When you look at the two speeches American presidents have made to a Cuban-American audience--John Kennedy's address to the returned Bay of Pigs prisoners on Dec. 29, 1962, and Ronald Reagan's appearance before the Cuban American National Foundation in Miami last weekend--the striking thing is that so little has changed.
Kennedy, brimming with emotion as he hailed the survivors of an expedition he had dispatched and then allowed to fail, received their flag and said: "I can assure you that this flag will be returned to this brigade in a free Havana." He hedged a bit, but the overall impression unmistakably conveyed was of devotion to liberating Cuba.
There was not the slightest suggestion that his rhetorical thrust directly undercut the agreement he had made terminating the Cuban missile crisis a few weeks earlier. In that "understanding" with Moscow he had committed the United States, in return for certain strategic assurances from the Soviet Union, to end its efforts to remove Fidel Castro from power.
Similarly, Reagan last week, in a speech larded with the familiar criticisms of Castro, made his own mention of Castro's tenure. His principal theme was that "we will not permit the Soviets and their henchmen in Havana to deprive others of their freedom . . ." He also said that "someday Cuba itself will be free," putting his vow in the form of an "assurance"--precisely Kennedy's word.
On other occasions Reagan administration officials have hinted that an alleged failure--never explicitly defined--on the part of the Soviet Union to live up to its 1962 commitment barring a Soviet strategic presence in Cuba might release the United States from its pledge to let Castro be. Certainly such a reading would tally with Reagan's general strategic outlook, with his antagonism to Castro and with the policy of proxy intervention against a Marxist-influenced government that he is conducting in Nicaragua.
Reagan is somewhat more open and honest on the issue than was Kennedy, who could not bear to tell his listeners that he had just given Moscow a guarantee for the very Cuban regime whose demise he was invoking. Reagan did not make the 1962 agreement. In his incipient complaints of Soviet violations, he has half-prepared a renunciation of it. In Reagan's time as president, moreover, Cuba's encouragement of revolution on the American doorstep has surely broadened the constituency supporting a harder line.
But my main point is that over the span of a full generation and across a considerable range of the political spectrum, it remains a question for Americans whether to accept the Cuban revolution. There is still not a certified national decision to live with a communist regime in Havana. At any given moment there may be no active operation hatching to undo Castro, but in the collective American heart there is a hardness at the thought that in our very back yard a hostile, Soviet-linked totalitarian regime resides.
It is plain enough that assorted American presidents, not least Kennedy and Reagan, have given Castro plenty of reason to seek protection from the Soviet Union and plenty of excuses for cracking down internally. In that sense it is true as some say that the United States has created some part of the devil it now condemns.
But it is no less true that at least two American presidents, Dwight Eisenhower and Jimmy Carter, gave coexistence as fair a shot as anyone could expect in the circumstances. Castro chose to rebuff them, pocketing the bilateral gains, stepping up offensive actions and putting accommodation-minded Americans under a cloud that hovers darkly still. Cuba itself is now primarily responsible for the divide between the two nations.
By Carter's time, moreover, Castro had acquired the means to go into foreign adventures in a big way in Africa. Events were leading him to apply his considerable resources to turning up the flame under the pre-revolution simmering in Central America. He seems to me someone dominated by hatred and resentment of America, and as long as he is around there may be little prospect of change.
But that is no excuse for feeding his paranoia and his power by keeping alive the specter of an American-wrought counterrevolution. It is understandable that American presidents ache to restore freedom to Cuba, but a country with the United States' traditions and responsibilities should be careful not to indulge this interventionist notion. Castro's own interventionism must be combated in other ways.