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by William H. Benson

April 17, 2008

     The news coming out of Cuba is, for a change, good, although minimal. Six weeks ago Raul Castro, stepped into the role vacated by his sickly brother, Fidel, who had ruled the Caribbean island with an iron arm for fifty years. Raul has relaxed some of Fidel’s prohibitions on the purchase of consumer goods. Now, if the Cuban people have enough Cuban pesos, they can purchase DVD players, cell phones, motorbikes, computers, refrigerators, and dishwashers, or even stay in a hotel.

     It seems inconceivable to Americans that Fidel had instituted laws prohibiting his citizens from purchasing items that would have alleviated their grinding poverty and harsh existences. It is true. The difficulty now is that the typical Cuban worker’s wage—an average of 17 U.S. dollars per month—do not give them sufficient purchasing power to buy even the necessities, such as food and rent, let alone the toys.

     Cubans struggle daily to lay their hands on food and household goods. Only sixty percent of them have access to the prized convertible pesos, worth about 24 times the standard peso and which originates from jobs in tourism or with foreign companies, and which can buy consumer goods.

     Lacking access to either the Cuban pesos or the convertible pesos, Cubans across the island have little choice but to resort to the black market. A columnist said that “Cuba is, in many ways, one giant black market. Anything you need is sold by the neighbor, or the neighbor’s cousin. Mostly people look the other way, sometimes for a small bribe.” One dare not ask where the goods came from; they just have them available for sale at a price.

     Others rely upon cash gifts received from relatives and friends who have fled Cuba, sought sanctuary in the U.S., and are now living in cities, such as Miami.

     Cuba serves as a stark reminder of how things can go wrong for the most innocent of people. When Castro and his party of Marxists assumed control of Cuba in 1958 and the Americans did nothing, it meant that for the next fifty years the Cuban people would live stultifying lives under the oppressive directives of a Communist dictator.

     Eisenhower, then President in 1958, hesitated. Paul Johnson, the noted historian, wrote: “That such a regime, 90 miles from the United States coast, should align itself with America’s principal enemy, [the Soviet Union], and begin to export violence, was unacceptable, and the United States would have been well within its moral and legal rights in seeking to overthrow Castro and impose a democratic government.”

     Shortly after becoming President in January of 1961, Kennedy’s advisors told him of a CIA plot to overthrow Castro by employing 12,000 Cuban exiles. Poorly thought out, and amateurish, the plan received Kennedy’s half-hearted ok, and so on April 17,1961, the attack on Cuba at the Bay of Pigs began, without the U.S. Army, Navy, Marine corps, or Air Force support. Castro read about the plot in U.S. newspapers beforehand, was well prepared, and so he routed his attackers. The history books now call it a Fiasco. It was.

     And there was no guarantee that should the Bay of Pigs have succeeded, the Cuban people would have welcomed the Americans.

     In terms of nation building, the U.S. has had some notable successes: Germany and Japan following their defeat in World War II. But there have been some ugly failures too: subduing the Philippine Islands following the Spanish-American War required a lot of spilled American blood, and then there was Vietnam in the 1960’s and now the five-year experiment in Iraq.

     Recent discussions have centered about a possible military surge in Afghanistan, I think a very bad idea. A columnist, Benjamin Friedman, wrote: “The notion that a 25 percent increase of Western forces and investment is enough to transform Afghanistan into a peaceful, centralized state shows idealism of stunning tenacity. Only Afghans can properly build Afghanistan.”

     To that, I would add that only Iraqis can properly build Iraq, and when the time comes, when the wheel of history turns in Cuba, only Cubans can properly build Cuba.