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      Cuba, Si!

      Students in Havana celebrate the release of the 3 remaining members of the Cuban 5. (Photo: New York Times, 2014)

      For thousands of graying supporters of the Cuban Revolution, this has been the moment that would never come. The same shock is sinking in among the Cuban exiles, now octogenarians, who fought for decades against the Castro regime from American soil. It is important that hard lessons be learned and traps from the past be avoided.

      I first went to Cuba in January 1968, during the height of revolutionary aspirations. Cuba was being led by the revolutionary generation which overthrew the U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, best recalled in Francis Ford Coppola’s film “The Godfather: Part II.” It was time for barricades and posters of Che Guevara.

      I returned to the island five more times, beginning in the 1990s, including two recent visits. Feeling the passage of time, I began a book of interviews with Ricardo Alarcon, who stepped down as president of Cuba’s national assembly in 2013. In turn, he had invited me to spend a week in 2006 doing interviews on the American New Left. We found ourselves looking back, trying to explore the lessons of the decades since we were student leaders.

      “Two old guys talking” is how I titled the introduction to the history I was writing.

      I felt that life itself and the process of revolution both followed similar patterns. In the beginning, utopian revolt. In the middle, the consolidation of power with all its contradictions. In the twilight years, a realization that the future is unpredictable. In the end, memory, closure, the passage to new life.

      When I began writing in 2013, no one believed that our Cuba policy would change. On the left were my friends certain that the United States, even under President Barack Obama, would never change its designs, or would be stymied by Congress. On the right was a Cuba lobby overconfident in its power over Florida votes and campaign dollars.

      My contrary intuition was that normalization was in the works, because of a belief that history only freezes under the dominance of a particular generation, then thaws. The Cold War was over. Cuba was supported by a near-unanimous United Nations, by everyone in Latin America, and by America’s allies in Europe and Canada. Hundreds of thousands of Cuban Americans visited the island yearly, despite the frantic opposition of politicians like Sen. Marco Rubio; Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla.; and Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J.

      The Cubans were cultivating cultural and economic links despite the embargo. I recall seeing Coppola arrive for Christmas in 1998 at the Hotel Nacional with an entourage of chefs to prepare for holiday dinners. There were Cubans too who came to me in the Legislature, arm in arm with California farmers who wanted the blockade on their agricultural exports broken.

      Obama began relaxing the Bush-era policies as soon as he took office. It became far easier to travel, buy art or cigars, take heritage tours or sit on the beach. Cuba opened its economy to greater private enterprise and trade in the global economy with Europe, China and Latin America.

      A sticking point on the U.S. side was the persistent funding of “democracy promotion,” or our secret efforts to promote a more open society. Alan Gross was a covert agent, not a home appliance distributor. The Cuban Five were protecting Cuba’s security from us, not acting as terrorists.

      After the fall of the Soviet Union, there was a decade of American triumphalism based on the mistaken belief that the Cuban state would collapse like East Germany. We underestimated Cuban nationalism.

      Secret talks over the past two years produced the extraordinarily detailed list of steps announced by Obama, carefully distinguishing what can be done by the White House without Congress. Those unilateral steps will hollow out the embargo from within. Thousands of Americans now will use credit cards to shop in Cuba. Removing Cuba from the “state terrorism” list, which the U.S. soon will do, frees up private lending to Cuba. The broadening of travel rights will facilitate more visits and exchange.

      Congress is left in charge of the Helms-Burton embargo language while in substance the policy is dissolving. The diaspora of Cuban Americans will be “ambassadors” of a new relationship, a phrase used by Secretary of State John Kerry and Cuban President Raúl Castro.

      The Cuban Revolution has achieved its aim: recognition of the sovereign right of its people to revolt against the Yankee Goliath and survive as a state in a sea of global solidarity. At the same time, America will benefit from being warmly received into the new Latin America when immigrants’ rights are a more important issue.

      Obama should take the first family to visit the island’s beaches, cultural clubs and schools. That will accomplish more in a few days than the Bay of Pigs invasion ever could.


      This article is to be published on Sunday, December 21, 2014 in the Sacramento Bee.

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      Reader Comments (4)

      I appreciate your supportive comments here, to help me clarify what is happening. Sometimes the issue is blurred. I so support President Obama, and it is good that you support this recent action. Thanks.

      December 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMarilyn Peretti

      I returned from Cuba two days ago after returning from a ten day licensed trip with Witness for Peace. I stayed with a group of eight, seven from the US and one Canadian at the Martin Luther King center and found Cuba and the Cubans far different than what is portrayed by the media in our country. It was a real gift to be present there when the last of the Cuban five were released. Their celebration was great and we found that the people have no animosity toward the people of the United States, quite aware that governments do not always represent the minds of the public.
      That Cubans have endured the sanctions and the US embargo for more than a half century, survived the most difficult days imaginable in the nineties and can still laugh, sing and dance is a testament to their ability to endure. Those that I met give thanks for what they do enjoy, the most important, personally witnessed, is the priority of the children in the life of the community. All children are provided every opportunity to develop their talents in the arts and music along with the necessary academic education needed that makes a more complete person, and no child is left unschooled because of financial need. They are well educated with Cuba having one of the highest rates of literacy in the world. They have free medical care for all, so obviously some things are working for the majority under their government, far better than they fared under the dictator, Baptista when the country was mostly illiterate and the majority lived in great poverty.
      There is some private business, though limited, surprisingly with a great increase in restaurants where twice we enjoyed fine meals. Churches are open and I saw no evidence of discrimination. Close to the Center where we stayed was an outdoor exercise park with a variety of ways where individuals could work out on equipment, visit and socialize. We were encouraged to meet with the people and that was one spot I found most enjoyable. We found it safe on the street both day and night and learned there is very little violence in the country and the citizens do not live in fear.
      With all of that, the average Cuban does not enjoy the comforts of the average American. The cars from the fifties, all in bright colors, while still showing their years, some desperately, have new “insides” from overseas and fill the streets as taxies and private cars to meet transportation needs along with some public transportation. Pedestrians do not have the right of way, so caution is advised when you visit.
      It is my belief that every country and its people have a right to the type of government they choose. In time everything changes and when enough of the people decide they want something else, it will happen. I saw that taking place in Cuba without the help of any outsiders. We have not been successful promoting regime change around the world. In fact the results have failed us and those whose governments we attempted to change so let us leave Cubans to decide for themselves what is best for them. They want to be free of sanctions, embargo, etc. because it serves no purpose
      other than making life hard for people who have never been a threat to our country.
      Our democracy may not be as appealing to others as it is to us, particularly when they believe they can do better for all of their population. Each country should have the right to choose what is best for them and I believe that over time Cuba will keep its socialist ideas with universal medical care, free education, etc. combined with much more free enterprise and Cubans will enjoy a bright future.

      December 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth Sempadian

      I was fortunate enough to go to Cuba in March this year.Cubans seem to be doing well.No homeless like I see in my neighborhood.Visited clinics,farms.I know about their universalvhealthcare and fewe education through college while I see California public universities becominf sovexpensive it costs as much as fulltime Work,minimum wage without housing,food or essentials.
      Cuba sends doctors,US sends weapons and soldiers around the world.
      Why can't the US have compassion and democracy?

      December 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKathleen O'Connor Wang

      This is a great victory for the people of Cuba and the global solidarity. As a small island
      of the coast of the US Empire it sustained its national independence. This is in contrast
      to another small island, off the coast of the European Empire, My own country, Ireland,
      which is now a US airforce base.
      Well done Cuba.

      December 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRoger Cole
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