When a fleet of yachts and schooners from Key West sailed into sunny Havana Harbor on May 20, the American flags they flew waved at Cubans lined along the slimy seawall. The Cubans not only waved back but also whistled and flashed two-finger victory signs.
High above in a powder-blue sky, a man in a motorized parasail continuously circled the watercraft like a bird of prey. Only this winged wonder buzzed along with an American flag trailing in the wind, the ultimate one-man welcoming committee.
“This is awesome,” Rio O'Bryan said, shaking his head from the deck of the After Fish, a 36-foot cruiser carrying a crew of 15. “This is so awesome,” the Errol Flynn in Captain Blood look-alike repeated.
For the first time since the early days of the Cuban revolution of 1959, the American flag waved in the harbor in which Christopher Columbus and crew once docked. A lovefest between the Cubans and Americans had erupted.
However, not everyone loves Americans in Cuba, especially other foreigners. Canadians and Europeans make up the bulk of visitors to the island long forbidden by the government of the United States. And these outsiders would like to keep it that way.
“There is tremendous resentment toward Americans by foreigners here,” said a man in his 60s named George from his perch in the Pasteleria Francesa, a French bakery in central Havana. Somewhat gaunt and with a good head of grayish hair, George preferred to give his opinion rather than his surname.
The retired educator said he has been speaking with other Canadians, Europeans, and South Americans in Havana over the last 28 years. He sits at his favorite table, from which he surveys everyone at other tables on the patio, and discusses events of the day. The current topic is how President Barack Obama on Dec. 17 announced a plan to restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba and reopen the embassy. This paves the way for Americans to experience that which Canadians, Germans, Italians, Spaniards, Venezuelans, Ecuadorans, Australians, Chinese and Japanese have been enjoying for the last 55 years: heavenly tropical beaches, pristine fishing waters, sublime seafood, original Latin rhythms, sultry señoritas, sweet rum and the best cigars in the world.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower imposed the first trade embargo in 1960; he broke off diplomatic relations in January 1961. Foreigners visiting Cuba would like to keep it that way. Many fear that McDonald’s and Burger King will spring up on every corner if the American economic embargo is lifted.
“Their resentment is due to American bullyism,” the former high school history teacher said. “In Iran, Chile, the Philippines, Nicaragua, and Mexico. Cuba has been benefiting from all of the resentment toward America in the world” in the realm of tourism.
Hilary Becker, assistant professor of accounting at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, has a doctorate from the University of Havana. He wrote in 2011:
“The tourism industry in Cuba is poised for tremendous growth in the next 10 years. The possible impact of the embargo with the U.S. being lifted presents tremendous opportunities. The tourism industry in Cuba has been dominated in recent years by visitors from Canada, followed by Germany, Italy, and Spain; however, there are estimates that if the U.S. embargo is lifted, there could be as many as three million additional U.S. tourists visiting Cuba, with a combined impact of upward of a $5 billion infusion into the Cuban economy.”
Between Jan. 1 and May 9, visits by Americans to Cuba were up 36 percent, according to the Associated Press.
That’s good news for Hugo Musteliel and Joima, who didn’t want to give her last name. Musteliel is a 24-year-old valet at the Restaurant Castropol on the Malecon, Havana’s five-mile ocean boulevard. A second-year industrial-engineering student at Cujae University in Boyeros, a suburb of Havana, Musteliel said he was happy to see the American vessels sail into Havana Harbor two days earlier “because it means good relations between the two countries. That is good for the Cuban economy. It brings new opportunity.
“It is good for social reasons, too.”
Joima, a 38-year-old entrepreneur, cited economic as well as familial reasons to be happy about the forthcoming American invasion.
“Eighty percent of Cubans have family in Miami,” the blond chauffeur said from her 1956, green-and-white Chevrolet convertible. “It is also “buenissimo for my business” of driving tourists around town in the vintage American car she inherited from her grandfather.
“I am not afraid of McDonald’s and Burger King,” she said. “We have a lot of fast-food restaurants here.”
Bill Iezzi is a former Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer who has been writing stories about Cuba since 1997.
©2015 The Philadelphia Inquirer