Cuba: A Personal Reflection About Back in the Day
When announcements came out some time back that the U.S. and Cuba were restoring relations, I was troubled and shocked. I remained deeply troubled as I later watched the ceremony of the reopening of America’s Cuban embassy, especially the portion focusing on several Marines who had lowered the embassy’s flag decades earlier.
Over time, I examined my feelings to determine their roots and came to the belief that my disquiet was caused by my deep understanding of what caused the rift between the two nations. It seems now to be an understanding that I share with very few peers born later than 1957.
These later-born generations just hadn’t arrived yet to share my experience.
There are seminal moments that virtually all Americans hold in their collective memories: Here are a few:
- The last Superbowl, World Series, or other Championship win (or loss, depending on your sports preference)
- Senseless deaths in Paris terrorist attacks conducted by radicalized Muslim extremists
- Pride in the election of America’s first black president, though that memory is already fading
But go just a few years farther back and you’ll start dropping age cohorts numbering millions of Americans:
- The housing crash of 2008
- Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans
- The September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon
- The crash of the Tech Bubble.
By the time you roll the tides of time back to events like the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1963 or the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November, 1964, you’ll have dropped Millenials, Gen Y, Gen X and many later Baby Boomers. For them, those events are footnotes to be found in pages or tablet screens of history, read about but not experienced.
Those in my generation, and those of the Greatest and Silent generation still surviving experienced these momentous occasions not as murky capsules of text read in preparation for a test, in the pages of a novel, or on the screen at a movie theater. They are, instead, visceral, raw and continuing sores. They are events that shaped us, our worldviews and our futures.
So it was for Cuba.
Here are the salient facts that appears to be missing in all talk of the Cuban reset:
“For nearly a week, the fate of the world hung in the balance under threat of eminent nuclear war because the Cuban dictator and Soviet Union’s leaders placed nuclear weapons just a hundred or so miles from the U.S. mainland and were preparing to fire them at us if we tried to remove them.”
There was preface, and there was afterword. But those are the relevant facts. Fidel Castro, the island dictator that precipitated the crisis, is still alive. So is his detestable brother and his revolutionary regime that enslaved the Cuban people. Both were invited back into brotherhood by the nation they threatened 51 years earlier, at the request of America’s reigning administration and especially its president.
Let bygones be bygones.
This essay was precipitated by a conversation in which I participated recently with some educated, very articulate, knowing and caring individuals that, I realized, didn’t “get it.” They and I were separated by a gulf of ignorance wider than that dividing Democrats and Republicans today. Not willful ignorance — they understood the facts all right — but experiential ignorance, what Donald Rumsfeld might list among his unknowable unknowns. They didn’t feel it in their guts. It was — and will forever remain — distant history.
One of my friends said that an acquaintance of his had received an offer to photograph Cuba, and several others expressed wistful envy that they wouldn’t be there to see Cuba’s rich heritage, taste its food, listen to its music and enjoy the benefits of the restored relationship. Everyone waxed poetic about the opportunity his friend would enjoy.
I remained silent, listening. I realized I couldn’t view Cuba that way, see it through their eyes or dismiss my first-hand experience.
As a child I participated in the now infamous duck-and-cover “under your desk” drills in my elementary school with other pupils, learning to protect ourselves from detonating atomic warheads. Even 8-year old children realized that our plywood and tubular steel desks would be incinerated in a flash.
We walked past Civil Defense shelter signs and sirens in our small town and listened to serious discussion of building fallout shelters — and knew exactly who had them and who did not — most of us.
Against such powerful memories, my friends’ perception of today’s apparently benign Cuba seemed to me impossibly superficial and naïve.
Mention Cuba to me and I can instantly place myself in my Yugoslavian immigrant turned American citizen’s grandmother’s kitchen, looking at the terror in her eyes as the black and white TV set in her living room showed an impossibly and forever young Jack Kennedy solemnly informing the nation that we were standing on the brink of nuclear war.
“War,” she intoned. She — one who fled Europe months before World War I changed that continent and people forever — thinking she’d be safe in America. “War,” she said, but I heard “death.” Fear of death was in her eyes, it was on her lips and it was shared into my soul.
The decision of the Soviets and Castro to place long-range nuclear-tipped ICBMs across the narrow strait from Florida remains equally etched in my mind, as does the shaky television image of the Russian ships turning back from America’s blockade. It was — and is until the present moment — the closest since the bombing of Nagasaki that this planet has ever come to seeing cities destroyed in fireballs the size of Manhattan searing with the heat of nuclear fusion.
It wasn’t abstract for us. The Soviets had just tested 250 megaton H-bombs on a remote island in the Russian Arctic.
We looked at circle diagrams in our daily paper, illustrations showing concentric rings of destruction. We dropped our little town into the center of the drop point, at least in our minds. We saw destruction across hundreds of square miles, fallout, and lingering, painful deaths. It’s an apocalypse not in some movie-maker’s dream, but in a child’s mind. I am that child, today a man, forever young.
It wasn’t something I read in a history book, heard a teacher talk about in a class, or watched in a movie. I experienced it. Everyone in my school, everyone in my city, indeed everyone in the nation and world experienced what I did that day in 1963. We shared the horror of what Cuba and the Soviets had attempted.
A visit to Cuba to see the sights — even Hemingway’s favorites and the gentle yet sensuous musical scene — is not in the cards for me. I detest the place unseen, but I bear no similar ill will to the tropical island’s people. They have been punished enough. The common man is always relegated to being a pawn for the powerful.
Fidel and Raul Castro still reign in their socialist workers’ paradise, unrepentant, they who brought the world to the brink of complete destruction. Soon both will die, perhaps to a punishment that we are unable to contemplate.
The two Castro brothers and the Soviet’s Khrushchev were the first to strip away the illusion that the New World was somehow immune and protected by oceans from the world’s troubles. It seems anew to be a naïve thought, one difficult to reconcile with what we now know about the world.
Perhaps history’s tendency to repeat itself results not from our ignorance of what has happened in the past, but our inability to experience its lessons.
What the Castro brothers did will not be forgotten by me until my last dying breath. It remains a fresh cut, a festering sore, a deep but not fatal wound on my soul.