Barack Obama visits Cuba this week which marks the first time in 88 years that a sitting US president has visited the island. With increasing pressure exerted on the US by several Latin American countries and with mediation from Pope Francis, Obama has taken steps to normalise diplomatic relations, has eased trade restrictions on Cuba and has advocated an end to the Cuban embargo which requires approval from US Congress.
For many Americans Cuba has connotations of dictatorship and association with the Soviet Union. Therefore it should come as no great surprise that a large portion of Americans harbour considerable hostility for the Cuban Government. If you get your knowledge through the lens of the US propaganda system this is an entirely reasonable point of view. From an American perspective, their government has always been a friend to Cuba, assisting them in their liberation from Spanish colonialists in 1898, and supporting their government up until the revolution. Then suddenly all this cooperation and friendliness was disturbed by a group of guerrilla fighters who overthrew the government which was our ally and could be relied upon to serve our interests whatever they may be. They then punished US businesses operating in Cuba, and allied with our great enemy the Soviet Union, compounded by their request to bring nuclear missiles into Cuba which led to the missile crisis and threatened the peace and security of Americans. Again, the conclusion that the Cuban government are the embodiment of anti-Americanism and that the revolution brought regression to Cuba is quite logical within this framework. The only problem? It’s utterly antithetical to reality. To understand the US’ paternalistic relationship with Cuba you really have to have an awareness of the Monroe Doctrine which played an instrumental role in the formation of American policy in Latin America. The doctrine essentially stated that the Western Hemisphere was to be exclusively the domain of the United States, President Monroe declared that the traditional imperial powers in Europe should not intervene in the affairs of Latin American countries and the mercantilist policies pursued by the Spanish and Portuguese should end because it prevented American economic expansion in the region. The Monroe Doctrine was established in 1823 during a time when the British reigned supreme in much of the world, for this reason exerting US influence in Latin America and implementing the doctrine was not achievable because of the deterrent of the British fleet. But as British power gradually waned and the Spanish and Portuguese lost their grip on the colonies, an opportunity for the US to impose its will on the southern hemisphere opened up. In 1898 the US acted to prevent the Cuban liberation from the Spanish, and turned it into a virtual US colony ensuring that legitimate independence would have to wait. Instead of outright annexation the US decided to grant Cuba partial independence under terms set by the US government which would guarantee a system of control for the US. In the years that followed America would exercise almost complete economic and military dominance over the island, intervening militarily in Cuban affairs several times to maintain its control over the country. The treaty Cuba signed under military occupation in 1903 is still used by the US today as a justification for the occupation of Guantánamo Bay where they operate a naval base. Guantánamo Bay has become notorious for the torture camp established during the War On Terror in 2003, it’s often criticised by rights groups and the international community, but what’s often neglected in the discussion about the torture camp is that the US occupation of Guantánamo has no legitimacy. The Cuban government has repeatedly exhorted the US government to return the territory to Cuba and has refused to accept the rent checks from the US, but the US cite a provision from the treaty which requires mutual agreement before the lease of Guantánamo ends. The way the US government phrases their argument makes it sound like the Cuban people consented to the leasing of the land to the US which suffice to say is ludicrous. Under international law treaties imposed by force are illegal, in addition the terms of the treaty have been violated by the US which have allowed commercial use of the Bay. One of the most shameful moments in the history of the US’ relationship with Cuba was its support of murderous dictator Fulgencio Batista, the US supplied Batista with everything a tyrant could desire: military, financial and logistical support. Batista neglected the Cuban people displaying apathy towards their wishes for better education, health care and housing and conversely helped the US advance the interests of American corporations which saw their profits rise; US influence was so dominant that the US ambassador to Cuba said: “Until Castro, the U.S. was so overwhelmingly influential in Cuba that the American ambassador was the second most important man, sometimes even more important than the Cuban president.” The worst crimes Batista’s forces committed were the murders of thousands of Cubans with US backing. The US’ position of supporting Batista became so untenable that in 1958 they stopped supplying weapons to him and imposed an arms embargo on Cuba. Castro and his group of guerilla fighters which included Che Guevara fought valiantly and managed to defeat Batista and his forces. In an effort to resolve the US’ economic domination of Cuba they nationalised the exploitative US businesses operating in Cuba which elicited a hostile response in Washington. The US government then imposed a vicious embargo on Cuba and conspired to overthrow the Cuban government by training and arming a paramilitary group comprised of Cuban exiles. It quickly became apparent that the US attempt to overthrow Castro was failing and the Bay Of Pigs invasion became a major embarrassment to the Kennedy administration, in addition to the overt aggression the CIA was also involved in covert plots to assassinate Fidel Castro which thankfully failed. Following the outright aggression from the US, Cuba established ties with the Soviet Union and placed Soviet nuclear missiles on its island feeling it would act as a deterrent against US attempts at regime change. The Soviets later agreed to dismantle their weapons in Cuba in exchange for a promise from the US government that they would not invade Cuba without direct provocation. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 Cuba lost its primary trading partner which resulted in food shortages and a lack of basic goods and was forced to diversify its economy into biotechnology and tourism. In 2006 during the calamitous hurricane Katrina the Cuban government offered to send its health workers to America to help the victims but the US government declined. When Fidel Castro stepped down due to declining health the legislative parliament of Cuba voted for his brother Raul to succeed him.
