It’s Time to Embrace the Third Rail That Is #CubaPolicy

Dec 19, 2014
2:00 PM

No one saw it coming.

And when news started circulating just 56 hours ago that something big was happening about US Cuba policy, we all couldn’t believe it.

The United States of America would actually begin to change a 54-year-old policy towards an island that was once its neighbor, its conquest, its playground and most recently its Cold War enemy.

Fidel Castro, 1959, Washington D.C. (Wikimedia Commons)

Fidel Castro, 1959, Washington D.C. (Wikimedia Commons)

Having been a student of Latin American history with a focus on Puerto Rico and Cuba (“the two wings of the same bird”), this week’s news was the intellectual scenario no one thought possible 25 years ago when I was in a lecture hall. The global fascination (or anger) with Cuba from pretty much every political stripe has been ongoing for decades, or as one friend put when discussing the start of an embargo that has clearly failed, ever since The Twilight Zone premiered on U.S. television.

I can’t even begin to tell you when and how Cuba became a deep part of my own life, although I do have faint childhood memories of Cuban families living in Puerto Rico after leaving Cuba in the 1960s or how a few independentista members of my own family were quick to quote Fidel Castro in the context of U.S. colonialism. Cuba was always present in Puerto Rico, and it was always either/or: capitalist or communist; liberator or terrorist; leader or devil.

So as a teenager, I knew pretty quickly that discussing Cuba with any group of people would always have a “third rail” sense to it all, meaning that no matter what you said, someone would either brand you as a beret-wearing communist dictator or the a neo-fascist imperialist. For all the Cuba stories I have heard at dinner tables in Miami, San Juan, Madrid and New York for years, one time it hit home when I was about 20 years old and was heading to the Dominican Republic for the weekend. I had a biography of Fidel Castro in my backpack on the plane. The passenger next to me said, “First time here?” Me: “Yeah.” Passenger: “You might want to leave that book on the plane. They’ll arrest you.”

I left the book on the plane. I was 20. It freaked me out.

Either/or. Choose a side.

That has been the narrative for as long as I can remember. And now I am a fortysomething. I can only imagine how others who have lived longer or have been directly impacted by the events of what will forever be a defining moment in Latin America (or a destructive one, depending how you look at it.)

Yet, nonetheless, Cuba has always been a country of interest in the United States. You don’t think so?

1823, John Quincy Adams:

There are laws of political as well as physical gravitation; and if an apple severed by its native tree cannot choose but fall to the ground, Cuba, forcibly disjoined from its own unnatural connection with Spain, and incapable of self-support, can gravitate only towards the North American Union which by the same law of nature, cannot cast her off its bosom.

1903, Platt Amendment

III. That the government of Cuba consents that the United States may exercise the right to intervene for the preservation of Cuban independence, the maintenance of a government adequate for the protection of life, property, and individual liberty, and for discharging the obligations with respect to Cuba imposed by the Treaty of Paris on the United States, now to be assumed and undertaken by the government of Cuba.

IV. That all acts of the United States in Cuba during its military occupancy thereof are ratified and validated, and all lawful rights acquired thereunder shall be maintained and protected.

Such thoughts were with me as I began to think of how this site could even begin to cover or analyze the last 56 hours. I suspected that the mainstream U.S. media would focus on the typically overplayed narratives (rum, cars, cigars, angry Cubans, happy Cubans, live from Miami!, spies, espionage, post-Cold War), and for the most part, I was right. Therefore, it was important that this site would at least try to explore other angles with opinion contributions from those who could frame Cuba in the context of modern Latin American and U.S. Latino politics, in the image of the aging caudillo and through the eyes of the past battling the present. I knew that such essays, written by three very solid contributors, would lead to honest, real (and yes, uncomfortable) conversations about The Cuban Shift. As a result, these conversations could help to move away from the “either/or” story that Cuba has become. The “third rail” would get embraced, and we would all be pleasantly surprised that such an action wouldn’t harm us.

That was the hope, and it is one of the points I tried to cover in my limited minutes today on MSNBC. This was about acknowledging the past (and it was an ugly past, both in Cuba and beyond) to realize that if we stay stuck in it, we will never progress.

There were other points to make that I didn’t make in the course of three minutes: how the Platt Amendment justified U.S. military interventions in the early 20th century; decades of political corruption and social inequality before 1959 culminating with the Batista regime; a “wet foot dry foot” immigration policy that could become irrelevant; bungled CIA plots; even more ridiculous USAid programs to infiltrate Cuban society; Cuba’s triumphs and Cuba’s failures. I also wanted to challenge Sen. Martínez about his claims that foreign business people feel badly about doing business in Cuba. Do they feel the same way about China? If a businessperson really feels badly about making money in Cuba, here’s a thought: don’t do business in Cuba. But you know that won’t happen.

