The Forbidden Island

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Cuba: The Forbidden Island Wakes Up

by Eric Margolis

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Havana, Cuba — Fifty years ago this month the US and USSR came terrifying close to full-scale thermonuclear war. I vividly recalled those days of fear while staring at a rusting Soviet medium-ranged SS-4 missile displayed outside the La Cabana fortress

Nuclear-armed Soviet SS-4's and SS-5's, secretly brought into Cuba, were poised to destroy Washington and much of the US East Coast. US forces were at DEFCON 2, the second highest alert status before full-scale war, and massed in Florida to invade Cuba.

Washington was the prime Soviet target. As a student there at Georgetown University, I vividly recall how frightened we were, and how helpless we felt. We would have been even more frightened had we known that Soviet subs with nuclear missiles were headed for Cuba or that Moscow had smuggled in nuclear-tipped Frog artillery missiles to blast any US beachheads.

History and US spin has made the Cuban crisis a great victory for the United States. Reality is different. In fact, the Kennedy Administration backed down, pledging the US would never invade Cuba — which was Moscow's prime goal. US missiles in Italy and Turkey targeted on the USSR were quietly removed. Moscow took its SS-4's and SS-5's out of Cuba.

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev won his goal of saving Cuba and Fidel Castro's Marxist regime from a US invasion. But it was such a terrifying gamble the Soviet Politburo deposed Khrushchev shortly after. Kennedy got far more credit than he deserved for the crisis. Soviet KGB and general staff veterans have claimed that Fidel Castro begged the Soviets to fire their nuclear weapons at the United States.

In the early 1960's, Communist Cuba was the vanguard of revolution in Latin America, and soon after, then Africa. Cuba, with around 12 million people, field armed forces of 400,000, and sent a foreign legion of 100,000 to fight in Black Africa.

Fidel Castro and Che Guevara's Cuba was the only Communist regime outside Mao's China that had romantic appeal to western youth. Fidel's vows to promote education, health care and land distribution sounded revolutionary when Latin America was mostly ruled by US-backed oligarchs and generals. The Cuba romantics ignored its human rights violations and police state.

But that was long ago. The combined pressure of crushing US trade and financial sanctions and the inherent failures of the Marxist economic system left Cuba isolated, trapped in the past. Today, once picturesque colonial Havana is a Caribbean Pompeii, a museum of the 1950's with its crumbling buildings and magnificent vintage American cars.

Half a century later, Latin America has rid itself of inept military dictators and achieved dramatic social and economic development. The US no longer treats Latin America with the paternalism and frequent contempt it did fifty years ago. Ironically, Cuba, with a living standard not far from that of the US in the early 50's, was left behind in a time warp. Castro's Cuba does have a high standard of health care and education, but the rest of the economy and society are battered beyond belief. Still, the Castro dictatorship, now run by brother Raul, has been honest and genuinely concerned for its people.

This past weekend's Americas summit in Caratgena, Colombia resonated with demands that Cuba be included in the next meeting. All Latin America has demanded an end to the five-decades old US embargo of Cuba. Given that the US has flourishing relations with Communist China, Laos, and Vietnam, or that it supported the Mubarak dictatorship in Egypt that was far more brutal than the Castro regime, boycotting Cuba because it remains Marxist has become a bad old joke.

President Obama caved in to the hard right Cuban lobby in Florida by refusing to open the door to Cuba. The only nation to support him was Canada, whose rightwing government is increasingly guided by religious fundamentalists from Alberta. Ironically, Canada has long helped sustain the Castro government through aid, tourism and industry.

I've been going to Cuba since the pre-Castro era. My parents used to meet Ernest Hemingway for daiquiri cocktails at the famed La Floridita Bar, today, sadly an over-priced tourist trap. In my bookcase: "A Farewell to Arms," inscribed "to Eric the painter from his friend Ernest Hemingway, Havana, 1952."

Contrary to expectations, no big changes occurred after Raul Castro assumed leadership from the ailing Fidel. Yet I have observed many small but significant developments on my regular trips to Cuba. Things are changing.

Thanks to Raul's recent reforms, small private enterprise is bubbling up everywhere. Aid and oil from Venezuela has kept the island afloat. People are more outspoken, a little less wary of the secret police and informers. One feels growing energy pulsating into Havana's delightful old city. With its beautiful buildings, friendly, attractive people, and little music bars with their electrifying salsa bands, Havana is poised to resume its role of 50 years ago as the most fun — and perhaps wickedest city — in the world. All it needs are more hotels, better food, and waves of young Yankee partyers. Already, some 100,000-200,000 Americans sneak into forbidden Cuba each year.

America's Great Satan, Fidel Castro, is sidelined by age and illness, but Cubans still love their national papa figure. Brother Raul, now pushing 81, has gained respect for his leadership. But once the Castro era is over, what will happen?

Either a power grab by the military and old guard, or the half million Miami-based Cubans will return and rebuild Cuba. A tsunami of US money will swamp Cuba, washing it into the modern world but erasing much of its austere charm and sense of community. Many friends of Cuba do not look forward to this change, though Cubans desperately need relief from their threadbare existence.

Fidel Castro was admired across Latin America for proudly defying the mighty US and refusing to follow Washington's direction. Cuba paid a heavy price for its independence: poverty, repression, Soviet influence. Today's Cubans may decide their proud but painful continued independence is not worth the heavy cost.

Eric Margolis [send him mail] is the author of War at the Top of the World and the new book, American Raj: Liberation or Domination?: Resolving the Conflict Between the West and the Muslim World. See his website.

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