JFK on the US’ support of Batista:
“Fulgencio Batista murdered 20,000 Cubans in seven years … and he turned Democratic Cuba into a complete police state—destroying every individual liberty. Yet our aid to his regime, and the ineptness of our policies, enabled Batista to invoke the name of the United States in support of his reign of terror. Administration spokesmen publicly praised Batista—hailed him as a staunch ally and a good friend—at a time when Batista was murdering thousands, destroying the last vestiges of freedom, and stealing hundreds of millions of dollars from the Cuban people, and we failed to press for free elections. I believe that there is no country in the world including any and all the countries under colonial domination, where economic colonization, humiliation and exploitation were worse than in Cuba, in part owing to my country’s policies during the Batista regime. I approved the proclamation which Fidel Castro made in the Sierra Maestra, when he justifiably called for justice and especially yearned to rid Cuba of corruption. I will even go further: to some extent it is as though Batista was the incarnation of a number of sins on the part of the United States. Now we shall have to pay for those sins. In the matter of the Batista regime, I am in agreement with the first Cuban revolutionaries. That is perfectly clear.”
When Obama announced that he was visiting Cuba this month it was accompanied with this assertion: “America will always stand for human rights around the world”
A cursory look at the US’ history in Latin America makes a mockery of that claim.
You’d be hard pressed to find a country in Latin America which has come away unscathed from US interference or intervention. The innumerable crimes have been well documented but today I’ll focus on post World War 2 crimes. Less than a year after the US overthrew the democratically elected prime-minister of Iran they were involved in another coup in Guatemala in 1954. Jacobo Arnetz was democratically elected and was in the process of making gradual improvements to the daily life of Guatemalan people but this conflicted with US corporations who were preoccupied with making as much profit as they could. At the behest of the United Fruit Company the CIA orchestrated the coup and their forces invaded Guatemala bombing the city and conducting a campaign of psychological warfare. The US-backed dictator reversed the reforms, and gathered peasant leaders, executing them and conditions for the people of the country quickly deteriorated. In the years that followed the US would support the repressive authoritarian rulers who committed unspeakable crimes against the people. During this period the Guatemalan army committed genocide against the Mayan people and assassinated several catholic priests and nuns who supported the rights of the Mayan people. Historian Greg Grandin stated that: “There is general consensus today among academics and Guatemalan intellectuals that 1954 signalled the beginning of what would become the most repressive state in the hemisphere, a state responsible for the torture and murder of two hundred thousand of its citizens”
In Chile, president Allende who was also democratically elected was overthrown in a coup in 1973 led by Augusto Pinochet which was supported by the US. During Pinochet’s rule his forces committed sexual abuse, torture and killed thousands of people. While the CIA denied playing any direct role in the coup the years of destabilisation of Allendes’ government provided the conditions required for Pinochet to rise to power. The US also consolidated his power by making Pinochet’s officers into paid members of the CIA and US military. In Nicaragua the US’ interference is particularly sinister. They overtly supported tyrannical ruler Somaza who was overthrown by the Sandinistas in 1979. The US led by Reagan in the early 1980’s authorised a covert war against Nicaragua by funding and training a death squad known as the Contras. The Contras’ crimes were so significant that the US Congress banned support of them, but the Reagan administration defied this and continued to aid the terrorists. Crimes included torture, kidnapping, rape of women and indiscriminate attacks on civilians. Human Rights Watch released a report in 1989 stating: “The Contras were major and systematic violators of the most basic standards of the laws of armed conflict, including by launching indiscriminate attacks on civilians, selectively murdering non-combatants, and mistreating prisoners. The International Court Of Justice condemned the US for its terrorism in 1986 but the US dismissed it and blocked enforcement of the judgement by the UN Security Council thereby preventing compensation to the Nicaraguan people. While all of this was ongoing the US continued to rationalise their policies under the guise of promoting democracy.
