It's time to let Cuba in from the cold, and Obama is the perfect man to do it
The Cuban revolution began 50 years ago just as I was starting my second term at university. As history students we were obsessed by the Spanish civil war, a conflict that had ended just two decades earlier, and we were also fascinated by the contemporary struggle of the revolutionary forces in Algeria. Then along rolled the wonderful Cuban revolution, with its charismatic and bearded leadership descending from the hills, young men in their 20s brandishing guns and seizing the cities, and calling for land reform.
In a world dominated by ageing conservative leaders who had risen to power during the second world war or before—Macmillan, Eisenhower, De Gaulle, Adenauer, Khrushchev, Salazar, Franco—the radical and youthful guerrillas, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara especially, put Cuba on the map for students all over the world, and the unknown continent of Latin America suddenly emerged into view.
We clipped the newspapers, followed events closely, and took sides as Castro began his epic quarrel with the United States—through the US abolition of the sugar quota, the arrival of Soviet oil, the CIA invasion at the Bay of Pigs, and the missile crisis of 1962.
Like hundreds of others I could not wait to get there, finally reaching the promised land in 1963.
Revolutions are famously promiscuous in their friendships, providing an enthusiastic welcome for anyone prepared to make the journey, and I had soon travelled all over the island, enrolled in my local street committee for “the defence of the revolution”, met all the senior leaders, including Che Guevara, and listened to Fidel make one of his poetic and mesmerising speeches in the Plaza de la Revolución.
What struck me most was to find an island full of black people. The revolutionary leadership could hardly have been more white. Indeed it was said that the Fidelista activists who had seized the Moncada barracks in Santiago in 1953 were mostly the children of first generation immigrants from Spain, including Fidel himself. Yet the population of Cuba was at least half black, and you could see them enjoying themselves in the luxury villas in the wealthy suburbs of Havana, recently vacated by those hostile to the revolution who had left in a hurry for Miami, imagining that they would soon be back.
Fifty years later, they are still waiting to return, while black families still hang out the washing in the gardens of their former homes, and sit out in the porch of an evening, watching the sun go down over the Caribbean. They are not going to move out in a hurry. They provide the revolution with its strongest support.
Fidel’s enlistment of the black population was his astutest move, being echoed in the United States (where he stayed in Harlem on a visit to the United Nations) as well as elsewhere in the still colonial world—yet it caused trouble with the white people at home. The only political movement in Cuba that had enrolled black people into its party and its trade union movement was the Communist party, and Fidel (long before his move towards the Soviet Union) had turned to the local communists for help in reaching out to the urban population, both poor and black. The white racist element in the Cuban population had tolerated a black president such as Fulgencio Batista, who had kept the black population under control; they were alarmed by a white man like Fidel who appeared to be mobilising the black people against them.
Fidel’s courting of the black population paid dividends when his foreign policy ambitions extended to Africa, with major military interventions in Angola in the 1970s and 1980s that stabilised the leftist government of Agostinho Neto and played their part in overthrowing the apartheid regime in South Africa. The great-grandparents of some of the Cuban soldiers had originally arrived in Cuba from Angola in the 19th century—as slaves.
Many Cuban enthusiasts of my generation, especially those in continental Europe, were disillusioned by Fidel turning to the Soviet Union. I recall listening to his speech in August 1968 when he came out in support of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. We had expected him to support Alexander Dubcek.
Surely Che Guevara would have done so, we thought? But Guevara was a lesser strategist than Fidel, and had paid the price for his political errors the previous year, assassinated by the military in Bolivia, whence he had once hoped to lead a guerrilla army to liberate his homeland of Argentina. His extraordinary story is told again in two long films by Steven Soderbergh.
Faced with the implacable hostility of the United States, Fidel decided that he had no alternative except to ally himself with the Soviet Union. In the 1970s he took the Soviet shilling, and copied its model, adapting Cuba’s economy and politics to a Soviet manual. Only in foreign affairs did he maintain an independent line. Many Cubans were happy with this decision, remembering “the Brezhnev years” with affection as a time of prosperity that they had never known before, and never since. Foreign observers were less smitten, and I did not return to Havana until the late 1990s, to see what was going on and to write a history of Cuba.
I found a Cuba preserved in aspic: nothing seemed to have changed—one of the unique and neglected charms of communism. An intelligent, healthy and well-educated population, younger than the revolution itself, survived in buildings battered by time, with rations that were barely adequate, and with a transport system that did not serve their needs. They had plenty of reasons for complaint, yet they were slow to attack the revolution or its leadership.
Compared with the experience of Latin America, their half century of revolution has been a peaceful affair.
Latin America fell under the control in those years of vicious military dictators, often over decades, where people were imprisoned, tortured and “disappeared”.
Nothing comparable happened in Cuba. Eventually civilian regimes re-emerged in Latin America, and they once again made friends with Cuba. Fidel became recognised as the greatest Latin American figure of the 20th century, an emblematic leader comparable with the heroes of the 19th-century struggles for independence.
It now falls to Barack Obama to follow where the Latin Americans have led, and to abandon the mistaken US policies of the past half century (and of the century before that). The Cuban lobby in the United States has lost its political clout, and there is now no domestic reason why an American president should not re-establish diplomatic and commercial relations with Cuba. For the black population, an Obama visit to Havana would be an especially magical time, an event as spectacular as that moment 50 years ago when Fidel and Guevara acknowledged the plaudits of the crowd: the dawn of hope. - guardian.co.uk