WASHINGTON -- Does anyone remember what it was that turned America hostile toward the tropical paradise of Cuba? Our president tells us "we're caught in a time warp, going back to the 1950s and gunboat diplomacy, and 'Yanquis' and the Cold War." Yes, really, "gunboat diplomacy." That is how University of Chicago adjunct law professors talk about American foreign policy. And he adds, "Sometimes those controversies date back to before I was born." So, what got America so riled up over the Castro brothers and Cuban communists even before Barack Obama was born?
As I recall, it was a bipartisan hostility. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a Republican if memory serves, began it. His successor, John F. Kennedy, a Democrat, continued it, and he and his brother Bob actually dragged the nation through the Cuban missile crisis. Then Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat, and Richard Nixon, a Republican, and literally every president thereafter continued to harass and afflict the Castros until President Obama had the brilliant idea of simply using his executive powers to relax various commercial and travel restrictions against Cuba. Yet why did America's hostility toward Cuba start in in the first place?
Truth be known, not all Americans hated Castro. There were the members of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, among whom were the writers James Baldwin, Truman Capote and Allen Ginsberg. Also the political activist Lee Harvey Oswald who, as you might recall, actually assassinated John F. Kennedy. Then there were Castro's friends among the Hollywoodians, Fidel being rather arty. There was the actor Jack Nicholson who immediately identified Castro as "a genius." Oliver Stone, the director, appraised him as "selfless and moral, one of the world's wisest men." And another director, Steven Spielberg, adjudged a dinner spent with Castro "the eight most important hours of my life." There were members of the media, Ted Turner, Barbara Walters and Andrea Mitchell, who said of the Cuban leader, "Fidel Castro is old-fashioned, courtly -- even paternal, a thoroughly fascinating figure."
Still the rest of America favored hostility for years. America seems to have taken offense when Fidel Castro said some rude things about us. He took the side of the USSR against us in the Cold War and sent troops abroad to foment revolution. He also sent spies. Institutions that America has cherished, such as democracy and the rule of law, were not always respected in Castro's Cuba, where there existed political prisoners who were treated badly and often killed.
A very persuasive case was made against the Castro brothers by Armando Valladares in the early 1980s when he published his prison memoirs, "Against All Hope." In that book he chronicled almost unbelievable cruelty during 22 years of imprisonment for philosophically opposing communism. He was arrested at 23 and suffered through torture, solitary confinement and witnessing friends dragged before firing squads. He ate putrid food, suffered squalid conditions, illness and forced labor until the protests of world leaders such as Francois Mitterrand led to his release. Through it all I can find no hint of our Hollywoodians or of the members of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee speaking up on behalf of Valladares or any other imprisoned Cuban.
The brutality of "Against All Hope" is astonishing. It puts me in mind of stories John McCain has told me and doubtless others regarding Cuban communists. He says that when he was in communist prisons in North Vietnam things were bad. Nonetheless when the Cubans arrived to assist the North Vietnamese they became worse. I wonder if any Cuban prison guards from the good old days graduated to become members of Raul Castro's security detail. Were they with him in Panama City when he and President Obama sat down to talk last weekend and to engage in shared amnesia about why the vast majority of Americans approved of our long years of hostility toward the Castros?
President Obama's insouciance toward American sacrifice during the Cold War marks him out as the only American president that does not understand the Cold War. It also marks him as the only president that does not like American history and in truth does not like America. While he was visiting with Raul Castro and scratching his head about the inscrutability of America's long history of opposing the Castro brothers, my guess is that their prisons still hold latter day Armando Valladareses. Obama might have asked Castro about freeing them.