Cuba Libre: Fall of another Wall!


There is a lot more to US-Cuban relations than the fifty odd years of an embargo. It is easy to get fixated on US-Cuban conflicts in terms of a Cold War vocabulary. Fidel and Raul Castro are the fossils of an ideological conflict that ended in 1990’s with the fall of the USSR.  It has taken another quarter century for the US to determine that Cuba is no threat and is certainly not a source of terror.  We have far more active candidates for terror in the 21st century than Cuba.

Why did that old warrior, Fidel Castro, take such an uncompromising stance against the US when he was a young man?  Why would he have introduced communism to Cuba in the 1960’s, fully conscious that it was antithetical to US values? The answer to that is located early in the 20th century, in the Platt Amendment of 1901.

Cuba was never a US colonial possession, but it came very close.  The Cubans ousted the Spanish only to fall under US domination. As a spoil of the Spanish-American war, Cuba was occupied by the US military in 1899.  In 1901, the Platt amendment assured long-term Cuban subjugation.  The US declared, and in the 1903 Cuban constitution the Cubans accepted, the right of the US to intervene militarily in Cuba at will.  Guantanamo Bay was designated as a US naval base at the same time.

Cubans lost defacto ownership of their country.  John F. Kennedy noted in 1959 that Americans owned 40% of Cuba’s sugar plantations, 90% of the mines, controlled 80% of its utilities and virtually all of its cattle ranches and oil concessions. But even worse, the US supported the rule of a major kleptocrat: the strong-man Fulgencio Batista.

Batista adroitly used Cold War fears to secure US military aid. His staunchly anti-Communist rhetoric convinced the US of Batista’s sound values. He was the best protection for the vast US investment in Cuban farms and extraction industries.  After all, in 1949 a Communist agrarian reform movement produced a stunning success:  in China, Mao Zedong ousted the Chinese strong-man Chiang Kai-shek in the name of peasant power.

Batista, however, not only exploited US gullibility, he also yearned for a short-cut to personal wealth.  Havana, a sybaritic capital for American tourists from Hemingway on down, now became the lodestone for American gangsters. Batista provided government matching funds for the expansion of casinos and hotels. Mobster Lucky Luciana ran the casinos, Meyer Lansky controlled the drug trade, and Batista skimmed off the top. In the meantime Batista fortified his bona fides by shooting, jailing and persecuting young Cuban men seeking to halt the degradation of Cuba.  All this in the name of “anti-Communism” by Batista and in the name of “social change” by the revolutionaries.

Fidel Castro, his brother (and current strong-man of Cuba) Raul, and famous collaborators like Che Guevara, seized control of Cuba by the end of 1958.  It was not only by their own efforts. At last,  Batista’s astounding corruption had come to disgust the US government and ended the  US arms shipments to Cuba. Tales of the heroic reformer in the hills of Cuba made Castro’s take-over a welcome event.  But not for long.

Castro’s analysis of the US-Cuban relationship was deep and long.  It started with the 1901 Platt amendment and the long decades of subjugation to the US.  Fundamental to the Castro view was the rejection of US ownership of farms and mines in Cuba.  A corollary was his antipathy toward the Cuban property owners who had a comfortable relationship with US hegemony.  He expropriated property from US owners and drove the Cuban middle class into exile.

The rest, as they say, is history!  Strong-willed people on both sides of the issue behaved badly (Bay of Pigs versus Soviet missile sites) and the outcome was totally without imagination or nuance.  A virtual wall was erected between neighboring states.

But the issues have changed. Generations have passed. A celebration is in order to applaud President Obama, Raul Castro, and, improbably, the Vatican and its iconoclastic Pope Francis. They have torn down a wall! Cuba libre!

About Dr. Ewa Bacon

Dr. Ewa Bacon is a professor emerita of history at Lewis University. Her areas of expertise include the Holocaust, Auschwitz, concentration camps, Russian history and Central European history (especially Germany and Poland).

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