Another Chance at Fair Play for Cuba

Stake out a corner in Miami's Little Havana, and you can observe Luis Posada Carriles walking around freely, despite his blowing up a Cuban airliner in mid-air in 1976 and killing 73 people, according to declassified CIA and FBI documents. And Posada is only one of dozens of old men living in South Florida who freely admit planting bombs and machine-gunning beaches in Cuba to discourage foreign tourists, plus bombings carried out on U.S. soil and never punished.

It makes me wonder what would have happened if our government had not sponsored, suborned, tolerated and turned a blind eye to Cuban exile terrorism. Imagine if we had not carried out policies of assassination, in defiance of international law--would Cuba have become a police state, minus decades of subversion by its vastly more powerful neighbor? Would not our standing be vastly improved in Latin America, where the Cuban Revolution draws on a well of sympathy against the U.S. as unprincipled bully?

Recent pictures of President Obama sitting amiably with President Raul Castro were shocking, but in retrospect, the shock is that it took so long, and wasted so much political capital and goodwill to get to this point. Like ordinary diplomatic and commercial engagement with "Red China," normal relations with revolutionary Cuba have always been possible. But just as it took the Machiavellian master of realpolitik, Richard Nixon, to break through the Bamboo Curtain in 1973, it took another pragmatist to overcome the debris of U.S.-Cuban antagonism: failed assassinations and embargoes from the U.S., and Cuba's support for revolution throughout the hemisphere.

The difference between Red China and Red Cuba is that at the Cuban Revolution's onset, there was plenty of good will towards the Cuban Revolution, and Fidel Castro himself. Even as things went bad in 1960, responsible voices spoke up to urge realism and mutual respect rather than a cold war. That forgotten history needs to be remembered so we don't make the same foolish mistakes in the future, and poison another region against us.

For the past fifty years, statements of sympathy with Cuba would have emanated from the radical Left. That was not always the case. On April 6, 1960, an advertisement appeared in The New York Times from the Fair Play for Cuba Committee (FPCC). Its headline was "WHAT IS REALLY HAPPENING IN CUBA?" This ad was notable for who initiated it, those who signed it, and what it called for. It was organized by a New Jersey businessman and Democratic Party leader, Alan Sagner (later Chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and Chair of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting), and a CBS reporter, Robert Taber. It was signed by 28 professors, ministers, journalists, writers and intellectuals, including Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, Simone de Beauvoir, Truman Capote, and Jean-Paul Sartre. It sought to counter "grave accusations" in the U.S. press and promote respect for Cuba's self-determination. One month later, the committee explained its motives: "we have not taken a position of unqualified support of Castro's government, but are solely dedicated to the premise that small and underprivileged countries be allowed to solve their peculiar problems, both social and economic, without undue pressure."

The FPCC lasted little more than a year. Its original plea, that the U.S. learn to co-exist with revolutionary Cuba, is what should interest us now. The word "before" is key: this was before Fidel Castro declared the revolution socialist and formalized an alliance with the Soviet Union, before the Bay of Pigs. But by spring 1960, the CIA was trying to wreck the Cuban economy and foment subversion.

Hindsight is easy, of course, but only a fool repeats the same mistake over and over. U.S. policy towards Cuba offers a long catalogue of foolish and criminal mistakes: outright terrorism, massive violations of international law, disdaining diplomacy in favor of brute force. The U.S.'s barely hidden participation in terrorism inside Cuba is internationally reviled. In 1975 the CIA admitted at least eight attempts to assassinate Castro to the Senate's Church Committee, with many more plots before and since by Cuban exiles operating from U.S. soil. This murderous violence goes well beyond Castro himself.

"Fair play" may seem like an archaic, genteel concept to all those tough guys of both genders who like to wave Teddy Roosevelt's Big Stick. It's neither sentimental nor pacifist, however, but a policy of restraint and reciprocal respect. It accepts that states can be neutral interlocutors rather than either allies or enemies, and that all nations have their own national interests, which must be taken into account. It requires acknowledging past policies of colonial domination, which in Cuba were so egregious that to ignore them is to put one's head in the sand.

At its best, it is represented by Reagan and Gorbachev agreeing to make the world a safer place, or John F. Kennedy acknowledging "If we cannot end now our differences, at least we can make the world safe for diversity." As President Obama said when he met with Raul Castro, "the best way to address the United States' disagreements with Cuba and other countries in the hemisphere on such issues as human rights and democracy [is] by engaging with them," since, "so often, when we insert ourselves in ways that go beyond persuasion, it's counterproductive, it backfires." In other words, practice fair play! If the President's enlightened initiative can be followed more broadly, beyond this hemisphere and on other crucial issues, it could move us away, as the Fair Play committee envisioned long ago, from policies that impair "our peaceful and prosperous way of life."