By William Thomas
Five months ago, when I heard that President Barack Obama was normalizing American relations with Cuba, I got this sinking feeling. It was like reading that Chris Brown and Rihanna were dating again. “No, don’t do it girl!” I wanted to yell. “’Cause he knocked you around pretty good the last time you two hooked up.”
Sex, drugs and Frank Sinatra – it had to be the closeness between the two nations, the erotic intimacy between the United States and this hot, sweaty island 90 miles from Miami, where Americans could enjoy what the Brits call a “dirty weekend” in their very own Latin Las Vegas. America’s deal with Cuba was a sweet one under Fulgencio Batista, their 1940s puppet president and dictator of choice in the 50s. Rum was swilled, Cohibas were smoked and almost five million tons of sugar landed in America each year, along with a lot of the industry’s profits.
While American companies owned and operated Cuba’s agriculture, mining, transportation and public utilities, Myer Lansky and the mafia were attracting a record number of wealthy American tourists to their Havana hotels and crooked casinos. Carmen Miranda and Josephine Baker dazzled them at The Tropicana, while the Hotel National pampered the likes Nelson Rockefeller, Marlon Brando, Spencer Tracy, John Wayne, Mickey Mantle, Walt Disney, Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner, who were probably not staying in separate rooms.
The high cost of such unrestrained capitalism saw Cuba’s countryside reduced to latifundia or feudal states, while malnutrition, unemployment and illiteracy soared. Batista had become too corrupt and too repressive, even for these easygoing Caribbean islanders, so they turned to Fidel Castro to take back their country and gain independence from America. More clown than communist, and backed by a gang that couldn’t shoot straight, Castro mustered 50,000 illiterate Guajiras to march on Havana. When students and ordinary citizens joined the mass parade, the puppet was replaced with El Comandante, Cuba’s new father-figure savior.
After the humiliating failure of the 1961 U.S. Bay of Pigs invasion, followed closely by the Cuban Missile Crisis one year later, America’s love affair with Cuba was over. The subsequent separation of relations and trade was a world-class shunning by America, the kind of silent treatment only the Amish could envy. America had been jilted and they took it painfully and personally.
The United States thought it had been in a committed relationship. One day it might marry Cuba like it had Hawaii or take her on as a mistress like Puerto Rico. Suddenly dumped by Cuba for this swashbuckling upstart Fidel Castro, America’s 55-year-long punishment of the island was unrelenting and unique. Other nations had defied American foreign policy without being completely ostracized. Even Vietnam, a communist country America tried to bomb into the dark ages, was forgiven to the tune of 17 million American tourists in the last four years and $30 billion in trade last year alone.
Canada has a cordial and somewhat fruitful relationship with Cuba in the five decades since the embargo, despite pressure from the United States to follow their lead. Since 1945, Canada has maintained an embassy in Havana with 85 Canadian companies quietly doing business on the island. Essentially, we send Cuba 800,000 frost-bitten Canadian tourists every year and they reciprocate with rum and Cuban cigars, which we, in turn, sell to cross-border shopping Americans. Once in awhile a ghost of Joseph McCarthy will rear its balding head up here and accuse fellow citizens who vacation in Cuba a bunch of “commie-loving pinkos,” but really, we’re just there for the sun and the beer.
During that half century of severe sanctions, the CIA tried and failed to assassinate Fidel Castro so many times their methods became desperate and ridiculous. When the conch shell bomb, the poison milkshake and the toxic wetsuit didn’t work, they resorted to the exploding cigar trick. Seriously, when your covert operations for foreign regime change look a lot like an old Groucho Marx routine, maybe it’s time to let the guy live!
Chomping at the bit to have at Havana, American agribusinesses, telecommunications firms and energy giants are pushing hard for a complete lifting of the embargo. In a country of 11 million people who were until recently denied ownership of cell phones and computers, Apple is drooling all over its iPads. Netflix is already streaming the video services into Cuba but the fact that Cubans don’t have credit cards and are forbidden to have foreign bank accounts may make paying Netflix a problem. McDonald’s cannot wait to start selling their quarter pounders to people who are used to consuming their beef at a rate of eight ounces every 15 days, by law. Where a palm-treed, sweaty market lies waiting to be ravished, can Starbucks, Walmart, Coke and Pepsi be far behind?
Playing less the devil’s advocate and more Captain Obvious – am I the only one who believes that U.S. relations with Cuba are about to become anything but normal? This second invasion of unrestrained capitalism looks an awful lot like a shotgun wedding, an arrangement that seldom survives when one party is holding the gun.
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