The U.S. and Cuba: What Comes Next?

February 18
Dateline: A Hotel Veranda in Cienfuegos

This morning after breakfast we all gathered on the veranda of our hotel to hear Tom Miller deliver a talk entitled U.S./Cuba Relations: Hope for the Future? As Tom talked, we sipped strong Cuba coffee and were gently buffeted by the warm morning breeze.

Cuba’s ties with United States go back to the time of Thomas Jefferson’s presidency. Jefferson, ever the expansionist, coveted the island and wanted it to become part of America.

In the 1860’s, American sailors brought the new game of besibol to the island, where it immediately became overwhelmingly popular. Baseball came to represent the freedom of America, while bullfighting stood for the imperialism of Spain. Spain acted immediately and banned Cubans from playing the American game.

In 1895, led by the passionate rhetoric of Cuban’s national hero of liberation Jose Marti, the Cuban people were able to establish their independence from Spain. Marti had deep American roots, having spent more than 15 years living in New York City. His martyrdom was assured when he was killed in his first battle. “He was a much better intellectual than he was a soldier,” Miller said.

As most students of American history know, the sinking of the Maine in Havana Harbor (at the time, Spanish forces were believed to have blown the ship up, but today it appears the ship was sunk as the result of an on-board accident)  which occurred in 1898, led to the Spanish-American War. After the Americans won, the Spanish gave them, not the Cuban people, the flag symbolizing victory. Leonard Wood was named military governor of Cuba, where he worked to bring progressive reforms to the island. The American naval base at Guantanamo Bay was established. “This gave the Americans the right to interfere in Cuban activities whenever they wanted to,” Miller said.

In 1952, Wilencia Batista staged a coup which “pissed a lot of people off, including a young firebrand lawyer named Fidel Castro.” In 1959, Castro led a Socialist takeover of the country, seized all American assets, and formed close ties to Communist Russia.

Prompted by the heightened fears of Communism and the Cold War, the U. S. government lead by President Dwight Eisenhower, had planned an invasion of Cuba led by exiled Cubans. When John Kennedy assumed the presidency, he scaled down the proposal, but went ahead with the plan. The Bay of Pigs resulted in a quick victory for Castro and a political disaster for Kennedy. The Bay of Pigs was followed by the Cuban Missile Crisis and an American embargo on Cuba, which is still in effect today. Cuba became a country-non-grata to the United States.

In the 1990’s, with the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War becoming a distant memory, President Bill Clinton allowed an increase in people-to-people, professional research, and journalistic trips to Cuba. But the strict trade embargo remained in place. Because of the strong political power of anti-Castro Cuban residents of Florida, politicians feared to open relations completely.

In recent years, Cuba has stayed on the American political radar with the kidnapping of young Elian Gonzalez, the popularity of the documentary on legendary Cuban musicians The Buena Vista Social Club, and the political incarceration of The Five, a group of supposed Cuban spies captured in the United States.

Miller said political considerations continue to keep Cuba and the U.S. apart. “It’s easier to maintain a bad policy than it is to come up with a new good one,” Miller said.

So what will happen in the years to come? Miller said it is impossible to say. “Every prediction in the last 53 years about Cuba has been wrong,” he noted. “Cuba is perfectly capable of screwing up its economy on its own without any help from the United States.”

In fact, Miller noted, Cuba simply isn’t ready to open its doors to an influx of American tourists. “There aren’t sufficient facilities,” he said. “You’ve spent time here. Can you imagine Spring Break in Havana? That would be a disaster. The fact is that Cuba (after 50 years of trade embargo) is very fragile today. It would take time and planning to open the island. But there is a level of curiosity about Cuba. More people will come. They will just have to accept a certain level of vacation.”

After the lecture, Judy and I talked about the presentation. We agreed with Tom that Cuba isn’t ready for a major influx of tourism. We both believed the ongoing embargo was senseless and should be lifted. But in a selfish way, we liked the isolated Cuba we were discovering. It was different than anywhere else in the world; it hadn’t been corrupted by the quickening pace of life brought on by rapid advances in technology and corporate McDonalds-ization. We had been to China. There was a Starbucks inside the Forbidden Temple and Haagen Dazs ice cream was available for sale at the Great Wall. In an increasingly flat world, Cuba remained a unique hill. Was there a way for the island to keep the best part of its uniqueness and still garner the benefits of open relations with its giant neighbor to the north? I guess only time will tell.

To Follow Our Cuban Trip in Chronological Order