Removing the Past as an Option

When William F. Buckley started his National Review in 1955, the Mission Statement included this about his new magazine – “It stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.” Someone has to stand athwart history and yell Stop, at least for a while:

In 1957, the magazine editorialized in favor of white leadership in the South, arguing that “the central question that emerges is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas where it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is yes – the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.” By the 1970s the magazine had moved to demanding colorblind policies and the end of affirmative action. In the late 1960s, the magazine attacked segregationist George Wallace, who ran in Democratic primaries (1964 and 1972) and made an independent run for president in 1968.

Buckley deftly moved his magazine, which was the journal of a sort of new conservatism, away from the past. Conservatism has always been about the past, about tradition, about that which has always worked well enough and shouldn’t be changed based on some new enthusiasm – see Edmund Burke’s stirring defense of Marie Antoinette (and the glorious and noble way of life of the natural aristocracy) during the French Revolution – but Buckley gave in on the question of segregation and the rest of the racial issues. He didn’t want to be seen as a moral monster. He didn’t want conservatives to be seen as moral monsters. There were other battles to fight, with Gore Vidal:

In 1968, ABC News invited Vidal and conservative icon William F. Buckley to serve as analysts during the network’s coverage of the Democratic National Convention. After days of aggressive debate, the two began engaging in openly hostile personal attacks. During a discussion of the 1968 DNC anti-Vietnam protesters displaying a Viet Cong flag, Buckley compared the demonstrators to Nazi appeasers. In response, Vidal told Buckley to “shut up a minute,” and went on to say: “As far as I’m concerned, the only sort of pro-crypto-Nazi I can think of is you.”

An increasingly agitated Buckley shot back: “Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.”

At least that wasn’t a discussion about race. That issue had been taken away from “thoughtful” conservatives by George Wallace and Bull Connor, and now, after Charleston, this has happened again. The skinny white kid, who shot those nine black people dead, in the most famous black church in Charleston, had that Confederate flag thing going and was into that Lost Cause of the Confederacy thing too – and now no one wants to be associated with that flag, or with the good and noble South of long-ago. Move on. No one but Donald Trump wants to be seen as moral monster. Find something else to yell about. If one cannot keep the North from finally winning the Civil War, at last, one can yell Stop about gay marriage, even if banning that is now a lost cause. Getting rid of Obamacare is a lost cause too – but one can yell about that. There are lots of things to yell about.

The only problem with that is that someone is always removing the past as a reasonable option to the present. Sometimes it’s a murderous jerk that wants the South the rise again and white folks to be in charge, once again. Sometimes the Supreme Court rules that the past was unfair, constitutionally unfair – in 1954 with school segregation and in 1967 with bans on interracial marriage and this year with bans on gay marriage. The way it had always been is quite relevant. The way it had always been had been stupid and cruel and unfair, and arbitrary. These things happen. Conservatives are always getting the past they love ripped away from them.

And now this has happened again:

In a milestone accord, President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro agreed Wednesday to swiftly reestablish diplomatic relations and reopen embassies in each other’s capitals, finally ending the half-century diplomatic freeze between the two Cold War adversaries. Standing in a sunny Rose Garden, Obama said many Americans and Cubans were making a “choice between the future and the past” and urged critics in Congress to do the same by lifting the decades-old U.S. trade embargo.

“Americans and Cubans alike are ready to move forward,” he said. “I believe it’s time for Congress to do the same.”

It has been fifty-four years. Our economic embargo on Cuba remains in effect, but now we’ll have the two embassies, and the unthinkable happened:

Secretary of State John F. Kerry said that he would join the opening ceremony in Havana and that he looked forward to “raising the Stars and Stripes” over the embassy, noting that no U.S. envoy of his rank has visited there since 1945.

“This step has been long overdue,” Kerry said in Vienna, where he is participating in nuclear talks with Iran. Aides said Obama also hopes to visit Cuba before he leaves office in 2017.

Cuban TV took the unusual step of broadcasting Obama’s Rose Garden remarks live. Local newspapers, which often wait for official government pronouncements, blasted front-page headlines about the embassy openings early Wednesday. …

“This is not merely symbolic,” Obama said. “With this change, we will be able to substantially increase our contacts with the Cuban people. We’ll have more personnel at our embassy. And our diplomats will have the ability to engage more broadly across the island. That will include the Cuban government, civil society and ordinary Cubans who are reaching for a better life.”

It was simply a matter of working out the details:

After months of secret talks by their aides, Obama and Castro stunned much of the world in December when they simultaneously announced that they would move to normalize relations, including easing travel and trade restrictions.

The two sides held four rounds of closed-door talks and last month the State Department removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, a key Cuban demand to restore diplomatic ties.

The administration has rebuffed Cuba’s demand to close the U.S. naval station at Guantanamo Bay, which the U.S. military has occupied since 1903 and the Spanish-American War.

