A political philosopher many years back dropped this gem about Washington: “You can lead a man to Congress but you can’t make him think.” Cuba, with its 11 million mixture of nationalists, communists, revolutionists, and feudal landlords, has been the center of our Stupid Virus pandemic for over a century.
As a Marine Corps officer back in the middle 1950s I spent about five months circulating in and out of Haiti, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Vieques Island, and Cuba. US Marines have always played a major role in Caribbean politics. Read Marine General Smedley Butler’s summary of his activities in the 1930s and the Marine role in Yankee imperialism and banking. I have kept files on Cuba since being assigned officer of the day in Havana when our battalion spent about a week there in 1956, a year before a group of student revolutionaries tried to kill Dictator Fulgencio Batista in Havana, the tool of American business, the mafia, and rich Cubans.
As officer of the day, one gets to handle the problems your troops encounter—or the trouble they cause—for a day. In a sin city like Havana was when the US mafia and Meyer Lansky controlled hotels, gambling, prostitution, and other exciting pastimes, it could keep even a cynical officer of the day busy.
Columnist Roger Cohen has a very descriptive paragraph in his 2008 article “The End of the End of the Revolution”: “Over the ensuing century (from about 1865), Cuba became the winter playground of Americans, a place to gamble, rumba, smoke puros (cigars) and sip mojitos (a potent rum drink), the land of every vice and trade. Havana bars advertised ‘Hangover Breakfasts.’ They were much in demand. The mafia loved the island, the largest in the Caribbean; so did the American businessmen who controlled swathes of the sugar industry and much else.”
I remember the first-class hotels, the casinos on many corners run by Lansky and Lucky Luciano of mafia fame, the night clubs with some of America’s greatest talents accompanied by Cuban musicians, dancers, and other entertainers. But if you went 20 miles outside of Havana it was like going back to an ox-cart feudal system of 2,000 years ago.
When Fidel Castro came out of the jungles in 1953 to challenge Batista, much of Cuba was owned by 10 families, and fully a quarter of the best land was either in U.S. hands or controlled by corporations. Cubans were considered to be one of the most unjust, unequal, and most exploited people on the face of the earth. Illiteracy ran 40 percent. We have to remember we ruled Cuba for four years after we intervened in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. (Teddy Roosevelt charging up San Juan Hill made a lasting picture!)
From that war Cuba became an “independent” republic in 1902 -- as long as we had the right to intervene in the island’s affairs. We also gained the right to “cede in perpetuity” a 45-square-mile area on the southeast coast called Guantanamo Bay. I wonder if we still pay about $4,000 a year for the lease. There was a rumor that when Fidel got the annual check he just tossed them in his desk drawer uncashed. There is a very nice harbor at Gitmo, the short name for the area coined by Marines. Now there is a “torture” prison, a festering boil on our international psyche. Actually Fidel and his brother Raul took only six years to defeat Batista, who was serving his second term as president. Some Latin American and Caribbean revolutions have lasted for centuries. Fidel’s fight was for a more just society and education and health care for the masses. Then came the Bay of Pigs, our attempt to throw a snowball into the cauldron of an active volcano. Then came Russia’s attempt to establish a communist missile base 90 miles from our shores, a five-hour boat ride in a fast boat.
In short, our politicians came close to committing a world nuclear holocaust. If we had officially recognized Fidel immediately on Batista’s fall, I’m convinced Cuba would be our 51st state by now. Fidel started out as a socialist, not a certified communist. He needed immediate cash to run a country and we were too dumb to provide it. Nikita Khrushchev wasn’t. The Russian shoe pounder rented the island for a number of years and drove us to the embargo. For some reason, Republican politicians always seem to need a change of underwear when someone whispers, “There’s a commie under your bed.” We need to remember that Fidel and Raul did not turn their July 26th Movement, the name they gave their revolution, into a communist organization until 1965, six years after they marched victoriously into Havana. It’s ironic that in Batista’s first term (1940-44) as Cuba’s president he had the support of Cuba’s Communist Party! That’s the wonderful world of island politics.
One month before President John Kennedy was assassinated he admitted he had smartened up about Cuba: “I believe that there is no country in the world including any and all the countries under colonial domination, where economic colonization, humiliation and exploitation were worse than in Cuba, in part owing to my country’s policies during the Batista regime. I approved the proclamation which Fidel Castro made in the Sierra Madre, when he justifiably called for justice and especially yearned to rid Cuba of corruption. I will even go further: to some extent it is as though Batista was the reincarnation of a number of sins on the part of the United States. Now we shall have to pay for these sins. In the matter of the Batista regime, I am in agreement with the first Cuban revolutionaries. That is perfectly clear.” (A note: Before JFK signed the embargo into law, he sent an aide out to buy 1,200 Cuban cigars. He was going to be prepared for a long one.)
