Why Cuba Matters: Read an Excerpt from Tom Hayden's New Book "Listen, Yankee!"

April 29, 2015
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Watch Democracy Now! Thursday when we will interview Tom Hayden about his new book, Listen, Yankee!: Why Cuba Matters and discuss the historic normalization of diplomatic relations with the United States. You can read the book’s introduction below.

Tonight Democracy Now! co-host Juan Gonzalez will interview Hayden at the Barnes & Noble in New York City’s Union Square. Click here for details.

See all of our coverage of Cuba.

Excerpted from the book "Listen, Yankee!" by Tom Hayden. Copyright © 2015 by Tom Hayden. Reprinted with permission of Seven Stories Press.

Two Old Guys Talking

Two old guys talking. That was the reason given to me, with a smile and shrug, by thirty-something Margarita Alarcón when I asked her why on earth her father Ricardo wanted to interview me. Cuba’s former foreign minister, United Nations representative, and then-president of Cuba’s National Assembly, Ricardo Alarcón was a busy man. It was 2006, and he wanted to see me in Havana. I knew him only slightly at the time, but I flew down to the island on wings of curiosity.

Six years later, pushed by my good friend Jean Stein in New York, I went back to begin a round of my own interviews with Ricardo, as I came to know him. He was seventy-six, no longer in power, had lost his wife to a long illness, and wanted to compose some reflections on his fifty years in official positions. He was a man of widely respected intelligence and, by my reckoning, probably had met more revolutionaries, political leaders, diplomats, and heads of state than anyone on the planet. He was a rare treasure of worldly information, but off-limits to direct contact with the United States because of our embargo. Ricardo had been denied permission to travel to the United States even when invited by academicians or members of Congress. Who was really being isolated, I wondered, Ricardo, who could meet those professors and politicians in Cuba at any time, or the United States from vital contact with key representatives of an important neighboring country?

In Havana we met, day after day, on the sixth floor of the venerable Hotel Nacional, where one feels all the currents of recent Cuban history. Opened in 1930, it sits on a promontory overlooking Havana harbor, atop an ancient cave and surrounded by a few of the remaining Spanish cannons that have defended Havana from Englishmen and pirates. Its “who’s who” roster includes hundreds of the world’s most famous celebrities and leaders. The Cosa Nostra—when Meyer Lansky was running things—operated from its floors; according to the delicate wording of the hotel’s own history, it was here that Lansky “arranged with Batista the business of the casinos.” Charles “Lucky” Luciano, Vito Genovese, and a rival mobster, Santo Trafficante, all hung out here. Frank Sinatra was an entertainment luminary. A cell of Fidel’s revolutionary 26th of July movement also came to operate here clandestinely. The lurid contradictions of its history are famously dramatized in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II in a scene where the mobsters enjoy a sunlit penthouse rooftop while a young Fidelista blows himself up on the streets below rather than be taken alive. Looking down from the same heights where I sat with Ricardo, the fictional Michael Corleone commented to the Lansky character,

“[But] it occurred to me. The soldiers are paid to fight. The rebels aren’t.”

“What does that tell you?” asks Roth.

“They can win,” Corleone replies.

In Coppola’s film, the dates were changed so that the mobster meeting occurred on the eve of the 1959 revolution, but the essential theme was true to life.
The conversations between Ricardo and myself are the backbone of the book you are holding in your hands. While most of the writing and all of the opinions are mine, they arise from tens of hours of interviews. In addition to my writing you will see whole paragraphs in italics representing Ricardo’s running commentaries on the subject that has always been of passionate interest to us both—the decades-long, intertwined histories of our two nations, an intense relationship some have described as being “the closest of enemies.”

Ricardo was a philosophy student at the University of Havana and leader of the Federación Estudiantil Universitaria (FEU). The FEU was founded in 1922 by student leaders who were desirous of radical reforms. It became the breeding ground for many of the most important reformist and revolutionary political figures that would dominate the succeeding decades, including Fidel Castro. Ricardo’s generation made a great refusal of the Mafia axiom that everyone has a price. They fought a revolution and won.

