At least that was the impression of this veteran journalist-educator and his Spanish-speaking son when we visited the Cuban capital during a historic week.
Faded, pastel-colored houses and souped-up 1950s American cars makes parts of Havana’s Barrio San Francisco de Paulo resemble East Los Angeles. This is where Ernest Hemingway’s famous “Finca Vigia” house sits on top of a hill. Our Cuba-expert neighbors in Oak Park Hemingway’s hometown — Jan Pena-Davis, Scott Schwar and Nancy Mikelsons — suggested we visit this well-known location as part of our “In Support of the Cuban People” group tour. What that means is we’re photographing and assisting writers, artists, workers, scholars, theologians, activists and entrepreneurs as our way to show solidarity while heralding the new and improved U.S.-Cuba détente.
The news peg for our trip was Secretary of State John Kerry’s reopening of the U.S. Cuban Embassy after 54 years. Hemingway’s house was our first stop. There are deer trophies in every room, giving it a kind of colonial big-game hunter aura. Books abound, as do liquor bottles as this place has been preserved in its 1950s splendor.
This is where Hemingway wrote some of his later novels. We drink his trademark beverage — sugar cane juice, lime juice, Havana Club Rum and mint at the front gate of this modest dwelling. Like Havana, it’s delicious!
In Havana, the Coral-colored Hotel Nacional seems familiar; perhaps we’ve seen it in numerous movies. Today it’s the backdrop for press briefings by Kerry covered by CNN’s Jake Tapper who traveled with us on ABC Charters yesterday, which was, coincidentally, Fidel Castro’s 89th birthday.
“It’s the first time in 54 years a very high-ranking U.S. official has spoken here at the U.S. Embassy,” Kerry said to a standing-room crowd that could actually see the newly-opened embassy a kilometer down Varadero Beach. Cuban-American poet, Richard Blanco, an openly gay writer who spoke at President Obama’s second inauguration, also addressed the crowd at this sandy seascape.
“To breathe together, to heal together,” were the words he summoned for “reconciliation.”
How prophetic and profound, we thought — since the poet’s message mirrored comments from dozens of workers, scholars, artists, musicians, theologians and activists we met who praised President Obama and the Cuban government for finding common ground for nations that had more in common than in conflict.
“Tell President Obama the Cuban people thank him for bringing our two peoples back where they belong — together,” said a musician, proudly holding an Obama button on a stoop in Old Havana.
Jordan West contributed to this column.