After President Obama’s historic trip to Havana this spring, liberal politicians and pundits have praised the Administration’s policy of temperance towards the United States’ long-time adversary. Since Presidents Obama and Castro announced the “normalization of diplomatic relations” in December 2014, the U.S. government has claimed credit for allowing Cuba back into the international system of states, as Obama said in his 2015 State of the Union Address:
…our shift in Cuba policy has the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere. It removes a phony excuse for restrictions in Cuba. It stands up for democratic values, and extends the hand of friendship to the Cuban people.
While the White House may want the public to believe that Cuba is reentering the system of states because the U.S. has decided to be benevolent in ending a harmful policy, the real reason is that the U.S. government no longer had a choice in the matter. After a half-century of attempting to overthrow Cuba’s communist government, the U.S. has failed to decimate the culture of resistance that exists in Cuba. Through it all, the Cuban people have bested U.S. imperialism.
Cuba’s reentry is a product of Cuba’s resistance, bolstered by Latin American solidarity. By removing the agency from the Cuban people and Latin American states, the U.S. narrative attempts to turn a defeat into a victory for imperial power.
After toppling a U.S.-friendly dictator in 1959, the Cuban revolutionary government—led by Fidel Castro—was immediately thrust into an ongoing Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Just before Castro declared the revolution communist and official allegiance with the Soviets, the U.S. implemented the embargo (known in Cuba as the blockade) in response to the nationalization of U.S. oil refineries on the island without compensation.
This blockade restricts access to medicine, food, and other traded goods; it is considered a violation of humanitarian principles by myriad international organizations and governments—even the American Association for World Health found that doctors in Cuba lack access to more than 50 percent of the drugs on the world market because of the restrictions, and held that the blockade has led to significantly more suffering and death in Cuba. This has led Amnesty International to condemn the blockade, chiefly due to the unavailability of simple drugs protected by U.S. patents.
But Cuba has not only had to face humanitarian crisis at the hands of U.S. policy—the U.S. government has actively tried to overthrow the Castro regime dozens—if not hundreds—of times since 1960. The most famous instance was the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, when CIA-trained Cuban dissidents led a failed invasion of the island in order to orchestrate a coup d’état.
Assassination attempts against Fidel Castro (and later, Raul) by the CIA were numerous—as many as eight confirmed attempts in the decade of the 1960s alone—and ridiculously imaginative. Moreover, this policy is not an old one; the latest confirmed attempt was in 2007, when the CIA used poison pills to attempt the assassination.
But through economic and social hardship, military invasions, and political assassination attempts—all orchestrated by the strongest imperial power in the world—the Cuban people (and state) have resisted. No attempts have succeeded, and the failure of the United States has oftentimes inspired pride and bolstered resistance. And now, after more than a half-century of exile, Cuba is no longer alone on the margins of the interstate system.
It was not through singular resistance alone that Cuba was able to join the ranks of un-exiled states. After more than a century of U.S. imperialism in the Western Hemisphere, the states of Latin America stood with Cuba against the North American hegemon. The greatest example of this was the formation of ALBA (the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas) in 2004, with Cuba and Venezuela as founding members. The alliance was formed to create a system of leftist nations which countered U.S. imperialist foreign policy and promoted socialist governing styles. With the governments of Antigua and Barbuda, Bolivia, Dominica, Ecuador, Grenada, Nicaragua, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines joining in stride, ALBA became a political and economic force for left-wing governments in Latin America.
But the solidarity did not end with those nations who had already declared themselves anti-imperialist (whether through their embrace of socialist ideologies or their resistance to neoliberalism). In 2008, Cuba was officially admitted to the Rio Group, an international organization of Latin American states designed to create Latin American solutions to Latin American problems, twenty-two years after the formation of the group. In addition to some of the left-wing ALBA states, the twenty-four member states of the group included traditional pro-U.S. governments such as Colombia, Mexico, and Panama.
Cuba was also a founding member of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) in 2010—when it also gained the presidency of the group. From 2010 to 2011, Cuban diplomats spoke on behalf of thirty-three member states in Latin America to international forums around the world. In 2014, the second summit of CELAC was hosted in Havana—and the heads of state from all thirty-three nations were present.
