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world wide wednesdays :: have a cigar

whoa. this is a big day. i mean huge. i usually try to skip happily from one area of the world to another in this series and i had just featured another state in the central american region, but after years of waiting for a breakthrough and then getting blindsided by the news this morning [that seems to be a thing with obama; he must be amazing at planning surprise parties], today just had to be dedicated to cuba.

so in the interest of promoting understanding and celebrating this new openness, i offer you the brief, inadequate but well-intentioned world wide wednesdays cuba primer. but first, here's a little cuba-centred trivia question to get your brain activated. can you tell me what american said the following? [answer given at the end of the post.]

I believe that there is no country in the world including any and all the countries under colonial domination, where economic colonization, humiliation and exploitation were worse than in Cuba, in part owing to my country's policies during the Batista regime. I approved the proclamation which Fidel Castro made in the Sierra Maestra, when he justifiably called for justice and especially yearned to rid Cuba of corruption. I will even go further: to some extent it is as though Batista was the incarnation of a number of sins on the part of the United States. Now we shall have to pay for those sins. In the matter of the Batista regime, I am in agreement with the first Cuban revolutionaries. That is perfectly clear.

cuba has always been a cultural mix as far as anyone can tell.

when christopher colonus arrived in the late fifteenth century, cuba was already inhabited by at least three distinct tribes- the taíno, the guanahatabey and the ciboney. the latter two were hunter-gatherer cultures, most likely descendants of south american tribes who migrated north. the former was an agrarian group who appear to have been pushed east from mexico by advancing caribs. all three cultures became extinct within a few decades of the arrival of the spanish, mostly due to diseases to which they had no immunity. however, since the spaniards who arrived were all men, it was relatively common for them to take native, particularly taíno, wives, who then bore children of mixed race, meaning that taíno genes have survived in some form. the name cuba and the names of most of its major cities are taken from the taíno language.

while a majority of cubans today are of european descent, more than a quarter of the population is of mixed race ancestry, including europeans, africans descended from slaves, the remnants of the original population and several other, smaller groups.

cuba is not an island.

or rather, it's not just one island. it's actually an archipelago of nearly 4,200 islands, keys and islets, of which cuba proper is the largest. the second largest island, now called isla de la juventud or "island of youth" is one of the largest islands in the caribbean on its own. in modern times, the "island of youth" has served principally as a prison- fidel castro was jailed here following a failed attack on an army barracks in 1953. long before that, however, the island was a refuge for a different kind of outlaw: pirates. that's right, actual, honest-to-god pirates of the caribbean. known for a time as "treasure island", it served as the inspiration for robert louis stevenson's novel of the same name and for the treasure island of j.m. barrie's "peter pan".

cuba is poor, but it's hardly undeveloped.

despite the privations caused by a half-century trade embargo, the collapse of major trading partners and damaging economic policies early on [castro himself admitted this in 1970], the cuban state medical system is something of a marvel. cuba has the highest doctor-to-patient ratio of anywhere in the world [despite losing a huge number after the communist takeover]. their infant mortality rate is comparable to other western countries. life expectancy is 78 years, compared to 78.74 in the united states. access to contraceptives and abortion is included and mental health is considered an integral part of ongoing health management.

free [and compulsory] education has produced a literacy rate of 99.8% [compared to 99% in both the united states and canada] and the high school graduation rate is 94% [compared to 81% in the united states].

even without adjusting for financial inequalities, cuba ranks in the top tier of the human development index, the only central american or caribbean nation to achieve this. [side note :: cuba is also an exporter of healthcare, working with the united nations and other countries to provide doctors and medical knowledge to developing countries and areas in need of disaster relief. there is also a growing health tourism sector- people who visit cuba in order to obtain medical help at lower costs than at home. this has grown enough that the government has established facilities especially for foreign nationals. the ongoing trade embargo has frustrated efforts at sharing research, but a vaccine against bacterial meningitis b developed by cuba proved so effective that the united states treasury department was eventually persuaded to grant special dispensation to smith-kline-beecham in order to acquire it.]

cuba wasn't always so independent-minded.

in the early part of the nineteenth century, when most of latin america were asserting their freedom from spain, cuba remained loyal. it wasn't until the latter part of the century that an exile named josé martí kickstarted the campaign for cuban independence. his fight was unsuccessful, but in a strange turn of events, spain invoked the wrath of the united states after a ship sent to monitor american interests on the island was sunk. the two countries went to war, resulting in the defeat of spain ceding of several territories to the americans. america did not retain cuba long, granting independence in 1902, with the provision that the united states had the right to intervene under certain circumstances. in order to ensure this, the cubans agreed to have the americans lease a naval base at guantanamo bay.

