From the Bay of Pigs to Trinadad and Tobago

A lot of talk about Cuba policy, now that the President will visit with all the Americas, except Cuba, during the OAS-sponsored summit in Trinidad and Tobago on April 17-19.  The meeting will be ripe with both irony and tragedy.

The dates provide the irony, because they coincide with the landing and defeat of the US-manufactured Bay of Pigs invasion on exactly the same three days in 1961.  The tragedy is that the hubris and ignorance that were at the core of US policy at that time are still the core of the policy today, and it’s frightening to hear similar noises laced through the Administration’s recent and welcome announcements.  The hubris is not even questioned in what otherwise seems like a vigorous discussion about changing the policy. If I may paraphrase Jose Martí, the towering figure of Cuban letters and independence, the discussion is not radical enough, because it is not going to the roots. Every detail of possible tactics is dissected, but where is the analysis of what has been wrong with the policy all these years?

The recent changes in travel restrictions, though modest, are certainly welcome, and long overdue for simple reasons of humanity to Cuban families. I trust they will be followed soon by broader elimination of all travel restrictions.  And the discussion is certainly not bad.  Quite the contrary, I welcome it.  Much of it focuses on what the President may or may not say about Cuba while at the Summit, what other countries are likely to say, and especially about the infinite tactical iterations available to the President to disentangle the mess of our relationship with the island, with all the resulting domestic and international repercussions.

All for the good, necessary, and very timely, too.  After all, the bankruptcy of our Cuba policy may be about the only issue with a strong and bipartisan consensus in both Washington and the country today. Everybody wants to change it:  Senator Lugar, hawkish liberals, the Left, the US Chamber of Commerce, farmers in Nebraska and Alabama, the tourist and pharmaceutical industries, academics of all hues, 185 of the 192 members of the United Nations’ General Assembly, and even formerly hard-line but recently born-again mainstream Cuban-American organizations, just to name a few.  Some of the latter, incidentally, or their friends, threatened my life and that of many others in the 1980s, when I was more in the public eye of advocacy for a policy change towards my country of origin.  If Jesse Helms were alive, what would he make of this?

Despite all the megabytes of advice pouring out about tactical issues, however, it is deeply troubling that little is being said about the fundamental premises of that policy.  There is much talk about “change,” but the debates are still mired in the goals and assumptions of those days in 1961. Why? Because of hubris, along with the ignorance and blindness that accompany it.  It is hard to translate, but there is a wonderful saying in Spanish that goes something like this: The worst blindness is that of those who refuse to see.

When you strip it down, the goal of the Bay of Pigs, and that of nearly every administration since then—Carter gets a partial pass–has been to overthrow the Cuban government, to dictate to Cuba how it should run its affairs.  We will be nice to you if and when you “behave” (a word usually reserved for children, not nations, by the way).  The direct military component is largely gone today, to be sure.  The support for terrorism and sabotage lasted until very recently, however, and could still rear its ugly head again. Most of the other “policy tools” (or should I say weapons?) have changed only in form, not in their underlying premises.  The policies of economic strangulation, isolation, and relentless publicity wars started with Eisenhower.  The public record now makes it clear that he actually tried to “overthrow” the Revolution even before they came down from the mountains!  Kennedy picked it up, and nearly every President since that time has been blatant about it.  At the core, the policy has always been a “conditional” one: We will lift our siege, but only if you “behave” according to our rules, in your own country.

What these policies ignored in 1961, and still ignore today, is that the resounding defeat at the Bay of Pigs, and the subsequent strength of the Cuban Revolution, derive from its basis in sovereignty and independence, along with a profound search for social justice.  The crucible of that strong sense of nationhood were the wars for independence from Spain, the last of which was truncated practically at the point of victory when the US intervened by declaring war on Spain.  The second act in this history of national frustration were the efforts to try to prevent, first, and to erase, later, the infamous Platt Amendment, a clause inserted into the Cuban Constitution that gave the US government the right to intervene in Cuba at will.  And intervene we did.  Platt, by the way, was a US Senator. At about the same time, we “won” a treaty to hold Guantanamo Bay in perpetuity. Can anyone imagine the US Constitution with a clause saying that France or Canada could intervene in our internal affairs when they saw fit—and hold Baltimore Harbor in perpetuity to boot?