Now it was fifty-five years later, and we were “old guys talking.” The Nacional had endured. A few sunburned tourists lay outside by the pool. The hotel’s special ice cream was being served in bucketfuls. Busy conferees bustled back and forth to their meetings.

A seminar was underway on the expansion of airline services. The Chinese ambassador, speaking perfect Spanish and looking Cuban, politely introduced himself. Beautiful models posed for fashion photographers by the old Spanish cannons. Middle-aged lefties gathered in tour groups bearing their maps and cameras. A tiny modern tourist shop was open, selling sunscreen, near the currency exchange counter. At the marble-topped front desk they were selling the writings of Fidel, Che, and Camilo Cienfuegos in paperback editions. The hotel had withstood time’s passing, while history without end continued being made here.

The Nacional’s hotel workers were brisk and dignified, and efficiently served cup after cup of strong Cuban coffee as I sat on an outdoor couch asking question after question of Ricardo. Occasionally we were interrupted by friends dropping by to shake his hand before going off to Old Havana, the famous Malecón promenade, or the sparkling beach below us. Cuba, now dependent on tourism, was welcoming millions of Canadians and Europeans, and even one hundred thousand Americans this year.

Up on the sixth floor, we two old guys talked on, as the world below rapidly changed. Hour after hour, day after day, Ricardo answered my questions. Since those weeks, he has answered even more of my queries by email.

I understand Ricardo as a voice of Cuba rarely heard in the United States even though he has lived here more years than any other high Cuban official. He is basically embargoed. The Cuban ambassador to the United States who-might-have-been. His range of experience and contacts is vast, from Latin America to Africa, spanning nine US administrations. Yet his life has been officially circumscribed by US executive order: to a twenty-five-mile radius from the United Nations or the metropolitan limits of Washington, D.C. He was denied a visa to attend meetings with academics and congressional officials.

I thought Ricardo might shed light, as a man of several worlds, on the long roads we had traveled in parallel. When he and I were both idealistic revolutionary student leaders, at universities in Havana and Ann Arbor, the Cuban Revolution was an inspiration to the black civil rights movement, the emerging Chicano movement and the American New Left overall. We mutually survived the danger of nuclear incineration in 1962, he on the island and I at a vigil in Washington, D.C. We both felt the suffocating burden of the Cold War, I as a dissenter from thoughtless anticommunism and militarism, he as a socialist with reservations about the Soviet Big Brother. Each of us was deeply influenced by the writings of the radical sociologist C. Wright Mills, who inspired Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and spent two weeks in Cuba in 1960,1 including three and a half eighteen-hour days interviewing Fidel, researching his best-selling Listen, Yankee. Long after Mills died in 1962, Ricardo wrote a book and I published an essay lamenting his early passing.2 One of the reasons Ricardo invited me to Cuba in 2006 was to describe the 1962 Port Huron Statement, the founding document of SDS, which I had drafted. Ricardo was president of the National Assembly of People’s Power at the time, charged with stimulating greater mass participation in decision making. He felt that Cuba, in its own way, was moving toward participatory democracy, the central tenet of the Port Huron Statement.

Toward the end of the sixties, some young American radicals from SDS joined armed undergrounds, inspired by Che and the writings of a young protégé of Fidel Castro’s, Régis Debray, whom Ricardo knew well and with whom he disagreed. Both Ricardo and I became deeply involved in fighting South African apartheid, Ricardo as Cuba’s UN ambassador and I as a legislator who brought Desmond Tutu to America when I was banned from entry into South Africa. When corporate globalization became triumphant after the Cold War, I joined the 1999 Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization, while Ricardo was inspired by Latin America’s populist surges against neoliberalism and pondered whether what was emerging was “Marxism without Marx.” We both believed that forms of participatory democracy were coming alive in the new revolts in Latin America.


