I’ve probably answered this question ten times, and each time I’ve probably given a different answer. It usually depends on the breezes (and, sometimes, hurricanes) that blow through my mind.
At this point, I’d choose the night in Mexico when Raul Castro introduced Fidel to Che and they stayed up until morning discussing their plans for the world.
Since overthrowing the brutal and corrupt dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in 1959 with his ragtag band of guerrilla warriors from Cuba’s Sierra Maestra, Fidel Castro has been a thorn in the side of U.S. Presidents and an inspiration to others throughout Latin America. Despite giving up power in 2006 due to failing health, Castro’s impact on the world is unquestionable and long-lasting, but whether he should be celebrated or despised will always be debated and determined by whoever it is that you might ask. For half a century, however, he has stood up against the superpower 90 miles from the shores of his little island and survived the Administrations of Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and, so far, Barack Obama. Most of those Presidents have sought to end Castro’s Revolution; all of them have sanctioned his country; some of them actively sought to kill him.
But Fidel Castro’s first interaction with an American President (albeit one-sided) was much different than his later experiences — it was innocent and childlike. Perhaps that was due to the fact that it took place when he was 14 years old.
Thanks to the work of our National Archives and the Franklin D. Roosevelt President Library in preserving the papers of our Presidents, we have a remarkable letter. On November 6, 1940, the 14-year-old (claiming to be only 12) who would lead the Cuban Revolution less than 20 years later sat in his room at the Colegio De Dolores, a prep school run by the Jesuits in Santiago, Cuba, and penned a letter (in broken English, but fine handwriting) to President Roosevelt, who had won re-election to an unprecedented third term just a day earlier.
This is what Fidel Castro wrote to Franklin D. Roosevelt. (Spelling mistakes are Fidel’s.)
Santiago de Cuba.
Nov 6 1940.
Mr. Franklin Roosvelt,
President of the United States.
My good Roosvelt
I don’t know very English, but I know as much as write to you.
I like to hear the radio, and I am very happy, because I heard in it, that you will be President a new (periodo)
I am twelve years old.
I am a boy but I think very much, but I do not think that I am writting to the President of the United States.
If you like, give me a ten dollars bill green american, in the letter, because never, I have not seen a ten dollars bill green american and I would like to have one of them.
My address is:
Sr. Fidel Castro
Colegio de Dolores
Santiago de Cuba
I don’t know very English but I know very much Spanish and I suppose you don’t know very Spanish but you know very English because you are American but I am not American.
(Thank you very much)
Good by. Your friend,
If you want iron to make your
sheapsships I will show to you the bigest (minar) of iron of the land. They are in Mayarí. Oriente Cuba.
Fidel didn’t get his “ten dollars bill green american”. Perhaps that’s why he nationalized so many American-owned industries in Cuba in August 1960. FDR likely never saw the letter (a time stamp notes that it was received by the State Department on November 27, 1940), and Roosevelt died long before Castro became somebody that an American President would know anything about. The same could not be said for Roosevelt’s successors in the White House.
"Men are products, expressions, reflections; they live to the extent that they coincide with their epoch, or to the extent that they differ markedly from it." — José Martí, Cuban Revolutionary/Poet/Patriot, 1887
Men die — even Revolutionaries like Ché Guevara, Fidel Castro, and Hugo Chávez (well, maybe not Fidel, he’s still fighting). The true measure of their impact, however, is not simply what they did, but what remains once they are gone. In my latest article for AND Magazine, “¿Viva La Revolucíon?”, I look at a connection between Ché and Chávez, and wonder whether their Revolutions died with the Revolutionaries. I also question those Americans who celebrated Chávez’s death much like they celebrated Osama bin Laden’s despite the fact that bin Laden planned terror attacks which killed thousands of Americans while Chávez was basically just an obnoxious presence. Is it as much of a capital crime to antagonize America with annoying rhetoric as it is to target innocent Americans for murder through terror? While I don’t make apologies for Hugo Chávez, in the wake of his death, I try to see his impact through the eyes of his neighbors in Latin America whose interactions with the late Venezuelan leader were largely affectionate. Go check out my article in AND Magazine, “¿Viva La Revolucíon?”, and please click the Facebook “like” or “recommend” button underneath the article’s title!
The weekend is almost here, and with it comes two, brand-new, feature-length articles from me in AND Magazine!
Both articles will spend time on AND Magazine's cover page this weekend, but my loyal followers here on Dead Presidents don’t have to wait. You can check them out now, in their entirety.
¿Viva La Revolucíon? looks at the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, its impact on his country, and Chávez’s influence on Latin America and the regional leaders who came to power during (and often because of) the Chávez era. ¿Viva La Revolucíon? also examines the life and legacy of Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution and Hugo Chávez’s relation to that movement as well as his connection to one of the Revolution’s enduring symbols, Ché Guevara.
