Paladar La Guarida, Havana
21st March, 2016
Dear Mr President,
Or may I call you Barack?
We have met, sort of. You must remember me, I was the drenched woman standing in the Plaza de Catedral yesterday, inadvertantly auditioning for a wet T-shirt competition.
I admit you may not have noticed me, despite the newly transparent nature of my clothing. I was one of a hundred or so people squished into a side street next to the Cathedral who waited for two hours in the pouring rain, just to show you how much it means to everyone here that you came.
Admittedly there were quite a lot of other people there, so I forgive you if you’re finding it hard to place me. And your view might have been slightly obscured by the GINORMOUS US secret serviceman standing in front of me. Or the seven Cuban security servicemen with him.
Also I noticed that you were pretty quick to get inside which meant we didn’t really see you. But it was raining a lot so we understood. Such a shame. Plaza Catedral is one of the gems of Old Havana, which itself is a marvel and you’ll have found it hard to really get the full benefit seeing as it was lashing down.
There’s not been a drop of rain for a month and then you arrive and the heavens open. If I believed in a Higher Power I’d say he was on the side of the dumbfuck Cuban Americans who’ve tried to stop you coming here. But I don’t and he can’t be.
So you and Michelle ducked into the cathedral in double quick time and we all waited for a bit for you to come out. But then I noticed that those blokes who arrive just before you do, the ones who look like boy scouts who’ve worked out for twenty years and who all carry backpacks, had gone. So I knew you’d gone too. I suppose they’re your second ring of security and those backpacks are full of guns. Either that or they’ve gone a bit over the top with the packed lunches and spare walking socks.
There’s virtually no information available here about your schedule. Me and husband worked out where to find you from hints on the White House website, knowledge of the afternoon’s TV schedule and a hunch. When we had to dodge police cordons blocking off Old Havana, we knew we were right.
So after I saw the top of your umbrella and husband swears he actually saw your face, we squelched off home to Central Havana, glad we’d made the effort but sad that you didn’t really see the fervour of the people who’d waited to see you.
Then halfway home, the streets became eerily quiet, police at every corner and we realised you must be around somewhere. The official Cuban information network i.e. word of mouth, was operating on overdrive and the quarter mile long line of black limos parked in a side street was a bit of a give away.
Streets in Central Havana are very narrow and the tyres of ‘The Beast’ as I think your car is called, were literally touching the pavements on either side. Surrounded by locals phoning friends, shouting from balconies to adjoining streets, to come quick – because you were here!
A nice man showed us a way around the police cordon and so we stood, in the rain, a block down from where you were having dinner, waiting. Along with hundreds of Cubans. Hundreds and hundreds of Cubans lining the street all the way up San Rafael, right down to Galliano and probably along every street on your route home.
You probably don’t know this Mr President, but Cubans hate the rain. I mean, really really hate it. They virtually won’t go out in it. Schools close down here when it rains – really. But last night thousands of them stood in it for hours, just waiting for a glimpse of the black American man who’s President of the country that’s waged war against them for fifty years, who’s had the balls to start a dialogue with Raul and actually come here.
I’m sure you haven’t forgotten but if you did need reminding of what must be a low point foreign-policy wise, then I do recommend a remarkable book I’m reading at the moment, Red Heat by Alex von Tunzelmann.
It seems extraordinary that during the Cold War your country upheld, with money and arms, the dictatorships of the likes of Papa Doc who installed peep holes into his torture chambers for his personal use; and Trujillo who had his victims eyes sewn open so they had to watch what they were having done to them; and at the same time, tried repeatedly to kill Fidel Castro who had the nerve to introduce agrarian reform and launch a nationwide literacy programme. Just to keep the Soviets out of the Caribbean. Who weren’t anywhere in sight at the time by the way. I mean I know Fidel isn’t perfect but really…?
And since then, what must be your country’s most shameful period of history, the genocide of native Amercians and slavery aside, every administration has done its darndest to make this country go under. But it hasn’t. So perhaps you weren’t sure how ordinary Cubans were going to react to you here. I mean, sorry to bring this up, but your intelligence services are not, always… well….100% spot on shall we say. Weapons of mass destruction ring a bell? Bay of Pigs anyone?
Anyhoo. Me and husband waited for another hour and a half a block down from your restaurant as the streets filled with people waiting for you. And then at last you finished your dinner and came out. (Excellent choice by the way. It says a lot about you that rather than dinner at the Embassy or some presidential palace, you and your retinue chose the two best paladars in Havana, San Cristobal and La Guarida located on adjoining back streets).
Excitement had been building all night but the roar that greeted you as you stepped into your waiting car was indescribable. Pure joy. An absolutely heartfelt and totally spontaneous expression of admiration and gratitude that literally echoed around Central Havana. As your quarter mile of limos tried to speed away your name was chanted over and over in unison and we could hear it way down the road.
It was probably one of the most exciting moments I’ll ever witness. It was wonderful.
But can I just say, if you should have to pass this on to your intelligence johnnies, please don’t misunderstand what happened. My husband says that the only other person who ever gets that response from ordinary Cubans, is Fidel.