As we lament the horrors in the Gaza Strip, currently playing out on our televisions, we might be well served to reflect on 50 years of Castro’s regime in Cuba, and what lessons and opportunities our history of opposition to the Cuban revolution might hold for the incoming Obama administration.
Castro came to power in January, 1959. Before Castro, Cuba was a tourists’ paradise of beaches, deep sea fishing, prostitution, casinos, and cheap liquor. But behind the paradisical façade lay a society in which a complaisant, foreign-chosen elite ruled over a citizenry, held in extreme poverty by military force, deprived of education, health care, or even basic features of life like running water, plumbing, or electricity. Castro came to power because he offered the indigenous population a better alternative to the certainty of constant hunger, illness, hopelessness, and early death that most Cubans faced.
America ignored the plight of Cubans during the 1940s and 1950s. We were delighted with Hemingway’s stories of noble peasants. Towns with beautiful central plazas and courtyards with community wells from which women (it’s always women, isn’t it) could draw water are so scenic, just like pictures of women (again) baking at outdoor, wood-fired ovens. And these appearances are more compelling than worrying about the health, education, or pay scales of the people who make the scenes so scenic.
Besides, when they waited on us in the restaurants, hotels, casinos, and boat docks, the serf-servants always seemed so pleasant, so friendly, so eager to please. They didn’t complain to the people who paid what little money they got.
But they did complain. And they spent some of their meager resources funding and protecting the guerrilla bands who promised a better life, better health care, better pay, human respect and schools for their children. And those guerrillas gained more support as the foreign-appointed elites responded to them with brutal repression and flagrantly dishonest characterizations.
In January 1959, the guerrillas came to power. And after decades of opposing any democracy in Cuba, our national response was to condemn the new government for not being democratic enough. The formerly repressive elites fled, en masse, to Florida, where they remain today. Where they received generous aid from our government for campaigns to reconquer Cuba. And where, interestingly enough, a majority of their children and grandchildren appear to have voted for Obama in 2008.
In the 50 years since the guerrillas installed Castro at the head of Cuba’s government, the United States (“we”) have maintained an economic blockade of Cuba, and have engaged in sporadic military and covert operations to topple Castro, or the incite the population to rise up against him.
While we have done that, Castro has imposed repressive measures to restrict freedom of speech and dissent. And he has continued our pattern of not permitting free democracy for the population. Our scolding “liberal” media castigated Castro for such campaigns as forcing people to work in the sugar cane fields, and not letting them have stores full of items to buy.
But he has done more, as well. Castro provided schools for the entire Cuban population. Our appointed rulers of Cuba had said the population, mostly darker skinned than the average “American,” was rightly illiterate, and that attempting to educate them would be wasteful and unproductive. We didn’t care whether they wanted schools. Their concerns were of no moment to us.
Castro provided a national health care system for all the people in Cuba (even foreign visitors). Again, his policy reversed the policy our appointed rulers had followed. Again, his policy reflected what Cubans wanted, without regard to what we thought was appropriate.
There are some questions to ask about Castro’s revolution and our response. We are told that Cubans have become masters of keeping classic American cars running. What pictures we are allowed show 40s and 50s Chevys, Fords, Chryslers, DeSotos, Studebakers, and other cars, which would be collectors’ models in the U.S., being used for daily work tasks – still running decades after they would have been junked here at home.
Because, of course, Cubans aren’t allowed to buy new cars. Our economic blockade prevents Cubans from buying new Chevys, Fords, or Dodges, even while those companies beg us for handouts because they can’t find customers for their cars. Cuba was once our main source of sugar. We bought Cuban sugar and Cubans bought our cars. We spent money in Havana on vacation trips and that money came back to us for clothing, tools and all the other things we used to make.
Now, Cubans can’t buy our books for their schoolrooms. They can’t buy our medicines for their clinics. They can’t buy our wheat and corn for their groceries. And we can’t buy their cheap sugar or go to their cheap luxury hotels. So we sit around the pool at sometimes-clean chain resorts, hoping that the unmotivated waiter will bring us a corn-syrup sweetened can of Coke, that now cost as much as a can of beer.
This is not the price of capitalism or of communism, but the price of anti-free trade. This is the price of attempting to extort political concessions by using economic brutality against civilians.[ad#go-daddy-468×60]If we actually believed that an educated, healthy population would rise up and throw off Castro’s rule, as Castro rose up and threw off Batista’s rule, then we would insist on sending cheap school books, health supplies and shiploads of government surplus food to Cuba.
But we don’t really believe that. We know enough of Cuban history to know why the Cuban revolution succeeded. And we know enough to know why obliterating the Hamas infrastructure will not make Palestinian’s love Israel, or even merely accept Israeli rule in the concentration camp that is the Gaza Strip.
We don’t need to debate whether Hamas is a terrorist organization. It’s history and philosophy is well documented. So was Castro’s. But it would help us to at least be honest about the recent assault on Gaza.
Every news organization that has reported on Gaza says that one success of Hamas has been the institution of an effective police system. Under Fatah, Gaza was an entirely lawless area, run by criminal gangs who paid Fatah to stay out of the way. Since taking power, Hamas has brought gangs under control, stopped gang repression of citizens. Hamas gave people hope that they could keep some benefit from their work, instead of seeing it stolen or destroyed by inter-gang violence.Hamas gave people hope, as Castro gave people hope.
In the first days of the assault, Israel announced that its first target was the Hamas police system. Israel bragged about slaughtering new police at an academy graduation ceremony. Israel made clear that it’s intention was to undo this one thing that had made civilian lives better in Gaza. Israel promises to take away any hope that Hamas gave to people.
Like the U.S. economic blockade of Cuba, Israel has followed a policy of blockading any food, health or infrastructure aid to Gaza, for years. Whatever intention Israel has had toward Hamas, it has waged economic warfare on the everyday citizens of Gaza, in an effort to turn them against the people who promise them a better life.
It didn’t work in Cuba and it won’t work in Gaza.
What can Obama do to break through the intransigence of various factions in the Middle East? He might start by relaxing our intransigence toward Cuba.
What would happen if Obama took the position that flooding Cuba with American goods and tourists could show the Cuban people the benefits of a different system? What would happen to our farmers and manufacturers if Cubans could freely buy our products? What would happen to prices here if Obama let our companies buy and use Cuban sugar, thereby giving Cuban farmers income to spend?
What message might it send to Israel if Obama said the U.S. had the strength and the courage to deal openly with a weak, impoverished, needy neighbor? What message might it send to Hamas if Obama said the U.S. was strong enough, again, and self-confident enough, again, not to have to use military and economic coercion as our only tools of diplomacy?
Articles by Tom Hall: