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Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Semper Fidel

I was in Havana, Cuba, once for about four hours.  At the time,  Fidel Castro was off in the mountains somewhere conducting guerrilla raids.  I was with a bunch of men wearing U.S. Army uniforms.  

The circumstance was caused by bad weather.  We had been flown from Germany to Ft. Bliss at El Paso, Texas,  for some test firing of guided missiles.  We had just taken off on the return trip to Germany to transfer to a trans-Atlantic transport to take us back to our post, when our flight was diverted to Florida because a storm was wending its way up the Atlantic coast.  At first,  we thought we would be picking up the flight at Miami.  But the aircraft scheduled to take us was hunkered down in New Jersey waiting for the storm to pass.  We were told we would have a 12-hour delay before we could reboard our aircraft to meet the one in New Jersey.

While we were lolling about the air terminal,  a man who worked for a tour service told some of the men he could provide a tour at a "special GI rate" to Havana and have us back in plenty time for our flight if we could enough men to sign up.  The men got permission from the officers, who got assurances from the tour service that we would be kept in a group and returned in time for our flight.  They quickly found enough men who did not want to sit around an air terminal for a day and we were soon loaded on to a DC-3 for a quick hop to Havana.  

It was a routine tour.  We took a stroll along the water front,  were shown the town's architecture,  visited a rum distillery where there was a sample tasting (some of the men had trouble getting past the dark rum),  saw a cigar-rolling demonstration,  (rum and cigars were, of course, for sale), and ended up at a casino that put on an extravagant stage show.  The big band that played Afro-Cuban jazz was for some of us worth the whole trip.

But what struck most of us was an attitude we received from people we encountered as we walked about town.  Some of the people were obviously prostitutes,  but they all gave us angry looks and many said things in a spitting manner.  We could clearly make out the world "Americanos."  Gonzalez,  a bilingual from Chicago,  told us what the rest of the words were.  They weren't complimentary,   and clearly conveyed that our presence was not appreciated.

This occurred some months before Castro came to Havana and drove the Batiste regime out.  American businesses owned most of the sugar cane business and much of the tourist operations in Cuba. An American mobster,   Meyer Lansky,  owned or controlled the casinos.  Batiste's government and the businesses were cozy with the American government.  While some people were well off,  most were not.  The best hope for young women from the rural areas was to become a prostitute in Havana.  Americans were regarded as part of the mob that operated Havana as their personal den of iniquity.  Castro's raids against Batiste and the successful guerrilla operations led by him and Che Guevara were raising the hope that Cuba could be something different.  Americans and Batiste were regarded as the enemy.

Those people we encountered on the streets of Havana let us know we were part of what they hoped to be rid of,  and Castro was coming.  Castro was regarded as a liberator,  not only by Cubans, but by many people in America.  After he succeeded in taking over Cuba,  he seemed friendly to America,  but after a few months denounced the USA and formed an alliance with the Soviet Union.  

The case in Cuba was a matter of a dictator being displaced by a dictator.  Castro enforced reforms that rid Cuba of the mob and his full-bore communist programs did give many people services that they had not been able to afford before. Tom Lawrence reports what George McGovern said about a tour Castro gave him:  "He wanted us to see there were no prostitutes on the streets, no gambling dens, no nightclubs," McGovern told me. "That all left with the Americans, he told us." However,  he followed the precedent of Stalin,  detaining, executing, and oppressing dissenters and others he thought to be dangerous to his regime.

More than a million Cubans came to the U.S. as refugees,  centering around Miami and making it a bastion of anti-Castro activity.  Others settled elsewhere, as opportunity presented itself.  One of my colleagues when I first started teaching college was a former Cuban newspaper editor who became a professor of Spanish.  He in the  loudest terms let those around him know of Castro's atrocities, including the 5,600 executions at his command.    

One of the ironies of our time is that many people who were welcomed and protected by the U.S. in their flight from Castro supported Donald Trump in his anti-immigrant tirades. 

Over the years,  there have been many leaders, leaders such as George McGovern and Jimmy Carter, who have extended friendship to the Cuban people.  They saw the embargo and other actions against Castro were hardening and justifying the anti-American attitudes among the people.  With full recognition of the part America has played in Cuba's history,  they saw the need to reach past politics and show a respect and a regard for the people.  They thought that non-hostile relations was the best way to neutralize a Soviet outpost situated 90-miles from our shore.  

Obama has tried to bring Cuba into full participation as a country in Latin America, as opposed to being a pariah.  Other countries in the hemisphere have normal relations with Cuba,  but the American blockade has been an obstacle.  Castro made Cuba a prison-nation for his people,  and Obama has contended that the past ostracism of Cuba by America has not produced any results politically, but kept the people of Cuba in economic bondage.  

At Castro's death,  the right-wing critics rose up against Obama.  The President chose not to  condemn Castro for his treachery,  but said he'd leave it to history to decide.  Given the facts of the oppression and executions,  history has in effect already decided,  but Obama thought it best not to further inflame the situation at the time of Castro's death.  Donald Trump took the occasion to assert that if Cuba did not bend to his will,  he would revoke the diplomatic relations.  

Those of us who took that little tour of Havana in 1958 were reviled by people on the streets.  It was not the first time.  When we landed in Germany to bring guided missile air defense as part of the NATO agreement,  we were greeted outside the Frankfort air base with signs that told us to go home.  The military command initiated a huge public relations campaign to assure the people of Germany that our missiles were for air defense purposes only to enhance the peace,  not endanger it.  We were asked to participate in good will events with the German people.  Some of us became curious about how Hitler had managed to gain control of the people in the land of Goethe, Beethoven, and Bach.  There was a tendency in the people, even during those Cold War years,  that hinted at attitudes of racial superiority,  a tendency to place blame for personal failures on scapegoats, an acceptance of platitudes that reinforced their prejudices and mindsets.  We also discovered a resistance among some of the people to those attitudes of national superiority.  People who had resisted the Nazis throughout Europe became important in establishing the direction that post-war Europe took.  

Trumps rise to political power parallels that of Hitler.  But it also shares similarities with Castro's.  Fidel conducted his campaign with promises of removing Batiste and replacing his regime with democracy.  He betrayed many supporters,  and millions of Cubans left.  But many more stayed behind to try to continue their struggle.  Their lives did improve somewhat, although they were not free and lived under the suppression of Soviet-style communism.  Fidel, however, had a magnetizing personality that many people saw as their protector. He took measures to see that they never saw or experienced the kind of freedom and possibility that existed in America.  Many who caught those glimpses, however,  defected to America.

People like George McGovern thought it would be in the U.S.  interest to develop a relationship with Cuba so that its people could see the advantages of democracy and exert an influence for change.  Now Trump threatens to end the relationship.  Cubans will not have access to a vision of America.  And with Trump,  neither will a lot of Americans.  

1 comment:

Jerry27 said...

The first time I heard of Cuba was during the Cuban missle crisis. I had two older brothers in the marines who went on "alert".

Over the years, I perk up when I hear someone fawning about Castro. Were my brothers readying to fight on the wrong side? I heard last week that Ed Sullivan had the George Washington of Cuba on his Sunday night television show. Lee Havey Oswald and Madalyn Murray O'hair were both active in fair play for Cuba.

My latest diversion is reading thru some Warren Commision testimony on Cuba.\

I will let you know what I find out.


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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States