Up Front With Martin B. Deutsch
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I'd Like to 'Go Latin From Manhattan' Again
January 29, 2015 -- I find it difficult to imagine that it's been more than half a century since I last set foot in Cuba, a tropical destination I came to appreciate in my early years as a travel journalist.
I've been thinking about tropical trips of the past ever since President Obama announced last month that he was working to disassemble the complex web of boycotts and sanctions that have estranged us from Cuba since Fidel Castro established a Communist regime 90 miles from our shores.
The passage of time often distorts our recollections, but there's enough left in my memory bank on which to hang a Havana hat. Besides, Cuba in those days was particularly memorable.
My first trip was the inaugural flight of Cubana de Aviación from New York to Havana on May 12, 1956. If memory serves, we flew for about four hours on a four-engine, propeller-driven Lockheed Super Constellation, an aircraft that sported a fuselage stylishly shaped to resemble a dolphin. We were a boisterous group: travel industry Pooh-Bahs, large-volume travel agents and a motley assortment of trade and consumer journalists. I was an associate editor of a travel-trade monthly magazine at the time and we were all looking forward to a junket in Havana, then considered one of the entertainment capitals of the world.
The Cuban carrier's new flights were promoted on a huge billboard towering over Manhattan's Times Square. It depicted a figure resembling the then-famous cartoon character, Mr. Magoo, nattily attired and carrying a small suitcase. The headline read: "Go Latin from Manhattan."
The billboard was created by Harry W. Graff, a New York advertising agency that handled promotion for Cubana and the government of Cuba. The clever and catchy tagline was almost certainly coined by a young Graff executive named Al Kaplan, who would soon evolve into a lifelong personal friend as well as a close business associate. There aren't any images of the Times Square billboard, but you can see the Magoo-like character on an earlier poster promoting Cubana and Cuba.
Once we arrived in Havana, we were greeted with tropical drinks, Latin musicians, private limos and a motorcycle escort to a residential hotel named Rosita de Hornedo. It was the place to be in Havana at that moment because Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea was being shot in Cuba and Spencer Tracy and the entire cast and crew were domiciled there.
While waiting to check into our suites, a middle-aged gentleman sporting the island's ubiquitous short-sleeved guayabera, tan slacks and loafers introduced himself as Ross Owen from Los Angeles. One of the film's sound editors, Owen was restless after months in Havana. So even though there was an evening reception and dinner for the inaugural group, I chose instead to accept Owen's invitation to join him and a friend named Ricardo, a tourist policeman. (FYI: A tourist cop was a bilingual, uniformed member of Havana's police force assigned to assist visitors with questions and to aid those in distress.) According to Ross, Ricardo knew the town better than anyone. And show me the town they did, nearly 24/7, for the next four days.
Among other stops that first night, I believe we may have paid a visit to El Floridita, one of Hemingway's favorite saloons in the Cuban capital. There was also a round of lavish dining featuring local specialties; stops at several noisy nightclubs, some raunchier than others; a seemingly endless lineup of potent Latin drinks; many beautiful chorus girls and the heady, rhythmic sound of locals conversing in Cuban Spanish. Cohiba cigars were offered and, even as a non-smoker, I was tempted to try one. However, I did give into the lure of the Cuba Libre, the immensely popular cocktail of Coca-Cola, lime and light or dark Cuban rum. There was also some conversation about the pervasive presence of the U.S. Mafia, including Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano and Bugsy Siegel.
I got back to my hotel early the next morning with a blazing headache. Headache and hangover notwithstanding, I spent much of my remaining free time with my new friends Ross and Ricardo.
On the business side of the trip, I did attend several press conferences, as well as an afternoon sojourn to a lovely beach on the Isle of Pines. I also enjoyed the brilliant white sands of Varadero. And, for some reason about which my recollection is fuzzy, I snagged a private interview with Cuba's then-leader, the dictator Fulgencio Batista.
The luncheon meeting took place at the presidential palace. All I remember about El Presidente is that he was short with a square face, a big smile and a commanding presence. The specifics of the interview are lost in the mists, but it would almost cost me my job, if not my career.
Thanks to Ross and Ricardo, I got back to New York and needed a vacation. But I also had to write up the trip for my magazine, particularly my conversation with Batista. And for reasons that elude me to this day, I misidentified President Batista as "Juan Batista." (The reference was to San Juan Bautista--in English, John the Baptist, which hardly applied to El Jefe.) This unfortunate juxtaposition of names did not go unnoticed and I was reminded of my error for months to come. But I survived.
Flash forward to December 31, 1958. I am once again in Havana, this time with a bride of recent vintage. We'd flown to Mexico on Cubana and, on the way back, asked ourselves, "Why not stop for a few days in Havana to see how that island's civil war was affecting tourism?" Why not, indeed! But, then again, I was in my 20s and even knowing that visiting the Cuban capital was unwise didn't deter this still-naive travel reporter.
The precarious nature of this trip was foreshadowed by our earlier Cubana flights. Batista henchmen were parked in front of locked cockpit doors, facing the cabins and cradling machine guns. We knew the reason for the in-flight guards, of course, but had little idea of how close Fidel Castro and his insurgents were to Havana. That fact was driven home on New Year's Eve as my wife and I sat on our terrace at the nearly empty Hotel Nacional and listened to gunfire at the edge of the city. As you surely know from The Godfather Part II, if not your Cuban history, Batista fled Cuba for the Dominican Republic in the early hours of New Year's Day, 1959. My wife and I also flew out that day without any trouble even though there were still armed Batista functionaries guarding the cockpit.
Between the first trip in May, 1956, and the final visit in December, 1958, I'd been to Havana several times, always accompanied by Ricardo's uniformed presence. I have never set foot on Cuban soil again although I passed up a chance to visit after Castro came to power. I refer to the 29th annual World Travel Congress of the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), which was held in Havana from October 17 to October 25, 1959.
The conference created quite a stir, at least in the United States, because ASTA's presence in Cuba seemed to imply an endorsement of the Castro regime, a belief further underscored by a photo op in which ASTA's then-president embraced Cuba's president during the convention. Both Cuba and the United States managed to get past that minor political embarrassment, but 55 years of enmity lay ahead.
And here we are in January, 2015, and it looks as if relations between our countries will gradually thaw. I, for one, certainly hope so. As President Obama put it last month, the boycott hasn't worked for 54 years and it's time to try something else. I know there are many historical issues that plague the Cuban-American community, but every so often you have to change course and negotiate a better outcome.
But don't pack your guayabera just yet. The decades-long maze of travel and financial regulations concerning Cuba could take years to unwind. Back-door travel via third countries is certainly easier to arrange now and there's less chance you'd be penalized for going. Widespread business and leisure travel is surely a while away, however, and won't happen without a long and nasty political fight.
Still, I'm thinking wistfully about maybe one more trip to the island that captivated my youth.
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