The price of national independence

On April 8 and 9, Manila will be the venue for an international conference aimed at expressing solidarity with the Cuban people in their bid to end more than half a century of American sanctions against their country. I understand that President Duterte, a self-described socialist, has been invited to speak at this conference, which is being organized by two local Filipino-Cuban friendship associations.

I sincerely hope he accepts the invitation. It will be a great opportunity for him to meet the Cuban delegation, and also to learn more about Cuba, whose colonial history and emancipatory aspirations closely parallel ours.  The Cuban national hero Jose Marti is to Cuba as Jose Rizal is to our country. They were both writers and nationalist intellectuals who personified their respective peoples’ quest for independence. They died within a year of one another, both in the prime of their youth.

Following the successful wars of independence against Spain, Cuba and the Philippines were ceded to the United States by virtue of the same 1898 Treaty of Paris, the settlement that followed the end of the Spanish-American War. Cuba secured its nominal independence as a republic in 1902, while we got ours only in 1946, after almost 50 years of US colonial rule. In any event, the two countries effectively became American neocolonies after the grant of independence.  That is probably where the similarity ends.

In 1959, a revolution led by Fidel Castro overthrew the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista.  America initially welcomed the fall from power of a corrupt and detested regime, and praised Fidel Castro’s leadership in the hope of controlling the political transition. But Cuba’s new leaders had had enough of neocolonial servility, and sought to build a truly sovereign nation, free to decide its own path to development and free to determine its foreign relations. America showed them that this was not possible—certainly not at the backdoor of the world’s most powerful country.

The outcome for Cuba was extremely costly.  Unable to convert Fidel Castro into its puppet, America instigated a fierce policy aimed at isolating and punishing Cuba, with the view to ultimately triggering a regime change.

It started as a commercial embargo seeking to stop all trade between the two countries, but quickly calcified into a comprehensive blockade that discouraged every country that wished to freely trade with America from having anything to do with Cuba.  This policy of isolation forced Cuba to be dependent on the Soviet Union for almost its major imports, especially oil.

When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, Cuba found itself alone, forced to make socialism work under conditions that were the exact opposite of what Marx’s writings had anticipated. Progressive socialism was supposed to be built on the technological gains of capitalism; it was meant to democratize wealth, not poverty.

-Only the charisma, vision and determination of Fidel Castro kept Cuba together during that arduous and demoralizing “tiempo especial.” Hunger and endless queues for basic provisions became the daily reality of ordinary Cubans. In the wake of the socialist collapse in Eastern Europe, the world waited for the Cuban socialist experiment to fall next. It didn’t. The ageless Fidel didn’t stop writing and making speeches either, tirelessly egging his compatriots to stay the course.

But it wasn’t just socialist rhetoric that kept the majority of Cubans faithful to the socialist vision.  Despite the chronic scarcity of resources, Cuba managed to feed, clothe, educate, and house its poor.  Cuba’s universal healthcare system, which focuses on the prevention of illness, is one of the best in the world. Illiteracy has been completely wiped out. Cuba is one of the few places in the world where people actually read books.

There are no shopping malls, fastfood restaurants, or air-conditioned cinema theaters in Havana, Cuba’s largest city—in short, none of the emblems of a consumer society. But there are plenty of parks, libraries, and museums.  And live music is everywhere. There is something to be said for a culture that is forced to rely on its own gifts and meager resources.  Evolving in isolation from the flattened world of consumerism, it has a charm that is uniquely its own.

Cubans know they have had to pay a very high price for their independence, and for displeasing the great power next door. Yet, even after Fidel Castro’s recent death, they also believe there is no reason for them to reverse gears just to be in the good graces of America. Even as their powerful neighbor has largely ignored them, they have been resolute in reaching out to the rest of the world for understanding and solidarity.

Before bowing out of the US presidency, Barack Obama restored diplomatic relations with Cuba, capping this with an official visit last year. He made it possible for many ordinary American tourists to visit Cuba, and allowed the use of the US dollar as currency for Cuba’s international transactions. But the rest of the institutional system behind the embargo continues to operate, as though it had taken a life of its own.

It requires a willful and unequivocal act of the US Congress to end this heartless punitive measure against an unbowed people. For that to happen, sympathy must supplant antagonism in the hearts of America’s political leaders. In view of this, I hope that, if he agrees to speak at this conference, President Duterte expresses his solidarity with the Cuban people by tracing the common path that our two nations shared across history, rather than by seeking common cause to further attack America.