At noon on December 17, 2014, Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro announced to their respective nations that the United States and Cuba had agreed to resume full diplomatic relations.
The occasion was dense with history.
It could hardly have been otherwise, for it is impossible to assess what December 17 portends without understanding what preceded it. “There is a complicated history between the United States and Cuba,” President Obama acknowledged, and admitted too that “we can never erase the history between us.”
He affirmed the desire to leave “behind the legacy of colonization and communism,” concluding with the recognition that “change is hard,” especially “when we carry the heavy weight of history on our shoulders.”
In Havana, Castro also spoke of history. But while Obama hoped “to cut loose the shackles of the past,” President Castro summoned history not as rationale for change but as a reason for continuity.
|President of the United States, Barack Obama (left) and President of Cuba, Raúl Castro (right).|
“The heroic Cuban people,” he affirmed, “in the wake of serious dangers, aggressions, adversities, and sacrifices has proven to be faithful and will continue to be faithful to our ideals of independence and social justice. Strongly united throughout these 56 years of Revolution, we have kept our unswerving loyalty to those who died in defense of our principles since the beginning of our independence war in 1868.”
Three days later, Castro told the Cuban National Assembly that “no one should expect Cuba to renounce the ideas for which it has struggled for more than a century, and for which its people have shed lots of blood and run the biggest risks in order to improve its relations with the United States,” and emphasized that it was “necessary to understand that Cuba is a sovereign State.”
Both countries have looked at the same history and seen something very different. The experience of the past 55 years serves to set in sharp relief their profoundly different lived histories during what the Wall Street Journal characterized as years of “long-strained relations.”
Americans have seen these years as a tenacious effort to free Cubans from a tyrannical government.
Cubans have seen the same events as half a century of sustained U.S. efforts at regime change, including armed invasion, economic sanctions, political isolation, scores of assassination plots against the Cuban leadership, and years of covert operations including the disruption of Cuban agriculture and the sabotage of its industry. Today, many of these efforts could be understood as acts of state-sponsored terrorism.
For more than 200 years, American leaders have found it difficult to reconcile themselves to the proposition of an independent and sovereign Cuba, as evidenced in 1898 during the Spanish-American War and in 1959 during the Cuban Revolution.
The destinies of both Cuba and the United States have been not merely intertwined, but indissoluble. Cuba loomed large in American collective self-awareness and in the calculus of national security. In turn, American attitudes, actions, and policies have shaped what independence and sovereignty mean for Cubans. Each country developed a sense of history that accommodated the presence of the other. Each country intruded upon the other at formative moments of national development.
Intertwined Destinies: The American Fixation with Cuba in the 19th century
Lying astride the principal sea lanes of the middle latitudes of the Western Hemisphere, commanding on one side entrance to the Gulf and outlet of the vast Mississippi Valley and, on the other, fronting the Caribbean Sea, Cuba assumed far-reaching strategic and commercial importance in the minds of 19 th- century Americans.
“An object of transcendent importance to the political and commercial interests of our Union,” John Adams pronounced in 1823. “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.”
This became an enduring policy consensus for more than a century.
|This 1896 cartoon was published in the Catalan newspaper La Campana de Grácia and is a rendering of the Spanish perception of U.S.-Cuban relations. The caption reads "keep the island so it won't get lost" and features a large, greedy Uncle Sam.|
A sense of national completion seemed to depend on Cuba, without which the American Union seemed unfinished and vulnerable. “We must have Cuba. We can’t do without Cuba,” future president James Buchanan implored Secretary of State John Clayton in 1849.
In short order Americans persuaded themselves that the well-being of the entire world depended on U.S. possession of Cuba. As Senator James Bayard put it in the middle of the nineteenth century: “[T]he future interests not only of this country, but of civilization and of human progress, are deeply involved in the acquisition of Cuba by the United States.”
But Cuba also became deeply embedded in the moral systems around which Americans fashioned their founding myths and laid claim to U.S. exceptionalism. The acquisition of Cuba was not simply a matter of a pragmatic foreign policy but a fulfillment of Providential purpose.
“It is because Cuba has been placed by the Maker of all things in such a position on earth’s surface as to make its possession by the United States a geographical and political necessity,” insisted Representative James Clay at mid-century; “we must have Cuba, from a necessity which the Maker of the world has created.”
Representative Townsend Scudder echoed the sentiment, insisting that Cuba was a “territory that God and nature intended to be a part of the United States.” And the Ostend Manifesto (1854) proclaimed outright that Cuba “belongs naturally to that great family of states of which the Union is the providential nursery.”
Cuba: A Different Destiny
Cubans in the 19th century, however, also developed a vision of their destiny, but in very different terms. No other aspiration so profoundly shaped the formation of Cuban national sensibility as the idea of national sovereignty and self-determination from Spanish control.
Sugar had catapulted Cuba into the swell of global capitalism. The economy had previously languished within a system of eighteenth-century colonial mercantilism, but it began to expand in form and function around nineteenth-century market capitalism, with far-flung international trade linkages.
Cubans organized their economy around an emerging agro-industrial production system driven by the development of new technologies, new marketing strategies, new distribution networks, and new modes of transportation—and they became integrated into the world at large.
That they belonged in that world they never doubted. Cubans would be marked permanently by the experience: a people imbued with a sense of rightful claim for inclusion among the modern nations of the world at large, fully persuaded that they had a right to sovereign nationhood and claim to self-determination—to a Cuba for Cubans.
Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, over the course of successive armed uprisings against Spanish colonial rule, Cubans mobilized in pursuit of a nation of their own. Independence would give them the power to articulate their identity and advance Cuban interests.
Therein lies the trajectory of the fateful relationship between the countries: the American resolve to possess Cuba and the Cuban determination to resist possession.