Analysts described the resumption of ties as the most substantive step since the diplomatic thaw began, but said sharp differences remain.

That doesn’t matter:

“This will be a normal relationship between governments, where we don’t necessarily see eye to eye, but where there is cooperation, that’s where it’s going,” said Philip Peters, an analyst with the nonpartisan Cuba Research Center in Alexandria, Va.

“We now begin the long and challenging process of normalization of relations far beyond just reopening embassies – building commercial, social, cultural and political ties,” said Fulton Armstrong, a professor at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies.

“If we do U.S.-Cuba relations right, it will set a new tone for U.S. ties throughout Latin America, to the benefit of the entire hemisphere,” Armstrong said. “Congress will have to do its part [and] unshackle the administration from legacy legislation.”

Yeah, sure:

For now, Congress appears unlikely to lift the economic embargo, which was first imposed in the 1960s and stiffened several times, and allow U.S. businesses to invest freely in Cuba. Critics in both parties lined up Wednesday to emphasize their opposition.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Congress may not approve money for the new embassy or confirm an ambassador after Obama nominates one.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also slammed the White House move. “Once again the regime is being rewarded while they jail dissidents, silence political opponents, and harbor American fugitives and cop killers,” he said in a statement.

And there are the Republicans running for president:

“As Americans prepare to celebrate the anniversary of our freedom from tyranny and commit anew to the democratic principles on which our nation was founded, it is no small irony that President Obama prepares to open an embassy in Havana, further legitimizing the brutal Castro regime,” former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is seeking the Republican nomination, said in a statement.

Obama acknowledged those concerns in his Rose Garden remarks, noting “very real, profound differences between our governments.”

He said U.S. officials “will not hesitate to speak out” about the rights of Cubans to speak and assemble freely. But the best way to support U.S. values is “through engagement,” he argued.

“You can’t hold the future of Cuba hostage to what happened in the past,” he said.

Fine, but Rick Perry said the move is “the most recent example of this president’s foreign policy that ignores reality in exchange for surface level political ‘wins.'” And Jeb Bush added that Obama is most concerned with whether his “legacy is burnished with dubious diplomatic achievements and photo-ops” and not the substance of the agreement. And Chris Christie called the decision “dead wrong” while Marco Rubio said he wouldn’t support diplomatic relations with Cuba unless his human rights concerns were addressed and added this:

“I intend to oppose the confirmation of an ambassador to Cuba until these issues are addressed,” the Cuban-American lawmaker said in a statement Wednesday. “It is time for our unilateral concessions to this odious regime to end.”

What concessions? And there was this:

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) slammed Obama’s decision to reopen the U.S. embassy in Cuba, suggesting that it was a “slap in the face” to Israel.

Cruz seems to think that Jerusalem is a part of Israel – that has been in dispute since 1948 – and that our embassy in Tel Aviv is in the wrong place – but no country in the world except Israel has recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – so Ted is being odd. He hopes no one looks these things up, and that Sheldon Adelson pays for his campaign.

As for Cuba, the history here is a mess. Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement against the government of Fulgencio Batista had started July 1953 and finally ousted that Batista guy on January 1, 1959 – which we thought was a fine thing. Batista was a jerk, a corrupt and sleazy dictator, and Castro had done what we had done in 1776 – so all was fine, until Castro gave his big speech at the UN and announced Cuba would now be a communist nation. No one saw that coming, and even if this was more about economic and social equality, enforced by the state, and not that much about a geopolitical alignment with the Soviet Union, this was a threat. We had a communist nation ninety miles south of Key West. We had to do something.

We did. In April 1961 it was that Bay of Pigs invasion – a CIA operation to land a small group of Cuban exiles there, to establish a beachhead and move out, inspiring all Cubans to rise up and take back Cuba from Castro. This had been planned by the Eisenhower administration and when Kennedy was told about it, he said fine – go ahead – and he was soon sorry for that. That was a disaster. Launched from Guatemala, our Cuban guys were defeated within three days, by Cuban armed forces under the direct command of Fidel Castro, no less. Castro was the hero of his nation, looking heroic, just like a leader should. President Kennedy said oops.

The next year it was the Cuban Missile Crisis – the Soviets put nuclear missiles in Cuba, aimed at us. Kennedy did better this time – he forced the Soviets to back down and remove the missiles, and agreed we’d remove our nuclear missiles in Turkey, aimed at the Soviets. No one wanted global thermonuclear war. The CIA would stick to plots to kill Castro in sneaky ways – poison cigars and such – but that never did work.

