After a little more than six months since President Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro historic announcements on December 17th, 2014 that the United States and Cuba would begin to re-establish diplomatic relations, a crucial step has been taken to usher both nations down the path of normalization. The formal establishment of embassies in both countries, announced July 1st and beginning July 20th with the official opening of the embassy of the Republic of Cuba in Washington, will be the first time in 54 years that the two countries will have formal diplomatic relations.
This rapprochement that has transpired over a little more than half a year has been universally lauded and a number of foreign dignitaries have been quick to act. In May, France’s President François Hollande visited Cuba and expressed Europe’s desire to normalize relations as soon as possible and called upon the United States to end the embargo. During Dilma Roussef’s visit to the White House last week both she and Obama released a joint communique saying:
President Rousseff praised President Obama’s policy changes towards Cuba, and the Leaders agreed that the latest Summit of the Americas (held in Panama, on April 10 and 11, 2015) demonstrated the region’s capacity to overcome the differences of the past through dialogue, thereby paving the way for the region as a whole to find solutions to the common challenges facing the countries of the Americas.
American citizens have been in overwhelming support of ending the embargo for years and the latest results of last month’s Chicago Council’s poll indicates that 67% want an end to the embargo. Even a majority of Republicans (59%) think it’s time for an end to the extraterritorial anomaly that is the United States’ policy of economic strangulation.
The Cuban American community has also demonstrated in various polls, including electoral, that there is an ever-increasing majority of those who want normalization between the two nations. Since Obama’s change of Cuba policy started Cuban Americans have taken advantage of executive actions directed at them that gave the right to unlimited travel and send remittances to the island in 2009. In his 2012 re-election bid, Obama won the Cuban American vote in Florida and, emboldened, has continued to open up inroads within this powerful voting block in Southern Florida with his calls for normalization of relations.
As in most aspects, politicians usually lag behind society.
While the president has shown leadership it is up to Congress to dismantle the odious embargo codified in the Helms-Burton Act and also repeal other legislation that are aimed at punishing Cuba like the Torricelli Act of 1992 and the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966.
Although several measures that would chip away at the embargo have been introduced in both chambers, there are still many Congress members who take the word of a few “representatives” who espouse to champion the aspirations of Cubans and Cuban Americans as if they truly spoke for these citizens as a whole. This cabal of recalcitrant hardliners is tragically failing their constituencies and the people on the island, whose misery is perpetuated by the pro-embargo stance of these hypocritical, self-serving opportunists. Their continued presence in Congress is something that the 1.8 million Cuban Americans who reside in southern Florida are going to have to reckon with in upcoming election cycles.
Indeed, even when Senator Jeff Flake’s (R-AZ) S. 299 Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act has garnered 44 cosponsors and bipartisan support, the odds that it get to a filibuster-proof 60 votes is still low as reflected by govtrack.com having put the bill’s chances of passing at 11%. It would need that to avoid the histrionics of Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL), Ted Cruz (R-TX), and Bob Menendez (D-NJ). Each of these legislators have sworn through clenched teeth that they will not allow any gains made by Obama’s overtures towards Cuba to continue and, in Cruz and Rubio’s case, have vowed to reverse all progress made with the island if elected to the White House.
Travel to Cuba has been a hot topic and since December 17th’s announcements there has been a 36% uptick in Americans visiting the island. Celebrities, politicians, business leaders, and curious Americans have flocked to the island. Airbnb’s fastest growing market is Cuba. Even White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told a reporter that the president “would relish the opportunity” to visit Havana in 2016.
However, this past June 18th the House Appropriations Committee passed its FY 2016 Financial Services Appropriations bill. It contains three “Cuba-specific” prohibitions that were drafted by one of the most out-of-touch members of Congress – Mario Diaz-Balart. These prohibitions are a threat to the advancements in U.S.-Cuba relations and seek to effectively end president Obama’s highly successful “people-to-people” policy that has generated interest among all Americans to go to Cuba and see for themselves the devastating effects of the embargo. These measures will also hurt Cubans on the island who have benefited by the influx of tourism and those Cuban Americans who have invested in family businesses and enterprises in a nascent market economy. What will Diaz-Balart be facing on Election Day when a majority of his constituents have already voted against him and his draconian legislation with their feet by going to Cuba in the thousands and with their pocketbooks by sending money millions to loved ones on the island?
With all that has been accomplished in the past several months it should be noted that any or all of it could be sabotaged by the misguided efforts of a few delusional congressional members who have done very little in their undistinguished careers except perpetuate the pro-embargo industry. All the bills and measures for free travel and more commerce can be introduced but as long as these obstructionists remain in office full normalization will be a delayed longer than it should. Repealing the embargo will probably only happen if some, hopefully all, of these politicians are removed from office.
Normalization = Normal
Every day a new group or coalition appears that is in favor of travel and commerce with the island. James A. Williams, director of Engage Cuba and the New Cuba PAC, expressed this in an interview on June 16th on CNBC’s Squawk Box with Michelle Caruso-Cabrera.
MCC: “… There’s really nothing left to the embargo. What you’re calling for is an end to the embargo, essentially, right? Is there really anything left?”
JW: “Yeah, well, there are pieces of.., it depends on what you call the embargo. I mean, what I think we’re saying is we’re not interested in the debate around the democracy programs and some of these other issues that I think, you know, are still contentious and deserve a full debate, but I think we can all agree that trade and travel restrictions need to be lifted immediately.
MCC: “I’m confused, so when it comes to the democracy programs you just don’t want to talk about them? You don’t support them? You do support them?
JW: “It’s just not an issue we’re focusing on. You know our campaign is led by the private sector on its ability to travel freely, trade freely, uh, and have the opportunity for Americans to compete.”
I’d like to thank James Williams for graciously ceding the floor to those of us who have been “focusing on” these “contentious issues” for more than a few months. During the Obama era, it has been imperative for moderate Cuban American voices to defend the President’s actions and to call for the normalization of relations. A number of organizations, with which I have had the pleasure and honor of working, have been at the forefront of the U.S-Cuba conversation within the Cuban American community, denouncing U.S. policy that includes “democracy promotion”, and not working “behind the scenes” as Williams claims to have been doing these years.
The so-called “democracy promotion” programs have ham-handedly put the lives of Cubans and Americans in danger because of the illegal nature of said programs. Alarmingly, these programs have seen their budget increased to $30 million for FY 2016- a fifty percent increase from the $20 million in 2015. Alan Gross’ five-year imprisonment was the result of his activities as a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), a benefactor of this increase. His wife sued the American government in 2013 for more than $60 million dollars for having sent him “on five semi-covert trips to Cuba without proper training, protection, or understanding of Cuban laws.” The case was eventually settled for $3.2 million a week after the historic announcements that released him on December 17th of last year. When Engage Cuba launched it did so in the residence of Scott Gilbert, Gross’ lawyer, with Gross present as a spokesperson for the endeavor. Using Gross as a spokesperson and then not wanting to talk about “democracy programs” defies credulity.
Some of Williams’ newfound friends (read backers), Cuban Americans who represent the Miami power base and until just recently had poured millions into the pro-embargo lobby, also didn’t want to focus on “contentious” issues like Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism these past six years. So it’s no surprise that Engage Cuba doesn’t want to talk about the “democracy programs”. Nor do they want to broach the topic of the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo and the violation of Cuban sovereignty that it represents. Nor do they have much to say about the recent immigration crisis brought upon by Cubans realizing that they won’t be able to take advantage of the Cuban Adjustment Act much longer if relations are truly normalized. The United States unfair policy encourages Cubans to test their fate with the swirling currents of the Straits of Florida on homemade rafts and this perilous exodus will persist as long as U.S. law encourages it. Will it also be left to “others” to call for the immediate closure and abandonment of Radio and TV Marti, a $28 million taxpayer footed boondoggle that doesn’t even reach Cuban audiences? In short, if it’s not travel and trade Engage Cuba isn’t interested in commenting on it, for now.
Whether or not these supposed champions of “engagement” want to address the myriad obstacles that still stand in the way of full normalization, the Cuban government has, and will continue to call for an end to these hostile policies that violate Cuban law and international norms established in the Vienna Convention and the 1970 Declaration of the United Nations General Assembly on principles of international law concerning friendly relations of cooperation among states.
In an official statement by the Revolutionary Government of the Republic of Cuba on July 1st, the Cubans delineated a number of issues that would need to be rectified in order to fully normalize relations:
“There can be no normal relations between Cuba and the United States as long as the economic, commercial and financial blockade that continues to be rigorously applied, causing damages and scarcities for the Cuban people, is maintained, it is the main obstacle to the development of our economy, constitutes a violation of International Law and affects the interests of all countries, including those of the United States.
To achieve normalization it will also be indispensable that the territory illegally occupied by the Guantanamo Naval Base is returned, that radio and television transmissions to Cuba that are in violation of international norms are harmful to our sovereignty cease, that programs aimed at promoting subversion and internal destabilization are eliminated, and that the Cuban people are compensated for the human and economic damages caused by the policies of the United States.”
So no, it’s not just as easy as saying that restrictions on travel and trade need to be lifted immediately. The Cubans want a normalization that is actually “normal” and not just an influx of tourists and businessmen who either come to the island led by the perverse American provincial thought that Cuba needs to “be seen before it’s ruined” or by the repugnant philosophy that American dollars will fix every Cuban’s problems.
Besides, as long as the embargo exists there will always effectively be a travel ban because there is no infrastructure for all the Americans who suddenly want to go to visit. And, if Cuba cannot receive the international financing that it needs to truly make the recent economic reforms function, then no American business is going to be willing to invest any significant amount in a country where it can still be penalized by Uncle Sam.
After more than 50 years of animosity both nations are going to need diplomatic corps that aren’t hindered by extraterritorial legislation that puts them at odds. There is much work to be done in order for the United States and Cuba to trust each other and if there is a pre-ordained policy for regime change then that trust will never fully be forged.
Benjamin Willis is a founding member of Cuban Americans for Engagement (CAFE) and Co-Director of the United States Cuba Now PAC. http://www.uscubanowpac.com
Last week we saw an encouraging sign that the 50 year cold war between the US and Cuba was finally coming to an end. President Obama announced on Wednesday that the US and Cuba would restore full diplomatic relations and that embassies could be re-opened in each country by the end of the month.
