I was reading a portion of Graham Greene’s old autobiography dealing with his visits to pre-Castro Cuba. No one mentions Cuba much anymore. Normalizing relations with Cuba has proved more difficult than making progress on same sex-marriage or legalizing marijuana.

Part of it, of course, is that in the bizarre machinery of our electoral college, Florida rules supreme. And the older Cuban community still has enormous clout in deciding which party wins Florida and has a better chance of winning the White House. That demographic understandably hates Castro, so both of our political parties skirt the question of what to do about Cuba whenever they can.

I think our problem with Cuba goes deeper even than politics. Prior to the Cuban Revolution, America was very cozy with Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. We have always had an easier time recognizing the horrors of dictatorships of the left than the right. During the Cold War, we were able to rationalize the horrific abuses under Batista and other right-wing dictators, seeing them as a bulwark against communism. The nighttime assassinations of the opposition, the torture and imprisonment of political opponents in pre-Castro Cuba all seemed OK so long as Batista allowed the Mob to profit off the casinos and United Fruit made its profit.

The Kennedys’ obsession with Castro is legendary, and their sanctioned attempts to assassinate him border on farce — the exploding cigar, the wet suit impregnated with poisonous toxins, the attempt to use the Mob for the kill. I think Jack and Bobby’s crazy focus on Castro came about because his survival had embarrassed them at the ill-conceived Bay of Pigs. Even the fact, that after much wooing by America (a fact conveniently forgotten these days), Castro chose the Soviets over us (probably the dumbest decision he ever made). So many years have passed. Fidel is rarely seen these days in public, but even his very existence rubs us the wrong way. The Kennedy brothers are all gone, and Castro is still enjoying a good cigar.

If we viewed Cuba logically, there is no longer a reason we treat it as a pariah among nations. Agreed that freedom in Cuba is not a top priority even with Raul Castro in power. It is not the romantic revolutionary paradise pictured by some apologists on the left. You can still disappear into a Cuban prison without due process and never again be heard from.

A progressive health and education system don’t change those facts, but only give you hope that someday Cuba will find a government worthy of its people -— not Castro or Batista. But if we can recognize China, why not Cuba? Why in order for Americans to travel to Cuba do they have restricted reasons for the trip? If Americans can freely travel to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, why the prohibition on similar travel to Castro’s Cuba?

I think Cuba represents almost a metaphysical problem for us. Throughout our history during the Cold War, we not only looked the other way, but supported right-wing tyrants in the name of keeping the Soviets from expanding. We could never admit as much to the American people, so our leaders always couched our pact with terror by portraying us as being on the side of freedom. The notorious Contras weren’t sadistic killers and drug runners to Ronald Reagan; they were “freedom fighters.” At one time when Afghanistan fought off the Soviet invaders, we thought of Osama bin Laden as a “freedom fighter.”

I once had a good friend, a conservative Republican, who explained to me that America chooses dictators on the right in preference to communists because in the end it is easier to bring about their fall — easier because the economic system hasn’t been compromised by communism. But how do we explain rooting for the fall of friendly-to-the U.S. right-wing dictators while at the same time propping them up? We gave arms to Batista to stave off revolution, but did we really want him to fail because it would be easier to bring freedom to Cuba? I don’t think we cared about Batista’s corruption so long as American business thrived.

We believe in the myth of our idealism, but our foreign policy is deeply rooted in what we see as our self-interest. We intervened in Vietnam because of our mistaken belief in the Domino Theory. It was no different when the Soviet Union dissolved, and the Cold War has faded into history. We would make a pact with the Taliban and forget about what they do to women if we thought it would help keep terrorism from our shores. All governments put their own self-interest ahead of everything else.

Sometimes one has to deal with the devil to defeat the devil. Except sometimes in dealing with the devil, one becomes the devil. We have made a lot of mistakes in pursuing our policy of realism. Sometimes we have supported evil, which in the end only begot more evil. Perhaps worse, we have lied to ourselves about our motives. Realism does not always have to be devoid of idealism, but finding the right balance has been difficult, and we have made our share of mistakes.

And all the while, impudent Cuba stares at us from 90 miles away. 

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