Last summer, my buddy John and I delivered 100 brand-new baseballs to the Pastors for Peace. Their bus, parked on Wethersfield Avenue in Hartford, Conn., was on its way to Cuba. For over 20 years, the clergy-led caravan has stopped in Hartford and 120 other cities to collect and deliver humanitarian aid, in defiance of the U.S. blockade.
The Dec. 17, 2014 announcement by President Obama establishing full diplomatic relations with Cuba was a day John and I thought we might never see. But after a century of colonial domination, nuclear brinksmanship, and a bankrupt foreign policy, U.S. engagement with this small island nation is long overdue. One way to start might be to recognize what we have in common. Over the years Connecticut residents have created many personal links with Cuba, both positive and negative:
* Schooners and steamers used Connecticut ports to transport Cuban tobacco – and slaves. The Ocilla, built at Mystic seaport, transported 1500 African captives from the Congo River to Havana in 1862, long after slave trading was declared illegal in the United States.
* Havana tobacco seeds grew well in Connecticut soil, and as far back as 1884 local farmers were growing crops from the Cuban plant. The imported seeds produced what the Yankees called a “superior plant,”‘ which was made into high-quality cigar wrappers. Hartford steamships carried tobacco filler from the island so that local factories could manufacture the entire cigar.
* Meriden’s Orville H. Platt served five terms as a U.S. senator. He sponsored the “Platt Amendment” in 1901, establishing Guantánamo Bay as a U.S. naval base. The law also dominated Cuba’s relations with other countries, allowing our government to intervene in the young nation’s affairs any time we felt threatened. Platt’s work led to American control of Cuban trade and its sugar industry.
* Cuban baseball stars were recruited by the New Britain Aviators beginning in 1908. Armando Marsans and Rafael Almeida were among the first Cuban ball players to break into the American major leagues. New Britain’s Cubans visited Hartford often, playing (and beating) the Hartford Senators.
In his journal, JFK advisor and biographer Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., wrote that Havana in 1950 was a “giant casino and brothel” for American businessmen. After the revolution, however, Connecticut residents visited Cuba for entirely different reasons. In 1970, local college students spent two-month stints cutting sugar cane with the Venceremos Brigades. On one trip, Fidel worked side by side with six state residents. “He is someone who risked his life, was imprisoned, and gave up a career as a lawyer to fight for his people. He can speak in the open in front of one million people…. I’d like to see Richard Nixon do that,”‘ one of the students told a newspaper reporter.
In 1977, Yale University invited 16 Cuban scholars to this country in an academic exchange. Five years later a University of Bridgeport professor led the first visit of U.S. philosophers to meet with their Havana counterparts. A Wesleyan University student traveled to Cuba in 2002 on a medical scholarship, one of thousands of international students who have trained each year to become doctors.
I visited Cuba in 1999 on a tour of healthcare facilities across the country. My delegation also visited Cuba’s parliament for a wide-ranging discussion with Julio Espinosa, head of the International Relations Commission.
We challenged Espinosa on what would happen to Cuba after Fidel was gone. “Someday he will die; he is a human being,” Espinosa replied. “But almost all our country’s elected leaders are under the age of 40. If Fidel dies next year and the U.S. blockade is lifted, we as a country will be the same.'”
Now, 15 years later, the United States will relate to Cuba the same way every other nation on earth does. It will be a great opportunity to move from revenge to reconciliation.
Steve Thornton is a retired union organizer who writes for the Shoeleather History Project.
Photo: Hartford residents help load the Pastors for Peace bus. | Steve Thornton