I’m just back from a week aboard the Fathom Adonia, the first US-flag cruise ship to sail to Cuba in more than 50 years, marking a new chapter in Cuban-American relations. Music, dancing, flags flying and lots of cameras marked our departure from Miami and our welcome in Havana – celebrations in both ports.
Our departure from Miami was celebrated with the traditional salute of fireboats blasting water hoses into the air, as passengers stood on deck waving small American and Cuban flags. But that was nothing compared with the welcome we received in Havana the next morning.
Hundreds of Cubans lined the Havana harbor as we sailed in, waving to all of us on deck, waving those same Cuban and American flags.There were shouts of “bienvenidos”, “America” and “hola” from them, and “Viva Cuba” from us.
That’s me, ecoxplorer Evelyn Kanter, one of many journalists aboard the maiden voyage, in the photo above, with the Havana skyline in the distance behind me.
The Adonia carried some 700 passengers, a mixed group of executives from Fathom and its parent company, Carnival, journalists, travel agents, and “regular” cruisers, including more than a dozen Cuban-born passengers. It was the Cuban natives who nearly scuttled the entire Cuban-American cruise detente.
For whatever reason, Cuba allows its native-born former citizens to return for visits by air, but not by sea. Days before the inaugural sail, Cuba told Fathom it would not allow the ship to dock if Cuban-born Americans were aboard. To say that began a tense round of last-minute negotiations would be an understatement.
For several years, including the final round, negotiations with Cuba were spearheaded by Arnie Perez, the Cuban-born chief counsel of Fathom parent, Carnival Cruise Line. Perez was the first one off the ship in Havana, before Carnival CEO Arnie Donald or Fathom CEO Tara Russell, who were also aboard and clearly outranked him. It was a gesture of thanks for a job well done, and a finger to Cuban obstructionism.
This was the first time Perez has been back since leaving Cuba as a child. While the rest of us were touring Cienfiegos, the port after Havana, Perez visited an aunt and cousins he had never met. He told me later that they pulled out a box of family photos sent over the years, and that the meeting was intently emotional. He intends to return, by ship, of course, to introduce his American-born teens to their Cuban relatives.
But I digress.
A band and salsa dancers kept us company as we waded through immigration at the port terminal, then we were literally mobbed by a crowd of well-wishers lining the streets outside. It was like going through a tunnel of people. Now I know what it feels like to be a rock star.
Cuban and American flags were everywhere. Hands reached out for high-fives. Cameras and camera phones clicked away. Babies were lifted to kiss us or be kissed. One handsome young man at the back of the crowd insisted on taking a photo with me, and then wrote his name in my notebook. Just his name. No email address, no street address. Just a personal, fleeting connection with an American. It was joyful and overwhelming.
The Fathom is just the latest of rapid changes in the Cuban economic and political scene.
Cubans now have Wi-Fi in parks and other public locations, and are catching up with the outside world, including with family members living outside the country. They can now start small businesses like restaurants, rent rooms in their homes to tourists, and buy and sell their vintage cars.
Maybe that’s why it seems there are more vintage cars in Havana today than on my first visit to Cuba five years ago. Maybe savvy entrepeneurs are buying up the old cars from elsewhere on the island to turn them into tourist taxis in Havana. Old Havana, the historic heart of the city, is being refurbished at a record pace. Buildings from the 1800s are getting facelifts inside and out, abandoned buildings are being rebuilt, as are rutted cobblestone streets.