In October 1963, Sir Herbert Stanley Marchant, the outgoing British ambassador to Cuba, sent the Foreign Office a six-page confidential profile of Fidel Castro, now held in the National Archives at Kew. Marchant joked that if it didn’t fit the Foreign Office’s purposes he would sell it to Life magazine when he retired, to keep himself ‘in beer money for a month or so’. He had been ambassador since 1960. For most of that time, he writes, Castro had had ‘nothing whatever to do with Western diplomats’, but the policy changed suddenly after he returned from a trip to the Soviet Union in 1963. Marchant had since spent eleven hours with Castro at close quarters, including ‘two lunches and a farewell interview’. The ambassador couldn’t help but be impressed by Castro’s presence: ‘However much you hear about the Grand Canyon it still turns out to be much bigger than you expected. So it is with Castro – and I do not mean merely his physique. He is in fact a good six feet four inches and he must weigh sixteen stone.’
‘We’re leaving,’ my Cuban friend N. told me in November. ‘We’re building a raft.’ I was shocked, partly because he planned to leave, partly because of the way he planned to do it. I consulted another friend, who’d spent several months in a coastguard team, hauling people out of the water when their rafts fell apart. ‘He’s mad,’ he said. ‘He mustn’t do it. Hardly any of them make it, it’s far too dangerous.’ I spoke to N. to try to dissuade him; he was unconvinced. He’d just had a phone call from Miami: a young neighbour had left a week or two before, the raft had reached the Everglades and some Miami-Cuban fisherman had spotted them and shown them where to land. They’d made it.
It has been said both that Fidel Castro was a bad man whose henchmen tortured and sometimes killed dissidents, and that Castro was a good man who gave Cuba a healthcare and literacy programme to rival many in the developed world. The BBC, in its quest for ‘balance’, says that people in Havana and Miami (‘only ninety miles away’), which hosts Trump’s only significant Hispanic constituency, are saying these things. Philosophers chew over the ‘problem of dirty hands’ – thought to arise when a politician does something morally wrong in the name of securing a public good or preventing a public bad. It's notable that the problem is framed in that way, rather than as one that arises when a politician fails to secure the public good or prevent the bad by avoiding doing something morally wrong – the ‘problem of clean hands’, as it might be called. The notion that actors can acquit themselves of blame often relies on the fantasy that they act in a historical vacuum.
Thawing relations between the United States and Cuba have brought an upsurge in Cubans trying to leave the island. They’re worried they may lose their favourable US immigration status, becoming no more welcome than any other Latino who fancies life in the US.
On the morning of 17 December, schoolchildren in Coralito assembled under the Cuban flag to sing the anthem before starting lessons. Early sunshine picked out five palm trees on the roadside opposite the school. They were planted in support of the 'Cuban Five', agents sent to Miami to disrupt anti-Castro plots by Cuban exiles in 1998, but arrested and imprisoned for spying against the US. There are symbols or images of the Five all over Cuba, often accompanied by Castro's declaration 'Volverán!' ('They will return'). Last February Fernando González, the second to finish his sentence, returned to Havana, but the remaining three had longer sentences: one, Gerardo Hernández, was serving two life terms.
Visitors to Havana see thousands of old colonial houses, many abandoned when the rich fled to Miami after the revolution, now occupied by ordinary habaneros and most in disrepair. A slow transformation has begun: the core of the city now looks splendid and restoration of the long, wave-battered Malecón is underway. But there is still a long way to go. On the World Affairs blog last week, Michael Totten poured scorn on the efforts to rehabilitate the biggest surviving old colonial city in the Americas, saying it’s still worse than wartime Beirut or Baghdad. He prescribes free enterprise as the remedy: the economy would then ‘go into supernova’.
From the summer of 1996 until he died in July 1999, I worked for John Kennedy Jr at his monthly glossy magazine, George. ‘There's no one like you, Inigo,’ he said on the phone when he offered me the job. I was always going to take the post if he wanted to give it to me, but he had a way of never making it easy for anyone to say no.
Beyond the Frame, an exhibition of Cuban paintings and photographs in aid of the campaign to release the Miami Five, is at the Lighthouse in Glasgow until Sunday (at the end of April it was at Gallery 27 in London). Many of the works are apolitical but some are inspired by the various attempts by US governments to destabilise Castro’s Cuba.
Alan Gross, a 62-year-old US citizen, has been imprisoned in Cuba since December 2009. He fell foul of the authorities while working for USAID, liaising with Cuba's small Jewish community. The Washington Post earlier this month demanded his release, saying that ‘Cuba’s accusations stem from Mr Gross’s humanitarian work’. When he was convicted for ‘acts to undermine the integrity and independence’ of Cuba and sentenced to 15 years in jail, Hillary Clinton said that ‘he did not commit any crime’ but was ‘assisting the small Jewish community in Havana that feels very cut off from the world’ by improving their internet connection.
I wrote on 2 September that of the five Cubans who have been imprisoned on terrorist charges in the United States, one was due to be released. It has now been announced that when René González leaves prison on 7 October he will have to spend three years on ‘supervised release’ in Miami, where anti-Castro feeling is rife, even though he has made it clear he would like to renounce his US citizenship and return to Cuba. His family have only been allowed to see him once in 13 years.
René González spent his 55th birthday on 13 August in a Florida prison. He and four colleagues, known in the UK as the ‘Miami Five’ and in the US as the ‘Cuban Five’, have been in prison since 1998. René is the least unlucky of the five, because his sentence of 15 years was the lightest. However, when I met his mother recently, she was worried that the Miami courts had a further punishment in mind: to send him out on ‘probation’ to one of the areas on the City’s west side where Cuban exiles are concentrated, and where he might very well be shot.
From the Washington Post: He was a courtly State Department intelligence analyst from a prominent family who loved to sail and peruse the London Review of Books. Occasionally, he would voice frustration with U.S. policies, but to his liberal neighbors in Northwest D.C. it was nothing out of the ordinary. "We were all appalled by the Bush years," one said. What Walter Kendall Myers kept hidden, according to documents unsealed in court Friday, was a deep and long-standing anger toward his country, an anger that allegedly made him willing to spy for Cuba for three decades. "I have become so bitter these past few months.