Jan 12, 2016

Rushing Back to Camagüey

Dr. Benito H. Prats got a telegram from his sister Olga in 1987 saying that his 91 year old mother Eduvigis was seriously ill and wanted to see him again before she died.

By then the telegram as a means of communications had been all but killed by cheap long distance and Western Union no longer sent couriers to your door to deliver telegrams, instead they looked you up in the phone book, called and read it to you, then mailed you a computer-printed copy. Since most of the telegraph offices had closed, to send a telegram you called Western Union on the phone and dictated it to them at around $1.10 per word, 10 words minimum, to Cuba. Western Union had an arrangement with all the phone companies so they could bill you on your phone bill.   Email and faxes finally killed the telegram. Western Union delivered the last telegram January 27, 2006 and closed up shop. The company called Western Union today is not the same company. Today's Western Union purchased the name and the only thing they do now is send money.

But in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, telegrams were the only way to get fast messages out of Cuba and they were expensive. Telephone calls had to be booked weeks in advance because, some say, the Cuban telephone company had to schedule in the limited number of government eavesdroppers that listened in on all calls; and then sometimes the quality of the sound was really bad because they were still using the 1951 12-circuit undersea cable between Key West and Havana that had not been replaced due to the continuing tensions between the governments.

It had been 23 years since Benito had left Cuba. The first telegram explained the urgency and asked him to rush to the Cuban Interests Section in Washington (then at the Czechoslovak Embassy) to apply for a humanitarian visit visa and the second said that she, Olga, would take his telegrams (she called them cables) to Cuban immigration to start the paperwork there. 

Benito had been working on a visa since August 4th. It took more than two months to get the paperwork and tickets. He and Mariana went on a charter flight from Miami to Camaguey in October. Benito diagnosed a potassium deficiency when he saw her and she went on to live a number of years more.

Eduvigis Respall Pereira vda. de Prats and her son the doctor
Photo taken in her home, No. 4 Avellaneda Street
October 10, 1987

The first telegram reads, “08/19/87 Benito, present yourself urgently at the Cuban Interests Section in Washington and ask entry to Cuba because Mama is gravely ill and wants to see you before dying request urgently the documents here they are filed your sister loves you. Olga.” Notice there is no punctuation on telegrams. They count as another word each. This one was 39 words, $42.90.

The second reads, “9/12/87 Mama remains same Monday I will return immigration with your cables and I’ll tell you love. Olga.” 16 words, $17.60.

1970s photo of Eduvigis Respall
holding a photograph of her son, Benito Prats