U.S.-Cuba thaw lets a top Homeland Security official return to his birthplace

Growing up, Alejandro Mayorkas would hear his father rattle off the places to visit if he ever returned to Cuba, which the family fled in 1960.

There was the pink facade of Havana's El Floridita restaurant, where Ernest Hemingway had warmed a bar stool and the first daiquiri was poured; the remnants of the steel wool factory Mayorkas' father had  abandoned after the Communist revolution; the cemetery where Mayorkas’ grandmother is buried.

Now the second-ranking official at the Department of Homeland Security, Mayorkas will return to Havana on Tuesday for the first time since his family fled and his mother carried him to Miami as a 6-month-old.

The three-day visit is part of the easing of tensions between the two Cold War adversaries. In addition to restoring diplomatic relations, the Obama administration is pushing Havana to ease restrictions on U.S. investment and travel in Cuba, and is urging Congress to drop a decades-long trade embargo. 

Mayorkas, the highest-ranking Cuban American to visit since the diplomatic opening, hopes to work with Cuban authorities to expand security screening as airports and harbors open to American planes and ships.

He will meet senior customs and airport officials in Havana in an effort to better coordinate a proposed passenger ferry service between the Cuban capital and Miami, as well as increased flights and cargo shipments between the two countries.

But the visit will be bittersweet for Mayorkas.

His father, Charles “Nicky” Mayorkas, passed away three years ago in Los Angeles at the age of 81. He never got a chance to return to Cuba.

“He always dreamed of returning with his children and sharing Cuba with them,” Mayorkas said in an interview, his eyes beginning to tear up. “It was always my hope and intention to return with him, so this visit will be quite emotional."

Mayorkas grew up in Los Angeles after the family moved there from Miami. He has only a hazy reel of images of Havana of the '40s and '50s from stories his father would tell in their backyard, or over his dad’s favorite dish — arroz con pollo — at El Colmao restaurant on Pico Boulevard.

His father was particular that the chicken and rice should taste like the slow-simmered dishes of his youth. He would call the owners 45 minutes in advance to tell them to start cooking.

No relatives or close friends of his parents are still alive in Cuba, Mayorkas said. His parents had no siblings.

His father’s family had emigrated from Turkey and Poland in the early 20th Century. His mother, who passed away in 1997 at 66, was born in a Jewish family in Romania that escaped to Cuba from Nazi-occupied France in the early 1940s.

Anxious about the future after Fidel Castro toppled Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, Mayorkas' father moved his wife and two children to Miami for safety the following year, part of a broader exodus of the country's middle class. He stayed behind for several months to run the steel wool factory he owned.

But later that year, Castro’s government began to close Cuba's borders, and Mayorkas's father decided to get out while he could. He abandoned his business, the family apartment and nearly all of their possessions.

"He did not want to raise the family in a communist country," Mayorkas said in his office at the Department of Homeland Security headquarters. Black-and-white portraits of his mother and father from their days in Cuba hang on the wall behind him.

"He believed in democracy, and he understood the perils and the challenges of living otherwise," Mayorkas said.

Obama administration officials have been frustrated by Cuba's reluctance to open access to its markets and its unwillingness to improve treatment of political prisoners. Mayorkas' meetings are unlikely to address those concerns, he said.

Increasing contact between the two governments and building personal relationships between officials may help convince the Cuban government to open up more, Mayorkas said.

"There are many streams of effort underway," he said. "It is not going to be changed with the switch of a light."

He thinks his father, if he were still alive, would return to Havana for a visit. His father missed the country's lifestyle, and whenever he spoke in Spanish, Mayorkas could see a youthful buoyancy return.  

"I think he would be very proud and very excited — very excited" about the trip, he said. 

brian.bennett@latimes.com

Follow me @ByBrianBennett on Twitter.

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