Heartbreak and Hope in Havana

Havana breaks your heart; Havana fills you with hope. As the poet said, the city makes love to the ocean; it is intimate with the spray, it smells like salt and foam and moves to the rhythm of the waves as they sweep in from the horizon. It was developed over the centuries with the Caribbean as its backdrop. You drive along its back streets and remote neighborhoods and you are surprised with a sudden, unexpected vista of the blue.

This magnificent stage is filled with grand buildings, monuments, colonial fortresses and majestic, impossibly tall Royal Palms. Broad boulevards, the grandest being the monumental "Malecon" sea front drive, criss-cross the urban landscape and delineate its enchanting neighborhoods, Vedado, Miramar, La Habana Vieja.

This splendor however, is marred, flawed, scarred in dramatic fashion. It is a post-apocalyptic landscape. Single walls stand like dominoes where palatial homes once stood. Entire buildings have crumbled and in their ruins, pieces of marble staircases still tantalize with their tale of lost glory. Magnificent bronze streetlights lie proudly on the ground as if they have grown weary of shedding light. Dogs wonder the street, belonging to no one and to all. They sleep under cars, defecate in sidewalks, amble up to you seeking a pat or a snack.

And just when you are resigning yourself to this destruction and the chaos, a freshly restored building, impossibly perfect, immaculately clean, impeccably turned out, comes in view to remind you of the past that once was and the future that may yet be. And then there are the people of this magic city. Multi-hued, poorly dressed, consistently kind, open to possibilities, clever and, to my eyes quite beautiful. They shuffle gracefully among the ruins, or sit quietly on a stoop, watching the world go by with sad, tired eyes that have seen too much disappointment and witnessed the slow decay of their fabled dwelling. They are also young, smiling, lively, happy, shirtless, loud, brash, inquisitive and sweet as the sugar which is trapped within the cane.

And it is the people of Havana, black as mahogany, milk chocolate hued, fair haired and fair skinned with surprising blue eyes, that give you hope. Talk to any visitor and ask what is Havana's greatest asset and they will all say the same thing; it is not the ocean, nor the boulevards, nor the grand buildings, it's the people. It is those same people looking like extras from "Juan de los Muertos" ( the Cuban version of "Dawn of the Dead"), ragged, sunburned, wearing a hodge-podge of clothes, that stood behind the barricades along the Malecon as the stars and stripes rose in front of them. And it was those Habaneros who greeted us as we left the Embassy yelling "Welcome Americans," "Bienvenidos," "Thank You." And it was those residents of that haunted and achingly beautiful ruin of a city whose hands I shook. And it was to them that I said "your brothers from Miami are here to help you," "los queremos mucho, mucho." And it was the light of hope in their eyes, the smiles and unbounded joy in their faces, that filled me with hope for the Cuba that may yet be.