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by William H. Benson

January 8, 2009

     The Cuban Revolution was amazingly non-violent. On New Year’s Day in 1959, Fulgencio Batista, the Cuban dictator, boarded a jet and took his fortune, as have countless other Cubans, with him to Florida. Fidel Castro, dressed in green army fatigues and cap, sporting a beard, and smoking a cigar, assumed control of the Caribbean island.

     On January 21, more than one million people jammed into the plaza around the Presidential Palace to hear Fidel Castro speak. Someone released a flock of white doves, and then as though choreographed, one of them perched on Fidel’s shoulder, an event that held incredible symbolic power for the Cubans, who associate doves with Obatala, a deity in their African-derived Santeria faith.

     In April of 1959, Castro flew to Washington D.C., where he met with President Eisenhower, and assured Ike that he was not a Communist, but then once back in his country, he herded his opponents before firing squads and drew himself close to Moscow. On January 3, 1961, the United States severed diplomatic relations with Castro’s Cuba.

     In April, the new U.S. President John Kennedy approved a CIA plan to invade the country at the Bay of Pigs, using Cuban refugees, but because he refused to approve any U.S. Naval support, Castro easily crushed the invasion. In October of 1962, Kennedy ordered a naval blockade of the island until Khrushchev removed the Soviet’s missiles, bringing the world close to a nuclear Armageddon.

     The Americans soon discovered that they were dealing with a formidable opponent. “Castro had unquestionable qualities of leadership. Endowed with an extraordinary gift of oratory and an exceptional memory, he would speak extemporaneously for hours.” The lynchpin of his foreign policy was to avoid all U.S. “Yankee” influence; he would be content if he could row his island far out into the Atlantic.

     The severing of political relations and the U.S. embargo has resulted in a deep political chasm between the two countries, with mutually bad feelings on both sides, and has driven the Cuban people into a life of deprivation and shortages. The Cuban people are paid in pesos, which can only buy rationed items, but if they can ever get their hands on U.S. dollars, they can buy cell phones, televisions, and washers and dryers.

     In 1989, James Michener, the novelist, toured Cuba, and was struck by two things: all the buildings needed a fresh coat of paint, and the lawns needed mowing, for he soon learned that paint and lawnmowers are not readily available in Cuba.

     Also, Michener noted that the few cars on the streets and highways were are all vintage 1950’s models, for no U.S.-manufactured cars have been sold in the country since the Revolution. Proud of their “cacharros,” the Cuban people continue to repair and then drive them whenever they can afford and find the gasoline.

     Out of fear of imprisonment, torture, and death, the Cuban people have learned to not complain, but the discontented and the ambitious try to escape the island on pitiful rafts.

     Castro’s government did get some things right, such as in education and health care. The Revolution has improved the literacy rate from the 40% during Batista’s reign to close to 98% now, and there are 80,000 doctors for a population of 11.3 million. But this raises crucial questions: “Why educate people so well and then deny them access to the Internet, to travel, and to the opportunity to apply their skills? Why give them a great education and no life?”

     For the past two years, Fidel’s younger brother, Raul, has headed the Cuban government, but he has done little other than tinker with what Fidel left him. And Fidel has not been seen in public since November of 2006.

     The Revolution is now fifty years old, and Castro has outfoxed ten U.S. Presidents, but even though Barack Obama has promised a different, softer policy with Cuba, changing it will not be easy. One Cuban-American in Little Havana in Miami suggested that Obama should simply: “Lift the embargo unilaterally, put the onus on Cuba. If we negotiate, what do we want from them? They have very little to give.”

     Others are not optimistic. “Cuba is a disaster,” said Jaime Suchlicki, a Cuban historian, “but it will not fall apart. . . . Every past rapprochement has turned to rancor.”

There is no reason to think that Obama will succeed with Cuba where ten other Presidents have failed.