Cuba Sí! Decades of Failed Foreign Policy Come to an End

by on December 18, 2014 · 5 comments

in American Empire, History, Politics, World News

Cuba mapBy Doug Porter

A mutual release of prisoners Wednesday, Dec. 17, marks beginning of the end of the United States embargo against the island nation of Cuba. Cuba released jailed American Alan Gross along with an unnamed non-American intelligence ‘asset.’ The US released three Cubans accused of running a spy operation in the South Florida expatriate community.

The Associated Press reports the two governments are starting talks on normalizing full diplomatic relations; trade and banking ties are will be at the top of the agenda. Observers expect each country to attempt to open embassies in each other’s capitals during 2015.

While these actions are not part of any overall shift in US foreign policy, the repercussions throughout the hemisphere will be reminiscent of the establishment of normalized relations with China in the 1970’s. It’s a big deal. A really big deal.

From the New York Times:

In a deal negotiated during 18 months of secret talks hosted largely by Canada and encouraged by Pope Francis, who hosted a final meeting at the Vatican, President Obama and President Raúl Castro of Cuba agreed in a telephone call to put aside decades of hostility to find a new relationship between the United States and the island nation just 90 minutes off the American coast….

….the United States will ease restrictions on remittances, travel and banking relations, and Cuba will release 53 Cuban prisoners identified as political prisoners by the United States government. Although the decades-old American embargo on Cuba will remain in place for now, the administration signaled that it would welcome a move by Congress to ease or lift it should lawmakers choose to.

For a little late 20th century historical perspective, I’ll turn to a source not normally seen in this space, The American Conservative:

map of cuba oldThe embargo was originally conceived in a 1960 State Department memorandum as a way to deny “money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government.” It failed. So did an amphibious invasion by exiles in 1961 at the Bay of Pigs; President Kennedy’s Operation Mongoose, a campaign of propaganda and sabotage; and the CIA’s attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro.

With Cuba in economic crisis after the fall of the Soviet Union, we tightened the embargo in 1992 and 1996 in the hope that new, targeted pressures would push Havana over the brink. A decade later, based on the same hope, President George W. Bush tried more systematically than any President to stem flows of hard currency to Cuba, even strictly limiting family visits and remittances. He named a “Cuba Transition Coordinator” in the State Department for a transition that his policies failed to produce, and the post has since been abolished.

President Obama has continued most of the Bush policies, including amateur-hour covert operations run by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). One resulted in the 2009 jailing of U.S. contractor Alan Gross as he set up satellite Internet systems with WiFi hotspots in Havana and beyond. Another established a short-lived Twitter-like service for Cuban cell phone users, using polls to collect data on their political views for later use in political mobilization.

Here’s the longer view of US-Cuba relations as expressed by Salim Lamrani, La Sorbonne University, Paris:

As far back as October 20, 1805, Thomas Jefferson evoked the extreme importance of the Caribbean archipelago under Spanish rule at the time ­ stating: “The control which, with Florida Point, this island would give us over the Gulf of Mexico, and the countries and isthmus bordering on it, as well as all those whose waters flow into it, would fill up the measure of our political well-being.” However, Spain could rule the island until “our people is sufficiently advanced to take those territories from the Spanish, bit by bit” .

In 1809, in a letter to James Madison, he wrote: “I candidly confess that I have ever looked on Cuba as the most interesting addition which could ever be made to our system of States.”

useagleUS intervention in Cuba over the next 150 years became a routine affair. Prior to the Civil War, Southern interests attempted to have the U.S. purchase Cuba and make it new slave territory. The Cubans were excluded from negotiations about the future of their country following the US invasion of 1898, even though their army had done much of the work in defeating the Spanish.

Cubans who’d looked northward and were inspired were crushed with passage of the Platt Amendment, which gave the island “self-governing” colonial status. The US retained the right to intervene militarily as needed. And voting rights were limited to to literate, adult, male Cubans with property worth $250 or more, largely resulting in exclusion of the Afro-Cuban population from participation.

The United States military intervened Cuba in 1912, 1917 and 1933. Before the 1959 revolution, US companies owned 80% of services, mines, ranches and oil refineries, 40% of the sugar industry and 50% of railways. So it’s little wonder that the 1959 revolution didn’t look northward for inspiration.

Ending The Embargo

cuba_colorThe United Nations General Assembly has passed a resolution every year for the past 22 years criticizing the ongoing impact of the embargo, with Israel being the only country that routinely joins the US in voting against the resolution. Over 190 nations have ignored the embargo in recent years, making it effectively nothing more than a relic of the Cold War.

