February 12
Dateline: The Secret Cuba

In the first of the talks he was scheduled to deliver, our National Geographic writer-in-residence Tom Miller cautioned us about falling victim to the Columbus syndrome, a common occurrence for first-time visitors to Cuba.

During his years of exploration, Columbus only set foot in Cuba once. And that was for less than 24 hours. But according to lore, he called the island the most beautiful land he had ever seen. And Miller, after reading the introduction to his book on Trading with the Enemy: A Yankee Travels Through Castro’s Cuba, acknowledged that we would all find great beauty here in the next few days.

“However, what you don’t see can be as important as what you do see,” Miller cautioned. For example, he said we would not see newsstands. The reason is simple: a free press does not exist in Cuba. Like virtually everything else, all news is controlled by the government, which for years has translated into the will of Fidel Castro and his Communist followers.

Miller also noted that the relationship between Cuba and America is complex, especially when you contrasted a 50-year embargo with the fact that almost every Cuban family has family members or friends living in the United States.

The author found himself in Cuba immediately after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade in New York. During a final dinner in Havana, the piano player at the restaurant played “America the Beautiful” and “The Star Spangled Banner” back to back. Miller assumed that the medley was an effort to get better tips from any Americans in attendance. But the pianist gave a different reason. “I did that for what you all suffered,” he said. Even Castro offered to let U.S. planes use Cuban airports in the aftermath of 9/11. 

However, all that good will, doesn’t eliminate the fact that an air of police state governing and secrecy “goes under and through and above all officialdom,” Miller said.

To follow our Cuban trip in chronological order