Trump Reverses Modest Improvements in US/Cuban Relations
With God’s help, a free Cuba is what we will soon achieve…I am canceling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba.” (Donald Trump in “Trump Outlines New Cuba Policy in Speech in Miami’s Little Havana,” USA Today, June 16, 2017.)
With these words, President Trump announced the return to the almost 60-year Cold War against Cuba, a war that has cost the people on the island and their relatives in the United States dearly. The efforts to resume travel restrictions, limit trade and investment on the island, and to punish US citizens who travel to Cuba on their own seem motivated primarily by Trump’s promises to a dwindling sector of Cuban Americans in the Republican Party (and a few Democratic politicians as well). Although economics, geopolitics, and white supremacist ideology have shaped United States foreign policy, narrow and short-term political calculations seem to have motivated the reversal of modest US openings to Cuba that had been put in place during the Obama Administration.
Resistance to United States Global Hegemony Grows in the Twenty-First Century
The visible global political and military contests in the twenty-first century have centered in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. But significant changes have been occurring in Latin America. A continent pillaged by Spain, Britain, France, Portugal, and the Netherlands for hundreds of years has been doggedly moving towards political autonomy and economic independence. Colonialism came to an end with the Spanish/Cuban/American war in 1898. In its place, the United States established neocolonial control over the politics and economics of virtually every country in the Hemisphere.
At first, from 1898 until 1933, the U.S. maintained control through repeated military interventions There were over 30 interventions in 35 years with long marine military occupations of Haiti, Cuba, and Nicaragua.
From the 1930s until the 1980s, U.S. control was maintained by putting in place and supporting military dictatorships in such countries as Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. During the time Reagan, Bush senior and Clinton were in office, control was enhanced by so-called “neoliberal” economic policies. These demanded that countries, increasingly tied to international banks by crippling debt, create open markets, allow foreign economic penetration, and drastically reduce domestic spending for its own citizens.
During the years of dictatorship and neoliberalism, the primary example of resistance to U.S. economic imperialism and militarism was Cuba. For that reason, the United States put in place a policy of diplomatic isolation, an economic blockade, and a fifty-year campaign to subvert and overthrow the revolutionary government. During the presidency of Barack Obama modest changes in Cuban policy were instituted including the establishment of formal diplomatic relations, increased abilities of US citizens to travel to Cuba, increased opportunities for investment and trade with the island, and collaboration on efforts to end drug smuggling from Latin to North America. Much more needed to be done but now the new president, Donald Trump, has begun to reverse the modest improvements in US/Cuban relations. And, it appears, the Trump policies seem to be motivated more by narrow political gain than US economic opportunities.
Scale of Significance for U.S. Imperialism
To help understand the attention U.S. policy-makers give some countries, it is possible to reflect on what is called here the Scale of Significance for U.S. Imperialism (SSUSI). The SSUSI has three interconnected dimensions that relate to the relative importance policymakers give to some countries compared to others.
First, as an original motivation for expansion, economic interests are primary. Historically, United States policy has been driven by the need to secure customers for U.S. products, outlets for manufacturing investment opportunities, opportunities for financial speculation, and vital natural resources.
Second, geopolitics and military hegemony matter. Empires require ready access to regions and trouble spots all around the world. When Teddy Roosevelt, as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Vice President, and President of the United States, articulated the first warning of the need for global power he spoke of the development of a “two-ocean” navy. The U.S., he said, must become an Atlantic and a Pacific power; thus prioritizing the projection of military power in the Western Hemisphere and Asia. If the achievement of global power was dependent upon resources drawn from everywhere, military and political hegemony in the Persian Gulf, the Middle East, and parts of Africa also required attention.
Third, as the imperial project grows, certain dependent political regimes and cultures take on particular importance for imperial policymakers. Foreign policy elites claim that the imperial power, in this case the U.S., has a special responsibility for the weaker nation. In other words ideology matters. If the dependent country rejects domination, the experience burns itself into the collective consciousness of the imperial power. For example, Cuba was seen by U.S. rulers as far back as Thomas Jefferson as soon to be part of the United States. Cuba’s rejection of this presumption of U.S. tutelage has been a scar on the U.S. sense of itself ever since the spread of revolutionary ferment on the island in the twentieth century.
