Cuba, An Ally We Need

Diplomatic handshake between leaders from Cuba and the United States with flag-painted hands.
Diplomatic handshake between leaders from Cuba and the United States with flag-painted hands.

"Let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality. We must strive every day so that this love of living humanity will be transformed into actual deeds, into acts that serve as examples, as a moving force." Che Guevara

People play pretty fast and loose with the term "revolutionary", it's a catch all phrase for anyone that is anti-establishment or goes against the societal grain. I inherently like people like that at a soul level, but its not quite the same thing as what Che Guevara was talking about in his famous quote. Che was talking about loving people for their own sake, and then doing something to help them. The revolutionary heart of love, that "moving force" Che speaks about is very rare indeed, but it is exactly the kind of heart we need to cultivate in the United States right now. This applies to many things and many different kinds of people, but in this case I'm talking about Cuba.

We are on the threshold of an historic opportunity to mend a badly broken relationship with our Caribbean neighbor, but Cuba is much more than a neighbor - she is a long lost relative, a source of wonderful culture, incredible artists and musicians, and several civic examples that we could all learn from. She could also become one of our greatest allies in the Western Hemisphere. Our relationship with Cuba has been badly tainted from 50+ years of an absurd trade embargo that has caused 3 generations of Cubans to suffer needlessly, and this should not be the policy of an open minded democracy like the United States, especially at this point in the 21st century. As global events and increased political and religious fanaticism have shown us, we need as many allies in our corner as possible. What we really need to do to start this process is to converse, travel, and trade openly with Cuba, and that starts by going there in person.

I first went to Cuba in March of 1999 as a music ambassador for a program called The Music Bridge. It was a program designed to put musicians and songwriters from different cultures together to form exactly that - "bridges" between our countries. Our trip to Cuba happened during the last year of Bill Clinton's presidency and it was sanctioned and approved by the US State Department as a way to foster good will between our countries. The Baltimore Oriels baseball team even went down there to play the Cuban national team in Havana, and in turn, the Cuban team came north to play the Oriels in Baltimore. Our cultural diplomacy worked very well, and that's because musicians, artists, and athletes are usually at the forefront of social and political change, they are the ones who lead the way when the politicians, inevitably and predictably, stumble. The American Civil Rights Movement is a perfect example of this, as was the Nueva Cancion and Tropicalia movements in South America, both of which were musical revolutions that eventually toppled several Latin American dictators. Cuba was an ideal setting for our experiment and it worked wonderfully, that is, until George W. Bush came to power the following year and reversed many of the positive steps we made, sending US foreign policy back decades. Now with President Obama's gestures of goodwill towards Cuba, we again have a chance to repair our relationship with our Caribbean relative and get back on the right side of history.

On that 1999 Music Bridge to Havana, there were about 100 of us from the US and Europe, with many famous musicians such as Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers of The Police, Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac, Peter Buck of REM, The Indigo Girls, Bonnie Raitt, Peter Frampton, Gladys Knight, Michael Franti, Joan Osborne, Paddy Maloney of the Chieftains, and even the great American songwriter Burt Bacharach were just a few of the luminaries who were selected to go. Incredibly, I was asked to go as well.

The basic formula for the program was that every morning the musicians from the US and Cuba would meet in the great hall of the Hotel Nacional in downtown Havana, where two large bowls held cards with our names - the Cubans in one bowl and the Americans in the other. A drawing took place every morning, in which 2-3 Cubans were placed with 2-3 Americans, whereupon we would recuse ourselves to a quiet space in either our hotel rooms or the beautiful gardens surrounding the hotel, and there we would write a song together. The following day we would record the song in the temporary studio that was set up in the ballroom of the hotel and the results were quite exceptional - a predictable mixture of American rock and pop with a Cuban rhythmic undercurrent. I mostly played percussion and listened as much as possible from the exceptional Cuban drummers who pretty much played circles around me. I did my best to keep up with them, but more importantly than that, I made several Cuban friends in the process. The whole experience deeply changed how I thought about music as a direct expression of culture, personal determination, and national pride. In fact, I was never more proud to be an American representing my country back then, and the Cubans were clearly very proud to be representing Cuba. It was a beautiful thing to witness.

This daily songwriting ritual went on for about a week until we had accumulated quite a number of songs, enough so to have a public concert. And that is exactly what we did on our last night in Havana, when we performed in front of a live audience of global ambassadors and political luminaries at the Karl Marx Theater (formerly known as the Charlie Chaplin Theater prior to the Cuban Revolution). The show was an overwhelming success and afterwards we were invited to meet El Presidente Fidel Castro in a traditional diplomatic receiving line at the presidential palace. I'm not a supporter of Mr. Castro or his oppressive policies - indeed I abhor dictatorial tendencies from anyone, whether foreign or American. But Fidel Castro and Che Guevara did, many years ago, liberate their country from the crushing boot of American imperialism and that bears a closer look if we are to heal the wound that emerged between our countries.

