MONTGOMERY VILLAGE, MD., December 17, 2014 — Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista fled the country on January 1, 1959, conceding it to Fidel Castro and his revolutionaries. The United States had maintained close relations to the Batista regime, and the strongest ties were economic.
Under Batista, Cuba was known in the hemisphere as the “pleasure center;” the rest of Latin America used a less polite term to describe it. Other countries in Latin America were envious of the economic ties between Cuba and the US and the affluence that it brought to the island, but they also were aware of the corruption that reigned in the island. There was the feeling of “anything goes”, especially related to the American tourist trade.
Castro’s promise to Cubans was that he would end this perception by reforming the government and the economy. This promise had a nationalistic undertone that did not play well in Washington. After a series of confusing developments on both sides, the US and Cuba became political and ideological adversaries. Cuba became the first Soviet satellite country in the Western Hemisphere.
On April 17, 1961 a force of Cuban expatriates, trained by the CIA, landed in Cuba’s Bay of Pigs to invade the country. The clamor and support the group expected from the Cubans never materialized, and the invasion was a very public failure, further freezing relations between Washington and Havana.
Playing on the Cuban fears of invasion, the Soviets started sending missiles to the island. This move by the Soviets was not expected, as they were very protective of their more sophisticated tactical weapons. When the US found out about the missiles, a terse standoff ensued. The US implemented a blockade of the island. At the time it was thought that the two super powers were at the verge of nuclear war. This took place in October 1962.
The October missiles crisis was finally defused when Nikita Khruschev, the Soviet premier, agreed to remove the missiles. The agreement also included a commitment from the U.S. not to invade Cuba. While many observers hailed the negotiation as a triumph for Kennedy and the U.S., some would say that it had been the long term plan of the Soviets when they deployed missiles to the island.
Between 1962 and today, the relationship between Cuba and the US has been adversary. The U.S. added additional sanctions to the blockade, as Cuba was seen as a bed of communist revolutionary ideology for the rest of the hemisphere. This made the island completely dependent on the Soviet Union and its allies for survival.
As the years passed and the Cuban became more subtle in their ideological and bellicose ideals, economic ties between the island and the rest of the world became more and more normal. The U.S., however, refused to reduce its hard line stance.
During the presidency of Jimmy Carter, the US accepted a dare by Fidel Castro to accept many Cubans that wanted to immigrate to the US. In the months that followed, more than 125,000 refugees were accepted by the US. The so called “Mariel boatlift” was stopped when the U.S. government discovered that among the refugees were convicted criminals and mental health patients.
This wave of immigrants differed dramatically from the previous exodus of Cubans from the island to the U.S. During the 1960s, most of the Cuban refugees were people of means, mostly white and well educated. The Marielistas were mostly more humble people with less education.
For the last 20 years, some would say longer, the US has been the only country that implemented strict economic, academic and diplomatic sanctions against the Cubans. Despite Washington’s softer stance toward some past foes, like the Vietnamese and the Chinese, Cuba remains in a classification of its own.
That changed this week, when President Obama declared a new era for relations with Cuba. After an exchange of prisoners, several changes were revealed to the public.
Among those changes are the establishment of diplomatic relations, relaxation of travel restriction and softening of economic sanctions. There are still laws that limit any further “rapprochement” between the two countries which the President cannot unilaterally alter. Congress will have to pass legislation in that respect.
For close to 55 years, some Cuban refugees and the U.S. government have been waiting for economic penalties on Cuba to force the overthrow of Fidel and Raul Castro. For all those years, this approach has not worked. For all those years, the main victims have been the people of Cuba.
The scarcity of food, drugs and basic consumer goods have taken a toll on the inhabitants of the island. Despite these difficulties, the Cuban people have managed to stay on top in sports, medicine and some cultural affairs; but they likely would trade that for a better quality of life.
Showing Cubans the reward of an open society, rather than punishing them with sanctions, might have been far more effective in bringing about change. Ironically, a more open policy may have convinced both the public and the government that some capitalistic principles are better than socialistic ones.
If the actions President Obama took this week had happened 25 years ago, the Castro brothers would probably be enjoying retirement in a gated community in Florida and the Cuban people would have one of the fastest growing economy in the continent. At the same time, the U.S. would benefit from the surplus trade balance that had marked U.S. – Cuba relations until the break in ties.
Bravo, President Obama.
Mario Salazar, the 21st Century Pacifist, has been a proponent of a better life for the people of Cuba and has believed that our policies were failed ones in this respect. He is in Twitter (@chibcharus), Google+ and Facebook (Mario Salazar).