Until the moment in February when a Cuban air force MiG-29 shot down two civilian planes sponsored by the Miami-based exile group Brothers to the Rescue near Cuba, people on both sides of the Florida Strait assumed U.S.-Cuban relations were headed for a thaw, if a slow one. But the prospect of normalization had hardly been welcomed in Havana. The Castro regime's only claim that resonates with ordinary Cubans nowadays, particularly those old enough to remember life before Fulgencio Batista's overthrow in 1959, is that it has saved Cuba from American domination.
The ubiquitous slogan "Socialismo o Muerte," "Socialism or Death," has evoked pained smiles on the island since the collapse of the Soviet empire, the loss of Cuba's leading trade partners, and the cutoff of subsidies from Moscow in 1989-91. Socialism has lost, and even those in the upper echelons of the Castro regime know it. But "Patria o Muerte," "Motherland or Death," still carries considerable weight in a country whose political culture is steeped in the legends of resistance and self-immolation of the nineteenth-century struggle for independence. The Second Cuban War of Independence -- known in the United States, to Cubans' chagrin, as the Spanish-American War -- left one-fifth of the population dead and a good part of the island in ruins. Yet for Cubans of almost every political persuasion, including the exile community in the United States, the sacrifice was worth it.
In their own minds, whether rebelling against the Spanish or confronting the Americans, Cubans are continually doing mythic battle. "It is my duty," José Martí, the apostle of Cuban independence, wrote shortly before his death, "to prevent, by the independence of Cuba, the United States from spreading over the West Indies, and falling, with that added weight, upon other lands of our America. My weapon is only the slingshot of David." As the possibility of exporting revolution in the Americas or even building socialism at home has dwindled, the Castro regime has turned to nationalist,