By Dr. Pamela Tran, University of Alabama
I boarded a plane at the Jose Marti International Airport back home to Tuscaloosa recently, with frustration in my heart. Bad timing put me on a plane exiting Havana while Secretary of State John Kerry and broadcast reporters were converging in Cuba for a historic event 54 years in the making.
During our group’s previous six days in Cuba, even the language barrier couldn’t deter nearly everyone we met from expressing excitement over the warming relations between our countries.
As we walked the streets of big cities like the capital, Havana, and even the very rural areas like Camilo Cienfuegos, we were all shocked at how many people brought up the exact date of the embassy opening and mentioned our secretary of state by name. I did hear one person address him as “Ambassador Kerry,” but consider the 2013 Pew Research Poll found only 62% of Americans could identify him even when choosing from four pictures.
On my last trip to Cuba in March, you could occasionally see a miniature American flag joining German and Canadian flags on taxis and pedi-cabs. On this trip, I saw the image of our flag on purses, pants and t-shirts. And as the end of the week approached, I began to see beautiful large Cuban flags draped down two buildings near the embassy.
On my last full day in Cuba my travel partners and I struck out for a hike down the beautiful Malecon to the U.S. Interests Section. The path itself reminds us a little about the historical conflict. This route took us past the famous Hotel National where U.S. mafia and Cosa Nostra leaders headed by “Lucky” Luciano met in 1946.
Just before the tall building that took on many of the duties of the former U.S. embassy in 2015, you can see an even taller army of flagpoles. The site seems symbolic of the “one-upmanship” between our two countries over the years. In 2006, President Bush installed a scrolling sign on the US office to offer messages directed against the Cuban government. Castro countered by “replacing” the US employee’s parking lot with 138 black flags to represent claimed victims of “U.S. aggression.” Today the sign and those flags that blocked it are gone.
Edging the left corner of the property, I saw evidence of the event to come. As an electronic news professor and former reporter, my heart rate quickened when I saw the first live truck. The “Television Cubana” truck sports an “HD” logo, but analog TV antennas dominate on Cuban rooftops.
Directly behind the truck we saw that WFLA-TV had arrived. The Reuters crew was busy setting up. Although electricity seemed very stable this week, they were leaving nothing to chance with generators on hand. And for now, that was the only evidence of ground-level production preparation. My travel group consoled me, saying it was a full day before the event. I couldn’t help but feel the irony though as I thought of the city of trucks, crews and equipment that roll into Tuscaloosa three days prior to even minor football games.
We crossed the street to get as close a peak at the soon-to-be embassy as possible and snap some “before” pictures of the empty flagpole. Through the steel-barred gate we could see the staff had hung out the U.S. "welcome mat” to dry. It makes you wonder about all the feet that crossed it through the years and the new visitors to come.
As we walked away from the site of Friday’s historic embassy opening, the last view I remember is the single Cuban flag flying beside the other 137 bare poles, and across the street at the US interests section, one more empty pole where the American flag was raised during the Friday ceremony. There’s still a good distance between the two flagpoles, but viewing the event on TV back home, I felt a true appreciation of this giant step and the future possibilities it represents.
Dr. Pamela Tran is a Professor of Electronic News at the University of Alabama. She has been traveling to Cuba as part of the University of Alabama’s Center for Cuba Collaboration and Scholarship, building on a research exchange that began in 2002.