By Thomas Armbruster:
I saw Fidel Castro up close twice during my time in Havana from 1991 to 1993. Once during the Pan American games when he joined in the “wave” in the stadium, standing up and raising his arms with the crowd. The officials surrounding him did not do the wave the first time around but you can bet they did it the second time. The next time I saw him was when explorer Thor Heyerdahl visited Havana. There was a reception at the Marina Hemingway and Fidel showed up and spoke, in uniform, totally at ease and he had the audience in the palm of his hand.
His presence was almost always felt. When Fidel was in residence in Havana near the U.S. Chief of Mission’s residence there was increased security as well as roads blocked off without warning or explanation. He was rumored to have many homes scattered around the country, some near a favorite scuba spot, some just off the beaten path.
Fidel was often the radio. His voice a bit raspy but always driven. The man was on a mission, even if it was a mission that took the country in a direction that ultimately few other countries followed. Cuba’s training of doctors and more equal treatment of blacks and whites was laudable, as was some of their energy saving measures like using oxen for farming and bikes for transport, but the undeniable talent of the Cuban people were never allowed expression and like any dictatorial regime the excesses outweighed the gains. A messy democracy beats autocracy every time, even in a country of just under 12 million.
That the man was charismatic there is no question. Cubans who stayed in Cuba talked about him with a bit of a rueful smile, as if they knew he was a force of nature that couldn’t be changed. Cubans in Miami, the original refugees and the “Marielitos” who left in the 80’s demonized him and often had personal reasons for their loathing. They lost loved ones and homes. But love him or hate him all Cubans seemed to know that until Fidel passed, all bets were off. El Jefe’s will set Cuba’s course.
Cuba itself has a magical quality. The name, the beaches, landscape, the music, dance and even the Cuban accent is distinct. Not to mention the cigars and the rum. And the history. Columbus’s landfall, the Bay of Pigs, even the road where the Soviet missiles were to be stationed are all accessible. Guantanamo was not accessible to us, from Havana, but in my time in the Consular Section we could travel everywhere else in the country.
In the end, Fidel did not export revolution and was not a real threat to the U.S. Our policy of just hoping he would go away did not do us any service. Allowing American businesses and tourists to visit Cuba, I thought, would have given Cubans a better view of the U.S. and would have created links that would help when the transition came. Now, there is an opportunity to fix the grievances of the Cuban diaspora, those who want to come “home” and those who feel owed something. It will not be easy, but there is chance that the Cubans in the U.S. can help Cuba find a better path towards integration with the rest of the hemisphere, from its big northern neighbor to the rest of the tip of South America.
People often say I “thought we didn’t have an Embassy in Cuba.” We didn’t. We had a U.S. Interests Section, officially under the Swiss mission. I only saw a Swiss Ambassador once and my request for “home leave” in Zurich was denied. It was a bit of a fiction that allowed the U.S. to do diplomatic business, visas, visits to Americans in prison, and even rare coordination on UN matters.
There was plenty of intrigue too. We were followed as American diplomats everywhere as no doubt the Cuban diplomats in Washington were. I’m sure there are spycraft lessons taught on both sides from some of the incidents that took place. It was Fidel’s choice to double down on his socialist, one man rule after the Soviet Union fell apart and his subsidies disappeared. The man was stubborn and determined if nothing else.
Raul Castro lacks the fire, imagination and charisma of Fidel. He is likely to be a transition figure. And perhaps our policy will be more flexible, ready for change, and ready to help. Sure, Cuba should be a tourist destination, and it should maintain its independence from us. But without Fidel they can look at the world more pragmatically, more as a partner, and less as the vanguard of Fidel’s vision. Without Fidel, there is not much revolutionary fire left in Cuba. Any revolution now will be cultural and economic.
Viva La Revolución.
Thomas Armbruster is an OpsLens Contributor and former U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of the Marshall Islands. In his long career as an American diplomat, Thomas Armbruster served as the Consul General at the U.S. Consulate General in Vladivostok, Russia, Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Tajikistan, Principal Officer at the U.S. Consulate General in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, Political Affairs Officer and Nuclear Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Russia; and Vice Consul at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, Cuba. Prior to joining the Foreign Service, he was a reporter for the CBS affiliate KGMB-TV in Hawaii. Mr. Armbruster holds a B.A. from McDaniel College, an M.A. from St. Mary’s University, and an M.S. from the Naval War College.
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