On December 3, 2016, I flew with forty other judges, commissioners and their guests from Miami to Havana, Cuba for a weeklong stay in this beautiful and complicated island nation. Their former prime minister, Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz, had passed away on November 25, 2016 and the nation was officially in mourning. As we set out to our hotel from the tiny, decaying airport, Ernesto, our tour guide, included a short history of the revolution from the perspective of a Cuban thirty-something.
Our first day in Cuba included a stop at the Plaza de la Revolución to see the massive ironwork countenances of Castro and Che Guevara and a statue of Simón Bolívar. As everywhere else in Cuba, we saw there the ubiquitous and lovingly cared-for reminders of days gone by, long lines of American cars from the 50's and 60's available for touring Havana for $25 Cuban dollars an hour. Later in the trip, I found that for a much cheaper price, you could employ the taxi services of a beat-up, rattletrap Soviet car with an ancient driver, the difference being that he sang ballads about California apples and kissed my hand before dropping me off at my hotel.
In the days that followed, we would spend many hours walking the cobblestone streets of Havana, talking to the citizens, eating lovingly-prepared meals at paladars (private restaurants, usually in people's homes) and staterun restaurants. Havana is packed with historic plazas and monuments such as the sixteenth-century Plaza Vieja, which is actively being preserved and restored by the Cuban government; the Plaza de San Francisco, which contains an eighteenth-century church and convent where Junipero Serra once taught and ministered; and statues and monuments too numerous to count. Our knowledgeable tour guide proudly pointed out a portion of Old Havana that is designated a World Heritage site, and as such, UNESCO money was being used to restore the colors and integrity of the old plazas to their former baroque glory.
Our trip contained many spontaneous detours and hastily-arranged surprises that gave us peeks into the lesser-known areas of the city and lives of the common people. One such stop was at the Habana Compás Dance Theater, what appeared to us to be a somewhat drab older building in the middle of working-class Havana. The crumbling outer façade of the theater belied an inner sanctum filled with wild and colorful murals over every inch of the eroded but still standing interior arches. Fanciful handmade drums in the form of elephants and other animals lined the stage area. Classically trained dancers and musicians streamed out from back stage as the drummers paid tribute to Cuba's Afro-Cuban heritage through music and dance that seemed at once spontaneous and unrestrained, yet meticulously produced. The performance was emotional and joyful—even the soberest among us could not resist smiling and moving to the music.
No trip to Havana would be complete without a trip to the beautifully preserved Hemingway house on the outskirts of the city, where we enjoyed cold sugar cane juice drinks as we toured the house, which still contains Ernest Hemingway's desk as he left it and, of course, the trophies from his many big game excursions. Also necessary to any trip to Havana is a visit to Viñuales Valley where we toured the plantations of tobacco and also the curing and sorting houses which produce the famous cigars for which Cuba is known. Invited into the house of the farmer, he and his family welcomed us by pouring tiny cups of homemade rum while he entertained us with gently cynical jokes about the state of affairs in Cuba for tobacco growers ("Ninety percent to the government, twenty percent for me!")
And finally, we spent a fascinating day speaking with Cuban Juristas at the building that was the Cuban equivalent of our local Bar Association. Our host, a woman who was formerly a justice on their version of the Supreme Court, lead an intense discussion about the Cuban Constitution, their electoral system (such as it is) and, importantly to us and them, a carefully-worded discussion about what they thought might be in their future as judges and lawyers now that Castro is gone.
Leaving Havana with cigars for the hubby, I was grateful for the opportunity to visit this beautiful and contradictory country. The people were charming, hospitable and unfailingly interested in the United States, and although our history with them has been fraught with problems, I was treated with respect and boundless hospitality. I hope to go back soon, and I encourage others to consider doing so as well.