And yet Americans are more ignorant of the nature of the Cuban Revolution and U.S.-Cuban relations than are the people of almost any other country in the world. Except for those few Americans with access to a handful of liberal and radical publications the people of this country have been subjected to an unrelieved campaign of distortion, or outright slander of Fidel Castro and the revolution he leads. The determined hostility of American leaders to the Cuban Revolution, the implementation of a system of economic harassment, and the threat of military intervention, not only endanger the Cuban Revolution, but increase the tempo of the cold war at home and abroad (Editors, “The Cuban Revolution: The New Crisis in Cold War Ideology,” Studies on the Left, Volume 1, Number, 1960, 1).
This statement was published in the summer of 1960! Fifty-six years later the same assessment of the Cuban revolution is still widely believed in the United States, even by those who support the ending of United States hostility to the island nation.
The story of the Cuban revolution needs to be retold as we move ahead to establish a new United States/Cuban relationship.
Cuba was a colony of the Spanish for 400 years, an economic vassal of the British and the United States for more than 100 years, and a slave state from the fifteenth century to the end of the nineteenth century.
The domination of the island by foreigners, juxtaposed with a culture enriched by African roots (the indigenous people were largely obliterated by the Spanish), led to repeated efforts to resist colonialism before 1898 and neo-colonialism after that. Slaves, Afro/Cubans, and Spanish born landowners seeking freedom from the Spanish crown often rose up to overthrow the yoke of imperialism.
Cuban Revolutionaries, inspired by visionary poet Jose Marti, were on the verge of defeating Spanish colonialism in the 1890s. The United States sent armies to the island to defeat the Spanish and establish a puppet government to insure its economic and political control. To secure support for the war at home the American media and popular music were filled with images of Cuba as the “damsel in distress” and bungling Afro/Cuban revolutionaries. The dominant ideology of the United States, manifest destiny and white Christian duty, drove the argument for war on Spain.
After the 1898 war, the United States military, with the support of small numbers of compliant Cubans, created a government that would open the door completely for United States investments, commercial penetration, an externally-controlled tourist sector, and North American gangsters. The U.S. neo-colonial regime on the island stimulated pockets of economic development in a sea of human misery. Responding to grotesque economic suffering in the 1950s a band of revolutionaries (led by Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos, Celia Sanchez, and Haydee Santamaria) defeated the U.S. backed military regime of Fulgencio Batista.
The Cuban Revolution of 1959 began in the nineteenth century and was driven by 400 years of nationalism, a vision of democracy, and a passion for economic justice. This vision was articulated in Fidel Castro’s famous “History Will Absolve Me” speech presented before being sentenced to prison after a failed military action against Batista in 1953. He spoke of five goals of his revolution: returning power to the people; giving land to the people who work it; providing workers a significant share of profits from corporations; granting sugar planters a quota of the value of the crop they produce; and confiscating lands acquired through fraud. Then he said, the Revolution would carry out agrarian reform, nationalize key sectors of the economy, institute educational reforms, and provide a decent livelihood for manual and intellectual labor.
The problem of the land, the problem of industrialization, the problem of housing, the problem of unemployment, the problem of education and the problem of the people’s health: these are the six problems we would take immediate steps to solve, along with restoration of civil liberties and political democracy (Fidel Castro, “ History Will Absolve Me,” Castro Internet Archive, www.marxists.org/history/cuba/archive/castro/1953).
Almost immediately the revolutionaries who had seized power in January, 1959 began to implement the program envisioned by the Castro speech. Over the next fifty years, with heated debates inside Cuba, experiments--some successful, some failed--were carried out. Despite international pressures and the changing global political economy, much of the program has been institutionalized to the benefit of most Cubans.
Education and health care are free to all Cubans. Basic, but modest, nutritional needs have been met. Cubans have participated in significant political discussion about public policy. And Cuban society has been a laboratory for experimentation. In the 1960s Cubans discussed whether there was a need for monetary incentives to motivate work or whether revolutionary enthusiasm was sufficient to maintain production. Debates occurred over the years also about whether a state-directed economy, a mixed one, or some combination would best promote development; how to engage in international solidarity; and whether there was a need to affiliate with super powers such as the former Soviet Union. Central to the Cuban model is the proposition that when policies work they get institutionalized; when they fail they get changed.
The United States reaction to the Cuban Revolution has been as the Studies on the Left article warned in 1960. U.S. policy has included military invasions, sabotage, assassination attempts on the life of Fidel Castro, an economic blockade, subversion including beaming propaganda radio and television broadcasts to the island, efforts to isolate Cuba from the international system, restrictions on United States travelers to the island, listing Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, and in the long-run most importantly portraying in government statements and the mass media the image of Cuba as a totalitarian state that oppresses its people.
