Saturday, December 20, 2014

Encounters with Havana, 1958-1995

Photo by David Burnett, Time

My first encounters with Havana occurred circa 1958-1960 while sitting in Dr. Herbert Ernst's orthodontist's  chair in his cramped office on Lefferts Boulevard, Kew Gardens Queens (let the record who that I traveled there alone by bus, aged 10-12). Ernst, with his dark blonde slick-backed hair and toothy expression, along with his equally scary-looking assistant, Dennis, made Boris Karloff and his "Bride of Frankenstein" crew look like pikers.

While Ernst was busy twisting my braces around my bicuspids nearly to the point of bursting, I could glimpse a color photo of his Havana hacienda hanging on the wall over his right shoulder.

He used to serenade me with stories about how "Castro" had stolen his vacation house from him, but that someday he would get it back. I didn't yet really know who this "Castro" was, but I couldn't imagine that he could be more terrifying than Ernst himself, with a set of dental pliers in his hand and a wild look in his eyes that were but a few inches from my own. It was as if, with each little twist, he was extracting revenge on me as a kind of mini "Fidel."

Cut to November 1995, when I received a call at my office at Time Inc. – at the time, still the dominant American magazine company judged by advertising revenue and a division of Time Warner – from the company's lawyer in Washington D.C.

He told me that a member of the Senate was sending out signals that he wanted to know how a group of company executives and prominent guests were able to accompany a few accredited journalists and photographers to Havana, Cuba a month earlier. He also wondered how we paid for it, since financial transactions by Americans were illegal in Cuba.

Why was he calling me? Someone told him that I would be the point man for any questions regarding logistics, documentation, and payment for the recent round-the-world "Newstour", whose first stop was indeed Havana.

After a brief discussion of my actual relatively minor role in this corporate caper, the lawyer intimated that he would find a way to get rid of the inquiry. Case closed.

I did not mention anything to him about a conversation I had several weeks earlier with our contact "in the White House" about how exactly we would be able to document 70 people for that trip. People "in the administration" had noticed that the list of "journalists" wanting to visit Cuba included many names of people who were well know for not being journalists; to that I explained that they would indeed receive accreditation for the length of the trip. She said that she would see what could be done and gave me a contact in U.S. Customs with whom I could make certain unusual arrangements.

While I'm not at liberty to share the final arrangement, we left Dulles airport in our all-first class L1011 charter on October 6, 1995 and flew directly to Havana, where we arrived in the early evening and got settled into the grand old Hotel National. The trunk pictured below was the actual one used on our office at the hotel. The other one, marked "Beirut" was never used; that city was scratched from the tour at the last minute; both trunks were presented to me as mementos at the conclusion of the trip by Time magazine.

Since we were only in Havana for a short time, I did not get to see too much of the island. I did have a Hemingway mojito at La Bodeguita del Medio, buy a hand-rolled cigar in the lobby of the Nacional for a dollar and smoke it under the pans on the terrace. I also shopped in the tourist market in Old Havana, and visited a farmer's market with a government minder who praised small farmers' ability to practice a meager from of capitalism (we suspected that the market had been concocted solely for our benefit).

Finca Vigia
My one regret is that I did not have time to visit Finca Vigia
Hemingway's hacienda. I hope to have that opportunity again one day, a hope that now seems much more realistic after this week's announcement of a new relationship with Cuba.

I was on duty at the hotel on the night that our group dined with El Presidente and missed having to listen to him drone on and on and on for three or four hours. The photo shown above was taken that night.

On the morning of  October 7, my crack American Trans Air crew had our aircraft loaded, prepped and ready for take-off. The bus with our guests arrived right on time, boarded, and we were waiting for clearance from the tower. And we waited. And waited.

Eventually, the Captain called me, as operations director, to the cockpit to say that the tower had orders directly from Castro to hold us at the airport; visions of the "Execs Captured" headlines in The New York Times danced in my head.

About fifteen minutes later, two military looking vehicles drove through the gate onto the runway and pulled up next to the huge, four-engine L1011. Through my translator I discovered that El Presidente had decided to send departing gifts to each one of the guests: 70 boxes of his favorite Cohiba cigars, and 70 sets of three bottles each  of Havana Club rum.

We loaded up, a plane-full of happy guests. Already, I was wondering how I was going to get those gifts through customs in Anchorage, Alaska upon our return home.

Our merry journey continued to Moscow, Bangalore, Hanoi, and Hong Kong. On October 14, our last night in Hong Kong, after a lunch with the last British head of government, Chris Patten at The Peninsula Hotel, I called that customs number. "Hypothetically speaking," I said to my contact, "if someone was returning to the U.S. with 70 boxes of Cuban cigars and 210 bottles of Cuban rum, how would they get those through customs?"

"That would depend," he began, "on whether or not you purchased those items, which, of course, would be illegal in Cuba, or if they were gifts; but, you would need to pay duty."

"They were indeed diplomatic gifts from a head of state and I will pay the duty," I replied. "can you call ahead to Anchorage?" Yes, he could.

I still have one of those cigars and El Presidente's card that came with it. The rum is long gone.

I wonder if Dr. Ernst's hacienda is still there? Perhaps some day soon, I'll have a chance to look for it, after a long postponed  visit to Finca Vigia.