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  • Writer's pictureRichard Murff

Cuba Libre!

One part rum, three parts yanqui imperialism, and an imaginary dollar.

On 24 February 1902 at least one of Cuba’s revolution actually achieved its goals and got stamped as Cuban Independence Day. It didn’t last and by any practical definition of the word, they lost it 50 years later. Like salsa dancing, Cuban history isn’t exactly straightforward to the gringo. They Remember the Maine more vividly than we do, and have managed to get mad at us after we won their war against Spain for them. More topically, why is the US State Department convinced that an island nation that is incapable of producing sea-food is also able to produce a sonic ray-gun that causes a mental stupor in our diplomats? Or is that just a case of C.I.A. paranoia? (It happens…)

For a citizen of the great republic, Independence Day is fairly straightforward: 4 July 1776. Granted colonial upstarts always have a tough time fully explaining themselves to the Imperium, so no one else on the planet saw it that way at the time. The Cubans, for their part, had to address the matter three times. The first was the unoriginally named Ten Years War (1868-1878), followed by the undignified sounding Little War (1879-1880), followed by the Cuban War of Independence (1895-1898) so-called because it actually took. Given that the Cuban rebels were literally the only fighting force on the planet that the Spanish Empire could defeat, that didn’t happen until the US stepped in for the last three months of the war.

Future President Theodore Roosevelt’s charge up San Juan Hill may have landed us with Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Guam and, for a short time, Cuba. It also was the opening act for better than a century of US geopolitical adventurism. Then William McKinley, a modern president in the sense that he saw the need for the US to be plugged into the global system, didn’t want an American empire, nor did he want war with Spain. His service in the Civil War left him, if you’ll excuse the expression, much more “gun shy” than his future vice-president. For his part, Teddy thought that a war was a fine PR stunt for a man on the rise.

In McKinley’s defense, what was becoming the beleaguered Spanish Empire’s “forever war” had always involved us. The Spanish Crown outlawed private ownership of guns after a previous revolt, so arms had to be shipped (privately) from Florida. The man behind this was José Marti, an exiled Cuban national who was in Tampa’s Ybor City to whip up support for The Cuban Revolution Part III: Third Times a Charm. Marti was ahead of his time, even as he was living here fully supported, he was decrying the US as “a monster.”

The US media went full WMD after the explosion of the USS Maine, by blaming it on a limpet mine. In retrospect the explosion was almost certainly caused by an electrical fault near the powder magazine. Still, Cubans hold onto the idea that the navy accidentally blew up its own battleship as an underhanded pretext to annex Cuba. Never mind that, after winning the war for them and, following three and a half years of US Military governorship where some 3,000 schools were built and successfully eradicated Yellow Fever with sanitation efforts that made Santiago and Havana cleaner cities that Washington D.C., we handed them their island back.

These nation-in-a-box schemes the US is always coming up with never really work as well as planned. In the tense language of the CIA World Factbook: “… Cuba became an independent republic in 1902 after which the island experienced a string of governments mostly dominated by the military and corrupt politicians.”

As early as 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt found himself grumbling, a little more colorfully, “Just at the moment I’m so angry at that infernal little Cuban republic that I would like to wipe it’s people off the face of the earth.” He didn’t go that far, but he did send the US Marines back in after the republic’s second election was disputed by a bunch of veterans of the revolution who came out of retirement to whip the standing army. By 1912, The marines were back, yet again, to suppress a revolt to establish an independent black republic. By the twenties, the military stopped invading in favor of rich Americans searching for a beachside bar. And prostitution, loads of prostitution.

The repeal of U.S. prohibition and the invention of the Great Depression in the 1930’s lead to economic stress for the island which, in turn, led to a coup in August of 1933, and another a month later, putting Fulgencio Batista in power. It’s easy to forget that he started out as a leftist progressive with a fair number of Communists working in government. Batista instituted a new 1940 constitution and retired to Florida. Only to return to seek reelection in 1952 – facing almost certain defeat, he launched another coup to scrap the constitution that he’d instituted. Now he was a right-winger, siding with the rich. Whatever the man’s economic theories, his practical politics were fairly consistent – he was an autocrat. Although the island’s economy as a whole did improve considerably under his dictatorship, it was wildly unequal.

Which was the rub for Fidel Castro, who wanted iron out these income inequalities. And in that he was wildly successful. To this day the island is still uniformly poor, and you can’t take that away from him. In light of the revolution’s success, they replaced Independence Day with a much more somber commemoration called, with all the zip socialism can muster, Triumph of the Revolution Day to commemorate 1 January 1958.

Since losing the Soviet sugar daddy in the early 1990’s, the revolution lost what luster it ever had. The worthless Cuban peso caused the government to institute the convertible peso that was in theory – or delusional - pegged to the US dollar. Last month Cuba scrapped its dual currency system have reverted to its useless currency, the old Cuban peso. With the right sort of eyes, though, even this can be counted as a success for the revolution. Castro was always going on about making money worthless, so he deserves that one as well. Although, if you want to buy a rum and coke in Havana, most places will take the old gringo dollar. Somehow, despite all of this, the State Department still believes that they have a secret sonic weapon we can’t understand.

Last time I was in Miami, about this time of the year, I noticed that about half the über drivers were listed as bilingual – which doesn’t mean that they also speak Spanish, but that they might also spoke English. Here they remember Cuban Independence Day, and its official drink of rum and that fizzy symbol of yanqui imperialism Coca-Cola. Somewhat fittingly, a sweet cocktail designed to deliver a splitting hangover.

Photo Credit: Pedro Szekely


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