In writing this book, I have gained new information and insights on several chapters of historical interest, information that should help us understand the history of Cuba and the United States in new ways that will stand in stark contrast to the story told in the American media. Most of these insights illustrate plainly the price we have paid for isolating ourselves from Cuba:

That Cuba countered the US effort at isolation with foreign policies that have had a global impact completely out of proportion with its being a tiny country of eleven million people. Most recently, Cuban medical personnel have made the “most robust” contribution of any country in the world to the fight against the Ebola epidemic.3 Similarly in 2011 the Cubans were at the forefront of the battle against cholera in Haiti. Cuba has sent many thousands of doctors, nurses, teachers, and other specialists on humanitarian missions to third world countries. These programs surpass in scale the American Peace Corps, which was designed by the Kennedy administration as a free-world answer to Cuba.

Decades ago, the Cubans made a dramatic decision to send tens of thousands of troops to fight against colonialism in Angola and the apartheid regime in South Africa in the seventies. Cuba gained enormous respect and even a heroic status globally by its efforts. Meanwhile the United States was opposing sanctions and divestment against South Africa and offering only “quiet diplomacy” and “constructive engagement.” Ricardo was a signatory to the peace agreement in southern Africa and talks about that experience here. As a result, Cuba became the leader of the Non-Aligned Movement among third world nations during the late sixties, and gained the support of Latin America, Asia, and Africa within the UN General Assembly;

- That the draconian US policies of nonrecognition often led to follies in practical diplomacy. Ricardo enjoyed handshakes and cocktails with top American officials in southern Africa while remaining officially a nonperson in terms of US diplomacy. US talks with Ricardo Alarcón on serious issues like immigration required him to be hidden in the backseats of official cars or spirited to secret meetings in Toronto hotels—without the knowledge of the very US officials technically in charge of Cuba policy.

- That such secret contacts were considered necessary by the White House because the Cuba lobby had infiltrated key offices within the US executive branch;
That Ricardo was engaged in top-secret talks with top US officials while at the same time being rejected in his visa requests to visit the United States at the invitation of members of Congress

- That the federal government kept secret its plans to return six-year-old Elián González to Cuba in June 2000 because the Miami FBI, police and media were considered too closely connected to Cuban exile groups; the de facto conspiracy to return Elián González was coordinated between US officials and Ricardo Alarcón, who welcomed the youngster home at Havana’s international airport.

- That the federal government and CIA built and granted immunity to a de facto armed settler sanctuary in Miami, a “Mafia state” to Ricardo Alarcón, for training and weapons stockpiling, putting lethal power in the hands of the exiles launching attacks on Cuba. All this was in the name of exporting democracy to Cuba while it left a cancer on democracy in the United States.

- Ironically, members of Ricardo’s generation, symbolized by Fidel and Che, have been resurrected as heroic icons in the triumphant democratic revolutions across Latin America over the past twenty-five years.

- That solidarity work and cultural exchanges allowed the Cuban Revolution to build a significant base of support for Cuba in the United States, circumventing the walls of the embargo. The cane-cutting solidarity movement known as the Venceremos Brigades sent at least eight thousand Americans to work and learn in the Cuban countryside over two decades, with 1,300 in 1969–1970, more than the 1,100 volunteers who journeyed to Mississippi in 1964 for the far more visible Freedom Summer project. In both cases the thousands of volunteers were taking risks; the Venceremos volunteers by breaking the travel ban, the Mississippi volunteers suffering three deaths and many arrests. More so-called solidarity movements would grow during the Central American Wars of the 1970s–1980s. Many of those brigadistas later became mayors, members of Congress, and influential Americans in many fields. They are an invisible backbone of support for normalized relations today.

In addition, hundreds of thousands of Americans have visited Cuba, legally and illegally, as tourists, most of them bringing back deep sympathy for the island. Those two blocs—solidarity activists and progressive tourists—have given Cuba an important and growing base of sympathetic support within the United States, a potential counter to the Cuba lobby’s crusade to demonize the island. Now that the road to normalization has been chosen, those networks of support will be key bridges in bringing our two peoples together. In addition, they should be recognized as an important source of influence on Cuba’s evolution in human rights and democracy, a constructive alternative to the failed and contradictory US policy of covert “democracy programs.”

