LOS ANGELES -- "Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest of these are, 'It might have been.'" So said John Greenleaf Whittier more than a hundred years ago.
Anyone teaching history at a university might amend that to say the saddest words he hears are these: "I wasn't born then." More often than not, those words sound out anytime an instructor asks American students about anything that happened before, say, 1992.
Which brings me to relations between my country, the United States, and the island of Cuba. Talking to a random sampling of students over the years, the only ones who can answer questions about America's history with Cuba, beginning with the Spanish-American war in 1898, are foreign students. I have no idea whether or not history is still being taught in our secondary schools, although my own experience indicates that history, as well as geography, are no longer on American curricula.
The subject came up the other day, during a writing class I teach at the University of Southern California, because of a New York Times editorial mentioning the island nation south of Miami Beach. The only student who could answer the question was a young woman from Canada.
To be fair, her American peers did know who Fidel Castro is, but that seems to be because the bearded one is a popular cultural figure, someone who came along a bit before the Beatles. And one of the Americans did say he thought there was something about "sanctions."
The Times editorial, published on Oct. 12, was headlined: "The Moment to Restore Ties to Cuba." It began:
"Scanning a map of the world must give President Obama a sinking feeling as he contemplates the dismal state of troubled bilateral relationships his administration has sought to turn around. He would be smart to take a hard look at Cuba, where a major policy shift could yield a significant foreign policy success."
That certainly seems sensible, considering the fact that my students' views (or lack of them) now are probably reflected in a majority of their fellow citizens. What are the sanctions, and why have we imposed them for 53 years without success? The idea, back in 1961, was that making Cubans poorer and poorer would lead to the demise of Castro -- that and the fact that we were trying to assassinate him and sponsored a disastrous invasion of his island. Time has caught up with Castro -- he is 88 years old -- and is catching up with the exiled Cubans in Miami and environs. They have had their gripes with the dictator on the island they call home. Legitimate gripes, centered on stolen property and broken families.
Castro the charismatic is certainly no hero on this side of the Caribbean. He was a tyrant who passed his government to his brother Raoul, and who may have tried to persuade onetime benefactor, the Soviet Union, to fire nuclear missiles at the United States in 1962. But bygones are bygones, the missiles and the Soviets are both gone and so is any real threat to the United States. There is no rational reason for the sanctions.
The Times pointed to the president, who has the power to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba. Congress has the power to lift the sanctions. Unfortunately, it is highly unlikely that this president and this congress can get together on this -- or anything. But it would be nice if they found a way to end this travesty before another generation comes along not knowing what we are doing or why.