Into the New Millennium
Cuba saw the millennium in with a new battle with Uncle Sam, this one over a five-year-old boy, Elián González, saved by the U.S. Coast Guard after his mother and 10 other people drowned when their boat sank en route from Cuba to Florida. Miami’s anti-Castroite Cubans and right-wing politicians demanded that the boy remain in the United States against his Cuban father’s wishes. Castro (who routinely denies permission for the children of Cuban exiles to join their parents abroad) turned the issue into an anti-American crusade by organizing “Free Elián” rallies.
Castro vowed that protests would last “10 years, if necessary,” while the case wound through the Florida courts. Elián’s custodians refused to hand him over to his loving father when he arrived in the United States in April 2000 to collect his son. In a dawn raid, the INS grabbed Elián and reunited him with his father. In late June Elián and his father returned to Cuba after the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the father’s right to custody of his son. To Fidel Castro, the battle for Elián was personal, recalling with astonishing parallels an incident that occurred forty-odd years ago when a Cuban father discovered that his estranged wife had left for the United States and taken their five-year-old son with her. The courts awarded custody of the son to the mother. But the father, who was enraged by the thought of his son being raised in Miami by relatives who were his sworn political enemies, refused to acknowledge his loss: “One day I’ll get my son and my honor back—even if the earth should be destroyed in the process…. I am prepared to reenact the Hundred Years War. And I’ll win it,” he wrote to his sister. The man later talked the mother into letting the boy visit him in Mexico on his word “as a gentleman” that the boy would be returned in two weeks. Instead the boy was secreted away, so that the wife had to enlist the Mexican police to get her son back. They did so at gunpoint, seizing him from the father’s henchmen while he was being taken for a drive near Mexico City’s Chapultepec Park. The mother remarried and returned with the boy to her new home in Havana. But Cuba turned Communist and in 1964 she fled the island for Spain. The father, however, wouldn’t let the woman take her son with her. The mother was Mirta Diaz-Balart, whose nephew, Lincoln Diaz-Balart, is a Republican Congressman for Florida, an arch anti-Castroite and champion of the crusade to keep Elián González in the United States. The boy’s name was Fidelito. His father is Fidel Castro.
In 2001, as the George W. Bush administration initiated an increasingly hard-line approach to Cuba, Castro launched the “Battle of Ideas,” an ongoing ideological campaign to shore up flagging support for socialism.
The following spring, Jimmy Carter made a a five-day visit by President Jimmy Carter to Havana—the first by a U.S. president to Cuba since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. Just days before Carter’s arrival, dissidents delivered to the National Assembly a petition presented by a dissident group, Proyecto Varela (Varela Project), containing 11,020 signatures demanding sweeping reforms in Cuba. Amazingly, Fidel permitted Carter to address the nation live on TV. Carter denounced the U.S. embargo, as Fidel no doubt had wished, but focused primarily on the call for greater freedoms in Cuba and mentioned Proyecto Varela by name—the first time most Cubans learned of the organization.
Three weeks later, with Carter safely off the island, Castro sought to stamp out the Varela germ. The Castro regime pulled out of its hat a petition of more than eight million signatures, it claimed, calling for a resolution to make the existing constitution “eternal” and “untouchable.” (The government had knocked on everyone’s door and confronted individuals face to face, and the names of those who failed to vote were recorded.) In March 2003 Castro initiated a harsh crackdown on dissidents, independent journalists, and librarians. Meanwhile, two Cuban planes were successfully hijacked to the United States, and an attempt to hijack a ferry failed when it ran out of fuel 30 miles from Havana. The Cuban military towed the vessel back to Havana; following a swift trial, three of the hijackers were executed by firing squad.
The Past Few Years
The Bush administration implemented new restrictions aimed at stopping all travel to Cuba as part of a broader attempt to cut the flow of dollars to Cuba. Bush also assigned millions of dollars for anti-Castro activities, including Radio & TV Martí—a boondoggle that the Cuban government has successfully blocked for years.
Castro was buoyed by a major discovery of crude oil offshore of Cuba. Having allied himself ever more closely with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and increasingly with China (now Cuba’s second largest trading partner), Castro stepped up retrenchment of the socialist system. Many foreign companies were ousted. And the U.S. dollar was banned.
Meanwhile, the first of tens of thousands of poor patients from Latin America arrived for free eye operations bankrolled by Venezuela; Operación Milagro (Operation Miracle) will eventually treat more than six million patients from developing nations.
On July 31, 2006, Fidel Castro was taken seriously ill and underwent intestinal surgery on the eve of his 80th birthday. In February 2008, an extremely frail Fidel handed power to his brother Raúl Castro, who was duly elected as head of state by the National Assembly (Fidel continues to rant in his frequent editorials for Granma). The transition has gone smoothly. Raúl, who stated that he welcomed ways to normalize relations with Uncle Sam, has since enacted minor reforms aimed at increasing economic productivity (primarily in agriculture), but with the recalcitrant Fidel still pulling strings, no major reforms have yet taken place.
The inauguration of President Barack Obama in January 2009 augered possibility of a new thaw between Washington and Havana. In March, President Obama rescinded all restrictions on travel to Cuba for family visits and called for “constructive engagement” with Cuba (Congress inched toward lifting all prohibitions on travel). In June, the Organization of American States voted to re-admit Cuba (which responded that it had no such interest). Meanwhile, Vice President Carlos Lage and Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roquez were ousted. Word later leaked that Cuba’s intelligence service had recorded them belittling Fidel and casting doubt on Raúl’s ability to govern. Raúl also replaced several other high-level officials with his loyalists.
In November 2009, Cuba arrested a U.S. citizen on charges of assisting dissident groups, causing Raúl Castro to launch a venomous attack on President Obama’s administration. In February 2010, U.S. and Cuban officials reinstated the first direct talks between the two nations since Bush scrapped them in 2004; however, a background of animosity remains.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Cuba, 5th Edition