In my other new article, Sede Vacante: Historic Happenings at the Vatican, I focus on the Papacy in transition following the surprising and extraordinarily rare resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and write about what we might be able to expect, from a historian’s point-of-view, as the College of Cardinals meets in a Conclave to elect a new Pope under almost unprecedented circumstances — a perfect storm of uncertainty in which a Papal vacancy, scandals in the Church, a shift in worldwide Catholic demographics, and a Conclave held in the wake of a voluntary resignation rather than under the solemnity and sadness of a Pope’s death may result in a far more political process (at least openly) than usual.
Check my articles out now, before they even hit the cover page at AND Magazine! And, if you do read ¿Viva La Revolucíon? or Sede Vacante, please take a moment to click the Facebook “like” button near the top of each page. In fact, even if you don’t read the articles, just go to the page and click that “like” button because it helps me a whole lot. Seriously, you don’t even have to read the articles right now, just go to those links and click the Facebook “like” button and I’ll be your friend in real-life, be the godfather to your children, hide your murder weapon like Robert Kardashian (allegedly) if you pull an O.J. Simpson (allegedly)…whatever you need, I’m there if the Faceboook “likes” on each article gets over 100, okay? Cool.
I have long been drawn to Cuba, as I believe I have shared before. I don’t quite understand why. I’m not Cuban. The part of me that is Hispanic is Mexican — old, indigenous Mexican rather than Spanish — so there is no ethnic or familial connection to Cuba. Yet, I’ve always been drawn to that little island that is about the same distance from Florida as Sacramento is from San Francisco. There’s just a mystique to it — not only because of Fidel and Ché and Camilo Cienfuegos and Celia Sánchez — but dating back to the words of José Martí. There is something resilient about the Cuban people that fascinates me.
Last year, I shared the story of my friend Sarah, who I met during the first Obama campaign and who has been studying medicine for the past few years in Havana courtesy of the Cuban government. I wanted to experience Cuba even before I met Sarah and I’m working hard to try to visit Havana sometime this year. What I really want to experience is Cuba while Fidel Castro is still alive. While Fidel is no longer in power, I just feel like being on the island while he is still living will be a completely different experience than when he is gone, even if his brother Raul remains in power and the country continues to be Communist. If I went to Cuba today, I think I’d still feel like I was in Fidel Castro’s Cuba and that’s the unique experience I want to have, even for just a week.
I’m beginning to think my odds of making it there before Fidel dies aren’t so great, however. Argentina’s President Cristina Fernández visited Havana last week and paid a courtesy call on the former Cuban leader, who will turn 87 in August, and it certainly looks like I need to step up my efforts to visit Sarah in Cuba if I want to experience Cuba while Fidel Castro is still alive:
So, Comandante, for purely selfish reasons, can you just hold on for a little while longer while I try to get everything in order for my visit? I’m really trying to do it this year — maybe even late Spring. Cool? Comandante? Fidel? No, I’m over here where your brother and Cristina are looking. I’ll bring you some of that adidas gear you seem to dig so much.
•This is an Historically Accurate Transcription starring Vice President Richard Nixon and Cuban Leader Fidel Castro at the U.S. Capitol•
NIXON: Well, this is awkward.
FIDEL: Indeed it is.
NIXON: So, I’m Richard Nixon, Vice President of the United States.
FIDEL: Pleased to meet you, Mr. Vice President. I’m Fidel Castro, half-Revolutionary, half-statesman, and 100% absofuckinglutely awesome. Want a cigar?
NIXON: No thank you, nothing against your fine people and their tobacco products, but it’s probably laced with AIDS and poverty.
NIXON: You know, personally, I LOVE the idea of Communism. I just want to throw that out there. It’s Eisenhower who is making a big to-do about you and your kick-ass Revolution.
FIDEL: Ah, this must be why they call you “Tricky Dick”! You tell me what I want to hear and I’m supposed to be charmed, right? I’m told that you’re the biggest opponent of Communism in the United States.
NIXON: That’s what my enemies want you to think. It’s the damn Kennedy family! They are always trying to bring Dick Nixon down.
FIDEL: Wouldn’t fighting Communism make you look good to Americans, Dick? I can call you “Dick”, right?
NIXON: Yes, you may. Can I call you “Fred”?
FIDEL: Of cour…wait, no…why would you call me “Fred”?
NIXON: No reason. Anyway, it would seem that fighting Communism would make me look good, but those damn Kennedys are up to something. You know, I’ll probably be running for President against Jack Kennedy next year.
FIDEL: Yes. It should be interesting.