there was a cuba before castro

we've all heard a lot about fidel, but not as much is known about the man he overthrew, fulgencio batista. born in 1901 to parents of mixed spanish, african, indian and chinese descent, he became president of cuba two different times, through two separate coups. in 1933, he led an uprising of military men that deposed the sitting cuban president and served as the head of the army for seven years behind a succession of presidents, until he decided to just be done with the charade and run for office himself. [side note :: in one what is surely one of the strangest cases of electoral registration gone wrong, batista discovered as he prepared for his run at the top office that he didn't legally exist. it turns out that he had been registered under his mother's maiden name and with a different christian name as well. as it turned out, his father had not wanted him registered under the name batista. i'm guessing that subsequent family gatherings were somewhat awkward and that no one in the country pushed too hard for voter i.d. laws.]

in his first term as president, batista introduced a surprisingly liberal constitution, which included labour rights [including the freedom to organize unions] and the right to healthcare. several prominent communists played roles in his administration and, while cuba did not play a huge role in world war ii, batista was eager to partner with the united states to attack the fascist franco regime in cuba. constitutionally barred from running for re-election in 1944, he relinquished power and moved to the united states.

... until 1952, when he decided to take another run at the presidency. he organized a new political party, but when it became clear that he was going to lose, he decided to say "screw it" and staged a military coup. batista 2.0 was a far cry from his old self. in his second term, he repealed most of the populist measures of the 1940 constitution, left much of the population to suffer in poverty and ran a brutal police state enriched by american mafia money, a massive trade in [nominally] illegal drugs, gambling, prostitution and... well, you get the idea. of course, it wasn't all sodom and gomorrah. lots of non-mafia businesses flourished in cuba as well, generating all sorts of profits that helped the country's poor not one bit. in return, the united states government provided aid payments in the form of weapons, so that batista's police state could smack down the peasants when they got uppity. [side note :: one theory for batista's about face in his second term was that he wanted to be accepted by the wealthy cuban elite, who had always looked down on him despite the whole running the army and the country thing. while i doubt any proof of this exists, it's not a crazy theory. batista came from the among cuba's poorest and before he entered the army, had occupied a succession of jobs working in the fields, the railroads and the docks. his mixed race background would likely have made him an outcast among the wealthy, despite his political success. he remains the only non-white ever to preside over the cuban government.]

some people tried to point out to the eisenhower administration that maybe supporting a murderous despot killing tens of thousands of his own people wasn't such a great idea, but no one really wanted to listen to them, because batista so clearly had things under control.

batista was forced to flee cuba on new year's eve 1958/9 with his family, about forty friends and advisors, and somewhere between three and seven hundred million dollars of his country's money. but you knew about that already, because you saw it in godfather ii.

oh fredo, so many bad choices...

in one of their few intelligent moves related to cuba, the united states refused to grant asylum to batista and he eventually settled in fascist portugal, the friend and neighbour of the spanish government he had once wanted to overthrow.

only castro can kill castro

at eighty-eight years of age, the former president is more fragile than he once was, but given what he's been through, it's sort of remarkable he can still move.

the calamitous bay of pigs invasion remains the best known attempt to kill [or at least depose] castro, however the c.i.a. has openly admitted to making eight attempts on his life other than the bay of pigs between 1960 and 1965. fabian escalante, cuba's former chief of counterintelligence and the guy charged with making sure the president continued to breathe the air of revolutionary freedom and feel the heat of the tropical sun puts the number of attempts on castro's life a little higher than that. he says 638.

there are all sorts of reasons why these plots failed: many of them were stupid; some of them were handled by idiots; some were thwarted by circumstance. all of them, however, helped confer a nearly mythological status on castro both at home and abroad. one assassination story had the c.i.a. recruiting castro's mistress to kill him by smuggling poison capsules into their bedroom and adding them to his food or wine. unfortunately, she chose to smuggle them in a jar of moisturizer, which dissolved the outer shells. in the midst of figuring out how to trick fidel into eating a few handfuls of cold cream ["does this taste off to you?"], the lady broke down and spilled the beans to her lover. according to the legend, castro handed her his pistol and told her to take her best shot, but she couldn't bring herself to kill him. that sounds like it can't possibly be true. or does it? [in possible support of the myth, castro was considered something of a sex symbol in his revolutionary days and was known to enjoy the perks of that status on a frequent basis. so who says that this young woman didn't go weak in the knees around him?]

but perhaps castro has someone else looking out for him. someone bigger than the c.i.a. someone bigger than all of us. you know, the big guy.

while he has generally adhered to the communist idea that religion is used by a politically motivated church to suppress the ambitions of the poor, women and minorities, he hasn't been quite so quick to dismiss all of christianity out of hand. in fact, he has praised some of the humanist foundations of christianity, going so far as to declare:

If people call me Christian, not from the standpoint of religion but from the standpoint of social vision, I declare that I am a Christian.

looking at it that way, i can see how pope francis got involved in events leading to today's diplomatic thaw.

to take us back to [almost] where we started- were you able to guess the source of the quote?

it's president john f. kennedy, speaking to french journalist jean daniel, less than one month before he was assassinated. remember that quote when you hear people calling obama a traitor for acknowledging that america had been wrong in many aspects of their dealings with cuba. he's not the first person to admit that mistakes were made. he's just the first one in a long time.

p.s. :: thanks very much to dom for coming up with the name of today's post!


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