By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
The episode of Parts Unknown seemed like a time capsule from a bygone era. Was this real? The host, Anthony Bourdain, looked the same - slim, distinguishingly gray and weathered perfectly to command respect. The digital television guide confirmed that I was indeed watching a fresh release of the CNN series, but little on the screen indicated this was a current-millennium stage. The city’s infrastructure in the backdrop was dated and exposed an economic wound; the streets were flooded with American cars from the 1950s, most proudly showing the patina of 70 years of rugged use. Despite the visual evidence, it wasn’t a movie set; it was a real life, real-time picture of America’s complex neighbor: Cuba.
Bourdain’s show did what it always does so well: explore the politics, culture and cuisine of the featured country. Cuba, though, wasn’t just any subject. Bourdain’s mere presence on the island, let along his shooting of an American television show, would have been unthinkable four decades ago. That phenomena, rooted in America and Cuba’s chilly history and made possible by rapidly changing attitudes, appropriately dominated the show’s fascinating script.
Cuba is just 90 miles from Key West, Florida – 90 miles that for 50 years were an insurmountable diplomatic distance. Between 1960 and 1962, Cuba and the United States endured the Bay of Pigs Invasion, a full trade embargo and the Cuban Missile Crisis. The political upheaval put the neighbors’ relationship on ice – no trade, no travel, no diplomatic exchanges. The North American cul-de-sac wasn’t at war, but the two neighbors became distant and distrustful strangers.
Bob Dylan didn’t pen “The Times Are Changing” for Cuba, but the song fits the current United States-Cuba scene. Since 2008, a year that saw Barack Obama move in just up Route 4 at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and Raul Castro assume the presidency of Cuba from his brother and long-time American antagonist Fidel Castro, momentum for normalized American and Cuban relations has been tangible. The last eight years have seen Obama relax travel restrictions, Raul Castro trim bureaucracy on exit visas, America remove Cuba from its list of terrorist sponsors and the two countries reopen embassies and restore diplomatic ties.
A shared passion delivered another sign of progress: Last week, the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team played a baseball game in Havana. The Rays won, but the score hardly mattered. The game was the first of its kind since our Baltimore Orioles played an exhibition game in Cuba 17 years ago and, since the Obama family attended, it marked the first time in nearly 90 years that a sitting U.S. president visited the island.
Significant change invites consternation and controversy. Most Americans prefer breaking down remaining barriers with Cuba, but it certainly isn’t endorsed by all. As Cuba and America thaw a vestige of the Cold War, some would-be American presidents are preaching increased isolation, including the construction of a wall - a physical manifestation of a very different approach to the future - along a shared border with another neighbor.
Given the course of global events and the asymmetric threats to peace, democracy and religious freedom, strong, cooperative relations with international partners, particularly those next door, is crucial. Walls aren’t cooperative. Neither is maintaining sanctions against a neighbor for their one-time support of an American enemy, especially when said enemy – the Soviet Union – hasn’t existed in 25 years and the neighbor’s offending leader – Fidel Castro - has been out of power for nearly a decade.
If a cooperative relationship is achieved, history will be unable to quantify the contribution of a single baseball game to normalized relations between America and Cuba. Diplomatic political shifts take time and an incalculable number of change-promoting events. Nevertheless, the game inarguably furthered a positive trend. There was also a moment before the game that illustrated the crossroads the two countries have reached: A one-minute moment of silence was observed for the victims of the Brussels terrorist attack. It was a silent pause between two old enemies figuring out how best to shake hands instead of defiant fists, while quietly acknowledging an emergent, common enemy we’d be wise to combat together.