The year is 1991, and Cuba is suffering. The economy is cratering as global sugar prices sag. Worse, the imploding Soviet Union is withdrawing its massive economic support. Desperate Cubans by the thousands are roping together inner tubes and launching themselves across the Florida Straits. The low point will come in 1994, when more than 37,000 balseros are stopped at sea en route to Florida.
In 1991, I'm enjoying a peak moment of my life. I'm covering immigration, Cuban exile affairs, crime, and anything else they throw my way at the Miami Herald. Haitians landing on Virginia Key, the saga of alleged airline bomber Orlando Bosch, Mariel prisoners being deported for the first time — I'm racking up big headlines on the front page.
And after years of inhaling the secondhand smoke of exile nostalgia, I'm finally seeing the island for myself. I don't know it yet, but I'm about to have a romantic adventure in Cuba.
Former Miami Herald Reporter Reveals Gay Escapade in Havana
It's an escapade I've kept secret for 23 years. Until now.
In 2014, Cuba has picked itself up off the mat. After wobbling through the '90s, the island's economy has improved thanks to tourism, foreign investment, and private enterprise. There are questions, though, about how far the Castro brothers will move from their Soviet-style economic model.
I judge all talk about the "new Cuba" in terms of how it might affect one person: my secret friend from 1991, a young man from Cuba's bottom tier, without political connections or a government job.
We met on a sticky afternoon as I strolled along Avenida de los Presidentes. I was playing hooky from an economic conference that had been my ticket past the strict U.S. clampdown on travel to Cuba. I looked at him; he looked at me. I smiled; he smiled.
His name was Juan Carlos. He was in his mid-20s and very handsome, with white teeth and wavy brown hair that sat high and crisp on his head. He invited me back to the apartment he shared with his father.
It was a two-story abode made with plywood and two-by-fours — one of several apartments built by squatters within an old Spanish mansion. I shook hands with his father, and Juan opened an ancient refrigerator to reveal a glass pitcher of water — and little else. He apologized for having no refreshments to offer a guest.
Neither Juan nor his father was employed. They were lean like wolves, living off their tattered ration books and whatever gigs they could hustle.
Juan became my tour guide. We walked through Old Havana, visited museums, and talked about our lives. He asked what kind of money he could earn in South Florida. Because he didn't speak English, I estimated the salary of a waiter's job in Little Havana. His eyes lit up with incredulous wonder.
We were having lunch one day and Juan was explaining how he had a friend in Mexico City, an older gentleman, who visited regularly and sent care packages. It was clear what kind of arrangement it was. Like many Cubans, Juan was very frank about his life.
Juan and I would have an affair during my time in Cuba. It would be steamy. I would give him money. We talked about AIDS. Back then, everyone was afraid of the virus, but Juan was well-versed in safer sex practices. I asked him about Los Cocos, the controversial sanitarium where Cubans with HIV or AIDS were forcibly interned. Juan shrugged. It was out of his control.
In 1994, the government would stop forcibly interning HIV-positive Cubans. In 2010, Fidel Castro would publicly regret his regime's discrimination against gays. His niece Mariela would be active in promoting tolerance. Cuba now has gay clubs and tours and festivals.
My final night in Havana, we visited a discotheque that admitted only tourists and their guests. We tossed back a few Cuba libres amid flashing strobe lights and screechy speakers. Later, we sat on a pockmarked concrete seawall that shored up Cuba's most famous avenue, the Malecón. Behind us, vintage cars rumbled by and pedestrians argued in their loud Cuban way. The sea breeze was welcome on our faces as we looked north across the black water.
Juan began to cry. "I could throw myself into the ocean," he said. Me tiro en el mar. "But I could never leave my mother."
"Of course not,"I replied. "It's too risky anyway."
I patted his shoulder and looked around apprehensively, afraid some policeman would arrest us for causing un escándalo.
I fell in love with Juan, just a little. Last year I wrote a story about this adventure that was published recently as an e-book on Amazon: "Jinetero: A Cuban Romance." It's a fictionalized account of my trip to Cuba, one of nine short stories in my collection The Man Who Lost His Gayness.
My story, which includes some pretty graphic sex, is a valentine to Juan. His desperation touched my heart; he was a young man doing the best he could in a hopeless situation, bringing in a little money for his unemployed dad and ailing mother.
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I look back fondly, without shame, on my memory of Havana 1991. Some people might stick their noses in the air and say I was a john exploiting Third-World hardship. Others might question the ethics of a Herald reporter "soliciting" sex. But it wasn't like that. It was a friendship. When we parted, I gave Juan Carlos all the money I had in my wallet, little though it was. And not because of the sex. But because he shared his life with me and I wanted to help him.
David M. Hancock was a reporter for the Miami Herald from 1987 to 1997. He is a web editor for CBS News in New York City.