Like many other Cuban-Americans, we grew up listening to stories of pre-Castro Cuba.
My father was a young banker in the 1950s who was eventually promoted to a large branch in Havana. He worked "downtown," as we would say here.
One of my favorite stories was about the Chinese in Cuba and the well known "barrio chino," or, loosely translated, Chinatown.
It turns out that there was an important population of Chinese immigrants in Cuba. They came to work in the first 30 years of the 20th century. Like other bank customers, they would drop by my dad's branch to make deposits and do banking business. Some even sent money back to their families in China. These people had a reputation for working hard, and their word was as good as gold, as my father used to say. "Never lost a centavo [a cent] with my Chinese clients," added my father.
"The barrio chino? Not even the Chinese go there."
In Havana's barrio chino, or Chinatown district, this is not an uncommon phrase. One of Latin America's oldest Chinatowns is a shadow of its former self: the stone Paifang gate and a few waitresses in red cheongsam (or qipao), all that distinguish it from the rest of the city.
Yet Cuba itself is awash in Chinese tourists and, increasingly, investors. China has become the main export destination for Cuban goods, as well as the main importer on the island.
Yutong buses carry tourists and locals alike, and Huawei is set to be the main provider for the country's growing internet ventures.
Yet the capitol's barrio chino is noticeably lacking in Chinese diaspora, most of whom fled the island soon after Fidel Castro nationalized businesses in 1959. Those that remain have long since scattered into other districts or left Havana altogether.
Why aren't there any chinos in Havana's Chinatown? The answer is simply communism.
Most of those chinos were hardworking entrepreneurs who literally got to Cuba with nothing and worked their way into prosperity.
My father told me he'd walk by the Chinese section once or twice a week. He would often eat lunch in one of the many restaurants there. There were shops, medical clinics, grocery stores, and all of the businesses you would see in a capitalist economy.
Cuba's Chinatown? Los chinos are not there, but China is expanding its influence 90 miles from the U.S.
Who would have believed any of that when my father was having lunch with some of his Cuban Chinese customers many years ago?
Another sad chapter of the communist story.
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