• Otter Views: Viva Cuba!

    Ever watchful for synchronicities that can be knitted into a column, I couldn’t help noticing Cuba’s recent reemergence in the national dialogue of its northerly neighbor.

    I realize that in this time of acidic partisan vitriol, any discussion of Cuban-American relations must use the term “neighbor” advisedly. So at this point, let the reference be spatial. The two nations are 90 miles apart; that puts them in the same “neighborhood.” Heck, Diana Nyad swam between them.

    But if recent developments continue trending, the U.S. and Cuba could at some point be more than geographic neighbors. We could become downright neighborly.

    President Obama and Cuban president Raul Castro made the first tentative move in that direction by shaking hands at last week’s hemispheric summit meeting in Panama. It wasn’t quite Nixon in China, but it did signal a hopeful thaw in a 55-year freeze.

    Then on Monday, Florida’s most prominent Cuban-American, Republican U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, opened his 2016 presidential campaign. If elected, Rubio would become the first U.S. president of Cuban descent (Jeb Bush’s “Hispanic” voter registration notwithstanding).

    Ironically, Rubio’s election could set back U.S.-Cuban relations for another 55 years, because he fiercely opposes any rapprochement with the revolutionary government that drove his South Florida constituents into exile. But that’s a story for another day.

    For the moment, let’s pretend the current thaw is allowed to continue. As Time Magazine’s April 6 cover story pointed out, both sides have a stake in a positive outcome. For President Obama, improving the U.S.-Cuba dynamic would be a legacy-worthy achievement and a bilateral trade boon. U.S. tourists, dollars and corporations to Cuba; Cuban cigars, ballplayers and ’58 Pontiacs to the U.S.

    For Raul and Fidel Castro, a working relationship with the U.S. would validate the revolution’s staying power and improve Cuba’s woeful economic prospects. It could also redress some of the wrongs to which the brothers have been subjected by Congress, the mafia, several U.S. presidents, and other power players from El Norte.

    It is a long and dismal history. Lowlights include America’s support of the corrupt Cuban dictator and mafia partner Fulgencio Bautista; President John F. Kennedy’s catastrophic Bay of Pigs invasion; and the CIA’s various “exploding cigar” assassination plots.

    “The United States acted very badly from the beginning,” one Cuban official told the Time reporter. “They pushed us into the arms of the Soviet Union. This was not our plan. But you’re put in the position where you have to survive.”

    Americans opposed to any Cuba-U.S. détente can recite an equally damning litany of offenses. After overthrowing Bautista in 1959, Cuba’s revolutionary leaders imprisoned thousands of opponents and drove many more into exile,

    confiscating their wealth and property. Then, not long after the botched Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, Cuba allowed the Soviet Union to position atomic warheads and missiles on the island, raising the specter of nuclear war.

    Yet for all their mutual animosity and suspicion, the two nations share a lot of cultural history. From sports to food to fashion to music, Cuba and the U.S. are more symbiotic than adversarial. Baseball is the shared national pastime. Both excel in the Olympics and Pan American Games. Florida lunch wagons serve Cuban street food. In music alone, rhythms, beats, genres and styles have rhumba’d back and forth between them for centuries.

    Americans of President Obama’s or Senator Rubio’s generation may not remember the 1959 Cuban Revolution. But many will recall 1989, when one American’s musical diplomacy provided an early glimpse of possible détente. The musician was guitarist and singer-songwriter Ry Cooder, whose Havana recordings of long-neglected Cuban musicians catalyzed the “Buena Vista Social Club” phenomenon.

    As millions enjoyed the best-selling Buena Vista recordings and the award-winning documentary movie that followed, it seemed as if a warm tropical wind had blown in from the Caribbean. It also seemed a little harder after that to believe that music this alive, this playful and this sensual could have arisen from some soulless, icy evil empire.

    The April 6 Time report also explored an unintended consequence of the 50-year U.S. embargo that has locked Cuba into a time capsule of vintage cars and crumbling architecture. The Cubans have proved re- markably resilient and self-reliant, earning grudging respect from former adversaries.

    Although limiting its citizens’ free enterprise, the Cuban government has taken admirable care of them. According to Time, Cuba’s literacy rate is 99.8 percent, its health system is among the world’s best, and its infant mortality rate is lower than America’s.

    Then there are the cars. At the grocery

    register the other morning, the checkout clerk commented on the Time cover. “I’d love to go to Cuba,” he said. “I’d want to see how they keep those vintage cars running.”

    Me? I’d go for the music.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on April 17, 2015

    Topics: Otter Views

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