President Donald Trump recently attended Miami’s Little Havana area, the heart of the Cuban-American émigré community, making a speech in which he renounced Barack Obama’s “terrible and misguided” efforts to normalise relations with Cuba. This effectively signals a redoubling of the past’s coercive diplomatic and economic strategies. During the Cold War, the US developed a punitive sanctions regime and economic embargo against Cuba – one which has been justified variously as a response to the forced nationalisation of American-owned property in Cuba, to Fidel Castro’s alignment with the Soviet Union, to alleged Cuban sponsorship of terrorism, and to human rights abuses under the Castro regime. It is the longest-running set of US sanctions, costing Cuba an estimated $126 billion; it has been condemned by the UN General Assembly every year since 1992 and opposed even by key NGOs critical of the Castro regime such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Yet the harsh strategy has been supported by the eldest, most anti-communist generation of Cuban exiles – those who fled from or were forced out of Cuba during or after the Revolution, many of them losing their assets. Trump’s policy, the exact details of which are yet to be established, is a nod to this politically influential constituency. Unfortunately, it is also astoundingly hypocritical (for a start, Trump’s friendliness towards far crueller dictators has been noted) and will almost certainly strengthen Cuban support for the Revolutionary state – as some historical context can show us. Many passive supporters of the embargo view Cuba simplistically as a Stalinist, dictatorship whose destitute population will gladly throw off their shackles when given the chance. This overlooks the potent dynamic of patriotism and pride in “the Revolution” one can find in Cuba: far from being construed as an emancipatory policy, the embargo is interpreted as a cruel imperialist punishment inflicted at the behest of the most reactionary of the Cuban exiles.
American coercion of Cuba is as old as Cuba itself. Renowned Cuba historian Louis A. Pérez Jr. understands Cuba as the “obsessive compulsive disorder” of the United States. For years, mainlanders have sought to control the island and shape its destiny in line with their designs. In his writings, Pérez has elucidated in detail this historical desire to curtail Cuba’s sovereignty. In the nineteenth century, Americans sought to maintain slavery in Cuba for fear of having a Black republic, along the lines of Haiti or Jamaica, so close to the American South. Later, at the turn of the century, during Cuba’s struggle for independence from Spain, the US intervened late (and unnecessarily) on the side of the freedom fighters only to impose their own agenda by inserting the Platt Amendment into the new state’s constitution. These clauses gave the United States the right to intervene in Cuban affairs where necessary to preserve “life, property, and individual liberty” – or, at least, the American definition of them. The Cuban historian Luis Aguilar (a former classmate of Fidel Castro, and eventual revolutionary exile) described this as establishing a “protected republic” status. Some Cubans developed a “Plattist mentality”, valuing the supposed guarantee of stability, but for others, all the way down to Fidel Castro, who called it a “pseudo-republic”, this was a betrayal of the independence dream.
There is very little to suggest that Washington’s independence-era policy stemmed from an authentic concern for the Cuban people. As with their earlier endeavours to maintain slavery in Cuba, the US was committed to keeping Cuba firmly within their sphere of influence. This political relationship was expressed in other ways: mainland Americans came to express disdain for ‘little islanders’ who opposed their client status, while economically, the property rights now enshrined in the Cuban constitution allowed big capitalists from the mainland to easily buy up land and resources from the smaller local bourgeoisie. Next to this superpower, Cuba was the subject of peripheral capitalism. The promise to uphold liberty was also rendered spurious as Washington tolerated Cuba’s slide away from democracy. By the time of Castro’s mid-1950s guerrilla struggle, a US-backed military dictatorship ruled Cuba, with deep, dark links to both corporate America and also to the mafia – who were free to bribe officials and police and build a ‘vice economy’ in Cuba, providing gambling, prostitution, and drugs for visiting American businessmen. In a time of widening social inequality, these factors undoubtedly helped lay the foundations for the mass support that Castro and his guerrilla comrades in the Movimiento 26 de Julio (M-26-J) would come to receive for their struggle. Crucially, M-26-J expounded a doctrine of national sovereignty more influenced by nineteenth century independence fighter Jose Martí than by Karl Marx. Social problems were taken as evidence of the shortcomings of the “pseudo-republic” political settlement.
These facets of pre-revolutionary Cuban history are not new to Cubans; they form key foundations of the island’s public history and national mythology. As historian Richard Gott has explained, the Revolution is distinctly patriotic, understood as the overthrow of “yankee imperialism”, and various anthropologists (see Mona Rosendahl or Marina Gold, for example) have observed that, regardless of personal ambivalence to the current government and its officials, the idea of “the Revolution” has a pervasive emotional currency. In Cuba, the most famous revolutionary slogans are not “All power to the Soviets!” or “Workers of the world, unite!”, they are “¡patria o muerte, vencemos!” (fatherland or death, we will overcome!) and Che Guevara’s “¡hasta la victoria siempre!” (until victory, always!) – the determinedly patriotic rhetoric of a nation at war, rather than the crudely-imposed Marxist discourse one might have expected to find in the old Soviet bloc. National sovereignty is deeply intrinsic to Cuba’s political culture. Popular aspects of the Revolution, such as the provision of free education and healthcare, are tied to national self-determination, which is itself enshrined in cultural and discursive symbols – including Fidel Castro himself. The embargo policy amounts to the cruelly futile gesture of using coercion where the state’s legitimacy rests on resistance to foreign coercion.
Moreover, Cuba’s Soviet alignment, which developed during the 1960s, must be understood in terms of needing a strong ally against the US: it was at the end of 1961, after months of American bombings and a failed invasion (the ‘Bay of Pigs invasion’) launched by US-trained mercenaries, that Castro declared “I am a Marxist-Leninist”, forcing Moscow to lend its support. Trump’s declaration that the US “will not be silent in the face of communist oppression any more” may carry weight among the particular exiles to whom it was addressed, but the fact is that US hostility pushed Castro into Khrushchev’s arms. The most sanctioned of all the communist-aligned regimes has also become one of the most resilient. Terrorism against Cuba, including literal bomb attacks and shootings often perpetrated by Miami exiles with CIA-backing, has continued for decades, a guerra sucia (dirty war) which is inseparable from the economic warfare of the blockade in the minds of the Cuban people – a redoubling of that economic warfare will be taken as hostility, not emancipation. Fidel Castro, on trial for his guerrilla activities against the Batista military dictatorship, invoked Jose Martí and famously declared “¡la historia me absolverá!” (history will absolve me!). History simply does not absolve the embargo policy.