Dependency Theory: A Bottom Up Perspective
Latin American social theorists and activists of the era of the Cuban revolutionary process (since the 1950s) defined the economic and political context of countries like Cuba, as a result of dependency. For example, Brazilian social scientist, Theotonio Dos Santos wrote about what he called “the structure of dependence.”
“Dependence is a situation in which a certain group of countries have their economy conditioned by the development and expansion of another economy, to which the former is subject.”
Andre Gunter Frank, looking at the broad sweep of history beginning with the rise of capitalism out of feudalism referred to “the development of underdevelopment.” During the fifteenth century the sectors of the globe now referred to as the “Global North” and “Global South” were roughly equal in economic and military power. But as a result of the globalization of capitalism and militarism, some countries, primarily in Europe and North America, developed at the expense of most of the other countries of the world.
Most dependency theorists included domestic class structures in their analysis of relations between dominant and dependent nations. In addition to dominant and weak countries bound by exploitation and violence, within both powerful and weak countries class structures existed. In fact, rulers in poor countries usually were tied by interests and ideology to the interests and ideology of the ruling classes in powerful countries. And, most importantly, the poor, the exploited, the repressed in both rich and poor countries shared common experiences, often a common outlook, and potentially a common culture.
Imperialism and Dependency: the U.S and Cuban Case
A detailed history of imperialism, colonialism, and neo-colonialism established by the U.S. and Cuban relationship would include discussion of the following topics:
-Spanish conquest between 1511and 1515
-Cuba as sugar producer
-Cuba as slave society. By 1827 over 50 percent of Cuban residents were of African descent.
-Britain’s economic and military penetration of the island beginning in the 18th century
-Revolutionary ferment, particularly slave revolts, permeating 19th century Cuban society
-The visions of U.S. leaders, including Thomas Jefferson, that some day Cuba would join the new nation to the North.
-U.S. investor penetration of the island, challenging the Spanish and British. By the 1880s over 80 percent of sugar exports went to the United States and large plantations on the island were owned by Americans.
-The Spanish/Cuban/American war of 1898 which led to a full transfer of colonial and neocolonial hegemony from the Spanish and British to the United States
-The United States establishment of full economic, political, and cultural control of the island from 1898 to 1959. Subordinate wealthy and powerful Cubans control the political system, benefitting from U.S. hegemony, while “the poor people of this earth” on the island make up the vast majority.
-Armed struggle between 1953 and1959 overthrowing the Batista dictatorship and the elimination of U.S. interests on the island.
From 1959 to the present Cuba haltingly, and confronting international and domestic opposition, has pursued a new society to achieve what Jose Marti called “wash(ing) away that crime” of long years of empire and dependency.
United States/Latin American/Cuban Relations: the Ideological Dimension
The Scale of Significance for U.S. Imperialism (SSUSI) includes an ideological dimension. That is U.S. policymakers believe and/or propagate various illusions or rationales for United States foreign policy that become part of common political discourse. In relations with Latin America, and particularly Cuba, policy has been built upon economic interest, geopolitics, and ideology. The discourse justifying U.S. hegemony in the Western Hemisphere can be traced back to the nineteenth century. Its modern exposition is surprisingly similar to the first significant declarations by foreign policy elites.
For example, shortly after the U.S. victory in the Spanish/Cuban/American war, Indiana Senator Albert Beveridge articulated what was to become the new ideology of American empire linking economics to Godly purpose: “We will establish trading posts throughout the world as distributing points for American products.” “Great colonies, governing themselves, flying our flag and trading with us, will grow about our posts of trade, And American law, American order, American civilization, and the American flag will plant themselves on shores hitherto bloody and benighted.”
