U. S. foreign policy and Cuba since 1950: Cuba Should
Not Be Punished for Communism
Professor Ken C. Hansen
July 26, 2014
The United States' foreign policy relations with Cuba go back prior to 1950. American involvement with Cuba goes back to 1884. In 1884, the sharp drop in sugar prices led Cuba's "sugar nobility" (society of sugar plantation owners from the elite class) to an economic and social downfall1. More specifically, the sugar business weakened and lost its main role in the Cuban economy due to the "sugar nobility's" inability to cut production costs. Furthermore, the sudden drop of sugar prices and the economic downfall of the elite class enabled the United States to penetrate the Cuban economy. As a result, Cuban sugar estates and mining interests went from Cuban hands to American hands. By 1894, nearly 90 percent of Cuba's sugar exports were being sent to the United States. In return, 38 percent of Cuba's imports were coming from the United States2. Cuba's imports and exports, combined with the economic drop, and the transfer of Cuban mining interests and sugar estates to American overseers gave the Unites States great leverage over the island's economy.
With one foot in the door the United States continued to keep an eye on the island, as well as on the island's internal affairs. Meanwhile in Cuba in 1933 a man by the name of Fulgencio Batista joined the Cuban army as a private, and later became a sergeant-stenographer. Batista proceeded to rise to power. Batista took control of Cuba on both September 1933, and on March 1952 through usurpation3. "With the support of the U.S. government, Batista established himself as Cuba's 'strongman' 4". That is, Batista served as chief of the armed forces, while having several different civilians serve as presidents for short periods of time. Given that most of these puppet presidents did not agree with Batista or with Batista's agenda, they were quickly removed from power. Finally, in 1940 Batista got to serve as Cuba's president, but not for long. Batista ceded power to his opponent Ramon Grau, only to seize presidential power once again in 1952 through a coup d'état.
Seizing power along with using puppet presidents are just a couple of the many graceless actions carried out by Fulgencio Batista in order to look after himself and his economic well-being. Other graceless acts on Batista's behalf include looking out for Cuba's upper class, and corrupting the military with military promotions awarded to those who were loyal to him5. During Batista's rule the already institutionalized protection for Cuba's upper class remained in place. Furthermore, Batista replaced the Cuban Congress with a Consultative Council. The Consultative Council was composed of eighty members, most being Cuban economic elites, including the president of the sugar mill owners' association, the president of the sugar growers' association, along with other "members from key professional associations (bar association, medical association, etc.)" 6.
Batista was no more than a selfish and neglectful dictator. With his presidential powers Batista could have helped Cuba prosper as a nation. Instead, Batista's rule focused on wealth, status, and glamour. An example of this is the casinos he brought to the island. "Batista opened Havana to large scale gambling. American mobster Meyer Lansky placed himself at the center of Cuba's gambling operation"7. With the numerous newly built hotels and casinos, Cuba became the center of attention for many American tourists.
The Batista regime is notorious for its classism, corruption, and fascination with wealth. In a nation comprised mostly of lower working class people (i.e. farmers), openly favoring the upper class was a brainless mistake on Batista's behalf.
As the 1950s continued, the Cuban revolution was imminent. With Batista's leadership or lack thereof, Cuba was in desperate need for change. Although with the gambling business, "Cuba enjoyed one of the highest per capita incomes in all of Latin America"; not everyone prospered. The only people who prospered from tourism and casinos were American businessmen, and Cuba's elite class. By 1955, riots and anti-Batista demonstrations were rife. Batista's solution to these riots and demonstrations was to torture and kill the rebels. It was also during this time period that a group of young revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro and Ernesto "Che" Guevara emerged, waging guerilla warfare against Batista8. In 1958, U.S. ambassador Earl Smith informed general Batista that the United States would no longer support his regime, leaving Batista with no choice, but to flee to the Dominican Republic on January 1, 1959. On that same day, "Fidel Castro's army rode victoriously into Havana"9.
The United States government's sustained support for the Batista regime indicates the nature of American interests in Cuba; they were not genuine. Relations with Cuba would only be prosperous if the United States could continue to control Cuba's economy (economic control would give the United States control of the island). Up to this point in time, U.S.-Cuba relations were strictly business-oriented. To the United States, Cuba was just another asset. As a capitalist society, the United States was mostly concerned with its own economy, free and private enterprise, and revenue. Although after foreseeing Batista's impending downfall, the United States quickly turned its attention and support towards Fidel Castro.
Following Fidel Castro's overtake of the island, on January 1, 1959, Castro and his supporters "stormed the casinos in Havana hotels, tearing them apart as symbols of the Mafia-controlled gambling world that Batista had allowed to flourish on the island"10. Another notable act done by Fidel Castro happened on March 3, 1959, when Castro's government "[expropriated] properties belonging to the International Telephone and Telegraph Company, and took over its affiliate, the Cuban Telephone Company, lowering telephone rates"11. On May 17, 1959, Castro signed the Agrarian Reform Act. Through this Act Fidel Castro expropriated farm lands (over 1,000 acres) and banned ownership of Cuban land by foreigners. Two hundred thousand peasants received titles to land as a result of the land expropriation.
