Cuba Libre or Cuba Americana?

After half a century, America has decided to recognize an island of eleven million people that lies 93 miles off the coast of Florida. As if this tiny island was ever a serious threat to 300 million Americans! As if Fidel Castro's revolution would ever spread to the United States! Yet Castro was demonized and punished for his successful coup which ousted the corrupt regime of Fulgencio Batista, the man who had ruled the island for seven years in collusion with American gamblers, gangsters, and drug dealers.

The United States, during the Cold War and for years after, nearly broke Cuba's back with this 50-year embargo. Angry Cuban exiles in Florida managed to keep the heat on. But here is the real background to the story, as told to me many years ago by a Cuban friend, Francisco D., who went to law school with Castro and was briefly a minister in Castro's first government.

Castro, he said, was never a Communist, nor a Marxist. He was a social revolutionary who wanted to overthrow Batista and set up a government that would address the country's major problems: poverty and inequality. And he had the tacit approval and backing of the American administration.

Castro's revolution succeeded in January 1959. Three months later, in April, he went to Washington hoping to lay plans for American cooperation and assistance. President Eisenhower refused to see him. Castro was given fifteen minutes with Vice President Nixon, and he returned to Cuba empty-handed.

It was only then, shunned by the United States, that Castro turned to the Soviet Union.

My friend was given a ministerial appointment, but he fled one night with his wife and child to America: things were going badly and he feared for his safety. Soviet Communism, as we know, took hold in Cuba and became the reason -- the alibi -- for America's 50-year boycott. And yet, with the collapse of the Soviet Union 25 years ago, Cuba was no longer a Soviet satellite. But the boycott remained.

I visited Cuba ten years ago with a medical group, and was overwhelmed by the openness and friendliness toward Americans. "It's your government we dislike," they said, "not you." People were struggling: An engineer gave up his job and made more money as a taxi driver. A lawyer worked as a tour guide. People opened paladars in their homes, serving family-style dinners to tourists to earn extra income.

I wondered then, and am wondering now, what will happen if the boycott is lifted? How will an influx of American money change all this? True, American investment will create jobs and a new level of prosperity, but it will also change the culture: McDonald's, Starbucks, Calvin Klein jeans, shopping malls. Havana could become, again, an American playground -- an annex to Florida, a suburb of Miami.

I dearly hope not. With American investors already straining at the bit, let us hope Cuba will carefully select what it allows in.... and what it keeps out.

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