In a campaign speech in Indianapolis, Beveridge articulated a spiritual call and rationale for a global policy that transcended mere economic gain. America’s destiny required the U.S. “…to set the world its example of right and honor…We cannot retreat from any soil where providence has unfurled our banner. It is ours to save that soil, for liberty, and civilization. And in a speech before the Senate justifying the colonization of the Philippines he proclaimed a U.S. mission that transcended politics; “It is elemental…. it is racial. God has not been preparing the English-speaking and Teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle self-contemplation and self-admiration. No! He has made us the master organizers of the world to establish system where chaos reigns. He has given us the spirit of progress to overwhelm the forces of reaction throughout the earth.” (Congressional Record, 56 Congress, I Session, pp.704-712).
Within a few years of the U.S. colonization of Cuba and the Philippines, President Theodore Roosevelt elaborated on the U.S. world mission. He spoke of the necessity of promoting peace and justice in the world; a project that required adequate military capabilities both for “securing respect for itself and of doing good to others.” To those who claim that the United States seeks material advantage in its activist policy toward the countries of the Western Hemisphere, Roosevelt responded that such claims were untrue. The U.S., he said, is motivated by altruism: “All that this country desires is to see the neighboring countries stable, orderly, and prosperous. Any country whose people conduct themselves well can count upon our hearty friendship.”
Cuba was an example, he said: “If every country washed by the Caribbean Sea would show the progress in stable and just civilization which with the aid of the Platt Amendment Cuba has shown since our troops left the island, and which so many of the republics in both Americas are constantly and brilliantly showing, all questions of interference by the Nation with their affairs would be at an end.” He assured Latin Americans in this address to Congress in 1904 that if “…if they thus obey the primary laws of civilized society they may rest assured that they will be treated by us in a spirit of cordial and helpful sympathy. We would interfere with them only in the last resort….” (“Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine,” President’s Annual Message to Congress, December 6, 1904).
On January 18, 1909 to the Methodist Episcopal Church (“The Expansion of the White Races”) Roosevelt applauded the increasing presence--he estimated 100 million people—of “European races” throughout the world. The indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere have been assimilated with their “intruders” with the end result “that the Indian population of America is larger today than it was when Columbus discovered the continent, and stands on a far higher plane of happiness and efficiency.”
And to highlight the missionary message Roosevelt added: “Of course the best that can happen to any people that has not already a high civilization of its own is to assimilate and profit by American or European ideas, the ideas of civilization and Christianity, without submitting to alien control; but such control, in spite of all its defects, is in a very large number of cases the prerequisite condition to the moral and material advance of the peoples who dwell in the darker corners of the earth.”
Before the reader dismisses these simplistic, racist statements, it is useful to examine more recent proclamations of the motivations for United States foreign policy particularly toward Latin America. It is worth remembering that recent U.S. presidents, including Barack Obama, quote favorably from the words of Theodore Roosevelt on various subjects.
For example, in March, 1961, and clearly as a response to the Cuban revolution, President John Kennedy announced the creation of a new “Alliance for Progress,” in Latin American, “a vast cooperative effort, unparalleled in magnitude and nobility of purpose, to satisfy the basic needs of the American people for homes, work, and land, health and schools.” The United States also pledged its assistance to those countries whose independence might be threatened. And, of course, the President proclaimed that the United States supports an alliance of free governments and will work to eliminate “tyranny”. JFK expressed “our special friendship to the people of Cuba and the Dominican Republic and the hope they will soon rejoin the society of free men….” Sixty years after the proclamations of Teddy Roosevelt the United States remained committed to offer the blessings of freedom and democracy to the peoples of Cuba. (President John F. Kennedy “Preliminary formulations of the Alliance for Progress,” March 13, 1961).
Twenty-two years later President Reagan again underscored the U.S. presumption of its special role in the Hemisphere, restating the U.S. role more in the language of Roosevelt than the subtler Kennedy. The speech was presented at a gathering of Cuban-Americans. Reagan praised assembled Cuban-Americans, such as Jorge Mas Canosa, who, he said, came to the United States motivated by a passion for liberty. Reagan spoke of descendants of pioneers and emigrants from various locales who started “fresh’ in the “New World”; people who “share the same fundamental values of God, family, work, freedom, democracy, and justice.” (“Perhaps the greatest tie between us can be seen in the incredible number of cathedrals and churches found throughout the hemisphere. Our forefathers took the worship of God seriously.”)
