At a week-long anti-war event in Piacenza, Italy, in September 2003, Wayne Smith, who had been Jimmy Carter’s point man in the State Department trying to normalize relations with Cuba, told me that the collapse of that process was one of Carter’s biggest political disappointments. Carter had thought the embargo (which began in October 1960) and all things connected with it were immoral and dysfunctional, which, of course, they were.
“We were that close,” Wayne said, holding the tip of his thumb about an inch from the tip of his forefinger, “but we just couldn’t get there. We just couldn’t get there.” In the election that year, Ronald Reagan came into the White House and that was the end of any rational discussion or action in US government about Cuba policy until last week, when President Barack Obama announced he was making moves to normalize relations with Cuba. Republicans, who take over Congress 10 days from now, immediately said they would do everything in their power to screw up that moment of sanity.
Obama’s action makes a great deal of sense. It would have made a great deal of sense 30 or 40 years ago. We have normalized relations with all kinds of freakish brutal governments around the world. For decades we have done all we could to wreck Cuba’s economy, even as we entered flourishing economic relations with the few communist governments left elsewhere, such as China and Vietnam. American corporations have long been lusting for normalized relations with Cuba: Think of all the cars that might be sold, all the resort hotels and gambling casinos that might be built, the great variety of economic exploitation at which our corporations are so good, particularly when they are operating offshore. I have never understood who was really in the way of this, save a dwindling number of bitter old men in the southern part of Florida.
As it is, the only thing we’ve got going on Cuba is a naval base that houses one of the most infamous prisons in the world—Guantanamo—a place where for a decade we’ve detained and tortured people, many of whom we later figured out were guilty of nothing but having been fingered by someone who wanted a reward or maybe a wife. Guantanamo is a vicious prison Obama wanted to erase on his first day in office, but Congress, both left and right, wouldn’t let him. It is, as last week’s Senate report of US torture tells us, the CIA’s greatest shame, or at least the greatest shame we currently know about.
The Miami Five
The New York Times reported last week that for decades the US and Cuba have spied on one another; the article concluded the spying had little effect. That was not quite true. For starters, the spying wasn’t of the same order. The US was spying on the Cuban government, and, on several occasions, US operatives tried to murder the Cuban president. Cuban spying was mostly against Cuban paramilitary groups in Florida planning terrorist attacks within Cuba.
In 1998, the US caught and jailed five of these, the so-called “Cuban Five” or “Miami Five”—Geraldo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero, Ramón Labañino, Fernando González, and René Gonzalea. They were convicted for a shopping list of espionage charges, but it was all a sham: They were monitoring Cuban paramilitary groups in Florida planning terrorist attacks within Cuba. The groups they were watching have gone by the names of Alpha 66, the Southern Commandos, the Cuban American National Foundation, and Brothers to the Rescue.
The last three of the Cuban Five were released December 17 of this year in a prisoner swap for American spy Alan Philip Gross.
For years, the US financed, covered-up for, and protected Luis Posada Carriles, an ardent anti-Castro terrorist who worked for the CIA. He was convicted in absentia in Panama for the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner (76 civilians killed) and has admitted involvement in bombings of Cuban hotels. He has been deeply involved in the organization of the US based anti-Castro paramilitary groups I listed two paragraphs up. He presently lives in Miami. To my knowledge, Castro never had anyone like that in his employ.
A spy I know
Percy Alvarado spent years as a spy in the US. His undercover name was “Fraile.” We met in 2005 when we were invited to speak at a symposium in Rome on US Cuban policy. Condoleezza Rice had just issued a huge document outlining the public part of US policy toward Cuba. I’d been invited to speak about that.
Percy had, not long before, gone public. He’d been invited to speak about being undercover in Florida and why he’d finally broken cover. He hadn’t been spying against the US government or any of its agencies. He had gone to Florida and had gotten close to those Cuban expatriate paramilitary groups who were planning to kill a lot of people in Havana in order to destroy Havana’s tourist industry. They were funded by the CIA. Many of them were trained by the CIA. Their only mission was to cause Caribbean mischief. They were our terrorists.
