Jan. 2015. Historical Myopia over Cuba

I originally submitted a much shortened version of this to the Miami Herald.  They didn’t publish it, but my loyal, local, Keene Sentinel did.  Here is the original long version:

Historical Myopia over Cuba

To the Editor:

The recent debates over President Obama’s plans to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba suffer from a lack of a historical perspective. Andres Oppenheimer’s Miami Herald analysis (“It’s probably too soon to call Cuba policy change ‘historic,’” reprinted in the Thursday, Dec. 18 edition of The Keene Sentinel), for instance, presents a timeline that begins with the Cuban Revolution of 1959, as if all we need to know about the history of US-Cuban relations begins with Castro’s establishment of a Communist regime on the island.

To appreciate fully the fundamental issues concerning our relationship with our neighbor 90 miles off of the Florida coast, however, we must go must further back in time.

As early as 1823, Thomas Jefferson wrote to the then President James Monroe, who was formulating what has come to be known as the Monroe Doctrine (declaring the Western Hemisphere off-limits to European interference), stating: “I have ever looked on Cuba as the most interesting addition which could ever be made to our system of states.” Monroe’s Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams, went further, and in a letter to the American ambassador to Spain said “ . . . it is scarcely possible to resist the conviction that the annexation of Cuba to our federal republic will be indispensable to the continuance and integrity of the Union itself.”

In 1854, US State Department officials proposed the annexation of Cuba from Spain—a proposal that alarmed Northern members of Congress who did not want to accept another slave state into the Union. Nothing became of this so-called Ostend Manifesto, and slavery on Cuba continued under Spanish rule until 1880.

The harsh repression of the Cuban people by the Spanish general Valeriano Weyler after the failure of a rebellion led by José Martí in 1895 was extensively covered in American newspapers, as the yellow journalism of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal whipped the country into a war-fever in an effort to sell more newspapers. After the US warship Maine blew up in harbor of Havana (not, as was reported at the time, by a Spanish torpedo but, rather, as an accident—its gunpowder magazine being stored next to the engine room), Congress, on April 20, 1898, authorized President McKinley to use force to remove the Spanish from Cuba; a Senator from Colorado added to this authorization bill the Teller Amendment, which declared that the US should not annex Cuba but to “to leave the government and control of the island to its people.”

Following the remarkably short Spanish-American War—a conflict that McKinley’s Secretary of State, John Hays, called a “splendid little war”—the US had by August of 1898 wrestled from Spain control not only of Cuba, but also of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. By 1901, the newly established government in Cuba was forced to accept the terms of the Platt Amendment, which gave the US rights to maintain military bases on the island and the right to intervene in the foreign and domestic policies of the Cuban government. Under the terms of the Platt Amendment, the US invaded Cuba in 1906, 1912, 1917, and 1920.

Although the terms of the Platt Amendment were technically abandoned under Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy, the US government repeatedly used its military power to establish, and re-establish, the regime of General Fulgencio Batista in Cuba from the 1930s to the 1959 Revolution, and US companies continued their economic dominance of the island, controlling the vast majority of Cuban utilities, mines, oil refineries, and cattle ranches.

So, while of course it is important to see Obama’s Cuban initiative in terms of the end of a Cold-War policy, we also need to see the longer-term trends here. The Cuban people may well embrace the end of the blocado that has clearly hurt them more than it has the Castro regime, but they should be wary of the idea that a return of the US to Cuba will lead to their political or economic independence.

Dec. 30, 2014