For this achievement, which was resisted by vested interests in the US, Obama should be praised. However we shouldn’t be too optimistic about truly establishing normal relations until we understand how relations became so abnormal in the first place. The destruction of relations between the two countries was preceded by US intervention on behalf of a hated Cuban dictator, Fulgencio Batista, which had turned the Cuban people against the United States and set the stage for the emergence of Fidel Castro.
In 1944, after Batista’s first term as president of Cuba, he emigrated to the United States. When his campaign to return to office in 1952 looked lost, he led a military coup, seized power, and declared himself president. The US government quickly recognized his military junta as the legitimate government of Cuba and began propping him up. Much of the Cuban economy was in the hands of well-connected US companies, and the US government exerted its influence to their financial benefit.
The Cuban dictatorship was helped along by US assistance. The secret police was trained by the United States and was used to brutally suppress any political opposition. Almost all US aid to Cuba was in the form of military equipment used brutally against the Cuban people. The US was seen as the force behind Batista’s dictatorship.
As John F. Kennedy said while campaigning for the presidency in 1960:
Fulgencio Batista murdered 20,000 Cubans in seven years … and he turned Democratic Cuba into a complete police state — destroying every individual liberty. Yet our aid to his regime, and the ineptness of our policies, enabled Batista to invoke the name of the United States in support of his reign of terror.
US intervention in Cuban affairs really got a boost when Batista was overthrown by the young revolutionary Fidel Castro. As Stephen Kinzer writes in the excellent book, “The Brothers,” Castro’s rise to power was not immediately condemned by the US. When Castro traveled to the US shortly after taking power, he met with Vice President Richard Nixon, who found that Castro “has those indefinable qualities which make him a leader of men.” But Nixon worried that the US might not be able “to orient him in the right direction.” Nixon was concerned that Castro sounded too much like Indonesian president Sukarno, who urged countries to join a non-aligned movement to resist both superpower camps at the time. The US could not tolerate the non-aligned movement and pushed a zero-sum game in global politics.
When Washington realized it could not control Castro, it embargoed the island and began launching plots to overthrow and even kill him. US policy likely was responsible for Castro turning to the Soviet Union in the first place.
This US intervention in Cuba’s internal affairs continues to this day. Even under Obama several US plots to overthrow the regime have been exposed. So while opening an embassy in Havana is a positive step, this embassy must be used to help promote truly normal relations with Cuba. That means an end to the embargo, an end to the travel ban, and an end to US interference in Cuba’s internal affairs. A more free and prosperous Cuba will not emerge as long as US interventionism continues to turn Cubans against the United States.
The historic meeting between President Barack Obama and President Raúl Castro of Cuba at the Summit of the Americas in Panama over the weekend could be interpreted as a steppingstone toward the end of U.S. subversion and economic warfare relentlessly carried out since the success of the Cuban revolution 55 years ago. But it is questionable whether President Obama intends to transform relations, treating the government of Cuba as a sovereign equal and recognizing their right to choose different political and economic models, or merely to continue the same decades-old policy with a more palatable sales pitch – the way he has done with drones and extrajudicial surveillance. U.S. media, however, appear to have fully embraced the idea that Washington is acting in the best interests of the Cuban people to liberate them from political repression. The New York Times weighed in the day before the Summit by claiming that most Cubans identify not with the sociopolitical goals advanced by their country’s government, but rather with those supported by Washington.
In an editorial titled “Cuban Expectations in a New Era” (4/7/2015), the New York Times advances the proposition that engagement between the two governments will lead to Cuba’s integration (at least partially) into the global capitalist economy. This in turn will create increased financial prosperity as Cuba grows its private sector and turns away from the failed model the government has imposed since the start of the revolution.
The New York Times portrays the Cuban government as intransigent, stubbornly holding its citizens back from the inevitable progress that would result from aligning itself with Washington. The Times claims that the Cuban government maintains a “historically tight grip on Cuban society.” They may be alluding to a Cuban version of the U.S.’s political police, the FBI, who for decades spied on nonviolent activists representing African Americans, Puerto Rican nationalists, the anti-war movement, animal rights and environmental groups to prevent social change through political activities. Many of the activists illegally targeted by the FBI’s COINTELPRO program still remain incarcerated as political prisoners. But the Times doesn’t mention any such Cuban equivalent.
The fault of Cuba’s financial situation is placed squarely on the country’s government. The Times editorial only mentions the 51-year-old embargo by stating that “untangling the web of sanctions the United States imposes on Cuba will take years because many are codified into law.” Yet they then claim “the Obama administration’s gamble on engaging with Cuba has made it increasingly hard for [Cuba’s] leaders to blame their economic problems and isolation on the United States.”
They might have mentioned the embargo against Cuba cost the country $3.9 billion in foreign trade last year, bringing the inflation-adjusted total to $1.1 trillion since the policy was implemented. The embargo is still directly harming the Cuban economy and public health sector. The administrative measures implemented by Obama will provide, at most, minor relief. Extraterritorial provisions of the Helms-Burton Act that prevent Cuba from trading with 3rd countries remain firmly in place.
But the Times seems to believe the Cuban government is doing nothing more than making excuses when they complain about the devastating affects of the embargo on their economy and their population. They don’t mention that in October 187 other nations voted in the UN for the 23rd straight year to condemn the U.S. embargo against Cuba as illegal and demand that it end.
In her study “Unexpected Cuba,” economist Emily Morris rejects the argument that Cuba’s leaders have damaged their country’s economic performance and put its social progress at risk by failing to adopt capitalist reforms like privatization and liberalization.
“The problem with this account is that reality has conspicuously failed to comply with its predictions,” Morris writes. “Although Cuba faced exceptionally severe conditions – it suffered the worst exogenous shock of any of the Soviet-bloc members and, thanks to the long-standing US trade embargo, has confronted a uniquely hostile international environment – its economy has performed in line with the other ex-Comecon countries, ranking thirteenth out of the 27 for which the World Bank has full data.”
The New York Times then claims that the Cuban dissidents attending sideline events at the Panama Summit deserve to have regional leaders “amplify their voices.” They claim that such dissidents “have struggled for years to be heard in their own country, where those critical of the Communist system have faced repression.”
There is no evidence that the dissidents have struggled in Cuba because they have been repressed rather than that most of the population simply does not agree with their ideas or sympathize with them. In a presumptuous attempt to delegitimize the Cuban government, the Times claims it is actually the dissident contra-revolution that represents the majority of the Cuban people. “The government will have to reckon with the fact that many of the dissidents’ aspirations are shared by most Cubans,” the Times editorial states.
Again, there is no evidence that this is actually the case anywhere other than in Washington’s fantasies. The dissidents’ aspirations are not even stated. One assumes this refers to the objective of repealing socialism and instituting capitalism, which is also the official policy of the U.S. government. Mere changes to Cuba’s economy within the socialist structure is not a dissident position. Such changes and improvements are proposed and debated at all levels of Cuban politics, and have been openly embraced by Raúl Castro since he assumed the Presidency.
That the majority of the Cuban people share dissidents’ desire for capitalism is a bold claim. It infers that the Cuban government is not representative of its people, but rather forcibly imposes a socioeconomic system they oppose.
People familiar with Cuba have reached the opposite conclusion. Victor Rodriguez, a professor in the Ethnic Studies department of California State University Long Beach, recently returned from a visit to Cuba and had a different outlook.
“I spoke with at least 50 Cubans of all ages and walks of life,” he said. “Themes were that sovereignty, health care, and education are non-negotiable.” Rodriguez said that Cubans did have complaints about their system, with many stressing the need for higher salaries.
But the three areas he cites as resoundingly popular are the most basic hallmarks of the revolution. If Cuba were to abandon its socialist economic system – either willingly or under pressure from the United States – these would be the first areas to be sacrificed on the neoliberal altar. Dozens of countries in the global South from Africa, Latin America to Asia that now find themselves in the vice grip of suffocating debt can surely attest to this fact.
It is worth examining who are the voices that the New York Times claim deserve to be amplified. Among the “dissidents” are Guillermo Fariñas and Manuel Cuesta Morúa. Fariñas had fought in Angola against the racist South African apartheid regime and had supported Cuba’s revolutionary movement until a sudden change, notes Salim Lamrani, a French professor who specializes in Cuba-USA relations.
“It was only in 2003 that Fariñas made a 180 degree ideological switch and turned his back on the ideas he had defended in years past,” Lamrani writes. Contrary to representation in Western media, Fariñas had been sentenced to prison for crimes such as assaulting a colleague and an old man who had to have his spleen removed because of his injuries. Lamrani notes that Fariñas was admittedly financed by the US Interests Section in Havana. Perhaps not coincidentally, Fariñas became an outspoken critic of the Castro regime. Yet he was still permitted to speak freely with foreign media. His decision to express his political views, which happen to coincide with those of the interests that finance him, has paid handsomely.
“Guillermo Fariñas has chosen, as have those Cuban dissidents sensationalized by the western press, to live off his dissident activities, which offer undeniable financial opportunities and a standard of living much higher than other Cubans living in a context marked by economic difficulties and material scarcity,” Lamrani writes.
Cuesta Morúa is likewise a dissident who considers the Cuban revolution an abject failure, and who downplays any U.S. responsibility for the economic conditions Cuba faces.
Unlike dissidents in the United States, who cannot start a political organization or journalistic enterprise without concerning themselves with how it will impact their ability to pay for health care, a mortgage, food for their family or education, dissidents in Cuba do not have any of these worries. They enjoy a robust safety net that covers every single citizen, regardless of their view of the Cuban political system.
Many Cubans in attendance at the Summit in Panama had a different view of the dissidents than that espoused by the New York Times. They referred to the dissidents as mercenaries because of their financial links to a hostile foreign regime and coziness with anti-Castro exiles such as Luis Posada Carriles, the “Cuban bin Laden,” who has been implicated in numerous terrorist activities including the downing of a civilian airline and a string of hotel bombings in Havana.
The Cuban Web site Juventud Rebelde noted that the Cuban delegation, which represents more than 2,000 associations and Non-Governmental Organizations from the island, denounced the presence of people who are paid by interests seeking to destabilize Cuban society and the Cuban government.