NIXON: No, it should be my turn to be President! That is what it should be, Fred. But the damn Kennedys are conspiring against me. They are going to buy that election, just watch. Also, the Jews.
FIDEL: What about the Jews?
NIXON: You know…money…Jews…dishonesty…corruption.
FIDEL: You’re just saying random words and hoping that I’ll fall into your stereotyping.
NIXON: See, they’ve gotten to you, too. Those goddamn Kennedy Jews.
FIDEL: It’s been nice talking to you, Mr. Vice President, I really must be going…
NIXON: Listen, Fred, they are going to invade Cuba.
FIDEL: Wait…what? Who is?
NIXON: The Kennedys — all of the brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews — the whole fucking clan. There are like 6000 of those sumbitches. They are going to use their big-ass Kennedy teeth for weapons and land a yacht on the Cuban coast to try to bring you down.
FIDEL: So, you are telling me that the Kennedy family is personally going to try to invade Cuba. Sounds unlikely.
NIXON: That’s what I hear. I’m just trying to help you, Fred.
FIDEL: It’s “Fidel”…my name is “Fidel”.
NIXON: Yes, but in English that is translated to “Fred”.
FIDEL: No, it totally isn’t translated to “Fred” in English. Back to this “invasion”. Where do you get this information?
NIXON: The Jews. Also, they are going to try to assassinate you. With poison ink pens and exploding cigars. They have some Bugs Bunny-type shit that they’re going to use.
FIDEL: Alright, again, nice meeting you, Mr. Vice President.
NIXON: Three words - “Bay of Pigs”. BAHIA DE COCHINOS, FRED!
FIDEL: (Walking away) Goodbye and good luck in 1960, sir.
NIXON: (Turning away) Buy a Gillette, you fucking Commie.
Editor’s Note: I didn’t mean for this to turn into a story and be thousands of words long, but it is. Read it anyway; it’s fun. Also, this is Anthony. There is no editor here (that’s obvious), but if I wrote “Anthony’s Note” it would sound like I was reminding myself of something. Go read…
When working on a political campaign — particularly a Presidential campaign featuring a youthful, charismatic, barrier-breaking, boundary-crossing, force for change who happens to be in the process of inspiring masses of first-time voters and/or participants in the political process — you meet a lot of people. And most of them are frighteningly strange as well as almost immediately annoying. Having patience with those people is the most difficult part of the job (for me, at least) and meeting people who are interesting — and not “interesting” as in “interesting like a science experiment” — is about as rare as hearing a solid, reasonable idea from a campaign volunteer on their very first day at the office.
While working on Barack Obama’s Presidential campaign in 2007 and 2008 in Northern California, I met a lot of people who were hard workers, upstanding citizens, devoted volunteers, loyal to the cause, and not completely unpleasant to be around, but very few people who I considered a friend. By August 2007, we had been running with our regional campaign operations at nearly full speed for close to six months and, in Sacramento, we had such an efficient and effective organization that the national campaign looked to us as a model for getting local campaign groups up-and-running. In early August, we gathered in San Francisco with other leading organizers from California and Nevada for what I believe was just the second “Camp Obama” retreat outside of the national headquarters in Chicago (I believe the first Camp Obama outside of Chicago was the previous weekend in Burbank).
That’s where I met one of my few campaign “friends”, Sarah Hernandez.
Actually, Sarah and I met in the backseat of a volunteer’s car (that sounds like it involved far more sex than was really involved — which was zero) on the drive from Sacramento to San Francisco. Camp Obama started with a sign-in/orientation meeting on Friday evening, and I believe we got to the Longshoremen’s Hall at 6:30 PM or 7:00 PM. There were four or five of us from Sacramento in the car that Sarah and I drove down to San Francisco in, and we all knew each other pretty well, but it was the first time Sarah and I had met. I’m not positive, but I think Sarah had just recently started volunteering and Camp Obama was one of the first “big” events that she volunteered for. It was quite a commitment, too, as we were told that sessions would be lengthy and jam-packed until the camp ended on Sunday night.
Anyway, Sarah and I hit it off right away, mostly because we’re both pretty terrible human beings with mean-spirited senses of humor. You know — the type of people that political campaigns must love. Also, we both grew up in the Del Paso Heights/North Sacramento area of the city, so it was basically like we were in the same gang. Plus, everyone else in our group was kind of square. I mean, they were nice people and everything, but it was a Friday night in San Francisco and it’s not like we were going to get sent to the Principal’s office or grounded if, God forbid, we tried to squeeze some fun into the Camp Obama weekend. It was an organizing session for a political campaign and we felt that we had organized ourselves pretty well already, so how tough could it be?
