When I visited Cuba in 1991, people asked, “Vecsey, why doesn’t your government end the blockade and let some business in here?”
I replied, “Sure, el bloqueo is dumb, but think about it: what if American business did come to Cuba …Have you ever heard of a man named Trump?”
This was my worst example of a rapacious developer who would put up gaudy, expensive hotels along the waterfront and destroy the feel of the old city.
The Cubans nodded no. They were living 30-plus years in the past. Baseball fans were still asking about DiMaggio and Williams and Jackie Robinson.
I had to explain to them there was a New York guy named Trump who built casinos and was known for his playboy ways – sounded like the bad old days, when Americans used Cuba for their pleasure.
I told them: “He’ll bulldoze the Malecón” --the seaside promenade where young people congregate -- “and put up crappy-looking buildings and all the people living downtown will be back in the sugar fields.”
Cubans did not have much in 1991 -- one egg a week, very little meat, and no basic goods like shampoo, which was sold in dollar stores, for tourists. A well-placed friend had a couple of doctors in her family; they brought home used soap from the hospital and she boiled it down for personal use – “like my grandmother used to do,” she said.
That was life under Fidel, life under Communism – “The God That Failed,” from the 1949 confessional by six writers.
By 1991, if you wanted to talk about the government in Cuba, you lowered your voice and never mentioned Castro’s name. A furtive stroking of an imaginary beard conjured up the image.
While we were there for the Pan-American Games, the Soviet Union started to come down. I sat with some new friends in a bar and watched state television. My friends knew that Castro had rejected Gorbachev, the reformer; they shook their heads in fear and disdain. Within days, Russian oil tankers and Russian specialists steamed out of the harbor.
In the past two years, the Cuban people have seen a reasonable American President named Obama start to open lines between the two neighbors.
Now Fidel is dead -- and thousands are celebrating on Calle Ocho in Miami – and that builder of casinos that I used as the vulgar example of American business will now preside over that giant country just across the water.
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.