Visiting Ethel & Julius in Havana
(guest blog by RFC Communications Director, Amber Black)
It’s large, the monument. It resides on a nondescript corner of an intersection in Havana, Cuba. The striking portrait in stone honors a young couple, killed by the U.S. government on June 19, 1953. They’re viewed as traitors by some, heroes by others. In this country where a tank rests on the lawn of the university in the capital, the legacy of the Cold War affects citizens’ lives in a visceral way. There’s tremendous irony involved, but it makes perfect sense that there would be a memorial to Ethel and Julius Rosenberg in Havana, and that I would go and find it.
This monument to these two Americans is not on the “must see” list for most international visitors. But it was on mine, because Ethel and Julius weren’t just infamous figures in the McCarthy era battle for our nation’s soul, they were also parents to two little boys. And for the last 18 years, I’ve known of one of those sons, who’s now a grey haired grandfather himself. For almost two decades I’ve come to a workplace filled with portraits of that “boy’s” parents: the office of the Rosenberg Fund for Children, the organization that son created in his parents’ name and in their honor.
And so it was that I found myself trudging in the blazing midday sun, looking for the memorial to the Rosenbergs on my recent visit to Havana. I nearly missed it, actually. I had a paper street map stuffed in the pocket of my shorts, and a general description of the monument’s location from the one source I found online that mentioned it when I was planning my trip.
On the second day of my stay, I had set out on foot from my rented apartment in the center of this city of two million people. While exploring the University of Havana campus, I ended up talking with some students about history, politics, and daily life in our two countries. The conversation was insightful, but because of the unexpected delay, it was at the hottest moment of that sweltering afternoon when I began the walk to the monument several miles away.
When I finally reached the intersection where it was supposed to be, I didn’t see anything and there didn’t seem to be anywhere promising to inquire about it. Refusing to accept that I might have just slogged all that way for nothing, I began to backtrack. Then a few hundred feet away on the other side of the busy, divided road, I spotted it, nestled in a postage stamp-sized park at the fork of a small side street.
Once my traveling companion snapped my photo, I rested in the dappled shade of the stone slab and sparse trees, contemplating where I was and what I was seeing. I mulled my earlier conversation with the students, a young couple who were pretty much the same age as Ethel and Julius had been during World War II. It was in the 1940s when the events were put in motion that profoundly altered the trajectory not just of the Rosenbergs’ lives and those of their children, but also the lives of those two students, and mine, and everyone in both our countries and to some extent, the rest of the world.
My thoughts about how the U.S. had condemned the Rosenbergs while in Cuba they had been honored, were not just academic considerations of a dusty past. I was in Havana on a much needed vacation after many, intense months of work on the campaign to convince the U.S. government to acknowledge its horrible transgression against Ethel. While we made tremendous progress in moving the needle on public opinion by illuminating the facts showing that Ethel’s prosecution and execution were wrongful, we failed to move President Obama to action.
I sat sweating in the fierce Havana heat, trying to process the irony that my visit was possible because Obama had softened our government’s restrictions on travel there. I had gone independently, not with an organized group. On my visa application, I had marked “support for the Cuban people” from the list of the 12 officially sanctioned reasons our government allowed* for U.S. citizens to journey to this Caribbean island. Yet the president hadn’t been willing to fully lift our blockade that has been punishing this tiny country for decades, or acknowledge our politically-motivated execution of two idealistic young Americans who had the misfortune of being Communists in a time of ginned up fear.
There I was, in the capital of this Communist nation just 90 miles off our shores, looking up at a monument celebrating these two people who were an indelible part of the Cold War legacy that still deeply affects our two countries. I was staring at a larger than life version of the faces I see every day in my office in Easthampton, Massachusetts. I was thinking about how fear and idealism, and the actions taken on battlefields, in ballot boxes, and in courtrooms, affect people’s lives for generations.
I was visiting Ethel and Julius in Havana.