The Cold War died Wednesday.
Its death was foretold, yet somehow it still came as a shock.
It didn’t expire on a bayside battlefield in the Caribbean or with a mushroom cloud or even with an exploding cigar. It perished at a White House podium.
The prisoner swap that set Alan Gross free — and the sweeping changes to U.S. policy on Cuba that went with it — won’t heal all wounds, nor will it vanquish the powerful cold warriors in the U.S. Congress. But it did fundamentally alter a curio of American foreign policy that deeply influenced popular culture and played an outsize role in U.S. presidential politics for more than half a century.
In April 1959, Richard Nixon was unimpressed with the bearded revolutionary in green fatigues who arrived at his office. Fidel Castro’s “ideas as to how to run a government or an economy are less developed than those of almost any world figure I have met in fifty countries,” Nixon, then the U.S. vice president, wrote in a memo declassified in 2001.
Nixon distrusted the newly victorious Castro, whom he had correctly pegged as a communist, as did his boss, President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
In the years to come, the Berlin Wall rose and fell. The Soviet Union collapsed. Nixon went to China. Yet the grudge match with Castro persisted, spanning 11 U.S. presidencies. It survived intact as a relic of the Cold War, which may have essentially ended in the 1990s but lived on in the dysfunctional relationship between the United States and Cuba.
Dating back to the early days of his regime, killing Castro became the tragicomic obsession of a generation of American spies. If they couldn’t get him with a combustible cigar, then they might consider offing him with a gift of a wet suit laced with tuberculosis or, perhaps, enlist the help of a mob hit man.
Sometimes, however, the efforts to rid the island of Castro were just plain tragic. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy’s administration approved a poorly planned and poorly supported invasion at the Bay of Pigs. Castro demonstrated his brutality by executing nine of those who’d plotted against him. It was a crushing blow to Cuban exiles in Florida who welcomed the coming of each new year with the toast “Next year in Havana.”
The next year, instead of reunions on the island, they got the threat of a nuclear holocaust. Soviet missiles were spotted in Cuba, and it took extraordinary diplomatic gymnastics to avert an apocalyptic conflict between the superpowers.
Castro’s seemingly eternal squabble with the United States evolved into the central animating force of Cuban political discourse during his years as president and remained there once he gave over titular control of the country to his brother Raúl after falling ill in 2006. Rather than accept blame for mismanaging the Cuban economy and for the startling decay of the nation’s infrastructure, the Castros were forever pointing at the U.S. trade embargo. (Even though the embargo remains in place, Obama’s policy shift is designed to increase commerce between the nations by expanding U.S. exports and banking links.)
Fidel Castro’s repression of free speech, jailing of political prisoners, refusal to hold elections, travel restrictions and almost total ban on private enterprise have made thousands of Cubans desperate to leave. On the streets of Havana, people talk of escaping to “La Yuma,” Cuban slang for the United States that most likely derived from the 1950s Western “3:10 to Yuma.”
The reference to a long-ago film only reinforces the impression of Havana as existing in a time warp, where classic U.S. cars share roads with clunky Soviet junkers, and where every Cuban driver has to be a mechanic. In the provinces, they don’t even have the luxury of broken-down cars; many people have to get around in horse-drawn carriages or walk.
To get to La Yuma, Cubans have been willing to do almost anything, including risking death. They’ve pushed into the sea on rafts and inner tubes and surfboards, anything they could find. They’ve arrived on makeshift boats made from tractors and old tires. In one unforgettable escape attempt, a Cuban family tried to get to Florida in a fantastically conceived watercraft fashioned from a green 1951 Chevy truck. Tens of thousands came in the 1980 Mariel boatlift, crowding into temporary housing at the Orange Bowl in Miami while Castro boasted that by allowing them to leave, he had “flushed the toilets” of Cuba.
A succession of U.S. governments tried to make it easier for Cubans to come to the United States. In the mid-1960s, Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration instituted the Cuban Adjustment Act, which aids Cuban migrants in becoming permanent residents after being admitted to the United States. Clinton would expand the opportunities for Cuban migrants by putting in place a “wet foot, dry foot” policy in which Cuban migrants who are caught at sea are usually sent back to the island, while those who make it to land are usually allowed to stay.
Some of the most intractable disputes between the United States and Cuba can be traced to the waters of the 90 miles of the Florida Straits.
