Mikhail Gorbachev could have changed Cuba and Miami forever

Cuban leader Fidel Castro greets Mikhail Gorbachev in Havana on April 2, 1989.

Cuban leader Fidel Castro greets Mikhail Gorbachev in Havana on April 2, 1989.

AFP/Getty Images

RIP, Mikahail Gorbachev, a leader who spoke, as he described, “the language of practical politics” and ended the Cold War – but not in Cuba or Miami.

But, during an era of inspiring hope, he was the man of the hour as Eastern Bloc nations embraced the Soviet leader’s call for radical change, embraced his reforming doctrine and went further. declaring their sovereignty.

“This society is ripe for change. It has longed for it for a long time,” Gorbachev wrote of the Soviet Union in his 1987 American bestseller, “Perestroika,” an unprecedented book in which he explained his vision of a new Russia and analyzed how the new order of the superpower could have an impact on the rest of the world. the world.

His words and the news of one communist regime falling after another nourished our souls as Cuban exiles in Miami with renewed – and at the time realistic – yearnings for our return to the homeland.

Glasnost and memories of perestroika

His death on Tuesday at age 91 evokes memories of when democracy seemed within reach for Cuba — and Miami was bracing for change. “Ya viene llegando», has become motto and anthem.

Our day is coming.

The Baltic States. Soviet territories. Soviet satellites: Czechoslovakia. Poland. Hungary. Bulgaria. Romania, entirely free from Soviet domination. And, on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall came down, piece by piece, as Germans, East and West, became one.

Surely we thought Cuba would be next.

We all called what was happening “the domino effect”. Cuba would be the last piece.

The uprisings and almost overnight regime change fueled our wildest fantasies.

Would repressive Fidel Castro meet the same fate as brutal Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, overthrown and executed by firing squad on Christmas Day after a military court held a summary trial and found him guilty?

The army had turned against Ceaușescu. Cuba had powerful reasons to do the same.

On July 13, 1989, Castro had executed Arnaldo Ochoa – an admired hero of the Angolan war who Cubans who knew him said favored reform – after framing a dubious drug-trafficking case against him. Three senior officers from the Ministry of the Armed Forces and the Ministry of the Interior (MININT) were also executed.

Preparing for the Cuba tour in Miami

In Miami, a city that gets used to international conflicts that turn into a local story, the story of Gorbachev Glasnost and perestroika were familiar words. Liberated minds sparked movements and, despite repression in Cuba, the dismantling of the Soviet Union inspired a new generation of human rights fighters like the late Oswaldo Payá.

We prepared for the fall of Cuba.

At the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald, we had a “Cuba Plan,” which called for reservations on ships ready to leave Miami for Cuba at the first sign of revolt or announced change. All journalists had assignments. The editor of El Nuevo had packed her bags outside the door of her house in Coral Gables, ready to catch the first flight to Cuba.

But the fall of the dominoes stopped at the Havana sea wall.

Even Gorbachev’s visit to Cuba on March 31, 1989 did not convince Castro to embrace reform.

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Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and Cuban President Fidel Castro embrace at Jose Marti Airport in Havana, April 2, 1989. AP Photo

Coincidentally, that day I was at the White House, sitting at lunch right next to President George HW Bush. I asked him what he expected from Gorbachev’s visit. He wouldn’t answer.

READ MORE: My unforgettable lunch with President George HW Bush at the White House

Photos from Cuba showed a disgruntled Fidel Castro greeting Gorbachev at the Havana airport. We in Miami read between the lines too much. Gorbachev confirmed the end of Soviet subsidies and Cuba’s debt free ride.

Castro, however, would stick to his worn battle cry, “Socialism or Death”, and when the lack of Soviet goods and money led to the so-called Special Period and the Starving People’s Troubles, he solved the problem by allowing the perilous exodus of the rafters to continue.

And here we are, 33 years later, with Cuba in economic freefall. Starving, poor, hopeless people, too frightened to fight the repressive apparatus of Miguel Díaz-Canel, risk instead dying at sea, in a Central American jungle or crossing the Rio Grande.

Another generation is fleeing to the United States in record numbers.

Gorbachev could have changed Cuba – and by proxy, Miami – forever, but when the Soviet Union collapsed, he struggled to save himself. He was deposed in an ill-organized coup that eventually opened the door for Boris Yeltsin, who traveled to Miami and was warmly welcomed.

Why, why didn’t Cuba follow the rest of the Soviet bloc?

“Cuba is an island, which makes it easier for an authoritarian dictatorship to control,” said retired Congresswoman Ileana-Ros Lehtinen, elected to Congress in that historic year of 1989. “Cuba has, and continues to having a highly developed and oppressive internal system. security apparatus, which is aided by its isolated island geography.

On the other hand, “Eastern European Warsaw Pact countries have always had resistance movements against the imposition of communism by external Soviet weapons,” said Ros-Lehtinen, who chaired the commission. Foreign Affairs of the House from 2011 to 2013.

“Communism in Cuba was imposed by Cuban communist thugs themselves,” she added. “This makes it more difficult to avoid detection of dissidents by the internal security system, especially when capital punishment awaits those detected. To put it simply, Cuban communist oppression is imposed and directed by Cubans.

A Gorbachev for Cuba

And only Cubans inside the island can change the repressive dynamic that keeps Cuba locked down as Eastern Europe, once behind the Iron Curtain, now thrives.

Perhaps the physical death of the last Castro, Raúl, 91, will bring about a change.

Perhaps inside the ruling forces in government – ​​“squabbles” since the historic July 11 protests last year, as a source with ties inside Cuba described factions – there is another Gorbachev waiting for the right moment to articulate his vision for the Caribbean. Glasnost and perestroika.

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Award-winning columnist Fabiola Santiago has been writing about all things Miami since 1980, when the Mariel boat lift became her first front-page story. A Cuban child refugee from the Freedom Flights, she is also the author of essays, short fiction films and the novel “Reclaiming Paris”.
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