‘Burying the last remnant of the Cold War’

President Barrack Obama in Cuba

US President Barrack Obama has undertaken a historic visit to Cuba, the first such visit by a sitting American President after 90 years. This event is perhaps as important as that of President Nixon to China, when he forged an opening towards a communist regime that had otherwise been thought impossible till then.

Similarly for Obama’s visit to Cuba: it signals a paradigm shift in their relations, which had so far been under perpetual tension, Cuba being basically a communist country with very strong links to the Soviet Union since Fidel Castro overthrew the Batista regime in 1959. The Communist Party of Cuba has ruled Cuba since. The relations between Cuba and the US were still governed by a ‘cold war’ mindset, with an embargo imposed by the US.

The visit of President Obama was accompanied by his announcement that he had asked the American Congress to lift the embargo on Cuba, and also that he had come ‘to bury the last remnant of the cold war in the Americas,’ an aberration in these ultra-changed times.

My interest in president Obama’s visit is two-fold: firstly because I like to listen to him speak, and secondly because from time to time Cuba has figured on my radar. This first happened in 1962; I was in HSC and in the General Paper class we were asked to write an essay on what came to be known as the ‘Cuban missile crisis’. This was a confrontation between the archrivals, the USSR and America, which had been gridlocked into a ‘cold war’ since the end of the Second World War. It was a mahayuddh (the ‘mother’ of all wars) between the communism of the USSR and the capitalism of America which, incidentally, has not quiet ended although with the break-up of the USSR, triggered by Gorbachev’s glasnost and peretroiska, the cold war has been officially over.

The missile crisis followed pretty close on the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961: a group of CIA-trained and armed Cuban refugees in America were sent to overthrow the Fidel Castro regime, but were overpowered by the superior Cuban government troops. To protect Cuba, Castro appealed to the USSR’s President Khrushchev for help, and Soviet missiles deployed on the island were detected by US surveillance planes, which was unacceptable to America. The resulting confrontation between these two superpowers for the first time brought them dangerously close to nuclear war, which was fortunately averted, as underlined by President Obama in his speech.

The next time Cuba came into my orbit was when several years ago, already retired, I was invited by the Medical Council to form part of a panel to assess a Cuban orthopaedic surgeon for his fitness to practise as a specialist in the Ministry of Health. He had been working in Seychelles, on his own admission mostly assisting a Japanese surgeon who was his senior and doing only relatively minor operations independently: we had asked him direct questions to make out what types of orthopedic operations he could undertake, and his testimonial from the Japanese surgeon confirmed this.

The panel concluded that he was not fit to practise independently as an orthopaedic surgeon, but would have to work under supervision, recommending that if he is employed that should not be as a specialist but as a Medical and Health Officer. Apparently he had landed in Mauritius through high political connections after his contract in Seychelles was over, and he was not keen to return to Cuba. Despite the Medical Council’s recommendation, it seems that pressure was brought to bear on the MOH to employ him as a specialist. God only knows what he did to his patients. As Alan Paton said of South Africa, ‘Cry My Beloved Country’!

However, this isolated case is more a reflection of our dirty politicking than of the health system of Cuba, whose Primary Health Care service is held up as a model. Besides, Cuba was lauded by the WHO as the first country to eliminate mother-to-child transmission of HIV-Aids in 2015.

And the last time I heard of Cuba – or rather of Fidel Castro — was from a niece who spoke quite admiringly of him: as an HSC student, she had taken part in a Model United Nations competition, and her team were defending Cuba. They had obviously done their homework thoroughly, and being young and having a revolutionary streak they naturally found some resonance in Castro’s struggle to liberate his country from dictatorship.

And so to the present, as I listened to President Obama delivering his speech. There is nothing like listening to a great orator speaking, especially in a language with which one is thoroughly familiar. The command of the language; the powerful delivery; the overt and subtle messages clearly articulated; the right pitch, intonation and emphasis; the use of rich, apt and colourful vocabulary; resorting to appropriate quotations and making use of expressions in the local language where deemed necessary – all these were present in that equally historic speech by the US President, which I enjoyed thoroughly. Obama truly has the gift of the gab, complementing his skill as an author. I have been reading his ‘The audacity of hope’, a book which he wrote as a senator and which throws some very interesting insights into American politics.

A few extracts from his speech to the Cuban people will give an idea of his thrust, and he begins by commenting the Brussels attack:

‘The thoughts and the prayers of the American people are with the people of Belgium, and we stand in solidarity with them in condemning these outrageous attacks against innocent people. We will do whatever is necessary to support our friend and ally, Belgium in bringing to justice those who are responsible. And this is yet another reminder that the world must unite. We must be together, regardless of nationality or race or faith in fighting against the scourge of terrorism. We can and we will defeat those who threaten the safety and security of people all around the world.’

He then continued with the main body of his speech:

‘Havana is only 90 miles from Florida, but to get here, we had to travel a great distance, over barriers of history and ideology, barriers of pain and separation.

‘And that short distance has been crossed by hundreds of thousands of Cuban exiles on planes and makeshift rafts, who came to America in pursuit of freedom and opportunity, sometimes leaving behind everything they owned and every person that they loved.’

‘The Bay of Pigs took place the year that I was born. The next year, the entire world held its breath watching our two countries as humanity came as close as we ever have to the horror of nuclear war.

‘As the decades rolled by, our governments settled into a seemingly endless confrontation, fighting battles through proxies. In a world that remade itself time and again, one constant was the conflict between the United States and Cuba. I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas. I have come here to extend the hand of friendship to the Cuban people.’

‘I want to be clear. The differences between our governments over these many years are real, and they are important. I’m sure President Castro would say the same thing… I’ve heard him address those differences at length.

‘But, we also need to recognize how much we share. Because in many ways, the United States and Cuba are like two brothers that have been estranged for many years, even as we share the same blood. Over the years, our cultures have blended together.

‘So even as our governments became adversaries, our people continued to share (these) common passions. Particularly as so many Cubans came to America. In Miami or Havana, you can find places to dance the cha-cha-cha or the salsa and eat rohabiera (ph) foods.’

‘Millions of our people share a common religion… For all of our differences, the Cuban and American people share common values in their own lives, a sense of patriotism and a sense of pride, a lot of pride. A profound love of family, a passion for our children. A commitment to their education. And that’s why I believe our grandchildren will look back on this period of isolation as an aberration, as just one chapter in a longer story of family and of friendship.

‘The history of the United States and Cuba encompass revolution and conflict, struggle and sacrifice, retribution and now reconciliation. It is time now for us to leave the past behind. It is time for us to look forward to the future together.’

They surely will do. The full text of this momentous speech is available online for those interested to appreciate more gems.

*  Published in print edition on 25 March 2016

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