CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The island nation of Cuba has one foot in history, its hands full of today and its fingers crossed for tomorrow. Once Fidel Castro's exporter of communist revolution, the country is today an annual importer of millions of tourists. And they travel thousands of miles to visit freely from almost everywhere in the world but the United States.
Without special permission from Washington, U.S. citizens can't catch a taxi in Havana even though that jumping city is only 90 miles away. While Europeans and Canadians and Latin Americans bop the night away in wild gyrations to the beat of Ricky Ricardo's bongos, most Americans must stay away. Normal diplomatic and trade relations were severed in 1960 when the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba made spending money there a federal crime punishable by a steep fine and jail time. Yet communist China is not off limits. Nor is communist Vietnam. But I digress.
Traveling on a special U.S. government license for journalism professors, I arrived non-stop in Havana on one of the many daily flights that go there from Florida. With some 20 college students in tow from The Edward R. Murrow College of Communications, I began introducing them to the "land of the palm tree" that I have covered for both NBC and CBS since 1975.
This was the first time for them on the forbidden land, and they couldn't wait to focus their backpack digital cameras on the local people and their all-star baseball, their vintage cars and their famous cigars. Before the trip was over, the eager broadcast pupils would meet up with the ghost of Earnest Hemingway at his home near Cojimar, record Cuba's version of the New York Yankees in Havana Stadium and swim in the Gulf Stream that flows past the old DuPont mansion at Varadero. They would feel the sun on their heads; feel the sea breeze as fresh and light as a feather moved across one's lips as they would walk along Havana's seafront thoroughfare called the Malecón. And my entourage, most of them young, vibrant women, would brave the leers and catcalls of young Cuban men determined to uphold their own machismo despite government discouragement of such behavior. Try as they may, the communists have failed to root out the manly man.
Speaking of manliness, Fidel Castro is still alive. But at age 86, he has retired to his suburban Havana home where he putters in his garden and writes commentary, from time to time, for Cuba's official newspaper called Granma. Like most of the octogenarians who, in their youth, ousted the dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1958, Castro was hidden from my scholars who were disappointed not to have seen him. They would have to be content with imagining how it might have been in the Plaza of the Revolution where Castro harangued the United States in hours-long speeches to millions of the faithful who endured in a sweltering tropical sun. Castro was always a thorn in America's pride. But on the day my young broadcasters visited The Plaza, they were met by a kind of wistful silence broken only by the clicks of their cameras beneath the bowed statuesque head of José Martí, Cuba's George Washington.
By the way, the yacht Castro used to invade Cuba from exile in Mexico back in the 1950s was registered under the name Granma -- hence the name of Cuba's newspaper. Castro and Che Guevara purchased the boat in Mexico from where they sailed with about 80 other revolutionaries who became seasick in the crossing. Most were captured by Batista's soldiers. Only Castro and a few others escaped into the Sierra Maestra mountains where he established his base to wage revolution. You can see the Granma, preserved in a huge glass cage in Havana.
Castro's revolution, like Castro himself, has grown gray and old and tired. My resolute Murrow newscasters caught up with some Cubans in Havana who attest to just how worn out the once-promising and avant-garde struggle has become. They gather each day by the hundreds in the pre-dawn hours in a place called the "Weeping Park" just outside the United States Interests Section building to petition U.S. officials for permission to go to America.
Absent normal diplomatic relations, the U.S. maintains a faux consular office in Havana that operates under the auspices of the Swiss. Here many of the petitioners are turned away by the officials who believe the Cubans want not to simply visit families in America but to escape to the U.S. permanently. Those who are rejected leave dejectedly, many of them weeping as they return to a life they say is hard and without hope. Their plight belies the great promise made by American Poet Emma Lazarus who wrote: "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore ... I lift my lamp beside the golden door."
Even if you are a highly educated and skilled physician in Cuba, your monthly pay by the state is the equivalent of a mere $16. To supplement their meager official earnings, physicians and other Cuban professionals take jobs as bellhops and waiters in the tourist hotels where they can earn substantially more in tips.
At least 50,000 Cubans migrate to America each year, legally and illegally. Most, if not all, seek to get out not for political reasons, they say. The vast majority look to improve their lives economically in America. And some still risk their lives crossing the shark-infested Straits of Florida by raft to get to, in their words, "the promised land."