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.
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?