Abdulateef Al-Mulhim
Abdulateef Al-Mulhim
Commodore, Royal Saudi Navy (Retired)

How far is Cuba from the United States? Cuba’s capital city Havana is only about 220 miles from Miami, Florida’s largest city — that is half the distance between Miami and Pensacola (two cities of Florida), which is about 520 miles.

Despite the proximity between the two countries, the last time an American president visited Cuba was around a century ago. US President Calvin Coolidge visited Cuba in 1928. In addition to that the two countries had no political ties for over half a century. The world still remembers the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis that had pushed the world to the brink of a third world war. Interestingly, in 1962 US President Barack Obama was only one year old. Now he has opened a new chapter in US-Cuba ties.

Cuba is a very interesting place and its relation with its much bigger and stronger neighbor always take very drastic turns. Cuba’s capital went from becoming the new world’s gambling capital and tourist attraction to elite of the US to the most dangerous and feared enemy of the US.

Geographically, it is considered part of North America but its culture is closer to Latin America. Even though it is part of the new world, which was colonized by the Spanish 500 years ago, Cuba has a very rich culture and interesting history.

Cuba has been under the communist rule since the 1960s with Fidel Castro its absolute leader from 1961 to 2011. In 2011, Raul Castro succeeded him. The two countries were at odds since Fidel’s took power. Animosity between the two countries had pushed the world to the brink of a nuclear war.

The US also tries to topple Castro through a preplanned invasion by dissident Cubans living in the US in 1961. In later years Cuba became a paradise for revolutionists from around the world. It became a training ground for many leftist groups and its forces and military advisers were present in many places such as Africa. During the years of the Cold War, Cuba was the smallest superpower in the world. Cuba remained isolated from rest from the world and especially the West for many years. It was embargoed and its wheel of development was at a standstill. Cars in Havana’s streets are more than 50 years old and most of its buildings are in bad shape.

The situation, however, boosted creativity of Cubans. The health care and education systems of the country are very developed.

Ironically, the strained relations between Cuba and the US were full of events that were considered serious at the time but now those issues are being looked at with humor. The US and the world still remember the so-called Cuban Boat People. It all started in 1980 when about 10,000 Cubans crammed into the Peruvian Embassy in Havana seeking asylum to Peru or any other country that would accept them. Instead of resisting, President Fidel Castro announced that he would open the seaport near Havana for anyone who wanted to leave Cuba as long as they had someone to pick them up. At that time, many exiled Cubans in Florida hired boats to pick their Cuban relatives and friends.

The US ultimately had the US Coast Guard to form maritime patrol to stop the flow of Cubans. It wasn’t easy for the coastguard because the number of boats heading to US shores was more than 1,700 and many of them were unseaworthy. The situation got more serious when it was circulated that Castro had opened the gates of prisons and mental institutes and dispatched most dangerous elements to Florida. It took three years for Florida to cope with the situation and absorb the influx of those boat people.

A few days ago, Obama was in the Cuban capital signaling the end of an era of hostilities. These hostilities were not ended by military. There are many lessons that should be learned from the American president’s visit to Cuba. No matter how hostile governments are to each other, it is better to leave them for time to make hostilities subside and disappear. Armed conflicts only leave scars that may not heal as fast or as easily. And now, Cuba will be rebuilt. There are many American investors who are ready to make investments. Many Americans of Cuban origin are willing to go back and build a new Cuba.

Written by Abdulateef Al-Mulhim. Obama in Cuba reprinted with permission of Arab News and Abdulateef Al-Mulhim.