It’s been several weeks since I’ve blogged. Most of that time my wife and I were on a People-to-People cultural exchange visit in Cuba, a place not many Americans have been privileged to visit over the past fifty-plus years. Perhaps like most Americans, my view of Cuba was pretty black and white: a communist country under the iron thumb of Fidel Castro until more recently, when his somewhat more enlightened brother, Raul, took over the reins. And, like most Americans, I was wrong.
Fidel Castro came to power in 1959 as the result of the Cuban Revolution tthat ousted Fulgencio Batista, a corrupt dictator supported by the U.S. At that time, Castro was a young man, politically inexperienced and highly averse to dealing with a country that had thrown its support to Batista. Enter the Soviet Union. If Castro wasn’t a committed communist, the deep need for economic support offered by the Soviet Union clearly made an association a marriage of convenience as well as a contrast to the prior U.S. supported corruption, aided and abetted by the extensive Mafia presence in the country.
Moving ahead (and well past the Cuban missile crisis) to the collapse of the Soviet Union, Castro’s Cuba suddenly faced economic disaster. With no support from the defunct Soviets, the country entered disastrous economic times. The U.S. failed to make a case for assistance acceptable to Castro, and so the economic hard times have largely persisted to present day. Well, except for some two billion dollars that annually enters the otherwise failed economy from Cuban Americans who in addition bring in a variety of consumer goods, from other countries (including England, Spain, and Israel) who provide tourists, and from a gray and black market that just about every Cuban knows how to access to advantage.
Fidel has done some good things over the years. The population is well educated and has guaranteed health care for all (U.S., take note). Of course, by educating the public, and through information that is only now beginning to penetrate into the population via the internet, the country is beginning to emerge from its dark years of relative isolation. Fidel’s advancing age and poor health have resulted in ascension to power of his more liberal-minded brother, Raul, and Cuban society is now beginning to open up. People feel free to express their opinions, to associate with an increasing number of American visitors, and to sit at hotspots in public parks with their cell phones, surfing the net.
We wanted to visit Cuba before Starbucks contaminated the country with an outlet on every corner, and our visit enabled us to do just that. We found the people to be open and friendly, the scenery to be wonderful, and our visits to all sites free of the watchful authorities we thought we might see. Cuba is not black and white; it’s a many shaded place that’s negotiating its place into the global economy. We look forward to seeing those changes, even knowing that some of what makes Cuba unique is likely to vanish. Progress, and the people, are demanding it, and it’s time for the U.S. to recognize the need to engage with this hemispheric neighbor only 90 miles from Key West.