Reagan then warned of the “new colonialism that threatens the Americas.” This, of course, was represented by the revolutionary government of Nicaragua, the revolutionaries fighting against dictatorship in El Salvador, and the enduring threat to freedom, Cuba. In the latter, the independent labor movement was destroyed in 1959, churches suppressed, all free speech eliminated, and young Cubans sent to faraway places to defend unpopular regimes. And remembering the sacrifices of the United States in the Cuban war against Spanish colonialism, Reagan regretted that “Cuba is no longer independent.” He promised that “we will not let this same fate befall others in the hemisphere….”
After endorsing 1980s policies such as the Caribbean Basin Initiative and Radio Marti President Reagan reminded his audience of the perpetual burden Americans face in defending freedom. He quoted Teddy Roosevelt; “We, here in America, hold in our hands the hope of the world, the fate of the coming years; and shame and disgrace will be ours if in our eyes the light of high resolve is dimmed, if we trail in the dust the golden hopes of men.” And Reagan ended: “finally, let us pledge ourselves to meet this sacred responsibility. And let us pledge ourselves to the freedom of the noble, long suffering, Cuban people.” (“Text of President Reagan’s Speech on Threat to Latin America, New York Time, May 21, 1983).
President Obama’s opening remarks at the Summit of the Americas (April 14, 2012) were different in tone than those cited above. He celebrated economic development in the region, encouraged continued economic globalization, praised the growth of Latin American nations such as Brazil and Colombia proving that “a lot of the old arguments on the left and the right no longer apply.” The challenge for the future, he said, was to continue distributing the benefits of globalization to more and more people and “giving businesses opportunities to thrive and create new products and new services and enjoy the global marketplace.”
President Obama emphasized the connections between “clean, transparent open government that is working on behalf of its people.” These features, he said, were important for business. “The days when a business feels good working in a place where people are being oppressed—ultimately that’s an unstable environment for you to do business. You do business well when you know that it’s a well-functioning society and that there’s a legitimate government in place that is going to be looking out for its people.”
The Obama comments at the opening Summit of the Americas in 2012, more paralleling the language of President Kennedy’s Alliance speech than the missionary statements of Beveridge, Roosevelt, and Reagan, still suggested that the United States, and some Latin American political and economic elites, reflected the interests and values of the masses of Latin America’s citizens. All the speeches offer a common standard to judge what is best for the vast majorities of the peoples of the Hemisphere; whether the region is moving toward or away from God, Democracy (defined in very selective ways) and Markets. And, whether stated or implied, the polar opposite of this standard is most starkly represented by the Cuban revolution.
And now we have President Trump’s evocation of God, as did Senator Beveridge, Theodore Roosevelt and others to assist the United States in freeing Cuba from the yoke of dictatorship with US-style elections and markets.
The Beginning of the End of Imperialism and Dependency
At its base, it is argued here, United States foreign policy toward the Western Hemisphere has been based on economic interest, geopolitics, and an hegemonic ideology that has remained largely the same since the industrial revolution. However, Latin America in the twenty-first century has rejected US diplomatic dominance. Despite recent setbacks, segments of the region still embrace the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), an organization promoting autonomous economic and political cooperation in the region. There is in place a trade regime, the Common Southern Market or Mercosur, which has a membership of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay (with membership of Venezuela in process) and associate membership status for Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. Although Venezuela, a leader of ALBA, is in turmoil (with US covert support for counter-revolutionaries), Argentina and Brazil have shifted back to neoliberal regimes, the spirit of revolt continues in Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Uruguay, and populist mass movements seeking a resumption of the Bolivarian Revolution exist all across the Hemisphere.
And Cuba in the twenty-first century still is the symbol of liberation from United States/Latin American hegemony. This is why Cuba remains the prime target of United States imperialism. It has resisted big power domination virtually throughout its history and particularly since the 1959 Cuban Revolution. President Trump is just the latest in a long line of US presidents who have tried to undermine the Cuban Revolution.