Last week, President Obama announced a reorientation of the U.S. government’s policy with respect to Cuba. In a subsequent press release from the White House Press Office, the administration laid out several specific deviations from the U.S.’s more than half-century long failed attempt to diplomatically and economically isolate and destroy Cuba. Couched in language stressing the need to empower the Cuban people and expand democracy in the Caribbean nation, the Press Office’s statements promised to normalize heretofore nonexistent diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba, ease American restrictions on travel to and trade with Cuba, and facilitate the expansion of telecommunications and internet access on the island (among several other things). The Cuban government has responded to the U.S.’s government’s policy shift with guarded optimism, promising to embrace the American government’s change in attitude (and the economic opportunities that come with it) while maintaining the basic character of their state capitalist (what they call “communist”) regime. The degree to which both governments will ultimately follow through on their respective promises remains to be seen, but already several imprisoned spies have been exchanged between the two countries, a good sign.
For a serious examination of the events currently transpiring between the U.S. and Cuba to take place, those events must first be fully contextualized. Since the Spanish-American War (in which the Cubans, with the help of the American military, gained their independence from Spain), the American government has sought to transform Cuba into a quasi-colony. For a long time, they were highly successful: by the 1950s, Cuba, under the rule of U.S. backed dictator Fulgencio Batista, had been transformed into a virtual plantation/casino client nation. 85 percent of Cuba’s arable land had been bought up by American companies and investors and Cuban tenant farmers languished under a brutal situation of semi-serfdom. In Havana, American celebrities partied in gaudy hotels and casinos and gangsters ran drug, gambling, and other vice operations there with impunity. Batista imprisoned and/or killed any Cubans who sought to organize and resist his rule. By early 1959 though, a nationalist guerrilla movement lead by the revolutionary Fidel Castro had (after a bloody and protracted civil war) driven Batista from power. After purging Cuba of Batista’s henchmen (with many fleeing or exiled to Miami in the U.S.), Castro installed himself as the nation’s de-facto leader and set about cleaning up the now fully independent island nation.
Initially, the U.S. government cautiously recognized the new regime, but that amicability turned to bitter contempt after Castro unveiled an ambitious land reform program in May of 1959. Similar to other nationalist land reform initiatives in post colonial nations in that period, the new plan finally broke up Cuba’s large and mostly foreign-owned agricultural estates and distributed them among native Cuban small-farmers. Though the plan promised compensation to the displaced American companies and investors that had lost their ill-gotten Cuban property, the U.S. government was livid over Castro’s audacity and the CIA immediately began plotting to topple the new regime in Havana. In the summer of 1960, President Eisenhower unprecedentedly declined to purchase 700,000 tons of Cuban sugar (which was, along with tobacco, the Caribbean nation’s staple crop) and the Cuban economy was crippled. Rather than bending to the American’s will and rolling-back his reforms, Castro turned to the Soviet Union, which promptly began buying Cuban sugar. Castro then nationalized all American owned property in Cuba, and the U.S. quickly declared a Cuban embargo which was to last for more than half a century.
The ensuing decades were tense to say the least. In 1961, the CIA staged an unsuccessful invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, utilizing U.S. trained pro-Batista Cuban exiles as amphibious solders. Rather than rising up in support of the attacking exiles (as the CIA illogically assumed they would), the Cuban population rallied around Castro’s regime and the humiliated Americans were beaten back. By this point, Castro felt compelled to enter into a strategic military alliance with the Soviet Union to protect against further American incursions. The Soviets seized on the opportunity and began (in a move designed to counteract an earlier nuclear buildup by the U.S. in Eastern Europe) transporting nuclear missiles to Cuba. The Americans soon uncovered evidence of the Soviets’ Cuban missile deployment and immediately blockaded the Caribbean nation. Subsequent backroom diplomatic wrangling between the Soviets and the Americans only narrowly averted a nuclear disaster. Ultimately, the Soviets (in an action that cost Nikita Khrushchev his political career) agreed to remove their missiles from Cuba in exchange for a promise from the Americans to secretly remove their own (outdated) missiles from Turkey. The U.S.’s blockade of Cuba was lifted, but their embargo on the nation remained.
The subsequent history of U.S.-Cuba relations takes on a David and Goliath-like appearance, with the Castro regime surviving an almost comically relentless CIA campaign to dislodge or kill him. The agency sponsored repeated terrorist attacks by anti-Castro Miami Cuban exiles into Cuba (most notably the activities of Luis Posada Carriles) and attempted to assassinate Castro more than six hundred times. All the while, the U.S. government labeled Castro’s regime an implacable Cold War enemy, failing to mention that they themselves had unnecessarily and vindictively forced him into the embrace of the Soviets. Still, the Cubans preserved. Until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 that is, when Cuba lost its primary trade partner and the Cuban economy stagnated. At this time, Castro was forced to implement several economically liberalizing reforms in Cuba, but, shutout from a major portion of American dominated global trade as a result of the U.S.’s embargo, the country continued to struggle. It wasn’t until the new millennium, when the so-called “pink tide” began sweeping anti-American leftist governments into power throughout Central and South America (most notably Hugo Chavez in Venezuela) that were sympathetic and open to trade with Cuba, that conditions began to seriously improve in Cuba. Today, partially in an effort to oust Chavez’s successor in Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, by driving a wedge between Cuba and Venezuela, the U.S. government is finally rethinking their Cold War era strategy of Cuban suffocation; hence the current move toward re-engagement.