Fidel Castro brought other numerous changes to Cuba including: declaring an end to racism, free healthcare, and universal education. These changes had an immediate and dramatic impact, especially for the poorest Cubans. Additionally, Fidel Castro waged a campaign to eradicate illiteracy from the island-nation by sending out thousands of teenagers to teach "nearly a million Cubans how to read and write". As a result, in 1961 Cuba was declared a territory free of illiteracy.
Clearly, Fidel Castro was making the changes he believed were necessary to help his nation prosper and care for its citizens (especially the working-class Cubans who had been neglected under Batista's regime). Cuba gained control over her economy once again, after Castro nationalized American-owned companies. Although the expropriation of land and the nationalization of American-owned companies seemed like a slap to America's capitalist-believing face, Castro was thinking in terms of collective progress. Meaning that in order for a nation to progress, a nation must make sure that its most vulnerable people have a fair chance (not hypothetically, but literally). The cultural and societal difference between Cuba and America must also be taken into consideration. Cuba, as with most Latin American countries, functions as collectivist society, unlike America an individualistic society.
After Fidel Castro took power from Batista in 1959, U.S.-Cuba relations remained in decent shape. American exports to Cuba included: automobiles, revenue from tourism, and money from casinos put in place by Americans. U.S.-Cuba relations were well until Castro proceeded to tax American exports heavily. Castro taxed American exports so heavily that exports to the island were halved in just two years. Additionally, due to the nationalization of American-owned companies the United States cancelled its sugar contracts with Cuba. For Cuba, the exportation of sugar was a main source of economic revenue. Instead, the Soviet Union offered to purchase the sugar unwanted by the U.S. As Cuba continued to nationalize American banks and other American-owned companies, the U.S. placed a partial trade embargo on the island. The American trade embargo on Cuba also included embargos on oil and guns. These embargos led to Cuba's Special Period (a time period where resources and necessities such as food, water, and electricity were scarce)12.
Due to the strained relationship between the United States and Cuba, Cuba developed a close relationship with the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union became one of Cuba's strongest economic allies. Cuba began to receive most of its imports from the Soviet Union and China13. It was also during this time period when Castro declared Cuba a communist nation. To make U.S.-Cuba relations worse, the CIA would begin a series of attempts to overthrow and kill Castro.
On January 3, 1961, the United States officially ended diplomatic relations with Cuba. Two of the most notorious attempts to dispose of the communist leader (under the Kennedy administration) were the Bay of Pigs Invasion and the covert Operation Mongoose. The Bay of Pigs Invasion took place on April 17, 1961 when approximately 1400 CIA-trained Cuban exiles returned to Cuba (landing on Playa Girón) in hopes of inciting Cubans to revolt against Castro's regime. The Bay of Pigs Invasion ended three days later, after the Cuban exiles were defeated by the Cuban army. Operation Mongoose was approved by President John F. Kennedy on November 30, 1961. Operation Mongoose was yet another covert operation to get rid of Castro, this time the operation was headed by the president's brother, Robert Kennedy. President Kennedy's goal was to undermine Castro. He is quoted as stating the following during a White House meeting on November 1961:
"My idea is to stir things up on the island with espionage, sabotage, general disorder, run and operated by Cubans themselves with every group but Batistaites and Communists. Do not know if we will be successful in overthrowing Castro but we have nothing to lose in my estimate."14 This time, instead of a military invasion the approach would be counterinsurgency, and espionage. Much like the Bay of Pigs Invasion, Operation Mongoose proved to be another failure. Until this day, Castro remains in Cuba alive and well despite the numerous rough times of famine ahead of him.
To stir things up a bit more, on January 22, 1962, during the Second Declaration of Havana, Castro incited Latin American people to rise up against imperialists. This call for revolution was a threat to the United States. The U.S. could not afford to have Latin American nations up in arms revolting "against imperialists" and turning towards communism. During the same month, President Kennedy banned all kinds of trade (except for foods and medicines) with the Cuba; forcing the Cuban government to begin rationing food.
Another big incident in the history of U.S.-Cuba relations was the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Cuban Missile Crisis happened after a U.S. U-2 reconnaissance flight over Cuba photographed Soviet missile sites. Further analysis of the photographs triggered the Cuban Missile Crisis, shortly after President Kennedy addressed the nation. In response to the Soviet missiles, the U.S. announced a naval blockade of Cuba which would respond in case of a Soviet nuclear attack from Cuba. The Cuban Missile Crisis turned out to be nothing but a huge scare for Americans.
Towards the end of 1963, U.S.-Cuba relations could be described as "walking on eggshells". Both nations were careful and wary of each other. There was no trust, or relations between them. If one nation did something, the other would subtlety but firmly retaliate (since there was no declared war between them; war would only create bigger problems and involve more nations).
