By Tess Sohngen, For The Miami Student
A small dog wandered in the middle of the empty road. The Cubans standing on the edges of the blockaded road yelled at the dog and then for the guards to move the animal before it was hit. At any moment the motorcade would come speeding down the cobblestone street — the moment the Cuban citizens have been waiting for since they lined up along the sides of the road.
President Obama was coming.
A guard sprinted across the road and moved the dog to safety. The crowd cheered. Even in the rain, it was an energy and openness that Miami professor Melanie Ziegler had not experienced in her nine trips to Cuba. Minutes later, President Obama and his family rode down the street. President Obama had just laid a wreath at the Cuban journalist and poet José Martí’s grave.
March 20 marked the first time a U.S. president had travelled to Cuba in 88 years. In what Obama called “a historic moment,” the first family’s trip to Cuba marked a large step toward the end of animosity between two countries separated by only 90 miles of sea.
“This was the moment I thought was the tipping point. I thought, I absolutely had to be there … and it was worth it,” said Ziegler. “I just wanted to be there to see this historic moment that I honestly did not know when and if it would ever come.”
Ziegler made a last minute decision to travel to Cuba with her daughter for President Obama’s visit. She booked part of an old mansion for three nights through Airbnb, a website that allows people to list and rent accommodations for travelers. The owners had kept the mansion “frozen in time” to keep the antique charm and culture of the building alive through original furniture and vibrantly colored walls.
Ziegler’s fascination with Cuba predates Fidel Castro’s rise to power. Her interest in Cuba and the Spanish language was sparked by the character Ricky Ricardo from the 1950s sitcom “I Love Lucy.” She calls herself a “Cuba-holic” and continued to stare and smile at the map of the island country taped to her desk as she recalled stories from her trips.
Growing up during the Cold War, the memories of the former animosity are still fresh in her mind. She remembers her aunt coming to their house when the news of the Cuban Missile Crisis broke.
“I remember very clearly how scared they were, and they couldn’t hide it,” said Ziegler.
“I would rather be dead than Red,” she remembers her aunt saying.
Ziegler’s first visit to Cuba was in 1995 when the Cuban economy crashed and the Soviet Union left them without a patron.
“I saw it then when it was at its absolute worst,” said Ziegler. She went because she feared the country wouldn’t last. “Many people thought it would collapse.”
Ziegler and professor Juan Carlos Albarran led a group of Miami students to Cuba during the first Winter Term.
“When we took students the very first time in 2013, things were still frozen,” said Ziegler. “Our experience was strange and uncomfortable. Students admitted later that they were even scared.”
In the Miami International Airport, a plane without markings arrived late to pick up the first group of Miami students and faculty en route to Cuba.
The next Winter Term trip to Cuba came just after a deal to normalize relationships between the United States and Cuba. The plane was from American Airlines and arrived on time.
After the Dec. 2014 normalization agreement, interactions between the students studying abroad and the locals slowly softened. When Ziegler and her daughter visited during the Obama family’s trip, the locals were friendlier than ever. She and her daughter even befriended some of the taxi drivers who Ziegler described as “millennial types” who talked freely about their feelings about U.S. policies and presidential candidates.
At Miami, students and their parents took a more open mindset to traveling to Cuba after the recent decreases in restrictions and steps toward normalization, said Albarran. For students, he said it’s a great opportunity to see Cuba from the eyes of Cubans rather than from an American perspective that is still partially clouded by Cold War-era animosity.
“[Going] back in a professional setting has been a unique experience because I get to see Cuba through the eyes of my students,” said Albarran.
Albarran was born in Havana, Cuba in the 1970s. He left the island nation in 1999 when he was an adult, and although he has travelled back to visit family, traveling to Cuba with students has been a rewarding and unique experience. He described President Obama’s recent trip to Cuba as emotional, impactful and a step toward a more open and opportunity-filled future for both nations.
Ziegler said the Cuban people’s expectations of change after the 2014 agreement were inflated. They expected immediate and widespread change in their country. Her recent trip to witness Obama’s historic visit revealed that Cubans now have more realistic expectations about the changes to come from their new, delicate relationship with the United States.
“They were all excited and happy that he was there and frustrated at the same time because security kept rerouting. Several Cubans complained that they couldn’t get baseball tickets. That was probably the angriest I saw them,” said Ziegler.
Despite the overall excitement by Cubans over Obama’s visit, enmity had not disappeared in Havana, and not all Cubans supported it. The revolutionary posters are slowly disappearing but still decorate the streets, and there is a large billboard slamming the U.S. embargo on Cuba, which Cubans refer to as “the largest human genocide in history,” said Ziegler.
This week, Fidel Castro, Cuba’s previous dictator of 47 years, expressed his resentment toward the visit and cautioned Cubans to not fall too quickly into the ways of the United States.
“We realize there’s a lot of danger in this still for us,” said one of the taxi drivers Ziegler befriended.
“You know, there’s just one thing I’d love to know,” one of the housemaids at the mansion said to Ziegler. “Do you think Obama is meeting secretly with Fidel?”
“But you know it can’t be,” Ziegler told her, thinking that neither side would risk or desire a meeting.
The way the Cubans embraced her and her daughter during her most recent trip was a “whirlwind” of an experience, one which revealed changes among Cubans as Ziegler and her daughter “chased Obama” across Havana.
“The Cuban people are so loving, giving, so devoted to family and friends,” said Ziegler.
Ziegler said it was smart of President Obama to bring his family with him to Cuba because of the high value of family in Cuban culture.
“That all meant a lot to the Cubans,” said Ziegler. “Sometimes little things take time but they mean a lot, so all of that was really significant.”
President Obama also attended the baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban National Team. Zeigler described baseball as a religion in Cuba, a love of the sport shared between the two countries.
“It is the one massive cultural tie that is there between the countries. It was just very significant and very important for Obama to be there,” said Ziegler. “This was the beginning of an un-freezing of a relationship.”
Ziegler and her daughter tried to get into the game, but baseball games in Cuba can only be attended by invitation. They walked door to door asking the Cuban security agents if they could get in until finally one agreed to ask the American official if he would allow them to come in. The American did not, but the security guard said, “Ten paciencia (Be patient).”
When the area settled down, the guard let Ziegler and her daughter sneak in and sit in a section with university students.
After the game, Ziegler and her daughter went to El Rincon Caliente, or “The Hot Corner,” a park in Old Havana where men go to discuss statistics, strategies and everything baseball. Several Cubans went there after they couldn’t find tickets to the baseball game. Ziegler had not been there long before a tall bus pulled up and the Tampa Bay Rays stepped out.
“Of course, the Cubans went crazy,” said Ziegler.
The crowd surged at the bus, and the Rays players stayed to chat with the locals for a long time, said Ziegler.
“It’s two countries that have been so at odds with each other, yet on a certain level it’s still just people,” said Ziegler. “Part of me, selfishly, is sad to see Cuba change. There’s a quaintness about it that is really appealing.”
“Down deep inside I’ve always felt sorry for Cuba. It’s paid a heavy price for daring to spit in the eye of the United States and not just automatically fall under their influence,” said Ziegler.
Relations with Cuba are still very delicate, and Ziegler said the movement toward normalization could easily fall back to isolationism and enmity.
“There have been many, many times in the past where you get your hopes up, and one side or another will do something unbelievable, and it goes back to how it was before,” said Ziegler.