When I was college age and given to occasional weekend drinking excursions, I sometimes would drink rum mixed with Coca-Cola. The proportional mixture varied from time to time and often within a period of an hour or less. The idea of Rum and Coke echoes another classic drink…the Cuba Libre, made with Coca-Cola, rum and a little lime juice. It was created in Cuba around 1900 when Cuban rum met Coca-Cola. Cuba was occupied by American troops at the time following the Spanish-American war and when soldiers returned home from Cuba they brought the drink with them. I assume that both names for the drink coexisted for decades but the idea of asking for a Cuba Libre probably had some political overtones from time to time but the political perspective would have been changeable.
I’ve not been to Cuba but I know folks who have been there within the last few years. It is becoming a little more common for US citizens to travel to Cuba on escorted trips and I assume there will be more travel in the months ahead as barriers begin to come down. Of course, US business interests will be the first ones to get back into Cuba…some things never change.
People my age often can tell you where they were when they heared JFK was assassinated or when the space shuttle exploded on reentry. I can recall where I was when Castro entered Havana on that cold January day in 1959. I must have been a ten year old revolutionary. I was excited by the news. We had been on Christmas vacation from school and there were daily reports of events in Cuba and clashes between the government and revolutionaries coming out of the mountains. Fulgencio Batista, the Cuban dictator, celebrated New Year’s Eve by slinking away to the Dominican Republic with $300 – $500 million dollars. Havana was in turmoil with spontaneous street celebrations and wealthy folks trying to get off the island with whatever they could take. It took Castro a week to get into Havana. Change could be fast or slow — he favored fast. Most of Cuba was owned or controlled by Americans and Batista was in cahoots with the US mafia. There was an urban middle class but conditions were deteriorating and poverty was increasing. Stagnation and exploitation were the primary forces at work. Batista had been in control since the 1940s and was responsible for 20,000 deaths leading up to his abrupt departure. Castro gained power but didn’t have much of a plan.
The US government seemed to have mixed feelings. They had urged Batista to resign but he hung on until the end. Castro’s intentions were unclear as he took over other than he wanted Cubans to control their own country and economy and to improve the plight of those living in poverty. He was the man of the hour — and he liked to talk. He could and would talk for hours and at the end you couldn’t recall much except he wanted the US out. ”Cuba si – Yankee no” was the popular slogan. It actually took a couple years for him to form a close relationship with the Soviet Union — they didn’t know what make of him either.
President Obama and Raul Castro have turned a page in history — moving away from 50+ years of isolation, embargo and antagonism. Batista is dead. Fidel is old and maybe sick. There will be complainers but most have no real recollection of old Cuba. They are too young, too Americanized, and too invested in seeing Castro fail at all costs. Life in Cuba is profoundly difficult — there is no real argument on that point though some might argue about the cause.
Cuba has been changing while we were looking the other way. The economy is opening up. Cubans have seen some improvements compared to a few years ago but the government is in firm control.They have a higher standard of health care. They have trained thousands of third-world doctors and nurses who work to improve the health of their home countries. Cuban-trained doctors are on the front lines of the Ebola and other epidemics. Much of what we hear is filtered by the anti–Cuba people and it’s hard to get a clear picture. Once travel restrictions are more relaxed we will be hearing more. I’m not in a rush to visit Cuba but I’d like to go sometime before Disney gets there. I’m hoping they can keep some space and protect their own interests.
Epilogue – March 2015
So now we have an interesting turn of events. Ted Cruz has lambasted his way into the 2016 presidential race. Cruz is half Cuban — his father, Rev. Rafael Cruz, fled the Batista regime a few years before Castro took control. He opposed Batista and briefly sided with Castro in his teens but had a change of heart and finally chose to chuck it all and come to the US.
Cruz is the first of maybe two Cuban-American presidential candidates. Marco Rubio, junior Senator from Florida, is making noises that he might be interested in running. Rubio’s story is somewhat similar to Cruz. Rubio’s parents came to the US in 1956, several years before Castro took control. Both are Republicans so they could face each other in various primaries. Cruz has some connections to the oil industry and financial circles. Rubio allowed voters to assume that his family fled the Castro regime until it was pointed out that they arrived several years earlier. Both are only in their first term in the Senate. Both are Tea Party favorites. By most accounts, Rubio is the likeable one. Both are lawyers.