Yet as I spoke and thought of what additional points I would make, I kept coming back to the scene from “The Godfather Part II,” when the character of Hyman Roth (played by Lee Strasberg) was celebrating his birthday in Havana, circa 1958.


CUT TO: Outside on the streets of Havana. A man runs in front of JOHNNY OLA’s car and the driver honks the horn at him. A Cuban police officer walks up to the car and talks to the driver.


[Something in Spanish]

[We see OFFICERS making an arrest of a rebel.]


He say that they’re making an arrest and that in a few minutes he’ll let us through.


It’s nothing. Just some lousy bandits. The police are cleaning them up.

[The rebel pushes a police captain into the car and explodes a grenade that he had hidden in his jacket.]

CUT TO: On top of a Cuban building. A birthday cake for HYMAN ROTH is wheeled toward him and a small group of people. The cake has a drawing of Cuba on it.


I hope my age is correct — I’m always accurate about my age. Make sure that everyone sees the cake before we cut it. I’m very pleased you were all able to come from such distances to be with me today. When a man comes to this point in his life — he wants to turn over the things that he’s been blessed with — turn them over to friends. As a reward for the friends he’s had — and to make sure everything goes well after he’s gone.


Not for years.


Hear! Hear!


Well, we’ll see; the doctors would disagree, but what do they know? These are wonderful things that we’ve achieved in Havana — and there’s no limit to where we can go from here. This kind of Government knows how to help business…to encourage it — the hotels here are bigger and swankier than any of the rug joints we’ve put in Vegas — and we can thank our friends in the Cuban government — which has put up half of the cash with the Teamsters on a dollar for dollar basis — has relaxed restrictions on imports. What I am saying now is we have what we have always needed — real partnership with the government.

[The waiter brings over a piece of cake but ROTH rejects it.]

Smaller piece.

(then, to the group)

You all know MICHAEL Corleone — and we all remember his father. At the time of my retirement — or death — I turn over all my interests in the Havana operation —




— to his control. But — all of you will share. The National will go to the Lakeville Road boys. The Capri to the Corleone Family. The Sevilla Biltmore, also, but Eddie Levine of Newport will bring in the Pennino Brothers — Dino and Eddie – for a piece, and also to handle the actual casino operation. And we’ve saved a piece for some friends in Nevada, to make sure things go smooth back home. I want all of you to enjoy your cake — so, enjoy.


Happy Birthday!


I saw an interesting thing happen today. A rebel was being arrested by the military police, and rather than be taken alive, he exploded a grenade he had hidden in his jacket. He killed himself, and took a captain of the command with him.

[ROTH looks concerned]



Those rebels, you know, they’re lunatics.


Maybe so — but it occurred to me. The soldiers are paid to fight — the rebels aren’t.


What does that tell you?


They can win.


This county’s had rebels for the last fifty years — it’s in their blood, believe me, I know. I’ve been coming here since the 20’s. We were running molasses out of Havana when you were a baby — the trucks, owned by your father.

I have read a lot about Cuba from a wide array of ideological sources, but I can’t ever get rid of that scene from my mind. Which is why the latest news, although being praised by those who now suggest President Obama is the country’s first “Latino president,” you are just left to wonder: what will Cuba be like in the next 50 years? Will the U.S. be cutting into the Cuban cake again (or has it been cutting into it all along)? Will Cuba look like the bird’s other wing, its Puerto Rican cousin who’s submerged in colonial hyperconsumerism and mediocrity? Or will it be a place where families have been reconnected, past sins are forgiven and the people of Cuba have found peace with themselves?

I don’t have the answers, but I look forward to the conversations. When it comes to Cuba, I have learned to listen to the different points of views without resorting to yelling and screaming (although I won’t forget those, either). I guess I have had heard too many stories from those who left there and from those who live there to not change how I approach the subject.

Is what happened about 56 hours ago historic? In the context of U.S. Latin America policy, absolutely. Will it lead to greater progress for the Cuban people? One can only hope. I am just relieved (for now) that these types of discussions can occur more frequently and openly.


EDITOR’S NOTE: Julio (Julito) Ricardo Varela (@julito77) founded in May, 2011 and proceeded to open it up to about 20 like-minded Rebeldes. A 1990 Harvard graduate in the History and Literature of Latin America, his personal blog,, has been active since 2008 and is widely read in Puerto Rico and beyond. He pens columns on LR regularly. In the last two years, Julito represented the Rebeldes on CBS’ Face the NationNPR,  Univisionand The New York Times. Recently, he was a digital producer for Al Jazeera America’s The Stream.