A writer’s visit to Cuba during the blockade to investigate her family history
Before the thawing of U.S.-Cuban relations went public, I made a trip to Cuba. It was 2014. Before diplomatic relations bloomed anew and flags unfurled over re-opened embassies. Before the two nations swapped prisoners, revered as national heroes by one, reviled as spies by the other, and vice versa. Before President Barack Obama and his family paid the first state visit to Cuba since President Calvin Coolidge won Pan-American hearts with his “ingratiating” grin and dined at “a colorful love feast with the delegates of the Latin-American nations”—or so the Chicago Daily Tribune reported on January 17, 1928.
My trip was not so strategic. I knew little about the island nation I would visit, only that Cuba was a place of rich cigars and dark rum, balmy breezes and mighty fishermen, percussive music and syncopated dance steps. It was also the place of my family’s tales of plantation dwelling, godly Baptist mission and my great-grandmother’s tropical death, and the source of the Spanish epithets her daughter — my dotty grandmother — hurled at her healthcare workers.
My great-grandparents, Ada and John, were among those North Americans determined to colonize Cuba after the 1898 Spanish-American War, when Spain’s forfeitures fueled U.S. imperialism. While our government policy proclaimed Cuba’s independence — as long as it met U.S. criteria — corporations actively encouraged Americans to head south, settle, and wage a campaign for annexation. Bad behavior all ’round. But that was then. In 2014, my purpose was academic, not imperial, nor some genealogical fancy, but research for a manuscript.
Now, since Obama’s reconciliation campaign has taken off, many folks in the States have voiced the desire to visit Cuba before it changes, becomes Americanized. What they don’t realize is that my great-grandparents’ generation began Americanizing Cuba the moment Col. Teddy Roosevelt sent his Rough Riders home, victorious heroes of the sixteen-week war. U.S. capitalists, with God, country and affordable credit on their side, set out to profit from the war’s devastation of the Cuban economy and the country’s impoverished population. Land was up for grabs: abandoned plantations, sugar mills and tobacco plants; once-productive ranches; and ravaged family farms. Conglomerates acquired huge tracts of inexpensive land. They mechanized production of sugar, fruit and tobacco and sent profits north. Rail and steamship companies attracted U.S. colonists with special travel deals and pretty, illustrated publications. The propagandists proclaimed the ease of life in Cuba, the gracious North American colonies, the profit potential for the island as the United States’ winter garden, and annexation’s inevitability.
Like many, Ada and John succumbed to the propaganda. In 1905, they sold their homestead, packed up their four children, and abandoned the February chill of the Oklahoma Territory. It took them some days to reach Cuba, making a series of tidy train connections to Mobile, Alabama, and sailing on the S.S. Mobila for the two-night trip to Havana Harbor and a balmy 70-something.
One hundred eleven years later, the Obamas had an easy hop on Air Force One, a mobile command center equipped with two galleys, nineteen televisions, a staffed medical suite, a gym and television production facilities.
I wasn’t expecting a luxurious trip or the precision of a published timetable. I knew I’d face hurdles, the least of which was friends who suggested a middle-aged woman ought to know better than to go to “a place like that” alone. “Pshaw,” said I, and screw your sexist comments, I thought — and what did they mean by “a place like that”?
* * *
My most significant challenges to reaching Cuba were U.S. restrictions on travel and my research goals, which precluded one of those tight-reined, Department of Treasury-approved People-to-People tours. I had to finagle my way to the island and into its government archives, and this required a special visa. In the void of an embassy, I mailed my application and fee to the consulate at the Cuban Interests Section office in Washington, DC, but the consulate shuttered its services the following week, and my money order disappeared like the mob’s Havana casinos after Fidel Castro’s revolution.
It was el bloqueo, an economic blockade the U.S. government’s embargo imposed on U.S. trade with Cuba — and threats of penalties made to foreign companies, to bully them into compliance. The bank that had handled Cuba’s diplomatic mission accounts had terminated its services, and the country was struggling to find another one willing to risk U.S. sanctions.
Not to be thwarted, I contacted my cousin who’d retired from the State Department, my professors, Cuban tour organizers, and other students who’d managed to overcome hurdles on both sides of the Florida Straights. It was a student who led me to My Man in Havana, a young and creative bureaucrat, who generously arranged for the visa. All I had to do was pick it up at the Cuban Embassy in Mexico City.