In 1966, during the Lyndon B. Johnson administration, any Cuban who had arrived to the U.S. after January 1, 1959 could apply for permanent residency. Thousands of Cubans applied for residency. The Mariel Boatlift happened in 1980, during Jimmy Carter's presidency. The boatlift began after a shooting incident left the Peruvian embassy in Cuba unguarded. As a result, thousands of Cubans headed to the Peruvian embassy seeking sanctuary. This was the beginning to a mass Cuban emigration that lasted from April 15 to October 31 of 1980. The mass emigration was aided by the Cuban government, after it announced that anyone who wished to leave the island could do so. Of course, Fidel Castro was no fool. He took advantage of the exodus to release people from jails and mental health facilities; they would now become America's burden.
As Ronald Reagan entered office in 1981, he established yet the most aggressive policy against Cuban since the Bay of Pigs Invasion15. On December 1984, the U.S. reached an agreement with Cuba. The United States would allow 20,000 Cubans to emigrate each year, under one condition. Cuba would take back 2,746 Mariel refugees. This would be the beginning of new relations between the U.S. and Cuba.
After the fall of the Soviet Union in December of 1991, Cuba was left with a severe loss of economic subsidies. The need for subsidies forced Cuba to ease up and work with the U.S.
On October 15, 1992 the Cuban Democracy Act was passed under George W. H. Bush's administration. The Act allowed trade between the U.S. and Cuba, mostly food and medicine. What was important about this Act is that it permitted private businesses to deliver foods and medicine to Cuba. During this time period, Fidel Castro started to accept the help his nation desperately needed. Additionally, since Cuba's economy was faltering without the Soviet subsidies Fidel Castro ended the ban on U.S. currency in Cuba on August 14, 1993.
Although things seemed bleak for Cuba, Fidel Castro would not give in. Fidel would continue to stand against imperialism. On March 12, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act. The Act was in solidarity with democracy, but it did not acknowledge Cuba's liberty. The "law enforced penalties on foreign companies conducting business in Cuba. It also permitted U.S. citizens to sue foreign investors who used property that the Cuban government took from America, and denied them entrance into the U.S."16 Once again, this shows how the United States has always looked after its citizens and their interests. Even though former president Jimmy Carter traveled to Cuba on May 14, 2000 to give a three-minute speech on Cuban television stating that it was time to end the embargo, the embargo did not and until this day has not ended. On February, 2004 President George W. Bush restricted travel to Cuba from the United States, limiting travel to Cuba from one visit per year to one visit in three years. President Bush also restricted the amount of money tourists could spend while visiting Cuba. As retaliation, on October 26, Fidel Castro banned U.S. dollars on the island once again, and urged Cubans to ask their relatives residing in the U.S. to send other kinds of foreign currencies instead.
On July 31, 2006 Castro announced that he would temporarily transfer presidential powers to his brother Raul Castro who had been serving as general of the Cuban army. Two years later, on February, 2008 Castro announced that he would officially cede power to Raul Castro due to health-related problems. In April, 2009 President Barack Obama began implementing a less strict policy towards Cuba. As of 2011, the Obama administration eased travel and other restrictions on Cuba. On December, 2013 during the Nelson Mandela memorial service, President Barack Obama and Cuban president Raul Castro shook hands, showing the current less hostile relationship between the two nations.
All in all, U.S.-Cuba relations since 1950 have been turbulent and uncooperative from the start. Castro's revolution was successful, but he did not anticipate for a powerful giant to place a crushing embargo on his tiny island-nation. Castro being too stubborn and proud to give into the United States' whims; and the U.S. being too unaccommodating to end the embargo continues to crush the island in every possible way. The embargo could have ended years ago, since Communism is no longer a real threat to the United States. But it has not. There is no need for the embargo to continue to exist. Cuba being a free nation and independent from the United States should be able to do as she pleases. In many ways, the United States earned Cuba's hatred through the numerous operations seeking to overthrow Castro therefore Cuba is not to be blamed for sending criminals during the boatlift. Cuba is not to be blamed for resisting imperialism. Cuba should not be punished for being Communist.
With time, the old grudge between the two nations seems to be slowly disappearing. Here is to wishing the embargo is soon brought to an end and both nations can compromise without further political disputes. After all, with Cuba's top-notch doctors and scientists the United States could benefit by collaborating to find cures for diseases that affect both nations.
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1Jose M. Hernandez, The World of 1898: The Spanish American War, Cuba in 1898
2Hernandez, Cuba in 1898
3 Chehabi, H. E.. "The Batista Regime in Cuba." In Sultanistic regimes
4 Chehabi, H. E.. In Sultanistic regimes
5 Chehabi, H. E.. In Sultanistic regimes
6 Chehabi, H. E.. In Sultanistic regimes
7 PBS. "People and Events: Fulgencio Batista (1901-1973)."
8Black in Latin America. Film. Directed by Henry Louis Gates
9Black in Latin America. Film. Henry Louis Gates
10 Gjelten, Tom. "Recalling Castro's Ascension — And CIA Reaction."
11 PBS. "Timeline: Post-Revolution Cuba ."
12 Shrode, Desiree. "Enhancing Road Scholar Cuba Programs through Group Leader Training."
13 Shrode, Desiree. "Enhancing Road Scholar Cuba Programs through Group Leader Training."
14 President John F. Kennedy during a White House meeting, November 1961.