In researching why our government embargoed Cuba for so long and in such an exceptional way, while recognizing and doing business with so many undemocratic regimes, I point to several trends that suggested to me the coming change. First, Cuba is being integrated into the new Latin American region as a whole, where it enjoys deep popular support and draws vast economic assistance from countries like Venezuela and Brazil. As China becomes a power in Latin America, it too provides an independent source of financial backing for Havana. The geopolitics are reversing. With the bogeyman of the Soviet Union gone, the United States is becoming isolated diplomatically in the region, unable to find its way back to acceptance except through normalizing relations with the government in Havana. Normalization will go a long way toward opening doors for Obama and future US presidents, doors that have been closed to US during the years of the embargo.

Meanwhile, the politics of immigration have changed, and the United States is becoming a Latinized nation. Nearly five hundred thousand Cubans from Florida and New Jersey travel to and from the island every year. These are not the bitter exiles of 1960 plotting their revenge. They are not so overwhelmingly white as were the original exiles, but black, brown, and struggling economically. They are traveling for family or economic reasons, and the right-wing Cuban American politicians cannot easily deter them with charges that they are subsidizing a Communist dictatorship with their business, commerce, and family remittances. The Barack Obama Democrats have the vote of these new Cubans, in Florida and elsewhere, however they choose to use it. This Cuban diaspora is bridging the divide, reshaping Cuba on both sides of the Straits. The future is being discussed again around family dinner tables.

Ricardo’s daughter Margarita, now in her forties, is a symbolic forerunner in this process, unique only because of her elite lineage. She spent fourteen years growing up in New York in the home of a Cuban revolutionary diplomat:

Margarita Alarcón: In the end, I wasn’t Cuban or American, I wasn’t Latina or black or white, in the end I was a true New Yorker, a person of no predetermined race or religion who adapted and accepted.

I think it is precisely because of the times that I lived in NYC, and the life I led, that I can empathize with Martí when he said “I have lived inside the monster and I know its entrails,” but not because I was seeing it as all bad, it was because of the moment in history and because it was in NYC. Remember, it wasn’t until after 9/11 in 2001 that the City was once again accepted back into the Union of the United States, before that, New York was a separate place, almost the Basque nation of the United States.

Margarita’s story illustrates that the diplomatic term “normalization” is insufficient to convey the many contradictions and possibilities dividing and joining our two countries. There are at least two levels of coexistence that are evolving: first, coexistence between the Cuban nation-state and the Cuban Americans who consider themselves still related to the Cuban nation as a diaspora; and second, coexistence between the United States, which long has considered itself the dominant power, and the Cuba that emerged with the 1959 revolution. In both cases, there is an important role for American progressives if they engage politically in the new space that comes with normalization. Finally, behind this drama of seeking peaceful coexistence with Cuba lies the larger challenge of transitioning to a new and more equal relationship between the United States and Latin America, not only in the region to our south but with millions of Latinos at the center of the immigration debate here inside the United States. Ricardo Alarcón has been at the forefront of rethinking what these profound changes mean for the future of the Left.

Hopefully, the reflections of “two old guys talking” in these pages will flow into this incredible historical moment in a useful way, lending substance to the vision of Cuba’s “National Hero” José Martí, the exile who took sanctuary in America before dying in battle in Cuba in 1895. Martí believed in “our America,” an integration of the people of all the Americas, equal to and independent from the United States, their enemy-brother with a common destiny. On the US side, we are finally, hopefully, moving away from the hegemonic doctrine of Manifest Destiny, foreshadowed by Franklin Roosevelt’s tentative embrace of a Good Neighbor policy many decades ago. But as the United States becomes more Latino and varied in its national makeup, a new opportunity is here for policies of mutual respect and interdependence between our two countries in a new version of the New World.

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