Moisés Naím, Distinguished Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, nailed the ridiculousness of the situation with a 2009 column in Newsweek, saying:

The embargo is the perfect example used by anti-Americans everywhere to expose the hypocrisy of a superpower that punishes a small island while cozying to dictators elsewhere.

It will be interesting to watch Congress stumble through the process of ending the embargo. A small group of rabidly anti-communist exiles has effectively blocked normalization of relations for decades now. The question will now be whether the economic possibilities of opening Cuba to trade will trump ideological rigidity.

GOP presidential wannabe Senator Marco Rubio was quoted by the Associated Press:

“This is going to do absolutely nothing to further human rights and democracy in Cuba. But it potentially goes a long way in providing the economic lift that the Castro regime needs to become permanent fixtures in Cuba for generations to come.”

The Cuba Headlines website, based out of Havana, commented:

The humanitarian release is just the beginning of a promised new relationship with Cuba. The White House is indicating the beginning of new talks on everything from travel restrictions to eventual lifting of the Cuban embargo in place since John F. Kennedy was President.

In an interview last week with Jorge Ramos for Fusion — a sister network to ABC News — President Obama said: “We’ve been in conversations about how we can get Alan Gross home for quite some time.”

Hip Hop Diplomacy Gaffe

Cuba screen shotThe first steps toward normalization of relations between the countries comes on the heels of an embarrassing disclosure last week about US efforts to infiltrate the island nation’s burgeoning Hip Hop scene.

From Huffington Post:

On at least six occasions, Cuban authorities detained or interrogated people involved in the program; they also confiscated computer hardware that in some cases contained information that jeopardized Cubans who likely had no idea they were caught up in a clandestine U.S. operation. Still, contractors working for the U.S. Agency for International Development kept putting themselves and their targets at risk, the AP investigation found.

Hip-hop artists who USAID contractors tried to promote either left the country or stopped performing after pressure from the Cuban government, and one of the island’s most popular independent music festivals was taken over after officials linked it to USAID.

The Caribbean Economy

cuba tourismNowhere will the normalization of relations with Cuba be felt more than among the other Caribbean islands. The natural resources of Cuba and its large amount of arable land have the potential to make it an economic powerhouse in the region.

The question of where Cuba’s economy goes in the coming decades looms large. Its proximity to mainland North America could serve to disrupt economies on smaller islands that are almost entirely dependent on tourism.

And then there’s the myth of Cuba. Despite the sanctions, its hit or miss experiments with the economy and the economic collapse of its Soviet sponsors there is much to admire about the country. It’s health care system and literacy rate (100%) are top notch. According to the World Health Organization, Cuba provides a doctor for every 170 residents, and has the second highest doctor-to-patient ratio in the world after Italy.

Cubans are a proud people who’ve done remarkably well in the face of adversity. With many US corporate interests poised to involve themselves on the island, I can only hope they’ll stand up to this latest challenge, keeping their amazing culture alive in the face of an iPod invasion.

The White House Statement

Here are the opening paragraphs of the White House announcement:

US-WhiteHouse-LogoToday, the United States is taking historic steps to chart a new course in our relations with Cuba and to further engage and empower the Cuban people. We are separated by 90 miles of water, but brought together through the relationships between the two million Cubans and Americans of Cuban descent that live in the United States, and the 11 million Cubans who share similar hopes for a more positive future for Cuba.

It is clear that decades of U.S. isolation of Cuba have failed to accomplish our enduring objective of promoting the emergence of a democratic, prosperous, and stable Cuba. At times, longstanding U.S. policy towards Cuba has isolated the United States from regional and international partners, constrained our ability to influence outcomes throughout the Western Hemisphere, and impaired the use of the full range of tools available to the United States to promote positive change in Cuba. Though this policy has been rooted in the best of intentions, it has had little effect – today, as in 1961, Cuba is governed by the Castros and the Communist party.

We cannot keep doing the same thing and expect a different result. It does not serve America’s interests, or the Cuban people, to try to push Cuba toward collapse. We know from hard-learned experience that it is better to encourage and support reform than to impose policies that will render a country a failed state. With our actions today, we are calling on Cuba to unleash the potential of 11 million Cubans by ending unnecessary restrictions on their political, social, and economic activities. In that spirit, we should not allow U.S. sanctions to add to the burden of Cuban citizens we seek to help.

Today, we are renewing our leadership in the Americas. We are choosing to cut loose the anchor of the past, because it is entirely necessary to reach a better future – for our national interests, for the American people, and for the Cuban people.


