By Frank Calzon

The late President George H.W. Bush is well remembered for facilitating the democratic transition of Eastern Europe, a goal also pursued by the late President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II. All were determined to end communism in Europe. President Bush, however, also kept an eye on Communist Cuba. 

As the empire of the Soviet Union was falling apart, the U.S. President announced his support of re-unification of Germany and the complete withdrawal of Soviet Union from its territories; he insisted that the “new” Germany join the NATO alliance. The “minimalists” in the U.S. State Department, as Condoleezza Rice explains in her book Germany Unified and Europe Transformed, told the White House that goal was “impossible.” The “minimalists” argued that the United States had to choose between a unified Germany and Russian withdrawal. The President disagreed. The Russians withdrew and a united Germany became part NATO.

George H.W. Bush’s life is the stuff of legend. A pilot during WWII, he moved from Maine to Texas, and was elected to the House of Representatives. I was fortunate meet him several times when he was vice president, and later when he occupied the oval office. .Had he not chosen to join the Republican Party, he would –today – be on everyone’s list of great American presidents. 

As the obituaries come in there are things about him that are likely to be given short shrift: Bush as a grandfather, his sense of humor, and his strong support for freedom in Cuba. Please allow me to explain.

Years ago, I lived in Washington and got a telephone call my friend Jeb Bush. He was at the White House and invited me to a small, informal gathering that evening in the family quarters. When I arrived, I noticed several barefoot children, perhaps 6- or 7-years-old running around. They weren’t there “to schmooze with the powerful,” they were spending time with Grandpa, while Grandma was in Kennebunkport preparing to receive a European head of state. 

In Washington, President Bush was in a good mood. He had read a news story about foreigners “almost kissing the ground when they met him” and heard Texans outside the White House fence hollering, “George, where’s the wife?”

President Bush never wavered about his support for a free Cuba, despite pressure from people who wanted him to put profit above principle. The President always insisted that Cuba policy and actions respect U.S. laws setting out conditions for Havana to meet before U.S. sanctions were lifted. Shamefully a later president, pursuing “his legacy” squinted at those laws. 

In geopolitical terms, President Bush’s concern for Cuba adversely impacted his relationship with Moscow, which supported communism in Cuba. When the last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev faced a financial meltdown and sought millions of dollars to stabilize the Soviet economy, President Bush responded he would consider a deal if the Soviets ceased subsidizing Havana’s communist regime. Neither Moscow nor Fidel were amused [interested].

Following the Soviet Union’s collapse, I was sent by Freedom House to Geneva to attend hearings by the United Nations’ Council on Human Rights. The Czechs and others, recently liberated from Communism, were pushing for a resolution condemning Havana’s abominable human-rights record.

At the Palais de Nacion, I met with human-rights organizations and diplomats and was shocked to discover that Cuba and a coalition of the world’s worst abusers of human-rights were aligned to prevent any meaningful action by the Commission. Democratic governments alerted me that “the votes were not there” and some American diplomats insisted the “matter should be left to professionals” and openly resented inexperienced interlopers. 

Not knowing better, I called Tallahassee and spoke to then Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. I explained the situation, and he told me to call him back in a few hours. I did and learned the President had asked the National Security Council to look into the matter. It was not until the resolution was approved that I also learned the White House had called several heads of state to express his personal concern [and support for the resolution]. 

Now George H.W. Bush has died, millions of Americans will remember his patriotism, honesty and leadership. I will also remember him as a grandfather with happy, barefoot grandchildren, his kindness and good cheer. Few obituaries are likely to mention President Bush’s support and good deeds on behalf of Cuba and its people, but Cuban-Americans will never forget. May President H. W. Bush rest in peace.

Frank Calzon is executive director of the Washington-based Center for a Free Cuba.