HAVANA — Dave Kraemer vividly remembers the days in his Pittsburgh elementary school when the teachers would drill the children to drop under their desks in the event of a nuclear bomb.
It was the peak of the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis was in full swing. Now, all those years later, Kraemer finds himself about to witness the American flag rising atop the U.S. Embassy in Havana for the first time in 54 years.
Kraemer, 60, a retired salesman living in Santa Cruz, Calif., is touring Cuba as part of a cultural exchange program that has altered its schedule to be outside the embassy Friday morning when the flag goes up.
“I’m thinking of (Nikita) Khrushchev, I’m thinking of missiles, I’m thinking of the terror of running under my desk,” said Kraemer, sipping a drink outside the Hotel Nacional in Havana. “Now I’m hopeful.”
Kraemer is part of a large group of Americans who are in Cuba to watch the latest step in an emerging diplomatic relationship that started when President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro announced in December that the two countries would normalize relations.
U.S. flag set to fly over Havana on Friday
For some, like Geoff Thale, the moment will mark a culmination of decades of work. Thale has been visiting Cuba for 20 years as the program director for the Washington Office on Latin America, constantly pushing presidential administrations and members of Congress to end the political stalemate.
“I’m not the rah-rah, flag-waving type, but this one is going to be touching,” he said after arriving in Havana this week.
For others, like Carlos Saladrigas, the flag-raising will represent a different kind of victory. The Cuban-American was once one of the most strident advocates of maintaining the U.S. economic embargo on Cuba and tightening the grip on its government.
But he started changing his mind after the Elián Gonzalez affair. Saladrigas helped broker negotiations between the child’s family in Miami and then-Attorney General Janet Reno’s office. He was in the home when federal agents seized the boy at gunpoint and returned him to Cuba.
Afterward, Saladrigas, a multi-millionaire and entrepreneur in Miami, started advocating for a new policy.
“We realized that if we wanted change to happen, we had to facilitate it and make it easier, not make it harder,” said Saladrigas, 66, from his Havana hotel. “That’s why it’s going to be incredibly emotional. It’s in many ways history starting all over again.”
There are plenty of Americans who want nothing to do with the flag-raising ceremony or Obama’s new Cuba policy.
Mauricio Claver-Carone, executive director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, said Cuba’s totalitarian government has endured despite enjoying full diplomatic relations and regular trade with the rest of the world. So he doubts that a flood of Americans is going to somehow bring an end to the Castro regime.
“I don’t think a bunch of Americans frolicking in Havana, like the millions of Canadians and Europeans that do so ever year, serves the cause of freedom, rights and democracy in Cuba one bit,” he said. “However, it does handsomely serve the interest of Castro’s military-run tourism monopolies.”
But it’s those interactions that people like Joe Gebbia feel will truly change the situation in Cuba. Gebbia is one of the co-founders of the apartment-renting website Airbnb. The company expanded to Cuba shortly after the December announcement, and Gebbia said they already have 2,600 Cuban homes for rent on the site.
Standing atop a 10th floor balcony overlooking Havana’s waterfront on Thursday night, Gebbia said the service is allowing all those Cuban homeowners to not only increase their incomes, but learn about American culture and values. And Americans, he said, are getting to know Cubans more intimately too.
“I feel pretty lucky that this is happening in our lifetime,” said Gebbia, who flew in Thursday for the flag-raising ceremony. “It’s one of our closest neighbors and we didn’t even know them.”
Some Americans just happened to be in Cuba when they heard what was happening.
Mack Contento, a naval architect from The Woodlands, Texas, is part of a group touring Cuba to celebrate his friend’s 30th birthday. The group will be in the eastern city of Trinidad on Friday, but Contento said he was taking a bus across the country to experience the moment.
“It’s my generation’s Berlin Wall,” said Contento, 29.
Even the Coastal Carolina University basketball team will be there. The Chanticleers have been touring Cuba over the past week, playing games against the Cuban national team and hosting basketball clinics for children. They handed out basketballs and shoes to kids, even donating some balls to the Cuban sports federation.
When team officials found out about the flag-raising, they made sure their bus would get back to Havana in time for the players to be at the ceremony.
“It’s going to be really cool to see this,” said Josh Coleman, 19, a freshman center from Alpharetta, Ga. “This is my first time out of the country, so that’s going to be an awesome experience.”
For Joe Garcia, it will be his first trip to the island despite dedicating much of his career to Cuba.
The former head of the Cuban American National Foundation and a former Democratic congressman from Miami, Garcia said he’s been barred from visiting the country of his parents because of his past support of the embargo. But after years of advocating for a new approach to Cuba and supporting Obama’s moves to expand trade and travel to the island, he finally got his visa Thursday and raced to the airport.
“In politics, you rarely get to enjoy victories,” he said.
Cubans see signs of hope when U.S. flag flies again in Havana
At least one American has been planning for Friday’s ceremony for weeks.
Richard Blanco recited a poem at Obama’s second presidential inauguration, becoming the first Hispanic and first openly gay person to do so. Now, he’s been asked to deliver another poem on Friday, right before U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers his remarks and U.S. Marines raise the flag once again.
“The inauguration was amazing and huge and beautiful and gigantic, but this is so the core of who I am,” Blanco said. “I am very moved, honored, humbled and elated that they asked me to do this … because this is an emotional story as much as it is a political one.”