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Anxiety in Cuba as US Embassy Opens

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I thought we would be celebrating in Havana.

Five years ago, I spent a semester in Cuba as an undergraduate student and forged friendships with Cubans my age in spite of—or perhaps because of—the official antagonism between our countries.

“Politics is shit,” a Cuban friend said one night as we reflected, somewhat tipsy, on the intransigence of our governments. It felt impossible, I added, that our nations could be so distant and yet only be separated by 90 miles.

“Yeah, geography is shit too,” he responded.

When I arrived for a visit last month, I expected a change in tone. The governments of Cuba and the United States had agreed months earlier to establish diplomatic relations months earlier. Since then, the Obama administration had begun working to unravel the complex legal machinery that, for the past half-century, has cut Cuba off from its northern neighbor and brought a lot of economic hardship to the island.

I encountered more trepidation than I expected.

“It will be very good for the economy,” a young man told me in the central city of Santa Clara as we rested on a park bench. “But from the ethical, moral, cultural, social, and even aesthetic perspective, that’s another question.”

Another friend of mine—I’ll call him “Daniel”—suspects that the United States will bring down the Cuban government by lifting the embargo for a period of a few years and then suddenly reinstalling it, choking off Cuba’s newly Americanized economy.

Indeed, the United States hasn’t abandoned the goal of regime change in Cuba. Statements from the Obama administration imply that, through engagement, it is simply looking for more effective means.

“They have done us a lot of damage, but they haven’t achieved what they wanted,” my college Spanish professor told me when I paid her a visit at her house. “They are going to try to do from within what they couldn’t do from outside.”

On the morning of August 14, I went to Daniel’s house to watch on TV as John Kerry presided over the unfurling of the American flag and official opening of the United States embassy in Havana. My friend Yassel Alejandro Padron Kunakbaeva had arrived earlier, and sat shirtless in a rocking chair, smoking a cigarette as he waited for the event to start.

“I think it’s necessary to have diplomatic relations with the United States,” he said, but he had his mind on a much older American flag.

Cuban independence from Spain in 1898 was immediately followed by four years of American military occupation. The United States insisted that Cuba’s constitution grant the United States control over Cuba’s finances and foreign affairs. When US troops left in 1902, two flags flew from Havana’s Morro fortress, one Cuban, one American.

“It was a powerful symbol,” Yassel said.

For half a century, Cuba would be a de facto American colony. American marines made landings in 1906, 1912, and 1917. By the 1950s, American mobsters dominated the island, with the acquiescence of Cuban President Fulgencio Batista. Historian Richard Gott wrote that for Cubans, Fidel Castro’s revolution of 1959 was “the first genuine attempt in their history to establish an independent republic.” Castro and his revolution, despite their flaws, occupy a space in Cuban historical memory similar to that of George Washington in the United States.

Fifty years of US hostility toward that revolution has made the United States an easy enemy in Cuban eyes. Cubans seem unsure how to reinterpret American intentions as the era of diplomatic engagement dawns.

As Kerry’s speech neared, Yassel propped open a hardcover book on the dining room table, so that photos of Marx and Engels faced the TV. “They need to see this,” he said. The heat of Cuban August was apparent even through the TV screen; visiting American men were apparently still obliged to wear black suits. Behind the embassy, three antique American Chevrolets were parked conspicuously within view of the TV cameras.

A few minutes behind schedule, an overhead shot showed Kerry and his delegation striding toward the embassy. “The imperialists are walking through the front door!” Yassel shouted. “I’m seeing it, but I don’t believe it.”

Kerry’s speech was respectful and conciliatory, although he portrayed the preceding half-century of conflict as one between two equals, rather than a global superpower bullying a small island. He outlined the steps the United States has already taken toward rapprochement with Cuba, and the steps that he says Americans are willing to take if Cuba makes political and economic reforms.

As we watched, Daniel avoided the television, sweeping, making coffee, smoking cigarettes. “This is a cultural invasion,” he muttered at one point.

If so, there is a lot at stake. When I first arrived as an exchange student, I quickly realized that Cuba is special. For all of the country’s flaws, there exists a collective spirit deeper than mere cliché or socialist platitude. The Cubans I know share profusely, abhor inequality, rarely get lost in their cellphones. “There’s less alienation of the individual here,” one Cuban put it to me recently in aptly Marxist terms. Cubans also have a strong sense of national identity and pride in culture that I haven’t encountered elsewhere in Latin America. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this is also the least Americanized country in the hemisphere.

After Kerry’s speech, we made the short bus trip to see the newly hoisted American flag. “I’m not going to get close to that thing, though,” Daniel said, and left us after the bus ride to go sit in the shade under a nearby statue of Cuban independence hero José Martí.  

The crowds that had gathered outside during the ceremony had dispersed. A few tourists milled along Havana’s seafront drive, taking photos. The American flag across the street was small, and almost underwhelming. Yassel found it jarring though—one of the few that he had seen in his life. Behind us, the Havana skyline was visible along the Straits of Florida, a pastel medley of Spanish fortresses, dusty apartment buildings, and pre-revolutionary hotels built by American mobsters.

