THE BLOG
12/19/2014 04:26 pm ET Updated Feb 18, 2015

Cuba Libre: Obama Frees a Monster in America's Head

So with the simple stroke of a pen, Barack Obama begins the end of the U.S. Cold War against Cuba.

The presidential order to restore diplomatic relations with the island nation should have been done decades ago, by Jimmy Carter after Vietnam, or by Bill Clinton following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But Washington kept its long failed policy of diplomatic isolation and economic trade embargo frozen in place--25 years beyond the fall of the Berlin Wall and over half a century after the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Even after opening business with Communist China and Vietnam, American presidents feared normalizing diplomatic ties with Cuba (and losing Florida's electoral votes). Now we'll see if an ideologically rigid GOP-controlled Congress can be convinced to end the mutually harmful trade embargo.

I first visited and wrote about Cuba as a college journalist during Christmas break of 1983 (and later co-edited The Cuba Reader by Grove Press). My professor at UC Santa Cruz, the late public scholar and documentary filmmaker Saul Landau, who made six films about Cuba, helped arrange my passage to the island (he mentored and advised many academics, journalists and policymakers seeking to understand the Cuban political context).

On the short 30-minute charter flight from Miami, I looked down upon the crocodile-shaped island below that once brought two superpowers to the brink of global nuclear war.

Just two months before I arrived on Cuba, U.S. marines invaded the tiny neighboring island of Grenada, overthrowing its young socialist government. To justify the invasion, Ronald Reagan ginned up a story about Cuban workers helping to build the island's modest airport into a base to "export terrorism in our backyard". Upon landing on the new airport runway after the swift invasion, Secretary of State George Schultz glibly described Grenada as "a lovely piece of real estate."

Which is basically how American business and politicians treated Cuba before 1959. U.S. companies operated 85% of the island's arable land, including the best sugar-growing and cattle-raising farms, among other profitable investments. U.S. mafia dons turned Havana into a dollar-churning gambling and sex playground. Dictator Fulgencio Batista was even considered the second most powerful person in Cuba, behind the U.S. Ambassador.

President Obama's action thus needs to be placed in proper historic context. Cuban history did not begin with Fidel Castro and his ragtag army of revolutionaries in the 1950s. The Cuban Revolution is better understood as a process encompassing the country's struggle against 400 years of Spanish colonial occupation and 60 years of U.S. domination.

The United States destroyed the Cuban Revolution of 1898, and amended Cuba's own Constitution with the Platt Amendment in 1901, giving the U.S. full rights to send troops to the island to put down any local uprisings, while imposing a permanent Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay still operating today.

On my first evening in Havana in 1983, I strolled along "El Malecon," the seafront boulevard in front of the Havana Riviera Hotel, built shortly before the revolution by mobster Meyer Lansky (famously portrayed as Hyman Roth in The Godfather). Gazing over the moonlit Caribbean from a rusty sea view balcony, I quickly understood why the mob was happy to help JFK and the CIA assassinate Castro to restore U. S. "interests" and the mafia's gambling empire.

Which brings us to the long sordid history of U.S. secret warfare, assassination attempts of Castro (exploding cigars and poisoned scuba-diving suits), the notorious failed Bay of Pigs invasion, decades of dirty covert war and the failed economic sabotage and toppling of the Cuban government.

The U.S. war against Castro did little to encourage political reform and freedom in Cuba. Instead, U.S. pressure provided a pretext for Cuban communism to close opposition political space and imprison dissidents.

The Cold War against Cuba not only made life worse for ordinary Cubans. It also diminished America's own democracy and undermined its lofty spoken commitments to human rights and the rule of law.

Some believe the JFK assassination was aided by elements of the CIA/Mafia/Cuban exile alliance (Operation Mongoose) disbanded by Kennedy after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, following the young U.S. president's vow to break up the CIA into "a thousand pieces."

CIA and Cuban exile veterans of the secret war against Cuba later resurfaced in two major U.S. political scandals. They carried out Nixon's burglary and spying at the Watergate Hotel, and later assisted operations of Reagan's illegal covert paramilitary war against Nicaragua.

Obama's diplomatic breakthrough, facilitated by Pope Francis, brought the release of the so-called "Cuban Five" in a prisoner exchange for detained American USAID contractor Alan Gross. Five Cuban intelligence officers travelled to Miami in the late 1990s to monitor violent anti-Castro elements in the Cuban-American community with a known history of conducting terrorist activities inside Cuba, including the bombing of a Cuban airliner.

Given the twisted and costly U.S. military and diplomatic legacy towards Cuba, its ironic that President Obama has asked Secretary of State John Kerry to assess if Cuba can now be removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

So is Washington now fully ready to let go of the imperial legacy towards Cuba? As the island prepares to enter the post-Castro brother years, can the "Colossus to the North" finally respect the islands' right to self-determine its future?

Saul Landau, who passed away last year, was fond of quoting the conservative diplomatic sage (and future president) John Quincy Adams' words of warning to the nation. His address on Independence Day of 1821 underscores the lessons of America's historic saga with Cuba:

"America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy...She might become the dictatress of the world; she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit."