(Editor’s note: This is Part 1 of a special in-depth series on Cuba by Anthony LoBaido. Don’t miss Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.)

Architectural marvels abound in Havana as the Old World style of colonial Spain graces the city's skyline. (Photo: Anthony C. LoBaido)

 “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.”

– German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: 1844-1900

“If the light in thine eye be darkness, how great is that darkness.”

– Jesus Christ, Gospel of Matthew 6:23

HAVANA, Cuba – “Nobody has ever taken a boat from Miami to Cuba,” so the saying goes when speaking of “los balseros” or “the rafters.” Simply put, there is a plethora of reasons why Americans don’t defect to the Caribbean nation, just as South Koreans don’t defect to North Korea and West Germans didn’t defect to East Germany.

Yet in past centuries people have defected to Cuba – white French agriculturalists fleeing the slave rebellion in nearby Haiti and black sugar cane cutters from Curacao searching for a post-slavery future. Several covetous American presidents tried to buy Cuba outright in cash. Former Soviets and modern Russians come to Cuba, as do millions of foreign tourists. The reasons for coming are legion, as are the recriminations and accusations Cubans and Americans lob at one another like errant missiles.

Despite the rhetoric of a socialist paradise, complete with unrelenting sunshine, pristine white sandy beaches, exotic women, first-rate nationalized health care, universal education, racial harmony, sweet cigars and lively music, Cuba is only now coming to terms with her 21st century identity crisis. How can the island become a true utopia to which the best and the brightest people around the world permanently defect? How does it escape the shadow of the giants that have fought over Cuba for the past four centuries – meaning the Spanish, French, British, Soviet and American empires?

Cuba’s exports include coffee, sugar, oil, nickel, medical doctors, Olympic athletes and Major League Baseball stars. Yet Cubans living on the island these days are struggling to understand the direction its national soul should plot and follow. How can Americans, Westerners and others around the world understand Cuba if Cubans don’t even understand themselves? Where does this confusion come from, and how can it be circumvented?

The answer must begin with a re-examination of the national and transnational hero worship relating to Che Guevara and Fidel Castro that has long since been synthesized within the hyper-militarized, Marxist nexus dominating daily life in Cuba for six decades. This ethos has resulted in a mythologized series of ancillary cultural products which limit intelligent discourse and analysis of the island nation. The real Cuba is something unimaginable, undefinable and ever-changing – a multidimensional jigsaw puzzle where multiple realities are all simultaneously coexisting.

Che was once a medical doctor as popularized in the film, "The Motorcycle Diaries." His image is prominent all around Cuba. (Photo: Anthony C. LoBaido)

On one hand, Cuba is an amazing place filled with lovely people who simply want the best for their children. On the other hand, Cuba is an unmitigated disaster – facing agricultural problems, failed central planning, an inflexible one-party system, world condemnation for human rights abuses, an education bubble producing many (but not all) worthless degrees, a lack of entrepreneurial courses and business schools, few market-oriented mechanisms, a reliance on domestic and international subsidies, a lack of foreign investment, temperamental policy shifts that remind one of a drunken teenaged cheerleader on a Friday night binge, defaulting on its national debt, cut off from credit, the bane of the IMF and World Bank, set adrift by the old Soviet Union, kangaroo courts and show trials, local snitches and informants, beholden to mainland China and Venezuela to run international interference, faced with an aging and declining population, brain drain and an exodus of 30,000 people every year. This is the reality.

Cubans are, of course, quite confused about how all of these factors will impact their individual and collective futures. Money, the search for meaning and the next extrapolation of the Cuban matrix form a fluid and ethereal triangulation. As Mark Steyn wrote in his book, “After America,” “What is life for? What gives it meaning? Post-Christian, post-nationalist, postmodern Europe has no answer to this question, and so it has 30-year-old students and 50-year-old retirees, and wonders why the small band of workers in between them can’t make the math add up.” Similarly, Cuba has its own work and age gap. Cuba also features a severe form of cognitive dissonance as Cuba’s citizens are willing to fight and die for a system that both enslaves and impoverishes them. Why is this so?

 Beyond the hyper-militarized, socialist nexus

More than a million state workers will need to be retrenched over the next few years. Cuba’s total workforce is only about 4 million, and giving each one a modest pension of $10 per month is a huge drain on the national coffers. How could Fidel Castro’s paradise have come to this? Cuba could be a Caribbean version of Israel, or it could be another North Korea or Myanmar.

The question is simple: Will the Cubans embrace the Spirit of 1776 or cling to the revolution of 1959? Communism has killed hundreds of millions while enslaving much of the world. It need not enslave Cuba even one more day. “Don’t tread on me” and “Live free or die” are not only slogans for Americans. Like the stories of Noah, Lot, Samson, Daniel, King David and Ruth in the Old Testament, they are for all people, everywhere, all the time, right now, today and forever.

Help for Cuba could come from better access to technology, dialogue with the U.S. State Department, greater largess from China, more food aid (almost a $1 billion in foodstuffs is sold to Cuba each year) free cell phones, a “Cuban Spring” in line with the “Arab Spring” and/or Cubans finding the initiative to throw off the shackles of the welfare state. Cubans need America to lift the long-standing embargo against the island enacted 50 years ago by JFK. America and Cuba work together as equals on issues such as drug interdiction, keeping Guantanamo Bay from blowing up into a military conflict, hurricanes and the back-and-forth travels of Cuban exiles who live and work in Miami, yet like to send money home and bring along American goods when returning to Cuba as staples of their dualistic existence.

Then there is the issue of the Internet and its vast, heady potential to transform totalitarian societies and challenge statist ideologies. Cubans are cut off from high-speed Internet. A Russian satellite echoing Sputnik gives Cubans a very slow connection to the Internet. Blogging, Twitter, YouTube and WikiLeaks, along with other social media, are virtually unknown to Cubans. Yet there is no great national longing to embrace the digital world in a Bill Gates-Harvard-Steve Jobs-Stanford sense of the term.

Claudia Mendez, a Cuban posada (guest house) owner, said, “It is well-known that the Internet is a rare luxury in Cuba. But we don’t have to worry about stalkers on the Internet, or cyber parasites who never go anywhere, contribute nothing to society, have no talent, courage or wisdom yet launch cowardly attacks from the shadows. We don’t have people addicted to Internet pornography or wasting their lives online. Is there anything more pathetic than someone trolling around the Internet desperately trying to be relevant? I say, ‘Grow up, be a real man or a real woman.’ But Cubans, like Americans, do in fact slander others over the Internet … especially those using the Internet as a tool in the cause of freedom.” (A few Cuban bloggers have gained a massive following through postings distributed through Spain.)

Cubans also have an “Intranet.” They can use email, but the cost is prohibitive at about $2 for an hour at participating post office locations that actually do have computers. This leads directly to another problem in that there aren’t many computers on the island – less than half a million. If you think you can hook up on the sly to a high-speed satellite link, you might well find yourself in prison. The government of Cuba seeks to control information in a USSR kind of a way. It tolerates diverse opinions, but there is no question of who is boss. There are loose yet definitive boundaries to dissent, as politically correct people don’t like to be challenged or even questioned with facts. Clinically, this is a form of mental illness that is not unique to Cuba but, rather, permeates all societies controlled by forms of political correctness that warp reality. The “reality” that held Cuba together since 1959 has been under siege since 1991 due to the fall of the Soviet Union and the loss of its tremendous influence over satellite outposts ranging from Angola to Cuba. The Soviet Union was Cuba’s progenitor and touchstone.

Marxist-Leninism was officially dropped from the Cuban national constitution after the Soviet empire disintegrated, leaving an ideological vacuum waiting to be filled. What remain steadfast are the myths surrounding Cuba, the feelings of ordinary Cubans toward Cuban defectors, latent animosity toward ordinary Americans and, of course, their own government – all of which persist, mutate and extrapolate.

Cubans are a proud people who genuinely believe in and love their country. The Soviet Union is gone, but the Cuban Communist Party rolls on. (“How big is the Party? Huge, 50 kegs of beer,” young Cubans like to say.) The state-directed ebb and flow of life, Communist Youth Movement (numbering almost three-quarters of a million, with many more unofficial fringe sympathizers) is strong. Changes in the one-party system are discussed in a nuanced way. Stalinism is still fashionable, a personality cult not unlike North Korea. The Politburo needs new blood. Women’s rights, gay rights and even the rights of Catholics and evangelical Christians are emerging issues. Censorship is rife – magazines, books and the arts. Still, there is that strange yearning to be free in Cuba, busy percolating like a vector with both speed and direction.

Jaime Ortega, the well-known Catholic cardinal towering over the Church in Havana, is a key figure holding Cuban society together and moving it forward into a new paradigm. He has access to top leaders in Cuba, including el jefe Raul Castro. But only one in 20 Cuban Catholics is an ardent churchgoer who uses the Bible as a guide to life. Many are social or cultural Christians for the purposes of establishing a social identity or celebrating various festivals. There are Cubans who see all religion as merely “guilt with different holidays.” Still, Cuban Catholics are a potent force because roughly 66 percent of Cubans have been formally and ritually baptized into the Church. Events in Poland under Solidarity have not been lost on Cuba’s elites, nor has the role of evangelical Christians in overthrowing and efficiently executing Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania. Cuba’s top leaders understand Christians are difficult to control because of their long-term view of eternity, a willingness to die for something greater than themselves, disdain for worshiping the state, adherence to the sanctity of life as well as opposition to abortion, drugs and other vices that cause various addictions and enslavement and destroy both human and spiritual potential. In the past, Christians in Cuba could be sent to camps – but no longer.

If change does come to Cuba – political, economic, moral, spiritual, technological – the Catholic and evangelical churches will provide key linkages comforting Cuba’s communist elites that such change is to be embraced and not feared, and that there will be a place for them in “The New Cuba” free of recrimination, blame and demonization. The Cuban Communist Party itself is the battleground where this war will be fought and won or lost for the sake of ordinary Cubans.

People who doubt such a change can happen should look no further than the power of the Cuban-American lobby in Washington, D.C. Cuba has more than 180 foreign embassies overseas. Then there are Spain and other Asian allies, which have assisted in offshore oil exploration via Cuba’s “Scarabeo 9.” Add to that Brazil – whose regime sympathetic to Marxist ideals mutes any criticism of Cuba. Even the Vatican and Cuban-Americans with a heart for Cuba’s people can be allies. Cuba is building a new port near Mariel, which will give it better access to the shipping benefits offered by the Panama Canal. (It is influenced by the Hong Kong-based Hutchison Whampoa, which has links to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.) Cuba is no longer interested in bringing communism to the entire world – a world more interested in “Bay Watch,” pornography, beer and sports than it is in the writings of Lenin and Karl Marx.

The UJC logo touts three things around which a young revolutionary’s life is expected to be centered: "estudio," "trabajo," "fusil," meaning "study," "work," "rifle." (Photo: Anthony C. LoBaido)

The future is wide open. Cuba could turn out like Mexico – for so long a one-party state. Or Cuba could stumble along and become an economic colony of China and/or a micro-version of 2012 Argentina. A Nelson Mandela or Aung San Suu Kyi could emerge, or even someone like an ascetic Vladimir Putin. Cuba’s multicultural melting pot could, in theory, turn on itself or bring humanity a new example of racial love, cooperation, admiration and achievement.

Cubans, like their Russian big brothers, know autocracy rather than democracy.  They can plainly see the American dream has decayed into the American nightmare of Paris Hilton, Lindsey Lohan, Dennis Rodman, MTV values, racial discord, financial ruination, the trade gap, political dysfunction, selfishness and indulgence, gangs, poor public education, pornographic habits, video-game obsession, pharmaceutical addictions and homelessness. But just as the ability of America to slowly change course like a massive cruise ship should not be underestimated, neither should people underestimate the flexibility and ingenuity of the Cuban people. They want change.