“This is my city,” Yassel said. “I don’t want to see it full of McDonalds and other American companies and think Cuba is no longer an independent country. I don’t want Cuba to become just a country like all the others.”

Published at Generation Progress. Photo: the American flag flies at the US Embassy in Havana, August 14th 2015.

The Five Century War in Honduras

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From Spanish invaders to US imperialists, the Honduran struggle for self-determination has found enemies at every turn. Photo: the hills of Río Blanco, in the western Honduran mountains that have seen land conflicts across five centuries.

The Lenca people say the spirits of children inhabit the Gualcarque River. The kids probably wouldn’t be pleased with a hydroelectric dam.

The river is sacred to the Río Blanco community of indigenous Lencas in western Honduras, and an important source of water. It’s also the proposed site of the Honduran DESA Corporation’s Agua Zarca dam. Fearing displacement, the people of Río Blanco have vociferously opposed the dam for years, even as DESA established itself on contested land. But when DESA posted security guards and “No Trespassing” signs along the river in spring 2013, residents took matters into their own hands.

The morning of April 1, 2013, community members gathered at a high point of DESA’s access road, the area’s wide blue skies and rolling forest-green hills on display. There they formed a human blockade, dug a trench big enough to sink a truck tire, and built a fence across the road with sticks and thick metal cable.

Tense months followed. Supporters of the dam brandished machetes at opponents and made verbal threats. Honduran National Police made multiple attempts to evict the protesters. A protester’s coffee crop was burned. Hoping to put an end to the tensions, several hundred community members marched down to DESA’s riverside headquarters on July 15 to reiterate their opposition to the project.

“There was a soldier there who may have been nervous,” one Río Blanco resident told me last year.

Near the head of the community group was Tomas García, a forty-nine-year-old father of seven. As they approached, Honduran army Sergeant Kevin Jasser Sarabia, stationed outside the DESA offices, began firing shots into the air. Witnesses say García made clear the group’s desire to have a peaceful conversation. Jasser must have thought otherwise when he lowered his weapon and fired several shots, killing García and wounding his seventeen-year-old son.

Blood for Land

The people of Río Blanco are fighting a long fight.

“Five hundred years ago, when the Spanish came, they also deceived us,” says Francisco Javier Sánchez, president of the Río Blanco Indigenous Council. “The same thing is happening today as five hundred years ago. Our dear Honduras is a very rich country. When they come to take advantage of it, they come to take the little bit that we have left.”

Hondurans living on rich lands have faced violence and displacement for centuries, as Spanish colonizers sought gold and American banana barons sought profit. Today, a new wave of bloodshed is sweeping Honduras as a domestic elite looks to increase its outsized share of the nation’s wealth. It has claimed over one hundred lives since 2009. But if it’s a war, it’s a one-sided one, with the violence directed mostly at subsistence farmers who oppose land grabs for agribusiness, mining, or hydroelectric projects.

Read the rest at Jacobin.

America’s Cuba: US Hostility Toward the Island Was Never Really About the Cold War

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Havana streets, 2010.

President Barack Obama announced on December 17th that the United States would begin normalizing relations with Cuba. Both governments agreed to a prisoner swap: Cuba released imprisoned USAID contractor Alan Gross and a US intelligence operative, while the United States released three Cuban intelligence agents arrested in the 1990s while spying on militant Cuban exile groups. The countries will begin talks with the goal of opening embassies, Obama will ease travel and financial restrictions for American citizens, and Cuba will release a group of detainees that the US has designated political prisoners. The US trade embargo remains in place, and requires Congressional action to repeal.

“U.S. to Restore Full Relations With Cuba, Erasing a Last Trace of Cold War Hostility,” the New York Times proclaimed. The notion that the US embargo is a Cold War relic that has outlived its usefulness has long been a common assertion among American critics of Cuba policy. Democratic Senators, the editor of The Nation, progressive NGOs, and even Forbes columnists and the Cato Institute have framed the conflict in these terms.

US-Cuban relations have undoubtedly been shaped by the Cold War, but the narrative of Cold War conflict between the two countries is a historically dubious rendering, obfuscating a long record of US intervention in Cuba and the rest of Latin America.

The United States immediately recognized Fidel Castro’s revolutionary government when it took power in January 1959. We all know that the amity didn’t last long, but US telling often misconstrues how the United States and Cuba became enemies.

In May 1959, Castro unveiled the revolution’s land reform program, which called for breaking up holdings larger than 1,000 acres and distributing them to small farmers. It also specified that only Cubans would be allowed to own land, and promised compensation for confiscated territory.

