The Malecon as Pier

Imagen del ferri Cayo Hueso-La Habana tomada en 1951. (HistoryMiami Archives & Research Center)
Image of the Cayo Hueso-Havana ferry taken 1951 (History Miami Archives and Research Center)

Jose Manuel is 70 years old and has spent more than half his life fishing from Havana’s Malecon. For this retiree with leathery skin and eyes that have seen almost everything, it is a dream to catch sight again of that ferry that used to go to Florida and that he so liked when he was a child. “We kids used to pretend to say goodbye, and although I could never travel on it, my grandmother did every now and then.” Now, while the evening falls, the septuagenarian hopes that some fish will take the bait, and before him a sea without boats extends to infinity.

Maritime transport between Havana and Cayo Hueso came to be very common in the first half of the 20th century until it was suspended in August of 1961 as a consequence of the restrictions from the American embargo of the Island. Now, the ghost of a ferry that links the two shores has resurfaced as a result of talks between the governments of Cuba and the United States.

This week, the entrepreneur Brian Hall, who leads the company KonaCat with headquarters in Fort Lauderdale, made public his interest in operating ferry trips to Cuba from Marathon’s yachting marina on 11th Street. Hall told the daily digital KeysInfoNet that he was confident of getting available space for his 200-passenger capacity catamaran with which he plans to travel between the Florida Keys and Cuba twice daily.

The news has barely reached the Island, but since last December 17 when Raul Castro and Barack Obama announced the process for reestablishment of relations between the two countries, the return of the ferry has become a matter of importance for many nostalgic people. In addition to the economic concessions and the political détente that this reconciliation would bring between the two governments, connecting both countries with a maritime route would have, besides its practical effects, a strong symbolism, many assert.

All great human endeavors have something to do with madness, say the elders. The ferry service that connected Florida with the Cuban capital started with the efforts of a man. Henry M. Flagler, an oil magnate who in 1886 founded the Florida Faster East Coast Railway for railway construction and exploitation of Florida’s east coast. In spite of the great obstacles imposed by the geography of the keys and the constant danger of hurricanes, Flagler’s madness led him to trace the rail lines to Cayo Hueso, where the service was inaugurated in January 1912. That work would be considered by many as the eighth wonder of the world, besides being the boldest infrastructure built exclusively with private funds.

Once the railway was in Cayo Hueso, some way was needed to overcome the distance to Cuba. So was born “the train moving over the waters” as the ferry was also called and whose Havana-Cayo Hueso service was inaugurated January 5, 1915. The first shipment consisted of a batch of refrigerated cars, and the boat received the name of Henry M. Flagler, in homage to the visionary entrepreneur who had died two years earlier.

“We kids used to pretend to say goodbye, and although I could never travel on it, my grandmother did every now and then.”

The dispatch of products between both shores grew like wildfire after that moment. In 1957 it came to more than half a million tons of merchandise in both directions, to which was added the transport of passengers and cars. The sea connection between the two shores lasted 46 years, and some remember it as if it were yesterday that the last boat had sailed.

“My grandmother frequently travelled to Florida on the ferry,” explains Jose Manuel, who has had a bad day for fishing. “We were poor, but part of my family went there to work and sometimes would return the same day,” he says wistfully. Near the fishing pole, seated on the wall of the Malecon, a teenager listens to the conversation and smiles with incredulity. He is of the generation that cannot conceive that at some point the Malecon was not a barrier that separated Cuba from the world but a point of connection with the neighbor to the north.

The line tightens, and it seems that something has bit. Jose Manuel concentrates on recovering from the water what is going to be his supper tonight, but in spite of his concentration he manages to say, “The day that I see that ferry arriving here again I will be able to die in peace.”

Translated by MLK

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