Lots of people don’t know why the President’s announcement yesterday, that he wants to end the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba and establish full diplomatic relations, is a really, really big deal in terms of history and U.S. relations with Central and South America. Many don’t know that Cuba was very nearly the flashpoint for a nuclear war that could have destroyed the entire world and many don’t know that the U.S. and Cuba have a long history of near familial levels of animosity and mistrust due to U.S. interference in Cuban affairs.
This isn’t a complete history in any way but it should serve as a quick history of Cuban/U.S. relations in list form that might tell you why yesterday’s announcement was of global and historical importance even if it might be difficult to see why it’s of personal importance.
1. Cuba Gains Independence From the U.S., Kind Of
You may not know this but Cuba used to be considered a territory of the United States. It wasn’t until 1902 that Cuba was granted independent nation status under the Platt Amendment although they were to spend the next few decades essentially orbiting the U.S.’s sphere of influence. While Cuba was independent, the agreement that granted this independence also allowed the U.S. to intervene in Cuban affairs militarily if the U.S. saw fit to do so. Additionally, under the terms of the agreement, Cuba wasn’t allowed to form any trade treaties with countries besides the U.S.
The Cuban government collapsed four years later and the U.S. invaded and occupied the island nation under Teddy Roosevelt for a further four years in order to re-establish a stable government, prevent civil war, and protect U.S. financial and trade interests (sugar, it’s all about sugar).
2. Banana Republic Corruption
Given the stranglehold the U.S. held on the Cuban economy and the nation’s elitist politics, corruption became rife in Cuba beginning with the popular election of President Gerardo Machado in 1925. Machado decided to hold on to power following the end of his term in office. Thus began a pattern of oligarchical powers and revolutionary ones competing for control of the country. In the 1930s, the government Dr Ramón Grau San Martín promised and delivered a series of massive labor and civil rights reforms which gave women the vote, established the 8 hour work day, and decreed that 50% of workers in most blue collar fields had to be Cuban.
The Grau regime also rejected the U.S.’s right to intervene militarily in the affairs of Cuba. The U.S. promptly supported a revolution against the Grau Regime that resulted in the eventual election of Fulgencio Batista.
3. You Can’t Play With Us
In 1960, as a response to Cuba’s Communist revolution led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, the United States declared an embargo on all trade with Cuba. At the time, the overthrow of then Cuban President (and dictator) Fulgencio Batista was considered a wonderful thing by most every day Cubans. However, this was the height of the U.S./Soviet Cold War and a Soviet ally just ninety miles off the coast of Florida was a scary thing.
4. Let’s Destroy the Entire World
The Cuban Missile Crisis was one of a handful of moments that absolutely could have resulted in global nuclear war. In 1961, the U.S. had attempted to overthrow Cuba’s communist government and failed. The U.S. subsequently placed ballistic missiles in Turkey aimed squarely at the Soviet Union. In response to what was seen as U.S. aggression, then Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev acquiesced to Cuban requests for nuclear missiles on the island. The result was a U.S. naval blockade of the island and a standoff that nearly resulted in nuclear war.
5. The Age of Propaganda
In 1980, the U.S. established Radio Free Cuba. Much like Radio Free Europe which broadcast pro-democracy messages into the Soviet Union, Radio Free Europe was intended to kindle nascent democractic movements within Cuba. In 1985, the U.S. established Radio y Televisión Martí out of Florida with the same intention. The U.S. spent and currently spends $27 million a year to operate these media outlets.
This period also included an incredible amount of spying and counterspying on the part of the U.S. and Cuba with the idea being, on the part of the U.S., that Cuba was essentially an arm of the Soviet Union. This time period produced such incredibly capable Cuban spies as Ana Montes who managed to infiltrate the highest levels of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), serving as the agency’s premier Cuba analyst.
6. Fall of the Soviet Union
After the fall of the U.S.S.R. which provided Cuba with lots of money and support every year, it was believed by some in the U.S. that Castro might fall as well. He didn’t and Cuba continued to inspire socialist movements in the Americas, most recently in Venezuela and Bolivia. However, Cuba remains at least a historical inspiration of work-oriented self determination for Central and South America politics more broadly.
It remains to be seen whether the U.S. Congress will allow the President to place an actual Ambassador in Cuba and fully withdraw the economic embargo against the nation but arguments that dealing with the Cuban government and even trading with it are odd.
The U.S. currently trades with many communist and socialist nations including China, Vietnam, and Venezuela, just to name three. Any idea that Cuba is some how a bridge too far is ahistorical nonsense and political point scoring.