It was 4:30 a.m., before daybreak, and Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., was recounting his first trip to Cuba. The year was 1979, he was a college student and the Soviet influence was palpable on the island, where the Castro regime “was training Angolan soldiers.”
Still, he said, he could travel outside of Havana, and the trip became the first of many, most during the past 12 years related to his service on the board of the foundation for Finca Vigia, Ernest Hemingway’s home on the island. He whipped out his cell phone and scrolled to a photo of himself next to Fidel Castro, who had showed up at the opening of the home a dozen years ago.
“He really only met Hemingway once,” McGovern said. “You know that famous picture of Castro, Hemingway and the fish? That was it.”
Friday was a historic day in the troubled annals of U.S.-Cuban relations, the day, after more than 54 years, when the U.S. flag would once again fly over a U.S. embassy in Havana, Cuba’s seaside capital. Last month, the two countries restored diplomatic ties that had been severed in 1961.
McGovern was part of the official delegation of diplomats, lawmakers and others who crowded into vans in the dark at the State Department to be taken to Andrews and the official aircraft that would lift them and Secretary of State John Kerry to open the embassy officially and mark the historic moment.
The speed of the trip – there and back again in less than a day – served to remind that Havana is not Moscow or Beijing or Hanoi, capitals of countries with which the U.S. has had relations for years. The five-decade freeze in relations was between two nations that lie just 90 miles apart.
McGovern said his work on Finca Vigia had given him a portal into the evolving U.S.-Cuban relationship, as well as to internal Cuban changes. He recalled one briefing at the U.S. Interests Section when air was blasted into the hallways to prevent any possible eavesdropping on what McGovern described as a mundane conversation.
“We each had this paranoia about the other that made us irrational,” he said.
Preservation of Finca Vigia in the early days was painful. His group had to obtain U.S. Treasury permits, known as licenses, for every piece of equipment devoted to and every architect working on the project.
Now, it’s easier to get group licenses, though restrictions remain and the rules are evolving. McGovern says opposition to the thaw makes no sense. He says the worry that the U.S. won’t promote human rights are the island is misplaced.
“I’ve never been to Cuba where we didn’t raise the issue of human rights. Change is going to come from within, not from outside,” he said. “I think we had to recognize that what we’ve been doing for 50 years hasn’t worked.”
5 a.m., Andrews Air Force Base
Three military planes are outlined in the dawn light, waiting for the travelers.
“Why does everybody look so good at 5 o’clock in the morning?” asked a delegate who was snapping souvenir photos.
“History!” answered Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., who’d just come off a 20-hour flight from Tanzania in order to make the trip.
8:45 a.m., Jose Marti Airport, Havana
Kerry’s plane taxied slowly as dignitaries waited on a red carpet. Airport security, mechanics and other personnel stopped working and stared at the aircraft, emblazoned with “United States of America.” Kerry waved from the doorway and disembarked. He hit the tarmac, taking the first steps of a U.S. secretary of state on Cuban soil in 70 years.
9 a.m. Havana.
Kerry’s motorcade snaked through the palm-lined roads leading from the airport to central Havana. Cubans peered from balconies, gazed from doorways and shielded their eyes from the sun to get a better glimpse of the convoy. A few waved. One man eagerly held up a homemade American flag.
Elsewhere along the route, Cuban flags fluttered, and there were several billboards promoting the regime, including one of a saluting Raul Castro with the words “hasta siempre” – forever.
9:30 a.m. U.S. Embassy
The U.S. Embassy is on prime real estate along the seaside stretch known as the malecon. Three vintage cars had been parked out front, polished to a high gloss and strategically placed for photo ops. Many dozens of Cubans watched from behind a security cordon, some carrying signs. Brand-new silver lettering reading “Embassy of the United States of America” announced the recent upgrade from an interest section.
A band played Mambo No. 5; a guest in the audience whispered that latecomers had just missed Guantanamera. The sun was blazing, so embassy staff passed out small American-flag fans, though it was too late for guests whose faces and clothing were already dripping with sweat.
Cuban-American poet Richard Blanco, whose mother left Cuba for Spain when she was seven months pregnant with him, read a poem that drew upon the sea as uniting people “no matter what anthem” they sing on their respective shores, and called upon citizens of both countries to end their doubts and “to gaze into the lucid blue of our shared horizons.”
Kerry spoke in English as well as halting Spanish to an audience that by the time he walked to the podium was swooning from the searing heat. He recapped the breakdown in Cuban-American relations – buzzwords included “Castro,” “Krushchev,” “Bay of Pigs,” “13 days,” “threshold of nuclear war” – and then brought it back to the reason for the event: “a more promising future.”
He skimmed rather quickly over the contentious human rights question, drew applause by repeating the Obama administration’s stance on lifting the embargo, and then paid homage to the three Marines, now octogenarians, who took the flag down in 1961 and had promised one another they’d return to see it fly again.
The three elderly Marines – Gunnery Sgt. Francis ‘Mike’ East, Gunnery Sgt. James Tracy, and Cpl. Larry Morris – handed a new flag to the current Marine security detachment. The Marines swiftly unfurled it and, within seconds, at 10:38 a.m., Old Glory was flying officially in Havana for the first time in 54 years. Guests cheered and the band played the Star Spangled Banner.
One man in the audience began to sing the words, then others joined in, their voices never rising much louder than a stage whisper.
Kerry again noted the presence of the three former Marines: “Promise made, promise kept.”
Noon, Havana’s Hotel Nacional
With Kerry off meeting with his Cuban counterpart at the foreign ministry, the delegates pulled up at the storied resort, with its palm-dotted sea vistas, peacocks strutting in the courtyard, and huge portraits of Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, and other revolutionary figures. As European and Australian tourists sunned themselves on a patio, the delegates made a beeline for the hotel gift shops, scooping up bottles of rum and packs of hand-rolled cigars.
1 p.m., Joint press conference
Kerry and Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez arrived at the Hotel Nacional and took their places. Perhaps worried that his American counterpart would deliver a stern human rights lecture, Rodriguez preempted the issue, announcing that in Cuba “we also have our own concerns in the area of human rights for the U.S.” He then launched into a blistering critique of gender pay disparity, police brutality, racism, special interest groups and indefinite detention.
In case that last reference wasn’t clear, he followed with a demand for a return of Guantanamo Bay, home to a U.S. naval base and the notorious prison, describing it as “territory you usurped from Cuba.”
Kerry’s face remained expressionless. When it was his turn, he kept the focus on the opening: “This is a historic moment. Today is a historic day.”
“There will be hiccups,” Kerry said. “There will be differences because there are differences.”
4 p.m. Chief of mission residence
Yoanni Sanchez, perhaps Cuba’s best known dissident blogger, was among the guests at a round table interview Kerry held with journalists. She told Kerry she wished he’d had time to visit the island’s 35 Internet connectivity points.
He called Rodriguez’s comments at the earlier news conference defensive, which means “they’re listening.” He said U.S. negotiators have no intention of shying away from debates on all issues, including the “toughies” – human rights, fugitives and compensation claims.
“We’re at the beginning of this,” Kerry said. “Literally, at the very beginning of it.”
Then it was back to the airport and the return to Washington. By then about 16 hours – and five decades – would have passed.