Stories from Hartford's Grassroots
Are we yanquis or yankees? In my small state of Connecticut (pop. 3.5 million), we have been both. From the Dutch word janke, the English translation was popularized by Mark Twain and his Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. It wasn’t until the 1960s that we learned the slogan “Yanqui Go Home.”
Are we “Still Revolutionary?” That’s the slogan of our state’s advertising campaign, designed to attract tourists to Connecticut. We were, after all, one of the first American colonies to break away from England. The tourism plan costs $27 million.
Barack Obama’s new diplomatic initiative for normal relations could help redefine who we are when it comes to Cuba. But first, we must remember what originally tied us to Cuba in the first place. If we promote what our two lands have in common, we might build mutual respect. Even my Connecticut has significant historical links to Cuba, for better or worse.
In fact, three Connecticut men played major roles in shaping U.S. policy toward Cuba:
Samuel Colt is the most famous (or infamous) gunmaker in U.S. history. A native of Connecticut, he built his firearms factory in Hartford, the state’s Capitol city. Historians note that the millionaire Colt aided Narcisco Lopez, the filibustero who invaded Cuba twice before the U.S. Civil War, in order to “liberate” it. Some hoped it would become a slave state and a new market for Colt’s weapons trade. It was the Colt revolver that Theodore Roosevelt and his “Rough Riders” carried as they charged up San Juan Hill against the Spanish. The Colt company also produced the Gatling Gun, used in Santiago (It was the first effective weapon of mass destruction, deployed against American Indians, Filipinos and U.S. workers on strike);
Orville H. Platt was born in the small Connecticut town of Washington. Platt was a life-long politican who served five terms as a U.S. senator. He is known as the author of the 1901 “Platt Amendment” which established Guantanamo Bay as a U.S. naval base. The law also dominated Cuba’s relations with other countries, allowing the U.S. Congress to intervene in the young nation’s affairs any time we felt threatened. When Cubans opposed his plan, Platt informed them that the U.S. would occupy the island until they agreed;
Mark Twain did not see Cuba as an imperialist conquest, however. He lived in Hartford for 17 years, writing his most famous works including Life on the Mississippi, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and A Connecticut Yankee. Twain was a prominent member of the Anti-Imperialist League which opposed U.S. domination of Cuba, the Philippines, and other former Spanish colonies. With his transformation from novelist to activist, came great criticism and a personal cost. Yet Mark Twain continued to speak out. “I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land,” he wrote.
There are other connections that we in Connecticut can dust off and restore to our national conversation when we talk about our Cuban links:
Havana tobacco seeds grew well in Connecticut soil. As far back as 1884, local farmers were growing crops from the Cuban plant. The imported seeds produced what the yankee farmers called a “superior plant,” which was made into high-quality cigar wrappers. Hartford steamships carried tobacco filler from the island so that our local factories could manufacture the entire cigar;
Cuban baseball stars were recruited to Connecticut by the New Britain Aviators beginning in 1908. Armando Marsans and Rafael Almeida were among the first Cuban ball players to break into the American major leagues. New Britain’s Cuban stars visited Hartford often, playing (and beating) the Hartford Senators.
In his journal, John F. Kennedy’s biographer Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote that Havana in 1950 was a “giant casino and brothel” for American businessmen. After the revolution, however, Connecticut residents visited Cuba for entirely different reasons:
In 1970, local college students spent two-month stints cutting sugar cane with the Venceremos Brigades. On one trip, Fidel worked side by side with six Connecticut residents. “He is someone who risked his life, was imprisoned, and gave up a career as a lawyer to fight for his people. He can speak in the open in front of one million people … I’d like to see Richard Nixon do that,” one of the students told a newspaper reporter;
In 1977, Yale University invited 16 Cuban scholars to the United States in an academic exchange. Five years later a University of Bridgeport professor led the first visit of U.S. philosophers to meet with their Havana counterparts. A Wesleyan University student traveled to Cuba in 2002 on a medical scholarship, one of thousands of international students who have trained each year to become doctors.
I visited Cuba in 1999 on a healthcare tour. My delegation also visited Cuba’s parliament for a wide-ranging discussion with Julio Espinosa, head of the International Relations Commission.
We challenged Espinosa on what would happen to Cuba after Fidel was gone. “Someday he will die; he is a human being,” Espinosa replied. “But almost all our country’s elected leaders are under the age of 40. If Fidel dies next year and the U.S. blockade is lifted, we as a country will be the same.”
Now, 15 years later, the United States will get the opportunity to relate to Cuba the same way as every other nation on earth. It will be a great chance to move from revenge to reconciliation.