After the orientation session ended at around 9:30 PM on Friday night, we all went to the empty apartment of a San Francisco volunteer who had recently moved in with his girlfriend and still had the lease on his old apartment, so he allowed us all to have a slumber party since Camp Obama lasted from Friday to Sunday night. Everyone staying in the apartment debated whether to go get a drink or to be responsible and get some rest. Sarah and I — already working our evil in tandem despite knowing each other for only a few hours — talked almost everybody into joining us at the Irish bar downstairs which, as Sarah fondly remembers, had a “real Irish bartender”.
While everybody initially joined us, not many of them stayed for very long. The “real Irish bartender” must have sensed our political leanings because he was Liberal with the alcohol. As Friday night turned into Saturday morning memories turn hazy. I don’t recall who was hanging out with Sarah and I after midnight, but it wasn’t more than one or two people, and that person or persons didn’t last much longer. Since Sarah and I had just met that evening, we realized that we had 27 years of catching up to do and attempted to do so in the hours between Camp Obama’s Friday night session and its next phase on Saturday morning. From the Irish bar, we traveled the lovely and scenic and totally-safe-after-midnight streets of the Tenderloin district in San Francisco, as well as its drinking establishments. I do not remember much, but at one point I did have to drag Sarah from a bar with my hand over her mouth as she started to pull some Del Paso Heights out on a bartender. We also stockpiled a treasure trove of inside jokes that, to this day, only require a few words to send the other person into hysterics: phrases like “la puta rosa”, “the Character Breaker”, or “Calvin Klein ice chest” do the trick. Or mentioning two seemingly innocuous subjects such as the legendary, heroic Harvey Milk and peeing on San Francisco’s majestic City Hall. These things mean nothing to people reading this, but Sarah will laugh when she sees it, just as I’m laughing as I write it.
It was a lot of fun and it’s safe to say that Sarah and I were very drunk by the time we got back to the apartment and realized that all of the responsible people who had accompanied us to San Francisco in order to further then-Senator Barack Obama’s campaign for President of the United States were soundly sleeping in order to be at their best in the morning. We realized that as we loudly crashed up the stairs, laughing and stumbling into walls and over people. We tried to find places to sleep, and, about 90 minutes later, everyone’s alarms went off because it was time to wake up. Oh fuck.
When you hear “Camp”, you think of swimming and games and relaxation, right? But Camp Obama was a training camp for foot soldiers on the front line of one of the most important, world-changing Presidential campaigns in American History. We had to arrive at Longshoremen’s Hall at 7:30 AM to help set up. The Saturday session — the session that Sarah and I would be confronting with devastating hangovers — was scheduled to last from 8:00 AM to 9:30 PM. THAT IS THIRTEEN-AND-A-HALF HOURS. Our responsible teammates woke up just fine, bright-eyed and ready to change the world. I don’t know about Sarah, but I was still drunk until about 1:00 PM that afternoon. I was so out of it as we all got ready to leave for the Saturday session, I needed to ask someone to show me how to turn the shower on.
Saturday morning was brutal. I’m not sure if Sarah was in as bad of shape as I was, but she couldn’t have been much better. It didn’t help that Camp Obama wasn’t exactly like being in the middle of the prime-time rally at the Democratic National Convention. It was very academic and there was a lot of talking. One of Camp Obama’s focuses — one of the tactics that the Obama campaign wanted supporters to utilize in 2008 — was to have regular people tell their personal stories and connect it to why they supported Obama and why they wanted and needed change in our country. It was effective and personal and, often, quite emotional. But after drinking all night, sleeping for 90 minutes, and being stuck in that dead zone between being drunk and being hungover, I had no interest in anyone’s personal story unless it included a sincere, immediate wish that I be allowed to take a nap.
Camp Obama had a secret weapon, though. As Sarah and I zoned out and passed notes back-and-forth where we talked about how stupid we were for drinking so much (and wandering around the Tenderloin at 3:30 AM aimlessly as if it were Golden Gate Park), how much the chairs made our butts hurt, and exchanged rude observations about literally everybody in the Longshoremen’s Hall, Camp Obama made it impossible for us to NOT try to pay attention. See, deep down, Sarah and I are both political/history nerds with a special affinity for activists, Hispanic leaders, and revolutionaries. We’re both fascinated by people like Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, José Martí, Pablo Neruda, and, like the good part-Mexican Californians from the Central Valley that we are, Cesar Chavez. So, despite the bad choices we made the previous night and the long hours ahead of us, Sarah and I perked up as we met and listened to hours of lessons on political organizing by Marshall Ganz. When members of the national campaign staff — usually people our age who just happened to live in Chicago instead of Sacramento or San Francisco — were speaking, it was difficult to focus and imagine that their biographical and professional experiences were all that different from ours.
