Ninety miles south of Florida lies what most in America would agree is one of the greatest blunders in American Foreign Policy. Over the last 48 years, Cuba has staved off a US sanctioned embargo intent at toppling the communist government of Fidel Castro. For the last 28, Cuba has done so despite the collapse of its one time largest partner, the Soviet Union. So what went wrong? Why the embargo?
Historically, Cuba and the United States have had great interests in each other. As colonies, both Cuba and 13 individual mainland North American colonies (colonies that would eventually make up the United States) relied heavily on illicit commercial trade with each other in order to avoid the burdensome colonial taxes from each of their mother countries. After American independence from Brittan, these commercial ties remained and grew even stronger. During the 1800’s, Spain, Cuba’s colonial mother country, while heavily involved in other international affairs, found direct governing of Cuba to be difficult. There was no true way in which Spain could deal direct consequences to their Caribbean colony for its illicit actions. Instead, Spain lent Cuba a fair degree of autonomy as long as Cuba continued providing for the heavily indebted Spanish Crown. This degree of autonomy pacified to an extent much of Cuba’s desire for independence; however, there was still dissatisfaction with the Spanish Crown and minor revolts.
Beginning in the early 1800’s, the United Sates made several offers to purchase Cuba, but nothing came of these attempts. These failed attempts, spurred on by the recently adopted Monroe doctrine (during which the attitude of United Sates became more paternalistic towards territory in the Western hemisphere), made the United States Government weary. Fears spread that Brittan would make an attempt to seize the Spanish Colony or that Spain would actually consider selling the island to other European powers. These were circumstances that the United States could ill afford. It would not accept any foreign infringement of the Western Hemisphere. Yet, no undertaking to liberate Cuba was even conceived until roughly the mid 19thcentury as the United States government believed that Spain would inevitably turn the Caribbean colony over to them.
By the 1850’s the Cuban Question came to obsess American minds. The United Sates continued to pester Spain about the purchase of Cuba to no avail. Several plots were hatched to annex the Spanish colony. The newly created Ostend manifesto delineated reasons for the United States to tear Cuba away from Spain if for nothing else for Cuba’s own protection. Yet, with the advent of the United State’s own civil war, nothing came of the Cuban question.
On the 10th of October 1868, 38 slave owners declare Cuba’s independence. 6 months later the first constitution of the constituent of Cuba was drafted and its first president elected into office. The United States House of Representatives quickly adopted a resolution (nearly 4:1) to recognise the newly created Cuban state. Yet, the American President largely ignored the congresses resolution and declared public support for Spain. Official United States sanctions were laid upon Cuba due to the conflict. By 1874, Cuba was once more reconciled to Spain and official sanctions were lifted.
Again in 1897, rebellion surged through Cuba. Again, the United States denied recognising an independent Cuba. The United States once more attempted to buy Cuba from Spain; this time offering over $300 million dollars compensation. Spain once again turned down the offer. One year later an American battleship dubbed the USS Maine pulled into Havana port under the guise of protecting American Citizens and their interests. Shortly thereafter it exploded and sunk.
The sinking of the battleship USS Maine in Havana Harbour was all the excuse President McKinley needed to exert a United States led intervention in Cuba. While Spain did give into every demand (minus that of Cuban independence) the United States could think of, McKinley and the Americans sought a fight in the name of the Cuban people. After numerous failed attempts to appease the Untied States, Spain declared war. In response, the United States Congress promptly declared war on Spain.
Roughly 4 months after the declaration of war Spain admitted defeat. In the middle of August 1898 Spain and the United States signed an armistice to officially end the war. Strangely, the Cubans, for whom the war was supposedly fought over, were never represented during this agreement. Cuban independence had been frustrated again this time not by Spain but by American control.
January 1899 began the reign of America over Cuba. The island, not deemed fit enough to constitute a state, was set up as a protectorate. A Cuban constitution allowing the United States direct access to Cuba’s domestic affairs was implemented. Despite allowing Cuban governance, United States government and business ventures took on the challenge of “Americanizing” the Cuban people. Direct intervention in Cuba’s affairs was prevalent over the next 15 years primarily to protect Americans and “American” interest.
By the mid 1920’s the United States had vested over a billion dollars in Cuba. About half of the sugar production and a quarter of the land were in American hands. Interventions across the board in all facets of political and economic life were common. If Cuban leaders did not bend to the will of the United States the Cuban government would be changed to a more favourable one. Average Cubans despised the foreign interventions of the United States. One Cuban conference called for imprisoning for life any Cuban citizen who helped to aid any such foreign incursion. To its dismay, the then pro-American Cuban president vetoed the proposal.
In 1933, distaste for the American backed Cuban president was so great that he fled the country. The United States appointed his replacement. Revolts broke out and the appointed president was replaced. Under the new provisional government, which was formed of 5 liberal citizens of Cuba, massive reforms were passed. These included a minimum wage, 8 hour work days, women’s suffrage, child labour laws, and a declaration that 50% of employees in Cuba be Cuban nationals. Unfortunately, none of these reforms were in “American” interest, therefore, the United States refused to recognise the new Cuban government. The refusal to acknowledge the Cuban government in 1933 seemed hypocritical to the Cubans as Roosevelt, the then American president, had declared a good neighbour approach to foreign policy in all Latin American countries.