“In a 1981 study, human rights researcher Lars Schoultz concluded that US aid “has tended to flow disproportionately to Latin American governments which torture their citizens…to the hemisphere’s relatively egregious violators of fundamental human rights.” In 1998, Latin American professor Martha Huggins stated “that the more foreign police aid given (by the United States), the more brutal and less democratic the police institutions and their governments become.”
These are just a small selection of the extensive list of US crimes in Latin America, and Obama is no doubt aware of them which makes his remarks so contemptible and offensive to people who have suffered and been killed because of the US’ policies. For all the talk from Western media about human rights violations in Cuba, one thing always remains conspicuously absent. The largest human rights violator in Cuba is not the Cuban government itself but the United States who operate a torture camp on the island which is illegal under international law. Many of the detainees are denied a fair trial, and have been subjected to degrading and inhuman torture. In addition the inhumane embargo imposed on Cuba has been repeatedly condemned by the UN, and most states in the world including even the US’ most loyal allies are against the embargo. Since 1992 the UN General Assembly has passed a resolution every year condemning the impact of the embargo and declaring it to be in violation of the charter of the UN and international law.
Marjorie Cohn professor at Thomas Jefferson School Of Law writes in the Huffington Post:
“The U.S. government criticizes civil and political rights in Cuba while disregarding Cubans’ superior access to universal housing, health care, education, and its guarantee of paid maternity leave and equal pay rates. Meanwhile, the U.S. government has committed serious human rights violations on Cuban soil, including torture, cruel treatment, and arbitrary detention at Guantanamo. And since 1960, the United States has expressly interfered with Cuba’s economic rights and its right to self-determination through the economic embargo.
The U.S. embargo of Cuba, now a blockade, was initiated by President Dwight D. Eisenhower during the Cold War in response to a 1960 memo written by a senior State Department official. The memo proposed “a line of action that makes the greatest inroads in denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and the overthrow of the [Castro] government.” That goal has failed, but the punishing blockade has made life difficult in Cuba. In spite of that inhumane effort, however, Cuba guarantees its people a remarkable panoply of human rights.”
John Pilger’s informative documentary on the US War On Nicaragua:
Despite the embargo and terrorism inflicted on Cuba, they have made some remarkable accomplishments and humanitarian contributions both domestically and abroad since the revolution in 1959. The Cuban government prioritised both education and healthcare understanding that if the new system was to survive it was vital those two necessities were taken care of. The first of these was the 1961 literacy campaign which was designed to teach people to read and write. Prior to the revolution the literacy rate in Cuba was between 60 & 76 percent. The campaign was a resounding success and taught thousands these essential skills, the literacy rate was consequently raised to 96%. Expenditure on education is also relatively high and has led to a high level of educational achievement. In addition prior to the revolution many people who were impoverished were denied access to education, following the revolution these children were now afforded free access to education. Apologists for US imperialism claim all of these facts are propaganda but organisations like the UN and the World Bank have heaped praise on these accomplishments; in 2006 Gallup conducted research on the opinions of Cuban people in the two largest cities, a high percentage of them expressed satisfaction with their education system. Cuba’s achievements in education are no doubt profound but when it comes to healthcare they’re just off the charts. Despite being a third world country with very little wealth its life expectancy is on par with developed countries like the US, it has the lowest child mortality rate in Latin America and Unicef has commended the Cuban government for tackling child malnutrition. Last year the World Health Organisation confirmed that Cuba became the first country to eliminate transmission of HIV and syphilis from mother to baby. They described this success as “one of the greatest public health achievements possible” Cuba has made some impressive medical innovations, most notably a vaccine for meningitis B which has been administrated in countries throughout the world, they’ve also made a possible breakthrough in the treatment of lung cancer, climavax-evg a therapeutic cancer vaccine was the result of a 25 year research project and has aroused interest of the medical community in the US, doctors in the US are very excited about getting to clinically test it. Thomas Rothstein a biologist at the Feinstein Institute For Medical Research said: “The Cubans are thinking in ways that are novel and clever” Cuba is also renowned for its medical internationalism and played a pivotal role in alleviating the suffering caused by the ebola crisis in 2014. In fact, its positive role in Africa has been so important than Cuba was the first country heroic anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela thanked following the collapse of the racist system in South Africa. The achievements since the revolution are extensive and must not be trivialised, but equally the flaws and human rights violations by Castro’s government must not be whitewashed or forgotten. Cuba like many countries during that time had a society replete with homophobia, and the Cuban government imprisoned innocent gay and trans people without charge or trial often subjecting them to harsh treatment. Ana Marrero a trans woman said: “It was horrible, we couldn’t have a life. In those days the Cuban government was very backward and cruel about homosexuality.”