But Marshall Ganz? Marshall Ganz could teach me — even half-drunk, half-hungover, fully-tired me — the definition of political organizing. Marshall Ganz worked for SNCC. In the 1960’s. In Mississippi. Marshall Ganz volunteered for the Mississippi Summer Project while he was at Harvard. Marshall Ganz helped the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party with their historic attempt at being seated at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. And, of course, Ganz spent years shaping and organizing the efforts of the United Farm Workers alongside Cesar Chavez. Ganz wasn’t just a face in the crowd marching with Chavez from Delano to Sacramento; Ganz helped organize the march and the grape boycott and many of the other efforts of the United Farm Workers. The Obama campaign wasn’t Ganz’s first experience with Presidential politics. He met President Kennedy when he was attending Harvard. He helped Fannie Lou Hamer gain the attention of President Johnson at the 1964 convention. On the night that Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in 1968, Ganz was waiting backstage at the Ambassador Hotel for RFK to finish his speech so that he could introduce the candidate to some of the farmworkers that Ganz and the UFW had made sure got to the polls to cast their ballots for RFK in the California Democratic Primary. At Camp Obama in San Francisco, we were hungry and tired and crabby and sometimes bored and obsessed with making snarky comments about people in the Longshoremen’s Hall who were working much harder and far more earnestly than we were on that day, but we also were schooled in the art of political organizing by an icon who helped — not merely “supported”, but HELPED — a leader like Cesar Chavez, who is practically a Saint where Sarah and I come from.
Sadly, even the presence of Marshall Ganz couldn’t keep my new friend Sarah from being a bad influence — the little devil on my shoulder attempting to trick me into misbehaving and forcing me into irresponsible choices. All I wanted to do on that Saturday was stay at Camp Obama from the time we arrived at 7:30 AM until the time Saturday’s session ended at 9:30 PM. All I wanted to do was focus on crafting my personal story so that I could make connections with regular people, tell them what I felt and what I believed and who I supported and why, and hopefully do my part in helping to change the world. My new friend Sarah wanted to be irresponsible. Anthony wanted to change the world. It’s truly that simple.
I couldn’t change the world, though. Not on that Saturday at Camp Obama. Sarah’s boss had given her tickets to the San Francisco Giants game at beautiful AT&T Park, just in case she could use them. I don’t know why Sarah thought that she could use the tickets. After all, the baseball game started up before we even adjourned for our 45-minute lunch at Camp Obama. Irresponsible Sarah decided that, at lunch, she would skip out of Camp Obama and go to the Giants game for a little while. My plans and dreams of working hard all day to begin changing the world were dashed because, as a gentleman, I couldn’t allow a lady to travel the lengthy distance from the Longshoremen’s Hall to AT&T Park by herself in the middle of the day. Not in the dangerous world that we so badly needed Obama to make safe. Against my wishes, I accompanied Sarah to AT&T Park and unwillingly sat in the fantastic seats that her boss had given her. As our friends and co-workers and devoted volunteers rushed through their lunches and plunged back into the work at Camp Obama, I was forced to sit in the amazing weather of an August day in San Francisco, with my seat overlooking McCovey Cove and the sparkling waters of San Francisco Bay while also enjoying unobstructed perspectives of the baseball diamond, as well as the San Francisco skyline and the Bay Bridge. It was torture to sit there in the midday sun with a cool breeze swirling into the ballpark and ignore phone calls and text messages from my fellow Camp Obama attendees as Sarah, against my will, forced me to watch a Major League Baseball game and eat the famous garlic fries at Giants games when I could have been where I wished I could be: sitting on a hard plastic chair, in the stuffy Longshoremen’s Hall, eating old sandwiches from Costco and drinking bottled water but not the good bottled water like Fiji Water, and listening to a “working mother” from Modesto or Daly City or San Mateo or Cupertino share her story and tell us about her two kids that she hopes will be able to go to college without going broke and that she’d totally be okay if one of them were gay and that the war in Iraq was wrong but she still supports the troops and feels bad about the environment because she loves her SUV and couldn’t possibly give it up even though she feels guilty when she sees a sad dolphin or pelican that’s pissed off because it has bottle caps stuck on its wings. See, because of Sarah’s bad influence, I missed unique stories like that and for what? To watch a baseball game in the middle of a perfect day with gorgeous weather at a breathtakingly beautiful, state-of-the-art stadium in one of the most scenic cities in the world? Where are our priorities?
Finally, I convinced Sarah to return to Camp Obama so that we could get back to the world-changing, but because we decided to sneak out at catch almost an entire, nine-inning professional baseball game, there were only about six hours left in that day’s session. What could we possibly learn in just six of nearly fourteen hours of work that day? The festivities of the previous night and our decision to catch a baseball game for lunch were catching up with us and, quite frankly, some of our fellow Camp Obama mates thought we were assholes. I can’t say that they were all that wrong, but it was completely, absolutely, 100% Sarah’s fault. I succumbed to peer pressure. Also, she threatened to harm me physically.
