President Obama: Set Cuba Free

02/21/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The inauguration of President Barack Obama seemed like a cross between the second coming and the liberation of Paris in 1944. I have witnessed every presidential inauguration since that of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, but have never seen the nation - and the world - so joyous or enthused by a new American president.

Of course, the Bush administration, the most catastrophic in memory, was an easy act to follow. Barack Hussein (the middle moniker that still dares not speak its name) Obama brings a bounty of hope, whereas the Bush administration brought fear-mongering, wars, flirtation with fascism, shame on America, and financial ruin.

Like most Americans, I was deeply relieved to see the last of the sinister Bush administration and welcome the new president, a man of dignity, intelligence and strength.

Now that the celebration is over, one of President Obama's first acts should be to immediately close the shameful Devil's Island at Guantanamo, Cuba, and order this unneeded military base, an embarrassing relic of 19th Century American imperialism, returned forthwith to Cuba.

The president's next step should be to ask Congress to end the hypocritical, idiotic 50-year embargo of Cuba. I am just back from Cuba covering the 50th anniversary of its Communist revolution. Here are my observations:

The celebrations of Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution was a very modest, low key, even glum affair, totally out of keeping with this island's normally boisterous fiestas. Fidel remains gravely ill. He has been out of sight for the past two years, though he publishes news commentary from his self-imposed seclusion. Most Cubans mourn Castro, as they would a moribund relative.

Economically stricken Cuba is hanging on by its fingernails. Life is grim and hard on this beautiful but impoverished island. Food is rationed and scarce, public transport erratic, and blackouts common. Many people living in decrepit apartment buildings must haul buckets of water up numerous flights of stairs.

In the early 1950's, my parents used to bring me to Havana each winter, and we often joined Ernest Hemingway and his mistress Pilar for daiquiris at its fabled 'Floridita Bar.' Hemingway was a big, vivacious man with a white beard and a rumbling laugh. I took an immediate liking to the famed writer, and he was very kind to me, telling me stories about the Spanish civil war and deep water fishing. I still have one of his books, inscribed, 'to Eric, your friend Ernest Hemingway, Havana, 1951.'

Eight years later, a young Communist lawyer named Fidel Castro Ruiz stormed ashore with 81 men to begin a guerilla war against the US-backed Batista dictatorship. Cuba was then a virtual American colony: Americans owned 60% of Cuba's farmland and industry. The corrupt, inept Batista regime took its orders from Washington.

But, contrary to faux Communist history, the island was not just a cesspool of gangsters, prostitutes and oligarchs. In 1959, Cuba was the West Indies' most developed, prosperous island with a sizable middle class and a living standard that was one of the highest in Latin America.

On January 1, 1959, Castro's guerilla fighters arrived in Havana and proclaimed a revolutionary republic. For the first time in its long history (Havana is 50-70 years older than New York City), Cuba was genuinely independent of Spanish rule and American domination.

Once Castro was in power, his comrade-in-arms, Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, today an icon of romantic revolution to the uninformed and juvenile, ordered the execution of over 600 'bourgeois.' Che then went off to the Congo to wage revolution. But instead of a waiting Congolese proto-Marxist proletariat, Guevara found cannibalism and primitive tribes. Che and his Cuban would-be conquistadores were quickly run out of the chaotic country by the Central Intelligence Agency.

Undaunted, Che headed to Bolivia, where he got killed leading a farcically inept Marxist revolution. Bolivia's dirt poor peasants rejected Che and turned him in. CIA's famed agent, Felix Rodriguez, finished off Guevara. But, as Che rightly observed, 'revolutionaries never die.' His memory went on to live as a global pop image on t-shirts, berets, and now a monumental film.

Ironically, a quixotic revolutionary successor was to appear four decade later: a second Che Guevara in a turban, Osama bin Laden. Like Che, he declared revolution and war against the hated American Imperium, and vowed to liberate the Muslim world.

