Some ‘Splainin’ Still to Do

We are finally moving toward a saner policy toward Cuba.


Albeit way too slowly.

Yes, it once was a danger...but no more

Yes, it once was a danger...but no more

I have no personal ties to Cuba or vested interest in U.S. relations toward the island. I probably slept through most of the missile crisis of ’62, having been a toddler at the time. But I know I loved the TV movie about it, The Missiles of October (less so the theatrical 13 Days, probably because of how much I hate Kevin Costner), and as my work assignments brought me deep into Cold War history (a plug for one of my early, good projects, based on the CNN series on the Cold War, is here), I always tracked the waxing and waning of our attitudes: almost complete isolation to punish that nasty Fidel, balanced with less isolation, but still less engagement than we’ve had with other Communist nations.

The first piquing actually came when I was an undergrad and heard Wayne Smith speak. Smith had been head of the U.S. Interest Section in Havana, and when Reagan began the hard right turn in U.S. relations with Cuba, Smith often spoke and wrote against it. Leaders of both parties, Smith believed, had gone out of their way to demonize Castro, and their actions toward his regime seemed to suggest that Cuba was a bigger danger to the United States than Russia, which everyone knew was ludicrous. Of course, everyone also knew a large community of exiled Russians didn’t play an influential political role in a key swing state loaded with electoral votes.

Sure, ideology has fueled the more extreme measures under Reagan and Dubya regarding U.S. policy with Cuba. But politics has always been a huge part of the debate. Now, with Fidel out of power (nominally, anyway) and the simple passage of time, it seems the Cuban-American community is no longer monolithic in its rabid anti-Communism/anti-Castroism, or in its Republican leanings. Playing to that portion of the diaspora and their descendents no longer translates into political victories.

To me, this is the real nut of the issue:  our attitudes and policies make no sense. During the height of the Cold War, when thousands of Russkie missiles were aimed at the American heartland, we talked to the Soviets. Our leaders met with theirs. We didn’t expect them to accept all our demands as a precondition for diplomacy. And Americans could travel to Russia, although with restrictions, without jumping through hoops or fear of being branded a criminal.

What good did it serve to limit how often Cuban Americans could visit relatives on the island, or what they could send them? Why restrict educational travel to Cuba, when direct knowledge of others – particularly an “enemy” – might be a first step toward finding some common understanding? As one anti-Castro, Cuban-American group finally admitted, the bullying policies failed in their goal of crushing communism in Cuba. Arguably, our embargo (which endures under Obama) and other restrictions brought more hardship than anything else to the Cuban people.

Beard, cigar - gotta be evil

Beard, cigar - gotta be evil

I know Cuba is an emotional topic for the people who fled Castro’s tyranny (some of my leftist friends might not like that word, but let’s call it what it is). Some of them prospered under the pro-American regime manipulated by the Mafia and U.S. companies. Castro’s supporters welcomed the end of that glitzy age of nightclubs and mambos; they liked the improvements in health care and education the revolutionary government brought to the Cubans who didn’t thrive under the old system. Not to mention a sense of national pride in ending U.S. influence on the island more than half-a-century old. Others said those gains came at too high a price – the loss of freedom. So, yeah, I know, the debate goes on about whether Castro was good for Cuba.

Here’s my point on the history of our relations with Cuba: Richard Nixon sat down with Mao, laughing and drinking and making small talk. With a man responsible for the death of tens of millions of people. Ping-pong diplomacy and the thaw in U.S-Sino relations were hailed as great diplomatic breakthroughs; ditto détente with the Soviets. But we can’t have normal diplomatic relations with a country that, once the Soviet missiles went home, posed no military threat to us? Posed no economic threat? Had, realistically, never done anything to the United States, except perhaps tweak the nose of a few politicians and ideologues and corporate execs?

OK, maybe one or two strolls along a beach...

OK, maybe one or two strolls along a beach...

Some day I hope to travel to Cuba – legally, with no strings. Not for the beaches, not for the food, not because I support communism. I just want to see for myself what the embargo has done. Hear for myself what the people think of Castro, the United States, the days before the revolution. I want to learn about a country in a way you can only when you visit it. President Obama, you got some ‘splainin’ to do about why your first step, while good, didn’t go even farther. Let’s finally have a realistic foreign policy with Cuba, all right?


~ by mburgan on April 19, 2009.

2 Responses to “Some ‘Splainin’ Still to Do”

  1. To me, it makes perfect sense that the US would be on bad diplomatic terms with Cuba. Cuba is, as you said, no real “threat” to the United States. China and Russia, however, could be. That’s why there had to be some sort of diplomacy there, to avoid conflict. Cuba, on the other hand, is just a small island and any conflict could be squashed. Cuba was a change to show just how anti-Communist the US was, kind of like picking on the littlest kid at the playground.

  2. You’re right, it did make sense to talk to the “big boys” of communism, though it took some 20 years after we “lost” China to start serious diplomacy with them. And the bully analogy is right on. I guess my real carp is that we expected Cuba to do everything we wanted as a precondition to talking, and especially under Reagan and Dubya (and of course the Bushies took that approach with everyone–Iran, N. Korea, etc.). That’s just not how diplomacy really works–if you’re serious about it. The idea is to talk to reach some sort of compromise, if one can be reached. If you really want to reach one. Obviously, with Cuba, we didn’t. My way or the highway. I think we’ll see a different attitude now; or at least for the next four years…

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