Liaena Hernandez Martinez, of the National Committee of the Federation of Cuban Women, which represents more than 4 million Cubans said that: “For the Cuba dignified and sovereign that has resisted more than five decades of blockade it is inadmissible that people are here of such low moral character.”
The Times predictably aligns itself on the side of the U.S. government regarding their opinion of the true political aspirations of Cuban people. The idea that the U.S. is a disinterested observer nudging the Cuban government in the direction of greater democracy and human rights is nothing but pure propaganda, contradicted by more than half a century of history. The U.S. has always been the aggressor against Cuba, coercing it to become a neo-colony that could be exploited by the U.S. military and corporate interests from the time of the Platt amendment until the U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista was ousted in 1959.
It should be no surprise that the U.S. government and corporations like the New York Times still presumptuously attempt to delegitimize the Cuban revolution and pretend that the Cuban politics are best understood and articulated by those either outside Cuba or in their service as paid agents. The notion that a population can create a socioeconomic system representing the will of its people that starkly rejects the Washington Consensus is simply unthinkable. Anyone who agrees with the government’s official line, regardless of their questionable motives or failure to resonate inside the country, is seen as Cuba’s true political representative class. It may take another 55 years to realize this is simply not the case.
In recent weeks the Ebola epidemic in West Africa has slowed from a peak of more than 1,000 new cases per week to 99 confirmed cases during the week of February 22, according to the World Health Organization. For two countries who have taken diametrically opposed approaches to combating the disease, the stark difference in the results achieved over the last five months has become evident.
The United States, which sent about 2,800 military troops to the region in October, has announced an end to its relief mission. Most soldiers have already returned. Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby declared the mission a “success.” The criteria for this determination is unclear, as the troops did not treat a single patient, much less save a single life.
President Barack Obama proclaimed the American response to the crisis “an example of American leadership.” In the case of Ebola, as is the case “whenever and wherever a disaster or disease strikes,” according to Obama, “the world looks to us to lead.” The President claimed that the troops contributed not only by their own efforts, but by serving as a “force multiplier” that increased the ability of others to contribute. Apparently the U.S. forces also have the effect of divine inspiration.
This is an example of “American values,” Obama declares, which “matter to the world.” The “American leadership” is one more example of “what makes us exceptional,” according to Obama, as is the case “whether it’s recession, or war, or terrorism.”
Anything that Americans do is exemplary of these “values,” which by virtue of American supremacy are superior to those of people from any other nation.
When you look behind the President and the Pentagon’s rhetoric, it becomes more difficult to find concrete examples of success in the U.S. military mission to Africa. From the beginning, the capacity of American troops to make a difference in containing and eliminating a medical disease was questionable, to say the least.
In October, the Daily Beast reported that soldiers would receive only four hours of training in preparation for their deployment to Africa. That is half of a regular work day for people with no medical background. When they arrived, they did not exactly hit the ground running. “The first 500 soldiers to arrive have been holing up in Liberian hotels and government facilities while the military builds longer-term infrastructure on the ground,” wrote Tim Mak.
The DoD declared on its Web site that “the Defense Department made critical contributions to the fight against the Ebola virus disease outbreak in West Africa. Chief among these were the deployment of men and women in uniform to Monrovia, Liberia, as part of Operation United Assistance.” So, the chief contribution of the DoD was sending people in military uniforms to the site of the outbreak.
The DoD lists among its accomplishments training 1,539 health care workers & support staff (presumably non-technical and cursory); creating 10 Ebola treatment units (which you could count on your fingers); and construction of a 25-bed medical unit (for a country that has had 10,000 cases of Ebola).
USAID declares that “the United States has done more than any other country to help West Africa respond to the Ebola crisis.” Like the DoD, they are short on quantitative measurements for their assertions and long on abstractions. In vague business-speak, USAID says they “worked with UN and NGO partners,” “partnered with the U.S. military,” and “expanded the pipeline of medical equipment and critical supplies to the region.”
While the USAID personnel have clearly helped facilitate the delivery of equipment and supplies. this is far from proof that the U.S. has done more than any other country. By the end of April, all but 100 U.S. troops will have left West Africa, to continue what Obama called the “civilian response.” The transition to the civilian response seems as vague, and on a much smaller scale than the military response.
The U.S. response did involve many people and several hundred millions of dollars, which is, indeed, more than most countries contributed. But an examination of the facts shows that the U.S. played mostly a support role, involved in collaboration with other actors in the tangential aspects of the crisis. U.S. government employees were not directly involved in treating any patients. Their role was rather to help other health workers and officials on the front lines who actually did. To say this is an example of American leadership and exceptionalism seems like a vast embellishment.
The other country who has taken a very public role in the Ebola crisis is Cuba. Unlike the U.S., Cuba sent nearly 500 professional healthcare workers – doctors and nurses – to treat African patients who had contracted Ebola. These included doctors from the Henry Reeve Brigade, which has served over the last decade in response to the most high-profile disasters in the world, including in Haiti and Pakistan. In Haiti, the group was instrumental in detecting and treating cholera, which had been introduced by UN peace keepers. The disease sickened and killed thousands of Haitians.
Before being deployed to West Africa, all the Cuban doctors and nurses completed an “intense training” of a minimum of two weeks, where they “prepared in the form of treating patients without exposing themselves to the deadly virus,” according to CNN.
After Cuba announced its plan to mobilize what Cubans call the “army of white robes,” WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said that “human resources are clearly our most important need.”
“Money and materials are important, but those two things alone cannot stop Ebola virus transmission,” she said. “We need most especially compassionate doctors and nurses” to work under “very demanding conditions.”
Like their American counterparts, Cuban authorities also recently proclaimed success in fighting Ebola. They used a clear definition of what they meant.
“We have managed to save the lives of 260 people who were in a very very bad state, and through our treatment, they were cured and have gotten on with their lives,” said Jorge Delgado, head of the medical brigade, at a conference in Geneva on Foreign Medical Teams involved in fighting the Ebola crisis.
The work of the Henry Reeve Brigade was recognized by Norwegian Trade Unions who nominated the group for the Nobel Peace Prize “for saving lives and helping millions of suffering people around the world.”
The European Commission for humanitarian aid and crisis management last week also “recognized the role Cuba has played in fighting the Ebola epidemic.”
For more than 50 years, Cuba has carried out medical missions across the globe – beginning in Algeria after the revolution in 1961 and taking place in poor countries desperately needing medical care throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America. They have provided 1.2 billion consultations, 2.2 million births, 5 million operations and immunizations for 12 million children and pregnant women, according to Granma.
“In their direct fight against death, the human quality of the members of the Henry Reeve brigade is strengthened, and for those in need around the world, they represent welcome assistance,” writes Nuria Barbosa León.
The mission of the DoD is one of military involvement worldwide. As Nick Turse reports in TomDispatch, U.S. military activity on the African continent is growing at an astounding rate. The military “averages about one and a half missions a day. This represents a 217% increase in operations, programs, and exercises since the command was established in 2008,” Turse writes. He says the DoD is calling “Africa the battlefield of tomorrow, today.”
Turse writes that the U.S. military is quietly replicating its failed counterinsurgency strategy in Africa, under the guise of humanitarian activities. “If history is any guide, humanitarian efforts by AFRICOM (U.S. Africa Command) and Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa will grow larger and ever more expensive, until they join the long list of projects that have become ‘monuments of U.S. failure’ around the world,” he writes.
There are some enlightening pieces of information listed by the DoD as part of the “transition to Operation Onward Liberty.” The DoD “will build partnership capacity with the Armed Forces of Liberia” and will “continue military to military engagement in ways that support Liberia’s growth toward enduring peace and security.”
It is unclear what role the U.S. military will help their Liberian counterparts play, unless peace and security is considered from the perspective of multinational corporations who have their eyes on large oil reserves, rather than the perspective of the local population.
In Liberia, as in most of Africa, Washington’s IMF and World Bank-imposed neoliberal policies have further savaged a continent devastated by 300 years of European colonialism. Any U.S. military involvement in Liberia and elsewhere is likely to reflect the economic goals of the U.S. government, which primarily consist of continuing the implementation of the Washington consensus.
The U.S. military, unsurprisingly, seems to be using the Ebola crisis as a pretext to expand its reach inside Africa, consistent with the pattern of the last seven years that Turse describes. The deployment of several thousand troops to West Africa can be understood as a P.R. stunt that is the public face of counterinsurgency.
U.S. troops are used as props. The idea is to associate them with humanitarianism, rather than death and destruction. But a true humanitarian mission would be conducted by civilian agencies and professionals who are trained and experienced specifically in medicine, construction and administration, not by soldiers trained to kill and pacify war zones.
Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law, warned last fall about the dangers of conceiving of a “war on terror template” in response to a disease such as Ebola.
“Countering Ebola will require a whole new set of protections and priorities, which should emerge from the medical and public health communities. The now sadly underfunded National Institutes of Health and other such organizations have been looking at possible pandemic situations for years,” Greenberg writes. “It is imperative that our officials heed the lessons of their research as they have failed to do many times over with their counterparts in public policy in the war on terror years.”
The approaches of the United States and Cuban governments to the Ebola epidemic are a study in contrasts. The goals that led to these policy choices are clear. And after nearly six months on the ground, the difference between a military and a technical assistance mission can easily be evaluated. The results speak for themselves.
The United States and Cuba have held another round of talks to reestablish diplomatic relations and explore the possibility of opening embassies in Washington and Havana.
However, the Friday talks left a serious issue unresolved as Washington has failed to remove Cuba from its list of “state sponsors of terrorism” so far.
The US said it was still reviewing Cuba’s place on the list maintaining that the issue is separate from the talks and won’t affect the reestablishment of diplomatic relations.
However, the head of the Cuban delegation, Josefina Vidal, said that the removal from the terror list was a “very important issue” and a priority for Havana.
“It would be difficult to explain that Cuba and the US have re-established normal diplomatic relations while Cuba is kept on that list that we believe we have never belonged to,” Vidal said.
The US State Department says the process is more complicated than it seems. If President Barack Obama wants to remove Cuba from the list, he must forward that to Congress and it cannot take effect for 45 days according to the law.
Following the talks, the head of the US delegation expressed optimism that the two countries could re-open embassies before a regional summit in April.
