The hidden history of U.S.-Cuban relationship


It was a turning point. Beginning in 2013, the U.S. and Cuba began secret talks in Canada and Vatican City. In 2015, Barack Obama announced that formal diplomatic relations would resume and embassies would open in Washington D.C. and Havana.

John Kirk, a Canadian scholar of Latin America, says dramatic changes soon followed: “…the president visited Cuba in 2016 (the first by a sitting president since 1928), 22 bilateral agreements were signed, U.S. investment started, trade increased, hundreds of thousands of Americans visited the island, Havana became a major stop for U.S.-based cruise lines, medical co-operation on cancer research began and cultural, sports, and academic exchanges flourished.”

Was this the beginning of a new relationship between Cuba and the U.S.? It wasn’t just progressives who wanted a change. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and agribusiness had wanted to end the embargo for many years; Canadian and European capitalists have been making a lot of money in Cuba. The European Union is Cuba’s main export partner and its biggest foreign investor. 

Then Obama’s “Cuban thaw” was abruptly ended when Trump became president.

The U.S. has had a long and tangled relationship with Cuba. As early as 1820, Thomas Jefferson expressed interest in acquiring Cuba, which was then a Spanish colony. Many Americans took up residence and by 1877, Americans had purchased 83% of Cuba’s total exports.

Several times, Cuban rebels attempted to get American support in their struggle for independence. In the 1898 Spanish-American war, the U.S. claimed to be fighting for Cuban freedom. In the peace treaty ending that war, Spain gave the U.S. control of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippine Islands and Guam. Cuba formally became an independent country and the others became U.S. territories. Cuba was under U.S. military occupation until 1901 when it was forced to sign a treaty which allowed the U.S. to intervene unilaterally in its affairs. That happened frequently. U.S. political and economic domination would be overwhelming.

In 1960, Earl E. T. Smith, the former American ambassador to Cuba, told the U.S. Senate, “Until Castro, the U.S. was so overwhelmingly influential in Cuba that the American ambassador was the second most important man, sometimes even more important than the Cuban president.”

The 1959 revolution was a big shock. American capitalists and mobsters were kicked out. An impressive welfare state was constructed, particularly in areas of education and health care from 1960 to 1990. However, it was heavily subsidized by the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc countries. When the Soviet Union collapsed, that welfare state began to fall apart. 

Since, the Cuban leadership seems to be adopting a Chinese-Vietnamese economic model which combines a one-party dictatorship with an opening to both foreign and domestic capitalists.

Marc Cooper, a U.S. journalist who has covered Latin America for a number of decades, wrote in 2010:

 “…what exists in Cuba has never been and is not socialism. It is a freakish state plantation capitalism. Not only are workers exploited directly by the all-powerful ‘people’s state’ in which they have no voice — but for two decades now the same Cuban state has acted as a ruthless labor broker renting out portions of its oppressed and powerless work force to foreign private capitalists who have been allowed to set up shop in strategic sectors of the economy. The Cuban state charges the foreign firm a market rate in hard currency and pays the worker a meager Cuban wage while working for a Spanish, Dutch, Canadian or Mexican capitalist cartel.”

Cooper was a translator for Chile’s democratically elected socialist president Salvador Allende who was overthrown by a CIA-military coup in 1973. Of course, the Republicans and the Fox News propagandists can’t tell the difference between Allende and the Castro brothers. They claim any liberal reform equals socialism equals the gulag. So, it’s not surprising that when massive protests broke out in Cuba starting Sunday, July 11, 2021, and the government responded with violent repression, rightwingers claimed that America’s most well-known democratic socialists, Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez were silent.

That’s a lie. Both of them denounced the Cuban government’s suppression of media, speech and protest, and also called for an end to the U.S. embargo.

During the presidential campaign in September 2020, Joe Biden said: “I’d try to reverse the failed Trump policies, they inflicted harm on Cubans and their families … [and have] done nothing to advance democracy and human rights.”

This month, Biden expressed support for the protesters and advised the government to act with restraint.

At the very least, he needs to reverse Trump’s sanctions. He can restore the ability of Cuban Americans to send unlimited remittances to family and restore travel to the island. He may be afraid of a political backlash in Florida but if he doesn’t respond to this humanitarian crisis, we may be faced with many desperate Cubans escaping on leaky boats and rafts. 

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.

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