In the year 2000 I took a trip to Cuba with my then long-haired musician husband. We were on the last leg of our marriage and hoped that celebrating the millennium on a tropical island frozen in time might jumpstart our dying romance. It was worth a shot! Besides, the Y2K techno-doom was looming and we had to seek third world refuge.
I booked a spartan room at the Santa Clara in the center of the historic district, and made a list of all things fabulous to see around the island. Cuba had been under an embargo for decades and as much as I believed in the injustice of sanctions, I knew that once American style democracy arrived in its full golden arched glory, gone would be the charm that had made Cuba the cultural treasure that it was. I had to get there before Ronald.
After a connecting flight through Cancun, we arrived along with a group of Americans who were exercising their freedom of choice by ignoring state department directives not to visit Havana. The Cuban immigration stamped entries on a separate piece of paper smirking at the irony of the great American democracy forbidding its citizens to enter a country on account of that country forbidding its citizens to leave.
The embargo had been in place for decades yet the Castro regime did not show any signs of caving; the island had steadily gotten more impoverished especially after the fall of the Soviet Union, and an organic economy had sprung up around tourism, Cigars and Salsa.
The hot topic of the day was Elian! Remember him? — The little boy who was fished out of the sea after his boat capsized and his mother drowned. Overnight he became the symbol of resistance for the Miami Cubans who were pouring money into a publicity blitz to rescue the child from the horrors of communism. This was his chance they said. Meanwhile back on the island, his biological father wanted him back.
Every night pictures of Elian plastered U.S. news with toys, video games and new clothes that only his affluent American relatives could give him. On the streets of Havana, Cubans cursed their Miami counterparts as crazy idiots who compared material things with the love of a father.
I walked into a rally in the center of town where pamphlets were distributed from a plane urging Cubans to rise up against their government. A manicero was selling peanuts on the steps nearby.
My Spanish was not perfect but the disdain on the street was obvious. “Why won’t they leave us alone?” Said one; “They already left Cuba and took their money.” Said another “They have their own lives in Miami. What do they want from us?” …”Son Locos!” They are crazy!!
During the two-week visit we talked to many Cubans. We discussed life, music, culture — but mostly politics! I was surprised at their awareness of the world. From the taxi driver to the hotel attendant and the random Havanero in a café, the very mention of Iran peeked interest and sympathy. “Iran! Wonderful! Which city are you from? Isfahan? Shiraz? Tehran? Or Mashad? …” Followed by “I am so sorry for your people. We are the same. Both castigated by America.”
Sure they were eager to tap into outside opportunities, but no one expressed sympathy or approval, neither for the embargo nor for the Cuban expats, who seemed to be on automatic pilot making life more difficult for them. “When you go to America, please tell them to stop this embargo. Tell them we are suffering.”
Across the spectrum of pro and anti Castro, no one, not even the paranoid civil servant living on his ration card, the one who locked the front door and dropped to a whisper when he spoke of “Uncle” Fidel, supported the embargo. Not one person told me they were happy to endure the daily suffering if it meant bringing an end to the Castro regime.
This year, amidst the outrage of the Miami Cubans, as the American flag is once again hoisted in Havana; a parallel drama unfolds around the Iranian Nuclear Deal.
On the eve of the agreement, as thousands came out in jubilation, faces painted with the bright colors of the U.S. and Iranian flags; as families honked and danced in the streets, holding up messages of peace and friendship with the U.S; some Iranian Americans responded with contempt: “… they jubilated when the Shah left and Khomeini arrived as well”; They sneered.
As the entire Republican block and many democrats in Congress trip over each other pandering to Netanyahu’s bogus demands in defiance of their own president; incredibly, they have found unlikely partners within the Iranian Diaspora who are ostensibly more concerned about conjured threats to Israel, than imminent ones to their own compatriots.
