Last week President Obama relaxed the previous restrictions on Cuban-Americans returning to their native land to visit their families. He also eased telephone communications between the two countries. Over the weekend, at the summit of the Organization of American States bringing together all the heads of governments in the hemisphere—except Cuba-- President Obama reached out to President Chavez of Venezuela and signaled that he wanted to try for better communication with Cuba.
For more than 50 years, successive US government have been more or less hostile to Cuba. There have been some thaws before, but the embargo on Cuba has been in existence since the early 1960's. US companies have been forbidden to do business in Cuba and in periods of heightened anti-Cuban sentiment, the US also attempted to force European businesses to refrain from doing business in Cuba.
US hostility to Cuba has at least three different sources: The Cuban government is in the hands of the Communist party of Cuba. Even before Fidel Castro himself declared himself to be a Communist, American observers called him one. Secondly, the Cuban government, American politicians say, is not elected democratically. Although Cuba does hold elections, there is only one party and the electoral procedures are quite different from our electoral system. Finally, the US has always regarded Cuba as our own, or in our sphere of interest and influence.
From 1934 on Cuba was ruled directly, or indirectly, by General Fulgencio Batista, a violent dictator, friend of underworld criminals who made Havana into a paradise of gambling, prostitution, and illegal drug traffic, with generous kick-backs to Batista and his cronies. In the early fifties, Fidel Castro mounted an attack on Batista but failed. In the late fifties, a second attack succeeded and Batista fled. The US government had supported Batista until it became evident that his regime had come to an end.
The first wave of Cuban immigrants to the US(1959–62) consisted of Cuba’s elite: executives and owners of firms, big merchants, sugar mill owners, cattlemen, representatives of foreign companies, and professionals. They left Cuba when the revolution overturned the old social order through measures such as the nationalization of American industry and agrarian reform laws, as well as through the United States’ severance of diplomatic and economic ties with Cuba. In the US they have had a significant influence on domestic US politics, especially policies concerned with Cuba and Latin America. Together with the CIA, they have hatched a long series of failed plots against Fidel Castro including exploding cigars and similar attempts that could only have been invented by script writers for James Bond movies. Some people claim to have counted 638 assassination attempts. There have also been various attempted invasions of Cuba, all of which failed miserably.
Batista was hated by most Cubans the majority of whom were poor; they supported Castro and his young rebels. They were not troubled by Castro's left-wing politics and leaning to Communism. But to the US, at the beginning of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, his leftism made Castro unacceptable. Recall that in the 50ties America was in the midst of a hysterical hunt for communists, with politicians holding hearings looking for communists, state governments and private employers demanding that their employees swear loyalty to the US or lose their job. Led by the sleazy Senator McCarthy, the hunt for communists in the government and private employ made the 1950s one of the dark periods for freedom and civil liberties in the US. With that climate at home, a Latin leader who leaned towards communism needed to be overthrown.
Then and now, many leaders in the have US justified the embargo against Cuba by saying that Cuba is not a democracy. But why then did our government amply support the dictator Batista for 25 years? The persons most hostile to Castro--American conservatives—had no problems with the dictator Batista. Our commitment to democracy in Latin America is very weak.
During the years that we tried to subvert the Cuban government by prohibiting trade with Cuba and foreign investment in the country, we fomented military takeovers in several Latin American countries where the people had elected leftist leaders who promised to redistribute land, to use the country's resources to benefit the large masses of poor people and who threatened the huge profits made by US companies. In 1954 the people of Guatemala elected Jacobo Arbenz, an avowed leftist. The CIA fomented a successful military uprising that cost the lives of many opponents of the military. In neighboring Nicaragua, the US Marines, who had occupied the country between 1912 and 1936, established Somoza as dictator; the US supported him and his son until their overthrow by the Sandinistas in 1979. President Reagan then waged a covert war against the Sandinistas. In Haiti we supported the Duvaliers—father and son-- as dictators from 1957 to 1986. The Dominican Republic was under the thumb of dictator Rafael Trujillo for many years with full and open support of the US government. In 1972, the Chilean people elected Salvador Allende, an avowed socialist, in a free democratic election. The CIA managed to have him overthrown by the military under the leadership of Augusto Pinochet. Hundreds of thousands of Chilean died in the repression that followed. The list of US sponsored dictators who overthrew of legitimately elected governments is still longer.
The US has been bitterly hostile to Cuba and Fidel Castro for 50 years or more because theirs' is not a democratic government. But at the same time, the US government has been supportive of one brutal military dictator after another and has helped them to get rid of democratically elected leaders.
We can understand that puzzle once we recognize that Cuba—and the same is true in many other Latin American countries—was at one time largely owned by US companies. In 1958, US interests controlled 80% of Cuba’s railroads and 90% of its electrical and telephone services. Ian Chadwick's history of US-Cuban relations summarizes the situation as follows:
“In January of 1960, Cuba expropriated 70,000 acres of property owned by US sugar companies, including 35,000 acres owned by United Fruit Company (UFC owned approximately 235,000 acres more). United Fruit (later United Brands and Chiquita Brands) was a powerful organization with strong ties in the US administration and the CIA. The UFC was instrumental in overthrowing the elected Arbenz government in Guatemala, in 1954. US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was both a stockholder and longtime legal adviser for the company. He prepared contracts in 1930 and 1936 between UFC and the Ubico dictatorship in Guatemala. Allen W. Dulles, his brother and director of the CIA, was once president of the company. UN Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge was a member of its board of directors. Walter Bedell Smith, head of the CIA before Dulles, became president of United Fruit after the overthrow of Arbenz.”
Latin America, in general, and Cuba, in particular, was a fertile ground for US investment and super profits for US companies. The populations of Latin American countries toiled for US companies; huge profits were sent back to the US while working populations remained mired in poverty, ill health, poor education, without prospects for improving their lot. No wonder that they voted again and again—the few times they got a chance to vote—for left wing candidates who promised to limit the sway of foreign investors in order to improve the lot of the local people. But US leaders, deeply involved in sucking profits out of Latin America, managed to maintain the power of their companies by sponsoring local strong men to protect the foreign investors and profits.
Against this background of US exploitation of Latin America, maintained through a string of right wing military dictators, the sometimes hysterical enmity towards Fidel Castro becomes intelligible. Cuba—whatever its faults and short comings—has turned its energies toward making life better for ordinary Cubans in spite of 50 years of US efforts to damage its economy and its government. Cubans have better medical services than almost everyone else in Latin America—and many people in the US. Cubans are better educated than many other Latin Americans and many people in the US. Most important of all, Cuba has refused to submit to US bullying. It has exposed the real reasons behind US opposition to its way of running its country-- the threat to US investments in Latin America and the super profits made by US companies to the detriment of large masses of terribly poor people who must struggle daily to stay alive.
President Obama seems committed to a more civil and less macho foreign policy than his predecessor. But his attempt at a balanced foreign policy will try to do justice to all sides—to American businesses in Latin America and to the just demands of large masses of the poor. It is not clear today how this balancing act with turn. After all the basic mission of the US government remains unchanged: to make the world safe for US investments and profits without regard to the men and women whose work produces those profits.