San Francisco Bay View - Column by Don Hopkins, an Oakland based attorney - Former President Jimmy Carter's recent trip to Cuba has stirred the political passions of America over an issue that has always been very close to my political heart. I had vague impressions about Cuba throughout the years during which sporadic reports of Fidel Castro's efforts to unseat the brutal regime of his predecessor, Fulgencio Batista, appeared in the media. For graduate students in political science (I was studying International Relations at Yale), it was chic to favor the underdog in this struggle. For African American students, there was something more. For us, the struggle to oust Batista was the Caribbean wing of the American Civil Rights movement. We followed that struggle as though it were our own. Cuba, prior to the conquest of Castro, was irritatingly similar to the American South in its race relations. Cuba was a typical Southern state, except that the inhabitants spoke with a Spanish accent. The leadership class was what we'd call "lily white." Cuba was basically a two-tiered society, in which the upper and middle classes were predominantly "white" people of Spanish, other European or British-American origin, and the bottom class was predominantly black and mixed-race. The capitol of the leadership was Havana. The core of the workership was Oriente Province, later dominated by a large American Company, United Fruit. That's where Castro was born. During the waning years of the Civil War in America, when the handwriting was on the wall that the South would lose, substantial numbers of white slave owners fled the country, along with their slaves, and settled in Cuba, vowing to maintain the race/class privileges they enjoyed in the South. These refugees from the Confederacy were welcomed by and blended in well with Spanish colonizers who had enjoyed their own period of slavery and depended upon slaves and later their offspring to harvest the sugar cane and provide the labor for its agriculture, service and entertainment industries.. Under Spanish rule, and thereafter under American-supported Batista rule, Cuba became the playground for American politicians and gangsters. Its best properties were held by multinational corporations. Black Cubans were rigidly discriminated against, and prominent signs warned them that most public beaches and other areas of public accommodation were off-limits to them. This is the Cuba that official America looks back upon with such maudlin nostalgia. Anyone reading America's newspapers today would not pick up so much as a hint of this antebellum background about Cuba. The only thing one hears from the American media is that Cuba is a communist island 90 miles from America.. It is a brutal dictatorship run by Castro, an unmitigated and unreconstructed thug. One hears only about the absence of civil liberties in Cuba; only rarely and begrudgingly does one hear of the absence of the abject poverty and hopelessness that was the plight of so many, especially black Cubans, prior to Castro. Only rarely and begrudgingly is there mention of the low infant mortality rates; the universal access to free public education through college; the successful integration of black Cubans into the educated and political classes and the military; the existence of universal health care; their export of medical, scientific and other expertise to other impoverished nations of the Caribbean and Africa - not to mention, America. Many Americans like myself have felt it tragic that this nation has treated the Cuban revolution with such unmitigated scorn and hostility. As we've noted the progress Cubans have made under Castro, we are left to wonder what could have happened had America been Cuba's friend instead of its most implacable enemy. The sorrow felt about our tragic relationship with the lovely island is only enhanced when we realize how our politics have been shaped (some would say, held hostage) by the hatred of Castro felt by a relatively small colony of Cubans in voluntary exile in South Florida. Their hatred of Castro and his government is upfront and personal. Many of their parents were in the leadership class under Batista; they lost privileged positions, land and property when they fled the island after the revolution; maintaining their race- and class-based prerogatives was inconsistent with democratic reform. While imprisoned by Batista, Castro wrote his version of Martin Luther King's famous epistle, the "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." I am sure one was inspired by the other. Castro's was called "History Will Absolve Me." It is one of the most moving political documents of any time. Leonard Elmore has written a very insightful novel entitled "Cuba Libre." In its closing chapters, there is a recapitulation of the final days of the revolution that ousted the Spaniards. The book reprises the role America played in a successful effort to sabotage and later compromise that revolution. Theodore Roosevelt was the American president who betrayed the Cubans who overthrew the Spanish. He helped install the first of a succession of puppet governments that became the Batista dictatorship. Roosevelt was said to have opined that America could not tolerate "another Black nation" (alongside Haiti) in this hemisphere. Castro comes from the mostly Black Oriente province. His opposition comes from the mostly white Havana. Their policies were segregationist. His policies are integrationist. How should a sensitive Black American view Cuba? You figure.