Among the older generation of Iranian Americans, those who consider themselves prematurely plucked from the “golden era” of the Shah and catapulted to the manicured streets of Beverly Hills, many have rallied behind the craziest of Republicans and the Israeli Lobby to denounce the deal as a “bad” deal. A “good” deal, they say – rather rudely I might add — is one that refuses any dealings with the mullahs. A “good” deal, is one offered as a mirage that never materializes. It’s a deal of endless sanctions designed to cripple Iranians into rising up against the regime. Because – they say – this is the most evil of all evil regimes of all time. A good deal demands total capitulation – capitulation of a sovereign nation – the nation of their forefathers to an empire already implicated in the implosion of much of the Middle East.
Others rallied behind the likes of the “Shah’s of Sunset” Iranian-American actor who has publicly and repeatedly expressed his preference to bomb Iran – clear indication that fervent consumption of Reality Television leaves little room for processing actual news from the real world, the one with daily reports of death and destruction, the one showing the stream of refugees in the aftermath of foreign interventions. “We need surgical military strikes inside Iran;” said a conservative Iranian blogger on a radio interview as though speaking of a quick outpatient nip and tuck.
Like the Cuban republicans who have managed to re-invent the Cuba of a murderous Battista as paradise lost; many in our anti-regime Diaspora have drawn on the binary notions of good and evil to elevate the pre-revolution Iran to a utopia overseen by a benevolent Shahanshah ousted prematurely by international conspiracy.
This begs the question; why then collude with the same self-interested foreign agents to engineer another regime change? Have the Western powers suddenly found their inner humanitarians after the devastating carnage of their “democracy building” adventures? — 1953 Iran … the Congo … Chile ….Central America, Indonesia … and now Middle East and North Africa?
And if the revolution was indeed a popular uprising — an organic movement that was then hijacked by the Islamic right — isn’t what we are witnessing part and parcel of Iran’s own learning curve in building a pluralistic political system? The regime change anti-deal hawks would say no! This is the second Arab invasion: First in 651; then again in 1979.
The total dissociative nature of this narrative explains the ridiculous alliance of the pro-sanctions Iranians with Israel. It falls under the brilliant political rubric: “The enemy of my enemy has got to be my friend!” – never mind this friend’s 200 plus undeclared nuclear arsenal; their discrimination against Arab Israelis and “lesser Jews” from Africa; their illegal occupation of Palestinian lands; and their pariah status in the U.N. – permanently a single veto away from being sanctioned or referred to the ICC.
Under this narrative, the Palestinian cause is dismissed as self-inflicted, IDF is hailed as heroes and republicans like Scott Walker, Cotton, and Trump are supported in the hopes that 2016 will usher a leader more like Netanyahu than Obama.
Human Rights, they say, is their main concern, yet the mere mention of Jimmy Carter, the one President who made human rights the centerpiece of his foreign policy is enough to send them into a raging fit of expletives. It was under Carter’s watch, they say, and due to his insistence on the “ridiculous” issue of human rights that the floodgates of the revolution were cracked open. Interesting logic!
For now, the Nuclear Deal is preserved by the minimum number of democrats who are doing the right thing albeit for all the wrong reasons. Iran has been branded with the worst labels; anti-Semitic; terrorist; medieval; human rights violator and existential threat to the “free world” – code for the U.S., Israel and its close allies who simply wish to consolidate their faltering influence in the region.
The neo-con Iranians are the perfect addition to the U.S. – Israel anti-Iran camp, legitimizing what in essence has nothing to do with Human Rights or even a Nuclear Bomb since no rational player will spend years developing a single bomb, only to hit a target armed with 200.
This month, as our representatives in congress make the excruciating choice between their allegiance to Israel and their duties as elected American officials, Iranians have their own internal debates which have created a rift reminiscent of the Cuban crisis. The conversations I had in Havana could very well have been in Persian.
This group, mostly based in Southern California, like their Cuban counterparts in Miami, will soon become the butt of every joke if they don’t stop living in a fantasy world of their past and instead focus on scenes of jubilating crowds on the streets of Iran if democracy and human rights are truly their concerns.
Because, after everything is said and done, there is nothing more debilitating to the Human Rights of ordinary people than “crippling sanctions”; nothing more disruptive to democratic principles than foreign engineered “regime change”; and nothing more dangerous than toppling one of the sole standing stable governments in a region already burning in flames.