The deep freeze between Cuba and the U.S is thawing.
It’s hard to overrate the significance of President Obama’s historic trip to Cuba because as recently as 18 months ago the very idea of a sitting U.S. president stepping foot on Cuban soil would have been unthinkable…as unlikely and improbable a prospect as the idea of Donald Trump being a presidential nominee.
Now Obama is making history by holding talks with President Raul Castro opening a new chapter in the affairs of our two nations.
Let’s raise a Cuba Libre in praise of normalizing relations between Cuba and the US, and revisit a post from the vault.
Bracing for one last chilling winter storm, dreams of languishing on a white sandy beach soaking up the warm Caribbean sun are never far from my winter-weary mind.
And now a new dream vacation spot may open up… and it’s no dream.
Over half a century of waiting, my long-delayed Havana holiday might actually happen despite the all too predictable political backlash. The outrage by some Republicans about this development feels overblown and as wildly outdated as the vintage Chevy’s that fill Havanas streets. Having grown up during the cold war with Cuba as a sworn enemy it is quite clear that the tiger has been de-clawed.
Cuba Where Yesterday Meets Tomorrow
The frozen-in-time feeling in Cuba fits perfectly with childhood memories of stories shared by my parents of their mid-century Havana holidays.
Dinner time in the suburbs sometimes took on a fiesta feeling when my parents wanted to reminisce about their travels.
Over a festive dinner of arroz con pollo – a dish first enjoyed by Mom in Havana and now in the suburbs made the authentic Ladies Home Journal way with a can of Hunt’s tomato sauce and EZ Minute Rice – Mom and Dad would regale us with their adventures in Cuba, casting a spell as intoxicating as the island itself.
The glitter and glamor of pre-revolution Cuba, that tropical Technicolor paradise of palm fronds and turquoise water, a sultry cocktail of casinos, corruption and the Caribbean Sea would fill their Kodacolor memories for decades …and fuel mine.
But New Years 1959 shattered any hopes of my own Cuban getaway. Along with ringing in the New Year with Guy Lombardo, Fidel Castro took over Cuba forever shuttering this Garden of Eden to American revelers.
Any dreams of rum-soaked nights dancing the rumba till dawn would have to marinate for well over 50 years.
For the balance of my childhood, Cuba remained a mysterious and forbidden place; the romance and allure of pre-Castro Cuba now melded with a menacing bearded man, the specter of Communism looming so close to our borders became a hot button issue in the cold war.
Honeymoon in Havana
My parents had a romanticized sense of Cuba, and for good reason. It was after all where they had honeymooned in 1950.
As the years passed, the paradise would almost grow lusher, conjured by an imagination infused with nostalgia.
Did my PTA Mom and Republican Dad really linger an entire afternoon at La Floridita nursing daiquiris poured by highly skilled cantineros in the hopes of catching a glimpse of Ernest Hemingway at his favorite watering hole, which in their multiple tellings they had.
Hotel Nacional de Cuba
Like so many they were drawn to the fiesta that was Havana, the most exciting city in the Western hemisphere, the Caribbean playground to American socialites, politicians and movie stars.
Of course the Honeymooners stayed at the world-renowned Hotel Nacional de Cuba , the iconic hotel filled with flowering gardens, sumptuous sun clubs and swimming pools where these newlyweds from NY could rendezvous with the smart Cosmopolitan set.
Tropical Adventure Awaits You in Sunny Havana
This was the very same hotel that only 4 years earlier had turned my father away, during a winter school break.
It seems Lucky Luciano beat him to it, booking the entire hotel that Christmas week of 1946 for a big mafia summit at which the carving up of Havana among the crime families was on the agenda.
Undeterred, Dad found refuge in a little hotel on Obispo Street The Ambos Mundos Hotel, a place that Hemingway himself had stayed in during the 1930s
For a war-weary soldier 6 months out of the service and a few months into law school, Cuba with its tropical beauty and tropical beauties beckoned him.
It was a post war paradise
A tourism magazine had described Havana as, “a mistress of pleasure, the lush and opulent goddess of delights.” It didn’t disappoint.
Havana was a paradise living up to its reputation as a tropical playground, a blend of glittering nightclubs, outrageous cabarets, all night bars with exotic drinks and backstreet brothels.
This young man from Astoria Queens was livin’ la vida loca!
Mama Loves to Mambo But Papa Likes to Cha Cha Cha
But the best stories were about the mythic Tropicana nightclub, the brightest jewel in Cuban nightlife.
“Havana’s glamorous Tropicana,” Dad never failed to point out between bites of Mom’s take-a-can-and-take it-easy arroz con pollo, “bore no resemblance to the one portrayed on TV!”
As much as Mom loved Lucy she would always smirk at the fictional Tropicana Club run by Lucy’s bandleader husband Ricky Ricardo ( famously played by Cuban Desi Arnez) a sanitized version of the sizzling club in Havana.
Billed as “a world of pleasure within a paradise of Magic,” the Tropicana, set in bucolic surroundings was a lush paradise of rumba and roulette, dazzling lights and equally dazzling “goddesses of the flesh” as the scantily clad showgirls were called, who pranced on catwalks set among tall royal palms rising above the tables through the roof.
Tropicana in the Sky
Heralded as a “paradise under the stars” my parents took the nightclub’s slogan literally.
In 1958 they booked a flight on the famous Tropicana Special the first flight in the world with a live show aboard.
Offered by Cubana Airlines, the extravaganza was billed as The Greatest Show on Air!
“Treat yourself to an evening beyond your fanciest dreams Havanas Tropicana “The Monte Carlo of the Americas. Flying from Miami to Havana the 1 hour flight had a live show featuring Mambo, Rhumba, Cha Cha Cha and drinks on top of the clouds.”
Why wait until you got to sunny Havana to start the fiesta?
Whisking patrons 10,000 feet into the air, plying them with unlimited pink daiquiris and vibrating music it wasn’t long before Conga lines of passengers and performers would be snaking down the aisles in the plane, as the diamond chain of lights that were the Florida Keys move slowly behind.
Complete with miniature stage installed at the front of the cabin, decorated with a glowing arch like that at the Tropicana night club, musicians decked out in fiesta outfits played sizzling music on the piano trumpet, maracas and bongos.
Cha cha Cha’ing up and down the aisles were 2 saucy performers from the club, Gloria and Rolando encouraging passenger to sing along supplying them with Spanish lyrics printed on a card.
”As the torrid Cuban music poured over you would lose consciousness of the plane and its 4 huge engines and that 1 hour flight would fly by literally!” Dad would remember.
Of course lubricated by unlimited pink daiquiris didn’t hurt.
Breezing through the airport in Havana since Americans didn’t have to bother with customs thanks to a special arrangement through the airline and the Tropicana, they were whisked to the real Tropicana Night Club, put up at the Hotel de Nacional for a few winks and flown back to Miami the next day with a complementary champagne toast.
The best part was, this paradise was only 90 miles from Miami, my parents would remember wistfully.
For Whom the Bell Tolls
But while tourists eagerly spun the roulette wheel in sexy Havana, a revolution brewed in the less glamorous countryside.
This playground to American’s was abruptly shut down when Fidel Castro took over. The Tropicana that had opened to such fanfare on New Years Eve 1939, would close on another New Years Eve twenty years later, one which would ring the death knell of Cuba. Cuban revolution brought the curtain down on that era.
Soon the proximity of Cuba being so close to Florida would take on a very different meaning to me especially in October 1962 when Armageddon was narrowly avoided.
After that it was as if Moms famous arroz con pollo was seasoned with communism and its Spanish origins were emphasized as the chilly cold war came closer to home.
© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.