Friday, April 17, 2009

Cuba's America Problem


Fidel Castro meets with Malcolm X, 1959

...for those who are impatient with Cuba...please don’t forget that it took another, earlier revolution, despite its proclamation that “all men are created equal,” nearly a century and a wrenching civil war to end slavery, another century to eliminate segregation and other forms of overt racism, and about a century and a half to grant the vote to half its population. Throughout those changes, no other country had the right to “demand” that the US “make concessions,” or “behave” in a certain way, nor would the American people or government have permitted it. Each country moves at its own pace, and within its own history.

Some of the most profound words I've read on the Cuba issue in quite a while. Even more profound that they were written by Manuel Gomez, an émigré from the island since 1961. The small Caribbean nation has had a long sordid affair with the US, much if marked by an uneven, paternalist relationship. Cuba for the US has in the past been a place to showcase American hemispheric might, a playground for gangsters and sex-trade tourists, or a revolutionary pariah stubbornly determined to thwart attempts to beat it into submission. What the US has never viewed or accepted Cuba as, is an equal.


More after the fold...

Even today, as talk of more diplomatic relations with Cuba commences, too often US motives are framed around "opening up the communist state" to American-styled "democtatic ideals," usually a nice way of saying "rampant, unregulated free-market capitalism"--which isn't exactly looking too good these days. The goal seems to be, "talk to Cuba--so we can overthrow it." Hardly a way to engender trust and understanding. Certainly Cuba is no saint, and political repression of political prisoners is still a problem. Yet the paranoia of the Cuban state is not merely a figment of their imagination.

The US had backed the dictatorial regime of Ruben Fulgencio Batista, who was propped up by a shady alliance of US gangsters themselves tied to political interests. 1950s Cuba was a place for wealthy Americans seeking sex and adventurism, and it became famous for its gambling and nightclubs. The masses in Cuba (especially blacks and others of color) remained disenfranchised, as they watched wealthy--and self-proclaimed "white"--Cubans rubbing elbows with America's criminal and political elite. As Enrique Fernandez wrote in the Oakland Tribune, "Even as revelers rumbaed in the nightclubs, an escalating syndrome of rebellion and repression bloodied the streets, triggered by an illegitimate government's corrupt relationship with ruthless gangsters...."

The revolution that put figures like Fidel Castro and Che Guevera on the map rose in part as a reaction to this corruption and repression, and are credited with running the gangster culture out of Cuba. Activist and artist Harry Belafonte, who performed at many of the Mafia-run clubs in Havana before the revolution has stated plainly, "I knew Cuba before Fidel Castro. I did not see democracy in Cuba. If anything, I saw blatant racism and oppression."

But, much as an earlier US during the Spanish-American War, eager to prove itself a dominant imperial force in the hemisphere, could not accept the large army of blacks and ex-slaves that were a significant part of the Cuban War for Independence, opting instead for a "white-washed" Cuba of Castillian bloodlines, so too did a more modern US refuse to accept the revolutionaries that drove out their former Batista allies in 1959.

Yet even with a socialist outlook, a young Castro believed (perhaps naively) that he could retain friendly relations with an America in the grips of the Cold War. On April 15 1959 he embarked on an unofficial twelve day tour of the United States. During his stay, Castro spent much of his time at cheap motels in Harlem--meeting with Malcolm X, the Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Eventually he made it to the White House, where he met with then Vice President Richard Nixon, but was refused a meeting with President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Despite such overtures, the US, wary of anything that had a hint of socialism, began destabilizing the young regime. As relations deteriorated, Castro eventually sought alliances with the Soviet Union, agreeing in 1960 to import Russian fuel. When the US ordered American refineries in Cuba to not process the oil, Castro expropriated them as Cuban possessions--which many of the island's citizens felt had unjustly been allowed to remain in American hands by the corrupt Batista regime. For this the United States broke off diplomatic relations and Cuba followed suit.