Che's fiascos notwithstanding, in an era when America bullied and exploited Latin America, and treated its people with contempt and scorn, Castro's revolution was a triumph. His resistance to 50 years of shameful US efforts to overthrow or assassinate him, and a near-lethal embargo, was certainly epic. Recall that this was the era when most of Latin American was ruled by US-backed military dictators or civilian oligarchs.

Even the many Latin Americans who had no use for Fidel's increasingly Stalinist economic and political policies still enormously admired the vociferous Cuban leader for his 'machismo' and big cojones in standing up to Uncle Sam and putting the swaggering gringos in their place.

US attempts to topple Castro nearly led to nuclear war with the USSR in 1962. The Soviets rushed nuclear-tipped missiles into Cuba to thwart a planned US invasion. The US imposed a naval blockade of Cuba and massed forces for an invasion. Nuclear war was very close. I was a student at Washington's Georgetown University at the time and vividly recall how frightened we all were.

In the end, Moscow won the confrontation, though Americans were led to believe by White House spin, their media, and Hollywood that President John Kennedy was the victor. Moscow withdrew its missiles in exchange for the US agreeing never to invade Cuba and pulling its missiles out of Italy and Turkey. Castro was saved by Moscow.

In recent years, KGB veterans of the Cuban missile crisis have claimed that Castro begged Nikita Khrushchev to fire nuclear weapons at the US mainland. Khrushchev refused.

The cost of maintaining Cuba's independence and dignity was poverty, dictatorship, and quickly becoming a Soviet satellite until the USSR collapsed in 1991. Today, only oil-rich Venezuela and Canadian tourists are keeping battered Cuba afloat.

Havana, once called 'the naughtiest city on earth,' is a museum of the 1950's: decaying, melancholy, dark and depressing.

Cuba has one of Latin America's best medical and education system, and highest literacy. But life in Cuba is punishing: food and power shortages, endless queuing, grinding poverty and constant supervision by secret policemen and Communist party informers - in short, tropical Stalinism.

Castro blames this misery on the US embargo. The US blames Castro's failed Stalinist economics for the mess. In fact, both are responsible. Cuba has suffered fifty years of the kind of pitiless collective punishment that Gaza has been experiencing, just in slower motion.

The US has maintained its crushing boycott under the laughable pretexts that Havana holds 200 political prisoners and is Communist. Yet the US cheerfully deals with Communist China and Vietnam, and itself holds 36,000 Iraqi political prisoners, not to mention Guantanamo. America's ally Israel holds 10,000 Palestinian political prisoners.

The real reason for punishing Cuba was, of course, the extraordinary political clout of southern Florida's fanatically anti-Castro Cuban exile community, bedrock of Republican support.

It's high time the West Indies' largest island was welcomed back to this hemisphere and given civilized treatment. A recent poll showed that even 55% of Miami's Cubans now support ending the US embargo.

On an interesting side note, Fidel Castro used to warn black and mulatto Cubans, who are about 60% of the population, that the US was a deeply racist nation that hated blacks. The election of Barack Obama has exploded that argument. Cubans are just as agog over Obama as everyone else.

Chinese influence is moving into Cuba. I learned that Russia is reasserting its strategic presence and plans to rearm Cuba's obsolete military forces. So the US has little time to lose.

First Fidel, and now Raul Castro, have been happy to keep the US at arm's length by provoking occasional crises. An end to US-Cuban hostility could bring up to two million US tourists. The creaky Communist control system could not withstand this invasion. Nor could Cuba's down market tourist infrastructure.

Young Cubans are yearning for the kind of anti-Communist revolution that swept Eastern Europe. So the Party, which so far refuses to implement Chinese-style reforms, seems set on keeping Cuba frozen in time.

As I wrote from Havana eight years ago, there will be no major changes until Fidel Castro, whom just about all Cubans regard as their nation's beloved 'papa,' finally dies.

The age of Yankee imperialism in Latin America is over. Cuba raised the banner of revolt, and paid the price. Now is the time for Cuba to rejoin the polity of Latin American democratic nations as a member in good standing. America, I hope, will by now have learned to treat Cuba with dignity and respect.

Releasing Cuba from 50 years of prison could be one of President Barack Obama's most sensible, easiest, and most applauded early acts.