Save my beloved Cuba from Miami's vices

The West must urge America to stop its destructive vendetta against this captivating island, says Jonathan Glancey
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The Independent Online
The United States is a bad loser. It lost the Vietnam war and then, imposing tough trade sanctions against its former enemy, cut its economic nose to spite its political face. Twenty years on, having failed to overthrow Gaddafi in Libya and the ayatollahs in Iran, Washington now seeks to punish these "pariah" regimes by issuing sanctions against foreign firms investing in them.

Imagine how mad Washington is now that countries, including Britain, have finally taken issue with the miserable Helms-Burton law that has caused so much hunger and despair for so many years in Cuba, just 90 miles south of Florida, that shining pearl of free-market culture.

In 1959, when Che Guevara marched his rebel army into Havana and paved the way for Fidel Castro's seizure of political power, Washington could have chosen to have made peace with this youthful and idealistic regime. Guevara might have been a committed international revolutionary, but Castro was, above all, a nationalist.The Cuban Revolution moved radically to the left only after the attempted US invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in 1961. Having lost, President Kennedy imposed trade sanctions against Cuba. Moscow stepped foxily into the breach, trading economic support for missile bases .

Since Kennedy and the withdrawal of Soviet aid to Cuba in 1989, seven more US presidents have tried to starve Castro's Cuba into submission. Our sympathies should lie with Cuba. It is hard to believe that decent Americans can stand by their government while five-year-old Cuban children are left to walk miles to school with no breakfast other than a glass of warm, sugared water. Photographs of British children wounded in the Blitz encouraged ordinary US citizens to support the war against Hitler. Pictures of naked Vietnamese children being burned alive by napalm hastened the American disengagement from that war.

If I could take a representative sample of American families to, say, the Camilo Cienfuegos ballet school in Havana to watch dedicated teachers and talented children pirouetting on splintered floors in threadbare pumps, I feel confident they would want to jump straight on board one of the planes they are barred from taking to Cuba, bringing all the help they could.

Cuba is remarkable in that it continues to try to live up to a First World way of life, even though food and fuel are severely rationed, average salaries are between $7 and $12 a month, transport is almost non-existent and desperate people flounder to Florida on illegal makeshift rafts. These things are well known. And still it does not seem like a Third World country.

Because of the notably high standard of education and health care it developed with the help of the USSR, Cuba is sophisticated to a degree that takes the holidaymakers who come here to top up their tans in winter by surprise. Cuba is not a banana republic, nor some tin-pot Communist dictatorship.

Until Soviet aid fell away and the full brunt of the US trade embargo was felt, Cuba prospered. Here was an unlikely outpost of socialism, a stunning tropical island laced with some of the world's best beaches, music, ice-cream and cocktails, and among its chattiest people. All this, plus significant advances in medical science, education, sport, literature and architecture. It was a long way from the Cuba of Hemingway and Greene, that seedy, illiterate, desperately poor tobacco plantation and casino run by the dictator Batista on behalf of Washington. Miami Cubans have plans for Havana that would turn the clocks back to the Fifties, to create one glitzy strip of murderous and drug-riddled casinos. Locals will wait at tables and, as they are doing already to buy food, children will put out for overpaid, oversexed Yanks.

Of course there have been mistakes, over-reliance on the Soviet Union only the most obvious. Yet crime and human rights abuses in Cuba are small beer by US standards, and, despite its poverty, Cuba remains one of the world's safest countries; the police presence is notable by its absence.

The way to prevent Cuba's descent into Miami vice is for European countries to put pressure on Washington to drop sanctions, while investing in an island that will reward its new-found international friends with that seductive tropical mix of charm, beauty, art, social concern, and idealism that drew me to it, with open eyes, a long time ago.