As soon as he saw it, Cuban Commodore José Miguel Díaz Escrich recognized a French name and a 300-year-old link between Havana and Biloxi.
The name: Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville — the French Canadian explorer who first set foot on the Coast in 1699, the man for whom the City of D’Iberville is named.
The commodore saw the name inscribed on the history wall at the Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum during his first visit to Biloxi in April.
He was invited by Bobby Carter, director of community development at Golden Nugget Biloxi, who has visited Cuba 17 times over the last six years. Most recently, Carter took along Coast doctors, casino executives and former Yankee pitcher Goose Gossage.
He’s going again next week and Carter said, “I’m taking the mayor with me.”
Biloxi Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich will make the mid-August trip along with F. Cliff Kirkland, Biloxi’s civic innovation and development officer, Gulfport businessmen John “Shorty” Sneed and Frank Bordeaux, and Michael Diaz, a Biloxi surgeon who has family in Cuba. This will be Diaz’s third trip since he went with Carter last spring and connected with his Cuban family, and he continues to take medical supplies that aren’t available in Cuba.
Gilich said he turned down a trip to Cuba in the early 1960s, when he was 15 and working aboard the Pan American Clipper in Biloxi. It was soon after the Cuban Revolution and his mom said, “You’re not going to Cuba.” Because of travel restrictions over the next 50 years, this is the first chance for a visit, although he did connect with the secretary of the Cuban Embassy on a recent visit to Washington, D.C.
What the Biloxi delegation will discover when they visit Havana is that d’Iberville is equally revered in Cuba, where he died and is buried.
D’Iberville died in July 1706 aboard his ship in Cuba, possibly of yellow fever. He was buried in Havana, where a plaque outside the Church of San Cristobel says he is one of Canada’s “most illustrious sons.”
A statue of d’Iberville stands both at the entrance of the Havana Harbor and outside the Biloxi Visitors Center, 642 miles away.
Brian Gollott, whose family owns Gollott Seafood and Pepe’s Mexican Grill in D’Iberville, recently made a quick trip to Cuba and saw the statue. Carter told him about the d’Iberville connection and Gollott said he he walked from his hotel down the main boulevard looking for evidence of the explorer.
“It’s like being in the heart of New Orleans, except the whole city looks like that,” he said of the architecture. “It’s like a being in a time machine and going back to 1958.”
Bringing Cuba to Biloxi
Carter has been making connections in Cuba and working to eventually bring the Cuban national baseball team to play an exhibition game at MGM Park in Biloxi. “We’re going down there for the possibility of bringing baseball up here,” he said.
The Coast delegation also wants to advance the idea of a regatta between Biloxi and Havana. Díaz Escrich said a regatta has sailed from Key West to Havana and he’d like to get a circuit of recreational boats from around the Gulf of Mexico traveling between the states and Cuba.
Strom Smith of Ocean Springs said he’d like to take his 60-foot Viking sport fishing boat to the Ernest Hemingway Fishing Tournament in Cuba. Fidel Castro won the first year of the 67-year-old tournament.
“I just think it would be exciting to go to a new place,” he said. He ssaid he’s excited to see how Cuba seems to be opening up for people to travel there and enjoy the culture and the people.
Another connection between the Coast and Cuba is classic cars.
“Where else in the world are there more 1955 to 1959 cars operational than in Cuba?” asked Gililch, who owned a 1956 black Chevrolet convertible.
“To my surprise, the whole city is full of old cars and the ingenuity of those people to keep them running is unbelievable,” said Gollott. Some of the cars operate on boat motors to keep them on the road, he said.
Every October, Cruisin’ The Coast brings thousands of muscle and classic cars to the roads of South Mississippi. On his trip to Biloxi, Díaz Escrich was presented with a Cruisin’ The Coast T-shirt by Rusty David at the Seafood Museum. “He loved it,” said Carter.
More than two people
For 6 years, Carter’s been trying to get the commodore to visit Biloxi. In April, Díaz Escrich made the 12-hour drive to Biloxi from visiting his daughter in Florida, his GPS set so he could hear the directions in English and learn along the way.
For him to drive to Biloxi alone, despite the language barrier, “It shows real, true friendship,” Carter said.
“It’s more than just two people,” he said. “It’s two countries that haven’t been together for over 60 years,” and are finding connections.
Díaz Escrich founded the the Hemingway Yacht Club — the only yacht club in Cuba. More than 7,000 Cubans own boats, he said, mostly for sport fishing. The Hemingway Yacht Club has 1,600 members from 45 countries.
He is a goodwill ambassador to recreational boaters. While in South Mississippi, Díaz Escrich spoke to the Biloxi Yacht Club and Ocean Springs Yacht Club and to the staff at the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory, who visited Cuba again last year. He also invited local yacht club members to Cuba for the celebration in May of the 25th anniversary of Club Nautico Internacional Hemingway de Cuba (Hemingway International Yacht Club of Cuba).
Through nautical sports and these personal exchanges he hope to send a message of spirit of love and friendship around the world, Díaz Escrich said. “That goes also to the White House,” he said, “and also to the Cuban government.”