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Remember the Maine

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Fifteen years ago, I was standing in the deep end of the swimming pool at Ernest Hemingway's old place, Finca Vigía in San Francisco de Paula, Cuba, having a typical Yanqui thought. The pool hadn't held water for years and the house hadn't seen Hemingway since the early '60s. It was a tourist spot, and a spiffy one at the time. The Pan Am games were coming to town so the villa had a fresh coat of paint and a load of recently printed postcards and T-shirts in the gift shop down the hill.

The Yanqui thought I had--something along the lines of "When Cuba opens back up, wouldn't it be great to open a bar in San Francisco de Paula--wasn't all that rare. I've run into a lot of gringos, including some staunch anti-imperialist lefties, who had the same thought. Passing as it was, I remember thinking that it wouldn't be long before the island would open once again to visitors and tourist dollars from across the Florida Straits. It didn't seem possible that old-fashioned Cold War grappling between nations just 30 miles apart, including travel bans and trade prohibitions, would outlast the 20th century.

But as Hal Crowther points out this week, old habits and power structures endure, with their deprivations and polemics as intact as the Packards still chugging through the streets of Havana.

And the two longtime antagonists still, on occasion, lurch dangerously close to a bloody conclusion. There is passionate defiance in Cuba as well as a long history of watching imperial fleets sail in and out of Havana harbor (Feb. 15 is "Remember the Maine" day). Fidel might seem invincible, but the old Caballero will not last forever and, though you might find a few idealists who deny it, the money's on another fleet--be it of cruise ships out of Miami or the 2nd out of Norfolk--appearing in view of El Malecón not long after.

Given the alternative, I'll root for cruise ships, but the saber-rattlers in D.C. have me worried. Shaking a fist at their southern neighbors has always been a cheap vote-harvester in Florida, and this is a trigger-happy bunch that needs Florida to stay in power. It's a recipe for another imperial misadventure.

And let's face it, America is lousy at imperialism--China, the Philippines, Central America, Iraq and Cuba, of course. Blame it on our country's founders, who had such a problem with the divine right of kings that they infused the law of the land and the soul of the nation with an aversion to restrictions on freedom and capricious interference by outside powers.

Like José Martí, they recognized a simple, poetic truth: "One just principle from the depths of a cave is more powerful than an army."

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