Sun, Aug 16, 2015 - Page 7 News List

Surprise Kerry visit to Old Havana excites locals


On a historic day for US-Cuban relations, US Secretary of State John Kerry took time out for a walking tour of cobblestoned Old Havana — just like many of the growing numbers of US citizens traveling to the island since a detente was announced eight months ago.

Dressed in slacks and a white dress shirt, Kerry toured a restored colonial-era church, checked out cigar humidors on a sun-drenched square and ducked inside for a cold lemonade at Cafe del Oriente, an upscale restaurant where Raul Castro once dined with former US president Jimmy Carter in 2011.

Accompanied by city historian Eusebio Leal, who has overseen the rehabilitation of much of the neighborhood, Kerry also visited the former municipal palace and Leal’s offices.

He paused to look at a statue of Cuban independence hero Jose Marti in the leafy Plaza de Armas, which is home to a daily book and trinket bazaar and also a building that housed the US embassy from 1923 until the mission moved to its current location in 1953.

In a quarter already teeming with travelers, Kerry became yet another tourist attraction as surprised people swarmed around the group to take photographs. Neck-tied security agents kept everyone at a safe distance.

Locals waved down from wrought-iron balconies and the secretary waved back.

“We are walking through the plaza here, and suddenly I see a bunch of people moving and there is Kerry,” said Junia Perez, a doctor. “Look, it gave me goosebumps. I am excited because I never thought I would see him so close.”

Kerry also stopped in Plaza San Francisco to talk with Julio Alvarez, who offered the US official a free ride in his shiny black 1959 Chevrolet Impala taxi.

Kerry laughed and said maybe another time, but sat behind the wheel for a short time and mused about possibly driving the classic car the next time he is in town.

Rafael Lezcano was among those who took photographs with their cellphones.

“It is an honor for us Cubans that he comes like this to walk through our streets,” Lezcano said.

While US tourism to the nation is still illegal under the US embargo, those who come on authorized cultural, educational, journalistic and other types of trips are now allowed to bring back limited amounts of tobacco and alcohol under rules eased by US President Barack Obama.

After Kerry visited a shop in a boutique hotel, an aide was seen carrying out bags of what appeared to be three bottles of rum, cigar boxes and a humidor.

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