From there, things went downhill--from an infamous failed American backed invasion of Cuban exiles in the Bay of Pigs to the Missile Crisis which brought the world nearly to the brink of nuclear war. Castro, growing paranoid of US assassination plots, attempts to invade the island, domestic infrastructre sabotage and more (all of which were not so far from the truth, i.e. Operation Mongoose), began numerous "purges" to seek out the enemies of the revolution he was certain operated from within the country. Newspapers were shut down. Freedoms were curtailed. The state began spying on its citizens, ever on the lookout for American saboteurs. If reports are to be believed, thousands were imprisoned. The Cuban government went on a permanent war footing, fearing their revolution would be snuffed out by the Yankees to the North. For this Castro and his government were painted as an even greater pariah by Washington, though ironically enough his misdeeds paled significantly in comparison to those of US allies in Chile and El Salvador--where thousands were placed not in jail but mass graves.

Outside the US government, and the influential politics of Cuban exiles (many former wealthy "white" property owners) in places like Florida, Castro's Cuba however has a more mixed reception. Throughout the Caribbean, Castro is known as the man who dared stand up to the "bullying" US to the North, thwarting its CIA attempts to kill him, planned invasions to overthrow him, and defying US presidents simply by outliving them.

In numerous nearby islands, Cuba was responsible for training and supplying doctors. Cuba build hospitals, sent out teachers, provided medicines and other pertinent development aid to the region. In Grenada Cuba built an airport (which the US would later claim was a Soviet base--a farcial charge that was a prelude to an illegal invasion). And on the international stage, when US ally apartheid white-run South Africa invaded neighboring Angola, it was Cuba who sent troops to stop their advance. At the battle of Cuito Cuanavale, Cuban and Angolan forces effected a decisive defeat of the SADF, initiating what many have called the continent's "Battle of Stalingrade"--a turning point in apartheid South Africa's external imperial ambitions. And in the US itself, Castro's Cuba has long found allies among the black community, for both cultural and political support. Because even if the revolution did not create a mythic "racial paradise," it certainly created a space for blacks in Cuba beyond anything previously seen. It's not surprising that Hip Hop and Cuba are almost synonymous in some cirlces.

With the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the life-line of the Cuban revolutionary government--then just over 30 years old--was abruptly ended. Life in the blockaded small country became even more dire, and many in the US eagerly anticpated what they expected to be the fall of Castro's regime. New waves of refugees, much like those of times past, set out seeking relief from the crushing poverty enacted in a great part by the stifling blockade. But, ever the survivor, Castro and Cuba struggled on undaunted. Adapting socialist policies to take advantage of the global market, Cuba managed to stay afloat and emerge if not as strong, at least much more independent. With the help of nearby allies like Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, the government entered the 21st century and celebrated the 50th anniversary of the revolution this year. Fidel Castro meanwhile, with failing health, finally stepped down, allowing his brother Raul to assume power. And, despite expectations of a counter-revolution in the streets with the departure of the charasmatic figure, Cuba has remained relatively stable. The hard fact many in the US have failed to take into account is why there are certainly those in Cuba who reject the revolution, many others have long claimed it as their own. The same Cuba after all that scored low points on the human rights of personal freedom, manages to out-compete the United States when it comes to the human rights of personal well-being and access to such things as universal healthcare.

One has to then wonder, if Castro and Cuba did not have to live in the shadow of a hostile superpower, how might things have developed? Without the paranoia that CIA forces and internal spies were ever at the ready to invade or destroy them, how less repressive might a Cuban socialist government have been? If not for blockades, attempts at economic sabotage, waves of bombings committed by anti-Castro terrorists (who still enjoy immunity in the US), how would the revolution of this small Caribbean nation have been further carried out? One of the vexing problems for emergent states during the Cold War and since, has been an inability to organically form--through trial and error much like the United States--their own paths without constant intervention. In the ritualistic condemnations of Castro's Cuba that comes from the soapbox chorus in the US, America has yet to ask itself what role did it's own aggressive actions play not merely in "allowing Castro to remain in power" (as it is so often framed) but in shaping and creating the direction of the island nation so long labeled a threat.

This week, as heads of state of the two nations meet at the OAS Summit, the question remains--is America ready to accept Cuba as a sovereign independent nation capable of forging its own destiny without US restraints, domination and control, or do old habits die hard?

6 comments:

Dannie said...

Powerful analysis of the history of the Cuban Conflict. Kudos.

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