OPINION: De Blasio, Cuba and the Sandinistas

Recently, a lot of to-do has been made about former Brooklyn councilman and current mayoral candidate and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio’s left-wing background. It turns out that when he was young, in the 1980s, he went to Nicaragua to volunteer with the Sandinistas. Later, after he married his wife, Chirlane McCray, they honeymooned in Cuba.

First, let me make it clear that I’m not a fan of either Cuba or the Sandinistas. In the 1950s, the Batista government in Cuba (backed by American gangsters like Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano) was so corrupt that people were hungry for a change. When Castro took power in 1959, he Cuban people were ecstatic. But within a year or two, he started showing dictatorial tendencies, and more and more Cubans began leaving the country. Some people think that Castro was basically a charismatic populist, and only the United States’ hostile actions toward him pushed him toward the Soviet Union. Others think he was a dedicated communist from the beginning. I don’t know the answer—I’ll let the professional historians debate that. The fact is, however, that by 1963, Cuba was formally a one-party state, with no tolerance for dissent, and had merely exchanged one master (the Soviet Union) for another (the United States).

Nicaragua is somewhat more complicated. As in Cuba, a populist leader, Daniel Ortega, overthrew a corrupt dictator. His Sandinistas embarked on a program that included mass literacy, accessible healthcare and women’s rights. Unfortunately, they also persecuted rival political parties and allied themselves with Cuba and later Iran. At any rate, after a bloody civil war (during which the U.S. backed the Sandinistas’ opponents, the “contras”), the Sandinistas held elections. Today, Ortega is a respected elder statesman.

Certainly, de Blasio was not alone in his feelings about these nations. Many, many young Americans and other westerners idolized Cuba (especially slain Cuban leader Che Guevara) and the Sandinistas. The Clash even recorded a song called “Sandinista.”  At any rate, the charges against de Blasio concern actions that took place 20 or 30 years ago, and de Blasio himself has said he opposes the dictatorial tendencies within the Sandinista movement. So it would be best to let the matter rest, and move on to more current issues.

Now, more about Cuba itself. Cuba hasn’t changed that much after Fidel Castro handed power to his brother Raul Castro. Yet, Cuba is no threat to the United States – especially not since the fall of the Soviet Union. In the old days, Cuba thrived on Soviet aid, but now, it barely has enough food to feed its own people, which is why Cuba is so eager to import grain from American farmers. Yes, Cuba is a dictatorship, but the U.S. has been friendly with much, much worse dictatorships, such as Haiti under the Duvalier regime or Spain under Franco.

The U.S. has everything to gain and nothing to lose from the resumption of friendly relations with Cuba. Sure, some old-time Cuban exiles in Cuba may rage about Castro. But if the Cubans are allowed to buy American goods and see American movies and TV, this will hasten change, not endanger it. And travel to Cuba could be a bonanza for the U.S. tourist industry. Hispanic-American businesses could also be a bridge between the two countries.

Once, in Toronto, I saw a travel brochure for Havana. Canadians can go, but we can’t. By instituting friendly relations with Cuba, the U.S. will show the world hat the Cold War is finally over.