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Havana’s streets leave lasting impression

The sky that day was a deep blue, and the brilliant noonday Havana sun was a sight that locals take for granted but tourists remember. That’s the setting for the photo that has a permanent place on the bookshelf in our den. It is not the most prominent position. There are 21 other photos on the walls, but it’s the one on the shelf that prompts the most comments and questions.

“Who is that guy?” visitors usually ask.

I don’t know his name. I wish I did. We met briefly one day a few years ago when I was in Cuba on a so-called humanitarian mission, a group authorized by the U.S. government. My wife, Lynn, and I signed up for the trip. We were authorized to take medical items that were in short supply in Cuba, in part because of the U.S. trade embargo. We loaded our carry-ons with toothbrushes, toothpaste, dental floss, bandages, aspirin and similar health care items.

We often strayed from the group and walked the side streets of Havana, trying to grasp the conditions of the city and its residents. Among the captivating attractions for visitors are the old American cars that are carefully maintained and still driven by the Cubans. On this day we stopped to admire a maroon-and-white 1958 Buick Roadmaster. At the age of 50, it still glistened with a showroom sheen.

It was parked at the curb in front of a small brick home. On the front porch sat three men, chatting amiably and observing the street activity, which at the moment focused on us, “dos gringos.” I held my camera aloft and pointed at the Buick, indicating that I would like to take a photo of the car. They understood and nodded. The man in the middle motioned and indicated ownership.

I then beckoned to him, using my best sign language and a sprinkling of mostly forgotten Spanish, asking him to pose with the car. He agreed and came bounding down the stairs, shirtless and wearing floral print shorts and a pair of slippers. We shook hands, and I tried to tell him how much I admired his car. I think he understood.

Then, after touching the hood, I gestured, raising both hands, palms up. Gotcha. He moved to the driver’s seat and unlatched the hood. The engine looked spotless. I then positioned him leaning proudly on the passenger side front fender, smiling for the photo. I thanked him and weeks later decided it was suitable for framing, which is how the photo ended up in my personal gallery.

It is a reminder of my lasting affection for Cuba, the people I met, the sights I saw and the music I heard. I was delighted with the news that President Barack Obama is determined to lift the embargo on Cuba, first imposed in 1960. Conceived to weaken and perhaps topple the Castro regime, the primary achievement of the U.S. sanctions was to make the citizens of a poor country even poorer. Once a beautiful city, Havana is destitute and the Cubans I spoke with all prayed for the day when their country would once again be recognized by the United States. That time has come, but there are still political issues to be resolved.

Before leaving, our tour group attended a community meeting. I decided to avoid sitting with the other Americans. I picked a seat and introduced myself to a Cuban as a visitor from the United States. He turned to me, smiled and replied: “I saw Joe DiMaggio play in Yankee Stadium.” We then shook hands, bonded by the national pastime of both countries.

Dick Hirsch is a longtime contributor to the Opinion page.

1/23/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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