The Cuban Connection
An APR news feature
Cuba has been in the news in recent weeks due to people protesting the government’s response to growing COVID-19 cases. Food, power, and water have all been in short supply across the island nation. Much of the United States has been cut off from Cuba for many years but Alabama has maintained a connection.
Near the fountain of Cooper Riverside Park in Mobile stands statue of a man in colonial era clothing looking out across the river, onto the Gulf of Mexico. The monument is to Pierre Le Moyne D’Iberville.
Mobile historian John Sledge said the French-Canadian was important to the early days of Mobile.
“D’Iberville is one of those foundational figures particularly for our city, one of the founders of Mobile with his younger brother Bienville. D’Iberville was really the senior partner in the enterprise and was quite experienced and a good naval commander as well,” he said.
Mobile was founded as the first capital of French Louisiana in the new world in 1702. While D’Iberville was French-Canadian he had dealings in nearby Cuba. Remember the statue we talked about earlier? It’s hard to tell, but D’Iberville is staring at a companion statue over 600 miles away in Havana. Sledge said the adventurer one of many connections Alabama has to the island of Cuba.
But Sledge said that isn’t where the connections begin.
“Actually, it goes even beyond that. Hernando De Soto who of course carved a murderous path through Alabama was a governor of Cuba,” he said.
Trade between Mobile and Havana was a boon for the region for many years. During the U.S. civil war, Abraham Lincoln ordered a blockade around the confederate coast. This included blocking the areas around Mobile Bay. Sledge said this did surprisingly little to slow trade between the two cities.
“All the goods of life were coming in through Havana for Mobilians during the war. The finer things like gold nibbed pens for Augusta Evans Wilson to write her novels with or fine Havana cigars for Confederate officers to smoke in the Battle House, all of that would have come back with blockade runners out of Havana,” Sledge said.
Even after the war Cuba was a popular destination for trade and recreation. People would take a train or boat down from Chicago, and then catch a steamer for the two-day trip to Havana from Mobile. All of that came to a quick close in the middle of the last century. In 1959, Communist rebels led by Fidel Castro overthrew the government of Cuba. Sledge said that drastically changed relations between the US and the island nation.
“The revolution literally dropped a wall between our countries and there was no more free and easy trade or travel for business or pleasure and really very little positive communication of any kind,” he said.
It stayed that way for a long time. Sledge said in the early 1990s efforts were made by a Mobilian Jay Higginbotham to reestablish a connection between Mobile and Havana.
“They became official sister cities in 1993, it was the first sister city relationship between a Cuban and American city since the revolution certainly. There is a great deal of interest on the part of these organizations on both sides of the gulf to promote trade,” he said.
For a long time, it was difficult for Americans to visit Cuba. In the early 2000s the University of Alabama received academic travel licenses from the U.S. Treasury department to travel to Cuba for specific academic activities.
One of the first people to go on a trip to Cuba from the university was photographer Chip Cooper.
“My involvement with the university started going down to document the people that were going for the first time," Cooper said. “My connection was really to the people, just like my connection to southerners. They’re warm, they’re gracious, they’re inviting. That started off the next several decades of going back to Cuba and working.”
Over those years Cooper made friends. And even though communication isn’t easy, he has been able to keep in touch with them. Cooper hasn’t been to Cuba since 2019 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He said the current unrest has not been easy on anyone in Cuba.
“They’re in a situation right now where there is not enough food on the island. What little food is there, even if I sent money tomorrow,they wouldn’t be able to buy anything. I talk to my friends on Whatsapp at least once a week, they are surviving but they are not happy with the current situation,” he said.
Julio Larramendi is a photographer who has worked with Cooper over the years. Their work has been shown all over the world. Sitting on Cooper’s front porch in Tuscaloosa, we contacted him using the messaging service Whatsapp to call Larramendi in Havana.
Larramendi traveled to Alabama several times and even lived here for a while. He said travelling to the rural parts of the state helped him connect to the people of Alabama.
“Many Connections, many connections. Especially in the countryside. People, countryside people are the same wherever they are," he said. "Here in Cuba, Latin America, the United States, those are the purest people of the earth.”
Larramendi is quick to bring up a very important connection between Alabama and Cuba. Soccer is king in Latin America, where the locals call it Futbal. In Cuba there is another sport that reigns supreme. Baseball is the official sport.
“In the beginning, it was two Cuban students were at the university in Mobile, they came back to Cuba with gloves, balls and bats. They started to practice here in Havana, many, many years ago," he said. "It was the beginning of baseball in Cuba.”
Larramendi said things soured between the U.S. and Cuba after the revolution. Even with the trade embargo that was set up by the United States against Cuba, Alabama still had economic ties to his homeland.
“We had commercial connections with Alabama. The chickens we used to eat were from Alabama. There was a project to build a factor of small tractors here in Havana," Larramendi said. "With the Trump presidency it was gone, completely. We hope with Biden, everything will be restored.”
Larramendi was asked if Alabama’s relationship with Cuba could be used as a model for the United States to rebuild a relationship with Cuba. He said while there may be ideological differences, it’s the people in both countries that matter.
“We traveled all around Alabama, to the tiniest places, to the poorest places, because you have also poor places, and I love it," he said. "We have a real connection with Alabama, we have to improve that, we have to restore our relationships and go back to love each other.”
We had help from APR Gulf Coast correspondent Mike Dumas on this project.