Us and the Americans
How does history serve us to understand the origins of our problems and as a tool to interpret the present?
by Rafael Hernandez January 3, 2024
Original Spanish text in On Cuba
I saw the men of my generation, the lares, sing in ceremonies, rejoice
when Cuba and Fidel and that year 60 were just an inferior, invertebrate animal.
And I saw them later
when Cuba and Fidel and all those things were weight and color
and the strength and beauty necessary for a young mammal.
I ran with them
and I saw them run.
And the animal was surrounded with oil, with pine stakes so that no one would know
its shiny fur, its drum.
I was with my joyful ignorance, my rage, my colored feathers
at the old bonfire festivals
Cuba yes, Yankees no
There is a noble and beautiful animal surrounded by crossbows.
On the southern border the war has begun.
The plague, the famine, on the northern border.
The speaker is Antonio Cisneros, one of the greatest Peruvian poets. It is the year 1968. Cuba was that wounded, fenced animal. This is how the Latin Americans of that time saw it. In that mirror we also saw ourselves. Latin American solidarity comforted us. But that dangerous living did not diminish, nor did the perception of threat become a habit, daily life, which permeated everything, including politics, the economy, social and family relationships, morality, and faith.
As our main living Marxist philosopher, Jorge Luis Acanda, has pointed out, Cuban socialism “was not achieved by standardizing society, nor by converting it into a monolithic and monotonous block (something impossible), but by laying, in those years, the foundations of a more plural civil society, precisely because it is more inclusive than the previous one.” To do so, it had to defend itself in a real war, and sweep away its enemies, those who had opposed this national project since the time of Martí - saccharocracy, importing bourgeoisie, lumpen, armed institutions -, and confront the hegemonic power with who were allies long before. That war did not end, as some imagine, when the rebels against the Revolution were defeated.
He had to travel that path alone because, while those formidable powers waged incessant war on him from his early childhood and managed to surround him, as Cisneros says, his only allies, the Soviet bloc and China, which did not share that project of Cuban-style socialism , they tried to subordinate him in their own way.
It is not strange, then, that in that stormy environment, isolated and trapped in a geopolitical equation that surpassed it, the political project was necessarily transformed, to the same extent that its survival made national security the main variable.
This logic dictated radical measures, such as the massive transfer of the families of the rebels and collaborators to towns in Pinar del Río and Camagüey, a special military service for those who were not reliable in the handling of "the new technique" of weapons coming from the USSR (disaffected, religious, homosexuals), the massive nationalization of 58 thousand small businesses alleging “illegality, low integration of the owners to the Revolution, antisocial living conditions, dirty businesses, theft and bribery.”
As often happens with political reason, these measures were justified ideologically: “If this Revolution can be reproached for anything, it is not at all about having been extremist but in any case about not having been radical enough. And we must not lose the opportunity or let the time pass to radicalize this Revolution more and more.” (FC, March 13, 1968).
Judging those policies as excessive or erroneous, seen from today, does not prevent us from understanding that none of them were the cause but rather the consequence of a situation created by the conflict. And explaining them without taking into account the circumstance of entrenchment, perception of threat, preeminence of security and instinct of conservation, lacks historical sense.
Why remember all this, so many years later? Well, because when talking about the origins of our current evils, many seem to ignore that past, or have forgotten it. As if the haze of yesterday turned red as what was narrated becomes remote, in the manner of those celestial bodies that move away more and more quickly from our galaxy, and that is why their light reaches us at the red wavelength, that clouds everything.
How does this history serve us, not only to understand the origins of our problems, but as a tool of analysis in the interpretation of the present? How does it relate to our current context, internal/external, especially with our relations with North and South America, with the world? Can you help us foresee what is coming?
Thinking about the present as history requires rewinding the video a little , and contrasting it with our contexts. The first thing that stands out is that Cuba stopped having, for the United States, the importance that it had during the Cold War.
In the 60s we were a threat perceived by the United States, through the lenses of the domino theory, when the ghost of “other Cubas” inspired its Latin American policy. Surrounding it by all means, except direct invasion, was the spell. As is known, that almost perfect siege, which barely left Cuba as interlocutors for the national liberation movements, rather made the prophecy self-fulfilling, being a decisive factor in the proliferation of guerrilla armies inspired by the Cuban Revolution.
Since the early 1970s, the American republics of the South realized the counterproductive effect of this siege on their security interests, and not only reestablished relations with the island, but also asked the United States to do so, starting in 1974. In fact, that Caribbean and Latin American thaw (in that order), which Cuba was quick to reciprocate, had its effect on the Carter Administration's approach to us. Do not forget that this rapprochement took place despite the fact that the Cuban-Soviet alliance was at its highest point, and thousands of Cuban troops were deployed in the southwest and the Horn of Africa.