We behaved for the remainder of Saturday’s Camp Obama session. That night, more of our crew from Sacramento were up for going out to the Irish bar and having a few drinks. Sarah and I, by that time, looked like survivors of the D-Day invasion who accidentally stumbled into a recruiting office full of eager new soldiers. We had fought that battle and our Saturday night festivities were decidedly restrained despite the fact that more of our teammates were drinking than the previous night. We did have some fun with a couple of bar patrons who weren’t from our group who played Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” so many times consecutively on the jukebox that I eventually got up and unplugged the machine.
Sunday was the final day of Camp Obama and we again had to be at the Longshoremen’s Hall early in the morning. Starbucks and Pepsi were what got us — not just Sarah and I, but pretty much everyone at the retreat — through that final day. There was no misbehavior or ditching school from us on Sunday; we just did whatever we could to get to the end of the day as quickly as possible so that we could go home. I think I got back to Sacramento at 10:30 PM or so on Sunday night. It was quite the weekend, but it was fun because — despite her bad influence on me and her unfortunate choices — I had met a volunteer for the campaign who was fun to hang out with.
Sarah, however, had some sort of revelation or discovery. Even though she didn’t hesitate for a second to involve herself (and, by association, poor, innocent me) in shenanigans and, yes, even hijinks while we were at Camp Obama, Sarah decided that changing the world was a good idea after all. And while working on a political campaign to help elect a potentially transformational President of the United States is one way to go about changing the world, Sarah went even further. Now, I’ve thought about the path that Sarah ended up taking and have realized that there are only two possible explanations for the amazing journey that she embarked upon a couple of years ago. The first possibility is that Sarah thought about her inappropriate behavior at Camp Obama — drinking too much the night that we arrived, wandering around the Tenderloin after midnight, yelling at bartenders, slandering the good name of Harvey Milk, defacing City Hall, making fun of a homeless man’s Calvin Klein ice chest, ditching Camp Obama’s Saturday session to go to a baseball game, passing notes like a junior high schooler, do I need to continue? — and recognized that she was fortunate enough to learn from a legendary activist like Marshall Ganz that one person can make a difference, so she decided to seek redemption by helping others.
The other possibility — and the most likely conclusion — is that Sarah met a remarkable, inspirational figure that weekend in San Francisco who motivated her to reach for the stars, to think bigger than the streets of our neighborhoods, the boundaries of our states, the borders of our nation. He inspired Sarah to see the people of our world as one people and helped her to recognize that even she, who once made a street performer on Fisherman’s Wharf break character, could help all of humanity. His words and his wisdom made a believer out of Sarah, allowing her to see the truth and to see the path for her redemption — that her service could be larger than something political or industrial. Instead, she could reach people individually, cure their ailments, treat their illnesses, repair their injuries, and heal their pain. It took a great man to rescue Sarah from the trail of darkness and deception that she was traveling down and lead her to a path of enlightenment and harmony. That great man, that ray of light, that beacon of insight, that big, fat, juicy pile of goodwill is, of course, me.
You don’t have to thank me, but you’re welcome, Sarah.
Alright, alright. My story got out of hand and I may have embellished my role in motivating Sarah, and by “embellished”, I mean “totally fabricated”. And perhaps I was not exactly an unwilling participant in the debauchery in San Francisco when I met Sarah during Camp Obama in August 2007.
What is certain, however, is that Sarah did make a choice a few years ago — a choice to take a journey that will absolutely help people, individually and collectively, and which I truly believe, as I have told her, requires bravery, courage, and a sense of adventure and faith and hope that I genuinely envy.
In October, Sarah will begin what I believe is her fourth year of medical school. In Cuba. Sarah is one of the thousands of international students — although one of only a few dozen Americans — attending Havana’s Escuela Latinoamericana de Medicina (ELAM), or Latin American School of Medicine in English. Because of the frosty relations between the U.S. and Cuba over the past half-century, it was only within the past decade that the United States loosened restrictions due to the 52-year-old trade emargo against Cuba in order to allow a small number of American students to accept spots in ELAM originally offered by Fidel Castro. Since the U.S. embargo is so strict, ELAM students like Sarah are considered a cultural exchange, otherwise Sarah would be charged with violating the embargo whenever she spent money while away at school.
