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Monday, March 21, 2016


As President Obama prepares for an historic visit to Cuba, I feel a purely personal need to say a few things about the relationship of the United States and Cuba.  This is as much a stroll down memory lane for me as it is political commentary.  I suppose I should apologize, but blogs are, by the nature, exercises in naval gazing, so perhaps I can be forgiven.  My view on US-Cuba relations is so completely contrary to the view of virtually everyone in public life in this country that it is actually difficult for me to write about it without simply sounding delusional.  So be it.  I am going to try.

I was a young Instructor at Harvard in 1959 when the Batista regime fell.  Let me insert here a passage from my Memoir describing some of my  involvement with the consequences of that event:

" On Sunday, April 16, 1961, just three months after Kennedy took office, a group of Cuban exiles armed, trained, and funded by the C. I. A., mounted a disastrous effort to invade Cuba via the Bay of Pigs and depose Fidel Castro.

The abortive Cuban invasion hit the [so-called] New Left Club of Cambridge very hard.  We had all thought of ourselves as liberals.  Well, Kennedy was a liberal, if anyone was, and he had invaded Cuba.  That meant that we weren't liberals.  What then were we?  We took to calling ourselves radicals, but that was just a place holder, a way of indicating that whatever liberals were, we weren't that.  The day after the invasion, Max Lerner published a column defending it.  Marty Peretz, with his finely honed instinct for the main chance, stood by Lerner, and effectively broke with us.  Eventually, of course, he married money and bought The New Republic, thus securing for himself a charter seat on the runaway train called Neo-Conservatism.  He always was an egregious twerp.  

We had had indications that something of this sort was planned under the Eisenhower administration.  In fact, we had met with McGeorge Bundy the previous Fall, after he returned from a fact-finding tour of Latin America.  On that occasion, he looked us straight in the eye and lied to us, assuring us that the reports in the Nation of C. I. A. training camps for anti-Castro Cubans were untrue.  But by the time the invasion took place, he was settled into the Executive Office Building, serving as National Security Advisor.  Years later, after Bundy had left the White House to assume the presidency of the Ford Foundation, he wrote to invite me to participate in some sort of panel discussion.  I replied that since the last time I had seen him he had lied to me, I did not feel that I could engage in an open intellectual exchange with him.  I never heard from him again.

Within days of the abortive invasion, we had mobilized ourselves and were organizing to protest the attempts by the United States to overthrow the Castro government.  On the evening of April 26, 1961, just ten days after the invasion, we held a protest rally at Harvard chaired by Stuart Hughes, Nadav Safran, and myself.  Despite being somewhat upstaged by undergraduates protesting Harvard's decision to stop printing its diplomas in Latin, we managed to pull a big crowd, and because of the Harvard/Kennedy connection, we got considerable press coverage.  At the meeting, we formed the Cuba Protest Committee, which then circulated a statement for signatures by faculty at Harvard and elsewhere.  We collected two dozen signatures from senior Harvard faculty, including Barry Moore and Rod Firth."
I believed then, and have continued to believe in the intervening half century, that the United States should have embraced Castro and done everything it could to make his revolution a success.  Instead, after failing to overthrow Castro, Kennedy took the world to the brink of nuclear war in a showdown with Khrushchev, the so-called "Cuban Missile Crisis," and then imposed an economic embargo has been maintained for half a century.

In a manner that Edward Said and many others have analyzed trenchantly in their account of the European imperial mentality, Americans, Democrats and Republicans alike, have arrogated to themselves the authority to judge whether the Cuban government is behaving in a sufficiently "democratic" fashion to warrant our approval and some easing of our opposition to them.  It is an irony so bitter and so blatant as to beggar belief that Americans of every political stripe decry Cuba's jailing of political prisoners while America holds hundreds of political prisoners for years on end in Guantanamo jails on Cuban soil!!!

The impenetrable self-congratulatory arrogance of American society and the American state makes it impossible for me even to carry on a conversation on this subject with most of my  fellow citizens.

After the Cuba Protest Rally at Harvard, I received a telegram of congratulations from a large number of young Cuban artists and intellectuals.  I often wonder whether any of them are still there, and what has happened to them.


Tom Cathcart said...

Bob, I'm ashamed to say that on that evening as I wandered around the Yard observing the "Latin si, Pusey no riot", I was blissfully and stupidly unaware of the Cuba Protest---until this moment, actually. That's how the McGeorge Bundys get away with it--a passive and ignorant electorate.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

But clearly, in the larger scheme of things, the disgraceful falling away from tradition of the English diploma was more important than our Cuba Protest Rally! :)

Tom Cathcart said...

Sad to say, it may have been more effective. In 1962 they went back to Latin diplomas.

s. wallerstein said...

The United States has never tolerated independent governments in Latin America. Kennedy may have been a liberal about domestic policy in the U.S., but in the third world he was a hardline hawk (Viet Nam, for example).

Here's a joke that was told by Chilean President Michelle Bachelet (not a radical herself).

Question: Why has there never been a military coup in Washington, D.C.?
Answer: There's no American embassy there.

NotHobbes said...

A few years ago, I met Teresita Vicente(Cuban Ambassador to UK)at a meeting held in Ruskin House, Croydon. I told her that I felt honoured to meet her. Her reply will live with me always

"What makes you think I am a better person than you? Do not pay homage to anyone, we are all human beings and equally deserving of respect"

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Try imagining Hillary Clinton saying that.