As is known, according to declassified documents and interviews with the actors, Carter had the intention, if he had been re-elected, to continue seeking dialogue, despite the incidents in Congress about “Soviet brigades” and other nonsense, and even of the Mariel exodus.
In other words, the Latin American context was then the main driver of an understanding between Cuba and the US. And even the alliances with the USSR and with the African liberation movements kept it as a priority. Of course, in geopolitical terms.
Today's Cuba is not on the US radar as in those times, nor as in the 80s, when, under the Reagan Administration, it was identified in terms of a global threat, preceded only by the USSR. Of course not. The great paradox is, however, that the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Africa and military advisors in Nicaragua, the end of the Central American wars, and the collapse of European and Soviet socialism, by erasing Cuba from the radar of the threats from the US, did not give way to normalization, but rather threw it into the basement of its geopolitical priorities.
The paradox would have another realpolitik explanation. Why negotiate with a small country, economically and militarily dependent on allies that have vanished, involved in a multiple crisis, and with a Castro “in his final hour,” as that Miami best-seller announced?
Since the end of the USSR, more than thirty years ago, the Cuban economy has not recovered; With ups and downs, the crisis has continued. But neither the protests of July 2021, nor the massive migratory flow, nor the visibility of dissent that mobile data has fostered - although they represent political symptoms of unrest and the narrowing of consensus - have so far caused signs of ungovernability, lack of control , political destabilization.
What is the US waiting for? Wouldn't it be better for them to continue Obama's policy, the search for a dialogue that expands the surface of contact, instead of closing it? Wouldn't it be smarter to continue weaving a network of agreements that, as happens with all of these, oblige the two parties, technically, to subject their sovereignty to those freely assumed commitments?
To use a historical parallel, if instead of falling into the spiral of war, the United States and Cuba had discussed their differences, would the revolutionary process have been so dizzying and so radical? I do not mention it to imagine what could have been, as some hypothetical historians do, but to point out an angle of the problem, understood not in a rationalist way, but in a political way: that radical conflict accelerated and took everything planned further, it forced what was imagined as possible or viable, it closed the differences between the revolutionary forces, and most especially, it encouraged the search for alliances wherever they existed.
Today we repeat that everything Cuba can do to channel the conflict with the United States is insignificant, since the initiative is on Washington's side, and we remain locked in a Cold War bubble. That the future of relations is decided in the electoral campaign and the Cuban-American votes in Florida. That a Republican senator and another Democrat have the bond of those relationships in their hands, and they have tied it into a knot around the president's neck. As long as the application of Title III of the Helms-Burton is not suspended, we are on the black list of terrorist countries, and Americans cannot stay in hotels in Gaviota, there will be no signs of change worth recording. To close this iron mask, the 400 thousand Cubans who have left cultivate the same legitimate fury and resentment against the communist regime as the first exiles, so the Republican Cuban-American vote will inevitably be determined by the harshness of their candidate regarding Cuba.
As for this side, it has been said and repeated that Cuba was not as flexible and pragmatic as it could have been during Obama's short summer; while the White House made unilateral concessions.
However, at later times it could still contribute to recovering relations, especially through two key levers. The first, given the crucial weight of the Washington-Caracas-Havana triangle as an obstacle in relations, Cuba had in its hands to convince Maduro to relax with the opposition, responding to pressure from the EU and other countries in the region, as well as lowering the profile of its relations with Russia and Iran. The second, that to motivate this Administration it was advisable to release all those convicted of the actions of July 11, 2021 once and for all.
The above is premised on the fact that the laser of US policy towards Cuba is focused on one point: regime change. For economic reasons (recover the properties nationalized in 1959-68), political (reestablish the capitalist order and liberal democracy), strategic (restore the order of the inter-American system advocated in the TIAR and the OAS) and ideological (reinforce the Monroe doctrine in its version 4.0).
Our focus, to paraphrase, is to “save everything that can be saved”; that is, “preserve the conquests of the Revolution” (education, health, social security...), guide ourselves by political pragmatism (conceptually different from realism) in order to survive and grow (conceptually different from development), remember that we are an island in the Gulf similar to others, in whose normality lies our prosperity and future (as opposed to believing ourselves “unique” and “exceptional”), and whose comparative advantage lies in the vicinity of a vast natural market, which is also that of a great hegemonic power, a geopolitical condition to which we must adapt our ideas and projects to the maximum.
