by Willem Lange
EAST MONTPELIER – There’s a distant sweet sound alive on the breezes coming from the south. It floats across the Florida Straits and is audible, I fervently hope, to even the tin ears of Washington, D.C. No, it’s not salsa music, though that’s pretty sweet, too. It’s the roar of common people – most importantly, young people – objecting to the repressive authoritarian rule of the inept successors to the Castro brothers. The Cuban government, naturally, has labeled the insurgents “counter-revolutionaries,” and is having them beaten in the streets, imprisoned, and possibly even disappeared. It won’t work.
Fidel and his ragtag revolutionaries, you may recall, were first supported by the United States government as the only viable alternative to the Batista regime, which had in its second iteration become a corrupt dictatorship. Batista fled Cuba on New Year’s Day in 1959 (you may recall the scene in “Godfather II” in which Michael Corleone gives his brother Fredo “il bacio della morte” and heads for the airport), opening the country to Castro. But when Castro later came to speak in Washington, President Eisenhower went golfing to avoid him; and Vice-President Nixon, who did have a conversation with him, hinted darkly at his Communist potential.
They were right, of course. The United States Congress, in the fierce grip of McCarthyism (remember “The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!”?) and patriotically adding the name of God to our money and mottoes, happily endorsed the embargoes we slapped on the former so-called Jewel of the Antilles. Then, of course, the Russians really were coming – to Cuba. You’d be amused to see how many Cubans have first names like Vladimir and Natasha. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russians left. And there she sits, impoverished, only ninety miles away. Just as generals are reputed always to be fighting the last war, our aged Congresspeople are still fighting the bugbear of Communism! Just the word makes many of ’em sit up straight.
So, the island and its people have languished, starved by those who could help it and in the increasingly tight grip of the Castros and their apparatchiks. On our last visit, we spotted soldiers with Uzis and hand-held radios guarding most intersections in Havana, a sober counterpoint to the amazing array of cherished 1950s automobiles happily spewing blue smoke into the Caribbean air.
El Lider is now long gone, and his milder-mannered brother Raul, now ninety, quietly retired. Even without the inspiration that El Caballo provided with his fiery speeches reminding everyone of the glories of la Revolución, the peasants mowing the sides of the highway with hand sickles and the farmers trotting to market on their one-pony carts still seem to be accepting of their poverty.
But their kids are not. None of us remember, but just after World War I Sophie Tucker and Eddie Cantor popularized a wartime song that prophetically asked, “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm After They’ve Seen Paree?” The young people of Cuba, from whom it’s impossible anymore to keep information of the outside world, and who increasingly have access to a 3G network, are seeing Paree, and they like it. They want it. And they will have it. The videos and photos now leaking out of Cuba, of demonstrators being clubbed, shot, and dragged away are the sonograms of a sclerotic, frightened, and doomed government. I hope Xi Jinping is watching.
If ever there was a moment in the last sixty years for the United States to get over its own puritanism and executive sclerosis, this is it. (As a naughty aside, the Democratic Party could win the State of Florida by agreeing, for a change, with the Cuban exile community there). We could, with no prohibitive military costs, ease the plight of the people of what was once touted as another state of our union, and ease the apparatchiks into the dustbin of history.
If the young people of Cuba do manage to wrest control from the existing government, the sequel will be a chaotic mess. But many exiles will return, bringing their experience of democracy (such as it is in Florida); and the magnificent, now-nearly empty United States embassy can help as a benevolent presence, rather than a symbol of foreign oppression. It’s fairly certain that this conversation is taking place somewhere on the Potomac. With all that’s competing for attention right now, let’s hope that at least some of our leaders can walk and chew gum at the same time.