Cuba requires a way forward. And this new arc could emulate Sweden as a capitalist-funded, social-welfare state, an economy with elements of central control such as the chaebols in South Korea or the Chinese model. Regardless, Cuba could be a gateway to the Caribbean, much in the way Panama is a gateway to the world and Egypt as well because of the Suez Canal. Cuba could be an American ally in an uncertain region, in the way that Thailand has checked Islamic radicalism, the Burmese junta, the Pathet Lao and the Khmer Rouge. Ordinary Americans are ready to embrace Cuba as a friend, not to be demonized or lectured, but as a country that can embrace the best of what America can offer while somehow escaping the worst.

Cuba must decide if it wants to go its own way like Malaysia under Dr. Mahathir, join forces with the elites setting up the emerging world government, stay Stalinist and navigate a post-communist world while maintaining outright and/or nuanced Marxist features or become a rogue nation like Zimbabwe or Myanmar. All of these scenarios are possible. Raul Castro’s son, Alejandro, is his top adviser on national security issues, so astute Cuba watchers can be assured family discussions about Cuba’s future direction are commonplace. A billion Catholics around the world also will keep a close eye on Cuba. Like Vietnam, a country split into 13 economic zones each controlled by the military, Cuba’s armed forces have a stake in the economy. This stake is managed by Col. Luis Rodriguez, Raul’s son-in-law.

Raul’s daughter, Mariela, is a champion of gay rights in Cuba and represents another coalition in waiting – homosexual people around the world interested in Cuba’s treatment of gays – which involved, at one point, Cuba’s gays being put into re-education camps. As a communist and Stalinist nation, Cuba struggled to follow the Bolshevik line of legalizing both homosexuality and abortion. Joseph Stalin recriminalized abortion and homosexuality during the 1930s under his “Article 121,” which included prison time with brutal hard labor. Article 121 remained on the books in the USSR until 1993. Sodomy laws were repealed in Cuba back in 1979. Mariela Castro has pushed for civil-union legislation in Cuba, thus elevating her profile.

Today, homosexuals and transgender people live mostly at peace and can be seen around Havana in a low-key way. No overt harassment in the public sphere is readily apparent. One reason may be that Cuba, according to the United Nations, has a 0.1 HIV-positive infection rate, the lowest in the world. The U.S. rate is six times more prevalent. After the 1959 revolution, the Cuban government was anti-gay, but with the increase of AIDS and the return of Cuban soldiers from the Angolan war in Africa (many were infected with HIV/AIDS after sleeping with Angolan prostitutes) the government’s position changed to endorsement of various programs aimed at helping homosexuals and people with the disease. Cardinal Ortega of Havana has condemned homophobia but officially deplores the “First World ideologies of ‘anything goes.'”

One of Cuba’s most famous homosexuals was Rienaldo Arenas. He wrote a novel titled, “Singing from the Well.” Arenas fled Cuba in the Mariel Harbor boatlift and later contracted HIV/AIDS. He committed suicide in New York in 1990. Fidel Castro had once proclaimed, “In this country of Cuba, there are no homosexuals.” Echoing the anti-gay death squads that roamed around Bogota, Colombia, Castro embraced Latin Catholic and Latin machismo attitudes, while in the fashion of Mao and Pol Pot proclaimed agrarianism as the ideal way of life. Arenas paid a great price fleeing Fidel’s gay persecution. He tried to escape Cuba on a raft but was recaptured and sent to the horrific El Morro prison. Arenas was then made to sign an affidavit claiming his own writings were “deviant.” Ironically, many Cuban homosexuals had backed Castro’s Revolution, believing he would bring cultural, sexual and artistic freedom to all Cubans. How sadly mistaken they were. The reality was that a dark chapter in Cuba’s history was about to unfold.

Under Fidel, gays in Cuba were rounded up in nighttime raids. Children perceived to be homosexual were to be reported to the government by their own parents. Gay sex was criminalized. One prominent re-education camp for homosexuals was the barbwire and machine gun-laden outpost called Camagüey. Gays in positions to influence the youth and the culture through universities, TV, radio, theater, plays, novels and other areas echoed by the Antonio Gramsci philosophy of cultural power were chastised, stripped of their titles, made to dig graves, murdered or driven to suicide. They were called “pathological” and “unsuitable for the ideal socialist family.”