I do not have space in this first article of the year to discuss, in light of history, the degree of validity of all these theses (which I do not share).
I end by just noting, as in a memorandum, some points to keep in mind when we examine that key dimension that is the hemispheric, regional and global dynamics in which we move, with historical lenses.
Like that fly in Cortázar's story, which flew upside down, US policy has remained the same, while the world has changed. That wouldn't be too serious, for a fly of that size, if it weren't head down only towards Cuba.
On the other hand, we have never had, neither after nor before 1959, such a respectful, diverse and dialogic relationship, politically speaking, with the different regions and countries, taken as a whole.
Despite the kidnapping of Argentina and some other center-right governments, there are still more Latin Americans and Caribbeans close to Cuba, and some among the largest, such as Mexico, Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia. Beyond that pink wave or whatever it is called, the last Summit of the Americas revealed to what extent the alignment against the US exclusion policy reached a critical point.
Beyond this closeness, the crisis of confidence in Latin American democracies has also reached an unprecedented climax. The demand for States capable of dealing with poverty, inequality, inflation, but also with human insecurity, organized crime, epidemics, inflated migratory flows, low growth rates, is multiplying. The levels of discrepancy and tension with the North have risen and have spread among those Southern American countries, small and large. The problems that afflict this Cuba are not exotic or predetermined by ideology. Curiously, they seem more common than those you may share with China and Vietnam.
Finally, in the 60s-80s, our main partners were at odds with each other; Now they seem allies. This revived alliance, although different from the one of yesteryear, reminds me of a survey from a year or so ago, with which I want to end this New Year's rant. I posted a question on Facebook: “Does getting closer to Russia and China harm a change in relations with the United States?” Or does it favor it?”
Among the 76 people who responded, almost all of them Cuban, distributed inside and outside the island, the thesis that I have noted above are reiterated. In most cases, they go beyond the simple question in my survey. I put some, just to give an idea of their color.
"It does not matter. “The US doesn’t give a damn about that.” “Ukraine and its bad relations with China show that it disadvantages them.” “In any case, there will be no conversations, due to the rudeness and stubbornness of the Cuban Government or the collective blindness of certain circles of power.” “Likewise, there will never be rapprochement due to the essence of gringo politics. So relations with countries outside gringo control are welcome.” “Nothing to see.” “USA is only a blockade. China and Russia the hope.” “Let's wake up from the American dream. Academicism leads us to dreamlike error. “We are like the Deep South for the US. It is irreconcilable with our independence.” “We demand this change, regardless of our relations with friendly countries.” “We are already allies of Russia and China, and the US considers us enemies. “It is a matter of survival.” “We cannot get out of our economic quagmire. Today the relations benefit us, as in the past with the USSR. With Russia and China they should influence the international community according to their positions. But due to geography, security and density of ties, none is more important for Cuba than with the United States.” “The fate of Cuba cannot be decided in the toilets of Congress.” “It's a matter of survival.” “The US has a policy to make the millions of Cubans more obedient. Having relations with China and Russia is better for them [Cubans].” “If they were smart, the Yankees would remove the blockade from us.” “How bad we are when we keep looking for tits to hit. Look within, to produce our milk.” “The only solution is to get up and walk. If the conditions are met, it can be negotiated later. “First you have to breathe.” “As long as we have a blockade, no one can think that Cuba should not look for alternatives.” “The USA doesn't care when it comes to their interests.” “Get closer?!!!” “It may not be possible to answer that question in the current state of the world.” “Change has never depended on Cuba. The best thing is to get closer to friends.” “Foreign policy must be a mixture of principles and interests, that of the US is pure interests; that of Cuba, no.” “When someone so close bites us, we can't turn our backs on whoever is pulling our hand.” “I have difficulties with the question.”
Those that strictly address the question offer interesting arguments. “Cuba is in the Western Hemisphere. Area of influence of Russia and China is in the Far East.” “It depends on the area of influence in which Cuba remains after the recomposition of the current world order is completed. Could Cuba have its polar loyalty on the other side of the world, being 90 miles from the US?” “[Relations with China and Russia] favor the relationship with the US for geopolitical balance.” “It helps us that [the US] sees that we are not alone.” “It favors them, because it strengthens us.” "Yeah. We must make them nervous, perhaps uncomfortable.”
There is a lot of wheat in some more elaborate answers, which I would like to thresh at another time. And many more reflections that derive from how this load of comments are aligned around realpolitik, pragmatism, values, principles and peculiar views on history, ours, that of the world of the Cold War.
I put them among my good resolutions for 2024.