FIFTY YEARS AGO TODAY, MODern Cuba was born after a corrupt, dictatorial lackey of the United States known as General Fulgencio Batista was defeated by a small guerilla army led by Fidel Castro, his brother Raul, the legendary revolutionary, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, and a few others.
This came about after a long war of attrition against a spineless and demoralised Cuban army which culminated in what in history has come to be known as the Cuban Revolution.
From that date - January 1, 1959 - the small island situated some distance from the toe of the North American sub-continent, has been a source of constant irritation to the mighty US, the sole remaining global super power.
How this came to be is a long story. But suffice it to say that today, diplomatic and trade relations between these two unequal countries has become a geopolitical anachronism that requires urgent rectification, for it serves no one’s interest.
For those of us who may not be familiar with the history of the Cold War, it may come as a surprise that the US should even bother about poor Cuba.
BUT THE FACT IS, BESIDES CHINA and a few other forgettable nation-states, Cuba remains the only unabashedly communist country in the world, which may explain why the bastion of capitalism may feel uncomfortable with its proximity.
Two events in history may help to explain why there remains such deep unease and what in many Third World countries may look like petty vindictiveness – the Bay of Pigs fiasco in which Castro’s army defeated a CIA-backed “army” of invasion and thus gave the US a bloody nose, and a subsequent missile crisis which nearly plunged the world into a nuclear catastrophe.
The Bay of Pigs disaster has been attributed to President John F. Kennedy’s administration, but in reality, plans to invade Cuba by former Batista loyalists were hatched in 1960, during the waning months of President Dwight Eisenhower’s administration. The aim was to overthrow Castro, and this for two reasons.
First, Castro had gradually nationalised all the businesses and other assets, including land and huge sugar plantations owned by US nationals in Cuba. It is estimated that at one time, Americans owned at least 60 per cent of Cuba’s national wealth.
The second reason is less flattering to Castro: The revolution had eaten its children, and the purge against supposed Batista loyalists was both bloody and indiscriminate. As a result, thousands of Cubans fled to the US and settled in Florida from where they continuously fomented acts of sabotage against the island.
In time, these exiles were to become a major political force, which explains why today, no major political party, and no serious presidential contender, can ignore their vote, or that of Latinos in general.
November’s presidential election in the US is a case in point. President-elect Barack Obama would not have won the crucial Florida without the support of Cuban-Americans who have always voted Republican. This political clout may explain why there has been no rational US policy on Cuba in the last four decades.
The Cuban missile crisis of 1962 is certainly a more plausible justification for America’s distrust of the Island and its leaders. That year, Castro was convinced the US was planning to invade it, and he began a massive military build-up, aided by the Soviet Union.
Matters came to a head when a US reconnaissance plane photographed Soviet personnel building intermediate range missile sites on the island.
The standoff between Kennedy and Soviet leader Krushchev was the most dangerous moment during the entire Cold War period. Eventually, the Soviets were forced to back down, thus averting an ugly nuclear confrontation.
Nevertheless, the US reaction was, and has always been, disproportionate to the provocation, for the Americans have been bent on a course of economic strangulation of an already poor neighbour which has never accepted that it is living in an ideological time-warp.
The fact that the US has never considered lifting the economic embargo on Cuba imposed 50 years ago does not make much sense to those not living in the hemisphere. The litany of these “blockade” measures is long and, seemingly, enduring.
They include a ban on all trade with Cuba, as well as any financial transactions in the island by US citizens. Americans may not travel or spend money in Cuba, while Cuban government officials are prohibited from visiting the US.
Even foreign-based subsidiaries of US companies are not allowed to trade with Cuba, and Cuban-Americans may not remit money to their relatives in the island.
THESE SANCTIONS MAY APPEAR LIKE the action of a giant taking up a huge club to subdue a midget, but with the swelling Latino vote being a huge influence on American domestic politics, it is unlikely that anything will change much.
But there is light at the end of the tunnel. With the retirement of Fidel Castro and ascension to power of his brother Raul, some measures of liberalisation in Cuba are now visible, which may please the ideological diehards in the US.
Secondly, the election as president of Barack Obama, a man who traces his roots to a Third World country, may help normalise the situation.
The argument that can be made is simple. If the US can restore diplomatic relationship with China, which has never hinted at giving up communism, and if maintaining ties with its erstwhile arch-foe, Russia, is normal, there can be no earthly reason why the US should continue with this ridiculous economic embargo against Cuba.
Mr Ngwiri is the opinion editor, Daily Nation