Still, homosexuals cannot (at least openly) join the Communist Party of Cuba. Gay nightclubs can still be raided, moderately harassed and the owners fined. But homosexuals are thankful for the help they’ve received from international organizations, thinkers like Jean-Paul Sartre and East German doctors who came to Cuba during the Cold War and helped the Cuban elites in government and medicine to see their lifestyle in less severe terms. Additionally, the “ultimate male Cuban warriors” who returned to Cuba with AIDS after fighting the apartheid South African regime in Angola, rotated AIDS from a homosexual issue into a human-oriented issue that could affect any Cuban regardless of sexual orientation. The proliferation of prostitution in Cuba will no doubt influence the HIV infection rate and attitudes about the disease in the island nation.

Regardless, Alejandro, Luis and Mariela all lack officially authorized posts in the Cuban government. They lack the prestige a Politburo member in North Korea or Beijing might hold. Still they form a troika of power and control, for better or for worse, in which Raul Castro trusts. But is this really a position of strength? Or does this represent another form of political correctness, dysfunction and nepotism? As in Soviet times, when many of the USSR’s officials were viewed as rude and swinish in their behavior, the system in Cuba is not producing trustworthy officials. Corruption is endemic, and Raul Castro is forced to use his family and army friends in some of the most important positions in the nation. This is troubling. In America, a trade official negotiating with China may well have their place at the table because of race or gender. A Communist Party official in China leading that same trade negotiation will have won a ruthless competition of academic and tactical brilliance to sit across from the American trade official. An official sitting in the same position in Cuba might be Raul Castro’s beer-drinking buddy or his crazy aunt Judy normally chained up in the basement.

The Catedral de la Virgen María de la Concepción Inmaculada de La Habana (Cathedral of The Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception), a Roman Catholic cathedral and the seat of Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino, the cardinal archbishop of Havana. It is also called Cathedral of Saint Christopher. (Photo: Anthony C. LoBaido)

Sugar daddies: New lies for old

Since the colonial era of the Spanish Empire, Cuba has relied on sugar for its income. And Cuba has seen a series of sugar daddies come and go. There was, of course, the Soviet Union, then Venezuela under Hugo Chavez and, more recently, mainland China. The Soviet Union knew it could use Cuba as an unsinkable aircraft carrier and strategic weapon against America – and also as a listening post (based at Lourdes) before (some say) the NSA, CIA and FBI became so infiltrated by the KGB/FSB that Lourdes was no longer needed. Venezuela has received sports advisers, thousands of well-trained doctors and military experts in exchange for Caracas’ oil. China, through infrastructure development, TV programming and the brotherhood of anti-Americanism, is trying to gain a foothold in Cuba and continue making inroads in the Western Hemisphere from Canada to Argentina, just as it has in Africa and elsewhere in the world.

Cuba positions itself accordingly. Unlike Afghanistan, Cuba has no rare earth metals (such as lithium) and few natural resources. But like Myanmar, wedged in between China and India, Cuba offers the three keys to real estate: location, location, location. Both Russia and China could wipe America off the face of the earth with nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles. Both Russia and China could use Cuba (and/or Venezuela) as a forward operating base for strategic nuclear bombers, submarines or theater-based missiles. Yet America has openly stated in recent years that this is a “red line” not to be crossed. As a tactical entity, Cuba is still a major strategic player. This fact shouldn’t be discounted or minimized. It was not that long ago when Americans actually built bomb shelters because of Cuba’s communist affiliations and affections.

In an Associated Press report dated March 14, 2009, the triangulation of Russia, Cuba and Venezuela was detailed thusly: “Russia can ‘possibly’ use Cuba to station its strategic bombers, while Venezuela has offered Moscow to do the same on its territory, said a senior Russian strategic air force commander. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has also offered to let Russia use his country’s territory to station Russian strategic bombers, Major General Anatoly Zhikharev told Interfax. ‘Yes, such a proposal from the president of Venezuela exists. If there is an appropriate political decision it is possible … [and] it is possible with Cuba. There are four or five airfields with runways 4,000 meters long which suits us quite well. If there is a will of heads of the two states, a political will, we are ready to fly there,’ he said.”

