Ratstuben/ Getty Images
My father, a child of the 1960s, framed a red poster of Che Guevara, the revolutionary’s face shaded in sweeping lines of black, blue and yellow. I inherited the poster as a teenager. In a forgotten trunk, covered with a film of dust, I also found copies of the magazine my father and his friends—comrades—had put together as young men. Venceremos, it was called. We will overcome. Che’s profile was there again, on every cover. Inside were dispatches and rallying cries from Vietnam, Bandung and the free corners of a captive world. None of the young boys who made that magazine had been to those countries—not many of them, at least. But they lived in the shadow of those dreams, and none loomed greater than the legend of Cuba.
When I was 25 years old, I travelled to Havana on a journalist visa. I was received at the airport and given my press credentials. I had appointments with officials at the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but in the meantime, I was a traveller on the isolated island, a rare gem of earth and one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. One of my best friends joined me on the trip, and we walked along the Malecón, the spray of saltwater lashing at the rocks, watching as couples danced, holding each other close. In Havana, there was music everywhere.
We climbed quiet stairwells in abandoned colonial homes to look at the artwork of martyrs chalked and painted on the peeling walls. We asked a guard standing outside the US Special Interests Section—not yet the US Embassy—who the building belonged to. “El Imperio,” he said—the imperialists.
I interviewed the family members of the Cuban Five, intelligence officers imprisoned in Miami, and spoke to teachers in public schools. We wrote our names on the turquoise blue walls of La Bodeguita del Medio, where the mojito was born. We took salsa dancing lessons, smoked cigars and watched cataract surgeries for work.
Since the Revolution, Cuba has exported doctors to disaster zones all over the world, but they are especially famous for their eye surgeries. In 2007, Cuban doctors restored the sight of the man who killed Che Guevara.
If I think of it now, I can still smell the sweetness that hung in the air: cane sugar, tuberose and rain, the only way I have to describe it. I can hear the drumroll of tropical thunder, soft at first and then devastating. If I could make any journey, again and again, I would return to La Habana.