Wednesday, December 31, 2008


This month the world will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution. This revolution, and its bigger than life heroes and heroines, has been an inspiration to peoples from the Global South, and progressives, particularly youth, in developed countries. For all its flaws, the Cuban Revolution validates the slogan of international activists who chant: "Another World is Possible." Happy 50th Anniversary Cuba!

Below I insert a few commentaries I have written over the years on Cuba.

Harry R. Targ
Summer, 1994

When I was a small child my parents took me to Starved Rock State Park in LaSalle, Illinois. Three hundred years earlier, on a rock formation 125 feet above the Illinois River a community of Native Americans took refuge while being attacked by enemies from below. Fully surrounded, cut off from the outside world and its sustenance, they eventually died of hunger and thirst.

As I returned from my latest trip to Cuba in June, 1994, the image of a proud, defiant, and encircled people starved to death by a more powerful enemy flashed across my mind. I had traveled there as a member of a delegation of philosophers and social scientists attending an international conference at the University of Havana. It occurred to me that the metaphor of Starved Rock better represents the reality of relations between the United States and Cuba than more conventional metaphors given in the media. Since Cuba's social and political revolution in 1959, the media and the U.S. government have depicted American-Cuban relations as a battle between good and evil-between freedom and tyranny, democracy and dictatorship, communism and capitalism-the hallmark of the Cold War lens to the world. And now despite the end of the Cold War around the world, the actual policies of the United States toward Cuba remain the same, as if nothing had changed.

Despite the efforts of journalists and politicians to portray Cuba in Cold War terms, over the last decade scholars, peace activists, artists, health care professionals and others have traveled to Cuba if they could show they had a professional interest in doing so. Travelers to Cuba, along with scholars and journalists, included Cuban-Americans who had been allowed to return home to visit relatives. As a result of decisions made by President Clinton in August, these categories of people, including researchers, will be severely restricted in their travels to the island. A door which had been opening for research, and scholarly dialogue, such as my annual participation since 1990 in the meetings of North American and Cuban philosophers and Social Scientists, may be ended.

Those of us who have visited Cuba over the last several years have gained a clearer picture of the changes occurring there. Those changes, as well as the history of Cuban-American relations, suggest that U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba is misguided. For example, it is vital to remember that the Cuban economy and political system were shaped by 450 years of Spanish colonial rule, followed by 60 years of almost total United States control of Cuban economic and political life. Significant United States investments in the Cuban sugar industry began in the 1880s and expanded dramatically over the next 30 years. This was paralleled by the U.S. intervention in Cuba's war with Spain in the 1890s and the virtual U.S. military occupation of the island after the end of the so-called Spanish-American War. By the time of the revolution in Cuba in 1959, U.S. investors controlled 80 percent of Cuba's public utilities, 90 percent of its mines, 90 percent of its cattle ranches, 50 percent of its railways, and 40 percent of its sugar. Twenty-five percent of the deposits in its banks belonged to Americans. Also U.S. influence over Cuba's destiny was insured by agreements in the 1930s guaranteeing the American purchase of about 65 percent of Cuba's sugar crop. Finally, Americans owned Havana's lavish hotels and casinos. In short, by the time of the Cuban revolution in 1959, Cuba's economy depended on foreign-owned exports and a foreign owned tourist industry. Most importantly, the wealth accumulated from that economy was disproportionately distributed among small numbers of foreign investors and wealthy Cubans, leaving most of the population in poverty.

The inequitable economic system that had been created in the era of Spanish colonialism and reproduced later under U.S. control was maintained by a Cuban dictatorship supported by the United States. By the 1950s,powerlessness and poverty had created revolutionary ferment. Cuban revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro articulated goals of economic and political democracy, improved health care, better education and housing, and the diversification of an economy free from foreign control.

Throughout the eight U.S. administrations since the late 1950s (with only a modest reduction of tension during the Carter years), U.S. foreign policy has opposed the Cuban revolution. From the time of the first agrarian reform program in May 1959 that expropriated the very largest U.S. and Cuban landowners, the United States has supported the destabilization and overthrow of the Cuban regime. Although the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco when the Central Intelligence Agency planned invasion of Cuba with 1,400 dissident Cuban refugees was crushed in three days, the efforts to overthrow the revolutionary government continued. Before the Bay of Pigs the U.S. canceled sugar purchases, created an economic blockade of the island, and ended diplomatic recognition. Since the failed invasion the U.S. has pressured allies to end their ties to Cuba, supported subversion and assassination teams, funded various projects to destroy crops on the island, encouraged defections and the flow of refugees to the United States, supported at least 12,000 Cuban refugees in various covert and other anti-Cuban projects in Florida, and periodically has threatened the island with U.S. military assault. The United States low intensity war on Cuba gained another weapon when Congress voted to create Radio Marti in 1983 and TV Marti in 1990. These beam anti-Castro propaganda to the island. In 1992 Congress further tightened the economic blockade by passing the Torricelli Bill which restricts foreign corporations partially owned by U.S. multinational corporations from trading with Cuba.

