For thousands of graying supporters of the Cuban Revolution, this has been the moment that would never come. The same shock is sinking in among the Cuban exiles, now octogenarians, who fought for decades against the Castro regime from American soil. It is important that hard lessons be learned and traps from the past be avoided.
I first went to Cuba in January 1968, during the height of revolutionary aspirations. Cuba was being led by the revolutionary generation which overthrew the U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, best recalled in Francis Ford Coppola’s film “The Godfather: Part II.” It was time for barricades and posters of Che Guevara.
I returned to the island five more times, beginning in the 1990s, including two recent visits. Feeling the passage of time, I began a book of interviews with Ricardo Alarcon, who stepped down as president of Cuba’s national assembly in 2013. In turn, he had invited me to spend a week in 2006 doing interviews on the American New Left. We found ourselves looking back, trying to explore the lessons of the decades since we were student leaders.
“Two old guys talking” is how I titled the introduction to the history I was writing.
I felt that life itself and the process of revolution both followed similar patterns. In the beginning, utopian revolt. In the middle, the consolidation of power with all its contradictions. In the twilight years, a realization that the future is unpredictable. In the end, memory, closure, the passage to new life.
When I began writing in 2013, no one believed that our Cuba policy would change. On the left were my friends certain that the United States, even under President Barack Obama, would never change its designs, or would be stymied by Congress. On the right was a Cuba lobby overconfident in its power over Florida votes and campaign dollars.
My contrary intuition was that normalization was in the works, because of a belief that history only freezes under the dominance of a particular generation, then thaws. The Cold War was over. Cuba was supported by a near-unanimous United Nations, by everyone in Latin America, and by America’s allies in Europe and Canada. Hundreds of thousands of Cuban Americans visited the island yearly, despite the frantic opposition of politicians like Sen. Marco Rubio; Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla.; and Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J.
The Cubans were cultivating cultural and economic links despite the embargo. I recall seeing Coppola arrive for Christmas in 1998 at the Hotel Nacional with an entourage of chefs to prepare for holiday dinners. There were Cubans too who came to me in the Legislature, arm in arm with California farmers who wanted the blockade on their agricultural exports broken.
Obama began relaxing the Bush-era policies as soon as he took office. It became far easier to travel, buy art or cigars, take heritage tours or sit on the beach. Cuba opened its economy to greater private enterprise and trade in the global economy with Europe, China and Latin America.
A sticking point on the U.S. side was the persistent funding of “democracy promotion,” or our secret efforts to promote a more open society. Alan Gross was a covert agent, not a home appliance distributor. The Cuban Five were protecting Cuba’s security from us, not acting as terrorists.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, there was a decade of American triumphalism based on the mistaken belief that the Cuban state would collapse like East Germany. We underestimated Cuban nationalism.
Secret talks over the past two years produced the extraordinarily detailed list of steps announced by Obama, carefully distinguishing what can be done by the White House without Congress. Those unilateral steps will hollow out the embargo from within. Thousands of Americans now will use credit cards to shop in Cuba. Removing Cuba from the “state terrorism” list, which the U.S. soon will do, frees up private lending to Cuba. The broadening of travel rights will facilitate more visits and exchange.
Congress is left in charge of the Helms-Burton embargo language while in substance the policy is dissolving. The diaspora of Cuban Americans will be “ambassadors” of a new relationship, a phrase used by Secretary of State John Kerry and Cuban President Raúl Castro.
The Cuban Revolution has achieved its aim: recognition of the sovereign right of its people to revolt against the Yankee Goliath and survive as a state in a sea of global solidarity. At the same time, America will benefit from being warmly received into the new Latin America when immigrants’ rights are a more important issue.
Obama should take the first family to visit the island’s beaches, cultural clubs and schools. That will accomplish more in a few days than the Bay of Pigs invasion ever could.
Tom Hayden is a former California legislator, author of 18 books and long-time activist. His forthcoming book is “Listen, Yankee! Why Cuba Matters” (Seven Stories Press).