Cuba — it's complicated*

Graffiti on the wall at the top of the Bacardi tower in downtown Havana. Photo by Nancy Klingener.

Graffiti on the wall at the top of the Bacardi tower in downtown Havana. Photo by Nancy Klingener.


That was my friend Vern's response when I told him I was going to Cuba.

He's right, of course. I've lived in South Florida since 1989, and in Key West — famously closer to Havana than Miami — since 1991. People I know travel to Cuba all the time. My husband had been twice, more than a decade ago.

It's not that I was anti-Cuba or uninterested. I'm interested in Cuba just because of the proximity and influence on our local culture. When I moved to Key West, one of my first stories was the restoration and re-opening of the San Carlos Institute. It's on the site where José Martí spoke and united the anti-Spanish exile factions. The current building served as a Cuban consulate - and in county property records, it's still owned by the Republic of Cuba. I've always loved doing stories on the long and (until the last six decades) close relationship between the islands. I've always been proud and a tiny bit smug that Key West had Cuban-American mayors, judges and state legislators almost a century before they started reaching those milestones in Miami. Cuban culture is part of the Conch culture DNA.

Still, in the time in which I have lived 90 miles from Havana, I have traveled to Fairbanks, Alaska, and Fort Kent, Maine. I've been to Germany, France, Italy and England. But I had never, until last month, gone to Cuba. In my defense, much of my vacation time has been spent either visiting family or going somewhere that's entirely different from where I live - we really like Europe in late November. It seemed kind of silly to use precious travel time and money going to a warm place with palm trees.

The cigar industry made Key West rich — and Cuban — in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There are a lot of beautiful images from the cigar labels of that era. This is one of my favorites. From the Dewolfe & Wood Collection of the Monroe County Public Library.

The cigar industry made Key West rich — and Cuban — in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There are a lot of beautiful images from the cigar labels of that era. This is one of my favorites. From the Dewolfe & Wood Collection of the Monroe County Public Library.

I wasn't going to go to Cuba as a reporter. There are so many other journalists — at the Miami Herald, where I worked for my first 9 years here, and at my current employer, WLRN News — who know so much more about Cuba than I do. Who speak Spanish fluently. Who are willing and able to delve into the difficult, complicated land of reporting about Cuba. It just seemed like my efforts were better directed elsewhere.

And I wasn't all that tempted to sneak into the country as many people did until recently. I could probably have gotten a ride on a boat, but I get seasick very easily and I know the Straits are a notoriously bumpy ride. (If you think that sounds wimpy, maybe you've never been seasick.) And I just wasn't willing to go to the effort and expense of the fly-arounds of Mexico or the Bahamas.

Besides that, I was uncomfortable with the idea of going there just because the place was nearby, yet exotic. As soon as I moved to Miami and started working with and getting to know Cuban-Americans, I got that the story of this relationship is far more nuanced — and yes, complicated — than the shorthand many Anglos understand. Cuban exiles are cartoonishly portrayed in much of the country as hard-core right-wingers, but I've only met a couple of those. From what I saw, mostly of people my generation and younger, families were separated, and suffering. I covered the 1994 Rafter Crisis from this end, and I saw the desperate risks people were taking to leave. I still remember the notes covering the walls of the Transit Center where they first tried to cope with the increasing numbers of people making that journey, Ellis Island in a Stock Island storefront. Those notes had names of people whose relatives were trying to find them, hoping they had made it across safely. The perils of that crossing were re-emphasized just this week, when a boat carrying 23 people capsized. Only three survivors made it to shore here in the Keys.

You can 1) think that the embargo has been ineffective and 2) also understand that Cuba is not a lefty paradise for those who live there. I didn't want to go just to admire the picturesque old cars and decaying buildings. I definitely did not want to be the person who wanted to see Cuba "before it's ruined," as Natalie Morales brilliantly portrayed in this column. The educational and cultural tours that local nonprofits have been organizing for years were out of my price range.

I'll admit I found it frustrating that more recent arrivals, once they'd gotten their U.S. residency, were allowed to travel back and forth more easily than I could. I understand why it's so important for them to send back money and goods for their families, but it seems to conflict with that sacrosanct embargo, or at least the principle behind it. And of course there's the abuse of the Cuban Adjustment Act, detailed in this investigative series in the Sun-Sentinel. It's hard to watch that happen, when refugees from Haiti and Central America are being turned back, imprisoned and deported.

I've been an interested observer since President Obama announced the normalizing of relations in December, 2014 — and I've been covering some of the various reverberations. Will we get a ferry again in Key West? How could this affect the wet-foot, dry-foot immigration policy that was the result of the 1994 crisis? Could we return to the days when Key Westers go to Havana for the weekend, or a doctor's appointment, because it's easier than going to Miami?

The stars seemed to align when friends told us they were taking their family vacation to Cuba. They're British, so traveling to Cuba is much simpler for them. We like to meet up with them every couple of years in various places, from Florence to Boston — and this place was so close. So we made the reservations and made the trip.

Officially, our travel was educational — and that was no lie. I feel like I finally have some firsthand experience of Cuba even though I am far from understanding the place. How was Cuba, people have asked since we returned. "Really hot," is my first answer. I figured it would be no big deal since I live in South Florida, but the heat kicked my ass a couple times. I didn't quite realize how well we insulate ourselves with AC. But my next answer is: "really interesting." Surreal, in some ways, to see a place that is so close and yet so different from home. Really impressive, to see how people have coped with what are clearly challenging conditions. Beautiful, both in the grandeur of Havana that has withstood decades of neglect and in the countryside around Viñales. 

We stayed in casas particulares, as small guesthouses or rooms for rent in private homes are known. Even though I felt a bit envious when we were briefly in the elegant, air-conditioned lobby of a downtown hotel, I'm glad we did. We were in Centro Habana, a real neighborhood, and can only hope our stay was helping the families who hosted us and made us beautiful meals. I would like to return, though definitely not in the summer. The overall attitude was of genuine hospitality — not in the determined tourism-industry manner, but more in a hey, come check this out kind of way. Once you've made a personal connection, they deploy their network to help you out. 

When we returned one of the first things I did was sign up for Spanish class at the community college. I've been reading some Cuban fiction, crime fiction by Leonardo Padura and science fiction by Yoss. I look forward to returning, which I hope will be even easier now that regular commercial flights have started. And I look forward even more to a time when going over to Cuba will be no big deal. Like 100 years ago. I don't think I will ever fully understand Cuba. I feel like I'm just getting a handle on this three-by-five-mile island, 25 years in. But I'm OK with that. It's complicated.

* One of the highlights of our time in Havana was a tour of the Museum of Fine Arts. Our excellent guide took us through the galleries, which are arranged chronologically, roughly by decade. Each time we went into a new room she would say, "In the 1930s in Cuba, it was ... complicated." Or "In the 1970s in Cuba, it was ... complicated." Which of course it was, and still is. More than most places, from my perspective.