!Yanqui, si! !Cuba, no!

Back in the late 1950s, I attended an open-air rally (in Manhattan’s Central Park) that starred Fidel Castro. His entourage stayed at a hotel on 125th Street (memory says the Hotel Theresa, but I’m not sure), and they were ridiculed by the tabloids for cooking chicken on the fire escapes, rather than eat out in trendy restaurants with the other politicians.

Fidel dressed in army fatigues, wore a regulation fatigue cap, and called for compassion for his country and his people.

The crowd cheered! But they were mostly young, idealistic, liberal, sympathetic — and in no position to help his cause.

At that time, Cuba was under the control of a brutal dictator, one Fulgencio Batista, who ruled with an iron hand. Here was a man who kept the populace in chains — a living symbol of greed and corruption who made vast amounts of money from prostitution and gambling (which he promoted vigorously, both on the streets and in casinos). A man who welcomed any gangster forsaking the mainland in favor of Cuba’s tropical breezes, sandy beaches and marvelous mansions.

And the criminals came in droves.

So Castro asked America for help in driving away the thugs from his island.

He asked the American public and the American Congress.

The crowd cheered!

Time passed.

Eventually, Fidel went home, empty-handed. Apparently, Batista had given too much money to too many politicians. And besides, what was Cuba to us?

Then came the revolution, and Castro turned to Russia for help.

Bad move? Maybe it was. But what would you have done?

Years go by. The Cuban Missile Crisis. The assassination of President Kennedy. President Nixon (and Watergate) come and go. Vietnam comes and goes. The Oil Crisis (remember locking automobile gas tanks to keep your gasoline safe from theft?). And we finally find out about the political duplicity involved in the Vietnam War.

Then Russia falls! The Berlin Wall crumbles!

Yet Cuba remains held at arm’s length.

Over decades, millions are spent on Florida radio broadcasts to persuade the Cubans to overthrow their leaders. But still those fools do nothing.

Americans can visit Cuba only by going to Jamaica, then having a torn piece of paper (by way of identification) inserted in their passports, so they can come and go without getting tossed in jail.

And Jesse Helms co-sponsors the Helms-Burton Act, which purports to tell the rest of the world to keep out of Cuba.

And still the beat goes on.

Finally, however, a small boy escapes.

So now what do we do?

Again, we’re held hostage by a small group of people who live in Miami — Cuban exiles who, at one time, supported Batista, then after his overthrow left their island and came to America.

Poor Elian! A boy who lives an upper-middle-class existence — with a house that’s good even by American standards. A boy who attends a good school and gets a good education. A boy with a family at home, a family and a father that love him. A boy who survives an incredibly brutal attempt at flight, as he’s carried along by his adoring mother and, only with luck, gets plucked from shark-infested waters.

But, again, rather than finally doing the right thing (or even following established precepts of law), some members of that great political body in Washington want to grant Elian citizenship, so he can’t be returned to the horrors of contemporary Cuba (horrors readily evident in any big American city — and with far less effort being made to cure them).

Meanwhile, every year, hundreds of children reach our shores, only to languish in prison or in halfway houses, waiting for a political solution to their plight.

But then, they don’t have a tightly knit political machine representing them; their fate can never influence our American system (and even the Electoral College). Those Cubans sure can, though.

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