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Normalizing Relations With Cuba: Has the U.S. Learned Its Lesson?

Before 1898 Cuba was a nation without a state. It had a colonial status but also had an evolving national culture and identity, an emerging nationhood and its own history. Its sovereignty was exercised by Spain through its imperial system. The country was not yet socially integrated. Slavery had been preserved until 1886. At times the struggle for national independence coincided with a struggle against slavery.  Moreover, all Cubans were first generation Cubans since the sense of unique national identity and its symbols had emerged in opposition to the ascribed status and powers assigned to it by the Spanish colonial regime.

Between 1898 and1934 Cuba’s legal institutions and political/administrative practices were ultimately determined by the U.S. government. Under this neo-colonial system the United States acquired several military bases and other concessions that were accomplished by the forced insertion of the Platt Amendment into the Cuban constitution while the island was under U.S. military occupation in the years 1898-1902.

So Cuba then had a well-defined territory and there was a Cuban state and government. But the state did not have the power to make its own decisions due to the Platt Amendment and the formal economic, political and cultural control exercised by the United States. This was a colonial control different from what Cuba had experienced under Spain because there was now a semblance of autonomy, a situation somewhat like Puerto Rico’s commonwealth status today. In short, the closest thing to a sovereign agent in Cuba was the U.S. ambassador.

Between 1934 and 1959 Cuba was a nation state with limited sovereignty. During the FDR years the second Cuban republic abolished the Platt Amendment with the consent of the United States thus ending the era of formal U.S. control. These changes turned Cuba into a semi-independent modern republic but the United States exercised direct control over the Cuban political class and the Cuban military. Indirect influence entered Cuba through U.S. corporate presence, schools, social clubs, military integration and the newly techniques of modern advertising, through science, technology and cultural products and commercialism.

The United States limited Cuba’s self-determination and thus the boundaries of the permissible (a situation similar to the Dominican Republic). Oddly enough, during this period, which coincided in origins with the New Deal’s adoption of Keynesian economics, the Cuban state openly intervened in the workings of Cuba’s not-so-free internal market. Economic control was exercised by the U.S. government through the sugar quota system made possible by the 1934 Jones Costigan Act, as well as by trade agreements, foreign investors and political and economic “advisors.” All this was backed by a domestic political and military apparatus preserving the neocolonial arrangements; essentially doing what gunboat diplomacy and the U.S. marines had previously guaranteed.

Since 1959 the Cuban nation has had a sovereign state and government with no foreign control from within. Achieving sovereign status, however, carried huge costs for national independence as the United States engaged in coordinated, multifaceted acts of interference that included economic blockade, mass propaganda, promotion of a domestic opposition (“dissidents”) and external opposition concentrated in Miami.  Thus, Cuba is a sovereign nation state in permanent upheaval and enduring abnormal relations with its largest neighbor. The U.S. government imposed this campaign as the price to be paid by a small country wishing to be truly independent.

Cuban national sovereignty meant self-determination in the areas of politics, economy, society, culture and foreign policy. Nationally oriented policies implied a break with traditional patterns and a social, economic, political and cultural revolution, as well as independence in foreign relations.

Within the U.S. government and large swaths of American society Cuba’s assertion of national self-determination was equated with anti-Americanism. Yet, the revolutionary movement was never anti-American; but rather has been aimed all along against U.S.-imposed neo-colonial control. Behaving as a colonialist power, the United States interpreted the right to self-determination as a threat to its own interests in Cuba.

The Cuban revolution will attempt to build a new nation-state with a unified, centralized government and state institutions based on a unique national ideology derived from concepts of solidarity and defense of the less developed countries and peoples of the world.

Nation-building has been understood by the Cubans as a social, political, economic and cultural process in which decisions are made by an activated population and organized groups and institutions. It entails a process of de-colonization — taking control of its vital systems away from foreigners.  The United States, on the other hand, equated decolonization or nationalization of Cuban institutions with communism.

Cuban nationalism in economic terms meant the creation of an economy in which the major resources would be controlled by Cubans and their state. That meant nationalizing the means of production. Nationalization affected foreign investments within the island. This will be seen by the United States as an attack on capitalism even if the means of production were transferred to Cuban capitalists.

Cuban nationalism in political terms meant that the Cuban revolutionaries stressed the right to sovereignty, including the right to non-interference in the internal affairs of the island. Cuba para los cubanos, sounded very much like the southern reaction to northern carpetbaggers after the U.S. civil war. The Cubans stressed that sovereignty implied the equality of nations. But the U.S. government claimed the right to tell the Cubans how they should organize their own country. Oddly enough, the state’s rights movement in the Deep South [despite the substantive difference on matters of justice and equality] had a strong similarity to the Cuban arguments for self-determination.

Cultural nationalism also carried over into the mundane as the revolutionaries proclaimed that Cuban products were equal to U.S. products. [Coppelia vs offer compared to Baskin Robbins]  “Cuban is beautiful” became a sentiment attached to cultural independence. In 1959 Cuban capitalists advertised, “consuma productos cubanos.”

Of course, such policies had to come into conflict with the United States, which considered the Caribbean its own backyard. The Monroe Doctrine, proclaimed unilaterally by the United States in 1823, asserted the right of the United States to tell Latin America what was best for the region.

What the Cubans considered the right of self-determination the United States called “communist subversion” and Soviet penetration into its sphere of influence. Implicit in this policy toward Latin America was the assumption that the interests of Latin America should coincide with the interests of the United States.

The United States found allies within Cuba that identified with U.S. interests, but they were primarily from the upper classes that had benefited from the past relationship with the United States. The United States and its allies in Latin America spoke of Pan Americanism, but south of the border there has been, since the 1820s, a Latin Americanism based on a different concept of hemispheric unity — one among equals and without a dominant United States.

The United States saw any attempt at national independence, national liberation or social revolution in Cuba as in Latin America as anti-capitalist (meaning communist) and a challenge to its hemispheric hegemony and any government that engaged in it was “dictatorial” and pro-Soviet. The United States would hide its attempt to recover its power over Cuba under the mantle of anti-communism and defense of “democracy” and would ally with those classes and sectors within the Cuban upper class that opposed the socio-economic and political revolution.

The Cuba revolutionaries reacted by identifying the previous neocolonial status with American control and American capitalism and hence opted for an anti-capitalist position, which would be identified as socialism.

National independence and socialism would come to mean the same thing. The Cuban revolutionaries will tie their fate to the lower classes, the workers and the poor who would benefit the most from the drastic change in power relations.

Today, Cuba and a significant portion of Latin America are constructing numerous alliances, institutions and programs that eventually could become that Great Nation of the South while the United States seems incapable of understanding what is happening elsewhere in the hemisphere. Thus, the errors committed against Cuba continue to be repeated elsewhere.

On August 14, the United States government once again will have formal diplomatic relations with Cuba. Yet, most of the economic and commercial restrictions imposed since the 1960s need to be ended. Hopefully that will change in the immediate future. Then we will have to wait and see if American intervention on the internal affairs of Cuba cease as well. If that happens, then a real new period will begin in the history of the hemisphere.

This article written with the assistance of Robert Sandels.

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Nelson P. Valdes is Professor Emeritus at the University of New Mexico.

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