Long ago in Havana, my mother and father would take me to the famed “Floridita” bar to join a burly, white-bearded man and drink daiquiris.
He gave me his book, “A Farewell to Arms,” autographed to “Eric, from his friend Ernest Hemingway. Havana, 1953”
Those were the old days in Cuba, even before Fidel Castro. That’s how far back I go on this lovely island on the Spanish Main.
I’ve twice been in battle in the west African state of Angola against Cuban troops that had been sent by Fidel Castro to fight white South African forces.
After visiting Cuba many times over the years and recently shooting a documentary there, I’ve acquired much affection for the peppery Cubans and their beautiful island. Havana is a century older than my native New York City.
So I was truly delighted to see President Obama travel to Havana this past week, rub shoulders with leader Raul Castro, and proclaim an end to Cold War hostility between the two neighbors.
Obama told Cubans, “you do not need to fear a threat from the United States.”
If Obama would make the same pledge to North Korea the dangerous crisis in North Asia might well be ended.
After half century, the American president renounced the use of force to overthrow Cuba’s Marxist government. Whether a new Republican president and Congress honors this pledge remains to be seen.
At the heart of bitter US-Cuban relations was the Castro brother’s adamantine refusal to take instruction from Washington. Before Fidel Castro seized power in 1959, Cuba had been an obedient semi-colony of the US. This was the era when Big Brother in Washington told Latin America what to do and allowed US business to exploit the region.
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The US seized Cuba’s Guantanamo Bay during the 1898 Spanish-American War as a naval coaling station. Cuba was forced to grant the US a perpetual lease. The Panama Canal was acquired in a similar imperial manner.
Over half the lush island’s agricultural land was owned by US corporate interests; many hotels came under control of American mobsters, including the once glorious ‘‘Nacional’’ hotel where I always stay.
Fidel Castro seized US property soon after taking power. The angry Americans imposed a punishing blockade on Cuba in 1960 that persists to this day, strongly backed by the Republican Party. Exiled Cubans and US corporations want their property back. Havana says no.
On my last visit to Cuba, I stood in awe in front of an old, crude-looking Soviet, 1960’s era SS-4 intercontinental missiles that had once been armed with nuclear warheads. They had been aimed at the US East Coast during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. As a student at Washington’s Georgetown University in that crisis year, I had been smack in the middle of ground zero.
1962 was a terribly close call for mankind, a nuclear game of blind man’s bluff. Thank god that John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev backed down. Both proclaimed victory. Interestingly, during a Moscow conference during the 1980’s, a senior KGB officer claimed that Fidel Castro had begged Moscow to fire its missiles at the United States – perhaps because CIA had tried to murder Castro more than a dozen times?
Cubans suffered terribly and ate grass for decades but refused to bow to US demands. They had to become beholden to Moscow to stave off the USA.
Now, at the end of Fidel Castro’s life, tiny, proud Cuba has won its struggle for independence. Obama’s visit capped Cuba’s pyrrhic victory. US tourist will soon inundate the island, eradicate its seedy 1950’s charm, and see Cuba returned to American tutelage.
Ironically, when Castro revolted against Washington, Cuba was the vanguard of Latin America. Today, half a century later, most of Latin America has become democratic and relatively prosperous while Cuba lingers in dire poverty and authoritarian rule. But at least it was a clean authoritarian rule that genuinely cared for its people, providing high grade medical care and education that in some ways put the US to shame.
Republicans insist the US should not deal with authoritarian Cuba. What flaming hypocrisy. Washington gives billions to the uber ugly Egyptian dictatorship of ‘Field Marshall’ al-Sisi that tortures and guns down its people. The US supports repressive Morocco, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Jordan, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and, biggest malefactor of all, China.
President Obama did the right thing. Viva Barack!