Posted on 21 April 2012 - 05:32am
Last updated on 21 April 2012 - 07:50am
Eric S. Margolis
HAVANA: Fifty years ago this month the US and USSR came terrifying close
to full-scale thermonuclear war. I recalled those days of fear while
staring at a rusting Soviet medium-ranged SS-4 missile displayed outside
La Cabana fortress
Nuclear-armed Soviet SS-4s, secretly brought into Cuba, were ready to
destroy Washington and the entire US East Coast. Nuclear war was
imminent. US forces were at Defcon 2 and massed to invade Cuba.
Washington was the prime target. As a student there at Georgetown
University, I vividly recall how frightened we were, and how helpless we
In the end, the Soviets prevailed in the Cuban missile crisis. President
John Kennedy backed down, pledging the US would never invade Cuba. US
missiles in Italy and Turkey targeted on the USSR were removed. Moscow
took its SS-4s out of Cuba.
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev won his goal of saving Cuba and Fidel
Castro's Marxist regime from a US invasion. But it was such a terrifying
gamble the Soviet Politburo deposed Khrushchev shortly after. Kennedy
got far more credit than he deserved for the crisis.
In the early 1960s, Communist Cuba was the vanguard of revolution in
Latin America, then Africa. Fidel Castro and Che Guevara's Cuba was the
only Communist regime outside Mao's China that had romantic appeal to
western youth. Fidel's vows to promote education, health care and land
distribution sounded revolutionary when Latin America was mostly ruled
by US-backed oligarchs and generals.
But that was long ago. The combined pressure of crushing US trade and
financial sanctions and the inherent failures of the Marxist economic
system left Cuba isolated, trapped in the past. Today, once picturesque
colonial Havana is a Caribbean Pompeii, a museum of the 1950s with its
crumbling buildings and magnificent vintage American cars.
Half a century later, Latin America has rid itself of inept military
dictators and achieved dramatic social and economic development. The US
no longer treats Latin America with the paternalism and frequent
contempt it did 50 years ago. Ironically, Cuba, with a living standard
not far from that of the US in the early 50s, was left behind in a time
warp. Castro's Cuba does have a high standard of health care and
education, but the rest of the economy and society are battered beyond
belief. Still, the Castro dictatorship, now run by brother Raul, has
been honest and genuinely concerned for its people.
I've been going to Cuba since the pre-Castro era. My parents used to
meet Ernest Hemingway for daiquiri cocktails at the famed La Floridita
Bar, today, sadly an over-priced tourist trap. In my bookcase: A
Farewell to Arms, inscribed "to Eric the painter from his friend Ernest
Hemingway, Havana, 1952".
Contrary to expectations, no big changes occurred after Raul Castro
assumed leadership from the ailing Fidel. Yet I have observed many small
but significant developments on my regular trips to Cuba. Things are
Thanks to Raul's recent reforms, small private enterprise is bubbling up
everywhere. Aid and oil from Venezuela has been very important. People
are more outspoken, less wary of the secret police and informers. One
feels growing energy pulsating into Havana's delightful old city. With
its beautiful buildings, friendly, attractive people, and little music
bars with their superb salsa bands, Havana is poised to resume its role
of 50 years ago as the most fun – and perhaps wickedest city – in the world.
America's Great Satan, Fidel Castro, is sidelined by age and illness,
but Cubans still love their national papa figure. Brother Raul, now
pushing 81, has gained respect for his leadership. But once the Castro
era is over, what will happen?
Either a power grab by the military and old guard, or the half million
Miami-based Cubans will return and rebuild Cuba. A tsunami of US money
will swamp Cuba, washing it into the modern world. Many friends of Cuba
do not look forward to this change, though Cubans desperately need
relief from their threadbare existence.
Fidel Castro was admired across Latin America for proudly defying the
mighty US and refusing to follow Washington's direction. Cuba paid a
heavy price for its independence: poverty, repression, Soviet influence.
Today's Cubans may decide continued independence is not worth the heavy
Eric S. Margolis is an award-winning, internationally syndicated
columnist, writing mainly about the Middle East and South Asia.