The odd thing is that those were the last two major events. Cuba did turn out to be a nasty place – economic and social equality, enforced by the state, was enforced brutally. There would be no real elections, the state could take what it wanted from anyone, and there would be no free press and no dissent. Many went to jail, and many died there, and many more hopped onto anything that would float and headed in the general direction of Key West. Those who made it got special treatment – lots of aid to get them on their feet and a quick and easy path to citizenship.

That didn’t help matters. Cuban-Americans represent maybe three percent of all the Hispanics in America, and seem to think that they’re the chosen ones. The other ninety-seven percent of Hispanics here in America rather loathe them. They certainly resent them, and that’s a matter we gringos should remember. All conservative Hispanic Republican conservatives, like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, are Cuban-Americans. Such representatives are representative of a tiny would-be elite.

As for Cuba geopolitically, Cuba only mattered in the early sixties. The Soviets took their missiles and left and never thought much about Cuba again. Cuba had been useful once, but that was a long time ago, and these days everyone else, except for the aging Cuban exiles in Miami, has forgotten Cuba too. The place is quiet. They don’t harbor al-Qaeda or ISIS or the Taliban. Those guys don’t think of them and the Cubans don’t seem to care one way or the other about the war on terror. They have no position on Israel and the Palestinians, or on who owns Ukraine. They have no position on much of anything, even if we were still designating them a State Sponsor of Terrorism. No one was sure why. Obama took them off the list.

But we won’t deal with them, damn it. No trade, no diplomatic relations, until they change their ways – and that will make them think twice! And the South will rise again.

After fifty-three years we haven’t thought twice. Obama thought we should. That’s what he was saying last December:

President Obama on Wednesday ordered the restoration of full diplomatic relations with Cuba and the opening of an embassy in Havana for the first time in more than a half-century as he vowed to “cut loose the shackles of the past” and sweep aside one of the last vestiges of the Cold War.

The surprise announcement came at the end of 18 months of secret talks that produced a prisoner swap negotiated with the help of Pope Francis and concluded by a telephone call between Mr. Obama and President Raúl Castro. The historic deal broke an enduring stalemate between two countries divided by just 90 miles of water but oceans of mistrust and hostility dating from the days of Theodore Roosevelt’s charge up San Juan Hill and the nuclear brinkmanship of the Cuban missile crisis.

“We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests, and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries,” Mr. Obama said in a nationally televised statement from the White House. The deal, he added, will “begin a new chapter among the nations of the Americas” and move beyond a “rigid policy that is rooted in events that took place before most of us were born.”

Those of us who were twelve when Castro swept to power resent that, but he had a point, and he had the Pope on his side, although Republicans do hate this new Pope, and they hate this change. What was wrong with the old tried-and-true ways, other than they didn’t work at all? But think about it. We talk to China and Vietnam after all, and the Saudis are pretty nasty to their own people, particularly women, but of course the Saudis have oil. China has the biggest potential customer base in the world. Vietnam is a useful thorn in the side of the Chinese, if the Chinese get too uppity. We talk to them all, and we have embassies there. Why is Cuba any different? Obama swapped a few prisoners with Raúl, to get things moving. Israel does that sort of thing all the time.

And this was the time to do this. Phillip Peters explained the politics:

As recently as 2000, Cuban Americans broke three-to-one for Republicans in Presidential elections, but no more. In 2012, exit polls showed them splitting 50-50 between President Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney. Considering that the president had mildly liberalized Cuba policies in his first term and Governor Romney was calling for a return to President Bush’s hardline policies, this was a shocking result.

But it was not a fluke: it reflects changing policy preferences in a Cuban-American community increasingly populated by younger generations and more recent immigrants. A 2014 Florida International University (FIU) poll showed that for the first time since its surveys began in 1991, a majority of Cuban Americans, 52 percent, wants to end the embargo. (During the 1990s, five FIU polls showed average 85 percent support for the embargo.) Among those under age 30, 62 percent want to end the embargo and 88 percent want to re-establish full diplomatic relations with Havana.

Things had already changed. It was too late to yell Stop last December, and last December, Daniel Larison had added this:

Normalizing relations with Cuba shouldn’t be seen as a “reward” for the regime. It is the removal of a barrier that has been senselessly maintained for more than five decades. If anyone is being punished by the embargo, it is the people in America and Cuba that would otherwise have productive commercial and cultural exchanges. The U.S. gains nothing by persisting in the embargo. On the contrary, it needlessly alienates Latin American governments and puts the U.S. in the absurd position of defending a Cold War relic. Normalization is twenty years overdue, and nothing will be gained by delaying it any longer.

That was the thinking, and now the two embassies are scheduled to open. Once again, for the fourth or fifth time in the last two weeks – it’s hard to keep count – conservatives, for whom everything has always been about the past, about tradition, about that which has always worked well enough and shouldn’t be changed based on some new enthusiasm – have found the past has been taken away from them. It’s no longer an option. Now if they would only stop yelling.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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