On December 17, Obama announced that Washington will start talks with Cuba to normalize diplomatic relations, marking the most significant shift in US foreign policy towards the communist country in over 50 years.
Several Republican lawmakers have criticized Obama for trying to restore relations with Cuba because they say it could provide the Caribbean nation with legitimacy and money while it continues with its alleged human rights violations.
200 Years of US Interventionism
The U.S. and Cuba are meeting again this week for their second round of normalization talks. When asked by the media what she expected from the first round, Roberta Jacobson, the senior diplomat leading the U.S. team, said that she was “not oblivious to the weight of history.” She was right on target: There is a very long history that begins well before the Revolution, deserves careful analysis, and will impact the talks.
As far back as 1809, Jefferson tried to purchase Cuba. In 1820 he went further; he told Secretary of War J.C. Calhoun that the U.S. “ought, at the first possible opportunity, to take Cuba.” As President, John Quincy Adams predicted that Cuba would fall “like a ripening plum into the lap of the union.” These are but two of many prominent examples of a widespread ambition to annex Cuba, or at least to control its destiny, from very early in U.S. history. After “the West,” Cuba figured as a prominent second place in U.S. expansionist aims from the beginning of the Republic.
In subsequent decades, support for annexing Cuba shifted tactically to Southerners who saw Cuba as a potential new slave state, though “manifest destiny” continued to be the fundamental driving force. Presidents Polk, in 1848, and Pierce, in 1854, offered unsuccessfully to buy Cuba. John Louis O’Sullivan, the newspaper editor who coined the phrase “Manifest Destiny” in 1845, supported Cuba’s best known “annexationist,” taking him to Polk’s White House in search of support for his armed expeditions. And even Walt Whitman—no advocate of slavery—wrote in 1871 that, “‘manifest destiny’ certainly points to the speedy annexation of Cuba by the United States.”
President McKinley again unsuccessfully offered to buy Cuba in 1898, shortly before declaring war on Spain. Only a year before, his Undersecretary of War, I.C. Breckenridge, had reflected the annexationist thinking in a memo arguing that: “We must impose a harsh blockade so that hunger and its constant companion, disease, undermine the peaceful population and decimate the Cuban Army….in order to annex the Pearl of the Antilles [Cuba].” He meant the Cuban independence army, who had all but defeated the Spanish well before Roosevelt with his Rough Riders arrived to clean up. It was advocacy of a policy to starve the Cuban population and its army, just to make sure that the U.S. alone could determine the future of the island. The push for annexation eventually failed, in no small part because its supporters realized that Cubans would likely continue their war if the U.S. tried to impose it. Yet those who favored annexation were able to impose the Platt Amendment on the new Cuban Constitution in 1904, in effect granting the US the right to intervene in Cuba for practically any reason the US saw fit. Cuba’s independence was brutally truncated, and the U.S. intervened on the island again in 1906, 1912, 1917 and 1920.
During the 1930’s and 40’s, the ambition to control Cuba’s destiny continued—if somewhat more subtly and without troops. The U.S. sent Sumner Welles as a special envoy to Cuba in the 1930’s to ensure that the outcome of a populist insurrection against Gerardo Machado, then Cuba’s dictator, did not steer the island away from U.S. tutelage. This intervention gave rise to the U.S. support for Fulgencio Batista, which lasted until his overthrow in 1959 by the Revolution. As our ambassador to Cuba at the time, Earl T. Smith, asserted during a Senate hearing in 1960: “Until Castro, the U.S. was so overwhelmingly influential in Cuba that the American ambassador was the second most important man, sometimes even more important than the Cuban president.”
The ambition to control Cuba, in other words, already had a long and complex history by the time of the victory of the Revolution in 1959. The list of U.S. interventions seeking regime change that followed is too long to detail here. The Bay of Pigs, assassination efforts, hundreds of acts of sabotage and terrorism, and, of course, the embargo since 1960. And what did the embargo seek? Well, President Eisenhower said that “if the [Cuban people] are hungry they will throw Castro out,” a view that President Kennedy reiterated when he asserted that the end of the Revolution would come from “rising discomfort among hungry Cubans.” Arguably, a policy with the same goal of maintaining Cuba as a client state as the Breckenridge memo of half a century before. The embargo was then codified in the so-called Torricelli and Helms-Burton laws of 1992 and 1996, both supposedly granting the U.S. the right to decide what kind of government the island could have, and laws that were passed well after the Soviet Union had collapsed, the Cold War ended, and Cuba had stopped its revolutionary activities in both Africa and Latin America. In effect, these laws are modern versions of the Platt Amendment, no longer “justified” even by the Cold War fig leaf.
So the history of U.S. policy towards Cuba shows a continuity that is hard to deny. Even those who might disagree with this interpretation should not find it hard to imagine how the Cuban government, and Cubans as a whole, would react with profound skepticism and distrust of the intentions of the most powerful country in the world, as reflected by these kinds of pressures and policies for more than two centuries. Beyond the immediate issues, such as the irrational listing of Cuba in the list of countries that sponsor terrorism, Ms. Jacobson will certainly have a very heavy weight of history to consider in her discussions with her Cuban counterparts. If the President directs her, however, she, on behalf of our country, will have a unique opportunity to break clear from the interventionist thrust of our past interventionist policies, and seek agreements that nurture common interests and respect the obvious differences between the U.S. and the island.
Manuel R. Gomez is a Cuban-American public health professional who resides in Washington, DC.
“I do not expect the changes I am announcing today to bring about a transformation of Cuban society overnight.”
— Barack Obama, Dec. 17, 2014
President Obama’s Dec. 17 statement announcing changes in U.S. Cuba policy was a mixture of historical truths and catch phrases drawn from the catalog of myths about Cuba and U.S. policy goals.
The first round of rule changes, announced by Jan. 16 by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), was significant in the areas of trade and banking. At the same time, much of the language is drawn from the old justifications for regime change. (Let us put aside the hypocrisies in Obama’s speech such as the instruction — coming from a country where labor unions have been systematically destroyed — that “Cuban workers should be free to form unions.”)
In his speech, Obama reworked Einstein’s famous definition of insanity to support his partial abandonment of the half-century attempts to destroy the Cuban revolution. “I do not believe we can keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result,” said Obama. (If he means that the policy he has supported for six years is insane, what does that say about him?)
Nowhere in the speech did Obama renounce the longstanding U.S. commitment to regime change in Cuba or even acknowledge that it ever existed. While implicitly recognizing that the use of sanctions to achieve political results had failed, he continues to pursue them in Korea, Russia and elsewhere. One day after making the Cuba speech, he signed a bill imposing sanctions on Venezuela alleging that the government of President Nicolas Maduro had violated the human rights of protestors during violent anti-government demonstrations last February. The demonstrations were led by right-wing representatives of the Venezuelan elite who have long been backed by the United States.
We should note that the phrase about doing the same thing for over five decades and expecting a different result is incorrect. True, five decades ago the Eisenhower administration broke diplomatic relations with Cuba, but since then his 10 successors, who account for 14 presidential terms, tried a variety of other “things” besides cutting diplomatic relations. There were the commando raid things launched from U.S. territory by Cuban exiles burning cane fields and sugar mills and the CIA-trained underground blowing up movie theaters and shopping centers. Then of course, there was the Bay of Pigs invasion thing by an exile expeditionary force landing in a swamp. That was a really big thing. With that failure came Bobby Kennedy’s Operation Mongoose thing, which was expected to be a let’s-get- it-right-this-time do-over of the Bay of Pigs disaster.
Since the 1962 Missile Crisis, there have been endless “democracy promotion” things financed by CIA front organizations. There have been clandestine anti-Cuban shortwave things broadcast from all manner of conveyances — yachts, balloons, zeppelins, airplanes. Leaflets, books and pamphlets of every kind were surreptitiously sent to Cuba in tourist luggage, in diplomatic pouches, hidden in hollow trees and even dropped from airplanes. Then there were the hit-and-run attacks from speedboats shooting up Russian ships, Cuban fishing boats, coastal hotels and hamlets.
Alan Gross, pretending to bring computer equipment to synagogues in Cuba that didn’t need them, is only a recent and not the last example of the often ludicrous plotting of various U.S. government agencies. Currently, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is at the forefront of the regime-change program. Obama did not mention the Gross thing but revealed that he would have proposed détente earlier had Cuba not imprisoned him.
Obama has it backwards. It’s not the “thing” that needs to be changed but the desired “result.” His new policy direction does not promise to end imperial bullying or to accept Cuban independence and sovereignty. Why else would he say the new thing he has in mind “will promote our values through engagement”?
Making the crime fit the punishment
To justify the long hostility toward Cuba, the United States has created a Cuba that never existed; a tropical gulag of indiscriminate terror where hordes of political prisoners rot while a cartoon dictator recites hours of his political poetry to a captive audience.
It is not surprising that the external and domestic opponents of the Cuban government, whether or not they are paid by the United States or its European partners, do not have their own vision of what a post-Castro society would look like. They and Obama are bound by the official blueprint drawn up by Congress in the Helms-Burton law of 1996, which essentially calls for a non-Cuban Cuba.
What would happen to employment, housing, health care and education in the new Cuba of Washington and Miami invention? Why is it that regime change is couched in fuzzy terms like “freedom” devoid of any economic, social or cultural content? And why is it that Obama criticizes the old policy because it “failed to advance our interests” without acknowledging what those interests really are?
Nothing in Obama’s speech corrects the half-century assault on truth. Many of the media commentaries on the Obama speech recite from the fantasies concocted over the years to mask the insanity of the policy. Here is just a sampling:
-Seventy-five Cubans dissidents were arrested in April 2003 in what is called the Black Spring. Ever since then they have been referred to as political prisoners or freedom fighters.
Actually, they were tried and convicted in a Cuban court for operating as paid agents of the pretend dissident movement funded by the United States. Roger Noriega, former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, conspired with James Cason, then head of the U.S. Interest Section in Havana, to openly encourage local dissidents hoping that the Cuban government would kick Cason out and give George W. Bush an excuse for closing the Cuban Interest Section in Washington and worsening bilateral relations. The scheme is what got the 75 arrested.
Among the 75 were journalists, few of whom ever practiced journalism. There also were pretend independent librarians paid by the United States to pose as part of a pretend grassroots defiance of a pretend Cuban control of what people could read.