Yes, with our stupid embargo, a decision that ranks next to the Iraq War as one of our biggest political blunders, we are still paying off sins. Can you imagine Las Vegas trying to compete with Havana as a vacation spot? Cuba has over 300 world-class beaches, a beautiful climate, great sports fishing, nine United Nations Heritage sites, and many other attractions. I can attest to the beaches, having flown over many of them in military aircraft. The snorkeling, scuba diving, and other water sports such as swimming with dolphins is among the best in the world. There are Spanish castles and forts built as early as 1638. The National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana rivals the best art galleries in New York. Cuba’s Great Theater of Havana still attracts the most talented ballet dancers in the world. Exciting music is everywhere. The Cuban Ministry of Culture has arranged for the Broadway musical “Rent” to be performed by Cuban performers in Havana this year in conjunction with the Cuban National Council of Performing Arts.
Cuba is not a drab commie satellite in spirit. An international tour director for Cuba maintains that there is different music for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Cuban music is a blend of U.S., African, European, and Latin American ranging from classical to salsa music, American jazz, rumbas, and adaptations from many other countries such as the meringue music from the Dominican Republic. In 1956 I spent a few days in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, at that time called Ciudad De Trujillo. The dictator Trujillo had renamed it in his honor! I watched his daughter parade as Queen of Mardi Gras. And be careful with the rum in Cuba. Read the labels. Some of it is 150-proof that will knock both your socks and shoes off.
A reporter who has spent some time in Cuba under Fidel and Raul has made important observations about the Cuban psyche. He noticed that Cubans on the coast rarely look at the sea, and if they are sitting in chairs the backs are usually facing the sea. I think that is really curious. Corky and I have had lake places for 50 years. Our chairs always face the water. We lived on a barrier island called New Topsail off the North Carolina coast for two years -- 20 feet from the Atlantic. We always looked at the sea and the horizon, searching for ships and life -- or just looking at all that water.
Fidel had declared very early that ordinary Cubans could not own boats and had to have permission to buy a car. Very few Cubans were allowed to buy cars (unless the cars were Russian models!). That’s why Havana is filled with 1950 models of American cars held together by wire, spit, and rust. Cuba has only 660,000 cars for 11 million people -- and the government owns half of them. The Cuban coast is loaded with great harbors but there is something weird about them. There are no small boats parked in or near them.
The Cuban economy is a disaster because of the Castros and our embargo. Actually the Castros have now survived 10 of our presidents because of the embargo. They could always blame the U.S. for all of its economic problems. There’s no doubt that the embargo hurt the Cuban people while helping Fidel and Raul to stay in power for 60 years. Yes, the typical Cuban earns a salary of $20 a month with doctors making as much as $40. With pesos converting at 25 to the dollar, each Cuban is allocated 10 eggs, 11 ounces of fish, 8 ounces of mince, and a few other items of food per month. He can buy this whole lot for 25 pesos, but he is on his own for the rest of the month! The hunt for food is almost constant with ration book in hand.
When the revolution started Cuba had only 6,000 doctors. It now has 80,000, well trained in most specialties. Medical care for the masses is so good the World Health Organization ranks Cuba ahead of the U.S. in health care. In fact, Cuba has sent more doctors to central Africa to fight the ebola pandemic than even the U.S. Cuba sponsors 50,000 doctors and nurses in 60 countries. Cubans live as long as Americans (76 for males, 80 for females), and the live birth rate is very close. Education is quite good and illiteracy has been eliminated. Over 97% of Cuban youth graduate from high school as compared to our 85%. Fidel has kept some of his promises, even with the yoke of the embargo around his neck.
The United Nations had an interesting embargo ban vote in 1998. Only two nations out of 159 voted against eliminating the ban. Only the U.S and our puppet Israel voted against the advisory ban. Certainly the Castro brothers have violated the human and civil rights of many of their dissidents by putting them in prison. But after our recent records on torture in the last decade, let’s not get the high hat. The American people favor lifting the embargo and having diplomatic relations with Cuba as President Obama has outlined. Obama has been a president that in the end does not like to do stupid things. Only Republicans heavily involved in Florida politics are opposed to lifting the embargo. It’s really rather silly to say that a nation of 11 million can seriously threaten a nation of 320 million. We have a couple of Cuban senators named Rubio and Cruz who are opposed to lifting the embargo, but they both are crazies who are running for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. They both need the Tea Party vote to get it. They both are acting like very young Pithecanthropus Just Erecti unfit for high office.
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