Rediscovering Cuba

Starting last month, the American freeze-out of Communist Cuba, which long outlasted the Cold War, began to come to an end. It may have been a small thrill in a bleak political year, but take it as proof that everything — even chilly international grudges — come to an end.

It’s the perfect kickoff to 2015. We’re rediscovering Cuba — and not for the first time.

There’s always been a special magic to the island: it was Christopher Columbus’s second stop in his West Indies; he called it “the most beautiful land human eyes have ever seen,” then set about the campaign of violence and subjugation told by Bartolomeo de las Casas. Late in his life, Thomas Jefferson wrote to President Monroe with dreams of an incorporated Cuba. He’d settle, he concluded, for peaceful independence over violent conquest, saying a lot about Cuban-American relations and where they have ended up two centuries later:

I candidly confess, that I have ever looked on Cuba as the most interesting addition which could ever be made to our system of States. The control which, with Florida Point, this island would give us over the Gulf of Mexico, and the countries and isthmus bordering on it, as well as all those whose waters flow into it, would fill up the measure of our political well-being. Yet, as I am sensible that this can never be obtained, even with her own consent, but by war; and its independence, which is our second interest, (and especially its independence of England,) can be secured without it, I have no hesitation in abandoning my first wish to future chances, and accepting its independence, with peace and the friendship of England, rather than its association, at the expense of war and her enmity.

You remember Batista’s Cuba as the Godfather set-piece, playground for Meyer Lansky and Frank Sinatra. But did you know about John Kennedy’s last-minute order for 1,000 Petit Upmann cigars, fulfilled by Pierre Salinger before the embargo took hold in 1962? (Salinger returned from cigar stores everywhere, with 1,200.)

This is where William LeoGrande begins in a new book co-authored by Peter Kornbluh called Back Channel to Cuba. We spoke with LeoGrande:

Since then, we’ve wanted to have the Cuban cake and refuse it, too. Are we ready now to have anything like a relationship with the Castros’ nation, and begin to reckon what we might have been missing? There’s more to it than cigars, vintage cars, and billions of dollars in baseball contracts. Cuba has Latin America’s most educated people and one of the world’s most effective health-care system, not to mention globally-good music and art.



“The Flag. Color Code Venice 13 (detail),” by María Magdalena Campos-Pons.

How do we begin to digest Cuba in 2015? How do we take the repression with the rhumba, the poverty with the promise? What are your thoughts on that amazing island 90 miles south of Key West?

Guest List
Dafnis Prieto
a Cuban-American drummer, bandleader, and composer (and the man behind the Open Source theme music!)
Alan West-Duran
associate professor of Latin America, and director of the Latino, Latin American, and Caribbean Studies Program at Northeastern University.
Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons
Cuban-American painter, installation artist, and teacher at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Reading List
"Focusing on Future, Cuba Leaves Fidel Castro to History"
Damien Cave, The New York Times
The announcement of a thaw has come with the disappearance of Fidel Castro into the background, and a shift (resembling China's) in the culture and ideology of the Cuban state:
...The new Cuba that Raúl is fashioning from the old is a far cry from Fidel’s youthful revolution. Today’s Cuba seems less concerned with ideals than dollars. It is a hatchery of private enterprise and nascent inequality, where property can be bought and sold, along with cars and filet mignon. It is a proud country, tired of struggling, where the poor can see the rich rising along the way to Raúl’s stated goals: economic growth and stability.
"The Life and Hard Times Of the Family a Cuban Defector Left Behind"
Brin-Jonathan Butler, The Daily Beast
A various exploration of Cuban-American relations through the medium of boxing, Che Guevara, and centuries of history:
...While gambling is forbidden and all the casinos long since shut down by Fidel, every inch of this society, for better or worse, is the result of one of the biggest gambles any society could make in the 20th century: openly taking on America while residing just 90 miles off its shore. David and Goliath gets tossed around a fair bit as an analogy, but with the conditions Cuba has faced, the fight looks a lot more like Tiny Tim wielding a crutch than David with a slingshot. Yet, 52 years on, somehow, things remain.
"Commie Ball"
Michael Lewis, Vanity Fair
The award-winning financial journalist writes about the world's largest "entrapped pool of human talent," the community of Cuban baseball players:
In 1961, Cuba entered its first post-revolutionary baseball teams in international competitions and proceeded to beat the hell out of everyone, including the Dominicans. For a 10-year stretch, starting in 1987, the Cubans were 129–0 in major international competitions. “There are plenty of Cubans who are big-league [caliber] players,” says Chuck McMichael, who scouts the Latin professional leagues for the Atlanta Braves and helped hire Cubans to play shortstop and catcher for his team. “We just don’t know who they are. But I can’t recall a guy on the Cuban national team [which competes in the World Cup and the Olympics] that you wouldn’t at least sign. You’d sign every guy off that team.
"For Cuban Artists, Bigger World Awaits After Restoration of Ties"
Michael Cooper, New York Times
A profile of the musicians looking forward to lives split between American and Cuban shores and audiences:

