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What Happened When We Stayed the Course in Cuba

by Joseph J. Gonzalez on Sep 20, 2007

Last week, President Bush told Americans that his policy in Iraq will remain unchanged. With even prominent Republicans seeking to alter course, Americans may wonder why the president remains so determined. They should look to the lessons Bush draws from history.

Bush is a student of history. What has it taught him? That determination succeeds and weakness fails.

In a recent speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Bush said that history provides "lessons applicable to our time." These lessons, he said, teach us that American troops can bring democracy to Iraq, just as they did to nations in Europe and Asia in the years following World War II. But we must remain determined, said Bush; if we waiver, Iraq will become another Vietnam.

No one should be surprised that Bush or anyone else invokes the sad example of the nation's exit from Vietnam, but instead of fixing on Vietnam, Bush should consider the case of Cuba. From 1898 to 1959, America was steadfast in Cuba – and the result was disastrous.

Much like the Bush administration in Iraq, the McKinley's administration introduced democratic institutions to Cuba after its armed intervention during the Spanish-American War of 1898. Following elections, America ceded sovereignty to a new Cuban government in 1902.

But American troops remained in Havana and elsewhere. In order to protect Cuba's nascent democratic institutions, the McKinley administration planted U.S. troops on Cuban soil and required the Cubans to recognize America's right to intervene should American interests be threatened.

American troops did not bring democracy, however. Instead, they helped to prepare the way for dictatorship, revolution and anti-Americanism. Between 1906 and 1933, U.S. presidents intervened more or less continuously in the affairs of Cuba, often using troops to put down rebellions and resolve disputed elections.  Tired of such interventions, Americans eventually came to support a series of corrupt, authoritarian but pro-United States leaders in the 1930s and 1940s.

Those who led the Cuban revolution of the 1950s (and Fidel Castro was only one leader among many) sought to end American influence on the island. Everyone knows what happened next. Castro became both a dictator and one of the world's foremost antagonists of American foreign policy.

From 1898 to 1959, the United States guided Cuban politics. It maintains troops on Cuban soil today – at notorious Guantanamo Bay. For at least six decades, Bush and his neoconservative allies may be surprised to learn, American steadfastness was not the problem; American control was.

Before 1959, Cuban politicians served American interests first, Cuban interests second. American corporations dominated the island's economy and politics. Sovereign in name, but not in fact, Cuba was little more than a satellite of the American political and economic system.

All this suggests another lesson for President Bush: Struggling new governments require not just freedom from tyranny, but also freedom to guide their own economic and political futures. They require autonomy.
As an American protectorate, Cuba never had autonomy, and it remains unclear if Iraq will. The administration plans to keep American troops in Iraq for decades. No Iraqi can now be prime minister, it seems, without the permission of the U.S. government.

It's unlikely, however, that President Bush will want to absorb this lesson. He long ago decided what history has to teach him: Success requires determination and only determination. The rest is just the carping of critics.  It's too bad for him – and for us – that the lessons of history are not so reassuring.

Joseph J. Gonzalez is a faculty member in the departments of history and interdisciplinary studies at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., and a writer for the History News Service.