You’d have to have been sleeping under a stack of tobacco leaves if you haven’t heard that great changes are taking place in Cuba. Recently, Fidel Castro, who ruled Cuba for the past fifty-plus years has died, and the United States and Cuba have taken steps to normalize relations.
American cruise ships are now allowed to enter Havana, and American visitors, that were previously denied travel to this third world country lying at our doorstep, are now permitted limited access to its major ports. It’s interesting to note that other countries around the world have always had access to Cuba. Quite surprising, Cuba is the most popular tourist destination in the Caribbean.
Americans have always been seduced by the exotic culture of Cuba. Their cigars are the standard-bearer by which other cigars are judged. Their passionate music and alluring food are legendary. But it’s the people that are Cuba’s richest and most vibrant resource, so it should put a big smile on the faces of a lot of Americans that the barriers between the United States and Cuba are falling much like the Berlin Wall did less than thirty years ago.
Americans associate Fidel Castro with Cuba’s ills, but what they may not realize is that Castro’s rise to power was only possible by elected president, Fulgencio Batista who served his country well between 1933 and 1944. Batista brought many welcome changes to Cuba. When he left office, education, public works, and the economy had made enormous progress. In his absence, corruption became rift and the gains Cuba made deteriorated.
Batista returned to Cuba in 1952 as a dictator whose rule this time was brutal and ruthless. Thousands died, thousands more were routinely tortured and imprisoned. Fidel Castro’s rise to power was a welcome relief both to the people of Cuba and the U.S. Unfortunately, as Castro defined his beliefs, it became clear he was as bad as Batista, and, in fact, much worse.
Cubans lost their freedoms completely. They were stripped of their land as Cuba became a totalitarian government almost overnight. Devastated exiles fled to Miami, many determined to overthrow Castro’s regime. Backed by the CIA, the exiles launched an invasion at the Bay of Pigs.
The date was April 17, 1961, and 1,200 refugees participated. For some reason, the air cover the expatriates were to receive never materialized, and they were mowed down on the beach as they attempted to establish a beachhead. The uprising the expatriates were hoping to foment never happened. Over a hundred died, and the rest were imprisoned. Eventually, John F. Kennedy let the responsibility of the invasion fall squarely on his shoulders, exactly where it belonged.
Needless-to-say, relations between the two countries not only were severed, but developed into a bitter confrontation that endured for more than sixty-five years.
The Cubans who fled their motherland made a new home for themselves in Miami and Southern Florida. They are an inspiration to 20th century immigrants. Like their Italian, Irish, and other European counterparts, they came to this country with only two things besides the clothes on their back. A dream for a better future and a determination to make it happen.
It would be nice to think that democracy will soon flourish in Cuba, and that Cubans will once again live normal lives and be free to savor their culture without worrying about being arrested and thrown in prison for sedition.
My greatest fear is that, amidst all the changes taking place, the country and its culture may lose the essence of what makes Cuba so charming. When cruise ships show up in Cuba’s harbors, it’s going to be hard to stop the crass commercialism their invasion brings.
The Cuban people deserve better. Despite the hardship they have endured over the years, they are a resilient and warm people brimming with a deep faith in themselves and their future. They are no stranger to the sweat and tears that build a strong nation. Whether their domicile is in Havana, the breathtaking countryside, or South Florida, I wish them well.
Vaya con Dios.
The Uncommon Mariner