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Welcome Mister President

by Eric Margolis by Eric Margolis

Tomorrow’s inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama has more of the mood of a second coming than the investiture of a new president. Of course, the Bush administration, the most catastrophic in memory, is an easy act to follow.

Barack Hussein (the middle moniker that dares not speak its name) Obama brings a bounty of hope, whereas the Bush administration brought fear-mongering, wars, flirtation with fascism, and financial ruin.

Some 80% of Americans in a recent poll are strongly positive about Obama. But once "the expected one" Obama takes office, reality is going to set in and the euphoria will quickly dissipate as the young president confronts truly gargantuan problems and Washington’s powers that be assert their influence and bind him with a thousand cords.

Still, like most people, I am elated to see the last of the sinister Bush administration and welcome the new president, a man of dignity, intelligence and strength. Tomorrow will be a majestic day for all Americans of color. As an American (and a Canadian) I am awfully proud. It’s been a long time since I felt good about my country.

So all best wishes to our new president. I would also suggest that one of his first official acts should be to immediately close the shameful Devil’s Island at Guantanamo, Cuba, and order this base, an embarrassing relic of 19th-century American imperialism, returned forthwith to Cuba. His next step should be to ask Congress to end the hypocritical, idiotic 50-year embargo of Cuba.

I am just back from Cuba, and here follows my observations on its 50th anniversary of Communist rule.

HAVANA — The 50th anniversary of Fidel Castro’s revolution has been a very modest, low-key affaire, totally out of keeping with this island’s normally boisterous fiestas. Fidel remains gravely ill. He has been out of sight for the past two years, though he publishes news commentary from seclusion.

Economically stricken Cuba is hanging on by its fingernails. Life is grim and hard on this beautiful but impoverished island. Food is rationed and scarce, public transport erratic, and blackouts common. Many people living in decrepit apartment buildings must haul buckets of water up numerous flights of stairs.

In the early 1950’s (an era how seemingly as remote as Ancient Egypt), my parents used to bring me to Havana each winter, and we often joined Ernest Hemingway and his mistress Pilar for daiquiris at its fabled "Floridita Bar." He was big, vivacious man with a white beard and a rumbling laugh. I took an immediate liking to the famed writer, and he was very kind to me, telling me stories about the Spanish civil war and deep-water fishing. 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 guerilla war against the US-backed Batista dictatorship. Cuba was then a virtual American colony: Americans owned 60% of Cuba’s farmland and industry. But, contrary to Communist history, the island was not a wasteland of gangsters, prostitutes and oligarchs. It was the West Indies’ most developed, prosperous island with a well-developed middle class and a living standard that was near the top of Latin America’s.

On 1 January, 1959, Castro’s guerilla fighters arrived in Havana and proclaimed a revolutionary republic. For the first time in its long history (Havana is 50—70 years older than New York City), Cuba was genuinely independent of Spanish rule and American domination.

Once Castro was in power, his comrade-in-arms, Ernesto "Che" Guevera, today an icon of romantic revolution to the uninformed and juvenile, ordered the execution of over 600 "bourgeois." Che then went off to the Congo to wage revolution but found cannibalism instead of a waiting proto-Marxist proletariat and was quickly run out of the chaotic country by the CIA.

Undaunted, Che headed to Bolivia, where he got killed leading a farcically inept Marxist revolution. That nation’s dirt-poor peasants rejected Che and turned him in. CIA’s famed agent, Felix Rodriguez, finished off Che. But, as Che rightly observed, "revolutionaries never die." His memory went on to live as a pop image on t-shirts and berets around the globe.

Che’s fiascos notwithstanding, in an era when America bullied and exploited Latin America, and treated its people with contempt and scorn, Castro’s revolution was a triumph. His resistance to 50 years of US efforts to overthrow or assassinate him, and a near-lethal embargo, was epic. Recall that this was the era when most of Latin American was ruled by US-backed military dictators or civilian oligarchs.

US attempts to topple Castro nearly led to nuclear war with the USSR in 1962. The Soviets rushed nuclear-tipped missiles into Cuba to thwart a planned US invasion. The US imposed a naval blockade of Cuba and massed forces for an invasion. Nuclear war was very close. I was a student at Washington’s Georgetown University at the time and vividly recall how frightened we all were.

In the end, Moscow won the confrontation, though Americans were led to believe by White House spin, their media, and Hollywood that President John Kennedy was the victor. Moscow withdrew its missiles in exchange for the US agreeing never to invade Cuba and pulling its missiles out of Italy and Turkey. Castro was saved by Moscow.

In recent years, KGB veterans of the Cuban missile crisis have claimed that Castro begged Nikita Khrushchev to fire nuclear weapons at the US mainland. Moscow refused.

The cost of maintaining Cuba’s independence and dignity was poverty, dictatorship, and quickly becoming a Soviet satellite until the USSR collapsed in 1991. 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 1950’s: decaying, melancholy, dark and depressing.

Cuba has one of Latin America’s best medical and education system, and highest literacy. But life in Cuba is punishing: food and power shortages, endless queuing, grinding poverty and constant supervision by secret policemen and Communist party informers — in short, tropical Stalinism.

Castro blames this misery on the US embargo. The US blames Castro’s failed Stalinist economics for the mess. In fact, both are responsible. Cuba has suffered fifty years of the kind of pitiless collective punishment that Gaza has been experiencing, just in slower-motion.

The US has maintained its crushing boycott under the laughable pretexts that Havana holds 200 political prisoners and is Communist. Yet the US cheerfully deals with Communist China and Vietnam, and itself holds 36,000 Iraqi political prisoners, not to mention Guantanamo. America’s ally Israel holds 10,000 Palestinian political prisoners.

It’s high time the West Indies’ largest island was welcomed back to this hemisphere and given civilized treatment. A recent poll showed that even 55% of Miami’s once fanatically anti-Castro Cubans now support ending the US embargo.

On an interesting side note, Fidel Castro used to warn black and mulatto Cubans, who are about 60% of the population, that the US was a deeply racist nation that hated blacks. The election of Barack Obama has exploded that argument. Cubans are just as agog over Obama as everyone else.

Chinese influence is moving into Cuba, and Russia is reasserting its strategic presence by rearming Cuba’s obsolete military forces. So the US has little time to lose.

First Fidel, and now Raul Castro, have been happy to keep the US at arm’s length by provoking occasional crises. An end to US-Cuban hostility could bring up to two million US tourists. The creaky Communist control system could not withstand this invasion. Nor could the Spartan tourist infrastructure.

Young Cubans are yearning for the kind of anti-Communist revolution that swept Eastern Europe. So the Party, which refuses to implement Chinese-style reforms, may keep Cuba frozen in time.

As I wrote from Havana eight years ago, there will be no major changes until Fidel Castro, whom just about all Cubans regard as their nation’s beloved "papa," finally dies.

The age of Yankee imperialism in Latin America is over. Cuba raised the banner of revolt, and paid the price. Now is the time for Cuba to rejoin the polity of Latin American democratic nations as a member in good standing. America, I hope, will by now have learned to treat Cuba with dignity, respect and economic restraint.

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