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Ay Caramba, Cuba!

A major American orchestra makes plans for a short concert tour abroad, near warm waters and white sand. The trip will give its generous patrons, who are footing the bill, a restful Caribbean weekend. Sounds innocent enough, doesn’t it?

Oh, don't let the pretty beaches fool you...

Oh, don't let the pretty beaches fool you...

But submit this for your consideration. It’s not just any island idyll the orchestra and its supporters want to visit – it’s that hellhole of horror, Cuba.

Welcome to the Foreign Policy Twilight Zone.

The New York Philharmonic planned the trip for the end of this month but had to abandon the jaunt when the State Department nixed the patrons’ accompanying the musicians. You see, 50 years after the Cuban Revolution, Castro’s Cuba is still deemed a threat to us, one so deadly, we couldn’t possibly think of letting presumably intelligent New Yorkers (and if they could afford the $10k each the trip was going to cost, pretty much fans of free enterprise) risk being infected by communism.

50 years…The History Nerd missed the actual anniversary date of January 1, when  rebel forces triumphantly marched through Havana and took power, with The Man himself arriving a week later. From the beginning, Castro’s revolution did not make many Americans happy, as long-entrenched mobsters and corporations lost influence and money. But it took another two years for Castro to declare the revolution a socialist one, rather than a nationalist one. Still, from early on he had good ties with local Communists and harsh words for the Americans. The chance of Cuba-US rapprochement, especially in light of the Cold War, was probably nil.

We put the depilatory on the cigar and the hallucinogenic on the beard! Arrghhh!

We put the depilatory on the cigar and the hallucinogenic on the beard! Arrghhh!

I won’t give a blow-by-blow of the years that followed. You probably know the basics: We consider assassinating Castro in ways that seem so quaint now – the laced cigars, the secret depilatory that would rob him of this trademark beard, the mob hits. This is a comedy, right, the proposed script for a variation of The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming? No, this was your government in action.

Move on to the Bay of Pigs, a clumsy invasion effort that everyone knew was American-sponsored. Cuban Missile Crisis (gee, why would Castro want Soviet missiles on his land after the loving way we had treated him?), Cuban proxy Cold Warring in Africa, Mariel, the continuing efforts of Cubans to flee, the continuing US effort to force Castro from power with trade embargoes.

One constant through the 50 years: the incredible, wholly inappropriate influence of the Cuban refugees in shaping our relations. Hmm, we need Florida’s electoral votes, lots of Cubans in Florida, they don’t like Castro, so we don’t like Castro either. Now, I know some genuine anti-communist ideology has also shaped the US response, but the hysterical nature of it under some presidents – most recently Dubya – is just plain silly.

After the Cuban Missile Crisis, we knew Cuba posed no direct military threat to the US. Did it aid rebel forces we didn’t like in Nicaragua and elsewhere? Yeah. But so did the Soviet Union. At the height of the Cold War, when thousands of Russian missiles were trained on us, did we restrict travel to the Soviet Union like we do to Cuba today, even under a Democratic president? No. It is probably the stupidest ongoing foreign-policy inanity in American history.

In 1982, I saw Wayne Smith speak. At the start of the Reagan Era began, he served as the chief of the U.S. Interest Section in Havana. He resigned when he realized the kind of doofuses he was dealing with in the new administration. Then, and today, Smith outlined what is a salient point for any government’s foreign policy: You don’t say, “Do everything we want, and then we’ll talk.” You engage your adversary as a way of working toward some sort of compromise or common ground. But from Reagan on, we have taken the arrogant approach. Back at that long-ago lecture, Smith recounted how Raul Castro made a behind-the-scenes overture to him to open some dialogue with America. Smith passed the word to the Reagan State Department, which then publicly said there was no reason to think the Cubans wanted to talk, so we wouldn’t. Huh? Ideology trumped any effort at real diplomacy.

Bush II fed the flames in 2004, adding new limits on what were already pretty restrictive rules for Americans’ traveling to Cuba. He also made it harder for refugees to keep in contact with family members still on the island, all part of his plan to “bring down the Castro government.” And as with so much of the Bush years, everything went right according to plan! Obama has eased some restrictions on the émigrés, but not average Americans, and the trade embargo endures. Smith says “U.S. policy toward Cuba long ago ceased to make any sense…the U.S. should open a dialogue with Cuba. How can two countries resolve the disagreements between them without talking, without dialogue?”


50 years.

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