In 1996, two planes operated by Brothers to the Rescue, an exile group that assisted rafters, were shot down above the straits after what the Cuban government claimed was an intrusion in its airspace. Four men died, and with them went the hopes of would-be Cuba-policy reformers who were optimistic that then-President Bill Clinton would loosen sanctions on the island.
Nearly four years later, the mother of Elián González drowned while fleeing Cuba, setting off an epic custody battle that ended with the 6-year-old being wrenched from the home of Miami relatives by gun-toting federal agents and sent back to his father and Cuba.
Thousands of Cuban migrants are believed to have died trying to enter the United States by sea.
Through the tragedies, a certain mystique about Cuba has been magnified by its inaccessibility. American tourists slipped onto the island, evading U.S. restrictions by flying to Havana via Mexico or Jamaica and then pleading with Cuban airport personnel not to stamp their passports. Making it out with a box or even a handful of Montecristo cigars or a bottle of Havana Club rum, for some, was a feat worth bragging about. But many exiles viewed such trips as unforgivable betrayals that helped an oppressive government by pumping hard currency into its beleaguered economy.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has pressed to expand options for U.S. businesses in Cuba. And investors have looked longingly at the island, as Spanish and Canadian firms have established footholds in a place with vast tracts of undeveloped beachfront, scuba-diving Edens and outmoded, inefficient farms.
The Cuban American sugar baron Alfonso “Alfy” Fanjul — a major backer of anti-Castro exile groups — recently said he would be interested in exploring business opportunities on the island. His remarks, published in January in The Washington Post, set Cuba watchers aflame with speculation that major changes in U.S. policy might be coming. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) accused Fanjul of trying to make a deal with “the devil.”
“At a time when the democracy activists on the island are facing even harsher reprisals from the brutal Cuban regime, it’s pathetic that a Cuban American tycoon feels inspired to trample on the backs of those activists in order to give the communist thugs more money with which to repress,” Ros-Lehtinen said at the time.
Popular culture has been impervious to the political disputes. It’s almost impossible to walk onto a college campus in the United States or Europe without seeing Alberto Korda’s famous photo of Che Guevara, titled “El Guerrillero Heroico,” or “The Heroic Guerrilla.”
The New Year’s Eve scene in “Godfather II” probably educated more Americans about the victory of the Castro revolution than any schoolbook. And Woody Allen sent up the Cuban revolution in his spoof “Bananas.”
But farce might be the hardest genre to pull off because the reality of U.S.-Cuba relations is often so quirky.
This year, the Associated Press figured out that the U.S. Agency for International Development had sought to trigger a youth uprising, a sort of Cuban Spring, by setting up a phony, Twitter-like network in Cuba called “ZunZuneo,” a Cuban slang term for the sound of a hummingbird. More recently, AP revealed that USAID had hired a Serbian music promoter to infiltrate Cuba’s hip-hop scene in hopes of sparking youth protests against the Castro government. And the United States has spent tens of thousands of dollars a year to maintain a plane that is supposed to broadcast American television programming in Cuba but never flies because of a budget stalemate.
In the meantime, Fidel Castro revealed a few years back that he has been collecting annual rent checks from the U.S. government for the use of Guantanamo, the U.S. base on the island, for half a century. But, in protest of U.S. policies, he says his cash-strapped government has only cashed one of the $4,000 checks in all those years — and that was by accident.
For years, the two nations conducted an odd propaganda war, one-upping each other, in front of the building that houses the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, along the city’s scenic seawall, known as the Malecon. U.S. officials angered Castro by putting up a Christmas display that included a large “75” — a reference to the number of dissidents arrested in an early 2000s crackdown. Castro responded by erecting big signs showing images of U.S. abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
Two years later, the United States infuriated Cuban officials by installing a digital sign that scrolled news reports and provocative quotes in five-foot-tall letters on the side of the building. On a typical day, there were would be news items containing information such as the stats of a Cuban defector playing in the major leagues or a U.S. magazine naming Fidel Castro one of the world’s wealthiest heads of state (the Cuban leader claims to have no personal wealth). And once there was a quip from the comedian George Burns: “How sad that all the people who would know how to run this country are driving taxis or cutting hair.”
The Castro government responded by installing 148 giant flagpoles in the park outside the building, making it almost impossible to see the scrolling news display. In 2009, U.S. officials in Havana quietly had the sign removed as Obama was beginning to loosen restrictions on travel to Cuba.
Now people look for another type of sign: the departure board at Miami International Airport.
It’s filling with flights leaving for Havana.