A report to the American Library Association in 2001 described how one of the “independent” libraries in Cuba “consisted of four or five dusty shelves of books.” A woman in one of these libraries said, “No books had ever been confiscated [and] that she was not being intimidated or threatened by the government as a result of having this collection….The woman receives many of her books as well as payment for her activities from the U.S. and Mexico but would not identify individual sources. She said she was asked to operate the library because she is a dissident.”
-Cuba always blocks U.S. efforts to improve relations.
The example often cited is the shooting down in 1996 of two private exile planes near the Cuban coast. But Fidel Castro did not plot with well-known terrorist José Basulto, founder of Brothers to the Rescue, to have him organize provocative flights over the Cuban capital; Basulto did that on his own. It was the shootdown that led to enactment of the Helms-Burton law, which now prevents Obama from lifting the blockade. So, was it Fidel Castro or Helms, Burton and Basulto who torpedoed some supposed improvement in bilateral relations?
– The Cuban Five were spies.
Nearly every news outlet continues to refer to the five Cuban agents imprisoned in 1998 as “spies.” (The last three were released as part of the Obama opening.)
Actually, they were Cuban agents who infiltrated Brothers to the Rescue and other counterrevolutionary groups in Florida and then alerted the FBI to their plans for attacks against Cuba from the United States in violation of U.S. law.
– Alan Gross, who, was released from prison on “humanitarian grounds” as part of the Obama opening, was unjustly imprisoned in Cuba.
Actually, he was a sub-contractor working under a USAID grant and sent on five trips to Cuba to set up clandestine electronic networks as part of the U.S. subversion obsession and therefore correctly imprisoned. People who do that sort of thing in the United States can be tried as unregistered agents of a foreign power and sent to prison, just like Alan Gross.
Where did all those doctors come from?
The president’s positive comment on Cuba’s contribution to fighting Ebola in Africa has been noted as one of the inducements for change. Good, but Obama needs to explore what Cuba’s worldwide medical missionary program says about the island.
Imagine what it would take for the mythical Cuba the United States created, with its tiny population of the impoverished and the oppressed, to produce such quantities of surplus doctors, nurses and medical technicians who are now working in 66 countries. If Obama could admit that his mythical Cuba could never have done that, he might start setting the historical record straight and maybe ask the Cubans to advise him on Obamacare.
Today Cuba has 75,000 physicians or one per 160 inhabitants. Approximately 132,000 medical/health professionals have provided medical and dental attention to poor people abroad. At present, there are over 50,000 medical workers and no less than 25,000 doctors working outside of Cuba. In 2013, the health sector had 322,627 health professionals and technicians – that is, 28.9 per 1000 inhabitants — 76,836 physicians and 14,964 dentists as well as 88,364 nurses.
All of these accomplishments at home and abroad have taken place while the U.S. government persisted in enticing doctors, nurses and other professionals to leave Cuba. Remember, it was the people of Cuba who, we are incessantly told, make only $20 a month, who paid for their education even as Cuba confronted relentless U.S. financial and economic obstruction. Does Obama intend to reimburse the Cubans?
The United States calls the maze of economic and commercial sanctions an embargo. (The Cubans, referencing international law, call it a blockade.) Obama cannot unilaterally put an end to this kind of warfare but must wait for Congress to act. While the executive branch has the constitutional power to define foreign policy, Bill Clinton signed the Helms-Burton bill transferring control of Cuba policy to Congress. This was the second time he relinquished executive power over Cuba policy. The first was in 1992 when, running against George H.W. Bush, he announced his support for the Torricelli Act, which severely tightened trade restrictions. Obama’s Democratic predecessor made it necessary for him to go before Congress in his recent State of the Union message and ask Republicans to give back his foreign policy powers.
Clearly, the old rules lacked consistency. For example, when OFAC travel and remittance rules affecting Cuban-Americas were relaxed in the past, the justification was always to promote democracy and to separate Cubans from dependence on their government. But, when the same rules were made more severe, as under George W. Bush, the justifications were the same.
OFAC’s new regulations will materially ease the sanctions. Some of the changes sound like attempts through administrative regulations, to overturn fundamental sanctions in the Helms-Burton law. These include new rules allowing direct interbank transfers with the U.S. banking system, the use of U.S.-issued credit and debit cards and the elimination of “cash and carry,” which was a burdensome requirement for Cuba in paying for imports in convertible currencies.
Nevertheless, other changes may conflict with old practices. For example, will the U.S. Treasury Department protect credit/debit card companies from lawsuits by U.S. nationals seeking compensation from the Cuban government? The logistics of these transactions remains to be clarified.
Travel to Cuba can now be insured by U.S. companies and U.S. airlines could fly to Cuba from any city if market demand is sufficient instead of from a few government-selected cities. The major airlines could then reduce the advantage that the smaller companies enjoyed until now.
The travel ban has been relaxed even as OFAC preserves the principle of controlling travel for political purposes. The 12 categories of allowable travel remain in place although now without requiring a written specific license and organized travel and tours will be opened to more players.
Still, restrictions remain. Those who will be able to travel more freely are prohibited by a watchful government from having fun. New categories of travel are authorized under the new rules, “provided that the traveler’s schedule of activities does not include free time or recreation in excess of that consistent with a full-time schedule.”
Picking winners for a Cuban market economy
Trade sanctions have always had the effect of indirectly “managing” the Cuba economy. The new rules can determine who gets to invest in or trade with Cuba and which Cuban sectors will receive the most benefit. The majority of U.S. firms will be left out of the great Cuban market economy as envisioned in Washington.
Until now only agricultural and some medical and educational materials could be sold to Cuba. The new regulations allow for an increase in the kinds of goods that Cuba can import from the United States such as construction and agricultural tools and machinery. However, these can only be sold to non-state sectors such as co-ops and private entrepreneurs. Thus, certain sectors of the U.S. corporate world will be given preferential treatment.
OFAC is also giving Cuban entrepreneurs in the private sector an advantage over the state, but the Obama administration also wants U.S. information technology corporations to invest in Cuba’s telecommunications infrastructure, which means selling services, software and equipment to the Cuban government.
Rules applied to the banking sector raise significant questions. Financial institutions will be allowed to open accounts in Cuban banks to simplify transactions that are authorized by the United States and Cuba. But will Cuban banks be allowed to do the same in the United States?
Are these U.S. banks going to open dollar accounts in Cuban banks? Are they going to be held liable for breaking the restrictions that the United States Treasury Department imposed on dozens of banks for doing the same thing? Less than 24 months, ago the Bank of Nova Scotia, Commerzbak, Credit Suisse and many others were charged with billions of dollars in fines. Will the new rules be retroactively applied or is this a case of sorry — bad timing?
Since 1962, any ship that called on a Cuban port was prohibited from entering a U.S. port for at least six months. Now, ships transporting food, medicine, medical equipment and other materials may, in case of some emergency in Cuba, go to Cuba and then enter any U.S. port without prejudice as can any other ship owned by the same company. But Cuba is still not permitted to use U.S. currency in international transactions or purchase of technologies that might have more than 10 percent of U.S. components.
Some U.S. companies shall not suffer
Obama appears to have come around to where former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was in 1972 when he limited the scope of economic sanctions to protect the interests of selected U.S. corporations. In April of that year, Kissinger approved export licenses for three U.S. automakers with subsidiaries in Argentina permitting them to sell cars to Cuba. The State Department issued a statement that read in part, “Our policy toward Cuba is unchanged. We did not wish to see these U.S. companies suffer as a result of U.S. policy.”
Stifling trade and financial transactions in Cuba by withholding all the utilities of capitalism was inconsistent with promoting a free market, which is mentioned 13 times in Helms-Burton.
Do the new regulations show that Obama is rejecting the old insanity and striking out toward true respect for Cuban sovereignty? While there is symbolic importance in resuming formal diplomatic relations, there is nothing in normal diplomacy that prevents Obama from carrying on regime change schemes by other means. As he said Dec. 17, “we can do more to support the Cuban people and promote our values through engagement.”
Relaxing the restrictions on travel is fine but does anyone find Obama’s reasoning for doing so a little suspicious? “Nobody represents America’s values better,” said Obama, “than the American people, and I believe this contact will ultimately do more to empower the Cuban people.”
Obama wants to transfer information technology to Cuba. Good. He could also transfer to dissidents the supplies of military-grade microchips that Alan Gross was imprisoned for doing.
The day for celebration should be postponed until we see whether the true potential of Cuba’s social and political experiment can proceed unobstructed by an enraged superpower and whether the United States is ready to work with Cuba in bringing a more constructive future to both countries. Maybe by then Cuba can show the United States how to form labor unions.
Robert Sandels lives in Mexico and writes on Cuba and Mexico.
Nelson P. Valdés is Professor Emeritus, University of New Mexico. For more information on Cuba visit: http://www.cuba-l.com
On December 17, 2014 president Barack Obama made a public statement announcing a change in America’s over fifty year-old Cold War strategy of isolating The Republic of Cuba. Since the Cuban Revolution of 1959, and the Island’s turn to Communism under the leadership of Fidel Castro, the United States has made a consistent effort to choke the life out of the Cuban nation through economic embargo. In a seemingly drastic change of that policy, President Obama stated he would further loosen travel restrictions to Cuba, open limited financial interaction with the country, and eventually move to building a U.S. embassy in Havana. Due to the 1996 Helms-Burton Act signed by President Clinton, Obama would still need Congressional approval to get much of this accomplished.
Obama’s statement was greeted with joy by many Americans who viewed this Cold War policy as antiquated and redundant. In a world where the Communist Soviet Union has long since collapsed, what sense does it make to keep punishing the Cuban people? Obama supporters used the president’s initiative as evidence of his superior statecraft in the face of Republican opposition by Cuba hard-liners like Florida Senator Marco Rubio.
What most Americans do not realize is that Obama’s change in policy is not the product of some enlightened awakening concerning foreign policy. Obama is reacting to occurrences that pose a significant geopolitical challenge to American hegemony in the Western hemisphere. The Russians and the Chinese have come knocking on America’s back door. From July 11 to 17, 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin traveled through a multi nation Latin American tour ending with a summit of the BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) in Fortaleza, Brazil. These nations are among the fastest developing economies in the world, and their combined efforts have been posing significant geopolitical challenge to America and its European allies all over the globe. This is particularly the case since the 2008 economic crash.
