A brief, very brief rundown on modern Cuban political history. Some of this I have said before, but it bears repeating. For 52 years, eleven U.S. Presidents (six Republicans; five Democrats) have tolerated, to different degrees, a dictatorship in Cuba, one which openly has worked for the destruction of core US interests. The Castro brothers have ruled with a brutality unmatched in the modern Americas. We will never know how many tens-of-thousands, maybe hundreds-of-thousands of Cubans died before firing squads--including those run by fashion icon Che Guevara--in torture chambers, labor camps, prisons, or from malnutrition, shoddy medical care, suicide, or in failed escape attempts. Others have died in the regime’s misadventures in Africa and in Latin America. As with many other dictators, the list of dead, imprisoned, and exiled includes close associates; not many compañeros from Sierra Madre days have escaped the firing squad, prison, or lengthy exile. The only thing worse for you than opposing the Revolution, is being too much in favor of it--see the case of the late General Arnaldo Ochoa if you don’t believe me.
And let us not forget that it was Fidel Castro, not some Middle Eastern jihadi, who nearly destroyed the United States. He proved barking mad during the October 1962 missile crisis. He wanted it to go from crisis to war, real war, not the cold variety. He wanted Khrushchev to "push the button."
Castro defenders, and the regime still has them, distort the reality of pre-1959 Cuba. A little easy-to-do research shows pre-Castro Cuba with social indicators among the best in the Americas. It had a thriving middle class composed of doctors (more per capita than Holland or the UK) dentists, engineers, artists, academics, and entrepreneurs. Its embassies in Europe had long lists of persons seeking to emigrate to Cuba. The island was a net importer of people. It had one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the Americas; one of the longest life spans; and one of the highest levels of literacy. It came second only to the US in per capita ownership of televisions, radios, telephones, and cars.
Did Cuba have serious political and social problems? Yes. It, for example, did not have a working democracy; suffered rampant corruption; racial discrimination; and relied heavily on one or two raw material exports, remittances from Cubans abroad, and tourism for foreign exchange.
After five decades of Castro rule, Cuba does not have a working democracy (quite the contrary); suffers rampant corruption; has pronounced racial discrimination; and depends heavily on one or two raw material exports, remittances from Cubans abroad, and tourism for foreign exchange. Before, however, you rush to conclude that Cuba has stood still for 52 years, let’s be fair and underline some things that have changed,
1. Americans do not frequent Cuban prostitutes: Europeans and Canadians do;
Cuba, therefore, has not stood still, compañeros, it has slipped back, and not just a bit, but decades. The Castros have turned the word undeveloped into a verb: as in, “They have undeveloped Cuba.” A notable achievement, perhaps, only equalled by Kim il-Sung & Son & Grandson.
And the US embargo? Hate to break it to you, folks, but there really is no embargo. The USA is now among Cuba's top five trading partners, and the main foreign source of food and medicine. About the only remnant left of the embargo is that the regime has to pay cash on the barrel for US goods. We are the only ones getting paid--how about that? The regime desperately wants to be able to run a tab with us so that it doesn't have to pay us, just like it doesn't pay the others. I once asked a prominent Panamanian businessman why he kept exporting to Cuba since he did not get paid: "If I stop selling to them, they have told me they will NEVER pay me."
I went to an event last week in Washington organized by former Bush political appointee Otto Reich--the most hated man in Chavez's Venezuela, by the way--on the fascinating topic of "21st Century Socialism in Latin America." There was an excellent panel including persons who have suffered the "benefits" of this "socialism," including having their loved ones imprisoned on trumped up charges in Venezuela. The opening speaker was the Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Ileana Ros-Lehiten. She made an excellent presentation, showing that she gets it. She understands what's happening in Cuba and the region.
Some of her address concerned themes touched on in earlier Diplomad posts, (here, for example), but she eloquently noted that the Obama administration is failing in its responsibilities to protect US interests and values in Latin America (I will try to get a link to the speech). She had so many good quotes it is hard to pick. Here are a few,
In April 2009, President Obama addressed the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, promising a new chapter of engagement and willingness to acknowledge U.S. errors. Now two years later, we can see clearly how this speech set the stage for where we are today. U.S. standing in the hemisphere has diminished significantly, while autocrats and tyrants have been empowered. Democratic allies have been forsaken while anti-U.S. regimes were courted and engaged. Special interest groups continue to dictate U.S. trade policy, while important job-creating agreements remain in limbo.
I would also like to take this opportunity to expose the growing threats to freedom of expression in our own hemisphere. In Cuba, the Castro regime controls all the media outlets on the island and prohibits anyone from speaking out against the dictatorship. In Venezuela, Hugo Chavez continues efforts to control the press by using fear, intimidation and extralegal measures to force television and radio stations to shut down. In Nicaragua and Bolivia, Ortega and Morales have defined the totality of private news media as posing a direct political challenge to their agenda. And in Ecuador, Correa has taken specific steps to undermine speech and media freedoms in that country.
Whether in democracy promotion, security, or trade, the United States cannot afford to be passive. The absence of our leadership in the region has opened a vacuum which rogue elements and competitor nations have been all too eager to fill. We must not allow tyrants who brutalize their own people to trample democratic principles, harbor extremist groups, and ally themselves with other anti-American regimes to increase their influence and capabilities in the Western Hemisphere.
The cancer that was allowed to grow and fester in Cuba is spreading quickly.