By Fernando Ravsberg
HAVANA TIMES — In 1959, just months after the triumph of the Cuban revolution, Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo created Asterix, a comic-book saga telling the story of a small, Gaul village that Rome was never able to conquer, not even at a time when it had subjugated all of Europe and the Mediterranean.
The similarities of this story with the confrontation between Havana and Washington became evident in the 90s, when the Eastern Bloc collapsed and Cuba was left entirely to its own resources. At the time, no one believed that a small island would be able to withstand the pressure applied by the world’s most powerful nation.
Havana City Historian Eusebio Leal recalls that, at the time, many believed that, as in the times of the Roman Empire, the defeated king would be taken to Rome in an iron cage. That, however, did not happen. On the contrary, today it is the leader of the most powerful nation in history who visits his adversary at home.
Obama’s critics reproach him for making concessions to Cuba without asking for anything in return. The fact of the matter is that his own experiences, and those of his predecessors, have confirmed that he won’t get anything out of Cuba through pressure or by imposing conditions.
For fifty years, they hatched subversive plans backed by the CIA, they attempted to assassinate Cuban leaders, organized an invasion involving thousands of exiles, reached the brink of nuclear war, financed armed groups and imposed an economic embargo on Cuba.
The one thing that was left untried was a direct military invasion. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy made a commitment to the Russians that he would set aside that option. It was one of the pillars of an agreement that saved the world from World War III.
Other critics say Cuba isn’t important to the United States and that, therefore, the same policy that has been applied for 50 years could well be preserved without any repercussions. The truth is that Washington paid a political price for its strong headedness, as Obama himself explained in a recent interview.
“When I took office, American prestige in Latin America had sunk very low,” he said, adding that “the only piece that didn’t fit and was a remnant of the Cold War was Cuba.” He acknowledged that they had applied “a policy that hadn’t worked for 50 years.”
That said, Obama’s efforts to establish good, neighborly relations with Cuba also aim at bringing political changes on the island. It is a different and perhaps more effective strategy to generate process that could bring about the end of socialism in the country.
In the interview, he claims changes are being hastened thanks to the growing number of US citizens who travel to the island, commercial exchanges, family remittances, broader communication systems, access to the Internet and opportunities for private initiative.
I recall the Asterix episode Obelix and Co., where the Gaullish village is almost defeated by Rome. Caius Preposterus, a young Roman economist, convinces Julius Caesar that money can triumph where force failed, if the drive for profits is encouraged among the rebellious.
In 1990, an engineer told me that “if the United States had bombarded Cuba with blue jeans and sneakers, they would already have defeated us.” After more than half a century of rationed products, Cubans’ thirst for consumer products is understandable, but it could also be the nation’s biggest weakness.
At any rate, Obama’s visit is a symbol of change and an acknowledgement that the village could not be defeated through force. The most powerful leader in the world will enter Cuba without any troops to talk with this small, militarily and economically-weak island on an equal footing.
A new and far more complex era begins, and the “magic potion” won’t be as important as it was during open confrontation. But we best not predict the future, as the story of Cuba, like that of Asterix, is full of surprises.