Cuba: Some Historic Perspective

“Right actions in the future are the best apologies for bad actions in the past.”

Tryon Edwards, 19th century American theologian

Normalizing relations with Cuba is long overdue. For over 50 years we have tried to change the government and social structure of this small, poor nation. Our animosity toward Cuba has been irrational, unnecessary, and contrary to our founding principles of liberty and democracy. President Obama’s move toward normal relations was just the beginning.

American involvement in Cuba began long before Castro and the current socialist government. To understand the harm our government’s actions have brought to the people of Cuba requires looking at this history. To understand the present, we must look at the past.

Our desire to control and profit from Cuba is as old as our nation. All through the 1800s many Americans advocated conquering, annexing, or buying Cuba from Spain. Commercial gain, increasing trade, and expanding slave territory were the primary motivations. By the 1890s, the U.S. was a dominant trading partner with Spanish Cuba. When Cuban revolutionaries began fighting Spanish rule in 1895, these commercial interests were hurt by the disruption of war. To protect these commercial interests, we went to war against Spain, using Cuban independence to justify American intervention.

We call it the Spanish American War. This “splendid little war” (as John Hay, U.S. Secretary of State called it) was over quickly with the defeat of Spain in Cuba and the Philippines. The Treaty of Paris, between Spain and the U.S., ended Spain’s control of Cuba and ceded Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines to the U.S. Many historians consider this the beginning of the “American Empire.”

Despite the pre-war rhetoric about supporting freedom and democracy, American actions toward Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines were not consistent with our democratic values and ideals. Rather than granting these countries independence, we replaced Spain as the colonial overlord. The Philippines eventually become independent, in 1946, after a war with the U.S. (1898-1906) and decades of colonial domination. Guam and Puerto Rico still belong to the U.S.

Cuba was occupied from 1898 to 1902. In 1901, Congress passed the Platt Amendment which limited Cuban independence and sovereignty. It allowed the U.S. to oversee international relations, the economy, unilaterally intervene domestically, and establish the Guantanamo Bay naval base. Cuba was forced to accept these terms to end the military occupation. In 1903, Cuba became a republic. But the U.S. intervened militarily in 1906-09, 1912, and 1917-22.

Between 1898 and 1959 U.S. business interests dominated the economy of Cuba. Cuba was an economic colony run largely for the benefit of American business interests. In 1934 Fulgencio Batista came to power in a military coup. With American support he dominated Cuban politics until 1959. Graft, corruption, and mismanagement characterized all Cuban administrations during this period. American organized crime found a haven in Cuba during Prohibition. Cuba became known for prostitution, drinking, gambling, and as a playground for the wealthy. Despite periods of prosperity, most of the Cuban people remained poor.

Over the years, American actions toward Cuba have been either exploitative or hostile. There was one exception. President Franklin Roosevelt implemented policies toward Latin America more consistent with our democratic ideals. Called the “Good Neighbor Policy,” military intervention in other countries was renounced. In 1934, FDR ended the Platt Amendment. Unfortunately for both the U.S. and Cuba, the idea of being a good neighbor was short lived. Latin America policy was overridden by the problems of the Great Depression and WWII.

In 1959, Fidel Castro came to power. He was supported by the rural poor, urban workers and liberal idealists. He established a socialist government which began many reforms to improve the lives of the Cuban people. Part of this was land reform and returning control of the economy to Cubans. In 1960 he nationalized American businesses and seized American property in Cuba. Many Cuban businessmen and the wealthy elite left the country. The U.S. ended diplomatic relations and imposed a trade embargo. Because of the Cold War, containment of communism became the goal. Normal relations with Castro’s Cuba was politically impossible.

In 1961, Cuban exiles, backed by the CIA, attempted the unsuccessful Bay of Pigs invasion. Over the years many other CIA covert actions were attempted to destabilize the economy, incite revolt, and assassinate Cuban leaders.

Cuba established diplomatic relations with Russia in 1960. Russia became the primary Cuban trading partner and source of military and economic aid to counter the U.S. embargo. The Russians provided military aid, including intermediate range ballistic missiles which led to the Cuban Missile Crisis in1962. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Cuba lost its Russian support and trade with severe consequences for its economy.

In recent decades Cuban American relations improved. Restrictions on travel, immigration, and cultural exchanges were eased. In 2014 the Obama administration and Cuban President Raúl Castro began normalizing relations. The agreement led to the lifting of some U.S. travel restrictions, fewer restrictions on monetary remittances, U.S. banks access to the Cuban financial system, and the establishment of a U.S. embassy in Havana. But some basic issues were not addressed. Foremost was the unwillingness of American administrations to accept a socialist economic structure in Cuba. The trade embargo and the Guantanamo Naval base remained in place.

Today we again have an opportunity to be a good neighbor. We should end the embargo, return Guantanamo, and end all restrictions on normal relations. We should apologize for our being a bad neighbor in the past. The best apology would be “right actions” toward Cuba in the future.

A great nation would have the maturity and strength to admit its mistakes and make amends. Lao Tzu, the 6th century BC philosopher said:

“A great nation is like a great man: When he makes a mistake, he realizes it.
Having realized it, he admits it. Having admitted it, he corrects it.”