Ending the Quest for Control: The Weight of History on U.S.-Cuban Relations

(User Day Donaldson, Flickr Commons) Last December, U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro simultaneously announced that their two states would reestablish diplomatic relations, potentially signaling the dawn of a new era in U.S.-Cuba relations. For the first time in more than five decades, a U.S. president publicly admitted that his country’s policy toward Cuba had failed and that it was time for a change. Although Obama was referring to the Cold War-era policies of isolation and aggression, the truth is that the failure of U.S. policy toward Cuba goes even further back than that. If Obama truly wants this to be the beginning of a new era, he and other U.S. leaders must work to pursue a relationship with Cuba that departs not only from the last half-century’s policies of confrontation and isolation, but also from the earlier half-century’s policies of intervention and exploitation.

U.S. policy toward Cuba has been misguided from the earliest beginnings of U.S. nationhood. Early leaders like Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams coveted Spain’s island colony for its location and potential wealth; Jefferson described Cuba as “the most interesting addition which could ever be made to our system of states.” In 1898, President William McKinley decided to involve the United States in Cuba’s war for independence from Spain—a war the Cubans were already winning at that point on their own. Over the protests of Cuban revolutionary leaders like Antonio Maceo, U.S. commanders seized control of the battle against Spain and sidelined their local counterparts. Within a few months, the already-demoralized and dispirited Spanish army capitulated. When Spanish and U.S. representatives met to negotiate the terms of peace, Cubans were kept out of the diplomatic loop. By seizing control of both the war and the resultant peace, the United States prevented Cuba from determining the terms of its own independence.

Grown from these imperialist roots, U.S. policy toward Cuba continued along the same domineering lines for the next few decades. U.S. troops directly occupied the island for almost three years following the war with Spain, until Cuban leaders agreed to pass a constitution that included an amendment, named for Orville H. Platt, the U.S. senator from Connecticut who introduced it, which explicitly gave the United States the right to intervene in Cuban politics. During this first occupation, the United States also coerced the new, weak Cuban government into leasing a naval base at Guantánamo Bay to the United States “in perpetuity.” Though U.S. troops departed soon after the agreement was signed, they would return several times over the next twenty years—every time domestic unrest in Cuba threatened to endanger U.S. interests on the island. Ironically, rather than stabilizing Cuban politics, this interventionist policy had the opposite effect by undermining the fragile electoral system and increasing instability.

Beginning in the 1920s, U.S. interventionism shifted to a less direct but equally damaging policy of backing brutal Cuban dictators. First Gerardo Machado and then Fulgencio Batista received money and political support from the United States. In exchange, these authoritarian rulers provided relative stability and a favorable climate for U.S. investment. U.S. dollars poured into the Cuban economy throughout the first half of the twentieth century; Wall Street investors bought up sugar plantations and Havana became a playground for well-heeled U.S. tourists. Instead of condemning Cuban leaders’ corruption and repressive approaches to governing, U.S. leaders praised them. In 1955, Vice President Richard Nixon gave a toast to Fulgencio Batista in which he compared the Cuban strongman to Abraham Lincoln.

Even before the Cuban Revolution, U.S. policy toward the island nation was deeply flawed, and matters only worsened after Fidel Castro seized power in 1959. One of the Cuban revolutionary’s chief criticisms of Batista had been his servile attitude toward Washington and Wall Street, as well as his willingness to let Havana become a vice-filled haven for U.S. tourists and mobsters. Castro’s determination to increase his country’s economic and political autonomy quickly brought him into direct conflict with the United States. Americanleaders were faced with a choice: accept a drastically reduced role in Cuba, or fight to maintain the status quo. Afraid that any sign of weakness would encourage more revolutions across Latin America, the United States adopted an antagonistic policy that denied the legitimacy of Castro’s cause and sought his removal from power.

Thus was the policy President Obama criticized last December established, a familiar one that has shackled U.S.-Cuban relations for the past sixty years. Throughout the Cold War, the refusal to relinquish control was the driving force behind U.S. policy toward Cuba. U.S. leaders tried numerous tactics to regain influence, ranging from invasion-by-proxy at the Bay of Pigs in 1961 to a covert series of attempts to assassinate Castro throughout the rest of that decade. The economic embargo that is still in place today is yet another aspect of this failed strategy; clearly, isolating Cuba and attempting to starve Castro into submission did not work either.

Though the specific contours and context have changed over the course of the past century, the underlying goal of U.S. policy toward Cuba has remained the same: control. Ever since the United States usurped Cuba’s hard-won independence at the end of the nineteenth century, U.S. leaders have sought to keep the island within their sphere of economic and political influence. The so-called “Cold War” policy toward Cuba actually predated and outlasted the Cold War, because it had more to do with U.S. imperialism than with the confrontation between communism and capitalism.

This quest for control must end if presidents Obama and Raúl Castro are to usher in a new era for U.S.-Cuba relations. Reopening embassies and loosening travel restrictions are promising first steps, but they are far from sufficient to cause real change. This change will not be easy, and will only come about if U.S. leadership is willing to cede many of the markers of its historical domination over its island neighbor. Congress needs to lift the economic embargo that remains in place, and the naval base at Guantánamo Bay must return to Cuban hands. And most importantly, Washington must stop trying to micromanage Cuba’s politics and instead allow the Cuban people and their government to resolve their own problems. Restoring diplomatic relations is a positive first step. But if it is to be the catalyst for change that the leadership of both nations hope it will be, it is time for the United States to genuinely respect Cuba’s sovereignty in action as well as in speech.