Published Sunday, August 15, 1999, in the Miami Herald


A Journey to Cuba

Jim Hampton is the former Editor of The Herald.

SANTIAGO, CUBA -- The heat index was still well past 100 when we trudged into our hotel lobby, exhausted and soaked with sweat, at 6:40 p.m. We had just spent our third day recapturing nearly 40 years of memories for my wife, Lillian, and two of her Santiago-born relatives whose families had fled Cuba in 1960 and thereafter. Two of Lillian's American-born relatives and I accompanied them.

The un-air-conditioned hotel lobby was only marginally cooler than the withering heat and humidity outdoors. But all six of us were instantly chilled to the marrow when a hotel employee rushed up to me and said: ``Excuse me, Señor Hampton, but I have an official notice for you.''

She looked worried as she handed me the slip of paper. She had good cause. It was a summons from the dreaded Interior Ministry's Department of Foreign Immigration. It ordered all six of us -- by name -- to appear at the nearby immigration office by 5 p.m. that day. No reason given.

``Get your passports and meet me here in five minutes,'' I told my companions. While they rushed to their rooms, I -- passport habitually in my pocket when abroad -- waited and wondered: ``What the hell have we done to earn this summons?'' My instant guess soon was confirmed.

For three days we had been criss-crossing Vista Alegre (in English, Happy View), the neighborhood where the families of Lillian and her relatives once lived. Like most visitors with friends and family still in Cuba, ours was a dual mission. Besides seeing old friends and habitat, we carried cash for this friend's relative; medicine for another; soap, toothpaste and the like, hard to get here, for another.

In a country with few cars -- most of them 40 years or more old -- our new rented Mitsubishi sedan was itself enough to draw attention. It screamed ``tourist'' or ``government VIP.'' Add to that our repeated drives through Vista Alegre to recapture four decades of memories for the three santiagueras and friends in Miami and we were doubly suspect.

In that recapturing, we stopped frequently to photograph this and that house or to pan various Miami friends' houses and streets with a video camera.

In retrospect, we were triply suspect.

At 7 p.m., a scant 20 minutes after receiving our notificacion oficial, we arrived at the Department of Foreign Immigration in a small, white, one-story building -- a residence in years past. There, a uniformed officer collected our passports and told us to have a seat in the sweltering waiting room. Soon the officer returned and summoned one of us, named Margarita, into an inner office. Only later did we learn why Margarita was so honored. The ``culprit'' turned out to be Lillian.

The day before, we had visited the side-by-side houses where Lillian and her cousin and their families had lived for many years. Three families now live in each house. On the street outside, Lillian and her cousin recognized a woman walking wearily by, leaning heavily on a cane. ``Victoria?'' the two cousins exclaimed in unison. Now 82, ailing and nearly toothless, Victoria has lived in Vista Alegre since 1946 and had worked for families close to Lillian and her cousin. Amidst hugs and misty eyes, Victoria and her rediscovered friends shared decades of staccato personal headlines. So many years. So much change -- and in friendships, so much that was changeless.

The families now living in Lillian's and her cousin's houses graciously invited us in. They let us take photos and videos and showed us what had changed. Before, both houses had back-yard gardens shaded by trees and plants. Now the gardens are gone, replaced by ramshackle structures housing a veritable zoo. In adjoining pens at Lillian's cousin's house were two ducks, four hens, a rooster, a baby goat, a nondescript puppy. In a pen at Lillian's house, four more puppies.

In Lillian's cousin's garage sits a well-preserved beige-and-green, four-door, 1953 Chevy. It runs but isn't drivable, the owner told me, because the steering is broken. ``There are no spare parts,'' he said. ``We have to make them.''

During that visit, Lillian had walked around the corner to photograph some friends' houses, including a lovely manse where her aunt and uncle once lived. As she was taking pictures, a man across the street shouted sternly to her: ``You can't photograph that house!'' ``Why not?'' said Lillian, having already photographed it.

``Because it belongs to the government,'' he responded. ``Why are you photographing it?''

``Well, this house once belonged to my aunt and uncle,'' Lillian retorted.

``What were their names?'' he demanded. She told him.

``So what's your name?'' he yelled. Miffed, Lillian shot back: ``What's your name?''

He told her, and then said: ``And your name?''

``Margarita Rodriguez,'' Lillian responded, not about to give a stranger her real name. Then, feeling menaced by the man's overbearing attitude and his invocation of ``the government,'' she walked swiftly away.

Evidently either that man, or somebody living in one of the houses that we had photographed, had taken our car's license number and called the authorities. The Department of Foreign Immigration quickly tracked us down and summoned us in for questioning.

Thus it was that Margarita, whose surname isn't Rodriguez, got called in first to be grilled. We all assumed that we'd be called in, one by one, after her. A long night appeared in the offing.

After half an hour or so, Margarita rejoined us in the waiting room. She had told her interrogators, truthfully, why we were in Santiago and why we were criss-crossing and taking photos in Vista Alegre. One interrogator then asked Margarita, in a confidential way, whether she owed any debt of loyalty to the Cuban American National Foundation.

``No,'' she said. ``I'm not political.''

The interrogators then told her that Vista Alegre housed a number of government officials and functions. Thus, he said, it would be a tempting target for terrorist bombings. Though accused of complicity in past terrorist bombings in Cuba, the CANF steadfastly has denied it. The officials also asked her the occupation of el americano -- me.

``Oh, he's retired,'' answered Margarita. The Cubans didn't ask: ``What was his occupation before he retired?'' It might have been interesting had they discovered my 21-year history at The Herald, which the Castro regime counts among its cardinal enemies. Finally, after an hour and 45 minutes, the immigration officials returned our passports and -- now quite cordial -- bade us goodnight at 8:45 p.m. In fact, they had shed their uniforms for civilian clothes so as (we assumed) to attend Santiago's annual carnival festivities, which began that evening.

For three days the ubiquitous police and soldiers had looked us up and down wherever we went. Conversely, all of the ordinary people we met couldn't have been friendlier. That's just another of the stark contrasts between the warm, open Cuban people and their cold, closed government.

That government wasn't through with us yet. The next day, our last day in Santiago, we were driving around on our final routes of remembrance when I noticed that for several blocks a late-model red car behind us had turned whenever we turned.

``We're being followed,'' I said to Lillian. Now, it doesn't take a James Bond to spot a tail on streets with very few cars -- especially late-model ones that turn whenever you do. Finally we turned, and the red car went straight ahead.

Copyright 1999 Miami Herald