Friday, August 14, 2015

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

The Cold War, Cuba and Castro from on Vimeo.


When my family moved to Miami in the mid-1950s, I was maybe 9 or 10 years old. We settled in what is now called Little Havana....before it was called Little Havana.

When Fidel Castro overthrew the Batista regime on Jan. 1, 1959, I stood on the corner of 12th Avenue and Flagler Street - not quite understanding what I was witnessing - but watching intently as Cuban men listened to the unfolding drama on Radio Havana... small transistor radios pressed to their ears.

At some point my family moved to a small duplex near SW 36th Ave. ....two blocks from a plant nursery on 8th Street and 36th Ave. Today, the nursery is gone; replaced years ago by a restaurant called the Versailles.

In the early 60s, thousands of Cubans fled Castro's island and settled in Miami...many taking any kind of work they could find. I distinctly remember talking to one man who worked at a Flagler Street gas station and listening as he told me that he was once a bank president in Cuba.

A dozen years after arriving in the United States, many Cubans had adapted and built new lives for themselves in Miami.

But other Cubans decided the best way to overthrow Castro would be to subject Miami and its residents to a decades-long reign of terror. 

Later in the 1970s, one didn't have to look very far to find someone in Miami who claimed to have worked with the CIA in the ongoing effort to topple the Castro regime. 

In the 1980s while working as a freelance photojournalist in post-Mariel Miami, I chaperoned more than one out-of-town newspaper reporter to Domino Park or the Versailles for stories on the new wave of Cuban exiles.

Today, more than a half century after Castro triumphantly marched into Havana - and 54 years after the United States closed its embassy there - the United States and the Obama administration took a small step towards normalizing relations with the Cuban government.

But as the old saying goes, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Today was no different.

In Havana, just as the flag-raising ceremony was about to begin at the American  Embassy, The New York Times reported that "three vintage Chevrolets [were] parked strategically on the boulevard outside the compound fence, including a black 1959 Impala sedan, a cherry red 1957 Bel Air convertible, and a 1955 Bel Air hardtop coupe in baby blue and white." In Havana, it was 1961, all over again.

Meanwhile in Miami, which a newspaper writer once compared to Casablanca - the usual suspects - a contingent of anti-Castro Cubans - showed up across the street from the Versailles, ("always a predictable sound-stage for militant exiles," as a journalist once called it) unloaded their signs and waited for the television cameras to show up.

And right on cue - just before the noon news - the cameras appeared.

Honk if you're tired of seeing these a**holes on television. 

Let's roll the videotape!

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The small group of demonstrators represent no one but themselves. They show up because they know the TV cameras will be there. And the TV cameras show up because they know the demonstrators will be there. It's lazy journalism.

On Friday the demonstrators trotted out a 26th of July Movement banner. And once there were a sufficient number of cameras present, they began tearing it apart - as if responding to a silent cue.

Anti-Castro Cubans get ready to perform a little street theater....

...right on cue for the TV cameras. 

However some of those interviewed at the Versailles welcomed the change.

But despite today's thaw, some Cubans hopelessly cling to Cold War rhetoric of the 1960s.

One of those is Fidel Castro, who celebrated "his 89th birthday with a newspaper column repeating assertions that the US owes socialist Cuba “numerous millions of dollars” for damages caused by its decades-long embargo."

The other Cubans are, predictably, former West Miami City Council member and presidential candidate Marco Rubio, and U.S. Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Díaz-Balart.

But a different perspective on today's events comes from a New York Times reader who wrote:
I have been to Cuba many times; the first was weeks before Fidel came to power in early 1959. I have been numerous times since; always thru Cancun, walking from one airline counter to another to buy a ticket to Havana where the immigration people don’t stamp my passport. I use a Brazilian credit card so I do not spend any American money while there.

While there it is very obvious that the US embargo has allowed the regime to stay in power for all these 50+ years in spite of the backward state of the economy as a whole. They have convincingly been able to blame all ills on the embargo.

It still galls me that I, as an US citizen, have to resort to gimmicks to travel to a pleasant, somewhat impoverished neighboring island. Just because my government is unable to make a simple decision to lift travel restrictions because it lets politics influence its every strategic decision. And who are they pandering to this time? A dwindling group of aging, embittered exiles in Southern Florida? A Senator of dubious morality such as Robert Menendez? Or a totally out of touch Representative such as Ileana Ros-Lehtinen?

But I can travel to North Korea, Syria, Russia, Iran and a number of other repressive states. Go figure!

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