HAVANA - I walk some of the same streets I did in 1960 and 1961, a time when most Cubans awaited an attack from the United States, a time when people in their twenties and early thirties ran the government, and several hundred thousand of the propertied and professional classes fled to south Florida in fear of these young bearded radicals.
By mid 1960, the flow of U.S. tourists had slowed to a tiny trickle. The big hotels housed foreign supporters of the revolution and soon after honeymoon couples from the island itself.
Planes regularly flew from south Florida bases to drop bombs on island targets and Cubans joined the militia, wearing their well-laundered blue uniforms. Committee for the Defense of the Revolution met on almost every city block to try to keep their own turf secure from counterrevolutionary threats. President Eisenhower played a kind of tit for tat diplomacy with Fidel Castro, responding with punishment for every move Cuba made that lessened U.S. power and influence on the island. Cuba bought cheap Soviet oil; Ike ordered the US-owned refineries in Cuba not to refine Soviet oil. Fidel nationalized Esso, Texaco and Shell; Ike place an embargo on Cuba. Before all that, in March 1960, Ike had already ordered the CIA to plan the overthrow of the Cuban government. The Agency began to recruit Cuban exiles in Florida for an expedition that later bore the name of The Bay of Pigs fiasco, a 1,500 man force that invaded Cuba's south coast along three beaches in the Bay of Pigs. The fighting endured for 72 hours before the Cuban military claimed total victory over the CIA-backed exile invaders.
Now, the Socialist government of Cuba has converted the swampy area into a resort, with a hotel and restaurants for curious tourists and Cuban vacationers. A museum offers remnants and keys to understanding that historic encounter that left President Kennedy with much diplomatic egg on his young face.
Save for a few short periods, U.S. hostility has remained unrelenting toward its small defiant neighbor. But Cuba built a formidable health-care system, a prodigious educational machine that begins in infancy and continues through the PhD, for those qualified.
But Cubans feel starved for things, commodities they see actors wearing and using in movies shown on Cuban TV. Well-educated and trained Cubans don't see good jobs in their future when they graduate, as the island's economy doesn't generate a sufficient number of positions for the qualified people its schools produce. The lure of Miami, where hundreds of thousands of Cubans now live, remains strong. An engineer drives a cab or makes pizzas, a woman with a University of Havana PhD in literature now lives in San Francisco and works as a translator. "I have more personal freedom here. Nobody mixes in my personal life as they did in Cuba, but I don't want to get old and die in the United States. There's no warmth here."
On the same streets, I walk and chat with people and find enthusiasm for Raul Castro's reforms, allowing private business and freedom to travel. But Cubans want more things, more opportunities, not an easy task for a government running an island economy. Cuba has lots of qualified and highly trained workers, but no foreign investment to build the kinds of facilities that might employ them. So, as I walk along the ocean drive, El Malecon, I note hundreds of people idle during the middle of a workday. Some have ear phones plugged in, listening to music. Others have cell phones and snap shots of their girl or boy friends. Tourists, mostly Canadian and west European populate the streets and downtown cafes and bars. Some U.S. exchange students also appear, eager and energetic. So far, they've learned a lot about Cuba from "dating" and "hanging out" with their Cuban counterparts.
I get nostalgic for old times and youth. But when I see the old U.S. Embassy, not the U.S. Interest Section, I recall the nasty old days of violent counter revolution coming from Florida, the heroic deeds of Cuban guerrillas who had fought for the revolution and the good times of the old days.
Maybe, before I make another trip to the island, Secretary of State John Kerry will open discussions with Raul Castro for the purpose of restoring diplomatic and even commercial relations. What a change that will bring... I can imagine the Havana streets full of U.S. tourists and students
Saul Landau is filming with Jon Alpert a documentary on Cuba's campaign against homophobia. His FIDEL and WILL THE REAL TERRORIST PLEASE STAND UP are available on DVD through cinema librestudio.com.