Chris Cloonan shares his experience returning to Havana as an American during a pandemic and a near complete absence of foreign visitors.
Photo courtesy of Christopher Cloonan

An evening walk down the Prado from Havana’s Parque Central to the Malecon in astonishing darkness and silence. A haunting vision of emptiness reminds of what once was and what has become. I round the corner onto the Malecon, hoping to flag down a taxi on the way to Vedado to meet a friend. And there is nothing to share the eeriness of the barren streets save for the ocean water crashing over the seawall. No people, no taxis, and certainly no turistas.

Havana in the daylight was a bit improved. There were Cubans in the streets. The people who saw me were often bemused by the lone Yuma walking amongst them. Pointing and staring quickly became commonplace. The look of bewilderment as to why an American would be walking solo down the Prado amidst a global crisis and a near complete absence of non-Cuban foreign visitors. There were even more Cubans in the many queues around town as they wait for hours hoping to access basic supplies. I couldn’t help but feel for them. A people so beholden to outside financial support via tourism and other avenues while surviving in a country blockaded from the very resources it needs to thrive.

The 1950’s American cars still rumble down the street during the daytime. A small handful of restaurants remained open. But they were vastly outnumbered by the signs of Cerrado in pitch-black buildings and venues that were, until quite recently, bustling with life. I try to imagine what it must be like living in the ups and downs of la vida Cubana. From Batista’s public hangings to Castro and his missiles, from the subsidized Soviet heyday to its collapse, from the depths of the Special Period to height of the Obama-era thaw, and a crash-landing down to the harsh reality of Trump-era sanctions and COVID-19.

I knew what I had gotten myself into as an American doing this work. But I never imagined a pandemic.

While I have studied my fair share of it all, I have only experienced Cuba for about nine years. But within that time frame, I have lived the ups and downs as well. I felt the tension of pre-thaw US-Cuban relations as my teachers, and dare I say the authorities, looked at me with suspicion.

I experienced the jubilation of December 17th, 2014 and the two incredible years afterwards, as los Yumas habían regresado. Havana was again part of the American imaginary. Floods of tourists, college students, businesspeople, Major League Baseball, The Rolling Stones, and even President Obama himself had come to experience the magic of Havana.

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But those good times proved to be a mirage, a tease of what could be. The election of Donald Trump, mysterious “sonic incidents” against American and other diplomats, and a drip-by-drip application of sanctions against Cuba withered away any goodwill that had been built between our countries.

But if I know anything about the Cuban people, it is that they resolve to find a way.

I had always been prepared for the possibility that I wouldn’t be able to go to Cuba for legal reasons. I knew what I had gotten myself into as an American doing this work. But I never imagined a pandemic. There would never be a good time for a pandemic to occur, but it cut Cuba off from much-needed resources during a time of its worst relations with the United States since the Bay of Pigs invasion. The tourists were gone. Foreign investment had previously been stifled by sanctions. Venezuelan oil was in short supply, also due to sanctions. I watched my friends struggle to have enough food to eat, waiting out a seemingly never-ending crisis.

Havana now is a city which, yet again, must start over. It’s devastating to witness, particularly for a people who so recently tangibly felt the hope and potential of normal relations with the US. But if I know anything about the Cuban people, it is that they resolve to find a way. And they need us now more than ever.

As I look at this perpetually beautiful and resilient city, I can’t help but make a comparison to a famous American speech delivered by James Earl Jones in Field of Dreams:

“People will come, Ray.”

The one constant through all the years has been baseball.

This field, this game — it’s a part of our collective past. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again.

“Oh, people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.”

For the Cuban people, tourists and foreign investment will come. America has rolled over the Cubans like an army of steamrollers, crushing them with sanctions for 60+ years. The Cuba of old has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But it’s the spirit of the Cuban people that has marked the time.

This deserted capital city is a part of Cuba’s past. It reminds us of all that once was good, and could be again.

Better days will come, Cuba. Better days will most definitely come.

chris cloonan
Photo courtesy of Christopher Cloonan

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Christopher Cloonan

Christopher Cloonan is an expert speaker on US-Cuba relations, Cuban history, traveling to the island, and more. He holds a master’s degree in Cuban Studies from Burlington College, and he studied abroad at the University of Havana. He has spoken at universities and libraries across the United States as he believes a brighter future is possible between our countries and that the pathway is through engagement, mutual understanding, sovereignty, and respect. He strongly encourages readers on both sides to consider the viewpoint from 90 miles away. He is also a baseball fan and is hopeful that sports diplomacy can help to advance relations. Fun fact: Chris recently discovered colorblind glasses and, subsequently, what actual colors look like.

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