THE BLOG
12/29/2014 12:17 pm ET Updated Feb 28, 2015

The Forgotten History of U.S.-Cuba Friendship

It is not as absurd as many people think that there would be a rapprochement between the United States and revolutionary Cuba. Once upon a time, Fidel Castro received the keys of the City of New York in Central Park, and was welcomed on Capital Hill, even by conservatives. He has always been warmly received in black America, for the same reason that Nelson Mandela went to Havana first after his release from a South African prison -- Cuba had played an indispensable role in ending white rule in Southern Africa. In recent years, hundreds of thousands of Americans have visited Cuba, whether on legal educational tours and study groups, or otherwise, flouting the antiquated travel ban. They have found much to admire in Cuba's still-remarkable health care and educational systems, and the sense of national purpose surviving from the Revolution's early days.

When Fidel and Raul Castro and Che Guevara started their quixotic guerrilla war against the vicious dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1957, Americans knew two things about Cuba: first, that Batista was "our man in Havana," effectively sharing power with the American Ambassador (as John F. Kennedy pointed out in 1960); second, that Cuba was the anything-goes brothel of the Caribbean, because of Batista's long alliance with the Mafia. This legacy of U.S.-backed tyranny and endemic corruption, the memories of drunken U.S. sailors abusing Cuban women and Meyer Lansky's opulent casinos, help explain the puritanical anti-imperialism of the early Cuban revolutionaries.

What is forgotten now is how popular those rebels with a cause were here. Dozens of young Americans flocked to Cuba to fight with them. Time, Life and the major newspapers all covered the Castro brothers' battle against the dictatorship's U.S.-backed military, and millions saw the May 1957 CBS primetime documentary, Rebels of the Sierra Maestra: The Story of Cuba's Jungle Fighters. Americans of all stripes knew what we had done to Cuba, and sympathized with their need for radical reform. That's why, after Castro's guerrillas defeated Batista, he met an outpouring of support on a visit in 1959, not just in Congress and on various television shows, but at Harvard, Yale and Princeton, and in the streets of New York and Washington DC.

Then it all went south, because (as I grew up hearing), "he turned out to be a Communist." But that's bad history. Castro always was a radical, but his tentative alliance with the Soviet Union in 1960 followed clear evidence that the Eisenhower Administration was putting the screws to Cuba's fragile, U.S.-dependent economy and actively funding subversion on the island. Rather than accepting that Cuba would always be subordinate to the U.S., Castro got ready for what he expected would happen next: the Bay of Pigs invasion, where CIA-trained exiles, led by men from Batista's secret police and army (whom most Cubans loathed), never made it off the beach. And then came the Missile Crisis, where Cuba was a cat's paw in the superpowers' rivalry, a lesson the revolutionaries never forgot.

There's no getting around how fascinated by the Cuban Revolution many Americans remained, even at the height of the Cold War. A main reason for the notorious travel ban, instituted in January 1961, was that the Fair Play for Cuba Committee had just brought 300 young people to Cuba, with the promise of many more to come. In the early 1970s, hundreds more went there under very difficult conditions with the Venceremos Brigades, to help with the sugar harvests. Black Americans have demonstrated a special interest, extending all the way back to Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., forcing the Eisenhower Administration to embargo arms shipments to Batista in 1958. Throughout the 1960s, many leaders in the civil rights and Black Power movements visited Cuba, to see for themselves how it overcame widespread poverty and discrimination, followed later by leading black Members of Congress. Even in the 1990s, Fidel Castro packed out Harlem's most famous church, Abyssinian Baptist. African Americans knew well what Mandela had said: that the 1988 defeat of white South Africa's vaunted army by Cuban troops backing the revolutionary Angolan government was a decisive blow against apartheid.

The precondition for ending the lopsided U.S.-Cuba conflict has always been some form of Cuban surrender to U.S. requirements, whether under Carter, Reagan, the first Bush or Clinton. They were never going to do that. The Cubans do not accept that "the strong dictate, and the weak acquiesce," as a rule of history. They have always punched way above their weight, standing up for the rights of small nations and small peoples, and that may be the largest reason why some Americans, at least, have always admired them: Fidel Castro put "don't tread on me" on his flag back in 1959, and there it has stayed, for 65 years.

Also posted on Lancaster Online