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Past lessons, future challenges

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image It’s been more than a half century since the revolutionary forces led by Fidel and Raul Castro overthrew Gen. Fulgencio Batista but billboards such as this one near the Havana Airport still are spotted around the city and periodically are refurbished. Mel

Part six in a series by Melody Jameson

By MELODY JAMESON

Those who ignore their history, the cliché holds, are doomed to repeat it.

Yet, we all know that logically history need not dictate the future. History is what’s past, done, gone. The future, having not arrived, can be comparatively altered, re-formed, re-directed.

So what will it be for beguiling little Cuba, an island kissed by trade winds, populated by a gentle, ethnically diverse native people, highlighted with meandering rivers, a thousand miles of coastline, sheltered harbors, rolling mountains, 500-year-old cities – and quite possibly millions of barrels of oil? Will her history of conflict borne of oppression, of revolution to throw off the yokes, of impoverishment on several levels continue? Or will the prospect of new wealth change her politics, affect her international relationships, filter down to her inner cities?

The jury remains out.

Cuba’s recent five-century history may be one of the most conflict-ridden in the knowledge of mankind. Her native Indians, the Tainos among them, apparently lived simply, peaceably on the island until the Spanish arrived, led by Christopher Columbus in 1492. The native population has been estimated to top three million at that point. Just 65 years later, in 1557, about 2,000 Tainos remained.

The always acquisitive Spanish of the era, seeking riches in all forms, saw profit in enslaving and working the natives to death. What they didn’t kill with hard labor, were infected with the diseases of the Europeans.

Then, there were the pirates of the likes of Henry Morgan. Brutal and unforgiving, they plundered the trade ships of any nation daring to enter Cuban waters.

As the waters ran red with blood, infighting among Spain’s military commanders, governors and bishops sent to control her new colony in the Caribbean ranged across the landscape.

The French, the Dutch, the English, joined by the Spanish, constantly warring with one another, made fair game of colonies such as Cuba. Each established plantation or business operations on the island, wresting control by virtue of the land acquisitions. By 1762, England had seized Havana, imposing domination until routed later by the re-emerging Spanish.

Down through the centuries, Cuba’s native population was not merely capitulating; they resisted first one overlord and then another, time and again. But such insurrections easily were put down by better-equipped, stronger forces – until 1868. Two years earlier, in 1866, a reform movement had spread widely across the island but ultimately failed. Then, Carlos Manuel de Cespedes emerged to lead a successful uprising and then become in 1869 President of the declared Republic of Cuba. Cubans honor him today as the father of their country.

Less than 30 years later, in 1898, the USS Maine would explode in Havana’s harbor, leading to onset of the short-lived Spanish-Cuban-American War. And by 1900, elected American officials along with U.S. publications were referring to Cuba, perhaps wistfully but certainly inaccurately, as a U.S. territory.

Interpreted as American imperialism, such attitudes only fueled more resentment as the reluctantly U.S. backed-Gen. Fulgencio Batista took control of Cuba in a coup.

In short order would follow the Castro brothers’ overthrow of Batista, seizure of private property by the Castro government, Cuba’s alignment with the Soviet Union, the U.S. embargo of commerce, communications and travel between the island and America, the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion, and still more sad, bloody, death-dealing events.

It continues today. In mid-August, The Miami Herald reported that a group of unarmed Cuban women who call themselves Ladies in White were assaulted – hit, kicked, spit upon, with their clothing ripped — by what they described as government agents as they attempted to stage a street protest in Havana. Known for demanding release of political prisoners, they were protesting violent attacks on Ladies in White in Santiago de Cuba.

There is blame on all sides.

Havana is a city of monuments, both intentional such as this one, old and unmarked, and those that are accidental such as the 300 and 400-year-old structures still sheltering young families in old Havana.Cuba, nonetheless, may be at a crossroads. Spain’s conquistadors, military commanders and governors are long gone, the English overlords and French planters departed some centuries back, Batista and Fidel Castro and Ernesto Che Guevara now are part of history.

There also are the signals being flashed across the Straits. Now Cuba’s president, Raul Castro is publically talking private property rights and business ownership and opening idle land to Cuban farmers. The Obama administration, building on steps taken by President Bill Clinton, has quietly loosened travel restrictions, leading to more flights to Havana from US airports and more US visitors to the island for a variety of purposes, excluding tourism. Cultural exchanges are in the works: Florida Orchestra musicians going there, their internationally acclaimed ballet troupe coming here.

And there’s the oil drilling to get underway in international waters between Cuba and Florida in November. Chinese rigs, provided by the Castro regime’s current partner in communism and operated by the Spanish company, Repsol, could be pulling up crude for a long time, if the exploratory well estimates in the millions of barrels beneath the straits prove accurate.

Should we care? Where will the oil go? If there’s a breach and a leak, what’s our embargo position then? If Cuba were to become an oil-rich nation, what would be the impacts on her tottering economy? Would oil money be shared in some valuable way with her people?

No one is sure of the answers. Ted Piccone, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, in a May, 2011, report calls the future US-Cuba relationship “cloudy,” adding he’s unsure of impacts on the Cuban people but thinks America is up to bat on the matters. Former Public Radio Producer Delia Lloyd, writing for Politics Daily, suggests the thaw taking place may be breaking up the embargo altogether, although the US Congress remains the unknown factor in any equation.

Personally, based on first hand observations, I hope with fervor that Cuba looks its history in the eye with a steely gaze and breaks new ground for its future.

Part One:  Fifty years and one embargo later, what did I miss?

Part Two:  Getting in touch with my inner Cuban

Part Three: Looking like home

Part Four: Eating Cuban

Part Five: There's more to it than Havana

Copyright 2011 Melody Jameson

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