A Yankee Notebook

February 22, 2016


MONTPELIER – Almost lost in the hubbub surrounding the Republican nomination campaigns and the Supreme Court succession drama has been the announcement that President Obama will visit Cuba in mid-March as part of a trip to Latin America. The President promises candid discussions with Cuban leader Raul Castro, concerning the concessions each expects the other’s nation to make in order to establish full economic relations between the two long-estranged countries. Opponents of the American President, who typically can find nothing about him they like – I half-expect to read someday a criticism of his ties – are predicting he will give away too much; and, since Congress has the last word in the status of the decades-long embargo, it’s likely to attempt to stymie any changes. Especially vociferous are the members who have long represented the opinions of the aging, Republican-voting Cuban exile community of Florida.

It’s been 88 years since a United States president last visited Cuba. Calvin Coolidge, as thoroughgoing a Vermonter as there has ever been, sailed from Miami to Havana in January of 1928 to address a pan-American conference. The battleship Texas made quite the entrance, just thirty years after the explosion of the Maine in Havana Harbor. Cuba at the time was still essentially a satrapy of the United States. The political rise of Fulgencio Batista, the immigration of the American Mob, and the revolution led by Fidel Castro were over the horizon, still unseen.

Fidel, whom the United States at first suffered as an alternative to the corrupt Batista regime, turned out to be (horrors!) a communist. Ever the meddlers, since the days of President Monroe, and ever impatient, we set out to unseat him – in favor of what, it isn’t clear. President Eisenhower, convinced by a cadre of anti-communist advisers, canceled a 700,000-ton shipment of imported Cuban sugar and, in a that’ll-fix-’em move, cut off exports of United States oil to the island. Cuba was thus forced to import crude oil from its new political ally, Russia. American oil refineries in Cuba refused to handle the Russian oil. (The one-upping in all these moves betrayed egos at work, instead of foresight.) So Castro nationalized the refineries and declined to reimburse their owners.

The United States in October 1960 had imposed the first embargo; in February 1962 it tightened it further. John Kennedy, taking office at the start of 1961, had inherited a (not too) secret force of American-trained Cuban exiles eager to return home and remove Castro from power. Kennedy was equally eager to keep the United States’ fingerprints off the operation, and feared the invasion would be “too big to conceal and too small to succeed.” He was right. It was a disaster. The hoped-for welcome and uprising by the Cuban people (sound familiar?) failed to materialize. The invaders were killed or captured within 24 hours.

We Americans underestimate the power of the revolution, even all these years later, to unite the Cuban people. On a recent visit to Cuba, our crew was driven by an articulate middle-aged Cuban whose father, a fighter pilot, was shot down at the Bay of Pigs. As the son of a “Hero of the Revolution,” he still enjoys better-than-average housing and relative immunity from the normal hassles of life in a controlled society, and seemed guardedly optimistic about the island’s future.

But the embargo lives on, as much a relic of the Cold War as the Berlin Wall, and still stoutly defended by conservatives who cannot stomach the thought of doing business with a communist regime that limits human rights – though, if they inspected their luggage or undershorts, they’d no doubt find they were made in China.

Consider all the walls of history, and whether they worked. The mightiest of all, the Great Wall of China, consumed untold lives and treasure in its construction, and allowed the dynasty behind it to languish and become corrupt, till finally the general in charge of manning the wall, disheartened by the worthlessness of the regime he was protecting, left the gates open and unmanned – exactly what happened with the notorious Berlin Wall within our own memories. Hadrian’s Wall, the walls north of Rome to keep out the barbarians, Trump’s Wall on the Mexican border, Rubio’s on the Canadian border – all either useless in the end, or fantastical in prospect.

Cubans have for two generations made do with minimal comforts of life. They enjoy an enviable free medical system and even send doctors to the scenes of foreign epidemics.  The government provides an excellent education; on one trip there, we had kids in school uniforms approach us asking us to speak English with them so they could practice. They even knew where Vermont was! How many American kids can find Havana on the map? Cuban motor vehicles are picturesque museum pieces; they may smoke, but they run. And somehow the combination of Caribbean, European, and African blood has produced the handsomest people I’ve ever seen.

If I have any reservation about the desirability of full relations with Cuba, it’s that what has defaced Jamaica, for example, will happen there: high-walled resorts (think Sandals) that look paradisiacal, but are surrounded by the most abject, tin-roofed poverty imaginable. The Cuban natural environment,, also, is relatively undisturbed, and we have a sorry history of trampling.

Another Vermonter – this one adopted – has composed the text of this argument in his poem “Mending Wall”: Something there is that doesn’t love a wall....Before I built a wall I'd ask to know what I was walling in or walling out, and to whom I was like to give offense. It’s past time for this superannuated wall to come down, but the old Cold Warriors want it kept in place. It’s not good fences so much that make good neighbors; it’s neighbors not afraid to be friendly.

Photo by Willem lange