Percy stayed undercover among them for 22 years. His parents, back in Cuba, died, thinking he had betrayed their revolution against the Batista brutality. He hadn’t. But there was no way he could tell them. He told me the saddest time in his life was when he couldn’t go to their funerals, the time couldn’t tell anyone in his family why he was where he was and what he was doing.
Percy maintained his cover until he found out about the CIA-funded Cuban exile paramilitary plot to blow up the Tropicana Hotel in Havana, and in the process kill a lot of Europeans, Asians, and even some Americans.
So Percy got back to Cuba, told his story, and the attack didn’t happen. He was one of the Cuban “spies” we didn’t lock up, and, as a result, a lot of innocent people didn’t die. When I knew him, Percy was a colonel in Cuban intelligence. He’s now a journalist and blogger. You can find him online.
Bay of Pigs
The Isle of Pines, also known as Isla de la Juventud, is an island in the south of Cuba. It has a lot of history, which you can easily find elsewhere, so I won’t rehearse it here. Fidel Castro was held in a prison there from 1953 to 1955. After the failed CIA-sponsored invasion of the Bay of Pigs (Bahía de Cochinos) on April 17, 1961, which resulted in numerous executions in Cuba, 1,113 prisoners were sent back to the US in exchange for food and medicine, all funded by private donations and tax concessions.
I spent an evening with one of those guys in 1964. My back alley neighbor called to say that he was staying with them, that he was talking about what happened without stop, and that I might find the narrations of interest. I went over, we were introduced, I asked if might record our conversation, he said “Of course,” and then the evening went on.
Until the moment he looked at me and said, “You have snake’s eyes. You are a spy. Why are you spying on me?” There was nothing he was saying that wasn’t public knowledge, save his own take on it; he knew perfectly well who and what I was. He was, in that moment, I thought, quite mad.
As anyone would be after being held in a Cuban prison for a year, or, more recently, in an American prison in Cuba for a decade.
I don’t know what happened to him after that. In the moment, two people restrained him and I crossed the alley to my own house. My back alley friend said the next day, “He sometimes gets like that. I should have warned you.” My friend later told me the man had moved to Florida and had become politically active.
The political landscape has changed. For years, American politicians, both local in Florida and in the US at large have kissed the collective asses of the wealthy anti-Castro community in southern Florida. But those cards don’t play the same way any more. The Castro-haters are geriatric or dead and their children and grandchildren would like to be able to visit the aunts and uncles and grandparents without an absurd amount of hassling all along the line. They don’t have that half-century-old lust for vengeance. They just want family.
Which brings us back to what Obama has done. He may have done it because it is sane, rational, decent, and all that stuff. But he may also have done it because Florida has been a pivotal state in the past several presidential elections (remember Al Gore?) and he wants the Democrats to be the party that answered the need of the younger Cuban-Americans the Republicans have for so long blocked.
Older Cuban exiles and politicians who suck up to them, like Senator Mario Rubio, are strongly opposed to this normalizing of relations with a small island not much further from Miami than Toronto is from Buffalo. But the demographic is changing. There are now more voting-age children of Cuban exiles here than Cuban exiles, and those younger Cuban Americans find America’s Cuban policy frustrating and stupid. They want to be able to visit their family’s country of origin and to visit relatives and have relatives visit them. For that group, Obama’s policy is welcome. Rubio is sucking up to the older set because they have more money and he knows it will result in more campaign checks. That will work for a few years, but it will burn itself out as more and more of the older Cubans die off.
According to a December 17 New York Times report by Nate Cohn, in 2004, Bush won 78 percent of the Cuban-American vote. In 2012, Obama took the Cuban-American vote by two percent. Last month, Democrat Charlie Christ was four percent ahead of his Republican opponent. In 2012, Obama won Florida by 77,000 votes. That block is going to be key in the 2016 election and the consistent shift to Democrat over the last decade has Republicans worried.