Most American students at ELAM are minorities — African-American, Native American, or Hispanic, and Sarah is classmates with medical students from around-the-world, particularly Latin American nations but also many Africans. The Cuban government operates ELAM and provides students with scholarships to attend, so Sarah’s tuition and housing is paid for by Cuba. However, she does have expenses. In September, Sarah will take her first board examination and she is required to pay for the exams. Other expenses include her groceries, travel expenses, and the main connections that she has to stay in contact with her family and friends while living in Havana — internet time and calling cards. Sarah welcomes donations from any angel investors interested in helping out through PayPal (https://www.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_s-xclick&hosted_button_id=QGL9KUPM4CM8E).
For those who are interested in Sarah’s progress and her story, she has been making entries every now-and-then in a blog, and I suggested that she use Tumblr so that I can help her share her experiences. I have always had a fascination with Cuba — long before I knew Sarah or heard about ELAM. As I’ve written before, to me, Fidel Castro is one of the most extraordinary figures in history — not just Cuban history, or recent history, but in all of history. There are positives and negatives about Castro and I’m not downplaying any hardship or pain suffered by Fidel’s opponents, but I find his life to be remarkable from his youth up until today. I find his drive and ambition to be incredible, as if it was his destiny to lead and somehow survive despite the forces that were arrayed against him, so intensely and so long. When I was younger and worked with kids back in Sacramento, I had a Cuban family that in the program that I operated and got to know the family well enough that they always invited me to visit their family members who remained in Cuba. I knew that I would likely never do so, but I never completely ruled it out. Now that Sarah is living in Cuba and attending school there for a few more years, I have put more thought into attempting a visit. I’d really love to make the trip while Fidel Castro is still alive. When he is gone, it may take years before drastic changes take place, but there’s a mystique that still envelops the island as long as he is living and I’d want to experience that.
During her time in Cuba, Sarah has regularly e-mailed updates to friends and family along with the blog posts that she does her best to update as often as possible for a medical student training to become a fully-accredited physician (California, which has the toughest standards of any state medical board in the U.S. gives full recognition to ELAM graduates, so upon graduation Sarah will be meet eligibility qualifications for a residency anywhere in the United States). I’m always happy to read her updates because they are fascinating and usually funny because Sarah is hilarious and makes the observations that I hope I would make if I were in her situation. There’s also something very touching about Cuba’s people and their culture which makes the island sound like a welcoming place. As Sarah often notes, because of the watertight embargo that the United States has imprisoned Cuba with for over 50 years, living in Havana feels like living in 1959. Photos of cars driving on Havana’s streets make it look like Sarah is on the set of Happy Days or inside Mel’s Drive-In. It is surreal just to see photos and read a friend’s e-mails, so I can’t imagine what it is like to experience.
Sarah’s most interesting stories, however, revolve around the Cuban people that she encounters. As part of their training, ELAM students spend time in community health clinics providing preventive care and treating patients young and old. The people that Sarah meets and the experiences that they often share with her make her blog posts a must-read. One glaring piece of irony that I continuously find is that this little Communist island which is trapped in time and shackled with restrictions for, amongst other reasons, alleged human rights abuses takes care of its people — from a public health standpoint — whether they are poor or financially secure, young or old, sick or healthy far better than we do in the United States (Cubans have a higher life expectancy than Americans). Cuba not only provides for the health of its citizens, but with ELAM, provides an institution to train others — at the expense of Cuba’s own government — to practice medicine from the tundra of Canada to Cape Horn. I think that is something worth being redundant about — this is something good that Cuba provides and people benefit from.
I’ve told Sarah how much I admire what she is doing. While she is chasing a dream and is fortunate for the rewarding experience that a scholarship at ELAM provides, I personally believe that it also requires a great deal of sacrifice and courage. Sarah had a relatively comfortable life in the United States, a nice job, lots of friends, and family nearby. Attending ELAM is a deep commitment, not only in time and effort and money, but also personally. Cuba is only 90 miles off the coast of Florida. It’s a lot closer than soldiers who are stationed in Afghanistan, but it many ways it is much more distant. It’s an island with no diplomatic relationship with the United States, trapped in 1959 due to decades of sanctions and a trade embargo. Few Americans live in Cuba and while Havana of 2012 is far different than Havana of 1962, it is still a tightly-controlled Communist society. Attending ELAM is a lot of work and Sarah doesn’t get an opportunity to visit home, or contact her friends and family as often as she would like. Cuba can be an awfully lonely place for an American medical student, hot, humid, forbidding and strange for Americans used to little luxuries that may not be important in the big picture, but are familiar and comforting. There is a lot out of Sarah’s control and, for that reason especially, I admire her strength and determination and sense of purpose.