This is an excerpt of Doug Porter’s column at San Diego Free Press, our online media partner and prodigy.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Bearded OBcean December 18, 2014 at 2:06 pm

While the merits of the embargo are certainly debatable and can be argued persuasively from both sides, it’s a shame that Cuba has been offered this fig leaf without having to make any concessions of its own. As a result, its people will continue to live under the crushing weight of a now-legitimized totalitarianism. When US money flows into the island, does anyone rationally think the state won’t take a considerable chunk of any profits? As for health care, for medical tourists paying cash, it’s top notch care and facilities, as it is for the island’s elites. But if you aren’t in either class, you’d probably be better off at home then visiting one of the island’s hospitals designated for the masses. On the other hand, at least we can smoke some Cohibas legally.


Frank Gormlie December 20, 2014 at 9:53 am

Bearded one, not certain where you’ve received all this info about Cuba, probably from our reactionary media and press who’ve never liked anything Cuban, ‘cept cigars and those extremists in South Florida.

Cuba experienced one of the first true revolutions in this hemisphere, overthrowing the corrupt Batista regime, which had been propped up by US corporations, the mafia and everybody in between.

For the first time in many years, ordinary Cubans had access to education and health care. Today, more Cubans are educated than in any other South American country.

Cubans showed the world that dirt-poor people can overthrow a militaristic dictatorship. Fidel Castro is/ was a political genius and helped provide the guidance for this experience. One thing he didn’t get however is the process of providing new leadership. But Castro was the George Washington of the Cuban revolution, and like “our” George, he couldn’t get everything right. But he needs to be respected for the role he played over the last half century.


Bearded OBcean December 22, 2014 at 7:41 am

We actually have a very sympathetic media as it regards Cuba. Celebrities have visited the island for years extolling the virtues of the island. What’s the point of education when the government doesn’t allow a worker to earn more than $20 a month? Foreign companies open in Cuba and must first pay the local employees’ wages to the government, which generally takes an 80% cut off the top prior to releasing the wage to the worker.

Kind of funny that your little old media enterprise, as alive and important as there is on the coast here in SoCal, would be shut down and you all would be tossed in jail if you bothered to print an opinion that wasn’t state sanctioned/sponsored. Should free speech really be a luxury for Cubans?


Frank Gormlie December 22, 2014 at 9:24 am

Oh, I know, we sure don’t have any press censorship in good ol’ US of A and especially here in paradise with our open press called the U-T San Diego.


doug porter December 20, 2014 at 10:09 am

Since I’ve seen so much BS in the media about Cuba over the past few days, here’s some other myths exploded in the above-mentioned article at the American Conservative:

Barack Obama is the 11th U.S. president to face socialist Cuba. But he is the first who can see the next generation of Cuban leadership on the horizon, with Raul Castro committed to end his presidency in 2018. And he is the first to see a Cuba embarked on a wrenching process of internal change that is opening the economy, expanding personal autonomy, and even increasing some civil and economic liberties. Obama has a strategic opportunity afforded to none of his predecessors: to change U.S. policy in ways that complement positive changes in Cuba, enhancing the impact of Cuba’s reforms and encouraging further change ahead.

Ten years ago, Cuban citizens could not travel abroad without a government exit permit. Cell phones were available to officials, foreign businessmen, and tourists, but not average Cubans. Hotels and resorts were reserved for foreigners only. Computers were not for sale, only components. Cubans could only sell cars of 1959 or earlier vintage. Home sales were illegal even though 85 percent of Cuban families hold title to their homes. And an unannounced policy capped the number of licenses to engage in private business at about 150,000.

All those prohibitions are gone today.

Cubans are traveling wherever they can get a visa, and the United States granted 19,500 visitor visas in the first half of this year. Cuban dissidents now visit Washington, Miami, and European capitals regularly—then they return home and travel again. Private brokers and online listing services are sorting out supply and demand in a new residential real estate market. Internet connectivity remains limited and expensive, but it is improving and 1.9 million Cubans—more than one-fifth of the adult population—now have cell phones, some now with access to e-mail.

New economic policies have led to an explosion of small enterprise, where nearly half a million Cubans—triple the number of four years ago—are working in service businesses of all kinds. Larger private businesses, legally organized as cooperatives, are emerging; some of the 600 in operation are state enterprises that have been turned over to their workers, while others are start-ups that began with citizen applications. Market-based agriculture has expanded with land grants to 170,000 private farmers and cooperatives, and the agriculture bureaucracy is being pared back gradually. The government has trimmed its payroll by 650,000 workers, and ultimately expects 45 percent of the workforce to be occupied in the private sector. A new foreign investment law was approved last March, and the courtship of potential investors is under way.


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