It started with the three-hour delay in our flight from Miami to Havana. Then we sat on the tarmac in Havana for an hour waiting for a bus to take us from our plane to the terminal. After that I watched the empty baggage conveyor belt circle for two hours while the baggage handlers watched Air Force One land. And to add insult to injury, instead of having dinner on the terrace of a restaurant in the heart of the charming, reconstructed old city section of Havana, our dinner was in a restaurant on the outskirts of the city. It was a pleasant restaurant and the food was good, but it just wasn’t the same.
The inconvenience aside, I was happy to be in Cuba at such an historical moment. But I didn’t need Obama’s visit to notice the changes in Cuba since my last visit in 1997 to present a paper at an international conference (where I turned out to be the only international attendee!). In 1997, Cuba was just beginning to claw its way out of the “special period” after the fall of the Soviet Union. The loss of the financial support that propped up the Castro government was devastating to the Cuban economy and especially to the Cuban people. Classic old buildings were crumbling, doctors were driving taxis, engineers were selling tchotchkes in flea markets, and the grass on the campus of the university that was the venue for the conference looked like it hadn’t been cut in years.
The reconstruction of the old city of Havana has now spread well beyond just a few blocks in the central core, the roads are in much better shape, and the streets of Havana are clogged with tourists.
But perhaps the strongest indication for me of the changes came on our second evening as I sat on the patio of our “Casas Particulares,” a Cuban version of a B&B, in Playa Larga on the Bay of Pigs. The site of a bloody and humiliating defeat of a paramilitary band of 1200 Cuban American recruits (plus some CIA?) in 1961 is now a placid, sleepy lo-rise beach resort. After a day of kayaking in the Bay, I sat on the patio in the fading light of the day, drinking a Bucanero beer and watching a horse munch grass on the side of the road. Not exactly what I would have guessed 55 years ago as I read news reports of the ill-fated invasion. But then again, there is a lot I wouldn’t have guessed back in those days about what I would be doing today.Sea kayaking was the primary focus of our trip. We paddled somewhere every day – among the cays of the Bay of Pigs, through the shallow wetlands of Zapata National Park, across a lagoon surrounded by lush mangrove forests to gawk at a flock of pink flamingos, along the Caribbean coast near Cienfuegos, and up a river near the World Heritage Site of the colonial city of Trinidad. We also snorkeled, visited a crocodile breeding facility,
toured Trinidad,rode in a 1963 Chevy convertible in Havana, and met many Cubans — including our hosts at the Casas Particulares where we stayed, the Director of Zapata National Park, a botanist from Jardin Botanico Cienfuegos, and an entrepreneur who will no doubt be very rich in a few years as Cuban-US relations continue to improve.
All-in-all, it was a fascinating trip. I’m glad I made it now. Cuba is going to look very different in a few years. If you want to get a taste of history while the taste still lingers, go soon. I’m not sure what it will be like in a few years.