From the Desk of Tim Wendel: Under the Spell of Havana

Tim Wendel is the acclaimed author of fourteen books, including Escape from Castro’s Cuba (Nebraska, 2021), Castro’s Curveball (Bison Books, 2006) and Summer of ’68: The Season That Changed Baseball—and America—Forever. He is a founding editor of USA Today Baseball Weekly and a writer in residence at Johns Hopkins University. Tim Wendel can be reached via his website for more information about his books and work.

Sometimes you’re researching a new book and you don’t even realize it. So, it began with my novel, Escape from Castro’s Cuba.

In January 2017, I made my fourth trip to Cuba. The wrinkle this time was I was bringing my wife for the first time. Havana is not dangerous place, but it can be a land of uncertainty and the unexpected, especially for a visitor.

We landed at Jose Marti Airport, on a Southwest Airlines itinerary that had begun in Baltimore. We disembarked down a set of stairs and made our way across the tarmac to the customs. That’s when a plainclothesman fell into step alongside me.

“Call me Ricky,” he said.

I nodded, careful not to say too much, like volunteering my name.

The three of us continued for a few more steps when Ricky asked. “What brings you back to Cuba, Señor Wendel?”

I couldn’t believe it. I hadn’t been to the island in years. Yet the powers that be somehow knew that I had returned.

So began a memorable, sometimes edgy trip in which we spoke with sports officials, folks at the U.S. Embassy, avant-garde artists and jazz musicians. Once again, I was reminded that every time that you think you know Cuba, it will turn those perceptions upside-down in a heartbeat. By the time we returned home, I was writing the new novel, a sequel to Castro’s Curveball, which UNP has also published.

I’ve made four trips to Cuba since 1991, and they have all been remarkable in their own way. That said, certain themes and visions remain. On this trip, the architecture in Havana was as stunning as ever, the kids were still playing baseball in the streets and many of the top players dream about playing the game in the U.S. major leagues. But a key difference was how the best ballplayers were now leaving the island.

Few, if any, are escaping by raft across the Florida Straits anymore. Instead, they are making deals with crime syndicates, probably from Mexico, and being spirited off the island on cigarette boats. In doing so, one dangerous situation has been traded for another. One is certainly rolling the dice on a raft in shark-infested waters between Havana and the Florida Keys. Yet in being taken off the island by speedboat, these players need to cut deals with some unsavory characters. In doing so, they are putting themselves and even their families in serious jeopardy. That became the backdrop for the new novel.

As you can tell, Havana got under my skin long ago. In the old part of town, hard by the deep-water harbor that dates back to the Spanish conquistadors, the neighborhood is known as the “city of columns.”

Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier coined the phrase and that part of town is adorned with these beautiful, white marble columns. It’s a stunning sight. But the phrase is more of a nod to this world’s flirtations, uncertainty and intrigue.

If you’re on the sidewalk, for example, it’s sometimes difficult to fully understand what’s going on out on the street, and vice versa. One is never sure what lies around the next corner in Havana, and that’s something that has captivated writers from Graham Greene to Elmore Leonard to Rachel Kushner. In many ways, I’ve also fallen under the spell of this star-crossed land.       

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