It was clear at this point that the tides were turning. The U.S. government had long been criticized internationally for its policy towards Cuba (the United Nations has voted nearly unanimously every year since 1991 calling on the U.S. to end the embargo), but the open embrace of Cuba by Latin American nations it considered regional allies began to force its hand.
But one of the most pivotal moments of solidarity came in 2012, when Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos—the host of that year’s Summit of the Americas and not a leftist by any sense of the word—called for Cuba to be present at the next summit. Since the Cuban revolution, Cuba had been excluded from the Organization of American States (OAS) and from all of the successive summits.
The U.S. government immediately renounced this call, refusing to budge on the issue or extending an invitation to the Cuban president. President Obama even went as far as criticizing the Latin American leaders who stood with Cuba as “ignoring the…principle… of [resisting] oppression.”
The summit ended without a resolution to the ‘Cuba question’ and Obama returned to Washington defiant. But shortly afterwards, many Latin American governments announced that they would boycott the next summit (to be held in 2015 in Panama City) if Cuba’s leaders were not invited.
It is no coincidence that shortly after the announcement of the boycott, the U.S. and Cuba began to engage in secret talks that culminated in the restoration of diplomatic relations in December of that year.
At the summit, held four months after the announcement, Cuban President Raul Castro was present—and was the star guest. He gave a forty-nine minute speech (after only being allotted eight minutes, he said he deserved the time for all of the summits he had been excluded from) and gave a detailed history of U.S. imperialism in Cuba—from the Platt Amendment to the invasion attempts to the military base at Guantanamo, U.S. policy was skewered while Obama watched.
Nearly every head of state praised Cuba, and some went further by criticizing the U.S.; Argentine President Christina Kirchner Fernandez took credit away from the Obama Administration for the diplomacy and praised Cuba for fifty years of resistance. Bolivia’s Evo Morales called on the U.S. government to compensate Cuba for half a century of an inhumane blockade.
The solidary campaign of resistance worked. The White House even admits that they were pressured into diplomacy: “[the policy of isolation] constrained our ability to influence outcomes throughout the Western Hemisphere.” If the U.S. government wanted to continue to “influence outcomes” in Latin America, at least in this case, it would have to play by the new rules written south of their borders.
Solidarity Beyond Cuba
Latin American leaders rightly basked in their victory at the 2015 Summit of the Americas. They had successfully stood together to force the hand of the U.S. government in bringing Cuba back into the fold. But, as with all movements based on solidarity and resistance, this victory should be seen merely as a starting point for battles to come.
In calling for the need for solidarity of the peoples of the underdeveloped world, Frantz Fanon wrote in his master work, The Wretched of the Earth: “It is clear therefore that the young nations of the Third World are wrong to grovel at the feet of the capitalist countries. We are powerful in our own right and the justness of our position.” Fanon understood the potential for the exploited countries of the world to stand together and beat Western imperialism.
As many social scientists have pointed out, U.S. hegemony is weakening on all counts. Its attempts at holding onto power have resulted only in a further regression on the global stage. As it continues to grow weaker, U.S. imperialism can be more easily combatted.
The actions taken by Latin American countries to push for Cuban reentry to the world-system is demonstrative: when the exploited stand together, they can beat an empire. This can and should be emulated across the globe: through solidary, it is possible to change the nature of the world-system and resist imperialism in all its forms.
As Fanon wrote, merely a year after the implementation of the blockade on Cuba:
The Cuban people will suffer, but they will win in the end…That will be a day for rejoicing since it will be a crucial moment for men and women throughout the world. The almighty power of the dollar, whose security after all is only guaranteed by the slaves of this world…will then cease to dominate these slaves who created it and who continue to drain their heads and bellies of all their substance to feed it.
This day has not yet come, but perhaps this reentry is a sign of future triumph. But the Obama Administration will continue to weave a narrative of benevolence, temperance, and diplomacy. So long as history remembers the success of U.S. actions, it will forget the resilience of those who stood together. In order to overcome, we must push to remember not a story of imperial victory, but one of solidarity and resistance.