Few in our country know that while the U.S. hostility forced Cuba to seek alliance with the former Soviet Union, the tiny island nation went to great lengths to establish its own international identity and to carry out economic programs at home that sometimes contradicted Soviet advise. For example, it was Cuba and not the Soviet Union that initiated support for the MPLA government of Angola in 1975. At home, Cuba for a time adopted policies based upon moral rather than material incentives towards work in the 1960s over the objections of Soviet advisers. In the 1980s the Cubans carried out economic policies of "rectification" that were defined as different from those of the Soviet Union. It is true that Cuba traded many of its agricultural commodities, such as sugar, tobacco, citrus products, medicines, and health services to the Soviet Union for oil, heavy machinery and other products not otherwise accessible to Cuba. In fact, before the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European Bloc, Cuba carried out 85 percent of its trade with them. But it negotiated trade agreements, not handouts. The distinction is important because for thirty years U.S. administrations portrayed Cuba as a mere extension and tool of the Soviet Union. Nothing could be further from the truth.

With the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, its chief trade partner, Cuba has initiated a variety of reforms to make up for its losses. It has committed itself to increase tourism to earn valuable and scarce foreign exchange; established joint ventures in this sector with investors from Spain, Great Britain, Canada, and other countries; passed new laws encouraging foreign investment; expanded its sophisticated government program of biotechnological research; and increased exports of new serums and medical equipment to a variety of countries. And despite the portrait in the U.S. media of a country isolated from the rest of the world, Cuba has expanded its trade ties with Europe, Latin America, and Asia.

Further, it has enacted reforms allowing Cubans to use dollars to purchase scarce goods in newly established dollar stores, transformed state-run farms to agricultural cooperatives, and legalized the establishment of small privateenterprises. Debates about these changes have occurred on Cuban television and in thousands of workplaces around the country.

Even before the current economic crisis Cuba had initiated a variety of reforms to rekindle enthusiasm for the revolution and engage Cubans more directly in decisions affecting their lives. The program referred to as a campaign for "rectification," sought to increase worker participation in factory decisions, to get people within communities to construct new housing and public buildings with materials provided by the government, and to return defense to local militias. Central to the campaign has been efforts to involve young people and women more directly in politics.

Reforms have continued into the 1990s. Last year's election was changed to give Cubans more of a voice in the political process. In prior elections, people voted for representatives to municipal assemblies, which in turn selected the provisional assemblies that then selected national legislators. In the 1993 election, however, Cubans voted directly for candidates for the national legislative body. Eighty three per cent of the legislators selected are serving for the first time, including larger numbers than ever before of young people, women, and Cubans of color.

Evidence suggests that, despite Cuba's serious economic problems, most Cubans still support their government. At the time of the 1993 election, rightwing Cuban-American broadcasts from Miami urged Cubans to reject Castro's regime by not voting or by defacing their ballots. But more than 90 per cent of eligible voters did vote, and less than 10 per cent defaced their ballots or left them blank. Despite the fact that most U.S. media outlets never mentioned the Cuban elections, many scholars and researchers observing the election saw it as a referendum affirming the Cuban government. Even Cubans who blame the government for Cuba's economic hardships regard militantly right-wing Cuban Americans, such as Jorge Mas Canosa of the Cuban American National Foundation, who has been a close advisor on Cuban affairs to Presidents Reagan, Bush, and Clinton, as more of a threat than the economic crisis. Most Cubans on the island see the vocal Cuban Americans as political descendants of the former hated dictator Batista and his henchmen.

In sum, several of Cuba's economic difficulties are rooted in its history of colonial rule and then U.S. domination, economic embargo, and political and military hostility. But the Cuban revolution has survived, creating a humane regime for most of its population with particular successes in health care, education, housing, and science. Life expectancy and infant mortality rates are similar to the United States, the literacy rate is 97 per cent, one-third of the entire population is engaged in some kind of education, and there are eleven times more teachers now than before the revolution. While poor by many indicators, Cuba, compared to most Third World countries, stands out for its social and economic development and remains, even with its current difficulties, an inspiration for millions of peoples around the world.

The implications for U.S. policy seem clear: It is time for a change. Our policy of trying to starve the island is inhumane and out of touch with the desires of most Cubans, whom we claim to be trying to free. Our policies are irrational given the fact that the cold war that gave rise to them is over. Cuba is no longer allied with a superpower enemy of the United States. Cuba is reforming its economic and political system in line with changes occurring around the world. And, finally, most Cubans, fiercely nationalistic and proud of their revolution, reject what the Clinton Administration and its Cuban-American political allies offer them: a return to a pre-1959 era of poverty and powerlessness for the many.

It is time for the United States to begin negotiating the end of its economic blockade and to forge political, economic, cultural, and scientific connections with the island. It seems unlikely that U.S. policy will change, however, until the American public becomes more informed about the history of Cuban-American relations and the current state of affairs in Cuba. Those of us who have visited and studied Cuba must continue to speak out and need to be heard, for surely mutual isolation and hostility are unnatural for two countries just 90 miles apart.

Harry R. Targ is professor of political science at Purdue University. He is the author of Cuba and the USA: A New World Order? International Publishers, 1992.