The United States must eventually take responsibility for creating many of the conditions that led to the Cuban Revolution in the first place. It started with United Fruit, a neo-colonialist American corporation that began expanding throughout Latin America in the early 20th century. United Fruit had been exploiting Cuban labor and resources for many years by the time the American mafia and their political stooges moved in to Havana. The mafia wanted to make Cuba a playground for American and European elites and they treated the women like prostitutes and the men like busboys. That is, until a revolutionary army assembled by Che and Fidel liberated them completely. The army moved stealthfully through the jungles and mountains of Cuba until they reached Havana in January of 1959, and at that point, the busboys and prostitutes put their knives to the throats of the mafia, who promptly tucked tail and ran back to the safety of the American shoreline. At that point, Cuba became her own country, neither ruled by the US or the mafia. She was her own master.

A couple years later, the CIA tried to invade and retake Cuba using Cuban exiles and CIA agents during the botched Bay Of Pigs invasion of April 1961. The US (and this time the CIA) were badly defeated by the emboldened Cuban army and this made relations between the countries even worse. It all reached a boiling point in 1962 when Cuba tried to import ballistic missiles from Russia (to defend against another US invasion), and this caused the US to initiate a naval blockade and a trade embargo that has been in place for more than 50 years. Well, the missiles left Cuba a very long time ago, there is no threat to the US, and in fact, we have our own embarrassing blemish with the ongoing Guantanamo prison we still control in eastern Cuba. Yet we continue to punish 3 generations of innocent Cubans who pose no threat to America, all because of a fossilized, Cold War ideology that has been terrible for both our foreign and domestic policies. It doesn't work, it never did work, and it has no place in the 21st century. We must change, we must embrace our former enemies, and we must be fearless in that evolution if the US is going to continue to lead the world by good examples.

In reality, the Cuban revolution was about the very same things the American Revolution was about - throwing out a colonial occupier who was abusing the people and their resources. The US government, our corporations, and the mafia were doing exactly that, and in the historical light of truth, Cuba did exactly what the United States did to England in 1776. As Thomas Jefferson wrote about the act of revolution: "Even this evil is productive of good. It prevents the degeneracy of government, and nourishes a general attention to the public affairs. I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical."

Cuba was just taking a cue from Jefferson's own playbook. And they played it very well.

I have walked in the streets of Havana, and I've seen the buildings in the central plaza where bullet holes from the 1959 street battles have deliberately been left in view, to remind the Cuban people that a real fight took place here, where native blood was spilled with American guns and bullets. In order to make peace with Cuba, we have to understand that their revolution was simply a push back against our own oppressive policies. Revolutions happen because people are downtrodden, exploited, and oppressed - its really as simple as that. So if we can admit our responsibility in this, then we as a nation can meet a former enemy in the spirit of goodwill and turn that enemy into an ally. We did this with England after the American Revolution, and we did it with Germany, Italy, Turkey, Japan, and other countries after the first and second world wars. We can certainly do the same here.

The lifting of the trade embargo is something that needs to happen as soon as possible, right on the heels of the opening of travel and diplomatic relations, which President Obama has wisely accelerated. This is necessary from both an economic and humanitarian perspective because the vast majority of Cubans alive today were not even born when the US trade embargo was first implemented in 1962. The embargo and its grinding toll has been exacted upon children and the youngest generation of Cubans in a kind of collective punishment that has no moral grounds. Food is expensive in Cuba, and not in abundance, and that is an awful thing to see anywhere. So what kind of a country are we if we deliberately create privation in another country simply because of a differing political belief? We can no longer say it is because Cuba is a communist nation, when our biggest trading partner in the world is China, the biggest communist nation in the world. China has a terrible human rights record and has openly threatened the US with military and cyber espionage, yet we continue to trade openly with them. How could we possibly treat Cuba as an enemy, when we clearly need her friendship and economic collaboration? There are also obvious military and strategic advantages to this alliance but the there are also many important cultural things we can learn from Cuba, which are perhaps equally as important.

Since the revolution of 1959, Cuba has developed one of the finest medical corps on the planet, famous for deploying doctors around the world in times of crisis or natural disasters. They also have a free education system, up to the doctoral level, so most Cubans are extremely literate and educated in the professional services. For example, my taxi driver in Havana held a PhD in economics, which is the field he should be working in right now, rather than driving a taxi around Havana. And as I learned from my own musical experience, Cuba has one of the finest musical cultures on the planet. I personally witnessed the artistic virtuosity that so many Cubans possess, with standards so high that when Cuban musicians and dancers finally do perform on American soil, it's going to set a new standard of excellence. Cuban musicians like Chucho Valdez, Los Van Van, and the jazz titans Paquito De Rivera and Arturo Sandoval have already brought Cuban musical excellence to the American stage. But now its time for a constant, unhindered exchange of musical, artistic, and intellectual ideas between our countries, and when that happens, it's going to be uplifting for both nations.

Like the American Revolution, the Cuban revolution is an ongoing philosophy, and a very good one. It's about evolving intellectual ideas, helping to educate and expand a powerful professional core, and cultivating an immensely talented citizenry. Let's be a steward of that process, and help bring Cuba back on to the world stage, standing next to us as our friend and ally. Lets welcome back our Caribbean relatives from their long, extended exile and let's open up travel, trade, and real collaboration between our countries so we can come back together in a spirit of mutual respect, dignity, and compassion. That is the moving force of love that Che Guevara spoke about so eloquently, and its something we need to bring back to life.

If we can do all that, I think even Thomas Jefferson would agree that the American Revolution is still alive here as well.