The specter of American expansion loomed large in the preparations for the war of independence in the late 19th century.
José Martí (left)—“Apostle of Cuban Independence”—planned for a war of independence against Spain ever mindful of U.S. intentions. All through the 1880s and 1890s he warned—prophetically—of the need for a well-organized and rapid war of independence. Otherwise, he worried, “it may be our fate to have a skillful neighbor let us bleed ourselves on this threshold until finally he can take whatever is left in his hostile, selfish, and irreverent hands … and with the credit won as a mediator and guarantor, keep [Cuba] for [his] own.”
The War of 1898 and a “Free” Cuba
1898 was the year of denouement, the point at which the history of both countries wrapped around each other in structural form with the much-anticipated succession of U.S. sovereignty over Cuba. Americans entered the war against Spain in the swoon of history, as if in discharge of prophetic purpose: the interests of the nation properly–and finally–aligned with Providential design. History had come to pass in 1898 as it was meant to. The Americans took up the war and took over the peace.
They had arrived in the guise of allies and remained in the role of conquerors. Certainly vast sectors of the American public supported the cause of Cuba Libre, but the William McKinley administration, its allies in Congress, and supporters in the press did not.
The American purpose was explained in 1902 by Governor General Leonard Wood, who pronounced that by ending Spanish sovereignty over the island, the United States “assumed a position as protector of the interests of Cuba. It became responsible for the welfare of the people, politically, mentally and morally.” Here was the transfer of sovereignty over Cuba—from Spain to the United States—just as the Americans had always imagined.
Cuba had been wrested from Spain—indeed, Cuba had been wrested from Cubans too. The Americans took over the Cuban war for independence and renamed it the “Spanish-American War,” a designation that served at the time and long thereafter to deny the presence and participation of Cubans as actors and agents.
The Americans did not start a war; they joined one in progress. They inserted themselves between weakened Spaniards and weary Cubans, to complete the defeat of the former and foreclose the victory of the latter, and thereupon advance claim of possession of the island as spoils of war.
The U.S. military occupation (1899-1902) ended only after the Cubans acquiesced to the Platt Amendment, which was incorporated into the Cuban Constitution of 1901 and subsequently ratified as the Permanent Treaty (1903).
|The opening page of the 1901 Platt Amendment, a document that gave the U.S. significant power over Cuba.|
By this means, the Cuban republic was shorn of all essential properties of national sovereignty prior to its establishment, denied authority to enter into “any treaty or other compact with any foreign power or powers,” denied too the authority to contract a public debt beyond its normal ability to repay, and forced to cede national territory to accommodate a U.S. naval station in Guantánamo Bay.
Lastly, Cubans were required to concede to the United States “the right to intervene” for the “maintenance of a government adequate for the protection of life, property and individual liberty.”
The military occupation would not end, the Americans warned, until Cubans incorporated the Platt Amendment into their constitution, that is, until Cubans renounced their claim to national sovereignty as a condition of self-government.
It seemed as if Cuba had been overtaken by another country’s history. In a sense it had. The Cuban liberation project had been successful on every count except perhaps the one that mattered most: the attainment of national sovereignty and self-determination.
The Platt Amendment eviscerated all but the most cynical meaning of nationhood. Cubans had obtained independence without sovereignty, self-government without self-determination.
Cuban efforts at self-determination in the decades that followed were repeatedly thwarted. An armed uprising in 1906 against a U.S.-imposed government, for example, resulted in another U.S. intervention and occupation (1906-1909). Armed interventions occurred again in 1912 and 1917.
In the decades that followed, U.S. ambassadors inserted themselves deeply into Cuban internal affairs. These prying officials included Enoch Crowder, Sumner Welles, Spruille Braden, and Earl E. T. Smith, among others, all of whom assumed something of a proconsular bearing in Havana. “We have always to consider,” exhorted Crowder in 1922, “the eternal vigil that must be exercised by America’s representative in Cuba.”
The practice of “eternal vigil” defined the role and power of the U.S. embassy in Havana. “The United States,” former ambassador Earl E. T. Smith acknowledged in 1960, “until the advent of Castro, was so overwhelmingly influential in Cuba that . . . the American Ambassador was the second most important man in Cuba; sometimes even more important than the President.”
Nonetheless, Cuban aspirations for national sovereignty and self-determination persisted. The failure to redress the social and political grievances that had served to mobilize vast numbers of Cuban men and women to dramatic action in the nineteenth century had a decisive effect on the character of politics in the twentieth century. A sense of unfinished purpose and unrealized goals settled over the early republic.
Cubans were obliged to remember, insisted historian Ramiro Guerra y Sánchez in 1923, “the great deeds realized by our fathers in defense of our homes, our liberty, and our rights.” And he added: “The Cuban who comes to know the history of our past will feel heir to a rich patrimony and will discover in that very legacy the means to make it greater…. Our history is the only thing that we possess that is genuinely ours.”
Literary critic Jorge Mañach distilled the essence of Cuban angst: “Cuba has always been in fact a people debarred from self-determination,” he wrote in 1933. “The Cubans have not been able to shape their destiny according to their own will, because that will has been laid in semi-subjection.” The Platt Amendment, Mañach added, had “resulted in crushing the Cuban sentiment of self-determination, when it imposed express limits on the exercise of the collective will.”
A military coup led by General Fulgencio Batista (left) in 1952 plunged Cuba into political crisis and brought Cuban discontent into sharp focus. Batista came to represent all that was objectionable about the Cuban condition; he was both symbol and symptom of the failure of the republic, the corruption of public life, the venality of political leaders, the influence of America, and the futility of political institutions.
As Cuban men and women joined the armed resistance against Batista and American intervention during the 1950s, they drew inspiration and motivation from the past as they looked to a different future.