Amistad visit stirs the political waters

Buy Photo Sean D. Elliot/The Day The crew of the Amistad raises the staysail as the schooner makes its way from the port of Matanzas to Cuba's capital, Havana, on Thursday.

Reporter Ted Mann and photojournalist Sean D. Elliot are in Cuba with Amistad, the reproduction schooner built at Mystic Seaport. In 1839, the original Amistad was homeported in Cuba when it was sent to ferry kidnapped Africans bound for slavery.

Havana - The schooner Amistad left the port of Matanzas in deep night and arrived in the windblown Havana harbor under a blazing sun.

But departure and arrival Thursday shared the qualities that have marked the entire remarkable voyage of this vessel to Cuba: warm gestures of welcome paired with the intense and wary diplomatic Kabuki that marks relations between these two long-estranged neighbor nations.

The Amistad kissed the rubber bumpers at an aging concrete pier in Old Havana just after 2 p.m. Thursday after sailing and motoring from Matanzas, then taking a ceremonial circuit around the city's historic waterfront. The vessel cruised past the Malecón, the city's iconic waterfront boulevard, under the command of Captain Sean Bercaw and with the first man to hold that title, emeritus captain William Pinkney, at the helm.

It was the culmination of a difficult but rewarding voyage for the vessel's captain, crew and supporters on land. But even as the Amistad and its Cuban hosts have steadfastly avoided invoking contemporary politics in their remarks praising the mission to bring the ship here, politics in Cuban-American relations has a way of interceding.

Each press conference and port visit here has triggered questions from locals about whether the overture of the Amistad mission, which aims to reconnect the peoples in the United States, the Caribbean and Africa who were touched by the international slave trade, would help bring an end to America's long economic embargo.

Unasked at those events is a companion question: If the work of the Amistad organization brings a thaw to the Cuban-American impasse that has persisted since just after the dawn of the Cold War, will it also raise to the fore uncomfortable new debates about human rights and repression, in which each government contends the other has failed to live up to its respective rhetoric?

Bad timing

That issue bubbled under the lively reception for the Amistad Thursday in the cruise ship terminal that sits at the gateway to the old section of the city. Even as Cuban dignitaries hailed the Amistad sailors and their mission, some quietly shared displeasure at President Barack Obama's unexpected statement the same day, which criticized Cuba's treatment of political dissidents and called human rights conditions in the country "deeply disturbing."

There was no explicit reference to Obama's remarks in the ceremony that welcomed Amistad on Thursday, which included a performance by the Afro-Cuban group Yoruba Andalo and appearances by prominent Cuban politicians, including Ricardo Alarcón, the president of the National Assembly of the People's Power.

Alarcón refused a request for an interview about Obama's remarks during the Amistad celebration, gesturing that the music would have made it impossible to hear. Moments later he departed with two other men, driven away in a blue Lada, the Soviet sedan that remains ubiquitous in Cuba.

Instead, the tone was valedictory as Bercaw thanked his sailors and hosts for their hard work, and those who have dreamed all along of someday sailing the Amistad to Cuba expressed relief and hope that the freelance diplomacy they have performed here this week would help reunite the Cuban and American people.

"We've been through a lot and I think all of it has paid off today," Bercaw told the Amistad's 12-person professional crew while standing on a bulkhead after the ship was secured to the pier. Also along were five students and a professor from the University of Massachusetts at Boston who have sailed with the ship on this leg of its journey, and a handful of those who helped create it, including Pinkney, Quentin Snediker, who managed the construction for the seaport, and Wayne Bartow, who worked as a shipwright, sailed on the Amistad's first crew and now sits on the Amistad America board of directors.

'Different kind of message'

"Almost from its inception, under construction, we talked about how important it was to, so to speak, return to the scene of the crime," Bartow said in an interview Thursday, sitting on the rail of the ship as it cruised southwest through blue, rolling waves sliced by flying fish toward Havana.

"I recall having those conversations in the very bilge of this boat before there was any more structure, not even a deck, and how we would sort of romantically think of the significance of returning to Cuba and sending a different kind of message and hopefully changing the legacy of how we treat, how we've been treated, and how we treat each other. It really was a very tearful conversation, repeated many times."

On the schooner's arrival, speakers like Cuban historian Miguel Barnet, who has appeared frequently at Amistad-related events this week, called for the historical gesture to transcend the current political disputes.

"Our peoples share a common history that goes beyond current affairs and a dispute among two governments," Barnet said through a translator.

"It's very, very gratifying, and I'm looking forward to being able to tell the people of Connecticut what a contribution they've made to understanding," said Alfred L. Marder, the president of The Amistad Committee Inc. and a longtime leader in efforts to recognize the Mendi captives who rose up to capture the original Amistad in Cuban waters in 1839. "There's no hiding the significance of this trip."