It took until the 1930’s, and much struggle, for Cubans to take that clause out of their Constitution, and by that time the island was largely dominated by, and dependent on, US economic interests. The sense of indignation and the feeling of being little more than a US dependency only grew stronger, as the victory of the Revolution was to prove in 1959. Skipping many other important stages for the sake of brevity, the latest act of this nationhood story is the Cuban Revolution.  You can love it or hate it, but one thing is clear: The US has not been able to tell Cuba how to “behave,” or to extract concessions. The lesson is that no policy will be successful that is based on trying to dictate to the island in the future.

The other recent fashion in Cuba discussions was the “transition” on the island. This fashion had its grandiose start during the collapse of the old Soviet Union, and we tend to forget how wrong the predictions were then.  Cuba is still right where it was. Most recently, the fashion was re-incarnated as a multi-million dollar effort under the Bush Administration to actually plan such a transition in the US, a modern version of the Platt Amendment.  Can one imagine greater hubris?Cuba’s future is to be planned in conference rooms in the US?

All this “transition” talk ignores that Cuba has little to do with the spent systems in Eastern Europe or Pinochet’s Chile, and will not have a “transition” of those kinds.  On the contrary, the Cuban Revolution is akin to the Mexican, Vietnamese and Chinese revolutions of the last century. Each was unique, but similar in the sense that they were all three deeply rooted in national aspirations and a search for greater social justice.  They have also each taken their disparate directions with time, and continue their “transitions” rooted in their national histories and indelibly marked by their revolutions.

A transition is already happening in Cuba, make no mistake. It is happening in the context of its own history and will be led by Cuban actors, not by commissions in the US, and certainly not by conditions or demands for concessions.  I do not know what directions it will take, though I hope for the best in terms of those goals of sovereignty and social justice, as well as many others that I also hope will enrich them.

But for those who are impatient with Cuba—from the left or the right—I say please don’t forget that it took another, earlier revolution, despite its proclamation that “all men are created equal,” nearly a century and a wrenching civil war to end slavery, another century to eliminate segregation and other forms of overt racism, and about a century and a half to grant the vote to half its population.  Throughout those changes, no other country had the right to “demand” that the US “make concessions,” or “behave” in a certain way, nor would the American people or government have permitted it. Each country moves at its own pace, and within its own history.

So my humble advice to President Obama is not about astute political maneuvers or tactical issues. Instead, I would urge him to take advantage of the Summit in Trinidad and Tobago to begin to shed the hubris that has blinded US policy for so long, and to launch a truly new one.  A new one based on an understanding and respect for the search for national independence and social justice that has been the driver of the last fifty years on the island.

I must confess that I shuddered this week when I heard—in the midst of welcome if modest changes– some of the echoes of the failed premises of the last fifty years in recent Administration statements. These were, by the way, also pathetically and dutifully reflected by several born-again organizations in Miami, the same ones who followed President Reagan in his hubris decades ago.  I hope they are simply political mumbo jumbo, not core premises. Mutual influence among countries is fine, often desirable.  They are also inevitable for the US and Cuba; we are simply too close together.  But hubris and demands need not be part of that equation.

As for the practical, I am confident that the Cuban government will negotiate all kinds of bilateral issues, as countries always do when they have relations. Trade. Immigration. Travel. Drug trade. Mutual security. Health. Environment. Culture and education. Even the issue of expropriated American property will be on the table, although Cuba will play very hard ball with its own demands for compensation for the cost of the US siege of the last 50 years.  They will not, however, negotiate their political, social and economic system, anymore than the US would negotiate how to run its primaries, modify its indirect elections for President, address the legacy of racial injustice, or reform its judicial and penal systems. To expect Cuba to do the equivalent is hubris. And, besides, it won’t work. So for the sake of principle, first, and also consistent with good old American pragmatism, I would urge President Obama to abandon the conditions and the hubris, and start to build a truly new policy.

MANUEL GOMEZ emigrated from Cuba when he was 13 in 1961. He has been active in efforts to normalize relations with the island for decades. He has traveled extensively on the island, and in the 1980s he founded and led the “Cuban-American Committee,” a Washington-based citizens group that for years advocated an improvement in relations.