Moving forward, the Cuban government (now headed by the ailing Fidel’s brother Raul Castro) will need to strike a delicate balance in dealing with the U.S. Undoubtedly, they are mindful of the fates of so many developing nations who, during their own integration into the U.S. dominated global marketplace, were compelled by various trade and aid agreements/institutions to sell off their socialist programs for privatization and raiding by foreign speculators. In Cuba’s case, the maintenance of the Castro government’s hugely successful public healthcare and education programs will need to be a priority. With regard to Cuban healthcare, government run hospitals and other facilities administer free universal care to all Cubans. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the quality of the county’s healthcare is responsible for Cuban citizens’ high life-expectancy, higher than the U.S.’s and one of the highest in the world in fact. Earlier this year, Margaret Chan, Director-General of the WHO, lauded the Cuban healthcare model for spurring impressive innovations in medical research and for its quality of care. A significant segment of Cuba’s considerable tourism industry is composed of foreigners seeking either medical care or training at Cuba’s largely unrivaled facilities; Cuban doctors have also played a pivotal role in combating the recent spread of Ebola in Africa, which is in-keeping with Cuba’s history of providing free medical aid throughout the developing world.
Education is a major priority for the Cuban government as well, with 13 percent of the island nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) funding various education programs. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization or UNESCO rates the Cuban education system (which provides free schooling through the university level) as the best in Latin America and the Caribbean. In 2009, the number of incarcerated Cuban juveniles was zero and the literacy rate was 99.4 percent, an astonishing testament to the Castro government’s education policies. Additionally, 85 percent of the population in Cuba own their own mortgage-free homes thanks to several government programs and everyone is legally guaranteed a basic, though low, income and job (if they are able to work).
All that said, Cuba is no paradise. Basic civil liberties and human rights, as the West understands them, are often disregarded by the Castro government, which routinely represses any and all political opposition. Though the population’s basic needs are largely provided for, wages, while guaranteed, are relatively low and any labor organizing not associated with the government is strictly prohibited. Private business, such as it is, is highly regulated and taxed. Many goods and services (most notably certain food products and the internet) are difficult to come by. One need only take a stroll through the streets of Havana to see the degree to which the country remains, visually at least, the same as it did when Fidel Castro first assumed power in 1959. Ancient, jerry-rigged cars line the streets and the facades of beautiful colonial-era Spanish buildings crumble daily. It is hoped that the easing of the U.S. embargo on the Caribbean nation, along with a continuation of the reforms initiated by President Raul Castro, will help to allieviate these, and other, problems. Nearly everyone, except maybe the Castro brothers, is eager to see greater democratization in Cuba.
With American business (especially the hotel, tourism, aviation, agriculture and telecommunications industries) chomping at the bits to invest and expand into Cuba, the momentum favoring economic integration seems inevitable. It’s left to a new generation of Cubans, mindful of the past but optimistic for the what is to come, to chart Cuba’s future course. The Castro brothers won’t live forever, but the popular and successful aspects of their complicated legacy should be seriously evaluated both within Cuba and abroad. Whatever the eventual outcome, last week’s development was a positive one.
Source(s): 1) White House: Office of the Press Secretary “FACT SHEET: Charting a New Course on Cuba” (December 17, 2014): accessed December 23, 2014 http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/12/17/fact-sheet-charting-new-course-cuba
2) Chris Lewis “America’s Cuba” Counter Punch (December 23, 2014): accessed December 23, 2014 http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/12/22/americas-cuba/
3) Micheline Maynard “Five Industries Set To Benefit From The U.S.-Cuba Thaw” Forbes (December 17, 2014): accessed December 23, 2014 http://www.forbes.com/sites/michelinemaynard/2014/12/17/5-industries-set-to-benefit-from-the-u-s-cuba-thaw/
4) Alberto Mendez and Cynthia Fleming “Healthcare and Education in Cuba” Internations: accessed December 23, 2014 http://www.internations.org/cuba-expats/guide/life-in-cuba-15677/healthcare-and-education-in-cuba-2
5) Duncan Campbell “638 ways to kill Castro” the Guardian (August 2, 2006): accessed December 23, 2014 http://www.theguardian.com/world/2006/aug/03/cuba.duncancampbell2
6) Philip Fornaci “Cuba and Change We Can Believe In” Global Research (June 7, 2009): accessed December 23, 2014 http://www.globalresearch.ca/cuba-and-change-we-can-believe-in/13886