The USA, the USSR, and Cuba

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Two of the most striking buildings in Havana are the embassies of Russia and the USA. Immediately after Castro's victory in 1960, there was hope of a friendly relationship between Cuba and the United States. But after a battle of wills over issues of Cuban independence, neither party blinked, and Cuba saw little choice but to jump into the USSR's sphere of influence.

Soviet aid came with pressure to become more communist, and Cuba became both radicalized and addicted to Moscow's support. When the USSR fell apart, Cuba was abandoned economically.

In the 1990s, with no help from Russia and the USA hell-bent on Cuba's economic ruin, Cuba entered an era of extreme austerity called the "Special Period." A lack of fuel made many forms of farming impossible. Locals survived mostly on basic produce -- with almost no access to protein or sugar (some people resorted to eating cats). Today people recall how there was no traffic in the streets of Havana...just starving people walking like aimless skeletons down empty, unlit lanes.

While the Cuban people have little money, I sensed no angry edge to the poverty and felt safe on the streets. While Havana is as poor as other Latin American capitals, after dark I'd much rather be walking there than in Guatemala City, Managua, or San Salvador (where I felt very unsafe).

There was something strikingly proud and dignified about the Cuban people I met. They earn about $30 a month beyond all of their government entitlements (subsidized housing, utilities, food, education, and health care), and they seem to accept that. Communism has trained them to look to the state for handouts...and has demoralized any interest in working hard to get ahead. As I've noted, rather than compare their lot to workers in the USA, it seems fair to compare Cuba to other Central American countries where workers are just as poor (but in dangerous worlds without health care or education). The situation depressed me (as all of Latin America does in this regard), but it was clearly different. It was confusing and perplexing...and maddening.

Hugo Chávez is a hero to the Cuban people. The late leader of oil-rich Venezuela kept the Cuban economy afloat with cheap oil and financial aid. Cuba would return the favor as best it could with its most valuable resource: well-trained doctors and nurses. To this day, you see lots of billboards expressing gratitude for Venezuelan aid.

Strolling along Havana's harborfront promenade, the Malecón, you reach the new US Embassy (formerly known as the US Interests Section). It opened in 2015 with President Obama's softening of relations. The finest (and seemingly most fortified) building in town flies the Stars and Stripes and faces a plaza of flagpoles. When I was there, of the dozens of poles, only one sported a flag: Cuba's, with the same red, white, and blue...but just one big star. The symbolism is clear: Cuba stands alone. (Depending on your view, they've either opted out of the global rat race, or have been excluded by the American embargo.) It's as if the two flags just don't know what to do: Is this a showdown at the OK Corral? Or perhaps two awkward potential partners on a dance floor?

On the plaza facing the US embassy, the wall read Patria o Muerte ("Fatherland or Death") and Venceremos ("We will overcome"). As in other Latin American countries, the shiny new embassy is designed to instill fear and respect among locals. (My local guide waited with our taxi four blocks away while I went up to chat with the embassy guard.)