On December 17, 2014 President Raul Castro and Barack Obama announced that the U.S./Cuban relationship would change. The United States and Cuba, President Obama said, would begin negotiations to reestablish diplomatic relations, open embassies, and move to eliminate the U.S. economic blockade and restrictions on American travel to the island. This announcement was broadly celebrated by nations everywhere, the Pope who had lobbied Washington for the policy change, and Americans and Cubans alike. Of course, in both countries there were skeptics and the strong and vocal Cuban-American lobby immediately condemned the announced policy changes.
Since December, 2014 the United States and Cuba have been negotiating the announced normalization of relations and several steps have been taken by both countries including:
-freeing the last three of the Cuban Five by the United States and the release by Cuba of U.S. agents Roland Sarraff Trujillo and Alan Gross from Cuban prisons
-easing restrictions on remittances from Cuban/American families to relatives on the island
-using executive action in the United States to loosen restrictions on American travel to Cuba and reestablishing the capacity for banking connections with the island
-authorizing flights from the United States to Cuba by multiple airlines
-giving authority to some companies to invest in small businesses in Cuba and the increase in trade of selected U.S. commodities, primarily agricultural products and building materials
-taking Cuba off the State Department list of sponsors of terrorism
And President Obama deliberated with President Raul Castro at the April, 2015 meeting of the Summit of the Americas in Panama, communicating the image of the return to normal diplomatic relations.
Finally, Presidents Obama and Raul Castro reestablished formal diplomatic relations in the spring, 2016.
However, much needs to be done to complete the normalization of diplomatic relations. The U.S. economic embargo has not been lifted. The Helms-Burton Act, which prohibits foreign companies from having commercial relations with the island and then the United States, has not been repealed. And in 2015 the House of Representatives passed a resolution that challenges President Obama’s executive authority to expand the categories of U.S. citizens who can travel to Cuba without applying for a license from the Treasury Department. In addition, many issues of relevance to the two countries such as those involving immigration, control of drug trafficking, and cooperation on disaster relief are yet to be resolved.
Most Americans, including Cuban/Americans, support the full normalization of relations. But a small number of politicians from both political parties who oppose normalization of relations are using their legislative and public political leverage to reverse the will of the American and Cuban people. One example is the misrepresentation of the case of Assata Shakur, who has lived in Cuba for over thirty years. Shakur, a former member of the Black Panther Party was tried and convicted on dubious grounds of murdering a police officer in New Jersey and who fled to Cuba in 1984, is being used by anti-Cuban activists to resist the normalization of relations, claiming that Cuba is harboring “terrorists.”
The dramatic gestures by Presidents Obama and Castro have set the stage for the normalization of diplomatic relations, but more work needs to be done.
First, activists must continue to pressure their legislators to repeal the Helms-Burton Act and oppose any efforts by their peers to re-impose legislation that will stop the process of change. Lobbying should be complemented by rallies and marches. Support should be given to those organizations which have been in the front lines of Cuba Solidarity for years such as Pastors for Peace. In addition, people to people exchanges, community to community outreach, and high school and university study abroad programs should be encouraged.
Second, those in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution should support economic reforms being introduced on the island that reflect the best principles of the Cuban Revolution: independence, democracy, and human well-being. The clearest manifestation of these principles is reflected in the development of work place cooperatives in both cities and the countryside. Cubans are being encouraged to engage in work that produces goods and services for their communities in ways that empower workers and decentralize production and decision-making. Educating the American public to the fact that Cuba is embarking on new economic arrangements that encourage work place democracy contradict the media image that the people are embracing entrepreneurial capitalism.
Third, the solidarity movement should continue the process of public education about Cuba, explaining the realities of Cuban history, celebrating Cuban accomplishments in health care and education, and recognizing the richness and diversity of Cuban culture. Ironically, despite the long and often painful relationship the Cuban people have had with the United States, the diversity of the two nation’s cultures are inextricably connected. That shared experience should be celebrated.
Finally, solidarity with the Cuban people provides an opportunity to educate Americans to the reality that the United States is not “the indispensable nation,” but one among many with virtues and flaws. Cubans have celebrated their own history and culture but have done so without disrespecting the experiences of other nations and peoples. We in the United States could learn from that perspective.
(Revised from a June 19, 2015 essay to celebrate the 90th birthday of Fidel Castro).