In the new era, he said, he hoped things would become easier. Mr. [Arturo] O’Farrill — whose Havana-born father, the composer and arranger Chico O’Farrill, was one of the pioneers of Afro-Cuban jazz — took a break from rehearsal in Havana on Wednesday to watch the announcement on television with a group of older Cubans. “I was weeping,” he said. “It was the most unbelievable thing I’ve ever witnessed.”

"Castrocare in Crisis"
Laurie Garrett, Foreign Affairs
Garrett profiles the medical successes of the Castro regime: the growth of Cuban life expectancy from 58 years to 77 years between 1950 and 2009, the hemisphere's lowest per capita incidence of HIV/AIDS and its lowest infant mortality rate, too. That may change, depending on how and if an opening takes shape:
If policymakers on both sides of the Florida Straits do not take great care, the tiny Caribbean nation could swiftly be robbed of its greatest triumph. First, its public health network could be devastated by an exodus of thousands of well-trained Cuban physicians and nurses. Second, for-profit U.S. companies could transform the remaining health-care system into a prime destination for medical tourism from abroad.
"Cuba Special"
BBC World Service, "The History Hour"
An hourlong radio documentary on the history of Cuba and its relationship to the United States from Batista onward.
"Tania Bruguera's Arrest Slows the US–Cuba Thaw"
Coline Millard, Artnet
The story of the famed Cuban-American performance artist and dissident, arrested three times since the joint announcement of resumed relations:
The artist feels that the authorities' severe response—which was condemned by the US State department—only proved her point. "The government did the work for me," she told AFP. "They changed the meaning of the work, giving a lesson in intolerance [...] All they did was create chaos." Depending on the sources, between 50 and 60 people were arrested with Bruguera, who had her computer and mobile phone confiscated along with her passport.

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  • Steve Fernandez

    Thank you for this dialog. I particularly like the way the phrasing of the question:

    “Can we live with Cuba? Even learn from it?”

    The US mainstream media generally portrays Cuba as a totalitarian nightmare. Despite the brief reflection on the wealth gap in “yesterday’s” news reports on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty First Century, I challenge anyone to find reporting or commentary, by the US mainstream media, that questions the premise that democracy and civil liberty in Cuba can only be achieved through the adoption of capitalist economics.

    No doubt, Cubans would like to see a great deal of improvements in their country. Dissidents and Cubans, who prefer remain anonymous, raise legitimate critiques. These critiques should not be ignored. Yet, the US mainstream media generally ignore the voices of Cubans who are committed to the socialist and social justice principles of the Cuban revolution and who are proud of Cuba’s advances in education, access to medical care, renewable energy, etc.

    The US, with its “free market” capitalist economy and “democratic” government is not free of social ills such as plutocracy, racism and racial disparities, an enormous wealth gap, hunger, homelessness, torture, detention without trial, widespread military involvement and the resulting civilian casualties, universal surveillance, etc. I look forward to hearing discussion of what people in the US can learn from Cuba.

