HAVANA -- I came to Havana to cover the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution because this beautiful island holds a big place in my heart.
My parents used to bring me to Havana each winter, and we often joined Ernest Hemingway at the fabled La Floridita Bar. He was big, vivacious man with a white beard and a rumbling laugh. I still have one of his books, inscribed, "to Eric, from his friend Ernest Hemingway, Havana, 1951."
Eight years later, a Communist lawyer named Fidel Castro Ruiz stormed ashore with 81 men to begin a guerrilla war against the U.S.-backed Fulgencio Batista dictatorship. Cuba was then a virtual American colony: Americans owned 60% of Cuba's farmland and industry.
On Jan. 1, 1959, Castro's guerrilla fighters arrived in Havana and proclaimed a revolutionary republic. For the first time in its long history (Havana is 50-70 years older than Quebec City or New York), Cuba was genuinely independent of foreign rule.
Once Castro was in power, his comrade, Ernesto "Che" Guevara, today an icon of romantic revolution to the uninformed, ordered the execution of over 600 "bourgeois," then got killed leading a farcically inept revolution in Bolivia.
In an era when America bullied and exploited Latin America, Castro's revolution was a triumph. His resistance to 50 years of U.S. efforts to overthrow or assassinate him, and a near-lethal embargo, was epic.
U.S. attempts to topple Castro nearly led to nuclear war with the U.S.S.R. in 1962. The crisis was resolved by Moscow withdrawing missiles it brought in to defend Cuba, in exchange for president John Kennedy agreeing not to invade Cuba and pulling U.S. missiles from Italy and Turkey. The result was a victory for Cuba and the U.S.S.R., but Kennedy got the kudos.
The cost of Cuba's independence and dignity was poverty, dictatorship and becoming a Soviet satellite. Today, only oil-rich Venezuela and Canadian tourists are keeping battered Cuba afloat.
Havana, once called "the naughtiest city on earth," is a museum of the 1950s: Decaying, melancholy, dark.
Cuba has Latin America's best medical and education system, and highest literacy. But life in Cuba is grim: Food and power shortages, endless queuing, grinding poverty and constant supervision by secret policemen and Communist party informers.
Castro blames this misery on the U.S. embargo. The U.S. blames Castro's rickety Stalinist economics. Both are responsible. Cuba has suffered 50 years of the kind of collective punishment that Gaza is now experiencing. The U.S. has maintained its crushing boycott under the pretext that Havana holds 200 political prisoners and is Communist. Yet the U.S. cheerfully deals with Communist China and Vietnam, and itself holds 36,000 Iraqi political prisoners, not to mention Guantanamo.
I hope one of president-elect Barack Obama's first acts is to demand Congress end the hypocritical, idiotic embargo. Even half of Miami's once fanatically anti-Castro Cubans now support ending it.
Obama could neatly break the Cold War ice by flying down to Cuba for a round of golf. Or let Canada, which is hugely liked in Cuba, open the doors.
It's high time the West Indies' largest island was welcomed back to this hemisphere and given civilized treatment. Equally important, Chinese influence is moving into Cuba and Russia is reasserting its strategic presence. Moscow plans to rearm Cuba's military. So the U.S. has little time to lose.
First Fidel, and now Raul Castro, have been happy to keep the U.S. at arm's length. An end to U.S.-Cuban hostility could bring up to two million U.S. tourists a year.
The dying Communist control system could not withstand this invasion. So the party, which refuses to implement Chinese-style reforms, may keep Cuba frozen in time.
The age of ham-handed Yankee imperialism in Latin America is over. Cuba raised the banner of revolt and paid the price. We should now help Cuba rejoin the polity of Latin American democratic nations and hope Washington will have learned to tread lightly in Cuba and show more respect.
My Letter to EM:
Good piece this morning.
Glad to see you're not on the Che bandwagon...
I was in Habana as well, and wasn't surprised to see the Jan 1 celebrations limited to the plaza by the Nacional (built for the Elian family reunion I seem to remember)..
There were no celebrations in the other parts of the city I visited. Ordinary Cubanos don't have much to celebrate - especially those of african heritage who don't get hotel jobs...
The greatest challenges faced by Cuba are not only political.
The place needs about 60 B US in infrastructure development (according to the CIA) to be able to take advantage of rapprochement and hordes of US tourists (who in my experience down there with such won't settle for Cuba 4 star accommodations). No roads, no water, no electrical, no ports to unload material, no rail, no refrgeration, etc.
And the current septugenarian leadership at all levels needs to go completely (which they will not do readily - note recent demotion of Perez Rogue and other youngsters).
Not to mention, that the leadership has to accept investment that doesnt play by their rules (ie you invest your money, we own it, you pay us to pay your staff and give us 10% off the top and we won't repay and loans you make).
Appreciate that it took US and Canada 14 years to negotiate a free trade agreement - and we were best friends and trading partners. How long will it take for two traditional philosophical enemies?
Long way to go - doubt we'll see a happy Cuba in our lifetime - Obama or not.
Good analysis. Right on target. The Cuban government has been ripping off foreign investors and making their life miserable.
I watched the celebrations from the cliff in front of the Nacional - what a disappointment. Thanks for your thoughts.
1. Cigars - 65% of all cuban cigars sold in cuba are phonys - still better than White Owls, but not the real thing. Buy them as novelties but not for true Cubano smoking experience
While in Habana, got a chance to say hello to famed HR crusader Yoani Sanchez of Generacion Y. For facts and truth about the status of Cubans visit Yoani's blog.
Went down to Cuba with my sweetie Kate to catch rays, catch up with friends, and get an up to the minute update on how things are going as well as see how Cubanos were celebrating 50 years of papa Fidel. Last year went to Santiago de Cuba, so it's been two years since my last visit to the place.