It has to be one of the oddities of our history: the near-obsessive level of attention that, for almost 60 years, Washington has lavished on a modest-sized, impoverished island-nation of little strategic importance 90 miles off our southern coast. I'm talking, of course, about Cuba, which the U.S. has embargoed since 1959, as it hasn't North Korea or any other country on this planet.
It was a U.S. bailiwick with an all-American autocrat running it until 1959 when Fidel Castro's guerilla movement took the country by storm. Almost immediately, it would become the prize in the Cold War set-to between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Who of a certain age (I'm speaking, of course, about myself) could forget October 22, 1962? That night, President John F. Kennedy addressed the nation by television and radio, offering a chilling warning about an ongoing nuclear stand-off with the Soviets over Cuba. "We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth," he said, "but neither will we shrink from the risk at any time it must be faced." Though we hadn't known it until that moment, we were in the midst of the Cuban missile crisis during which the world came as close to ending as it ever has in our nuclear era.
And here was the odd thing: when the Soviet Union disappeared from the face of the Earth in 1991, an ebullient (if shocked) Washington declared ultimate victory, proclaimed itself the "sole superpower" on planet Earth, and then continued to embargo the island and obsess about it and its dangers as if the Cold War were still the global paradigm. Cuba has, in other words, been on this country's mind for almost six decades now. Given this history, it's hardly surprising that TomDispatch regular Mattea Kramer would visit that island to escape from our increasingly bizarre "American" world and instead meet that world face to face. Tom
Found in Cuba: The American Dream (and Nightmare)
Putting Trump in Perspective by Going Offshore
By Mattea Kramer
I'll tell you up front that my personal vehicle has crowns of rust on the rear wheel wells and an interior that smells vaguely of dog puke. It's a 2006 Mazda3 with 150,244 miles on it and it gets me around my modest world well enough, but I sure never considered it the stuff of headlines -- until I went to Cuba, an experience that tuned up my feelings about several American phenomena.
I'd booked the trip because I wanted to get out of this American time. Cuba seemed like a prime destination for escape: a nearby yet isolated island where the culture had developed without... well, us. But after United Flight 1502 had touched down in an airfield where lush green hangs over the encircling chain-link, and a rusted sedan dropped my husband Fletcher and me in trash-strewn central Havana, I began to understand that Cuba isn't so much a great place to get lost in, as a place to get found in.- Advertisement -
"Why are rich countries rich?" Alexander asked us, from the front seat of his 1955 Easter-egg-pink Ford Fairlane. He glanced our way in the rearview mirror, beneath which a huge yellow TAXI sign rested on the glossy pink dash. His tone tipped us off that his query was rhetorical, so we waited patiently for the answer. "They suck something from somewhere else," he said. "And that's why Cuba is poor. We never suck nothing from no one."
What little we knew about Cuban history confirmed this, so Fletcher and I nodded.
Alexander wondered aloud about the U.S. embargo -- el bloqueo, as it's called here. How could Washington still be afraid of Cuba? He gestured at the scenery, mostly vegetation punctuated by the occasional lone roadside vendor selling ropes of garlic or handfuls of potatoes. "We have nothing here," he said.
"You know what the Cuban dream is?" he continued. "To own a car."
We hadn't, in fact, known this. And while Alexander himself was apparently doing well by this metric, most of his country is not. Cuba is famous for its antique American cars, a favorite attraction for tourists. But to Cubans, those ancient vehicles -- whose only original parts are their steel bodies, welded together and repainted untold numbers of times -- are just evidence of their island's pervasive scarcity. There certainly aren't enough cars, or buses, or motorcycles, or motor scooters, for all the people who want them. This was a fact with which I became personally acquainted on my second day in the country when Fletcher and I tried to buy bus tickets out of the capital city. Everything, we'd discovered, was booked. Everything! And the bus stations were mobbed with people trying to get their hands on tickets.
I was learning that Cuba is a lot more complicated than it appears from the north side of the Straits of Florida. In the U.S., we generally only talk about Cuba since 1959, when Fidel Castro came to power, publicly renounced U.S. imperialism, declared his communist intentions, and cozied up with the Soviet Union. Washington responded first with the embargo, now more than half-a-century old, and later with several attempts to topple or simply assassinate Castro. No dice on unseating or killing el lder (despite the CIA's poisoned cigars and exploding seashells), but the embargo, which prohibited trade with Cuba and made it illegal for Americans to visit -- and which surely hurts innocent Cubans far more than any government official -- has stuck. In 2016, President Obama relaxed some of its rules so that Americans can now legally visit, subject to certain limitations; our new president could rescind that freedom on a whim.- Advertisement -
But there's another part of the Cuban story, the part where American corporations expeditiously capitalized on the destruction left behind by Cuba's long war for independence from Spain, buying up land and taking over much of the island's lucrative sugar industry at the turn of the twentieth century. The United Fruit Company, more famous for inflicting lasting damage in Central and South America than in the Caribbean, ran a titanic sugar operation in Cuba, and did the same thing there as in other Latin American countries: it extracted wealth and funneled it to American bank accounts. When Castro came on the scene with plans to overthrow U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista, he was successful in part because that grim history of American exploitation helped make his revolution popular. In the U.S., we generally omit this part of the story.
And once you've glimpsed that fuller picture, it sure seems like Castro had justice on his side when he emerged victorious on New Year's Day 1959, although things soon grew complicated for the Cuban people. It's true that Castro would orchestrate certain genuine social achievements like a national health care system and near universal literacy, but he also set about executing his political opponents and closing down radio and television stations that weren't controlled by the state. Over the ensuing decades, large numbers of people were imprisoned for political crimes, and others starved for lack of basic foodstuffs under the communist regime. Things got especially tricky when the Soviet Union, a crucial trade partner for the little country (given the U.S. embargo) imploded. Millions of Cubans fled to the U.S. and elsewhere. Like so many other struggles in human history, what had begun as an uprising against an oppressor became a new form of oppression. And despite its embargo and its past acts, the United States, the former oppressor, became, for many Cubans, a sort of savior.
In the backseat of Alexander's 1955 Ford, we toured the Bay of Pigs, the very spot where thousands of CIA-trained Cuban exiles landed under the cover of darkness in 1961 with doomed hopes of overthrowing Castro, and where American B-26 bombers (slyly repainted to look like Cuban air force planes) flew overhead on orders from officials in Washington who hoped for the installation of a pro-U.S. government. Washington wasn't motivated by a desire to help the Cuban people, naturally, but rather to refashion this Caribbean island into the American toy that it had for so long been.