So it was, with my tightly rolled clothing (a traveler’s trick), custom trail mix (you never know when hunger might not be met with open eateries), and tools of the research trade (camera, scanner and laptop), that I landed at the embassy entrance, eager to snag my visa and fly across the Caribbean. The guard at the concrete sentry post was in less of a hurry. He politely opened my suitcase, removed my equipment, trail mix and clothing, and spread them across the tired entrance steps. Perhaps to confirm I was not another CIA operative intent on taking out Fidel with exploding cigars?
While I waited, an inebriated man, perched on a street-side construction barricade, serenaded me with a song about norteamericanas, delivered with repeated emphasis on the word “puta.” While disappointed that my limited Spanish prevented a feminist review of his unshaven performance, I nonetheless considered buying his silence with enough for a couple beers, but the guard intervened. He shrugged an apology, smiled, and hustled me through the gate and past the empty fountains, bits of my loose clothing flapping from the unzipped bag. I arrived just in time for my appointment with the Cuban consul.
A woman at a counter window greeted me in Spanish, explained that the consul had returned to Cuba for meetings, and, because no one else could help me, invited me to meet with the consul the following week, upon her return.
When I muttered, “Pero tengo un vuelo — to catch — today,” she smiled and shrugged.
Unable to explain my logistics in Spanish, I looked around the lobby. A smattering of folks sat on cracked vinyl upholstery, the color of Cuban oranges, I imagined. Posters of Fidel and Che adorned the walls. I asked if anyone spoke English, and received only more shrugs and smiles. Various alternatives rose and sank to the bowels of my problem-solving matrix. My shoulders clenched. Then I remembered My Man in Havana. I called him, Fate answered, and I handed the cell phone to the woman at the window.
He spoke. She spoke. Both of their voices were loud and fast. She disappeared, and a long absence ensued. Then she returned to the counter, like Cuban revolutionary Haydée Santamaría emerging triumphant from the mountains, and said, “OK!” She took my money and handed me the visa. Everyone cheered. I was on my way to Cuba, to find something of my ancestors’ lives as unwanted colonists on a war-torn island.
Ada and John were not alone. A 1905 report indicated thirteen thousand Americans had bought land in Cuba. The more affluent colonists separated themselves from Cubans with exclusive clubs and professional associations, with evenings spent dancing through fragrant trade winds to Broadway show tunes — just as tourists, in 2014, enjoyed luxuries unknown to the average Cuban. Over-priced drinks cheered non-readers at Hemingway haunts, spa services cost multiples of an average month’s salary, and ritzy resorts catered to demanding foreign travelers.
Ada and John, however, were not so well situated. Their plan was to purchase forty acres of land in the less-developed western province of Pinar del Rio and make a new life, with toil and prayer. My plan was to find some proof of their outcome, with investigative boots on Cuban ground. President Obama’s plan was to garner good will for his vision of rapprochement — in the States and in Cuba — with handshakes for all and a series of captivating images posted around the globe: the president greeting hotel workers, doing the wave at a baseball game beside President Raúl Castro, standing for the U.S. national anthem with a huge Che Guevara mural peering over his shoulder.
* * *
The José Martí International Airport in Havana was not air-conditioned the hot and humid September evening I landed. I don’t know if it ever was. I was sodden, but the travelers’ mood was celebratory.
Waiting for my luggage to be X-rayed, I imagined Ada and John’s arrival at Havana Harbor, a carriage ride to their hotel, Harvey’s American Headquarters, at 99 Prado. The hotel’s proprietor, Maj. Samuel Harvey, had lingered after the war, determined to make his fortune catering to neophyte colonists. He hired American cooks and waiters, served American food, and enjoyed the island’s amenities, courtesy of ambitious North Americans: a modernized infrastructure, communications and rail lines gracing nearly the length of the island, the elimination of yellow fever, and schools sporting new teaching techniques and textbooks provided by U.S. educators. Maj. Harvey provided a relatively soft landing for Ada and John, whose children would ultimately become the only Spanish speakers in the family.
I wished my Spanish was better as I searched faces beyond the two X-ray machine lines, looking for someone who might be my translator, a professor from Universidad de la Habana. But what does a Cuban professor look like — studious and bespectacled, bereted and mustachioed? I looked and looked, but there was no flash of hopeful recognition, and my line had not moved. The chatter around me — and a begged English translation — revealed that our X-ray machine had stopped working. Parts for such things were difficult to obtain. It was that damn el bloqueo, U.S. spite outlasting the memory of our own sins.
I moved to the end of the other line and waited, finally reaching the far side of the machine, where my luggage and I were promptly escorted to secondary inspection. Two women asked me to “abrir el equipaje, por favor,” which I did, and they pointed at my Ziploc bag of cashews, almonds and raisins. I didn’t understand.
