James Werrell

February 20, 2009

Maybe we can start planning trip to Cuba

A bipartisan bill to lift travel restrictions to Cuba was introduced this month, and if it passes, President Obama is likely to sign it. Maybe I'll finally get to visit the island my old friend Danny Valdes used to reminisce about.

Danny and I met when I was a cub reporter with the Big Spring Herald in West Texas and he was the veteran photographer for the paper. Danny was a good guy for a young reporter to know because everybody in town knew Danny, and everybody liked him.

Danny had been a news photographer in Cuba, pre-revolution, during the Batista regime. He told stories of pictures he had taken of one of Batista's political foes shot dead in the bathtub. Danny had no love for the corrupt Batista but was no fan of Fidel Castro, either.

Danny left Cuba with his brother Al to play minor league baseball in the U.S. They had a lot of fun. Danny would talk about traveling the states, playing ball in small parks, some with no bleachers where the fans would sit on blankets on the grass to watch. When players hit a home run, the fans would stick dollar bills for them in the wire backstop behind home plate.

Danny and Al had left Cuba for good, and both ended up settling down to raise families in dusty West Texas. Al was an entrepreneur; Danny went back to photography -- working for the paper and shooting weddings or anything else that paid on the side.

Danny rarely talked politics. When he talked about Cuba, he focused on happy memories, such as working all night and then going down to the waterfront in Havana, buying a bag full of fresh oysters, and shucking and eating them right there.

He talked about perfumed breezes, smoky bars and neon-lit casinos, rum drinks and good food. He talked about pig roasts with fried plantains, black beans and rice on the side. And flan for dessert.

"It was so good you would eat your fingers," he'd say.

Danny's wife finally talked him into moving to Miami, where family members had emigrated. I heard later that he died, only in his 60s, of a heart attack. I'm not sure if he ever went back to Cuba.

I think of Cuba as frozen in time, not much different from how Danny described it -- and, from what I read, that is not such an unrealistic fantasy. Cuban-style communism -- along with economic stagnation -- apparently, has been good for historical preservation.

I'm sure much has changed, though. I shouldn't expect to see Desi Arnez at the Copa. But I suspect a lot of the architecture still is intact and the streets still are lined with American cars from the 1960s.

But if Congress allows Americans to go back to Cuba, we won't be the first. Tourists from Russia, Scandinavia and Canada have been going there for years.

The travel ban -- the whole embargo, in fact -- has been an abject failure. The spindly 84-year-old Castro no longer can make six-hour speeches. But he has turned the country over to his brother, Raul, who is a spry 78. And Fidel might outlast many of the doddering exiles in Florida who have spent their lives yearning for his demise.

The children and grandchildren of the Cuban refugees reportedly don't share the old grudge against Castro. The revolution is ancient history. And the kids aren't exiles; they're Americans.

It is the exiles who have so carefully nurtured their time-worn antagonism and, because they are prosperous and powerful, rewarded the politicians who preserve the embargo. But the younger Cuban-Americans are less motivated, and now, special interest groups such as American farmers would like to resume trade with Cuba.

Why not? We trade with other communist countries, including our old foe Vietnam. Where would we get ... well, anything, if weren't for China? Trading with Cuba would have been the best way imaginable to undermine Castro, and we could have been smoking Cuban cigars legally for the past 40 years.

But what vexes me most is that our own government would forbid us from traveling to another country. Americans are used to going where they want to go, even to places where they are not so welcome. Don't tell us we can't go to Cuba.

President Bush not only enforced the travel restrictions, he tightened them. Under Bush's policy -- which still is in place -- Americans with family in Cuba can send only $300 in cash to relatives every three months and are allowed to visit only once every three years.

The Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act would explicitly allow all U.S. citizens and legal residents to visit the island at will. Let's hope it passes and we finally inject some common sense into our policy toward Cuba.

And hey, Danny, maybe I'll go down there and eat some oysters.

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