In the days just after the War of Independence, Liborio (the personification of Cuba in the same way Uncle Sam personifies the United States) was alone in the cane field, still cutting as others ate their meager lunches. He chopped through a row of cane to discover God, sitting in an expensive white suit on a little stool, the type colonos (sugar planters) used when they stopped to survey their property.
“Buenos días, Liborio,” said God. “I have come to see how my cubanos are doing.”
Liborio stood with his cloths soaked with sweat, his hands cracked and bleeding, his feet bare and filthy. He stuck his machete into the ground, spit out the piece of cane he had been chewing on and thought for a long time about what he should say to God. “First of all, Señor,” he said, “we are no longer subjects of the King of Spain. We are free men.”
“I can see that,” said God, looking at Liborio from head to foot. “The difference is astounding.”
“But I wonder something,” Liborio continued, “why life is still so hard.”
God smiled at him. “My son, nothing on this earth can be perfect, or nobody would want to go to Heaven. Sugar is sweet, but man has to labor to take it from the ground. The ocean is wide and bountiful, but it has sudden storms and dangerous currents to pull you under and drown you. This Cuba is so beautiful, the pearl of all my creation, so I had to make the pests, the mosquitoes, the sea urchin, the thorn of the marabú, all so life here would be less than paradise. Nothing can be perfect in this world.”
Liborio pondered this, trying to fathom the wisdom of God’s ways. “But nothing can mar the beauty of freedom,” he said finally. “Surely freedom is perfect?”
God smiled again, “For that,” he says, “I created los yanquis (the Americans).”
– Adapted from John Sayles, “Los Gusanos”
Since the foundation of the United States, when Thomas Jefferson advocated Cuba’s addition to the Union, a covetous and continuous Anglo gaze toward the forbidden island of pain has undergirded most of Cuba’s history. The greatest fear during the third and final War for Independence was the exchange of one colonial empire (Spain) for another (the U.S.).
José Martí, the intellectual leader of the revolution probably said it best in his last known letter prior to dying in battle: “Everyday I am in danger of giving my life for my country and my duty [is] . . . to prevent with the independence of Cuba, the U.S. from spreading over the Antilles and falling with additional force upon the lands of our América. All I have done thus far, and will do, is for this purpose . . . to prevent that Cuba be opened for the annexation by the Imperialists from beyond, . . . and with our blood block the annexation of the peoples of our América by the violent and brutal North that despises us . . . I know the Monster because I have lived in the belly of the beast; and my only weapon is the slingshot of David (trans. by author).”
Unfortunately, the worst fears became reality as the Cuban Revolutionary War for Independence transformed into the Spanish-American War, where the island’s aspirations were sacrificed to the greater global struggle between a declining Spaniard empire and an emerging U.S. empire. But rather than acquiring land, as has been the norm, the United States instead acquired the Cuban economy in its first steps into global imperialism and what would become the model for future “banana republics.” In Santiago de Cuba, the city from where the defeated colonial Spaniards departed and where no Cuban who fought for independence was allowed to enter for the ceremony, the Spanish colonial flag was lowered, replaced by the raising of the Stars and Stripes – not the Cuban flag!
By 1905, seven years since the end of the Spanish-American War, 60% of all rural land was owned by Americans. This means that 90% of Cuba’s main exports: sugar, tobacco, and rum (the three essentials of life) were U.S. bound. The U.S. mined all of Cuba’s main natural resource, nickel; and 50% of all of Cuba’s oil refineries were U.S. owned (the other 50% were owned by the British and Dutch). Cuba exported sugar and imported candy, exported tobacco and imported cigarettes, exported rum and imported drunken U.S. sailors, three of who on March 12, 1949 best signified how most Cubans understood their relationship with the U.S. when they urinated on Martí’s statue in La Habana. Gunboat diplomacy not only assured Cuba’s economy stayed subjected to U.S. business interests; but at least four times during the past century, landed U.S. troops to ensure who occupied the presidential palace.
Castro’s 1959 Revolution was not so much a Marxist revolution (although no doubt there were Marxist fighting as rebels with him, i.e., his brother Raul) rather; it was a Third-World Revolution against half a century of U.S. subjugation. Fidel’s speech on the day of his Revolution’s triumph is telling: “The history of 1895 will not be repeated; this time the liberators (mambises) will enter Santiago de Cuba.” Unfortunately, the U.S. attempt to squash, through invasions (Bay of Pigs) or CIA convert operations, any challenge to their Western Hemispheric hegemony propelled Cuba into the arms of a willing Soviet Union, subjugating the island to one empire so as to be protected from another as played out during the Cuban Missile Crises.
A collapse of the U.S. Cold War adversary led many to believe the eventual demised, in part due to the U.S. embargo, of Castro’s Cuba. The failure to bring about political change should have led the U.S. toward a more pragmatic approach decades ago, if not for the politically powerful Miami Cuban-American community and their elected Congressional representatives. Mindful of the swing-state role Florida has played in presidential elections, specifically in the 2000 election, have left many hoping to occupy the Oval Office lacking the fortitude to tackle this thorny issue. Maintaining a course that failed to work was politically the safest route.
But now, for a brief moment in time, President Obama, whose name will never be on another ballot, has an opportunity to reshape a failed foreign policy, by loosening, through executive orders, archaic travel regulations transforming the once impermeable embargo into Swiss cheese. Of course, some continue to argue that the embargo punishes the Castro brothers for their human rights violations; as if the U.S. since the release of the Senate torture report has a moral authority to lecture the world on human rights. And while no one questions that dictatorships of the left are just as damning to the people as the previous U.S.-sponsored dictatorships of the right, it should be obvious to all that Fidel and Raul are doing quite fine and will more than likely die peacefully in their bed of satin sheets, regardless of U.S. travel restrictions, or lack thereof.
I support Obama’s approach toward Cuba as ethical and politically astute for all the reasons others have thus far voiced. That the ones we are punishing, the ones going without, the ones who are suffering because of the embargo, are the people, not the Castro brothers. One does not need a doctorate in Political Science to figure out that the 55-year embargo failed to meet any of the goals voiced by President Eisenhower when enacted in 1960. That the excuse of Cuba’s blaming the U.S. for the surveillance apparatus that denies free speech or for the revolution’s economic failures will be discredited.
There are those who portray Cuba as a repressive regime, to which I agree. There are those who say Cuba will not live up to their obligations of freeing political prisoners; but so far they have. There are those who will not be satisfied until the Castro brothers are dragged through the streets and hung by their heels, these folks are probably best ignored. What does concern me as we begin to establish a relationship based on mutual respect for each other’s sovereignty is the island being swallowed up by a Miami-based neoliberal economic imperialism. Still, we must cautiously move forward because maybe, for the first time in Cuba’s history, they will be able to raise their own flag in Santiago de Cuba with integrity. Cuba’s form of government, regardless if I like or dislike it, is for the Cubans living on the island to determine for themselves.
As an ethicist who believes conversation is more likely to lead toward justice then failed punitive punishments; and as a Cuban who has experienced being torn from family members who no longer live, it is obvious that this new approach toward Cuba appears more moral than the unproductive hostile relationship of the past. If someone like me, who lost so much from the present Cuban regime, was prohibited from meeting my grandparents, visiting the house that held my family memories, was prohibited from eating from my grandmother’s garden and had family friends killed, who has spent a lifetime with no place to call home, who struggle to this day with coming to terms with my very identity, is able to say, along with the majority of Cuban-Americans as per the latest polls, that the time to reconcile has come, by what right does anyone have to prevent us from doing so?