“No puede ser abierta, no open,” they said in unison.
“Lo siento,” I said, and I really was sorry.
They looked as sad as I felt while they dropped the bag into a trash bin, but then they shrugged and smiled, patted my hand and nodded effusively. There would be other things to eat, better things.
I zipped my luggage and walked outside into tropical air, the music of happy voices, the sounds of classic American cars with modern Mitsubishi motors, and the smells of hot hugs and sweet treats. Aside from the perspiration that adhered my shirt to my no longer perky breasts, I was feeling comfortable, oddly at home, when a beautiful young man approached me, the bearded child of a struggling revolution.
“You are Gressitt,” he said.
I supposed it was a declarative because I was so obvious, as my colonizing great-grandparents must have been.
Ada and John were greeted by Americans with a common yearning, the realization of which could only have been to the detriment of Cubans.
The Obamas were greeted at the airport by dignitaries, whisked away to the U.S. embassy, and set to glad-handing smiling Cubans along the Malecón, a seawall promenade bordered by decrepit turn-of-the-twentieth-century mansions and incomplete but hopeful renovations.
* * *
The morning after arriving, I dug into my ten-day agenda, starting with the national library. Although constructed before the Cuba-USSR alliance, the Biblioteca Nacional de Cuba could have passed as an icon of minimalist Soviet construction: an imposing fortress of protected information. Once inside, however, the polished marble and rich, dark woodwork said otherwise. After confirming the legitimacy of my request to access relevant holdings — one hundred-year-old newspapers and writings on the North American colonies — the librarian gave me a professional researcher card and seated me at a well-worn table in a room where a dozen people worked silently, observed by a somber, gray woman. Apropos to her expression, she was seated on a straight-backed chair set squarely against a wall, beneath an angry abstract painting. I delighted in thinking her unsmiling visage might harbor the heart of Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, Cuba’s nineteenth century author of feminist romanticism. If so, she hid it well.
I arranged my laptop and camera and nodded at the gentleman across from me, somewhat my senior, studying a text as brittle as my newspapers. He nodded back.
Gertrudis sprang from her chair and strode to my side.
“Buenos días señora,” I whispered.
She put a finger to her lips and pushed my equipment and papers to the far end of the table, leaving a trail of aged newsprint crumbs. Her look suggested I was not to follow them back. It also suggested that I, a yuma, should not engage the natives with my imperialist nods. She returned to her chair, crossed her arms and stared at me for hours while I read, her jaw tensing each time I photographed an article and the click echoed through the room. I didn’t need to feel under the table’s edge to know there was no gum. She was accomplished at keeping the likes of me and other miscreants in line, and her stature assured it was safe to leave my equipment on the table when I was compelled to go in search of a toilet.
Now, gratitude was not a feeling I’d previously associated with the allergies my daughter suffers, but when I was balanced on quivering thighs over a national library toilet bowl, sans seat or TP dispenser, and found her package of tissues in my travel bag, remnants of our last trip together, I blessed her snotty nose. Toilet seats and paper were not to be expected in public buildings — another indignity of el bloqueo, I supposed.
I returned to the table, Gertrudis adjusted her arms and her stare, and I read of the well-connected colonists and their efforts to dominate the island and of the revolutionists and their tactics to repel U.S. domination, but not a word of the struggles of the likes of Ada and John. When I packed up my things and departed, brown newsprint fragments flurried from the table in my wake.
The only flurries President Obama faced during his visit were those of cheering pedestrians with well-aimed cell phone cameras, although he also bore the hyperbolic bluster of presidential wannabes. Their social media posts proclaimed ignominy, if not Armageddon, would result from, in the words of failed contender and Cuban-American Senator Marco Rubio, “one of the most disgraceful trips ever taken by a U.S. president anywhere in the world.” 
Ada and John’s pests were more of the entomological variety, ants and mosquitoes, the most prolific. While a visitor to Cuba commented on the “great scarcity of insect life, or at least a great lack of variety” in a 1900 New York Evening Post article, he warned, “Nothing is safe from the ants. It is necessary to place the legs of tables on which food is kept in vessels of water, else the ants will in a single night devour everything.” The same might have been said of the Cuban’s hope for independence and corporate greed — then and today.
In the meantime, I held out hope for better luck at the National Archives.
* * *
One of the defining features of Havana is the absence of the likes of McDonald’s, Starbucks and Subway, although the professor said McDonald’s trademarked its brand in Cuba years ago, assuming normalization of relations was a certainty.