The first stop on Russian president Putin’s tour was the Republic of Cuba. It was announced by the Russian Kremlin’s news service that Putin agreed to absolve 90% of Cuba’s 32 billion dollar debt to Russia and, according to the Russian Times, the remaining 10% of Cuba’s debt would be re-invested back into Cuban infrastructure. For a relatively poor country like Cuba to have 90% of the debt to its once greatest economic benefactor forgiven is of epic importance to the Island nation. Furthermore, the Russians announced plans to develop infrastructure to build oil rigs for the valuable resource discovered off the coast of Cuba.
“The Latin America tour started with the visit to Cuba, where Putin signed a new agreement on oil exploration in Caribbean waters which contain most of the estimated 124 million barrels of the Island’s crude. The exploration will take place a few dozen miles from the US coast.”
Of even more strategic concern to the United States, Russia stated a desire to re-open a spying outpost once used by the Soviet Union to intercept American communication. The move by Russia to reoccupy that spy station, as well as modernize it, could open Russian access to American intelligence less than 200 miles away from U.S. shores.
“Russia has quietly reached an agreement with Cuba to reopen a Soviet-era spy base on America’s doorstep, amid souring relations between Moscow and Washington.
“The deal to reopen the signals intelligence facility in Lourdes, south of Havana, was agreed in principle during president Vladimir Putin’s visit to the island as part of a Latin American tour last week, according to the newspaper Kommersant.”
“Opened in 1967, the Lourdes facility was the Soviet Union’s largest foreign base, a mere 155 miles from the US coast. It employed up to 3,000 military and intelligence personnel to intercept a wide array of American telephone and radio communications, but Putin announced its closure in 2001 because it was too expensive – Russia had been paying $200m (£117m) a year in rent – and in response to US demands.
“After Putin visited Cuba on Friday, the Kremlin press service said the president had forgiven 90% of Cuba’s unpaid Soviet-era debts, which totaled $32bn (£18.6bn) – a concession that now appears to be tied to the agreement to reopen the base.”
Though Putin’s actions in Cuba were most significant to the change in American policy, his dealings in other Latin Countries were quite bold as well. On his visit to Argentina, Putin executed an agreement with the nation’s president Cristina Fernandez to construct two nuclear power plants in the face of that country’s frigid relations with the United States as a result of American hedge fund managers demanding Argentina satisfy all of its debt. Furthermore, in Brazil, Putin executed a memorandum of understanding to commence development of nuclear power plants as well as a spent fuel storage facility. What is most humiliating for the United States in all this is that these agreements are being executed at a time in which America has been trying to force international co-operation to isolate Russia resulting from the political crisis in the Ukraine. Putin’s actions in Cuba, combined with other Latin countries, illustrates that not only is Russia far from isolated, it is planting its geopolitical footprint directly in America’s back yard. As the The UK Guardian article above states:
“During Putin’s Latin American tour, he also signed agreements to establish positioning stations in Argentina, Brazil and Cuba for Glonass, Russia’s answer to the United States’ global positioning system (GPS). He also made a surprise stop to discuss placing a Glonass station in Nicaragua, where president Daniel Ortega called Putin’s first visit to the country a ‘ray of light.’ ‘The goal of Putin’s visit to Cuba, Nicaragua and Argentina was to strengthen geopolitical connections with Latin America in response to the United States’ attempts to isolate Russia,’ Alexei Pushkov, the chairman of the foreign affairs committee in Russia’s parliament, tweeted after the trip.”
Yet that alone is not the degree to which the Russians are making a strategic pivot to Latin and South America. At the BRICS summit the member nations of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa agreed to dedicate over 100 billion dollars to start a Central Bank among the nations with 100 billion in reserves as well. The ultimate goal of this Central Bank is to deleverage the BRICS nations from the U.S. dollar as the world’s reserve currency. This could pose a great threat to America’s position in the world.
Compounded with Russia’s geopolitical pivot, China has now strongly entered the Latin nations with its plan to build a canal through Nicaragua to rival the Panama Canal. This move would also greatly challenge American hegemony in the region.
Contrary to popular belief, Obama’s change in Cuba policy is not an indication of his foreign policy brilliance; it is a product of America’s foreign policy desperation. The Russians have been making serious power moves in Latin and South America while American policies have been alienating countries like Argentina and Brazil. Over the weekend a delegation of Democratic Party senators lead by Pat Leahy met with Raul Castro to ascertain how to improve relations with the two Countries. This is not the action of a United States negotiating from a position of strength, but the behavior of a nation trying to catch up with its geopolitical challenger, the Russians. As stated in a recent article on the trip in the New York Times titled: “U.S. Lawmakers in Cuba for Three Day Visit”:
“In the statement, Mr. Leahy’s office said the trip was intended to ‘seek clarity from Cubans on what they envision normalization to look like, going beyond past rote responses such as ‘end the embargo.’ ‘The office said that the trip would “help develop a sense of what Cuba and the United States are prepared to do to make a constructive relationship possible.’”
By Leahy’s own admission, the Cuban’s are calling the shots and the United States is being forced to play catch up. Now the Cubans are in the old Cold War position many Third World countries found themselves in by being able to play the Russians against the Americans and ask one simple question: Which one of you is willing to offer more? It looks more and more like the Cold War all over again.
Journalist Jorge Ramos recently leveled some serious accusations against Fidel Castro, accusing him of amassing a fortune stolen from Cuban taxpayers and engaging in widespread drug trafficking. Ramos, a hugely popular news personality on the Spanish-language network Univision and new sister cable network Fusion, eagerly parrots the hearsay of a former Castro bodyguard who is – coincidentally no doubt – promoting a new book. With the U.S. government still bent on regime change in Cuba, despite the recent announcement of normalization of relations, they must be pleased. The narrative Ramos creates could help lay the groundwork for future U.S. intervention in Cuba, or at least help to discredit a revolutionary hero who remains staunchly opposed to U.S. foreign policy and imperialism.
The source for Ramos’s Dec. 23, 2014 column is Reinaldo Sánchez, who allegedly served for 17 years as Castro’s bodyguard from 1977-1994. According to Ramos, Sánchez arrived in the United States in 2008 but had not gone public with his accusations until he released his book “Fidel Castro’s Hidden Life” in 2014. One could speculate that without guaranteed housing, food allowance, and health care, as Sánchez enjoyed while he was in Cuba, he may have been under financial pressure once in the States and forced to provide for himself financially. Popular Cuban dissident Yoani Sánchez (no relation) felt similar pressures while living abroad in Switzerland in 2004. Her inability to find work and earn a living forced her in desperation to return home, crying as she begged Cuban immigration officials to let her back in the country.
If Castro’s former bodyguard did indeed find himself in need of money in his new country with it’s large and rabid anti-Castro Cuban exile population, a tell-all story would be an easy way to raise cash. If you are going to write a book, you need some juicy details. No publisher would be very interested in a book about Castro immersed in reading at his desk or penning his notoriously prolific Reflections columns. If Sánchez’s motivations were not monetary and he truly did want to expose the truth, wouldn’t it make sense to come forward sooner by speaking with journalists who surely would have been interested in his tales?
Whatever his motivations, the word of one person who may have political and financial motivations to discredit Castro should surely be taken skeptically without any corroborating evidence or documentation. Ramos decides not to do this and instead takes everything Sánchez says at his word. He fails to even mention the possibility that one man’s unsubstantiated word might be exaggerated or outright false.
“Due to his closeness to Castro, he said that for years he got to see firsthand how the communist dictator amassed a personal fortune, primarily through Cuban businesses whose profits, Sanchez said, went directly to the dictator,” Ramos writes. “Castro also owns many properties in Cuba, according to Sanchez, including Cayo Piedra, two small islands connected by a bridge.”
These charges against Castro are nothing new. In 2006, Forbes magazine cited unnamed sources to rank Castro as the 7th wealthiest ruler in the world with a fortune of $900 million.
Castro was quick to challenge anyone to come up with proof about his alleged fortune. “If they can prove that I have a bank account abroad, with $900 million, with $1 million, $500,000, $100,000 or $1 in it, I will resign,” he said. “If they prove that I have a single dollar, I’ll resign my post … there will be no need for plans or transitions.”
No one has ever been able to offer the slightest bit of proof. Yet eight years later, Ramos provides a platform for a disgruntled former employee to make the same baseless allegations, as if they hadn’t already been out there for years without any evidence produced.
Sánchez also makes another claim in his book that is wildly inconsistent with the documentary record and even the U.S. government’s own assessment. He claims that Castro’s involvement in drug trafficking contributed to his alleged fortune.
“Sánchez said that in 1989, despite the fact that Castro would forcefully insist in public that the Cuban government had nothing to do with drug trafficking, the bodyguard overheard a private conversation between Castro and José Abrantes, then minister of the interior, that directly implicated Castro in the drug business,” Ramos writes.
For Ramos, this is case closed. One person allegedly overheard a conversation. What further proof could you need? Ramos does not question the former bodyguard about the veracity of these claims or put them in any context of what the evidence says about Cuba and Castro in relation to drug trafficking.
Timothy Alexander Guzman writes, “Fusion is following Washington’s line along with the anti-Castro Cuban-American community to discredit and demonize the Cuban government. Although Cuba is not perfect, it has its principles especially when it comes to illegal drugs. Why would Fidel Castro risk his international reputation as fighter for human rights for the Cuban people by becoming a drug dealer?”
In it’s 2013 International Narcotics Control Strategy report, the State Department declares:
Despite its proximity to major transit routes for illegal drugs to the U.S. market, Cuba is not a major consumer, producer, or transit point of illicit narcotics. Cuba’s intensive security presence and bilateral interdiction efforts have effectively reduced the available supply of narcotics on the island and prevented traffickers from establishing a foothold… Cuba’s domestic drug production and consumption remain negligible as a result of active policing, harsh sentencing for drug offenses, and very low consumer disposable income. Cuba’s counternarcotics efforts have prevented illegal narcotics trafficking from having a significant impact on the island.
