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.