Marder was standing on the pier when the Amistad pulled alongside, and Pinkney leaped to his feet, shouting "Al!" when he spotted him. Standing next to Marder was Chris Cloud, the first executive director of Amistad America and one of those who worked on the construction of the ship at Mystic Seaport.

Cloud said he had watched the arrival in tears.

"Ten years ago to the day I stood up at Mystic Seaport and said one day maybe we'd make it here," he said. "And to be here physically in Havana and to see it sail in, past the Moro and the Malecón, I'm speechless in many ways. But I'm also very proud.

"My thoughts are with the 53 Mendi captives that were originally on this boat. When I cried today, I cried for them."

Marder said he was disappointed by Obama's statement, especially as it arrived on the same day as the Amistad. (It coincided, too, with a march of thousands in Miami to support the Damas de Blanco, or Women in White, who were shouted down by pro-government demonstrators earlier this week during a seven-day series of marches to mark the anniversary of a 2003 crackdown they contend targeted Cuba's internal political dissidents.)

"It was very sad," Marder said of Obama's statement. "Obviously there are forces in the State Department that do not want to see negotiations and an end to this situation."

Human rights debate

As for U.S. concerns about human rights, Marder said, America has its own unresolved issues of social justice.

"You know, our country should be the last in the world to begin to judge," he said. "And that's the meaning of the Amistad: that that struggle has not ended in our country. I'm not talking about other countries."

In a previous interview Bercaw shared a similar view, gleaned from the stops the vessel has made over the past several months. He cited not just the conversations it has triggered with Cubans, but also some of its earlier legs in the Caribbean, including a sail in which students from Haiti and the Dominican Republic - which have a history of ethnic and cultural tension - were taken out together on the Amistad and worked together.

"In some ways, that's where the power of this vessel is," Bercaw said, "because it doesn't require any interpretation. Interpreting is cool, but it's not required. She can stand on her own, and then anything you put with her gains credence as well. Just get out of the way and let it happen."

Passing through the narrow channel into Havana's harbor, the Amistad docked on the 10th anniversary of its launch from the Mystic Seaport and in its first visit to the home of the vessel that was its namesake.

Reaching Cuba, and now its capital, is the realization of a desire that the schooner's financial supporters, builders and mariners have harbored since the keel was laid for the ship in 1998.

The voyage has at times been rough, as when an executive from Amistad America, which operates the vessel, negotiated with American and Cuban officials to make a port visit despite the American economic embargo. Meanwhile, Bercaw and his crew fought through treacherous weather and fiscal snags that sometimes imperiled their mission, finally working for months without pay to bring the 129-foot schooner to the city where its namesake departed in 1839.

The date of this visit also has historic import: The United Nations has declared March 25 to be its international day of commemoration of the victims of the international slave trade.

It was on the same date in 1807 that England formally outlawed slavery, beginning a cascade in the direction of abolition that would absorb colonial powers throughout the 18th century and eventually engulf both the United States and Cuba in revolutions and civil war.

Another reception for the vessel today will be simulcast with UNESCO.

For the crew aboard, the arrival in Havana came at the end of yet another very long day, albeit one with relatively low mileage and a generally cooperative breeze.

At 4:27 a.m., the Amistad nudged away from the pier in Matanzas, customs officials watching and waving as the ship motored toward the mouth of the harbor. The harbor pilot boat trailed behind the ship, floodlight on, until 4:46, when it pulled alongside, collected the pilot, and circled away toward shore.

Bercaw gave his crew a heads-up, then let off a blast of the Amistad's horn. The ship motored toward the open ocean.

The captain called a quick all-hands meeting, at which everyone on board counted off one by one, an emergency drill, then a pep talk.

"Like with everything else, we're here, we're on the ship, but the Cubans are driving the schedule," he said, adding that the crew had been told to meet their harbor pilot in Havana by 1300 hours, not 1400, as they had expected. "So that just means we'll have to be a little more aggressive on this sail."

Some calculations later determined that would mean the ship would have to average seven knots to make Havana on time, and so the ship motored for the early hours of this leg of the trip before hauling up the mainsail and killing the engine shortly after 8 a.m.

Under full sail, and with some help from the current, the Amistad cruised at more than nine knots on a long reach toward Havana.

Bercaw's early-morning pep talk for the crew, which had risen at around 3:30 a.m. for a customs check, included a last-minute reminder about onboard safety.

"It would be really silly to come all the way to Cuba and then die on the way there (to Havana) from Matanzas," he said, eliciting chuckles.

But unchecked enthusiasm was already setting in.

One of the professional sailors, Reuben Pacheco, who has also been shooting digital footage of the boat's recent journey for the Amistad America Web site, raised his hand in the darkness.

"I just want to point out we're going to Havana," he said. "Any idea how cool that is? Wrap your head around that!"

t.mann@theday.com

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