The Cold War is Over; Cubans Need to Know Too

This entry was first published in the Petoskey News Review on April 2, 2014.  With the long overdue announcement today that President Obama is going to seek normalization of relations with Cuba, along came more “anything but Obama” attacks from the right.    “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”

The political and historical analysis of the Cold War is still being played out, and students of that time period will remain fascinated with both the “fighting” and the outcome of that epic struggle for a very long time. While it will be easy for some people to take a look at pictures of the Berlin Wall crumbling under the unbridled enthusiasm of Germans too long divided by that war, and claim a victory for the West, it doesn’t take too much analysis to know that there were far more losers than winners in those frightening 50 years following World War II. And as has been the case for more than 50 years, long after the Soviet Union has devolved into 15 independent nations, the United States still has the opportunity to undo the damage done with our policy toward Cuba.

It’s hard to imagine any group of people suffering more than the Cubans because of their leader’s choice to seek aid from the Soviets once the Americans turned them down. Lost in all the propaganda and anti-Cuban rhetoric is that Castro was once viewed as heroic in this country. He visited New York and was treated to a ticker-tape parade. You can still find old news reels of Castro meeting with celebrities and politicians as he came to our country seeking help in rebuilding Cuba. At the last minute, Eisenhower canceled a scheduled meeting with Castro after Ike’s war-hawk advisers accused Castro of being a communist.

After being rebuffed by the Americans, Castro sought help from the Soviets. All smart leaders of small countries were playing this game across the globe. Create a strategic interest for one of the Cold Warriors and you were sure to draw offers of aid and arms from the others. Asia, Africa, and South America were packed with smart, and often corrupt, leaders who saw the quickest way to personal fortune was to become “important” to either side in the Cold War.

Perhaps the most glaring example of this was played out between Ethiopia and Somalia. The United States had a critical communications facility in Ethiopia and were long time allies of the dictator Haile Sellassie. The Soviets realized that by supporting neighboring Somalia in their territorial claims with the Ethiopians, that they could be a burr in the American saddles. Deadly wars were fought between the two desperately poor countries armed with Soviet and American weapons and supported by advisers from the respective countries. In 1974, Sellassie fell to a Soviet-backed coup and suddenly the Americans were without an ally in the region. It didn’t take long for the Americans to convince the Somalis that we were the best option against the Ethiopians and the war resumed … this time with weapons supplied by the other Cold Warrior.

The loss of the American radar station in Ethiopia led the United States to build a more up-to-date listening post on the island of Diego Garcia (after expelling the indigenous people of course). By the time that facility opened in 1977, the United States no longer had a strategic interest in the Horn of Africa, and we essentially left the Somalis on their own. Much of the misery and lack of stability in the region today stems from not only the arbitrary colonial borders, but from the destruction caused in both countries because they happened to draw the attention of the United States and the USSR.

Like Ethiopia and Somalia, there were millions of people in nearly countless countries who suffered by being pawns in the broader conflict. Poland, Hungary, El Salvador, Bulgaria, East and West Germany, Vietnam, Cambodia, North and South Korea, Latvia, Nicaragua, the former Yugoslavia … the list goes on. They all learned the hard way that when two elephants are dancing, the last thing you want to be is the grass.

Americans, too, were big losers. The trillions of dollars we spent on real weapons of mass destruction may have, in some perverted way, prevented a nuclear conflagration, but they also diverted huge chunks of our hard-earned wealth away from infrastructure and education … the things that really make countries great. The debt we incurred during the Reagan administration’s unconscionable arms build-up will probably never be paid off and now we’re spending billions more decommissioning weapons we could never have afforded to use in the first place.

But the Berlin Wall did come down and we all patted ourselves on the back for “winning.” The Soviet Union crumbled and more than 20 new nations were created from the wreckage of Yugoslavia and the USSR. And yet Cuba remains a pariah. Just 90 miles off our coast and populated by people who hardly deserve the hand they were dealt, Cuba is forced to continue fighting the Cold War. While we have forgiven all of our former enemies — even the Russians themselves — we still punish the Cuban people with a devastating trade embargo that brings misery to millions.


The issue is complicated, as most Cold War issues were. But this one defies common sense. Please don’t suggest that because Castro remains alive that we can’t help him continue the repression of his people. Uruguayans, Haitians, Dominicans, Salvadorans, Nicaraguans, Panamanians, Hondurans, Guatemalans, and many more know that we are perfectly willing to support brutal dictators when it serves our interest in the region to do so.

The answer most likely lies in the confluence of two streams of political chicanery. First, the role of the Cuban ex-patriots in Florida, and therefore national, politics is well established. Castro nationalized the businesses owned by former dictator Fulgencia Batista and his cronies. Their ties to organized crime both in the United States and Cuba are well documented. Castro killed their golden goose and those ex-pats are determined to do anything in their power to make sure Castro is economically squeezed to death. Fifty years of squeezing has done little to Castro’s hold on power while millions of Cubans have suffered needlessly because they are pawns in American presidential politics. I’m sure many of those ex-pats and their heirs are expecting that when Castro dies, they’ll be welcomed back to reestablish their corrupt businesses under the protection of yet another American-sponsored dictator. Ah, the good old days!

The second stream is American machismo. Like a lot of major powers, we have a lot of trouble admitting our mistakes … even our most egregious. The Cubans embarrassed the United States when the Bay of Pigs invasion went so wrong. Che Guevera famously thanked Kennedy adviser Richard Goodwin for the flubbed attack. In a secret meeting following the Bay of Pigs, Guevera explained to Goodwin that Castro’s hold on Cuba was weak at best. But the failed attack by the mighty Americans allowed Castro to consolidate power.

Guevera went on to propose a peace plan with the United States that would have included a plan to pay for expropriated properties through trade, a commitment to not sign any economic or military deal with the Soviets, a promise not to attack Guantanamo, and, most importantly a promise to not spread the Cuban Revolution beyond Cuba. In exchange he asked for a commitment by the United States to not invade Cuba and to lift the trade embargo.

Apparently such an agreement, which would have saved so many lives and prevented so much misery was not acceptable to the Americans. Swallowing our pride in the atmosphere of so much posturing by both the Soviets and the Americans was just not in the cards. It isn’t hard to imagine how much easier it would have been to deal with Castro and soften his brutality if we had had a few more carrots and a few less sticks in the game.

Those two feeble reasons aside, it is time for President Obama and his staff to acknowledge that the Cold War is really over. Recent inroads to normalize relations must continue and the trade embargo must be lifted. Waiting for Castro to die (either naturally or by our hand) is a failed and brutish policy. Both the Cuban and American people deserve better.


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