Comment, Guardian Unlimited
Miami's Cuban heels
Sunday April 23, 2000
GOD BLESS YOU , Janet Reno.
Yesterday morning in Miami, in starting an all-too-delayed process of getting Elian Gonzalez back to his father in Havana, you have given the world a signal that there is at last one Attorney-General in the United States who is capable of thinking straight about her country's relations with Cuba. In the first place, you have had the courage to stand up to the blackmail of one of the most unattractive group of voters on the US electoral roll short of the Ku Klux Klan, the Cuban political activists who have fled the rule of Fidel Castro in their home country.
For decades now this Caribbean tail has wagged the Washington dog in most matters pertaining to relations with Cuba. Teaming up with nationalist extremists such as Senator Jesse Helms in Congress, the exiles have screamed and shouted and flourished their voting power so that most US politicians have quailed at the thought of crossing them.
As a result, they have, as you know, been able to run riot in South Florida. In the early days of Castro's rule, they were useful tools in the hands of the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations who were actively and illegally seeking to overthrow the Cuban leader. Many of them went joyfully to death and imprisonment for the sake of John Fitzgerald Kennedy in the Bay of Pigs fiasco of 1961.
In succeeding years, others were happy to collaborate in less publicised, but equally unsuccessful official US plots against Castro. But they soon slipped the leash and continued their own campaigns, blowing up Cuban civilian airlines here, violating Cuban airspace there and, under the benevolent eye of US officials, generally acting as 24-carat international terrorists.
Now I'm sure that this exile community contains thousands of decent men and women who are doing no more than attempting the difficult task of living a peaceful life in one of the world's most vicious and violent cities for the sake of avoiding the political discourses of Fidel Castro. Good luck to such as these.
But that same Cuban community has nurtured a baleful crop of criminals. To take examples from my recent book on the former dictator of Chile, it was to the drug smugglers and assassins among the Miami Cubans that Augusto Pinochet and the Chilean military turned when they wanted to develop their lucrative traffic in narcotics. It was a Miami Cuban murderer that Pinochet selected to spy on British 'concentration camps' in Northern Ireland in 1975. It was the Miami Cubans whom the general enlisted to help when he decided in 1976 to assassinate his political opponents in the centre of Washington DC.
As a regular visitor to Cuba, I am at least as familiar as most foreign journalists with the splendeurs et misères of life under Fidel Castro. At the same time, I certainly would not want the six-year- old Elian - or indeed any of my own grandchildren - to be constrained to grow up amid the sickening lawlessness of South Florida.
A much larger and more important question looms now, Janet, behind the Elian affair, as you and your boss in the White House know better than any one. Is your action yesterday a welcome foretaste of some larger change in US thinking towards Cuba, of some move on the part of Washington to unravel the tangled thread of your country's relationship with the island?
Washington has been itching to get its hands on Cuba for the last century and a half and for most of that time that itch had all to do with that very powerful force, US nationalism, and very little to do with communism. Indeed, the itch developed decades before Karl Marx's idea were set out on paper. In the 1840s and 1850s, for instance, several US Presidents and Secretaries of State tried to buy Cuba off Spain, whose colony the island then was.
And when Queen Isabel II's Ministers in Madrid rejected those offers, the prospective purchasers turned nasty. They wanted the island's sugar, they wanted its tobacco plantations and many of them wanted it as a place where slavery could flourish, untroubled by any of Abraham Lincoln's ridiculous notions of emancipation for the blacks.
The fledgling United States was spreading its wings, expanding into the west and absorbing vast tracts of land from the faltering hands of the corrupt leaders of Mexico. The idea, already implicit in the Monroe Doctrine proclaimed in 1823, was beginning to form that the US had a 'Manifest Destiny' to do what it liked in the Western hemisphere. Had the American Civil War not intervened, the US might have invaded Cuba years before volume one of Das Kapital appeared in 1867.
For years, native Cubans tried to free their island from Spain. There were bloody uprisings, during which the Spaniards brought in the first real concentration camps, an invention which Britain was to take up with enthusiasm a bit later during the Boer War. In 1895, the Cuban commander, Jose Marti, a valiant soldier and a dreamy poet who knew little of Marx, was killed in battle against Spain.
Three years later, just as the Cuban rebels seemed on the brink of victory against Spain, the US elbowed them aside, declared war on Madrid and seized the island and most of the rest of the Spanish empire for themselves. Cuba was run, formally or informally, as a colony-cum-brothel from then on, until Castro and his bearded guerrillas were victorious in 1959.
The proud Castro, the son of a rich but semi-literate immigrant farmer born in Spain, had not always been anti-Yankee. You will remember, Attorney-General, that in 1940 he wrote a letter to congratulate your President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on his re-election, adding: 'I am a boy, but I think very much. If you like, give me a ten dollars bill green american in a letter, because I have not seen a ten dollars bill american and I would like to have one of them.' The 'ten dollars bill green american' never arrived from the White House.
Under Castro's leadership, the United States got hopelessly tangled up in mutual recriminations which both sides were happy to present, misleadingly, as part of the Cold War. Castro resented the US; the US resented the upstart. Castro tried land reform; Washington cut imports of Cuban sugar. Washington tried to invade; Castro sought Soviet help and announced, improbably, that he was a Marxist-Leninist. The Soviets sent rockets; the US violated Cuban territory. The world teetered on the very brink of nuclear war.
Since then, it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that the whip has been in the hand of Pinochet's Cuban friends in the US, aided by the aged but egregious Helms, Big Tobacco's friend, a man who lumps Castro with the United Nations as a threat to the US national security.
In Havana, meanwhile, the disappearance of the USSR and communism in Europe has meant that Castro's basic national pride has shone through once more since the Marxist camouflage has withered. Today, Germanic Karl Marx has taken second place in the Cuban pantheon to Marti, the local hero.
But, as you know, Janet, US-Cuban relations have never really been about Marx or Lenin. They are really about a stiff-necked nationalist, who was all the prouder for being weak, and a great power which would not be gainsaid, especially in what it regarded as its own back yard.
You did a great job yesterday, Attorney-General, and acted with great political courage and wisdom. Now all you've got to do is take that boss of yours aside and convince him that it is in his power to do some sort of deal with Cuba which would stop your country being a laughing stock. It would also allow him to go down in history as a statesman.
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