Orange traffic cones blocked access to the street leading into Old Havana, on account of President Barack Obama’s impending presence. No exceptions, the police officer declared: The polished-looking crew of Americans descending from the tour bus would have to risk a sweat and walk.
But the group was running late for a ceremonious meeting with the office of Havana’s renowned historian. And the man who headed the scrum wasn’t just any moneyed visitor to Cuba’s capital.
“It’s the mayor of Miami!” his tour guide implored the officer.
In truth, it was the mayor of Miami Beach, Philip Levine. But it seemed like an inopportune time to quibble with matters of title, and no one did.
Levine’s political consultant phoned his contact at Cuba’s foreign ministry. The officer granted the bus passage. Levine made his meeting — albeit on Havana time, nearly an hour after it was supposed to start. The historian’s office, which acts as Havana’s unofficial City Hall, gifted Levine two glossy tomes. Levine reciprocated with a commemorative Miami Beach coin, offered in the mayor’s serviceable Spanish, and an invitation to attend next year’s U.S. Conference of Mayors in his city.
Such was the pomp of the first official trip to Cuba by an elected official from Miami-Dade County since — as far as anyone can tell — the 1959 Cuban revolution.
Havana rolled out the red carpet for Levine, whose visit with Tufts University graduate students coincided for a few days with Obama’s. Diplomats ushered the mayor and his eight-person entourage into the airport Sunday avoiding the hassle of immigration and customs lines. He ate dinner Tuesday at the same privately owned paladar restaurant where Michelle Obama and her daughters had had lunch. When he inquired about dropping in on a synagogue Wednesday — Levine is Jewish — the Cuban government added a Temple Beth-Shalom stop to Levine’s schedule.
The mayor planned his visit weeks before the president announced his, but the trips by the two Democrats in some ways paralleled each other. Obama met with Roman Catholic Cardinal Jaime Ortega. A day later, so did Levine. Obama toured Old Havana. Ditto. Obama saw the Tampa Bay Rays defeat the Cuban national team. Levine sat a few rows away.
And, like Obama, Levine struggled to peel himself from the itinerary to experience the real Havana.
On an afternoon excursion through historic Old Havana, tour guide in tow, Levine and his posse insisted on detouring through side streets untouched by any recent paint or pavement. He mingled with Cubans waiting for a bus in the hot sun. He chatted up a man involved with a nonprofit for disabled children and got a frank response about his daily life’s hardships.
But there were limits. The foreign-ministry minder, deferential and charming, frequently checked in, both in person and by phone. The tour guide and bus, with a windshield sign that read “Mayor Levine Cuba Delegation,” often made discretion impossible.
That the Cuban government keeps such a watchful eye remains one of the chief concerns of exiles who contend looser U.S. travel restrictions promoted by Obama fail to translate into meaningful change on the island.
“Local politicians are irrelevant” in Cuba, said Tomás Regalado, the real Miami mayor and an exile who vows never to return as long as Raúl Castro is in power and the country lacks basic freedoms.
“If they go, they go for tourism. But there’s no political impact in Cuba. It’s not going to bring any hopes to the Cubans. It’s not going to add anything to the conversation,” he said.
Levine countered that just talking to Americans helps rid Cubans of some of their state-imposed isolation.
“They all said they listened to President Obama’s speech. Everyone we talked to, they’re very excited,” he said. “There’s change in the air.”
Levine’s group included his political consultant who organized the trip, Democrat Christian Ulvert of Miami, and his media strategist and friend, Republican Adam Goodman of Tampa. Goodman trailed Levine with an iPad-turned-camcorder to document the visit for personal — and political — use. A city mayor from Miami-Dade doesn’t travel to Cuba at significant personal expense without holding some sort of higher ambition, such as a possible 2018 run for Florida governor.
“Let’s go see the center for mayors who need to learn Spanish with a Cuban accent for their election,” Levine joked en español during a University of Havana walking tour hosted by the vice-provost.
For Levine, the trip triggered immediate media exposure. With Obama in town, Levine hopped from interview to interview, with both local Miami TV stations and national networks, as the only mayor around with a significant number of Cuban-American constituents back home. (At one point, he bumped into St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, a friend and fellow Democrat.)
Levine and Miami Beach Commissioner Ricky Arriola, who traveled with him, made news of their own: They told the foreign ministry Wednesday that they would welcome a Cuban consulate in Miami Beach, unlike elected leaders in Miami-Dade County and the city of Miami. (Before returning home Thursday, Levine’s group also got private face time with Jeffrey DeLaurentis, who runs the U.S. Embassy in Havana.)
Still, Levine said Thursday at a news conference for Miami reporters at Havana’a Saratoga Hotel, “Our trip was not about the Cuban government. Our trip was about the Cuban people.”
His closest contact with them was around the corner from the hotel. Cary Acosta and Imelbis Cosme saw Levine and his team chatting on the street and invited them into their tiny house for coffee Tuesday. The group returned Thursday morning to drop off a few toiletries as gifts and marvel at Acosta’s human-sized statue of Saint Lázaro, bejeweled in a purple cape that Acosta, a seamstress, made herself. She’s got a daughter in Hialeah she hasn’t seen in four years.
Levine gave her his business card, and the group promised to find Acosta’s daughter and give her photos they’d taken with her.
Her eyes welled up with tears.
Miami Herald staff writer David Smiley contributed to this report from Miami.