In an era of worldwide land reform this was hardly radical, but US officials perceived the move as a threat to the vast property owned by American companies in Cuba. According to historian Richard Gott, a June 1959 meeting of the National Security Council concluded that Castro couldn’t be allowed to stay in power. By October, the CIA had drafted a program that “authorized us to support elements in Cuba opposed to the Castro government, while making Castro’s downfall seem to be the result of his own mistakes.” The Eisenhower administration began plotting with Cuban exiles in Florida.

Cuba had no diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union at this point, and wouldn’t until May 1960. In July 1960, hoping to deal an economic blow to the Cuban Revolution, Eisenhower declined to purchase 700,000 tons of Cuban sugar. The Soviet Union offered to buy it. In August, Cuba nationalized all American property on the island; the US embargo began in November.

US-Cuban relations declined further, to put it mildly, when US-trained Cuban exiles invaded the Bay of Pigs in 1961. In 1962, Castro asked the USSR for support that would guarantee that any US attack “would mean a war not only with Cuba.” According to Gott’s telling, he envisioned a military defense pact; the Soviets suggested nuclear missiles. The decision was made that summer, and the world narrowly avoided nuclear war in October.

In the United States, events like the Bay of Pigs invasion are typically portrayed as reactions to Cuban instigation, but the chronology belies this framing. In fact, the causality runs in almost exactly the opposite direction: US hostility wasn’t a response to Cuba’s Communist ties; Cuba’s Communist ties were a response to US hostility.

That hostility didn’t start in 1959, either. In his book “Cuba in the American Imagination,” historian Louis A. Pérez Jr. argues that from the early years of US history, American leaders saw themselves as the rightful stewards of Cuban territory, and their understandings of Cuba formed an ethos that has shaped policy toward the island ever since. Pérez quotes US Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, who in 1823 called Cuba a “natural appendage” of the United States. Adams went on to claim:

There are laws of political as well as of physical gravitation; and if an apple, severed by the tempest from its native tree, cannot choose but fall to the ground, Cuba, forcibly disjoined from its own unnatural connexion with Spain, and incapable of self-support, can gravitate only towards the North American Union, which, by the same law of nature, cannot cast her off from its bosom.

The US saw its chance to bring that apple to its bosom during the war for Cuban independence in 1898, when Cuban rebels were beginning to gain the upper hand against Spanish troops. The United States declared war on Spain and quickly crushed the fading colonial power. The emerging superpower then claimed Cuba for itself, forcing the infamous Platt Amendment into Cuba’s new constitution. The law gave the US the right to intervene militarily in Cuban affairs, control the nation’s finances, and approve or veto its treaties with other countries.

In 1906, the Chicago Tribune wrote, “The possession of Cuba has been the dream of American statesmen ever since our government was organized. […] We have as righteous a claim to it as the people who are now occupying it.” Leonard Wood, the general who governed the island under US occupation, said that the United States “must always control the destinies of Cuba.”

And for a while, it did. By 1923, American troops had been dispatched on three separate occasions to quell rebellions. Havana became a haven for American mob bosses and a Vegas-like den of sin for American tourists. A former ambassador to Cuba told Congress in 1960 that “The United States, until the advent of Castro, was so overwhelmingly influential in Cuba that … the American Ambassador was the second most important man in Cuba; sometimes even more important than the President.”

Castro and his revolutionaries considered themselves responsible for ending the humiliation of such a hollow independence. The land reform that so riled the United States seemed a fitting way to start making Cuban sovereignty real. According to Pérez, as Castro began to introduce other redistributive policies, American officials were mystified, incapable of understanding the Cuban leader’s public grievances about US neocolonialism. How could they have understood? Pérez writes:

Americans rarely engaged the Cuban reality on its own terms or as a condition possessed of an internal logic, or Cubans as a people possessed of an interior history or as a nation possessed of an inner-directed destiny. It has always been thus between the United States and Cuba.

The “Cold War” rhetoric obscures this long history of domination and frustrated independence. (It also underhandedly implies that the pain inflicted upon the Cuban people—by US invasion, support for counterrevolutionary insurgents, and the continuing trade embargo—was permissible in a Cold War context.)

More importantly, the Cold War framing ignores the fact that we’ve never needed the Cold War to justify overthrowing governments, in Cuba or elsewhere. We’re doing fine without it: Our government has at least tacitly supported coups in Venezuela in 2002, Haiti in 2004, and Honduras in 2009.

It remains to be seen exactly how Obama’s announcement this week will impact the long fight between US and Cuba. Is Obama conceding defeat in the long effort to dismantle the Cuban Revolution though, or merely searching for more effective means? One Cuba expert on Democracy Now! on Thursday speculated whether the President is “buying into the idea if we flood more money into Cuba, maybe we’ll be able to subvert the fundamental values of the revolution.” US officials have also said that USAID “democracy promotion” efforts to undermine the Cuban government will continue. But even as the two nations remain rivals, Obama’s normalization of relations might finally be an acknowledgement of that “inner-directed destiny” that we have denied Cubans for so long.

Published at Counterpunch.