Havana – Where the Past Is Present


Taxes queue in Havana.
Photo by Bessye Reyna
By Bessy Reyna
I didn’t know that Americans could go to Cuba from the U.S. I thought we had to travel to Canada or Mexico! That is the response I have been getting when I tell people that I spent a delightful week in Havana, mostly visiting Old Havana, participating in an international poetry festival and admiring the art produced by hundreds of artists from dozens of countries being shown at the 11th Biennial.
The U.S. embargo, which started soon after the triumph of the revolution, and was made even stricter in 1995, with the implementation of the “Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act” (“known as the Helms-Burton Act), travel and commerce with Cuba had been severely restricted. We can finally travel there, as long as the trip is organized by a State Department approved group or travel agency for the sole purpose of participating in a religious, educational or cultural program. Cubans with family in the island are required to get a visa from the Cuban business interest section in D.C.
I left Havana in 1956, when my family emmigrated to Panama, and never thought I would have the opportunity to go back. Luckily, Esther Trujillo, a wonderful poet I met at a festival in El Salvador, started to encourage me to return and to participate in the International Poetry Festival and of Havana. Esther’s insistence was hard to resist. Having the opportunity to read my poems to a Cuban audience and poets from many countries is something I will always cherish. Embracing the cousins I last saw as children was like recapturing a little bit of the truncated childhood I left behind.
I loved the warmth of the people who welcomed me as a lost daughter returning to the fold without resenting that many of the deprivations they suffered are traced to the embargo. I loved meeting a historian who drives a bici-taxi to earn a living, and who tells his passengers the background of the buildings they go by. But, most of all, I was enchanted by the extraordinary beauty of a city which finally –and thanks to having been declared a “World Heritage Site” by UNESCO– is coming back to life, being restored to its former splendor, like a sleeping beauty patiently waiting to wake up.
 Writer Bessy Reyna is a former opinion columnist for the Hartford Courant and the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Connecticut Center for the Book.