Despite persistent local legends and the occasional Sarah Palin-esque tweaking of the tourists, you cannot see the night lights of Havana from Key West. Not even on a clear evening. Not even if you squint.
But Havana, a mere 90 miles from Key West, is closer to Duval Street than is Miami. In the days before international boundaries and political juggernauts, Key West and Cuba were simply two neighborly islands. Close enough to visit back and forth, to have families and connections on both.
Cuban political upheavals in the mid- and late 1800s pushed thousands 90 miles north to Key West. Thousands more arrived in the 1950s before Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution; more afterwards as exiles made their ways to what was once known as Cayo Hueso. Key West has been, for most of its history, simply a Cuban outpost. Not until Henry Flagler’s railroad and inter-connected bridges and roads made it possible to trek from the Florida mainland to the Southernmost Point did Key West begin to relinquish its robust Cuban history.
Key Westers trace their roots four and five generations to Cuba, to times when either was home, depending on the day. And those deep roots connecting across the Florida Straits mean Key West Cubans don’t always see eye-to-eye with Miami’s largely Cuban exile community. Key West’s Cubans were not, for the most part, exiles from the Castro Revolution; there was no “little Havana” in Key West; the island was Cuban. Instead, these were families fully integrated into and a leading component of Key West’s history.
There is, to be sure, occasional tension over the politics of exiles, immigration and history, but far more often are the memories of a 45-minute flight from Key West to Havana for a doctor’s visit, or a ferry ride for the day with family in Cuba.
When President Barrack Obama announced the restoration of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States, Miami Cubans protested. In Key West the response was subdued, more a “wait and see” than outright anticipation or anger. Wait and see. A good thing if it happens, a scary thing, but possibly good.
Possibly good. That’s what Obama’s visit to Havana this week may be. Possibly good. Reconnecting Cuba and the United States, Key West and Havana, is a tantalizing prospect, and one that is long overdue. It is also a frighteningly complicated one, if for no reason other than too many U.S. folks forget we are neither white knights nor are we the first foreigners to reclaim Cuba. Cuba has long been a vacation destination for Canadians to name but one.
But, we are the ones with the deepest pockets. We are frantically preparing ferries, airplanes, boats, hotels, industries and exchanges cultural, educational and sports, in a rush not to be left behind when Cuba hands out the contracts, licenses and business privileges. Possibly good and possibly too much like stuffing a starving man with dessert when a saner meal would have been the better first course.
It’s been almost six decades, almost a full generational turning, since Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista fled the island and revolutionary leader Fidel Castro in January 1959. A generation that virtually severed the shared lives of Havana and Key West. Reconnecting the two islands, the two countries, is, possibly, a very good thing. Done slowly, methodically and with care to preserve, good things can happen.
Done with what, unfortunately, can make us once again the quintessential “ugly Americans,” and we could destroy Cuba in our rush to “get there before it all changes.” Let’s do this right.
Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of KeyWestWatch Media, a digital media solutions company for small businesses. She’s not been to Cuba, would love to go, eventually will, but really does worry about us once again treating Cuba as an American playground.