Cuban society has been an experimental laboratory... If one set of policies became problematic, the Cubans moved in different directions. Usually change came after heated debate at all levels of society. (Harry Targ, Cuba and the USA: A New World Order? International Publishers, 1992, 6)
The predominant image projected about Cuba from U.S. official government sources and the media has not changed much over the last two hundred and fifty years. Ever since the founding of the United States, Cuba has been seen as a victimized land populated by masses eager to break away from Spanish colonial control preferably to affiliate with the United States. Early American political figures such as Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams proclaimed that the United States was willing and able to appropriate the island nation when the Spanish were ready to leave the Caribbean. In the antebellum period, Southern politicians urged that Cuba be incorporated into the slave South.
In the period before the Spanish/Cuban/American War of 1898, the images of the U.S. obligation to the Cuban people presented in newspapers and theaters likened the former to a masculine hero compelled to rescue Cuba, characterized as a damsel in distress. The brutal Spanish were figuratively raping the Cuban women. At the same time Afro-Cuban men, the narrative suggested, were unable to liberate their people. Consequently, the United States, it was broadly proclaimed, must act on behalf of the Cuban people.
After the Spanish/American/Cuban War the U.S. generals and diplomats wrote the Cuban constitution in negotiations with the departing Spanish and hand-picked Cuban leaders. Over the next sixty years the floodgates were opened for ever larger investments in U.S. owned sugar plantations. After World War II, the U.S. domination of the Cuban economy expanded to include tourism, casinos, and gangsters. In every epoch, a popular story about the U.S./Cuban relationship depicted a stern but wise parent necessarily overseeing an energetic and passionate, but immature, child.
But then the long revolutionary struggle of the 1950s achieved victory and the narrative changed. The ungrateful Cubans followed the treacherous new leaders: Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and a grassroots movement of peasants, workers, students, women, Afro-Cubans, and solidarity workers from across the globe. As the U.S. government and the dominant media saw it the revolution meant nothing but trouble: communism; crazy ideas about free health care and education; great debates about moral versus material incentives that even found their way into work sites; the export of medical expertise; and sometimes the provision of soldiers to help anti-colonial struggles. It was all bad news for almost sixty years.
Despite the best efforts of the United States to derail the trajectory of Cuban society, the Cuban revolution survived. Now, wiser heads in Washington have decided that economic blockades, internal subversion, assassination plots, and efforts to isolate Cuba from the international community were ineffective. It was time for a new policy: normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba. Official spokespersons suggested and media outlets declared that the best way to help the Cuban people recover from their sixty years of pain and suffering is to establish normal diplomatic and commercial ties with the island.
In a recent essay in USA Today, “Cubans Are Still Waiting for the Thaw,” Alan Gomez argues that Cubans are getting impatient with the pace of change that has occurred since December, 2014, when Presidents Castro and Obama announced the opening of relations. He quotes a Cuban economist who says that because relations with the United States are critical to a small country like Cuba, the latter wants to be careful not to make any mistakes in developing new policies.
But Gomez suggests the Cubans are restless. He reminds the reader that Americans were very frustrated with the stagnation of the U.S. economy during the recent recession. But just imagine he poses:
… going through that kind of economic malaise for more than half a century. So when they’re told that the end is near, that the Americans and their money are coming to save them, you can’t blame them for getting antsy as they look over the horizon (USA Today, April 23, 2015).
Chutzpah is a Yiddish word that means audacity or nerve. Usually it refers to statements made that are so outlandish that they defy the imagination. This statement, suggesting that Cubans have been waiting for sixty years for the Americans to come with their ideology of possessive individualism, markets, support for big corporations, and the promotion of consumerism, ranks among the great expressions of chutzpah in our time. It ignores the beacon of hope, the inspiration, the material progress in health care, education, culture, and work place experimentation in the relations of production, which makes Cuba an actor many times bigger in the eyes of the world than its size.
In the end, a real transformation of United States/Cuban relations will require a fundamental change in the American consciousness such that it respects the qualities of both countries, not the superiority of one over the other.