Watching the President of the United States stroll through Old Havana almost like a regular tourist with his family the other day brought back vivid memories of my well-spent youth. I was in college when the word went out from the US State Department that United States citizens were verboten to travel to Cuba. This rubbed my young libertarian fur the wrong way entirely. Plus the Cuban Revolution was such an audacious and romantic success that it became irresistible to many of us who felt stifled by the ‘fifties.
So, directly after graduation, I seized the chance to go on a journey of defiance and discovery. I signed up with the “Student Committee for Travel to Cuba.” I’ve told that story elsewhere on this blog, and only want to add here a photograph from that trip that I had forgotten about. That’s me, on the right, head partly out of the frame, with my chin on the shoulder of the student in front of me. In this pic I look a little bit like Alfred E. Newman (“What Me Worry” ). We met not only Fidel and Raul and Osvaldo Dorticos, but a smaller group of us also had a couple of hours with Che, and got to shake his hand. I still pause for a few heartbeats and feel a shiver deep inside when I think of Che’s hands. The murderers who killed him cut off his hands and sent them to Cuba as proof that Che was dead.
The aim of our trip was to break the travel ban, by which we then understood the State Department’s edict that travel to Cuba was against the law. We actually succeeded in that narrow aim; a federal judge in 1967 ruled that the State Department had no constitutional authority to create crimes; that therefore travel to Cuba in defiance of the State Department’s edict was no crime; and that therefore it was no crime to encourage and organize others to travel to Cuba, as I among a number of others had done, enthusiastically and energetically, after the ’63 trip. The subsequent Venceremos Brigades carried on that good fight.
But if we thought that taking down the Sate Department’s regulation would open the doors to Cuba travel, we were mistaken. Congress and the White House threw up a pile of other roadblocks, notably the prohibition against carrying money to Cuba, that effectively reduced travel to a trickle. The U.S. maintained its Cuban embargo and boycott in the face of decades of almost unanimous condemnation at the United Nations and in Latin American conferences. It’s taken another 53 years since our student trip for this shameful American version of the Berlin Wall to crack. It feels good to win, even after more than half a century.
Others have pointed out, and I needn’t rehearse, the ulterior motives behind the American move, Fidel’s letter to Obama makes it clear that the Cubans know that the leopard has not changed his spots. The opening to Cuba removes a high moral barrier that had curtailed American influence in Latin American politics. The removal of that obstacle will tend to lubricate U.S. intervention in other countries’.affairs. Especially at this moment when the populist, nationalist and laborist momentum in Latin America of the past decade is encountering a variety of difficulties, the new American initiatives south of the border, beginning with Cuba, need careful watching.