Saturday, November 26, 2016

Havana Daydreamin'

There is not Communism or Marxism, but representative democracy and social justice in a well-planned economy. Fidel Castro.

Noting the passing of Cuban strongman Fidel Castro.

We had departed Atlanta on a morning flight to Liberia, Costa Rico. The weather was severe clear, not a cloud in the sky. The aircraft, a Delta Airlines 757-200 in mint condition, skirted Florida's Gulf Coast. Below, Tampa...Ft. Myers...The Keys, all clearly visible. Surely, our flight path would soon alter, with our impending encroach over enigmatic, mysterious Cuba.

Fidel Alejandro Castro Rus cast an enormous shadow over the coming-of-age years for those born in the mid-Fifties. He was a revolutionary, or villain. Dictator, or savior. Man of the people, or criminal opportunist. John Kennedy believed him to be the natural outgrowth of American soft imperialism. He may have been responsible, directly or indirectly, for Kennedy's murder.

Cuba in the 1950s was known as "The Latin Las Vegas," as much for its government's strong ties to organized crime as its casinos, prostitution and drug markets. American companies owned substantial interests in agriculture, ranching and mining, with the US government ensuring that their interests were preserved. Our neighbor to the south was ripe for revolution, ruled as it was by a man who sentenced rebels to death by firing squad while skimming ten percent of his island's gaming profits.

Castro, his brother Raul and Che Guevara fought for years before ultimately taking control. Here, written history diverges into multiple (often mutually exclusive) narratives, depending as much on the sympathies of the authors as on what actually took place.
 
It all seemed surreal at first. Castro was a baseball fan, having pitched during his student years at the University of Havana. He was a supporter and financial backer of the Havana Sugar Kings, who played in the International League against American teams. Prior to a game between the Sugar Kings and the Rochester (NY) Red Wings in Havana, Castro pitched two innings for an exhibition team called Los Barbudos, "The Bearded Ones." The next day, the game ran late and, at midnight, celebratory gunfire broke out (for a national holiday). One of the Red Wing coaches was wounded. The game was cancelled.

 America's negative response toward the Castro government evolved over time. We tried assassination, embargo and invasion. 

So the story goes, Kennedy was being briefed on plans to support combat between Free Cuba forces and Castro. Once the insurgent forces were ashore and gained a toe hold, the US would recognize them as Cuba's legitimate government and move in to assist. During the military presentation, a Marine officer put a transparency onto the overhead projector. The sheet contained a small speck.

"This is Tarawa. In four days of fighting the Marine Corps lost nearly three thousand men." The briefer placed the next clear plastic map over the first. The land mass represented obliterated the tiny dot. "This is Cuba."

Perhaps that story is true. It could be just that...a story, meant to make a point. The invasion into the ironically-named Bay of Pigs collapsed. Several years later, with the Soviet Union now a major ally, Castro allowed (or encouraged) nuclear missiles to be positioned within his shores. Che later said he would have used them, several million casualties being the price necessary to ensure the revolution. Cooler heads prevailed, the weapons were removed and the world moved back from the brink of annihilation.

In 1963 a former Marine, defector to the Soviet Union and Pro-Castro sympathizer with a penchant for aliases named Lee Oswald murdered President Kennedy from the window of a warehouse in Dallas. Bizarre and tortured an articulation as that might seem, in the tumultuous 60's it was an important, and profound, turning point.

America's dyspepsia and fascination with Cuba, and Castro, survived years of hostility, mutual distrust and, sometimes, open warfare. There were provocations and pronouncements. Refugees floated across the 90 mile strait, escaping Castro's tyranny and arriving aboard everything that would float (literally, including rudimentary rafts). Many died in the attempt.

Until very recently there was never a rapprochement with Castro and his government. America had made peace with many previously bitter enemies. In the years when American law prohibited tourists from visits to Cuba, one could easily travel to Vietnam, Moscow or Peking. Thus, when our airliner flew over Havana I was astonished, and then embarrassed. And enchanted. Later, on a cruise ship balcony, my wife and I drank wine and watched the lights of the forbidden island on the not-especially distant horizon. Someday, we mused.

So, Castro is dead. He was a thug, a dictator...a man who wrested control of his island from many of the worst manifestations of capitalists only to bind it to another of humankind's economic wastelands. No one who remembers the early 1960s will forget that, once, the entire world hung on his every word.

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