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As the US and Cuba broker a landmark deal to help mend their fractured relationship, Lachlan R Dale explains the history behind the fracture and applauds Obama for the breakthrough.
US President Barack Obama recently announced a landmark softening of relations with its Caribbean neighbour to the south, Cuba, in a deal brokered in-part by Pope Francis.
Few were expecting such a breakthrough. A flurry of articles have been published attempting to make sense of the situation: is this a masterful, historical move by Obama? Or a misstep that will prolong the life of the Castro regime and the suffering of the Cuban people?
While I don’t feel I’m in a place to judge either claim, what I can add is some of the historical context that seems to be sorely lacking in most of the analysis being published.
Cuba and the United States have a long and difficult history. To even begin to get some perspective we must travel back more than a century.
From the late 1700s, Cuba was ruled by Spain. That changed in 1898, with Spain’s defeat in the Spanish-American war.
America had long desired “The Pearl of the Antilles” for itself. With Spain out of the picture, America moved to take increasing control of Cuban politics and trade, with its military staging frequent interventions in Cuban affairs in the early 20th Century.
In the 1930s and ’40s, America conspired with, and endorsed the rule of the despot Fulgencio Batista, on the grounds the strongman suited the interests of the United States.
After successive puppet governments, it seemed as though Batista was destined to lose the 1952 democratic elections. In response, he staged a military coup and seized power.
President Truman was quick to lend Batista’s coup legitimacy by providing military and economic aid, severely damaging Cuba’s fledgling democracy in the process.
By the late 1950s, the United States dominated Cuban affairs. In 1959, American-owned companies controlled much of the country’s resources, including 40 percent of sugar crop, nearly all the cattle, 90 percent of mines, 80 percent of utilities, and practically all the oil industry.
The backlash, many decades in the making, came in the form of the infamous Cuban Revolution led by Fidel Castro. One of Castro’s key policies was to slowly nationalise all US-owned businesses, undermining American control and asserting Cuba’s independence.
The US responded with sanctions. President Eisenhower and subsequent leaders cleared CIA plans to overthrow the Castro regime, leading to the failed “Bay of Pigs” invasion and coup, and numerous assassination attempts on Castro’s life.
From there, relations continued to deteriorate. Key events included the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, a series of aircraft hijackings in the ’60s and ’70s, a mass exodus of Cuban citizens to the US in 1980, mutual, ongoing accusations of espionage – the most famous of these being the arrest of the Cuban Five in 1998 – and America’s questionable use of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.
Hypocrisy and moral grandstanding
Now, this is an incredibly brief summary, but it should demonstrate that the history between the two countries is anything but clear cut.
I therefore cannot help but shake my head at the reaction of many Republican commentators to Obama’s announcement.
Take Jeb Bush’s statement:
Cuba is a dictatorship with a disastrous human rights record, and now President Obama has rewarded those dictators.
Or John Boehner’s:
Relations with the Castro regime should not be revisited, let alone normalized, until the Cuban people enjoy freedom — and not one second sooner.
There are dozens of similar statements being published in the press. The common thread seems to be a righteous indignation that the US would play nice with a country that violates human rights, coupled with a demand that Cuba embrace freedom and democracy.
Make no mistake: human rights in Cuba are appalling, however, I detect a deep cynicism in many responses.
The United States has a long history of manipulating and undermining the democratic process in Cuba and has never been above exploiting the Cuban people for its own gain.
For people to therefore pretend that this history does not exist, or attempt to play the role of the blameless moralist, is a bit rich.
I’m similarly offended by politicians’ rather selective use of human rights standards.
For instance, I would hardly expect Republicans to repeat such posturing in regards to Saudi Arabia – one of America’s closest military allies that possesses a human rights record far more troubling than Cuba’s.
If such politicians were being consistent, they would be calling for an immediate end to relations with the Islamic kingdom.
Let’s not turn a blind eye to America’s own spotty human rights record. Should we expect Republicans to push for accountability for the use of state-sanctioned torture (including the gruesome Guantanamo Bay military base)? Or an end to the death penalty? Or for clarification of the nation’s secretive drone program, which is responsible for an incredible amount of civilian deaths?
Hypocrisy and selective memory are staples of the political establishment, but that doesn’t render calling them out any less important.
Having recently travelled to Cuba myself, I can attest to the suffering caused by the long-standing US embargo. The citizens of Cuba are caught between a repressive regime and blunt sanctions that only exacerbate poverty and resource shortages. Some may perhaps view their pain as collateral damage in a campaign against the Cuban government; still, witnessing it firsthand was an affecting experience.
Cuba is tired. The leaders of the revolution are ageing, and its memory is fading. Perhaps the time for positive change is at hand – and maybe Obama’s change of policy is needed to start to addressing the country’s issues with poverty and human rights.
To that end, I applaud Obama’s brave move in hope for a better future for the people of both nations.