Discovering the charm of the island '97 Miles South' of us
By GERRY BARKER
North Palm Beach Life
"The Allure of Cuba."
That was the topic for the Marine Industries Association of Palm Beach County August membership meeting. One of the two featured speakers was Capt. Phil Thompson, who has spent extensive time in Cuba since the early 90s.
A fourth generation Floridian, Thompson is a fishing and diving expert as well as an outdoor writer and novelist. His book, "97 Miles South - Key West to Cuba" mixes intrigue and romance with the pursuit of blue marlin.
Thompson, who lives in the small town of Jaimanitas, just west of Havana, painted a fascinating picture of a country Americans are just now starting to know since the easing of the travel restrictions and President Obama's efforts to normalize relations.
Among the points he made during his presentation of Cuba in photographs:
-- "American visitors have increased anywhere from 85 to 95 percent."
-- "Prior to Obama's visit, Cuba paved all the roads where he was going." When he explained that to a friend living out in the country, "He looked up and down his road and said, 'Wish he would visit me.'"
-- Havana, he said, is a "great city, Its historical significance, its architecture, its combination of old and new is beyond description." Thompson added: "It is a very welcoming city of 2 million. You might think you were in some European capital city full of life, music and dancing." He also pointed out the influence of the Russians is also evident in the ballet, symphony and dance troupes.
-- On a personal level, Cuba's unparalleled fishing and diving --made famous in part by Ernest Hemingway (who Thompson notes "belonged to Cuba as well as America") have been a strong part of its allure for him. He has spent the last five years doing "very pleasureable research" that covers all aspects of those pursuits for a book, "Fish Cuba Now."
-- The island boasts a number of vintage American cars. "The most popular American cars are Fifties-era Chevys." Why? "Those were the police cars under Baptista."
-- Crime? Not really. Thompson said "You will not find a safer destination on the planet. Cuba's crime rate is practically non-existent."
The bottom line: "All Cubans want is a chance for a better future. What we are doing at this point in time is giving them that opportunity."
The most popular American cars are 50s era Chevys -- those were the police cars under Baptista."