By Alan Caruba
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 the Cold War that had existed between it and the U.S. since the end of World War Two came to an end, but there was ditritus, loose ends like Cuba and it has taken until now for an end to the diplomatic obstacles whose roots reach back to the Eisenhower administration. In 1960 it had approved a CIA plan to arm and train a group of Cuban refugees to overthrow the Castro regime.
The Cuban dictator, Flugencio Batista, fled Havana on January 1, 1959 and Fidel Castro and his rebels entered the capital a week later on January 8. One sees the world through the prism of one’s own life and, that event was six months prior to my graduating from the University of Miami.
Among my friends in college were young men who were the children of well-to-do Cubans, so I was more aware of what was occurring than most my age when Castro took over. In 1960 I was inducted into the army and it was big news when the Bay of Pigs invasion occurred on April 14, 1961. President Kennedy had moved ahead on the CIA plan, but it was a failure and it was followed by the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. The nation was literally on the edge of nuclear confrontation.
In the lead up to that the Second Infantry Division of which my unit was a part ceased its training mission and converted to one of battle readiness. In my case, however, I had already been discharged in April 1962. Kennedy declared a blockage of Cuba which had installed the Soviet missiles. Wisely, the Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev agreed to remove them.
Cuba was and is the classic Soviet-style Communist regime. During the 1970s Fidel Castro dispatched troops to Soviet-supported wars in Africa. Cuba’s economy was always lean and its workers make about twenty dollars a month in U.S. dollars. In 1962 Cuba was suspended from the Organization of American States (OAS) that imposed sanctions against Cuba, but 1975 the OAS lifted its sanctions with the approval of sixteen member states and the U.S. but the U.S. has maintained its own sanctions from the days of the missile crisis.
Suffice to say Cuba has a long history of human rights abuses. It represses any political dissent and life for Cubans is devoid of free speech, free association, privacy, and due process of law; rights which Americans and others in free nations take for granted.
For some 53 years, the U.S has had no direct diplomatic relations with Cuba and when President Obama made the announcement that he was moving to normalize relations it was big news. It had been preceded by 18 months of secret negotiations about which, reportedly, no member of Congress was informed about. While it infuriated the Cuban-American communities most people, inside and outside of government agreed it was time, if not overdue, for this action.
There will be much speculation that normalization will be good news for the Cuban people and one can surely hope so, but until the brothers, Fidel and Raul—declared the new president in 2008 when Fidel resigned—are dead, the likelihood for any real improvement in their lives is distant.
In a similar fashion, many American business and agricultural interests are no doubt making plans to become a part of the Cuban economy, but they had better proceed with care. Cuba is still Communist in most respects despite Raul Castro’s efforts to portray himself as a reformer and Cuba a place where foreign business are welcome and can thrive. In 2012 he relaxed property rights, expanded land leases, and licensed businesses from pizza joints to private gyms.
In reality, Raul Castro has, as reported in McClean’s magazine in 2012, “scared off more joint ventures than he has attracted, jeopardizing the investment Cuba needs to succeed. Spanish oil giant Repsol quit the country. Canada’s Pizza Nova, which had six Cuban locations, packed its bags, as did Telecom Italia.” In one case after another, those who hoped to do business in Cuba were disappointed. In 2013 a British company, one of the biggest and most important business partners of Castro’s military and a key investor in the tourism industry was suddenly confiscated and its principals were imprisoned.
One dramatic example is Stephen Purvis, a British architect who, since 2000 had developed tourism projects, factories and docks through his company that was financed by private European backers. After living in Cuba for ten years with his family and investing heavily in it, he was rewarded by being imprisoned after being accused of spying. He would spend 16 months in Cuban jails until being able to flee. Everything his company owned was confiscated. He has since warned others against doing business with the Castros.
Since 1959, more than one million Cubans, about ten percent of the population, have fled Cuba, many of whom found a new home in America. When that many people wanted to leave, it tells you something is terribly wrong with life in Cuba. The tentative steps toward normalization after all this time are necessary, but the American government should proceed with care in the years ahead.