“There’s a complicated history between the United States and Cuba,” President Obama acknowledged in his December 17 announcement of a new opening to Cuba. He couched the new approach to relations in terms of the need to abandon the failed policy of the last 54 years.
A longer look at the history of U.S.-Cuban relations, however, suggests that much of the newly opened debate over future engagement rests on some of the same assumptions that shaped previous relations in the decades before the Cuban Revolution (1953-1959). In jettisoning one failed policy, the U.S. government—and the people of Cuba—should be wary of resurrecting the habits of an earlier, equally dysfunctional relationship. It is a history about which Cubans are constantly reminded, but which most Americans all too easily forget.
As Spanish control weakened throughout the nineteenth century, American policymakers assumed that Cuba would pass from the Spanish to the American orbit—a danger that José Martí, Cuba’s liberation hero, warned against before perishing in the War of Independence in 1895. With nationalist insurgents poised to win independence in 1898, the U.S. intervened and occupied Cuba in a bid to dictate the island’s future.
In 1902, Cuba became a nominally independent republic, but one in which the Platt Amendment to Cuba’s Constitution reserved Washington the right to intervene for “the maintenance of a government adequate for the protection of life, property, and individual liberty.” U.S. troops landed on the island three more times in the next 20 years. U.S. ambassadors mediated among Cuban political factions, whose power could rest as much on the State Department’s blessing as on support among Cubans.
When nationalist intellectuals, workers and soldiers tried to overturn this neo-colonial order in the Revolution of 1933, the U.S. refused to recognize the revolutionary government and urged Fulgencio Batista to take power as a military strongman to protect U.S. political and economic interests. Cubans still refer to this “interrupted revolution.”
Though the Platt Amendment was abrogated in 1934, the “Plattist” mentality still held sway in both Havana and Washington. Any Cuban government was expected to operate within bounds acceptable to U.S. political and business interests. U.S. trade policy, meanwhile, predominantly shaped the Cuban economy. Cuban prosperity rose and fell at the whim of Congress, which unilaterally determined Cuba’s share of the U.S. sugar market. U.S. businesses and a corrupt Cuban oligarchy dominated the island’s resources. The longstanding nationalist goal of real political and economic independence, a “Cuba for the Cubans,” remained a dream deferred.
It was this history that produced Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution—in which, for the first time, a Cuban government took and held onto power without Washington’s approval. It was not communism or anti-Americanism, but rather Castro’s stated commitment to overturning the old political and economic system that rallied the vast majority of Cubans behind the revolution in its early, euphoric months. The revolution has always been portrayed by its supporters as fulfilling “one hundred years of struggle” to forge a truly independent Cuba for its citizens. Long after losing its initial luster, much of the Castro government’s residual legitimacy among its defenders has derived from its uncompromising defense of national sovereignty against U.S. efforts to dictate Cuba’s political and social system.
Its critics on the island and in exile, meanwhile, have always struggled to oppose the government’s suppression of political and economic liberties without being denounced as tools—wittingly or unwittingly—of American counter-revolutionary interference. Recent revelations of Washington’s ongoing covert support to dissident groups have highlighted this dilemma, which grows more complicated with the resumption of diplomatic relations.
In restoring diplomatic ties based on what Raúl Castro called “respectful dialogue, based on sovereign equality,” Obama took a step that no previous U.S. administration fully managed with either the Castro government or its predecessors. However distasteful it may be to some of Castroism’s critics, this step has the potential to allow Americans to advocate for political and economic liberalization without the odor of imperial interventionism.
But the specter of the Platt Amendment still haunts debates over the future of U.S.-Cuban relations. The 1996 Helms-Burton Act conditions the lifting of the embargo upon Cubans first installing a transitional government based on free, multiparty democracy and the right of private property. These are laudable goals, and the U.S. should advocate nothing less. But the law as currently devised still positions the U.S. government as arbiter of Cuban self-determination, and ties Cuba’s potential prosperity to Washington-mandated policies—such as compensating former owners of properties nationalized in the 1960s—that a freely elected Cuban government is unlikely to adopt willingly.
Raúl Castro, 83, has announced plans to step down in 2018. Cuba’s elite of military officers, Communist Party officials, and the heads of joint-venture and state enterprises are already jockeying for power. Adding to their voices are courageous civil-society activists. Waiting in the wings are U.S. firms eager to do business with Cuba, whether under free-market capitalism or its statist raulista cousin. Some of these players welcome greater U.S. political influence; some share America’s commitment to capitalism and pluralist democracy; others do not.
Cuba’s future government could be a military and state- and crony-capitalist oligarchy supported by foreign investors, as in the 1950s. Or it could represent the voices and interests of the Cuban people. The U.S. Embassy in Havana could be an impartial source of moral support for everyday Cubans to advance their own reform agendas, or an interventionist player picking winners and losers among contending Cuban factions.
The United States and Cuba have the opportunity to move beyond not one, but two half-centuries of dysfunctional relations. Cubans and Americans alike, inside and outside government, should seek new economic and political ties that will facilitate Cubans’ fulfillment of a longstanding national ideal—a free and prosperous Cuba for the Cubans.