Travel to Cuba is off limits to U.S. citizens. The United States put an economic embargo on Cuba back when U.S. cars had giant fins and candy bars cost a nickel. The embargo is still in effect. You can’t go to Cuba without a license.
Prof. Zimmy Tarbox, a professor of entomobugology at Letongaloosa Community Junior College where I teach, got a license from the U.S. government to give a paper at an annual Bugological Symposium in Havana. Zimmy avoided all the government rigmarole by bamboozling a bureaucrat in the government licensing office. He got his license to travel to Cuba in less than 24 hours. Two days later he was sitting at a sidewalk café on the Malecon sipping Perrier water. The Malecon is a boulevard that swings along Havana’s sea wall near the city’s colonial center.
“Well if it isn’t the infamous cockroach enthusiast,” said a melodious woman’s voice from behind him. Without turning Zimmy Tarbox said, “Kate Billingsly, England’s premier pond scum skimmer, I had a feeling you’d be here.” The two bug scientists had been friends since graduate school. Now, in Havana, they shook hands and Kate Billingsly sat down.
“Where are you staying?” she asked.
“I’m at the Hotel Havana Libre.”
“Me too,” she said.
Zimmy signaled the waiter, and said “Let’s take a walk,”
The two strolled down a sidewalk along the sea wall. Bicycle riders and bike rickshaws rolled passed them on the Malecon. Lovers hugged and kissed on top of the five foot wall. Dozens of other people stood at the wall casting fishing lines into the bay. The two chatted about Billingsly’s world renowned research on water skeeters and Tarbox’s groundbreaking work on cockroach larvae. Both were scheduled to present research papers at the conference.
As the two stood at a curb, a bicyclist sped up, braked to a stop, and thrust a folded newspaper into Zimmy’s hand, then sped away.
“What was that about?” asked Kate.
Zimmy unfolded the tabloid newspaper—that day’s edition of Granma, the mouthpiece of the Cuban Communist Party. A message was printed on the front page in large block letters with black magic marker: It said “Back booth, Hotel Libre bar 5 p.m. Both of you.”
Kate and Zimmy looked at each other.
“Looks like CIA” said Kate.
“Or MI-6” said Zimmy.
At five p.m. Kate and Zimmy were sitting side by side in a back booth in the darkened bar behind the lobby of the Hotel Havana Libre. A few minutes passed, then two shadowy figures slid into the booth across the table from them.
The two wore buttoned up beige trench coats, but the woman had on a haut couture turquoise wide brim Preakness hat that was definitely not spy code dress of the day, and the man wore a black GG fabric baseball cap with black leather trim. The hat definitely put him outside the spook uniform dress code..
The man spoke intensely to Kate in an English accent. “Your paper on water skippers breaches British national security. We have purged it from your laptop. We’ve installed an acceptable version of the paper in its place. You’ll present that version. This conversation never happened.”
The man pulled down the brim of his baseball cap, slid out of the booth and walked away.
The woman pulled her wide brim of her Preakness hat down and leaned across the table toward Zimmy. She hissed: “The Castro government is dying to get the data in your cockroach study. The U.S. Department of What’s Good for America has designated your paper top secret. You can’t present the paper, in fact you can’t ever read it again. We’ve installed a new version on your computer. Give that.”
The woman slid out of the booth and disappeared.
Kate and Zimmy looked at each other.
“Same old same old,” said Kate, and shook her head.
“Yeh, just like the Mogadishu conference last year,” said Zimmy.
“I assume you have a back-up version of your paper saved on a secret memory stick,” said Zimmy.
“That I have,” said Kate.
“Me too,” said Zimmy.
:They never check,” he said
“I know,” she said.
They slid out of the booth and Zimmy leaned down and kissed Kate on the cheek. “Good luck with your presentation,” he said.
“You too,” she said.
“See you next year in New Delhi.”
“Right,” he said. -30-