October 3, 2016
As a kid I used to read Scholastic Magazines as part of my social studies program. They were a mix of history and current affairs laced with a lot of 50s Americanism. These magazines first interested me in Cuba. In the fall of 1958, when I was in 7thh grade, one of the Scholastic magazines did an article on Cuba. It had pictures of the Moro Castle at Havana Harbor’s entrance, an artist rendition of the sinking of the USS Maine, and a big picture of the El Capitolio, the Cuban Congressional building. It was built to model the US Capitol “because of the Cuban people’s admiration of America.” The article also talked about the Guantanamo Bay naval base and said that Cuba was the anchor for the other Greater Antilles which were like “A line of battleships protecting America’s southern flank” (from whom it didn’t say.) Two months later Castro took power. I was hooked.
As a kid Castro fascinated me. I think my first notice of Fidel was in a Mad Magazine fake ad for Fidel’s health resort in the mountains of Cuba’s Oriente Province. Activities included running, playing hide and go seek, and shooting. I remember admiring news articles romanticizing his struggle against the dictator. That romantic view of the revolution was reinforced when, in 1958, just before Castro’s triumph, my uncle Ed visited Havana and despite the rum, casinos, cigars and showgirls, which he loved, he proclaimed it the s**t hole of the universe. Surely the revolution would improve things.
So the revolution came. And so did refugees, many settling in familiar Jersey City neighborhoods. The Havana Sugar Kings, Cuba’s International League AAA Baseball team, moved, en masse, to Jersey City to become the Jersey Jerseys. It was in the stands of FDR Stadium that I first encountered fanatic Cuban baseball fans. In 1962 when the Mets launched, WOR recruited the whole Havana Channel 6 TV baseball crew. I worked with that crew for three summers between 1965 and 1967, learning a lot about Cuba, especially Cuban Music, which was always on the radio when I rode back to Jersey with my Cuban friend Alberto Lazano.
Along with baseball, entire radio stations came north. I was a radio kid, constantly cruising the dial for something new like the “Dick ‘Ricardo’ Sugar Mambo Show.” Mr. Sugar was a native New Yorker who cashed in on the early 50s mambo craze long before the revolution. After 1960 he was joined on the radio by real Cuban personalities playing Salsa, Son and Afro-Cuban jazz. I loved listening.
Fidel dominated one of the 1960 presidential debates and subsequent presidential debates for four decades. It seemed to me that every time an American president came up against Fidel, Fidel one-upped him, like when Fidel emptied his prisons and hospitals during the Mariel boat lift. In 1985, on a trip to Nicaragua, I watched Cuban doctors work to eradicate polio and got to talk with Cubans who had very different views of the revolution than my friends in Jersey City.
I have wanted to get to Cuba for a long time, but I wanted to do it without jeopardizing my standing in work I do for US government contractors. That work gave me a pretty good grounding in what a communist state can do to the soul. I was in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union at the beginning of the transition. With the US recognition of Cuba last year I had the opportunity to see Cuba before the transition, if, indeed, there is going to be a transition.
In Cuba I wanted to experience four things, the Moro Castle and El Capitolio, ride down the Malecon in a classic 50’s ragtop and listen to Cuban music. I checked off the first two, Moro Castle and the dome of El Capitolio, on the sail in to Havana harbor. And the sail in gave me promise of the third. We cruised past the Malecon, with its classic American cars mixed with old Soviet Ladas, past Myer Lansky’s Nacional Hotel and the old Havana Hilton, now the Havana Libre. As we pulled up to the dock lines of classic American cars waited for us.