As Sarah enters her fourth year at ELAM in Cuba, I continue to admire resolve and envy her ability to make a leap of faith and chase her dream. I wonder what the hell I’m truly doing by trying to make my living writing magazine articles, studying Presidential History, and reviewing books while my friend is learning how to save people’s lives, serving strangers who speak a language that she didn’t originally speak in community clinics on a tropical island, and protecting the public health in Cuba so that she can come home and do the same thing in the United States. I am proud of my friend, and that’s why I’m sharing Sarah’s story with you. I think it’s something you would continue to find as interesting as I do, even if you don’t know Sarah personally. Her blog sjhernandez.tumblr.com is full of great details, entertaining experiences, and compelling conversations that she has with people that she meets and treats in Cuba. And I wouldn’t be an awesome friend if I didn’t suggest making a donation to the Help Sarah Become A Doctor While Not Getting Eaten By Mosquitoes and Living In A 1950’s Movie Fund. On her blog, Sarah includes a rundown on the expenses she has or is expecting, so if you can help, I know she would appreciate it. Also, tell her that since I wrote several thousands words about her, I probably deserve a box of Cuban cigars.
Obviously, if Fidel Castro had the same political ideology that he’s become an icon of he would have faced more than a few obstacles towards being elected President if he had been born here.
What I mean by my comment, though, is that Fidel Castro’s intelligence, charisma, perseverance, and ability to connect with, inspire and lead people would have made him a major figure in whatever field he chose, wherever he might have lived.
Castro is such an enduring personality that I feel we often overlook everything he had to do to acquire and retain his position. Fidel is a genuine, literal revolutionary. He successfully overthrew a powerful, brutal regime after beginning his revolution with just a few comrades and a multitude of challenges and setbacks. Yet, his leadership ability inspired his countrymen to join him.
I have written extensively about Castro elsewhere, so I would suggest reading my AND Magazine article for some more background. Also, I understand Castro’s excesses and controversies and I don’t agree with a lot of Castro’s actions and beliefs. That doesn’t change my opinion, however. I believe he was a strong enough figure in history that he could have done whatever he chose to accomplish. He was born to be a leader and had he been born here, I believe he would have become President.
The Platt Amendment was terrible for Cuba and continues to impede on the island’s progress and independence each and every day. It is my belief that any legislation which directly meddles in the internal affairs of another country is an outright attack on that country’s sovereignty and a black spot on the nation which enacts the legislation.
What the Platt Amendment did in the wake of the Spanish-American War was basically tell Cuba this:
"Okay, you’re free from Spanish tyranny and occupation and we’ll leave the island, too, but understand that you are indebted to us, we are the primary agent for the commercial development of your natural resources and the managers of your foreign policy, we’re gonna go ahead and carve out part of your country for ourselves, and we’re also going to intervene in Cuban affairs whenever we deem it necessary in order to protect, promote or progress the interests of the United States. Oh, and if you have a problem with that, we can light a cigar on a warship in Miami and anchor it in Havana’s harbor before we’re finished smoking."
The Platt Amendment, like all U.S. policy towards Cuba, has been a hypocritical attempt at colonial domination since the Ostend Manifesto of 1854. We can’t view Fidel Castro’s accomplishments without simultaneously considering his excesses and failures, but I find it hard to disagree with his lifelong claim of American imperialism in regards to Cuba.
I can’t tell you much because I don’t know what is fact and fiction with a lot of that Cuba business. I don’t think most of us will know in our lifetimes.
What I do know is this: almost anything that had to do with covert activity in Cuba during the 1950’s and 1960’s originated with the Eisenhower Administration and Eisenhower was fully involved with that. I think Eisenhower was involved more deeply than Nixon was, and if Eisenhower had been President from 1961-1965 instead of JFK and LBJ, we would have gone to war in Cuba.
Nixon was Vice President from 1953-1961 under Eisenhower, and he did play a fairly active role in the Eisenhower Administration, but not nearly as large of a role as present-day Vice Presidents play, or as large of a role as Nixon would have liked to have played. Nixon was still only Vice President and he spent far more time in the Senate and overseas than in the White House during Eisenhower’s term.
How shady was Track Two? Well, the details are still murky 50 years later, so pretty damn shady. I don’t know specifically which part of our Cuba policy that the Mafia was involved in, but the CIA absolutely worked with Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana (whose mistress was also JFK’s mistress, by the way) and Florida boss Santo Traficante to assassinate Fidel Castro. There is no doubt about this. The CIA’s Family Jewels documents released in 2007 confirm this.
As for JFK’s assassination, I still believe that JFK was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald and that Oswald was a lone gunman, not part of a larger conspiracy. I don’t understand what the motive would have been for eliminating JFK in order to enact some specific Cuban policy considering JFK was, in fact, eliminated and the American policy towards Cuba did not dramatically change from what JFK likely would have done. Fidel Castro says that he felt he and the Soviets could have talked with Kennedy, but I think LBJ and Nixon were just as open as doing that (if not more) than Kennedy would have been.