The next year, 1934, a young self-appointed colonial, once again backed by the United States, took control of Cuba. While not the direct president, Batista supervised 5 new Cuban presidents until 1940. He also supervised the renegotiated several treaties that would allow the United States access to Guantanamo Bay, and implement a quota style “new deal” import export system while Roosevelt abrogated the 1903 agreement (based on the Platt amendment) which allowed for direct American intervention in Cuba.
Coronial Batista, in 1940, won the Cuban election. Over the next 4 years, Batista follows in the Untied States footsteps. He declared war on the Axis in 1941, and formed an alliance with the Soviet Union in 1943. By 1944, Batista, urged on by the United States government retired to Florida.
Organised crime, which flourished under Batista, continued to grow after his retirement. Cuban students plot the overthrow of a United States backed dictator in the neighbouring Dominican Republic. The Untied States government found out and appealed to Batista to once again return to Cuba and take charge. In 1952, after discovering that he democratically would lose the presidency Batista launched a bloodless coup. Immediately, the United States recognized Batista and his government of Cuba. Economic aid was sent from Washington to help the new president. Batista in return provided “American” interest with kickbacks.
Batista’s unpopularity was widely spread and on July 26th 1953 rebels attacked. The assault failed but the movement did not. There were those in Cuba who wanted Batista gone. Fidel Castro, being one of them.
Fidel Castro, participating in the plot to overthrow Batista, had been captured and placed in prison. Two years later upon his release he fled to Mexico where he and a band of other exiled rebels and fellow supported organised a resistance group. By 1956 the group was ready to return to Cuba and launch a full out operation. “American” interest determined the leader of this rebellion ripe for assassination. The United States Ambassador relayed the message to Washington.
The United States government, pressured by the American mass media, took no stance on the conflict happening within Cuba. However, they did manage to directly support Batista with arms and training. As Batista’s government lost more ground to the rebels, the United States began charging those supplying capital to the rebel side of the conflict under conspiracy to violate US neutrality. A notion of a United States Lead military junta was also addressed, but blatantly refused by Batista. The next year, 1958, Batista fled. To the displeasure of the United States, Fidel Castro was elected Prime Minister in 1959 of the new Cuban government. Right away, Castro set to work repealing much of what was considered to be “American” owned interest.
From 1959 until recently, American foreign policy toward Cuba, has been in effort to shrug off this rebellion– in other words to dislodge Fidel Castro. The United States has never gotten over the fact that they lost exploitive control of the island nation. Cuba, on the other hand has never forgot that Castro gave them a chance to be rid of deeply seated “American” interest. At the time Castro came to power, there was much jubilation. Cubans felt that they had finally reached independence and with that independence freedom. Castro offered the Untied States good relations on terms of equality. The United States refused. Instead, they branded Castro as a communist dictator. Castro set about to change his perception on the world scene. He declared that Cuba’s revolution was not for export and justified that conditions in Cuba forced the outcome.
European powers reluctantly gave in to Cuba’s new reforms and accepted the compensations that the Cuban government offered for making those reforms. The United States did not. Instead the United States responded with attempts to punish and kill Castro. Fearing for the wellbeing of his country Castro turned to the Soviet Union for help. Fearing for his life, Castro retaliated against the United States by obliterating any and all interest the United States still had in the country. Tensions continued to rise, especially since Cuba had the United States archenemy on its side.
The United States launched several dirty warfare attacks to dislodge Castro. These efforts were of little use. They only spurred on Cuban complaints to the United Nations. By October 1960, the Untied States, confident on breaking Castro, ordered an embargo of Cuba. Everything minus food and medication was to be stopped in an effort to destabilize the government of Cuba or to at least make an example of them. The embargo was only to last as long as Castro did. Subsequent United States president after subsequent Untied States president was faced with the same choice. What to do with the Castro question? Since the dirty warfare tricks of the 1960s were not working, and since the notion of assassinating rival leaders around the world fell out of international favour, two options stood: Accept Cuba and its new regime or continue the embargo. This question stood to out last partisanship on both sides of the isle, The United States’ choice was and ever since has been to choose embargo.
Yet, attitudes toward this imposed embargo seem to be changing. Maybe because most Americans cannot remember what the embargo was actually all about. Perhaps it is because Castro is now in his ancient years and will no longer be able to direct the country. Or perhaps it is because the embargo has for the most part failed to achieve its goal. Regardless of the reason, there has been a push to normalize relations between the Cuban and American governments. In a way it that the United State’s justification for initiating the embargo, so that the leaders of world do not get the idea that it is ok to overthrow a government if they do not agree with its policies, as well as increasing the sanctions with in it, ensuring that the rights of individual property are maintained regardless of citizenship, is understandable, however, history has shown that Cuba did what all states eventually must do. Cuba acted in its own, not foreign, interest and has been for too long of time been punished for it.
- C U B A P O L I D A T A – U.S. defense policy toward Cuba (cubapolidata.com)
- Margarita Alarcon: Communication Breakdown (huffingtonpost.com)
- John McAuliff: The Lack of Memory of Cuban-American Congress Members (huffingtonpost.com)
- Anya Landau French: Not Fidel’s Cuba Anymore When Los Aldeanos Perform in Miami (huffingtonpost.com)
- Spain says U.S. willing to accept Cuban political prisoners (reuters.com)
- “Why Fidel #Castro speech on Friday mattered #Cuba” and related posts (marcmasferrer.typepad.com)