On December 31, 1958 we were celebrating New Year's Eve in the home of a friend, about a block from our apartment on Calle 4 in Miramar, a nice, middle class section of Havana. I was thirteen, in the second year of high school of our more European-like educational system, which consisted of six years of grammar school, followed by five years of high school.
The previous year, I had spent New Year's Eve gallivanting around Havana with friends, but by December of 1958 the political situation was very fragile. The battle to overthrow the Batista dictatorship was in full force. Havana was the scene of frequent bombings, shootings, and police roundups. We could no longer venture around town to celebrate New Year's Eve.
The following morning, January 1, 1959, we all walk up to the news that Batista along with many high officials in his government had fled Cuba overnight. Fidel Castro the leader of the Cuban Revolution that had been fighting the Batista regime for the last several years came to power, along with his brother Raul.
They have ruled Cuba ever since, celebrating their 50th anniversary in power on January 1, 2009.
Life was never the same for me and my family. Within a few months of taking power, the Castro government started its turn toward communism, nationalizing all private property, from large plantations and industries owned by wealthy Cuban families and foreign companies, to businesses of all sorts owned by middle class families, like my parents’ store.
My parents had come to Cuba from Eastern Europe - my father in the 1920s, my mother in the 1930s. They arrived with nothing, but by the 1950s, through sheer hard work, they owned a store in a working class neighborhood in Havana. They poured everything into the store, and built up the business over the years, including a major expansion in 1958. With very unfortunate timing, the new store opened a few months before Castro came to power and started taking the country along the path to communism.
On October 18, 1960 my sister and I left Havana to stay with relatives in Chicago. My parents followed several months later. They had to leave just about everything behind and start life all over again. Yet, we were lucky - all of us got out. That was not the case with many families. It should surprise no one that Cuban-Americans from my parents’ generation were vehemently anti-Castro until the day they died.
I was fifteen when I came to Chicago. I finished high school, and went on to college and graduate school at the University of Chicago. I later moved to the New York area and a long career at IBM until I retired in May of 2007 and went on to do a few other things. For me, as for the majority of those who came from Cuba as children and teenagers, let alone those born here, our life was now in the US, and we became integrated into America and its culture. We had our whole lives ahead of use, - our education, jobs, families and children.
What can you say about the Cuban Revolution turning fifty, besides the fact that it has managed to outlast ten US presidents and survive a US embargo for most of those years?
I have never been back to Cuba. I would like to see Havana again, especially the neighborhoods I grew up in, but somehow I have never gotten around to it. It takes some planning to go to Cuba from the US. But perhaps the painful memories of the last twenty months in Havana are still very much with me, seeing my parents suffer as everything they had worked for was taken away from them.
Most of what you read about Cuba these days paints a sad picture of the life of the Cuban people, who have been caught for decades between two immovable forces – the Castro regime and the US embargo.
The Castro Regime
The Economist January 3rd issue writes in an article, “The Cuban Revolution at 50: Heroic myth and prosaic failure”, that "Everyday life in Cuba is a dreary affair of queues and shortages, even if nobody starves and violent crime is rare. It is the only country in the Americas whose government denies its citizens freedom of expression and assembly."
It later adds "Mr Castro’s Cuba is a sad place. Although the population is now mainly black or mulatto and young, its rulers form a mainly white gerontocracy. The failure of collective farming means that it imports up to 80% of its food. The health and education systems struggle to maintain standards. Inequalities have risen."
"Castro's Cuba is turning 50. It's been dying for years," say another article, “The End of the Revolution” in the December 5 issue of The New York Times Magazine.
It praises Cuba's achievements in health care: "According to the World Health Organization, life expectancy for men and women in Cuba is 76 and 80 years, respectively, on par with the U.S."; as well as in education: "Illiteracy has been eliminated. United Nations statistics show 93.7 percent of Cuban children complete high school, far more than in the United States or elsewhere in the Caribbean."
But then raises the question "Why educate people so well and then deny them access to the Internet, travel and the opportunity to apply their skills? Why give them a great education and no life? Why not at least offer a Chinese or Vietnamese model, with a market economy under one-party rule?"
Besides its impressive health care and education systems, Cuba is also prominent for its world class, Stasi-like intelligence services. Like the former East Germany, Cuba is widely regarded as having one of the most effective and repressive intelligence and secret police agencies in the world. It monitors the behavior of all Cubans, and encourages them to report anyone that might possibly harbor counter-revolutionary thoughts, be it neighbors, friends or family members.
"Cuba’s dissidents are marginalized," further writes the New Times Magazine article. "The press is muzzled. The print organ of the regime, Granma, named after the cabin cruiser that bore Fidel, Raúl, Che and their followers from Mexican exile to Cuba in 1956, is a study in Orwellian officialese. State television is a turgid propaganda machine. Cuba can show “The Lives of Others” at its annual Havana Film Festival, where a few thousand people see it, but that remarkable study of the all-hearing Stasi in totalitarian East Germany would never be shown on national television. Too many Cubans might want the movie renamed “The Lives of Us.”"
Along with doctors and teachers, the secret police is one of the services that Cuba now barters for goods to its friends like Venezuela. "Cuba’s famously effective intelligence service has created a new division whose sole purpose is to keep the Venezuelan president [Hugo Chavez] in power" reports The Economist.
The US Embargo
Being trapped in an anachronistic, repressive government is one half of Cuba's misery. The other half is the equally anachronistic, foolish US embargo.
In another article in its January 3 issue, "Time for a (long overdue) change" The Economist writes that "the new president [Back Obama] should go further and urge Congress to lift the embargo altogether. It is wrong-headed and ineffective. If it went, Cubans would know they had nobody except their rulers to blame for their plight."
"And how will history judge U.S. policy toward Fidel’s Cuba?" asks the New York Times Magazine article, "Badly, I think, especially since the end of the cold war. If the embargo had come down then, back in 1989, I doubt the regime would have survived. But the grudges were too deep, and a mistake was made. Today the policy makes little sense. The United States dislikes Chávez but maintains diplomatic relations with Venezuela. I think Obama should add to the measures he has already announced by offering to open full diplomatic relations with Cuba immediately."
When it comes to Cuba, it feels like we have abandoned our faith in the open, free market capitalism that helped bring down the communist governments in Russia and Eastern Europe, as well as help create our strong economic relations with China. We have allowed the Cuban-Americans’ justifiable hatred of the Castro regime to dictate our policy toward Cuba, a policy that has brought misery to the Cuban people while failing equally miserably in achieving our objectives of bringing regime change to Cuba.
In a way, embargoes and similar measures are a kind of sign of respect. They should be reserved for weightier countries than sad, little Cuba. By continuing the embargo, we are assigning a power to the Castro brothers that they have not deserved for decades. We have made them special in the eyes of other Latin American countries and of the world at large. Furthermore, because the embargo has so failed to bring regime change to the country, we also look weak and petty in the eyes of the world.
The Cuban people have been caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place for too long. After all these years, it is time to finally move on.