Many people from Florida will remember the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. As the closest stretch of the U.S. mainland to the missiles of the Soviet Union, Floridians were amongst the most vulnerable to a first strike. Now the Ukraine invasion has confirmed the aspirations of Russia’s president to build a new Russian empire. So, how are the two related?
In 1962 Florida had already received the first waves of exiles from Cuba including the Catholic Church‘s Peter Pan flights of children. Fidel Castro had closed all the private and religiously affiliated schools, and the Castro Revolution was playing out alongside the military presence of the Soviet Union.
The missiles were not the Soviet Union’s sole motive in moving close to Florida. The then-Premier Mikhail Khrushchev had decided to sustain Fidel Castro in power and they made Cuba an integral part of the Soviet economic system – bankrolling Castro policies at home and abroad for 30 years. Fidel showed his value to Soviet leaders and his survival owed a lot to them. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990, he looked around for other bankrollers and turned to Hugo Chavez.
So, the misery and repression suffered by many Cubans, forcing them to leave Cuba, having property and lives stolen, would likely not have happened without the presence of the Soviet Union. It is worth remembering that Vladimir Putin was a KGB official of the Soviet Union for 16 years before its collapse. And he remains a fervent admirer of the era and knows Cuba well.
Now we see hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees pouring across the borders – many children carrying a small suitcase just like Cubans and Venezuelans in the past. Poland is now the Florida of the past, receiving many of those fleeing.
Now former President Trump – of course, himself a Florida resident – is saying he views Putin as a ‘genius’ and sees his actions in Ukraine as “very, very savvy.” Governor DeSantis told CPAC in Florida that they should be concerned more about authoritarian rule from governments like Australia, Europe, and Canada without mentioning the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Tucker Carlson, the most influential non-Capitol Hill voice for the Republican party, claims that Americans have been brainwashed into thinking Putin and Russia are bad.
These Republicans are in notable company. The Cuban Government has blamed the United States for the Ukraine crisis and says NATO’s aggression on “the borders of the Russian Federation constitutes a threat to the national security of this country.” Therefore, they say, “Russia has the right to defend itself.” Venezuela’s Maduro has pledged full support and “military cooperation” with Russia.
A return of Russian missiles to Cuba and Venezuela is not a fanciful idea. In January, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov refused to rule it out. Russian officials including the President of the Duma have been visiting those countries to shore up support offering debt forgiveness and other incentives.
For Florida, the Ukraine crisis is not in a faraway country where many may die because of the ambition of the Russian leader to reconstitute a former empire. Florida’s politicians need to assess the Ukraine issue in a broader historical context. A recent poll taken before the Ukraine invasion suggests many Republican voters have been swept up in admiration of an authoritarian ruler who has murdered opposition figures and journalists and ordered a nerve agent attack on a defector in the UK. Meanwhile, Russia continues to have a major role in ensuring the survival of the Cuban and Venezuelan regimes.
Russia’s historical role in the region changed the lives of many Floridians forever. Glib attempts to recast Putin as somehow aligned with America’s and Florida’s interests suggests a reckless case of amnesia.