At the exact time when Sánchez claims he heard the comments about drug trafficking by Fidel, a high-profile case against General Arnaldo Ochoa, a senior Cuban military leader, was taking place. Ochoa had been the head of the Cuban military mission in Angola for the previous two years. He was arrested on June 12, 1989 and charged with corruption and drug trafficking. He was tried before a military tribunal along with 13 other officers, and they confessed to the charges against them.
“They all told a similar story,” writes historian Piero Gleijeses in Visions of Freedom. “The Angolan government had given Ochoa $508,000 to buy 100 field wireless sets. An aide of Ochoa bought them in Panama for $435,000, and Ochoa diverted the difference to a bank account in Panama. Furthermore, on Ochoa’s instructions, another aide sold Angolan kwanzas on the black market to buy dollars. That aide told the court, ‘We got $61,190 for all these kwanzas.’… The sum total of the money gained from these operations may have approached $200,000.”
Ochoa was sentenced to death and executed. Reportedly he asked to die by firing squad, and to give the order to fire. Both requests were granted. Ochoa’s actions seem fairly mild – especially when compared to actions of corrupt, U.S. backed regimes – but the Cuban government was acutely sensitive to the potential propaganda value if the U.S. learned of this information. After all, it was only several months later they would invade Panama using drug smuggling by President Manuel Noriega as a pretext to install a pro-business regime amenable to U.S. foreign policy. Having been invaded once by the United States, Cuba was insistent on not providing the world’s sole superpower ammunition to use as propaganda.
Gleijeses asks whether it is possible that if Ochoa did this, could other Cuban officials have done the same? Gleijeses says that he read thousands of pages of Cuban documents, interviewed dozens of Angolan officials, and “no one claimed, or hinted, that the Cuban military mission defrauded the Angolan state – beyond the Ochoa episode… In the absence of any indication to the contrary I must conclude that Ochoa’s behavior was anomalous.”
The documentary record and common sense suggest Castro and the Cuban government had every incentive not to allow any corruption, especially drug smuggling, by their officials. Rather they punished such activity to the full extent of the law. It would be hard to think of a weaker claim to the contrary than Sánchez’s hearsay that he is now using to make a profit on his book.
No one should be fooled into thinking that President Obama’s moves to normalize relations with Cuba will mean an end to their policy of covertly supporting regime change. Government agencies such as USAID are still funneling millions of dollars to individuals and groups consistent with this. In 2014 alone, several secret programs were discovered to these ends. ZunZuneo, the twitter like network which was to be used to disseminate propaganda to foment political unrest, and an operation to co-opt Cuban hip hop artists were the latest of what The Guardian called “the US government’s hapless attempts to unseat Cuba’s communist government.”
Obama has been aggressive about applying sanctions against countries like Venezuela, Russia and North Korea whose government’s the U.S. would love to help overthrow, as they did with Ukraine. Just last week Obama announced new sanctions against North Korea for their alleged role in the Sony Hack, despite mounting evidence it was an insider rather than the North Korean government to blame. In July, the Obama administration similarly blamed Russia for the MH17 flight disaster and rushed to impose sanctions before producing any proof. The administration has been silent on the MH17 tragedy for months. Predictably the evidence now points toward Ukrainian fighter jets, rather than the Russia government or rebels supporting Russia, being to blame for shooting down the civilian plane. But the sanctions remain in place.
The Obama administration must feel like Ramos gave them a Christmas gift with his regurgitation of Sánchez’s baseless claims. Obama’s rationale for establishing relations with Cuba after 55 years was to “have influence with that government.” The implication Ramos’s hit piece is meant to convey is that the U.S. must come riding like a white knight to the rescue of the Cuban people. It is just the message American officials want the U.S. public to hear as they try to use the new diplomatic opening with Cuba to do what they haven’t been able to for the last 55 years – get rid of the Cuban revolution once and for all.
Alan P. Gross, an American arrested in Cuba in 2009 for smuggling broadband satellite communications equipment, made world headlines on December 2014 when he was released the same day that US president Obama ordered the release of three Cubans who were in American prisons serving sentences for espionage. Press reports mentioned that Gross was in the Caribbean island in his capacity as a subcontractor for USAID, a US government agency that administers aid programs abroad. Throughout its history this agency has been accused of being an arm of US foreign policy and at worst a mere front for intelligence operations rather than the neutral and apolitical provider of aid to poor countries that it pretends to be. In 2014 USAID was caught red-handed in bizarre schemes to destabilize Cuba through Twitter and by funding hip hop artists.
A lesser known fact is that Gross was in Cuba working for a USAID contractor called Development Alternatives Inc. (DAI), a company that supervises and executes economic development projects all over the world. In 2010 it was USAID’s fifth biggest contractor, raking in almost $382.5 million in contracts just in that year.
DAI has also worked for the US State Department, the Pentagon, the World Bank, the United Nations, the European Commission, and private sector giants like Monsanto, Wal-Mart, Hewlett Packard, Sun Microsystems, Exxon Mobil, Daimler Chrysler, Unilever and The Gap.
“We tackle fundamental social and economic development problems caused by inefficient markets, ineffective governance, and instability”, says DAI about its work. “Since 1970, we have worked in more than 150 countries—delivering results across the spectrum of international development contexts, from stable societies and high-growth economies to challenging environments racked by political or military conflict.”
The company’s services include: corporate social responsibility, public-private partnerships, business strategy, exploration and analysis of market opportunities, integration of small businesses and small farmers into global value chains, food security and agribusiness promotion, financial services, drafting laws to make competitive economies, innovation and entrepreneurship, gender issues, climate change adaptation, carbon markets, water resources management, market environmentalism, legislative reform, citizen participation, public safety, health care, information and communications technology, and more. In short, if you want to set up a country from scratch, just call DAI.
According to Sourcewatch, a sort of Wikipedia of the left:
“DAI acted as a conduit for USAID (through the Office of Transition Initiatives) and National Endowment for Democracy (NED) funds to the Venezuelan opposition to president Hugo Chavez. Furthermore, it was instrumental along with NED affiliated organizations for financing black propaganda on Venezuelan private network TV during the general strike in 2002. Documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request show that DAI was required to keep certain personnel in Venezuela and had to consult with USAID about staff changes. Philip Agee, a former CIA officer, suggests that this is merely a cover for what passed for CIA operations in the past.”
The company’s own web site informs that it has played an important role in the United States’ geopolitical and military strategy in the Middle East:
“Following the 9/11 attacks of 2001 and the subsequent U.S. military actions, DAI was called on to lead a variety of challenging development projects in the midst of the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, a country where we worked as early as 1977. Similarly, after the United States toppled the Iraqi regime in 2003, DAI won a project to help provide legitimate governance in the country. Other assignments in Iraq covered agriculture.”
It is most interesting that DAI would be in Afghanistan in 1977, way before the Soviet invasion, just when the CIA was arming and training an Islamic fundamentalist insurgent force to destabilize the country.
According to a 2011 article in The Guardian by Jonathan Steele:
“Western backing for these (Afghan) rebels had begun before Soviet troops arrived. It served western propaganda to say the Russians had no justification for entering Afghanistan in what the west called an aggressive land grab. In fact, US officials saw an advantage in the mujahedin rebellion which grew after a pro-Moscow government toppled (Prime Minister) Daoud in April 1978. In his memoirs, Robert Gates, then a CIA official and later defence secretary under Presidents Bush and Obama, recounts a staff meeting in March 1979 where CIA officials asked whether they should keep the mujahedin going, thereby “sucking the Soviets into a Vietnamese quagmire”. The meeting agreed to fund them to buy weapons.”
Needless to say, this type of work can be pretty hazardous. In December 2009 five DAI employees were killed by an explosion in the USAID headquarters in Gardez, Afghanistan. From that facility DAI was running a Local Governance and Community Development project. According to DAI:
“Our mission on behalf of (USAID) was crucial: encourage communities in the most volatile parts of the country to turn away from the insurgency and toward the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. We set out to do this in large part by facilitating 2,635 community projects that addressed local grievances, fostered stability, facilitated dialogue, and engendered trust in district and provincial leaders.”
The most notorious death of a DAI employee in a war zone was that of Linda Norgrove, who was abducted by the Taliban in eastern Afghanistan on September 2010. The US sent a Navy elite force to rescue her but the Rambo-style operation did not go well. Norgrove was killed, not by her captors but by a grenade thrown by one of her would-be rescuers, according to an official joint US-UK investigation of her death.
According to DAI CEO Jim Boomgard, Gross was in Cuba running a US government program called “Cuba Democracy and Contingency Planning Program”. In an August 2008 meeting, officials from this program told DAI representatives that “USAID is not telling Cubans how or why they need a democratic transition, but rather, the Agency wants to provide the technology and means for communicating the spark which could benefit the population.” The program, the officials said, intended to “provide a base from which Cubans can ‘develop alternative visions of the future.’”
In 2012 Gross and his wife sued USAID and DAI for allegedly not informing him adequately of the risk that his mission entailed – the case was settled out of court in 2013. If what Gross claimed in his lawsuit is true, then the man was an unwitting dupe in a US intelligence operation. It remains to be seen how many American aid workers who sincerely believed they were engaging in harmless, uncontroversial activity helping people abroad were actually being used by the CIA or other agencies as pawns in high risk games of political chess.
Carmello Ruiz-Marrero is a Puerto Rican journalist. Web site: http://carmeloruiz.blogspot.com/ Twitter: @carmeloruiz
US Hostility Toward the Island was Never Really About the Cold War
President Barack Obama announced on December 17th that the United States would begin normalizing relations with Cuba. Both governments agreed to a prisoner swap: Cuba released imprisoned USAID contractor Alan Gross and a US intelligence operative, while the United States released three Cuban intelligence agents arrested in the 1990s while spying on militant Cuban exile groups. The countries will begin talks with the goal of opening embassies, Obama will ease travel and financial restrictions for American citizens, and Cuba will release a group of detainees that the US has designated political prisoners. The US trade embargo remains in place, and requires Congressional action to repeal.
“U.S. to Restore Full Relations With Cuba, Erasing a Last Trace of Cold War Hostility,” the New York Times proclaimed. The notion that the US embargo is a Cold War relic that has outlived its usefulness has long been a common assertion among American critics of Cuba policy. Democratic Senators, the editor of The Nation, progressive NGOs, and even Forbes columnists and the Cato Institute have framed the conflict in these terms.
