Remember the Weapons of Mass Destruction

It took me longer to get to Havana than it did to get to Chennai, India. Part of the reason was a four-hour delay at the Miami Airport. Rumor had it that the delay was because Hugo Chavez was dying. Dignitaries were flying in. Chavez was supposed to have been sworn in on Thursday. That didn’t happen. So who’s running Venezuela? Cuba needs to know. Venezuela has virtually replaced the Soviet Union as Cuba’s life support system, selling Cuba oil at controlled prices since 2000. Cuba, in turn, has been supplying Venezuela with doctors. Since 2004 Venezuela sends Cuba 100,000 barrels of cheap petroleum a day. Cuba sends 30,000 health professionals to Venezuela and trains thousands of its citizens in Cuban medical schools. Were this arrangement not to continue, the Cuban economy would suffer.

When I exited the airport, I glimpsed a billboard with a message for Che Guevara, presumably from the people of Cuba. The message was next to the image that appears on T-shirts worn by young people in almost every country I have visited. I’ve been to 51. It is an image made in 1960 by the famous fashion photographer, Alberto Korda.

In our eyes you are always pure, as a child and as a man, 
Commandant Che, friend

Che is looking into the middle distance. I will buy a refrigerator magnet with that image on it before I leave. I’ll bet there are Che dolls in the store. I saw one of Korda’s Che images with a legend. It said, “Let’s Go, Mets.”

The impact of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro on the 20th century is extraordinary, far out of proportion to the size of their domain, slightly smaller than the state of Pennsylvania. Fidel was born in August 1926. His father, Angel, was a white settler from Galicia and his mother, Angel’s second wife, Lina Ruiz, was a Cuban from Pinar del Rio. Angel came to Cuba at the turn of the 20th century, just about the same time that my own father came to America from Eastern Europe.

Angel arrived at the beginning of the Cuban Republic, a period that lasted from 1902 to 1952 and marked the beginning of a new kind of American influence. The Spanish, the Portuguese, and the French had for hundreds of years practiced colonial expansion by forced occupation. America stayed at home. All that changed at the end of the 19th century. America declared war on Spain and immediately attacked and destroyed its fleet in the Philippines in Manila Bay on May 1, 1898.

Next was Cuba. The government needed a pretext for the invasion. William Randolph Hearst, publisher of the New York Journal, provided one. On February 15, 1898, the American battleship Maine was lying at anchor in the harbor just off the shore of what is today the Malecón. The battleship blew up. Hearst marketed the explosion as an act of treachery. Teddy Roosevelt echoed the accusation. A tsunami of patriotic outrage flooded the country. Volunteers poured into the armed services. On April 25, 1898, the US declared war on Cuba.

It hardly mattered that there had been no Spanish mine in the harbor. Indeed, almost 70 years later Admiral Hyman Rickover conducted a study that strongly pointed toward spontaneous combustion in the coal bins as the culprit. It was enough for Hearst’s newspaper to declare a mine to make it true. America invaded Cuba. One hundred years later it is still here. It is instructive to think of these things today, when mutatis mutandis the slogan would be Remember the Weapons of Mass Destruction.