Those who thought the Cold War was over and that nuclear war has become unthinkable might want to think again. Not much is known about the nuclear capabilities of mainland China. Only a handful of American experts even bother to study China’s nuclear weapons capability (this analysis was given a jolt last year by students at Georgetown University), but the threat remains because of Cuba’s proximity and its kinship with America’s mortal enemies – the central power base in Moscow and Beijing, as well as the outposts in Harare, Pyongyang, Rangoon and Tehran. This analysis should be sober, poignant and not hyperbolic. Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot murdered more than 100 million people. Would those who embraced their vision of the world hesitate to annihilate America, long seen as a bastion of freedom and anti-communism? Whether one speaks of realpolitik or wildly sensational biblical prophecies, the issue of Armageddon and nuclear war is quite real. And Cuba is still a focal point.

There are still those alive today who recall the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, when a Soviet submarine captain named Vasili Arkapov saved the world by preventing a rogue nuclear weapons launch against Fortress America. Yet Armageddon and nuclear war took a backseat to Fidel Castro, the mafia, Lee Harvey Oswald and the Bay of Pigs. These elements combine to form a rubric of an unknowable black hole in recent history. Films like “The Good Shepherd” with Matt Damon, as well as Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” gloss over Cuba yet present the nation as a bête noire. Does such an amateur view of history provide a telescope, a microscope or a kaleidoscope?

The loss of Cuba, from the American perspective, was a major strategic blunder and equals the loss of mainland China to Mao, Eastern Europe to Stalin after World War II, Nicaragua, Rhodesia, the morally flawed Old South Africa and the more recent debacles in the Middle East and Central Asia. Yet as previously inferred, Cuba could once again become a part of America’s orbit, which would be a more natural existence considering the Catholic and evangelical population, geography and the Cuban-American beachhead in Miami, Fla.

(Photo: Anthony C. LoBaido)

Oh my Lourdes

In a reminder of the importance Cuba played in the espionage capabilities of Russia, even after the fall of the Soviet Union, one might study a Novosti article published on Feb. 8, 2008, which states, “The electronic monitoring and surveillance facility near Havana at Torrens, also known as the Lourdes facility, the largest Russian SIGINT [signals intelligence] site abroad, was shut down in October 2001 by then-president Vladimir Putin. The Lourdes facility reportedly covered a 28 square-mile area, with 1,000-1,500 Russian engineers, technicians, and military personnel working at the base. The complex was capable of monitoring a wide array of commercial and government communications throughout the southeastern United States, and between the United States and Europe. Lourdes intercepted transmissions from microwave towers in the United States, communication satellite downlinks, and a wide range of shortwave and high-frequency radio transmissions.”

Russia claimed it shut down the facility because the $200 million Moscow paid in rent could buy and launch 20 satellites into outer space. Some say the Russians were spending more than $300-$350 million on Lourdes. Still, others say Putin and Castro simply don’t get along and that’s why Lourdes was shut down. The base was closed in back in 2001 just 10 months after Putin visited Cuba and promised to keep Lourdes open.

America pressured Russia to close the base, and this had a rippling effect on Russia’s relations with Cuba. The Security Council of Russia cooperates with Cuba in regard to oil production, tourism, health care, nickel production, telecommunications and even nanotechnology – but for now, Lourdes is a relic of the Cold War. Tangential reports on the issue state, “China would like to expand its electronic intelligence capability on the island. China is reported to operate at least one small listening post and ties between the Cuban and Chinese militaries have been expanding.”