  • Potter

    I know this is a flip comment but I really do not want to see those cars in Cuba change; they are marvelous!

  • Bruce Teague

    I visited Cuba in 1982. With a group of psychologists , we toured the medical and psychiatric facilities. It was a treat to read Old Man and the Sea in Cuba and see the Hemingway hangouts.
    Loved the music, walking the Malecon and watching young people playing chess.

  • Cambridge Forecast


    We are shown by Tad Szulc in his masterful book “Fidel: A Critical Portrait” how Fidel Castro at times flirted with Khmer Rouge levels of Left-insanity:

    “On March 31, 1968, the anniversary of the students’ attack on the Batista palace, Castro proclaimed a new radical revolution in Cuba, which in a sense was his equivalent of the Chinese Cultural Revolution that was beginning to wind down in China.

    Fidel moved to nationalize the entire retail trade sector still in private hands—58,012 businesses, ranging from auto mechanics repair shops to small stores, cafes, and street vendors of ice cream and sandwiches—for reasons of ideology.” (“Fidel” book page 676)

    “He also pursued the linkage between hot dogs and counterrevolution and informed his listeners that ‘the greatest percentage of those not integrated in the Revolution was among the
    owners of hot dog stands’ and that he intended to eliminate all manifestations
    of private trade.’ “
    (“Fidel” book, page 677).

    “Castro was prepared to say in 1967 that ‘it is absolutely necessary to de-mythicize money and not to rehabilitate it. In fact, we plan to abolish it totally.’ (“Castro”, book, page 677)

    (Tad Szulc, “Fidel” paperback, Avon Books, paperback, 1986)

    This is Pol Pot talk and seems to match American ideological insanity from the Right culminating in today’s neocons via all the crimes and lunacies described in Steve Kinzer’s
    books (such as “Overthrow”) as well as Jonathan Kwitny’s masterful “Endless

    This interaction is a kind of pathological historical duet which characterized the 20th century.

    Richard Melson

    • Steve Fernandez

      There are many examples of policies and actions, taken by Fidel Castro, that were not in the best interests of the Cuban people. Dissidents can point to many examples of violations of human rights. Even supporters of the Cuban revolution can acknowledge this.

      Nonetheless, it is inaccurate to liken Fidel Castro, his poor record of human rights violations notwithstanding, to Pol Pot, who directed mass executions and oversaw to the killing and starvation of several million Cambodians.

      Fidel Castro’s undemocratic method of governing merits critique, yet I do not agree with the automatic dismissal of all attempts by the Cuban government to radically change the Cuban economy. Whether the practice of nationalizing, even small businesses, was in the best interest of the Cuban people, should be honestly reflected upon, not summarily dismissed.

      As for for the goal to “de-mythicize” money, please explain why this is associated with “craziness”. Why assume that the “free market” construct of money is not a “crazy” means of assigning value to goods and services?

      In the US “free market” capitalism system, value is assigned through supply and demand. The wealthy few have a disproportionate influence on “demand” and, therefore, valuation. Thus, the services of a CEO are valued at 350 times that of average workers. This comes from basic “free market” capitalist principles, not American-right craziness. Rather than “craziness”, de-mythicizing money by the considering alternative means by which value is assigned to goods and services and the notion of how necessary items are distributed among the population is a topic of non-capitalist economics such as cooperative economics, sharing economics, participatory economics, green economics.

  • Potter

    The “making do” is what comes across! The Cuban spirit is inspiring.

    I have not been to Cuba (yet). Maybe there’s video of a Cuban woman walking down the street? After the descriptions, I must see this and smile.

    I don’t know why we had to continue our spectacularly failed policy against Cuba all these years especially after the collapse of the USSR. I am reminded of our Israel policy, a stance hostage to internal politics here rather than making any real sense or having any effect. Why couldn’t we let Cuba be Cuba? What threat? They appear inspired all the more perhaps by the bullying. And yet here we are enjoying the rhythms of Cuban music, envying universal health care and universal access to education.