Mi papá

Malecon at sunset. By Diogo Salles

My father was an ardent anti-Fidelista.

My mother has told me that he never trusted Fidel Castro. He did not celebrate as he overthrew the Batista regime. He always felt that his ascent to power would lead to no good. And this was before Fidel came out as a Communist. (If you're not hip to Cuban history, Fidel didn't come out as a Communist until 1961, and was even tacitly supported by the US in his overthrow of Batista, whose regime was no longer tenable.)

And after Fidel began turning Cuba into a one-party state, things got worse for my father. He was firmly ensconced in the middle class. He owned his own barber shop. He was a member of the petit bourgeoisie. And Fidel nationalized everything. Dad lost his shop. Friends were arrested.

My family left Cuba as soon as it could. And my dad always longed for it. But ill-health and a hatred of the Communists always prevented him from going back to visit. I remember that one of the happiest times of his life was when his brother came to New York for a month. Suddenly the years and the distance vanished, and they could pretend to be taking a cafecito at a corner bar.

I don't know how my dad would have reacted to President Obama's initiation of normalization of relations with Cuba. His pain may have been too deep. Sometimes the past is not past, but a living gash in your soul.

I am his son, but I cannot speak for him. I would like to think that if there is an afterlife, his pain has left him, and he has granted his blessing.

I can only speak for myself. And as a son who inherited his distaste of the caudillo Fidel, I can say this: the isolation of Cuba has only isolated us.

Every year the UN General Assembly passes a resolution condemning the embargo. The only "no" votes are usually us, Israel, and whatever Micronesian statelet we bribe to join us.

Cuba trades with the rest of the world, although not as much as it could if the embargo were lifted. Our allies look at our obsession with an impoverished island off the Florida Keys with bemusement and not a little disgust.

The embargo was put in place during the Cold War, as a Cold War exercise to blunt Cuban influence in Latin America. The Cold War is over. Latin America is democratic. And Cuba's adherence to socialism is not winning converts anywhere, not even in Venezuela, its erstwhile ally. The embargo, if it ever had a utility, has long become useless, kept on life support to appease the first generation of exiles, quickly dying out, their children not longing for a return to the island, firmly embroiled in American concerns and American life.

The embargo wasn't hurting the Communist Party. If anything, it prolonged its life. Fidel and his lieutenants could always point to "el Yanqui" and his imperialism. "Socialismo o muerte" was the rallying cry, and it was effective. Ordinary Cubans didn't feel that the US was standing up for it; they felt that they were being punished for a geo-political game. And after the fall of the Soviet bloc, even that wasn't in play, just parochial US politics. If the embargo hadn't existed, Fidel would have had to create it.

The world's only superpower shouldn't keep a crippling embargo on a nation which is desperate to sell us cigars and sugar and rum. A nation which would welcome American tourists as it did in the 1950s. The embargo is no reflection on them, but on us. This last vestige of the superpower standoff serves no one. It doesn't serve us, making us look like petty despots. And it doesn't serve Cubans, keeping US investment out of the country.

Conservatives will bray about "freedom". If democratic government is a litmus test for diplomatic and economic relations, then I eagerly await suspending such relations with China, Saudi Arabia, the Arab emirates, and so on. And for most of the cold war, democratic governance was never a prerequisite for being a US ally.

The old socialist glorifiers of Cuba will see this rapprochement as a betrayal of Cuba, a dastardly plot by the imperialist power to subvert the last socialist state. That state has been seeking normal relations with the US for decades; it's crying out for some US "subversion".

In the end, the war has wound down. Both sides are tired of playing to their rabid bases. Cuba will take capitalism. The US will admit that the isolationist strategy was a complete failure. And the land of my father may finally become something of the paradise of his memories. That it never was that paradise is besides the point. History has to restart. And thanks to an American president with vision and compassion, it just might.



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