Gradually Cuba has become more progressive when it comes to LGBTQ rights, a few years ago Cuba elected its first trans woman to office and in 2010 Fidel Castro apologised and took responsibility for the persecution of LGBTQ people but nothing can excuse that shameful chapter in Cuba’s history. The Cuban government also adopted censorship and has an abject record when it comes to press freedom and civil liberties. Dissidents are also treated improperly and often detained without charge. The Cuban government also treated the internet with suspicion and it’s among one of the most tightly controlled in the world, however there have been gradual improvements in the last few years. There is undoubtedly compelling evidence that the good the Cuban government has done exceeds the bad, but like any state it is susceptible to abusing its power, and this makes uncritical support of it a danger. Genuine supporters of Cuba will not downplay the very real grievances of Cuban expats, or try and rationalise its flaws, but work to make Cuba a true model for the world.
Nelson Mandela on Cuba:
“We have come here today recognizing our great debt to the Cuban people. What other country has such a history of selfless behavior as Cuba has shown for the people of Africa? How many countries benefit from Cuban health care professionals and educators? How many of these volunteers are now in Africa? What country has ever needed help from Cuba and has not received it? How many countries threatened by imperialism or fighting for their freedom have been able to count on the support of Cuba? I was still in prison when I first heard of the massive help which the Cuban international forces were giving to the people of Angola. The help was of such a scale that it was difficult for us to believe it, when the Angolans were under attack by the combined forces of South Africa, the FALA [Armed Forces for the Liberation of Angola] who were financed by the CIA, mercenaries, UNITA [National Union for the Total Independence of Angola], and Zaire in 1975. In Africa we are used to being victims of countries that want to take from us our territory or overthrow our sovereignty. In African history there is not another instance where another people has stood up for one of ours. We also acknowledge that the action was carried out by the masses in Cuba and that those who fought and died in Angola are only a small portion of those who volunteered to go. To the Cuban people internationalism is not only a word but something which they have put into practice for the benefit of large sectors of mankind. We know that the Cuban forces were ready to retreat after driving back the invasion in 1975 but the continued aggressions of Pretoria did not allow them to do so. Your presence there and the reinforcements sent for the battle of Cuito Cuanavale has a historical meaning. The decisive defeat of the racist army in Cuito Cuanavale was a victory for all Africa. This victory in Cuito Cuanavale is what made it possible for Angola to enjoy peace and establish its own sovereignty. The defeat of the racist army made it possible for the people of Namibia to achieve their independence.”
While Obama’s less extreme approach to Cuba is a welcome departure from decades of US terrorism and demonisation of Cuba, it still falls far beneath the standards expected of anyone who claims to be an upholder of human rights. No admission of wrongdoing on the US’ part nor does Obama acknowledge that the immoral and illegal occupation of Guantanamo Bay which serves as a naval base for the US should end. This is what Obama’s Press Secretary Josh Earnest said regarding returning Guantanamo Bay to Cuba:”The naval base is not something that we believe should be closed” Some will describe Obama’s willingness to engage with Cuba as a noble act, and again when compared with the major extremists in the Republican party that doesn’t appear unreasonable, but Obama’s Cuba policy isn’t motivated by benevolence but by political necessity; if the US continued down the path of embargo their isolation in Latin America would have only increased. In 2012 several Latin American countries threatened to boycott future Americas Summits if Cuba’s ostracism didn’t end. Obama like anyone living in the real world understands perfectly well that the US’ policy towards Cuba in the last 60 years has been counterproductive in achieving what it was designed to do: Weaken the Cuban government, and see a transition to a Pro-US government which is amenable to the interests of US corporations. Obama claims the US no longer wishes to oust the Castro government, and perhaps it’s true for some US politicians, but US Congress is controlled by extremists from the Republican party who still want regime change in Cuba, and have been vehemently critical of Obama’s steps at normalising relations with Cuba. Bearing that in mind, Cuba should remain very wary of the US government, and skeptical of accepting Obama’s rhetoric of changing course.
Maria de los Angeles Flores, A resident from Havana on Obama’s historic visit:
“The most important thing in the world after 90 years is for a black president come here to Cuba to unite the relationship and end all the wickedness that existed, for the economic blockade to end, for the humiliation over the Guantanamo Naval Base to end. The world needs peace,”
Since 1959 the Cuban people have demonstrated that they will not be manipulated by the US government, and that they will stand firm in their resistance to US imperialism. They’ve won the support of legions of people in Latin America, including thousands across the globe who have also been impacted by US aggression.
The US’ desire to normalise relations is a tacit acknowledgment of the failure of their policies towards Cuba since the revolution and a testament to the achievements of the Cuban people. They have succeeded in resisting US imperialism which is no small feat.