Defrosting US-Cuba relations

If you’re a big powerful country, you can actually bury your relations with a small one you don’t particularly like in the back compartment of a freezer, and forget about them. Like pickled leftovers of yesteryear’s half-eaten meals, they are today hardly recognizable for what they were supposed to signify. You wonder what it was that prompted their preservation in that indigestible state. America’s relations with Cuba are like that.

Explaining his decision to finally defrost them, US President Barack Obama told his country last Wednesday: “Neither the American nor Cuban people are well served by a rigid policy that’s rooted in events that took place before most us were born.” Crafted against the backdrop of the Cold War, Obama said, that policy was intended to isolate Cuba, but it “has had little effect beyond providing the Cuban government with a rationale for restrictions on its people.” More significantly, no other nation saw any wisdom or fairness in that policy. Yet it has taken America more than 50 years to free itself from this egregious blind spot.

Today’s globalized generation would have difficulty making sense of a world under the spell of the Cold War. That world was split between two rival social systems: the capitalist “Free World” led by the United States of America, and the state socialist world led by the Soviet Union. Caught between these two spheres of influence were the underdeveloped countries of the “Third World” that desired to pursue their own self-chosen model of development—a path of nonalignment.

One of the early initiatives advocating non-alignment was the 1955 Bandung Conference hosted by President Sukarno of Indonesia. That meeting brought together the emerging nations of Asia and Africa in a common effort to complete the decolonization of their societies in a climate of world peace and mutual respect among nations. The Philippines attended that historic gathering as a participant, even as the US government viewed the agenda of the conference with deep suspicion.

The Bandung meeting served as a prologue to the convening in 1961 of the more enduring Non-Aligned Movement. The NAM summits articulated the voice of reason in a world made crazy by the imperatives of superpower rivalry. NAM members constituted roughly two-thirds of the United Nations member-nations, and more than one-half of the world’s population. That is a tremendous collective voice that cannot be ignored. But not in a world riven by great power rivalry.

In practice, these nations’ refusal to take sides and chart their own destiny was far from easy. The two superpowers that vied for their loyalty viewed it as a form of opportunism. Countries with a history of special relations with the United States like the Philippines particularly found it difficult to pursue an independent course in everything they did. So did Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia in their relationship to the USSR. Cuba perhaps found itself in the most impossible situation because of its close proximity to the US mainland.

Indeed, although Cuba became an independent republic in 1902, American troops did not hesitate to place the country under direct military rule whenever the US government thought it was necessary to do so. William Howard Taft once warned the Cubans that while America had no wish to annex their country, it would not allow them to be independent if they could not restrain their “insurrectionary habit.”

The insurrections not only persisted but also became increasingly radicalized under successive dictators. One of these tyrants was Gerardo Machado, whose excesses moved Franklin Delano Roosevelt himself to encourage the Cuban military to rebel. Machado’s downfall paved the way for the emergence of a sergeant named Fulgencio Batista who ruled Cuba with a heavy hand for more than two decades. Batista was everything the United States could wish for in a Third World scoundrel. Aggressively anticommunist, he sent for American military advisers to train his army. He encouraged American investors to set up businesses in Cuba, and transformed the capital city of Havana into a virtual American playground run by the Mafia.

So notorious for its greed and corrupt ways was the Batista regime that the United States later welcomed its demise. What America was not prepared for was the independent stance that the young leaders who overthrew the Batista tyranny in the 1959 Cuban revolution began to demonstrate when they assumed the helm of this deeply impoverished and mismanaged country. Fidel and his comrade, the iconic Ernesto “Che” Guevara, knew enough of foreign affairs not to court the enmity of the
United States. But, they would not be deterred from pursuing a vision of Cuban society that would be different from everything that all previous regimes had stood for.

That vision was premised on the magic of popular empowerment, starting with the termination of the scourge of mass illiteracy and racism. Shunning the culture of excessive consumerism, the new government actively promoted the growth of the arts as vigorously as the sciences and technology. It introduced a system of participation and representation that avoided the dysfunctions and illusions of an electoral culture nurtured in social inequality and patronage. It tried to build the socialist person—educated and cosmopolitan, emancipated and cheerful, the epitome of solidarity in a world made selfish by capitalist culture.

It was that vision that the American embargo tried to kill by consigning the entire country into the deep freezer of the Cold War.

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