David Cogswell | June 11, 2015 12:00 PM ET
Time to Let Cuba Out of the Cage
Last week the U.S. House of Representatives voted for an amendment that would reverse President Obama’s attempts to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba after half a century of economic embargo. So on and on it goes.
The House wants to undo Obama’s modest reforms that made it just a little easier for Americans to travel to Cuba, and to return to harsh policies enacted at the height of Cold War tensions.
Wayne Smith, former head of the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba interviewed for the film “Fidel,” said, “Cuba is almost an obsession with American leaders and it really doesn’t matter if they are Democrat or Republican. It’s almost a psychosis. The United States is simply incapable of dealing rationally with Castro.”
Last week’s action by the House of Representatives shows that the knee-jerk reflex of politicians over Cuba has not yet died out.
The author of the amendment, Rep. Diaz-Balart, a Florida Republican, opposed removing the sanctions from Cuba. Noting that Americans visiting Cuba land at an airport that had been partly owned by U.S. interests before Castro nationalized it, Diaz-Balart said, according to the Telegraph, “What you are saying is, ‘It's OK to do business on property that was stolen from Americans.’”
So who does Cuba belong to? It’s a long, long story.
Whence Came the Embargo?
In the film “Fidel,” U.S. diplomat Wayne Smith explained the progression of events leading up to the Cuban embargo. It was a sequence of strikes going back and forth, at each turn ratcheting tensions up to a higher notch until the two sides were no longer willing to talk to each other. Eventually it was locked into intransigence and immovability.
In 1960 Castro instituted an agrarian reform that redistributed land in Cuba. It affected even Castro’s own family, which had its own farm. The colonial history going back to the Spanish rule had left U.S. corporations controlling 70 percent of the arable land in Cuba, while the Cuban people were poor, starving and uneducated. Castro said, “We are poor people living in a rich country,” and seized farmland from U.S. corporations, promising to give its productivity to the people of Cuba.
Although U.S. leaders were already planning to remove Castro, the war on Cuba began in earnest with the land reform, and the blows went back and forth. Castro ordered some American oil refineries to refine imported Soviet oil. The oil companies were encouraged by the U.S. State Department to refuse. Castro retaliated by seizing the refineries.
The U.S. then retaliated by cutting off the quotas that supported Cuba’s sugar industry. Castro retaliated again by nationalizing all U.S. properties. In October of 1960 President Eisenhower imposed an embargo on all exports to Cuba except food and medicine.
The sanctions on Cuba were ratcheted up bit by bit and in 1962 President Kennedy instituted a full embargo. Since then the embargo has been changed mostly just to stiffen it by a series of laws, including the Cuba Assets Control Regulations of 1963, the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992, the Helms–Burton Act of 1996 and the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000.
Cuba claims the embargo has cost the country a trillion dollars in five decades.
Americans who oppose opening relations with Cuba usually focus their hatred on Castro. But Castro, like essentially all successful Cuban leaders before him, rode to power on the wave of Cuba’s passion for independence and sovereignty, first against the brutal colonial rule of Spain and then from the U.S., who took control of Cuba after Spain pulled out in 1898.
Cuba’s Independent Spirit
It was Cuba’s aspiration for independence that lifted Castro to power and it was his resistance to the U.S. attempts to re-impose control over Cuba that bolstered him, kept him in power, kept the people united under him and justified whatever he did for 50 years.
The Cuban embargo was the worst policy for anyone wanting to rid Cuba of Castro. As long as the embargo was in place and the U.S. was carrying out covert attacks against Cuba, Castro’s position as a strong leader was bolstered as he was seen as essential to maintain Cuba’s independence from the colossus of the North.
Virtually all Cuban leaders had risen through their support of Cuba’s independence movement going back centuries.
Castro’s predecessor, Fulgencio Batista, had also risen to power on the wave of the Cuban struggle for independence. Batista had originally come to power in 1933 as part of the “revolt of the sergeants” that overturned the authoritarian rule of Gerardo Machado. Even Machado had vowed to remove the Platt Amendment to Cuba’s constitution, which gave the U.S. control over Cuba.
Batista ruled through a series of puppet presidents till 1940. In 1940 he ran for president and won, holding office until 1944, after which he went to live in the U.S. He returned to Cuba to run for office again in 1952, and seeing that he would lose, launched a military coup instead, taking control of the country and calling off the election.
Castro had been a candidate for congress in that election. After the coup he became a full-time revolutionary dedicated to overthrowing Batista.
During Batista’s reign in the 1950s, the Cuban aspiration for independence rose to fever pitch. There was widespread unrest and protest. Batista answered it with an iron hand, and when he murdered some 20,000 people during the struggles, U.S. public opinion turned against him. He lost popular support in Cuba and in 1959 had to flee the island.
Castro and his ragtag group of rebels took over. But it was not through military power that Batista was defeated or that the Castro regime maintained power. It was the population that drove out Batista. And without popular support, Castro could not have held power in Cuba for very long.
America’s embargo created a threat that united the people behind Castro. Americans focus on personalities, and put Castro in the crosshairs. But Castro would not be there if it weren’t for the fact that he represents Cuba’s drive for independence. And when he is gone we may be surprised to see that Cuba’s national character remains very much what it is in terms of its independence and its assertion of being a sovereign nation with its own ways of doing things, not a colony, and not a conquered people.
Cuban officials speaking at the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia recently told Americans that Cuba has “its own form of democracy” based on the idea that the majority of Cubans support the “revolutionary political system” and the United States “should not seek to impose its system on Cuba.”
The politicians supporting the embargo are still pushing for regime change and seeking to impose what they call democratic reforms. But the U.S. system is no longer seen by the rest of the world as the ideal model of democracy. A recent study from researchers at Princeton and Northwestern universities concluded that the U.S. is not a democracy, but an oligarchy.
According to the study, “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”
So rather than seeking to impose our style of government on the Cubans, perhaps we should be looking at their society to see what kinds of good ideas we might find there.
Meanwhile, if we open up trade and travel, rather than starving the Cubans into submission, perhaps we can invite them to share the benefits of our system and find some kind of balance and harmony with them, as we have found with China and Vietnam, and off and on with Russia.
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