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March 16, 1999

Cuba: The Man Without a Country

(In November the author of this article and several other Mobilians visited Cuba on a trip arranged by the Mobile-Havana Sister City organization. A US government embargo prohibits most travel to and other relations with Cuba by American citizens. This is the fourth episode. Further tales of the journey will follow. Click here for the previous episode.)

by David Underhill

The drama drained from our arrival in Cuba as the ship sat bureaucratically becalmed at the dock of the bay. We'd braved a stormy passage to this semi-forbidden land, yet nobody hastened to welcome us to the country and let us officially in. I wasn't expecting a crowd, a band, a 21-gun salute, and Fidel himself. But I had supposed a boatload of embargo-loophole- jockey Americans would arouse a small stir ashore.

No corps of regimented authorities ever descended. A couple of uniforms eventually strolled into view and came aboard. Several more straggled behind. One was attached to the taut leash of an eager dope-sniffing dog. Judging by their outfits, they belonged to three or four different agencies. They didn't play the stern, suspicious cop role. They were courteous and genial as they prowled the boat, questioned the captain, and examined our passports.

And they were a two-sex thoroughly integrated bunch--not just in their jobs but in their genes and language too. The apparent leader looked African, one or two others European. Between them ranged a spectrum of complexions and features. And they all spoke the same brand of Spanish (to my English-attuned ear, at least). They amounted to a living exhibit of a history alien to ours. American notions of sharp distinctions by race and dialect would have to be checked at the door here and retrieved upon exit.

With a flurry of papers and a barrage of rubber stamps they finally issued entry visas to all the passengers. Except me.

Be cool, I instructed myself, leaning back to display a staged casual air in my chair at the table where the processing was conducted. This has to be merely a clerical bungle. Surely one of these friendly Cubans will say, "The dog must have eaten your paperwork," and chuckle. Then he'll shuffle through his files again and find the documents necessary to admit me.

I was cool. So cool that if somebody had dropped a toothpick on the deck behind me, I'd probably have had a heart attack.

There's no need (nor space) to explain why. President Clinton isn't the only person with a past. Mine is such that I figured my formal application months earlier to dodge the US embargo and visit Cuba would snag in some official electro or bio memory bank. When word returned that both the American and Cuban governments had routinely approved my trip, along with the other Mobilians, I was relieved and astonished.

But sitting on this boat in Havana harbor, I had the sinking feeling that the past had caught up with me at last. I was told only: no visa can be issued for you at this time...some confusion or omission in the records about you...will try to clarify...perhaps ok later...pardon... meanwhile DO NOT get off the ship...don't even let your foot touch the pier.

My sole consolation was our cargo of charity medicine. It, too, had been confined on board because of some evidently genuine bureaucratic tangle. Maybe I was simply a similar casualty. For the moment, though, the boat was my prison, and it couldn't linger at this downtown dock. The day was waning, and the captain had to seek his arranged berth for a week at a marina several miles westward.

The other passengers scattered happily into Havana, which I queasily watched shrink at the stern as the ship returned to the unruly ocean. My stomach threatened to revolt again. And my brain pestered me with dim fragments from that 19th century tale, The Man Without a Country, who was the sea's captive for lack of proper documents to land anywhere.

But both agitations eased when we cruised into Marina Hemingway. (Yes, named after the American author, who hung out there. One of many reminders to come about how odd, unnatural, and unstable the current enforced estrangement is between the US and Cuba.) Unlike the ragged Havana harbor, this marina resembled its counterparts back in the states--except that the boats bore flags and names from everywhere but the US.

Another assortment of uniforms boarded, and they wanted to eye our cargo minutely. Rumor had it that a recent shipment of humanitarian supplies from Miami had included weapons and explosives. Our medicines were lashed to the front deck in a couple dozen double-plastic- wrapped cardboard boxes. I became a deck hand, helping to slice off the plastic, then open each box, then the smaller boxes inside. Hours passed before the authorities were satisfied.

Almost as an afterthought, it seemed, they issued me a visa. I never learned why they did this so readily or why their comrades downtown had refused to. Someone summoned a cab, and I gratefully set foot on Cuban soil (cement, actually, beside the boat). I was shouldering a backpack and carrying a duffel bag, neither of which had been opened and inspected at either dock. Nor had I been frisked.

If I were a courier for those anti-Castro Cuban exiles in Miami, then I had just infiltrated the country with their guns and bombs. And if this were truly a police state, then surely I am James Bond.

In fabricated Spanish propped up by a dictionary crutch, I told the cabby to take me to the hotel Havana Libre. Preparing for this trip in Mobile, I'd located a half-decent map of Cuba but not of Havana. So I knew neither where I was nor where I was going, and night had closed in. I knew only that some of the other Mobilians intended to lodge at this hotel and that it was somewhere in the city center, miles back to the east.

The cabby was my shepherd, and I was a lost sheep. I had to trust him. We careened off into the darkness. Very soon we were charging along urban streets, some narrow and potholed, some grand boulevards. The Havana Libre rose on high ground several blocks from the waterfront.

It was a bulky 20-some-story 1950s rectangle that might be in any US city. Indeed, it had been the Havana Hilton until liberated from the American Mafia gangsters by Castro and his revolutionaries. Hence its current name. Or so the driver proudly informed me.

Inside I discovered why our boat's arrival at the downtown dock had caused barely a flutter of interest. The city is awash with foreign tourists; the hotel lobby was a babble of languages.

And the desk clerks spoke fluent English. But their computer screens couldn't detect any registered guests from Mobile, Alabama, USA.

What to do? Strange city. Nearly midnight. No idea where my shipmates had gone. No idea where else I might go. No choice but to rent the smallest, cheapest room they had.

That will be $130, sir.


Yes, $130, sir. Do you want it?

So there I was, the solitary occupant of the most sumptuous hotel room I'd ever seen on the 23rd floor of this expropriated monument to The Revolution. Everything was clean, neat, in perfect condition. I had more square footage than my apartment in Mobile, two immense adult romper room beds, cushy chairs and a large desk, a sparkling bathroom the size of an ordinary hotel room, a shower the size of an ordinary bathroom, a TV with CNN and many other channels, and floor-to-ceiling windows affording a panoramic view across the capital of this reputed Third World communist dictatorship with a wrecked economy.

(to be continued)

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