History Lessons on Cuba for a New President
By ANTHONY DePALMA
Published: January 3, 2009
I first set foot in Havana 30 years ago because Jimmy Carter thought he
could end the tensions that had torn apart millions of families,
including my own. It seemed like a new beginning, but it turned out to
be more of the same old story about Cuba and the United States.
Time and again Fidel Castro has taken an American overture or challenge
and, using a Fidelista jujitsu, turned it to his own advantage. In the
process, countless families like mine have been whipsawed between hope
Mr. Castro's enduring tactic has been to fit each initiative to his
revolutionary script of a brave Cuba resisting the giant United States.
Framed that way, attempts to bring down the regime strengthened it.
Efforts to democratize Cuba left freedoms further restricted. Presidents
came and went, but the constants were disappointment, and Fidel.
Now with Mr. Castro ailing and a new president about to be inaugurated —
the eleventh to hold office since Havana fell 50 years ago this month —
another match in this long competition is about to begin.
The half-century has been a roller coaster for Cuba and the United
States. Dwight Eisenhower was quick to recognize Mr. Castro's
government, and quick to slam shut the diplomatic door. John Kennedy got
stung at the Bay of Pigs. Lyndon Johnson was uninterested in negotiating
with Castro; so was Richard Nixon until his opening to China made him
and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, think they could do
something similar with Cuba. Mr. Kissinger tried, and continued under
President Ford, but got nowhere.
In all that time, my wife, Miriam, who had left at age 10 in the
tumultuous months between the Bay of Pigs and the 1962 missile crisis,
had little contact with her family in Cuba. A phone call was near
impossible, and sending anything by mail was a test of patience and
luck. But soon after President Carter took office, he opened a United
States Interests Section in Havana and allowed Cuba to do the same in
Washington. That's where we went in 1978 for visas so Miriam could visit
her father for the first time since 1962, and I could see Cuba too.
The ferocious tension of the past seemed to have abated when we reunited
with her family at José Martí Airport, and Miriam, now married, could
hug her father one last time. There were other reasons for hope. Mr.
Castro had released some 3,500 political prisoners and promised to make
it easy for some Cubans to leave. We filled out immigration papers for
Miriam's younger brother. Maybe the worst was over.
But it wasn't. Mr. Castro, flush with Soviet aid, had tens of thousands
of troops (including Miriam's stepbrother) in Angola and was itching to
get into Ethiopia. Robert A. Pastor, President Carter's national
security adviser for Latin America, warned Mr. Castro that entering
Ethiopia would end further normalization.
Mr. Castro sent troops anyway. As relations deteriorated, he accused
Washington of reneging on immigration promises, and threw open the port
of Mariel along with prisons, hospitals and insane asylums. More than
120,000 refugees landed on Florida's shores, backing the United States
into taking them all.
Mr. Pastor told me there was a lesson in this: that President-elect
Barack Obama's promises to move toward normalization if Cuba
democratizes probably won't work, because Mr. Castro has never accepted
that equation. "We long ago overestimated how important normalization
and lifting the embargo were for Castro, and we're still doing it," he
said. The threat, real or invented, of United States attacks has been a
central element of Mr. Castro's revolutionary identity, and the embargo
his call to arms.
In that 1978 trip we saw the price Cubans pay under the embargo. When we
departed, we took only the clothes we wore. We left everything else,
including our suitcases, which the family bartered for food.
We next saw Cuba in the mid-1990s. The cold war was over. Washington's
objectives of halting Mr. Castro's military adventures and his
revolution's spread had been reached.
But instead of seeking reconciliation, George H. W. Bush had tightened
the embargo further. And he signed into law a Congressional initiative
seeking democratic change in Cuba after Bill Clinton, while campaigning
in South Florida to replace him, came out for a tough Cuba policy.
Mr. Castro also managed to turn this challenge to his advantage. Citing
the Soviet collapse, he introduced a "special period" of sacrifice and
rationing. We heard of families cooking grapefruit rind in place of
beef. Mr. Castro blamed Washington's embargo, and American allies
criticized the Cuban Democracy Act because it sought to restrict their
trade with Cuba.
President Clinton eventually moved toward easing tensions. But Mr.
Castro denied him an opening. In 1996, he ordered jets to shoot down
unarmed planes piloted by the Cuban refugee group "Brothers to the
Rescue." That backed Mr. Clinton into supporting the Helms-Burton Act,
which further tightened the embargo. Mr. Castro had the law distributed
to Cubans and pointed out parts giving Cuban-Americans the right to sue
in America to reclaim property Cuba had nationalized. Ten years later,
when I knocked on the door of Miriam's old house, seeking to take a
picture, the residents feared I was there to reclaim it.
In 2004, George W. Bush took his turn at getting tough with Mr. Castro,
severely restricting family travel and limiting family remittances. The
regime didn't budge, but some Cubans became even more desperate to take
to the sea in flimsy rafts to escape. One of Miriam's stepbrothers was
among them. His body was never recovered.
As Havana commemorates the 50 years since Mr. Castro's victory, and
Washington prepares to inaugurate Mr. Obama — the first president born
after the rebels took control — Cuba still belongs to Fidel. He is a
sick, 82-year-old man who has formally handed power to his brother Raúl,
but still writes rambling columns in the Communist Party newspaper
Granma. Brian Latell, a Cuba expert and former C.I.A. analyst, says
Fidel Castro remains "pathologically hostile" to the United States.
Raúl Castro has said he is willing to meet with President Obama, and
last month he offered to bend to Washington's desire for a release of
political prisoners. But Raúl seems to have learned some of his older
brother's moves. He demanded that the United States free five convicted
Cuban spies in exchange. He calls that "gesto por gesto" — gesture for
gesture — and it is widely assumed to be his blueprint for relations
If this is a hint of what is to come, families caught in the middle,
like ours, can only wait to see which country grabs the advantage first,
and which keeps it.