US-Cuban relations have undoubtedly been shaped by the Cold War, but the narrative of Cold War conflict between the two countries is a historically dubious rendering, obfuscating a long record of US intervention in Cuba and the rest of Latin America.
The United States immediately recognized Fidel Castro’s revolutionary government when it took power in January 1959. We all know that the amity didn’t last long, but US telling often misconstrues how the United States and Cuba became enemies.
In May 1959, Castro unveiled the revolution’s land reform program, which called for breaking up holdings larger than 1,000 acres and distributing them to small farmers. It also specified that only Cubans would be allowed to own land, and promised compensation for confiscated territory.
In an era of worldwide land reform this was hardly radical, but US officials perceived the move as a threat to the vast property owned by American companies in Cuba. According to historian Richard Gott, a June 1959 meeting of the National Security Council concluded that Castro couldn’t be allowed to stay in power. By October, the CIA had drafted a program that “authorized us to support elements in Cuba opposed to the Castro government, while making Castro’s downfall seem to be the result of his own mistakes.” The Eisenhower administration began plotting with Cuban exiles in Florida.
Cuba had no diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union at this point, and wouldn’t until May 1960. In July 1960, hoping to deal an economic blow to the Cuban Revolution, Eisenhower declined to purchase 700,000 tons of Cuban sugar. The Soviet Union offered to buy it. In August, Cuba nationalized all American property on the island; the US embargo began in November.
US-Cuban relations declined further, to put it mildly, when US-trained Cuban exiles invaded the Bay of Pigs in 1961. In 1962, Castro asked the USSR for support that would guarantee that any US attack “would mean a war not only with Cuba.” According to Gott’s telling, he envisioned a military defense pact; the Soviets suggested nuclear missiles. The decision was made that summer, and the world narrowly avoided nuclear war in October.
In the United States, events like the Bay of Pigs invasion are typically portrayed as reactions to Cuban instigation, but the chronology belies this framing. In fact, the causality runs in almost exactly the opposite direction: US hostility wasn’t a response to Cuba’s Communist ties; Cuba’s Communist ties were a response to US hostility.
That hostility didn’t start in 1959, either. In his book “Cuba in the American Imagination,” historian Louis A. Pérez Jr. argues that from the early years of US history, American leaders saw themselves as the rightful stewards of Cuban territory, and their understandings of Cuba formed an ethos that has shaped policy toward the island ever since. Pérez quotes US Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, who in 1823 called Cuba a “natural appendage” of the United States. Adams went on to claim:
There are laws of political as well as of physical gravitation; and if an apple, severed by the tempest from its native tree, cannot choose but fall to the ground, Cuba, forcibly disjoined from its own unnatural connexion with Spain, and incapable of self-support, can gravitate only towards the North American Union, which, by the same law of nature, cannot cast her off from its bosom.
The US saw its chance to bring that apple to its bosom during the war for Cuban independence in 1898, when Cuban rebels were beginning to gain the upper hand against Spanish troops. The United States declared war on Spain and quickly crushed the fading colonial power. The emerging superpower then claimed Cuba for itself, forcing the infamous Platt Amendment into Cuba’s new constitution. The law gave the US the right to intervene militarily in Cuban affairs, control the nation’s finances, and approve or veto its treaties with other countries.
In 1906, the Chicago Tribune wrote, “The possession of Cuba has been the dream of American statesmen ever since our government was organized. […] We have as righteous a claim to it as the people who are now occupying it.” Leonard Wood, the general who governed the island under US occupation, said that the United States “must always control the destinies of Cuba.”
And for a while, it did. By 1923, American troops had been dispatched on three separate occasions to quell rebellions. Havana became a haven for American mob bosses and a Vegas-like den of sin for American tourists. A former ambassador to Cuba told Congress in 1960 that “The United States, until the advent of Castro, was so overwhelmingly influential in Cuba that … the American Ambassador was the second most important man in Cuba; sometimes even more important than the President.”
Castro and his revolutionaries considered themselves responsible for ending the humiliation of such a hollow independence. The land reform that so riled the United States seemed a fitting way to start making Cuban sovereignty real. According to Pérez, as Castro began to introduce other redistributive policies, American officials were mystified, incapable of understanding the Cuban leader’s public grievances about US neocolonialism. How could they have understood? Pérez writes:
Americans rarely engaged the Cuban reality on its own terms or as a condition possessed of an internal logic, or Cubans as a people possessed of an interior history or as a nation possessed of an inner-directed destiny. It has always been thus between the United States and Cuba.
The “Cold War” rhetoric obscures this long history of domination and frustrated independence. (It also underhandedly implies that the pain inflicted upon the Cuban people—by US invasion, support for counterrevolutionary insurgents, and the continuing trade embargo—was permissible in a Cold War context.)
More importantly, the Cold War framing ignores the fact that we’ve never needed the Cold War to justify overthrowing governments, in Cuba or elsewhere. We’re doing fine without it: Our government has at least tacitly supported coups in Venezuela in 2002, Haiti in 2004, and Honduras in 2009.
It remains to be seen exactly how Obama’s announcement this week will impact the long fight between US and Cuba. Is Obama conceding defeat in the long effort to dismantle the Cuban Revolution though, or merely searching for more effective means? One Cuba expert on Democracy Now! on Thursday speculated whether the President is “buying into the idea if we flood more money into Cuba, maybe we’ll be able to subvert the fundamental values of the revolution.” US officials have also said that USAID “democracy promotion” efforts to undermine the Cuban government will continue. But even as the two nations remain rivals, Obama’s normalization of relations might finally be an acknowledgement of that “inner-directed destiny” that we have denied Cubans for so long.
Chris Lewis is a freelance journalist based in Michigan. He studied at the University of Havana as an exchange student.
The US and Cuba have reached a historic deal to swap notable prisoners and establish diplomatic relations after decades of mutual hostility. The announcement caught many by surprise, and begs the question: Are there more sinister geopolitical calculations at work behind the U.S.’ olive branch?
The tradeoff largely boils down to this: the US has released the three remaining members of the Cuban Five in exchange for jailed contractor Alan Gross, 53 US-selected “political prisoners,” and an unnamed intelligence source who was imprisoned over 20 years ago. As a result, both countries will now establish diplomatic relations and the decades-long US embargo will be largely eased.
Many people are rightfully cheering what seems to be an imminent end to U.S. hostility towards Cuba, but all of this may just be a deception. The U.S. needs Cuba more than the other way around, since it wants to use the island as a pivot to reverse the Caribbean Basin’s move to multipolarity and prolong Washington’s full control over its historic “lake.”
Regime Change Done Differently
Cuba no longer needs the U.S. as much as it did at the end of the Cold War, when its economy was in despair and the market hardly functioned. It’s come a long way since then, and although it still has its fair share of problems, it’s proved that it can survive on its own while being officially isolated from its massive northern neighbor. While the U.S. had plenty of opportunity to exploit Cuba when it was at its weakest in the 1990s, it missed the chance to do so, driven by the precondition that regime change must happen first.
Now, however, the tables have turned, and the U.S. is pursuing a policy of engagement first in order to facilitate the same regime change goal it’s been trying to pull off for over the past half century.
“I do not expect the changes I’m announcing today to bring about a change in Cuban society overnight,” Obama said, implying that he still wants the U.S. vision of change to occur. The removal of the embargo would only be a victory for the Cuban people if they are able to retain their independence, sovereignty, and preferred form of government afterwards.
Overt hostility hasn’t worked in the past against Cuba, and it likely won’t work in the future. Plus, there’s been a general trend in recent years for the US to pursue its objectives through covert and indirect means. This is where Cuba is most vulnerable in the recent ‘thaw’ in relations. The American economy doesn’t need Cuba at all, really, and Washington’s opening to Havana is a convenient cover to catch Cuba in its social and economic snare to more directly control the inevitable leadership transition process that will occur with Fidel’s passing. It already tried and failed to use USAID to create a ‘revolutionary Twitter’ on the island, as well as its embarrassing follies with anti-government Cuban rappers, to name but the few most recent regime change scandals there. And it must be kept in mind that Mr. Gross was working for the Agency when he was arrested in 2011 for trying to, as Cuban authorities described it, to “promote destabilizing activities and subvert constitutional order” to foster a “Cuban Spring.”
Cuba is also vulnerable to reverse migration, in that dissident and possibly extremist Cuban-Americans may return to the island in order to build a future Color Revolution’s social infrastructure to deploy when the time is right (likely in the aftermath of Fidel’s death). American businesses can fill a valuable development and investment gap on the island, in exchange for making Cuba ever more dependent on the U.S. This would give the U.S. another lever of influence over the island’s affairs, which could be activated in unison with a Color Revolution to create maximum disorder.
Bucking The Trend
The timing of Washington’s “outreach” to Havana isn’t coincidental, as it coincides with major processes going on in the region that the U.S. hopes to reverse. Most recently, the pro-U.S. Prime Minister of Haiti, Laurent Lamothe, was forced to resign last week amid protests and popular outrage over his corruption and ineffectiveness. Backtracking America’s hold on the region even further, the Chinese are slated to begin construction on the Nicaraguan Canal, which when completed, would create a major breach in America’s control of the Caribbean Sea. Finally, Venezuela has been a center of resistance to American hegemony over the hemisphere ever since the leadership of the late President Hugo Chavez.
Cuba is the symbolic leader of the Latin American resistance movement, and its “Cuban Spring” surrender would be disheartening for the other allied states that defy the U.S. via the ALBA grouping. Congress recently passed sanctions against Venezuela (largely overshadowed by the anti-Russian ones), which is the financial engine of the hemispheric resistance, to facilitate a Color Revolution there as well, as President Maduro himself has previously alleged Washington wants to do.
Venezuela’s economy is also hurting because of the recent oil price slump, which may inhibit its ability to subsidize the allied Nicaraguan, Ecuadorian, and Bolivian ones in the future. With Cuba out of the game, and perhaps even Venezuela, there’d be little ideological or economic support keeping Nicaragua, the future key to the Caribbean, from being next (to say nothing of Ecuador and Bolivia) and the Chinese-sponsored canal from becoming a failed infrastructure project. If this happens, then the U.S. would have reasserted its complete control over the Caribbean and begun to penetrate the Andes, thus tightening the containment noose around Brazil and strangling the future of multipolarity in the region.