I met Fidel Castro in 1984 at the World Trade Fair in Leipzig, East Germany. He was an impressive man — tall, vigorous and with an intelligent presence. When we were introduced by our East German hosts, I shook his hand and said, “So you are the Castro that has been causing the U.S. so many problems.” He responded quickly with a chuckle and in fairly good English, “No, it is your country that has been the troublemaker.”
In many ways this exchange sums up more than 50 years of U.S.-Cuba relations. We, the U.S.A. made Castro. And like him or not (there are many reasons not to like him), he resulted from the U.S. policy of backing evil dictators as long as it served U.S. interests.
While the news networks talk about his despotic rule with “death squads” and “political prisoners,” we may forget that we backed an even worse tyrant in Fulgencio Batista, a tyrant who killed his political enemies and their families in their sleep; a man who was supported by the U.S. and the very wealthy of Cuba, This dictator, Batista, raised the level of poverty in Cuba, while protecting the most wealthy and the interests of U.S. companies, all while running the Cuban economy into the ground. John Kennedy knew this when he stated the following in 1960:
“Fulgencio Batista murdered 20,000 Cubans in seven years ... and he turned Democratic Cuba into a complete police state — destroying every individual liberty. Yet our aid to his regime, and the ineptness of our policies, enabled Batista to invoke the name of the United States in support of his reign of terror. Administration spokesmen publicly praised Batista — hailed him as a staunch ally and a good friend — at a time when Batista was murdering thousands, destroying the last vestiges of freedom, and stealing hundreds of millions of dollars from the Cuban people, and we failed to press for free elections.”
Later, as U.S. president, he wrote to Jean Daniel on October 24, 1963:
“I believe that there is no country in the world, including any and all the countries under colonial domination, where economic colonization, humiliation, and exploitation were worse than in Cuba. This is, in part, owing to my country’s policies during the Batista regime. I approved the proclamation which Fidel Castro made in the Sierra Maestra, when he justifiably called for justice and especially yearned to rid Cuba of corruption. I will even go further: to some extent it is as though Batista was the incarnation of a number of sins on the part of the United States. Now we shall have to pay for those sins. In the matter of the Batista regime, I am in agreement with the first Cuban revolutionaries. That is perfectly clear.”
Today, on cable news, I see Cuban immigrants dancing in the streets of Miami, celebrating the death of Fidel Castro. Many of these dancing Cubans escaped to their wealthy second homes in Miami and New Orleans, taking their wealth with them. They left behind their loyal servants, gardeners, barbers and housekeepers to fend for themselves, who had to build rafts to follow them in hope of a better life in the U.S.
And while no can condone the executions of those who opposed Castro, they should know that the U.S. policies made Castro. For years, wealthy Cubans financed a campaign in Congress to get their country back, weeping about how Castro took their mansions and turned them into public housing. Well, no matter what happens moving forward, no Cuban-Americans will get their mansions back. As to the more than one million Cubans who made it to U.S., they became citizens of the greatest country on Earth. Ironically, they owe this to Castro. That fortune is little compensation to the thousands who drowned in the 90 miles of ocean that separated the two countries.
The Obama administration has taken small, proactive steps to try to normalize relations with Cuba, recognizing that it is just a matter of time before the Castro legacy would end. Sadly, there was no reason why this couldn’t have happened 30 years ago. I am always bemused by ideologues in the U.S. who are so afraid of the socialism in Cuba that they would not let capitalism work. If we had opened up relations with Cuba, even a decade ago, the Castros would have been gone and the people of Cuba would have suffered less. Such is the power of capitalism and American self-interests.
Castro’s legacy will be studied for centuries as the man who stood up to the arrogant U.S. He will be the man who tried to create a socialized country that was fair to all. Sadly, he failed. He failed, in part, because the U.S. worked so very hard to make him fail. The past support of the Soviet Union, and later Venezuela, was not enough to offset the punishing U.S. embargo.
In spite of this, Castro did make a few positive contributions to the world. His medical schools provided doctors to places that would never have had doctors. There is not a major hospital in the U.S. that doesn’t have a Cuban-trained doctor. In Macon, I know of several. A better funded model of Castro’s vision in the U.S. would result in far better health care for the U.S. and the rest of the world. Castro could also point to education as an example of success, leading all other Latin American countries by every known measure. Cuba spends more than 13 percent of its GDP on education, The U.S. spends less than 6 percent. U.S. public education could learn a lot from Cuba, where elementary teachers stay with their students from grade to grade for up to four years and no student is left behind much less bused for hours each day. Generally, from K-9, a higher percentage of Cuban students are in school than in the U.S., not bad for a poor country.
If we care more about the people of Cuba than our own misplaced ideology, President-elect Donald Tump must build on Obama’s first steps toward normalization between our two countries. If this happens, then families will be united, and Cuba could eventually be a shining example of a new democracy.
The U.S. will have another country to which to sell its goods, and many of us will be taking vacations in Cuba, perhaps even in Trump hotels. If this sounds naive, then so be it. Fifty years of isolating Cuba have not worked and have only punished the people of Cuba. To quote Trump, “What do we have to lose?”
Philip Groce is a rsident of Macon. He can be reached at email@example.com.