Terraza restaurant, where he drank and supposedly was inspired to write The Old Man and the Sea.
Castro’s human rights record is a shameful blight on his regime, but under the new accord, at least some political prisoners are being released. Relatives in Florida are allowed to send more money to their hard-up kin in Cuba.
Many had predicted “a blood bath” when the Castro regime came to an end. As of now, it’s ending with a sigh of relief.
Cubans have a long way to go to breathe the fresh air of freedom, but at long last, they can get a whiff of it.