Shedding Humiliation

You can never overestimate the impact of humiliation on a society. It is as profoundly palpable as it is on a human being. Before going to Beijing, my wife and I visited Bishu Shanzhuang, a palace complex that the Chinese Emperor and his retinue occupied for six months out of each year when the heat in Beijing became unbearable. Kangxi, the great Qing Dynasty Emperor, began the complex in 1703.

On the wall of the emperor’s bedchamber, the so-called warm room, there is a plaque that reads:

Emperor Xianfeng signed Beijing Treaty here

On October 28, 1860 . . . it was in the warm chamber Xianfeng was forced to sign Beijing Treaty with Britain, France and Russia which ceded south Kowloon to Britain and to admit Aihui Treaty through which more than 1,000,000 square kilometer territory that lies to the north of the Heilongjiang river and to the east of the Wusulijiang river was ceded to Russia.

For most of the past 200 years China has been a country whose relationship to the rest of the world has been one of humiliation, pushed around as they were by the British, the French, the Germans, the Americans, the Japanese and the Russians. China’s current strong posture internationally is a response to that humiliation. Never again.

Portrait of Camilo Cienfuegos and Fidel Castro commemorating
26th of July Movement that overthrew Batista dictatorship in 1959
This sheds light on the affection the Cuban people have for Fidel. He has pulled the thorn of humiliation out of their collective psyche. Mao described Castro as having shown the Cuban people how to “stand up” and grasp whom they really are. Is it any wonder that the Cuban people’s affection for Castro has remained as strong as it has for as long as it has? After more than 600 years of domination, he showed them how to stand up.

Before coming to Cuba I read “Cuba’s New Now” by Cynthia Gorney in The National Geographic. She describes an encounter with Eduardo, a 35-year-old Cuban.

“I love my country,” she quotes him as saying, “but there is no future for me here.”

Eduardo drives Gorney around in a 1956 Plymouth. He shows her a boat he is secretly building with some friends. They intend to sail to America. He will be taking advantage of the current “wet foot, dry foot” immigration policy put into place in 1994 by President Clinton. If you make it to American soil (dry foot), you are granted asylum. If you are intercepted on the water (wet foot), it’s back to Cuba with you. This applies to aliens even if they cross into America from Mexico, just so long as they are Cubans. If they are Mexicans or Latin Americans and try to cross the Rio Grande or the Sonoran Desert, they are at risk of running afoul of the sometimes-lethal Border Patrol.

Back in America and out of touch with Eduardo, Gorney tracks down his brother in Mexico. He tells her that a short way out into the Atlantic the rudder on the boat broke off. Eduardo and his friends had to row back to Cuba.

On January 14, 2013 all restrictions on when and where Cubans may travel were lifted. Now Eduardo can sell the boat and use the proceeds to fly to America. Obviously, the times are changing.

I take it as highly significant that the inaugural poet for Obama’s second term was Richard Blanco. Blanco describes himself as having been “ . . . made in Cuba, assembled in Spain, and imported to the United States.” His strong Cuban connection is, I take it, telescoping a policy change.

None too soon.