Ada and John, after building their belly palm board house in Los Palacios, relied on canned food for sustenance, the laying hens they bred, and whatever they could grow.
The Obamas were treated to finer foods at one of Havana’s paladares, homes partially converted into froufrou restaurants, symbols of Cuba’s venture into government-sanctioned private enterprise. The president and first lady dined on steak, a rare treat for law-abiding Cubans of typically meager income.
Although I ate at a paladar, and it was lovely, my favorite Havana eatery catered to local students and professors: a home-cooked meal served out of a rear screen door off a driveway, where we sat on the curb to eat pork, beans, rice, and avocado — enough to feed leftovers to the feral cats. There were no onions, though; the crops were mysteriously failing — as they were, coincidentally, in 1905. The professor looked surprised when I asked to go back to the informal restaurant another day, after a morning at the archives.
Located in Old Havana, the Archivo Nacional de Cuba was embraced by ceiba trees. We’d climbed over their drippy, dreamy roots into the beautifully crumbling building. The professor had remunerated the necessary personnel to assure I’d have ready access. I asked an employee if I might see — not land records, a forbidden source in a country whose private holdings were nationalized not so long ago, but — any documentation of the colonies, all of which failed well before the revolution. The employee didn’t buy it.
“These records no longer exist,” he said.
“If they exist, we don’t know where they are.
“We have them, but they are not available.
“You’d have to be a person of much higher rank to see these records,” he concluded.
Resigned to failure, I could only laugh. He shrugged.
Even in the socialist Republic of Cuba rank has its privilege. And even the President of the United States must contend with the Cuban-American lobby, still intent on keeping the embargo in place until their nationalized assets can be reclaimed. I wonder if they would lobby so passionately for the U.S. government to return tribal lands to Native Americans.
* * *
On my last day in Havana, I strolled the old passenger ship dock. Its cobblestone walkway bowed toward the water, the surface, a brightly hued stew of discarded bottles and shoe treads, Styrofoam and cellphone cases, all nodding to the tide. The dock’s newer arches lined up in a salute — of welcome or, in my case, farewell.
I know that Ada and John walked this path, children and trunks in tow, from the S.S. Mobila toward a propagandized future, but I did not find them in Cuba, not a hint of which forty acres had borne their hopes and dismays. Only a small enclave of Methodists remained in the town where they lived — not a prayer of a Baptist. They left no permanent mark of their seven years in Pinar del Rio Province, no evidence that Ada died there. There was no proof of anything but that they left, as did most of the U.S. colonists, having acquiesced to being failed actors in the socio-political theatre. Tariffs had increasingly favored stateside growers. Weather and disaffected Cubans attacked the colonies. The U.S. hegemony was resistant to annexing yet another territory, particularly one with a large population of color; it was easier to seat a U.S.-friendly dictator. The last colonists gave up in the 1940s.
Perhaps President Obama will have greater success. A renewed relationship with the United States might indeed have a positive effect on human rights in Cuba. It is possible that the lives of Cubans could improve with less fettered economic, technology and cultural exchange, with uninhibited travel between the two countries. Maybe the onion crop will return with vigor, steak will become more accessible and TP will roll abundantly.
But, while President Obama plays the rational course, I find myself fearful for Cuba. I hope McDonald’s Cuban trademark proves a poor investment. I want to return to the island and again wander the late-night streets of Old Havana, alone but well entertained by warm people and fine music, not confronted by drunk tourists, litter and a blaring Hard Rock Café. I want to sip thick café Cubana, sweet with raw sugar, not a Starbuck’s caramelized honey latte. I want to listen again to young Cubans passionately debating socialism and capitalism and the future, not watch them sit silently together, texting abbreviated babble.
The United States once did its darnedest to Americanize the island, and ultimately failed. But today, I cannot trust that U.S.-Cuban relations, damp with belated Cold War thaw, will produce better behavior than that of the victors of the Spanish-American War. I, too, want to go back to Cuba before it changes, because cozying up to U.S. capitalism means unpleasant change is as inevitable as annexation was doomed. And a shrug and a smile will not stave off the corporate profiteers.
Kit-Bacon Gressitt was spawned by a Southern Baptist creationist and a liberal social worker, so she inherited the requisite sense of humor to survive family dinner-table debates and the imagination to avoid them. Well past her prime, she completed an MFA in creative writing, research for which inspired this essay about travel to Cuba, colonization, and contemporary politics.