What is it about Cuba?
Obama’s awkward moment with Raul Castro was the capstone to an awkward visit. Our entire relationship with the island has been awkward.
Most Americans don’t realize that our history with Cuba dates to the mid-nineteenth century. It isn’t a pleasant one.
Cuba was one of the last remaining Spanish colonies, a poor island caught up in the aftermath of the Age of Discovery when Spain ruled the world. Its culture was built on strongman Spanish governors and large plantation agriculture. Vast natural resources made it a target for American expansionists and its slave labor and proximity with Florida led many Southerners to covet annexing it to the United States.
There was significant interest in Cuba during the Mexican War of 1848. President James K. Polk discussed the possibility of annexation and thought that $100 million could pry it loose from Spain.
Just six years later, three American ministers drafted the Ostend Manifesto which advocated military action if Spain refused to sell the island to the United States. Such a proposal met the instant consternation of Northern politicians who feared the “slave power” was at work to strengthen its position in the United States Congress.
All the while, Cuba was rife with opposition to imperial control. When in the late nineteenth century the Cuban population rebelled against Spanish rule, the harsh response from the Spanish government led American journalists to write vibrant editorials focusing on the terrible conditions in Cuban concentration camps.
America was the good guy coming to the aid of the Cuban people. The Spanish gave in to American demands for reform and things calmed down. Only the Cuban people still wanted the Spanish out.
Then came the Spanish American War. In February 1898, the U.S.S. Maine exploded in Havana Harbor killing everyone on board. No one claimed responsibility and recent evidence has shown that it was an accident, but everyone suspected the Spanish, particularly when just a few days earlier an intercepted letter from Spanish minister Enrique Dupuy de Lome lambasted President William McKinley and openly criticized his policies. This was the perfect opportunity for the United States to finally wrestle Cuba away from Spain. The “splendid little war” did just that, and by December 1898, Cuba was under American control.
Things did not go as planned for the native Cuban population. The American “liberators” who only planted their flag on Cuban soil for “humanity’s sake” quickly refused to give the island back to the Cuban people. When that finally happened, the United States demanded that the Cuban constitution contain something called the Platt Amendment, named after Senator Orville Platt from Connecticut. Cuba would be a virtual protectorate of the United States government.
It remained so for the next sixty years. In that time, Cuba endured one military strongman after another. The cultural legacy of Spanish occupation never ended, and Cuba seemed destined to remain under the thumb of a dictator. The United States, of course, benefitted from this arrangement. American tourists flocked to Cuba’s resorts and the American mob made millions on Cuban gambling and prostitution.
This is what made the rise of Fidel Castro in 1959 less surprising than what the United States government led the American people to believe. Castro was just another strongman, but one who resented American influence in the island for the last half-century, particularly when the United States supported the cancelling of elections in 1952, elections that would have brought Castro some political power.
This was blowback.
Most Americans are only familiar with the tense years after Castro’s rise to power: the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the severing of diplomatic ties, and the embargo against Cuba. What most people don’t know is that Cuba continued to have good relations with the United States until 1960 and maintains ties to other Western powers to this day. China has long been interested in the island. Cuba is poor not because of the embargo; Cuba is poor because of communism and strongman policies from the Castro regime.
Did the United States make its own bed in Cuba? Partly. American foreign policy has created animosity on the island. But the Cuban people have become accustomed to heavy handed thugs. It is in their political DNA. Cuba, like the Middle East, may not be suited for Western style government. Obama has sheepishly bought into Cuban propaganda. He should have railed against communism, military dictatorships, and its impact on the Cuban people. Instead he posed in front of a Soviet style building with an image of Che Guevara emblazoned on front. This was a missed opportunity.
Who couldn’t have seen that coming?
When Castro raised Obama’s arm in the air as Obama went for a hug, it was clear the tail was wagging the dog, and that tail is red.
Cuba won’t benefit from American economic interest because the Cuban government will smother real change.
But hey, we may get Cuban cigars back. Too bad the FDA will regulate them out of existence.