It may be difficult for today’s young people to believe, but pre-Castro Cuba was one of the most glamorous and prosperous Caribbean nations for most of the 1950s.
As described by Dr. Paul J. Dosal, the University of South Florida professor who presented this month’s “Lunch ’n Learn” program at the Polk County History Center (we hard-liners still call it the old courthouse) on Tuesday, tourism flourished, especially in Havana.
Americans visiting the island republic typically flew in for a three-day weekend marked by drinking Cuban rum drinks by night, sightseeing by day, and perhaps employing the services of señoritas of negotiable virtue.
American gangsters, several of them operating out of Florida, were behind much of Cuba’s nightlife, but to the tourist interested in casino gambling and floor shows that varied from PG to R to X by night and soaking up more refined culture by day, that made little difference.
Fulgencio Batista, who assumed and held power from 1952 to 1958 without the formality of democratic elections, was a dictator, albeit a pro-American dictator, and was largely responsible for Cuba’s prosperity.
Dosal, the USF lecturer, said Americans returned home having had only a glimpse of the “real” Cuba, not having been exposed to the poverty in the interior of the island nation.
It was midway through Batista’s rule — 1955, I believe — that my parents and I visited Cuba, taking the ferry from Key West to Havana. Our plan was to drive most of the length of Cuba to Guantanamo Bay at the southeastern end of the island.
The Cuban revolution was in its early years, and had little impact on tourism. But when we arrived at Cuban Customs, we were told that we would have to surrender all of my pairs of khaki pants.
When Dad protested that all I had packed was khakis, the Customs officers relented and said I could keep the pair I was wearing.
We later learned why Cuban Customs didn’t like khakis: they were the informal uniform of the Castro rebels.
As we drove down to Guantanamo at night, we were stopped frequently — six or seven times, as I recall — by armed men who shined flashlights across the base of our windshield and in the trunk of our 1954 Buick.
We never knew whether the searchers were government soldiers or rebel fighters, or perhaps some of each, but we did learn that they were looking for decals on the windshield that would have identified us as sympathizers with one side or the other, and for weapons in our trunk. We had neither, and were waved on after each search.
If I had been driving through a country experiencing a revolution, with my wife and 14-year-old son in the car, and was being stopped every hour or so by armed men, I would have have been scared out of my wits.
Dad just acted like it was part of the adventure.
(S. L. Frisbie is retired. When he and his friend Mary travel, their sense of adventure is to drive to St. Augustine for the weekend without a confirmed reservation for lodging. His parents’ idea of adventure was to rent a car in Europe and drive into an Iron Curtain country whose language they didn’t speak.)