Furthermore, Obama is the president, and, as opposed to Bush One and Two, he has just given a whole bunch of American corporations what they’ve lusted for for years: a huge new market, not only one in which they can sell goods where they’ve had no access previously, but one in which they may be able to manufacture goods more cheaply they can back here.
The Republican Congress will do everything it can to derail this. The embargo results from a Congressional act, not a presidential decision. The White House can loosen the bonds, but only Congress can abolish them. The Republicans take over in a few days and they’ve already said they will be in no rush to fund an embassy in Havana or approve Obama’s nominee for ambassador. Don’t expect their unyielding hatred of a black president to slacken in the run-up to the 2016 election. They will, as Mitch McConnell has so often said, do everything in their power to thwart any initiative coming out of the White House.
Elsewhere in the world, the US embargo has made us look petulant, petty, and hypocritical. The US embargoes Cuba because it is a communist nation. What about China and Vietnam, which are also communist, with which we have full diplomatic relations? What about our present request to China to help us with the North Korean computer meddling? What boundaries make any sense at all these days?
The Cuban embargo is 54 years old, older than almost anyone reading this article. It was imposed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1960. We broke diplomatic relations with Cuba the following year. The Eisenhower administration set in motion the Bay of Pigs operation; it took place during the early months of the JFK administration and was a total disaster: All the invaders were captured or killed. This is history. Bad history. Stupid history.
The apparently rational now
What Obama announced last week didn’t just happen. According to the Peter Baker in the New York Times, there were nine meetings in Canada since June 2013. Pope Francis encouraged the talks and hosted the October 2014 meeting in which the deal was finalized. Baker reported, “Mr. Obama spoke with Mr. [Raul] Castro by telephone on Tuesday to seal the agreement in a call that lasted 45 minutes, the first direct contact between the leaders of the two countries in 50 years.”
There have been 10 US presidents during the time of the embargo, some of whom approved underwriting military and covert operations against Cuba, which included not only the Bay of Pigs disaster but several attempts to murder Fidel Castro and support for paramilitary terrorist groups in Florida. We have accused Cuba of being a nation that supported terrorist activity. The arrow was pointing in the wrong direction.
Lifting of all restrictions, including tourism, will require Congressional approval. But there will be some immediate changes. Workers in the arts, athletics, human rights, and humanitarian activities will no longer have to go through the hoops they have had to go through in recent years. Instead treating (and often denying) these travel licenses on a case-by-case basis, they will now be handled a broad general basis. Financial options for individuals and institutions are now sane: If you get there, you can use your Visa card; if you visit there you can bring home $400 worth of goods, $100 of which can be tobacco. Cohiba fans are ecstatic.
We’ve allowed trade for some items with Cuba for years (e.g. Alabama frozen chicken) but our exporters have seen trade fall off because US government insisted on immediate payment, while countries like Vietnam and Brazil allowed purchases on credit. That frivolous impediment is now abolished.
The biggest jump will, for the near future, be in tourism. Americans will go there—some of the best beaches in the world, great food, nice people, great music, rum and did I mention the Cohibas?
Another industry that might see expansion in this relaxed political atmosphere is abortion. It is completely legal in Cuba, available on request. Before abortion became legal in the US, back when performing one was a serious felony that carried a long prison sentence, many American women who could afford it went for brief vacations to Cuba, had the procedure, relaxed a few days, then came home. (For poor women, it was the door in the back alley.) Now that the Right and religious fundamentalists have been shutting down abortion clinics across the country (Texas being the most vicious in this regard), Cuba might once again become a place of rescue for a lot of American women denied help by male politicians back home. Cuba, I should add, has one of the best healthcare systems and highest literacy rates in the Western Hemisphere.
Since 1992, the UN General Assembly has passed an annual resolution condemning the embargo. All the major human rights groups have condemned it. The US, as it so often does, has ignored all of this external pressure. With his action last week, Barack Obama joined the world on this issue. The Republicans are still saying they are going to fight it tooth and nail. The beat goes on. But something important has happened.
Bruce Jackson is SUNY Distinguished Professor, James Agee Professor of American Culture at UB, and co-Director of the UB Creative Arts Initiative.