Cuban identity

Cubans cannot seem to “get over” the revolution of Fidel Castro. His photo, along with Che’s, is everywhere, the ubiquitous “Big Brothers” peering down at the interloper every 10 feet in Havana and elsewhere on the island. There is a latent undercurrent of anti-Americanism lurking amid the redacted deep structure of Cuban lexis and dialogue concerning the American government’s policies toward Cuba. The U.S. dollar gets a 10 percent penalty during arbitrage. The moneda nacional (Cuban pesos, or CUP, which are rarely used) and convertible Cuban currency, or CUC, are weak. It is better to have Canadian dollars or euros. America has no embassy in Cuba and uses a section of the Swiss embassy to carry out its operations.

The nation of Cuba is about the size of Pennsylvania and has no long rivers. This is problematic in terms of generating hydroelectric power. Cuba does have the world’s third largest supply of nickel, and there is also the new jewel of offshore oil. It is a large island, which makes it militarily difficult to defend. Friendly nations like China, North Korea, Iran, Venezuela and other trading partners, such as Canada and Spain, cannot create a normalized economy. The poverty is real and tangible.

When visiting Cuba, it can be reminiscent of Myanmar or North Korea. There are rich enclaves for elites, both domestic and international, like Miramar and Siboney. But there is no utopia or anything remotely like it. Havana has its unattractive slums. Yet most of the beaches are pristine (the BP oil spill notwithstanding), filled with white sand and jade green water (like Veradero, where armies of Canadians fly in directly from the Great White North). Other beaches have more rocks than an archetype high-school baseball field.

The idea of Cuba as a utopia is more than half a millennium old. When Columbus approached Cuba in the fall of 1492, he called it, “the most beautiful land human eyes have ever seen.” Columbus named Cuba “Juana” after a rich heiress back in Spain. Finding no gold or silver, he abandoned Cuba quickly for what is today known as Haiti. Still, the oldest statue of Columbus in the Western Hemisphere can be found in the sleepy city of Cardenas, right in front of the Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepcion. The statue dates back to the early 1860s and refers to Columbus as “Colon,” who stands astride a globe.

Down the street from that statue is a gigantic flagpole, which commemorates the exact spot where a group of American mercenaries (foreshadowing Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders) led by Naricso Lopez, a flamboyant adventure-seeking soldier from Venezuela, first raised the Cuban flag in 1850 in a failed attempt to free the colony from the dominion of the Spanish Empire. Flags are all the rage in Cuba. A visitor can find more flags in Cuba’s history than at the United Nations’ headquarters in New York – the flags of the British Empire, Spanish Empire, American colonialists, Soviet Empire and, finally, an independent Cuba. Flags show ownership – and just who has owned Cuba over the last 500 years is about as confusing as can be imagined.

The Cuban identity goes back to the time when the island was controlled by Spain. Of course,  that’s the reason Spanish is spoken. But then came the British, who entered in the summer of 1762 with 20,000 troops and occupied the island for almost a year, before trading Cuba like a baseball card to the French in exchange for Florida in 1763 at the Treaty of Paris (thus saving the Cuban people from 250 years of bad food, including cholesterol-laden breakfasts after which even 7-year-olds have been known to have heart attacks). Cuban sugar and tobacco are legendary commodities, and this was not lost on the fledgling American nation after the War of Independence in 1776. By the 1820s, Cuba had become the largest sugar-producing nation in the entire world – everyone else’s “sugar daddy” in the most literal sense. America approached Spain several times about buying the island outright. Thomas Jefferson and James Polk tried to purchase the island – the latter even put down a deposit of $100 million – about the same amount the New York Yankees will pay Alex Rodriquez to play third base for the next four seasons.

Cardenas’ most famous citizen, however, is Elian Gonzales, who sparked a horrendous battle between then-Attorney General Janet Reno, anti-Castro Cubans in the U.S. and the Cuban government back in 1999. This occurred when the 5-year-old child was taken from his home by militarized police at gunpoint on Easter Sunday. (The “South Park” episode depicting Janet Reno as the Easter bunny is considered one of the definitive moments in cartoon history.) As an aside, Cardenas also hosts sandlot baseball pickup games (held near the aforementioned flagpole) featuring perhaps the single worst collection of baseball players in the history of human civilization.

(Editor’s note: Don’t miss Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4 of Anthony LoBaido’s in-depth series on Cuba.)

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