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Chicago Tribune March 21, 2016

10 things you might not know about Cuba

By Mark Jacob

On Sunday, Barack Obama will become the first sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. Obama has eased travel restrictions, and now U.S. airlines are negotiating regular air service from Chicago to Havana. Here are 10 facts about Cuba, nicknamed "El Cocodrilo" (The Crocodile) because it's shaped like one.

1 The shortage of cars and public transportation has made hitchhiking a must in Cuba, and those who drive government vehicles are expected to pick up people needing rides. In Cuba, hitchhiking is known as hacer botella, or "doing the bottle," because the way people hold their hand to thumb a ride is similar to the way they hold a bottle.

2 Sammy Davis Jr. used to tell people that his mother was Puerto Rican, but in fact she was of Cuban descent. Davis lied about Elvera "Baby" Sanchez Davis because he feared anti-Cuban feeling in the U.S. would hurt his career.

3 One of the most famous photographs in the world, Alberto Korda's portrait of revolutionary Che Guevara, went largely unnoticed for years. Korda covered a Havana rally in March 1960 as a freelancer for the newspaper Revolucion and snapped two shots of Che while concentrating on Cuban leader Fidel Castro and two French guests, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. The newspaper printed the Castro photo but not the one of Che. Seven years later, the Che picture was widely circulated as a poster by Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, who was given the photo by Korda. Feltrinelli had another claim to fame: He was first to publish Boris Pasternak's "Dr. Zhivago."

4 The Desmarest's hutia, a Cuban rodent that is about the size of a rabbit and is known as a "tree rat," has a stomach divided into three chambers. In the Cuban countryside, it is a source of food, often cooked with nuts and honey.

5 The history of failed U.S. plots against Fidel Castro may seem too absurd to be true, but it's authentic. American spies either discussed or initiated attempts to kill Castro with a poison pen-syringe, deadly pills, a bomb-rigged seashell and a skin-diving suit treated to give him a skin condition, featuring a mouthpiece treated with tuberculosis bacteria. Other times the U.S. considered possible plots to simply embarrass him – once with a sprayed hallucinogenic drug that would disorient him during a radio appearance, another time with a depilatory chemical that was to be placed in his shoes so that his beard would fall out.

6 Granma, the Communist Party's newspaper, is named after the boat that carried Fidel Castro and his comrades from Mexico to Cuba in 1956 to launch the revolution. The boat got its name from its previous owner, an American who chose the name to pay tribute to his grandmother.

7 In 1992, Cuba changed its constitution to describe itself as "secular" rather than "atheist."

8 Castro banned Beatles music in 1964 as part of an attempt to root out decadent capitalist influences. But in 2000, Castro helped dedicate a statue of John Lennon in Havana. By that time, it was clear Castro and Lennon had something in common – as enemies of the U.S. government. Other noteworthy statues in Cuba depict Abraham Lincoln and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. A large statue of Jesus Christ was put up in Havana just weeks before a victorious Castro entered the city in 1959. The communists didn't dare take it down.

9 The first Latin-born baseball player in a U.S. professional league is believed to have been a Cuban: Steve Bellan of the American Association's Troy Haymakers. A slick infielder in the 1860s and '70s, Bellan was known as the "Cuban Sylph." He was followed by many other stars from the island, such as the Chicago White Sox's "Cuban Comet" (Minnie Minoso) and "Cuban Missile" (Alexei Ramirez). Current Sox superstar Jose Abreu is known in his native Cuba as "Pito," a Spanish word for whistle. The Mets' Yoenis Cespedes is nicknamed in Cuba as "La Potencia," the Power. (While we're talking about names, please note that American businessman Mark Cuban is not Cuban. His Russian Jewish immigrant grandparents changed the family name from Chabenisky to Cuban.)

10 In 1962, President John F. Kennedy expanded the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba to include cigars. But Kennedy, an avid cigar smoker, arranged for press secretary Pierre Salinger to buy 1,200 H. Upmann Petit Corona cigars the night before.

Mark Jacob is the Tribune's associate managing editor for metropolitan news.

Sources: "The Real Fidel Castro," by Leycester Coltman; "Wildlife of the Caribbean," by Herbert A. Raffaele and James W. Wiley; "What They Didn't Teach You in American History Class," by Mike Henry; "Che's Afterlife: The Legacy of an Image," by Michael J. Casey; "Companero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara," by Jorge G. Castaneda; "Cuba Open from the Inside," by Chris Messner; "In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis, Jr.," by Wil Haygood; American Photo magazine; Evan Thomas in Washington Monthly; Brian McKenna on sabr.org; wildlifeextra.com; time.com; globalsecurity.org; slate.com; cia.gov; cnn.com; forward.com; The Daily Beast

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