Friday, May 2nd: A Russian-built four-motor plane landed us at the Havana airport early in the afternoon. Havana is barely eighty miles away from the southern tip of Florida. But for a US citizen it is now nearly as difficult to reach as the moon; and to return home by the same legitimate route via Mexico is as difficult as the return from the moon to earth. Early in January, my wife and I applied to the proper office in the State Department for permission to spend two weeks in Cuba. In mid-April we were still waiting. Only direct intervention by the Undersecretary of State and Senator Brooke induced the zealous guardians of our liberties to validate our passports with a permit for one round trip to the forbidden island. But this was only the beginning.
First we had to go to Mexico City where the Mexican government—no doubt to please its good neighbor to the North—examined and reexamined the reasons for our strange wish to spend twelve days in Cuba. Finally, after having spent endless hours in the waiting room of the Ministry of Interior, we received a page-long document authorizing a passage to, and, more important, a return from, Cuba. It was as if we were planning to visit a region raging with infectious diseases. Not one or two, but eight copies of this permit were retained by the Ministry. In contrast to the Mexican officials, when taxi drivers, waiters, porters, and other ordinary Mexicans learned about our destination they invariably seemed to be pleasantly surprised.
We felt the transition from the capitalist to the socialist world the moment we entered the Cubana de Aviacion plane: sturdy, unsmiling personnel; creaky and somewhat shabby furnishings, and reading material consisting of two newspapers, the French and the Spanish editions of the organ of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba. Most of the two dozen passengers were lower middle-class Cubans returning, for better or worse, to their native land. A couple of junior diplomatic types, a blond curly-haired, bearded Canadian free-lance journalist in blue jeans, his wife, and a young Italian businessman from Ferrara venturing to sell spray equipment to the Cuban government. When asked about the volume of his transactions he lifted his right arm and held thumb and index fingers a quarter of an inch apart: that large!
In the Havana airport we were greeted at the barrier by a group of five or six men including Nestor Garcia, the foreign relations agent of the University of Cuba and the Director of the University’s Economics Institute. Passport checking and formalities took little time, except that my one pair of shoes and Estelle’s six pairs were extracted from our valises, with apologies, carried away, and returned five minutes later, wet, limp, but germ-free: they had been fumigated to protect the budding Cuban cattle herd against hoof-and-mouth disease.
A twenty-minute drive through the suburbs, past governmental buildings and the stately columns of the old …