By Joey Kennedy
Alabama Political Reporter
Little doubt that the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro committed many atrocities during his iron-fist, nearly 50-year rule over the island nation 90 miles off the coast of Florida.
I’m not an apologist for Castro. But I’m not going to ignore the fact that he was a Cuban patriot. He cared about ordinary Cuban people, and they cared about him.
I have been to Cuba 12 times, traveling with a Baptist church from Virginia that had a relationship with two Baptist churches in Cuba – one in Havana and another in Pinar del Rio, about 98 miles west of Havana in the tobacco-growing region.
We were basically mules – taking medicines and other items the Cubans couldn’t get because of the harsh U.S. economic embargo.
Certainly there was a time when the embargo made sense – especially, perhaps, when Cuba and the old Soviet Union were so close. That relationship ended in 1990, but we stubbornly hung on to the embargo. That embargo didn’t hurt Castro or his cronies. But it did hurt the Cuban people.
We have normalized relations with brutal regimes in China and Vietnam (where more than 55,000 U.S. soldiers died), but we refused to do so in Cuba, a country that, under Castro, was never at war with the United States. Indeed, the only military action between the U.S. and Cuba was initiated by us – the failed Bay of Pigs episode in the early 1960s.
So we aren’t standing on some high moral ground by refusing to normalize our relations with Cuba; instead, we cherry pick which despots and oppressive governments we’re going to sanction.
That is hypocritical, plain and simple.
So for years, a group of compassionate Christians from a small church near Franklin, Va., took money, medicine, eyeglasses, clothes, and other items to Cuba.
Not once were we told we couldn’t travel to some place. The churches we worked with held regular services, unmolested by the Cuban government.
Yes, at one time Castro forced the churches underground and wouldn’t allow church members to hold certain jobs, such as teachers. But Castro eased up in the late 1980s, after a group of Cuban ministers, at least one of them a member of the Cuban Legislature, met with him and explained they hadn’t fled the island but, instead, stayed and were working within the government structure. Castro lightened up even more after Pope John Paul II traveled to the island in 1998. Since then, there have been two more papal visits to Cuba.
Castro is vilified, but don’t doubt his love for his country. And, over the years, Castro changed. Not nearly enough, of course. For many in the United States, the only change he could ever make was the one he made last week when he died at 90.
But make no mistake: Former Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, who Castro deposed in 1959, wasn’t much better than Castro, if he was better at all. The difference was that Batista was OUR Cuban dictator. Castro never kowtowed to the United States, and that pissed us off.
All revolutions have atrocities, including ours. And while we do have elections and free speech and that wonderful right to bear arms, we have our own history to account for as well, not the least of which is the annihilation and forced relocation of Native Americans, slavery and brutality to African-Americans, and the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II.
Trade with Cuba would be especially profitable for Alabama companies. We’re fairly close. At one time, even under Castro, we had considerable trade with Cuba, sending poultry and tomatoes and ice cream and even telephone poles to the country. Earlier this century, former President George W. Bush made that more difficult by suspending the ability of Cuba to buy products on credit.
After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, Castro offered to send 100 Cuban doctors to the devastated areas to help with medical care. Say what you want about Castro, but Cuba has good doctors, and doctors specifically skilled at disaster medicine because the island is so often the target of hurricanes. Bush refused the offer.
Don’t think Castro wasn’t aware of the shortcomings of his socialist society, either. Supposedly, he was once asked what the three greatest successes of socialism were. “Medicine, education, and athletics,” El Jefe is reported to have said. What are the three greatest failures, Castro was asked. “Breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” he is said to have responded.
One reason Castro’s government has had so much trouble feeding the Cuban people is because of the wrongheaded U.S. economic embargo.
We never talked much about politics on our trips to Cuba, but it was clear that Cubans valued their doctors and schools and sports teams. They wouldn’t want to lose those pluses. Too, the Cubans love Americans, much more than they ever loved the Russians.
On our trips, we didn’t stay at vacation spots or in luxury hotels. Mostly, we stayed at a Presbyterian hostel or in the homes of our Cuban hosts. We were driven around in 1957 Fords or 1958 Chevys the Cubans, with their great ingenuity, managed to keep running. We didn’t eat in restaurants but, rather, at the tables of ordinary Cuban people who wanted exactly what we want: a future for their children without the interference from Cuba’s huge bully to the north.
Ending the economic embargo would help Alabama economically, there is no doubt. But that’s not why we should end the embargo. We should end the embargo because it’s cruel to the Cuban people. We should not be cruel.
Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes a column every week for Alabama Political Reporter. Email: [email protected]