Old neighbors. Can they be friends?

The United States and Cuba are stepping carefully into a new era, well aware of the difficult history they share.

JOSE GARCIA/AP/FILE
OLD DAYS: NEWELL KIMBALL (L.) AND CURT DAVIS OF THE BROOKLYN DODGERS WERE IN HAVANA FOR SPRING TRAINING IN 1942

In the 1950s, Americans saw Cuba as they saw Canada – a friendly neighbor they could pop in and visit anytime. Sure, Cuba was known to have a corrupt government and a booming trade in gambling and other vices. But in most quality-of-life rankings, the United States, Canada, and Cuba were Nos. 1, 2, and 3 in the Western Hemisphere, and not always in that order.

 There were more cinemas in Havana than in New York City. Cuba had low infant mortality, high literacy, a large middle class. And it was only 90 miles away from US territory. Ninety percent of Cuba’s tourism in the late ’50s was from the US. (A relative of mine in the Midwest used to swap houses with a Cuban family from the Isle of Pines, now know as the Isle of Youth.) The most-watched TV show in the US throughout that decade was a sitcom about a nice-guy Cuban bandleader and his zany American wife. Everybody loved Lucy and Desi.

Almost overnight, the love was gone. This was not a transitory tiff, however. First came revolution, then an ill-conceived invasion, and then a perilous-beyond-imagining crisis that could have become a nuclear holocaust. The US-Cuba conflict became a long, cold war, replete with espionage, sabotage, and proxy battles in Latin America and Africa. Under el bloqueo, the Spanish name for the American trade embargo, the giant island effectively vanished from the American map. And because the politically active Cuban-American community in the US was adamant that the revolution be reversed, Cuba and the US never experienced the sort of practical détente that the US entered into with more powerful communist countries from the 1970s onward.

The Strait of Florida was iced over. Now comes the thaw.

From Havana and other points on the 800-mile-long island, Doug Struck’s cover story focuses (click here) on how Cubans see the unfolding change in US-Cuba relations. From Miami, Ariel Zirulnick’s Focus story (click here) provides the Cuban-American perspective. It’s a relationship fraught with suspicion but stirring with the possibility of reconciliation. In Cuba, there is optimism about trade, tourism, and investment but worry that the tsunami that is American culture, capital, and commerce could be overwhelming. In Miami, there is joy about family reunions but skepticism about whether the Cuban government intends to end its repression of human rights.

What’s most striking in the interviews by Doug and Ariel is the lack of the sort of passion that animated the long conflict. Cuban exiles do not appear as upset by normalization as might have been expected. Cubans themselves are not universally giddy at the opening as might have been anticipated.

Proceeding with caution makes sense. These onetime enemies almost destroyed each other. They can cite dozens of reasons for their estrangement. But there is one inescapable geographic fact: They are not just nations seeking détente. They are next-door neighbors. Slowly, carefully, they might again become friends.

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