Sunday, April 01, 2007

Time To Rebuild Bridges To Cuba

Hartford Courant

April 1, 2007

Before Fidel Castro's revolution took hold in 1959, Cuba was America's brothel, a place where, as Arthur Schlesinger wrote, "my fellow countrymen reeled through the streets, picking up 14-year-old Cuban girls and tossing coins to make men scramble in the gutter." Fidel and his barbudos delivered their country from organized crime, official corruption and U.S. domination. They were determined to disprove President William Howard Taft's prediction that "the whole hemisphere will be ours in fact as, by virtue of our superiority of race, it already is ours morally."

For 45 years, the United States has maintained an economic embargo on Cuba in an attempt to destabilize Fidel's government by strangling its people. But several have condemned this brutal tactic, including the United Nations and the late Pope Paul II. The U.S. blockade mentality has failed, as have assassination attempts, sabotage and invasion.

It may be time to engage this small island nation, whose leader has already outlasted nine U.S. presidents. One way is to recognize what we have in common, both the good and the bad. In Connecticut, that means politics, commerce and baseball.

A U.S. senator from Connecticut played an infamous role in Cuba's formation early in the 20th century. Meriden's Orville H. Platt, who served more than five terms in Washington, sponsored the Platt Amendment in 1901 establishing Guantanamo Bay as a U.S. naval base. The law also controlled Cuba's relations with other countries, allowing our government to intervene in the young nation's affairs any time we felt threatened. Platt's work led to American domination of Cuban trade and its sugar industry.

Havana tobacco seeds grew well in Connecticut soil, and as far back as 1884, local farmers were growing crops from the Cuban plant. The imported seeds produced what the Yankees called a "superior plant," which was made into high-quality cigar wrappers. Hartford steamships imported tobacco filler from the island so that local factories could manufacture the entire cigar.

Schooners and steamers used Connecticut ports for Cuban tobacco, but they also carried slaves. The Ocilla, out of Mystic seaport, transported captives to Havana in 1862, long after slave trading was declared illegal.

Baseball provided a less controversial connection between our state and Cuba. Real fans know the names of Armando Marsáns, Luis Padron, Alfredo Cabrera and Rafael Almeida, Cubans who played for a Connecticut professional baseball team beginning in 1908. Recruited by the New Britain Aviators of the Connecticut State League, Marsáns played four seasons before being picked up by the Cincinnati Reds. He and Almeida were among the first Cuban baseball players to break into the American major leagues. New Britain's Cubans visited Hartford often, playing (and beating) the Hartford Senators.

Connecticut residents have a people-to-people link with Cuba through travel. As far back as the 1930s, Havana was promoted as the "cavorting capital" for local vacationers. According to travel ads, Cubans looked forward to the "winter invasion" of gringo tourists.

That all changed after Fidel took the reins and shut down Mafia-owned casinos. American tourism dropped, but in 1970, groups of Connecticut students spent two-month stints in Cuba's sugar fields, cutting cane in support of the revolution.

On one trip, Fidel worked side by side with six state residents, including a 24-year old named Guy. "He is someone who risked his life, was imprisoned and gave up a career as a lawyer to fight for his people. He can speak in the open in front of 1 million people ... I'd like to see Richard Nixon do that," the young Connecticut activist told a Courant reporter.

In subsequent years, there have been exchanges of scholars between Cuba and our state, beginning in 1977, when Yale University and others in academia brought 16 Cuban scholars to this country. In 1982, a University of Bridgeport professor led the first visit of U.S. philosophers to meet with their Havana counterparts. A Wesleyan University student traveled to Cuba in 2002 on a scholarship at the Latin American School of Medical Sciences, which currently has 3,432 students enrolled from 23 countries.

For 15 years, the Pastors for Peace caravan has stopped in Hartford and 120 other cities to pick up and carry humanitarian aid to Cuba, in defiance of the U.S. blockade. Led by the biblical directive "Let us not love in word but in deed and in truth," the caravans have delivered tons of milk, medicine, school supplies and Bibles to the island through the Cuban Council of Churches.

I traveled to Cuba in 1999 for a tour of hospitals with other U.S. health care union activists. We also delivered medical supplies to local clinics. Our delegation visited Cuba's parliament for a wide-ranging discussion on racism, crime and other topics with Julio Espinosa, head of the International Relations Commission.

We challenged Espinosa on what would happen to Cuba after Fidel was gone. "Someday he will die; he is a human being," Espinosa replied. "But almost all our country's elected leaders are under the age of 40. If Fidel dies next year and the U.S. blockade is lifted, we as a country will be the same."

Fidel is now ill and his brother Raul is acting in his stead. The United States now has economic and political relationships with China, Vietnam and other countries once considered national security threats. After decades of hostility, we should use Fidel's exit as an opportunity to move from revenge to reconciliation.

Steve Thornton of Hartford is a vice president of the New England Health Care Employees Union, District 1199/SEIU.

No comments: