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Transcript: Rethinking Cuba Libre

This month History Talk hosts Patrick Potyondy and Leticia Wiggins explore the political climate of a nation that's remained on distant diplomatic terms with the United States though it's only 90 miles away from the U.S.'s southernmost point. But U.S. - Cuba relations could be in for a dramatic change since President Obama's mid-December announcement. Join in the conversation with historians of Latin America - U.S. relations, Lilia Fernandez, Hideaki Kami, and Jaime Suchlicki.

[Listen to the podcast here.]

Transcript Begins Here:

Leticia Wiggins 
Welcome to History Talk, the history podcast for everyone from Origins at Ohio State. I'm your host, Leticia Wiggins.

Patrick Potyondy 
And I'm your other host, Patrick Potyondy.

Leticia Wiggins 
President Obama thrust Cuba-US relations into the national spotlight with the historic announcement in mid-December, "US to restore full relations with Cuba, erasing the last trace of Cold War hostility," read The New York Times headline, and though this is quite a powerful claim, there's no denying US-Cuban relations could be in for a real change.

Patrick Potyondy 
Always in the news these days, Pope Francis apparently played a role in connecting President Obama with Raul Castro in Cuba. The relatively small nation of eleven million people is only one hundred miles away from Florida and yet has played a disproportionately monumental role in US foreign policy and domestic politics, before, during, and after the Cold War.

Leticia Wiggins 
Cuba, once a colony of Spain, came under the control of the US at the turn of the nineteenth century. The nation holds a powerful place in American culture and politics. It's where Christopher Columbus first encountered the New World, where Teddy Roosevelt led his infamous Rough Riders, where Ernest Hemingway spent time to write and fish, where the US and the Soviet Union perhaps came closest to nuclear warfare, and where a more than fifty-year-old embargo has stagnated human economy.

Patrick Potyondy 
President Obama has also highlighted the issue in his State of the Union Address this week. And as a delegation of US congressional Democrats visits Cuba, and other US political and economic interests weigh in from the Right and Left, we examine the history of US-Cuban relations to better understand our president, so stay tuned.

Dr. Lilia Fernandez 
Hi, I'm Professor Dr. Lilia Fernandez from the Department of History here at The Ohio State University. I teach US Latina/Latino history and have written on Latino community formation, Mexicans and Puerto Ricans in post-war Chicago, and a number of other topics.

Dr. Jaime Suchlicki 
Hi, I'm Jaime Suchlicki. I'm a professor of history at the University of Miami, and I'm also the director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. I've written a little bit on Cuba. My most important work is a history of Cuba called, Cuba: From Columbus to Castro. It is now in its fifth edition.

Hideaki Kami 
And I'm Hideaki Kami, PhD candidate at Ohio State University's history department. I have been studying history of US relations with Cuba, especially during the late Cold War years. I have a couple articles on this topic.

Leticia Wiggins 
We'd like to thank our guests for joining us today. I have a couple in studio from Ohio State in Columbus and Professor Suchlicki phoning in today from Miami. So we're going to go ahead and get to the questions. A little bit of an introduction, groundwork question, we're wondering what the extent of American involvement in Cuba between 1898 and 1959 was, and if you'd like to get us rolling first, Dr. Fernandez?

Dr. Lilia Fernandez 
Sure. I think it's very important to think about the longer historical context of US-Cuban relations before 1959, going back to the nineteenth century, in fact, and if we look at what a number of American presidents said over the nineteenth century, there was a great interest in Cuba, on the part of the United States, in terms of developing economic relations with the island, in terms of perhaps colonizing or taking control of the island politically. But it wasn't until the Spanish-American War that we were directly involved politically and militarily with the island. Prior to that, by the 1890s, United States investors had, I think, approximately about fifty million dollars’ worth of investments on the island, primarily in sugar plantations, and about 94 percent of Cuba's sugar exports were going directly to the United States. After the Spanish-American War, in which Cuba gained its independence from Spain, in the US, we passed the Platt Amendment, which specified that we would not be occupying or taking control of the island. However, we would be able to intervene on behalf of it to maintain the peace, to maintain economic conditions that would be favorable to us, and a number of other provisions. That meant that the United States had a tremendous amount of economic power and control in Cuban affairs up until, at least officially, up until 1934, when President Roosevelt finally did away with those provisions in the Platt Amendment, but still we maintained control of Guantanamo Bay, which also came under US authority after the Spanish-American War.

Hideaki Kami 
Yeah, I think over time, I should also add that almost all aspects of Cuban life became more dependent on US politics or US economy and also US cultural power. Like, you know, baseball is still popular in Cuba. In terms of Cuban economies, US investments still kept growing. I think by, on the eve of the revolution, the United States took half of Cuba's sugar exports and about two-thirds of all iron exports, and US direct investment in Cuba reached about 1 billion dollars. US companies owned about 40 percent of the Cuban sugar lands and 80 percent of the utilities, and almost all cattle ranches, railways, and petroleum industries. And I think Cubanization with United States not only helped the island develop economically, but social discontent in Cuba also grew rapidly due to the increasing gap between the poor and the rich. And, you know, at least in masses of whites and non-whites, and people living in the countryside and people living in urban places. So people of color, for example, which was more than one-quarter of Cuba's population, suffered from racial prejudices, and at the time of economic recessions, it was a middle class complaint of their lives. And because of this strong US presence in the Cuban economy or Cuban culture or politics, their frustrations sometimes went to the United States. And I think very interestingly, Cuban people usually compare their living standard with, not those of other Latin American countries, but those of United States, because the United States was a very close country, and they often went back and forth between the Florida Straits. And unfortunately, the average income in Cuba was a little over one-third that of Mississippi, the poorest state in the United States. So, even when the Cuban economy was doing better than other Latin American countries, people still complained a lot.

Patrick Potyondy 
Jaime, if you wanted to add anything.

Dr. Jaime Suchlicki 
Sure, US interest in Cuba grew at the end of the nineteenth century for three reasons. First, the beginning of the building of the Panama Canal. Cuba was strategically interesting for the United States and important for the United States. So there was a strategic consideration in the interest of the United States in Cuba. The second consideration was economic. This was a commercial interest, unlike the expansionism of the United States in the middle of the century, when we went to war with Mexico and captured half of Mexico, there was no interest in the late nineteenth century in territorial expansion. We were interested in commercial relations. US banks invested in the Caribbean, and as those loans went bad, and countries don't pay, we became more and more involved. And the third issue is a humanitarian, sort of progressive movement in the United States, which saw the countries in the Caribbean as lesser than the US. And a lot of leaders and intellectuals in the United States felt an obligation to try to help the countries in the Caribbean improve and enjoy a better life. The peak of American investments in Cuba occurred before World War Two. By the time World War Two ended, American investments in Cuba began to decline, and they declined on up to 1959. Sure, Cuba continued to sell sugar to the United States. Cuba and the US were close trading partners. But the US influence somewhat diminished after World War Two, in part, because Cuba had a revolution in 1933, because after the war, the United States became a world power and became involved with other countries. So there is a lesser of a US influence or involvement. Yet, Cuba remained very close to the United States throughout this period.

Patrick Potyondy 
That's a really good transition, I think, to our next question here. How did the relationship between the young Fidel Castro here, in 1959, and the US sour so quickly? What are the important points to remember here? And Hideaki? If you wanted to begin here, that'd be great.

Hideaki Kami 
Yeah, sure. I think there are a couple of important points here. I think first of all, we need to think about what the Cuban Revolution was. It was not only popular, but also very radical. What the revolution aimed to do was a complete break with the past, including Cuban relations with United States, and because of intimacy of US-Cuban relations, as we mentioned earlier, whatever Fidel Castro did in Cuba, it inevitably affected the interests of the United States. And the revolution required radical devaluation of Cuban relations with United States, but I don't think the US officials were not ready for that. Also, we also need to know who Fidel Castro was. Fidel always had a strong feeling that he was doing the right thing. And to the surprise of US officials, he did not hesitate to criticize the United States and its policy. Not only in Cuba, but also in other places. For example, at the very beginning of the revolution, he made numerous critical remarks on the US decision to drop atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and that is not something you would expect from a friendly leader of a friendly country of the United States, at least at that point. So, eventually, I think the Cuban leader was seen as anti-American. And this was a judgment that I think Dwight Eisenhower made before he approved the CIA covert operation of attacking Cuba or assassinating Fidel Castro.

Dr. Jaime Suchlicki 
You have to understand who Fidel Castro was. At Belen Jesuit School, where he went to high school, there was a strong falangista, which is the branch of Spanish fascism, and he was influenced by the ideology at Belen. So, that ideology talks against American and British imperialism, talks about a Latin America united against the United States, talks about a number of things that Fidel became imbued with it. After he left high school and entered the University of Havana, he became involved with a number of radical groups. And from the University of Havana, as a student, he went to Bogotá, Colombia in 1948 to demonstrate against the inter-American meeting that was taking place there. His triple spade by peddling the Argentine dictator and a number of Latin-American students went to Bogotá to oppose the United States and to oppose the inter-American meeting. There was an assassination of a leader in Bogotá that had nothing to do with Fidel Castro. He took a rifle, went into the street, and began to distribute anti-US propaganda. So, as a very young man, nineteen years old, he was already against the United States. And this is normal in many Latin American countries, students and there are elements in the intellectual area that are anti-American. Ten years forward, when he was in the mountains, fighting the dictatorship, Batista, he wrote to one of his allies, "My real struggle will begin when I come to power, and that struggle is going to be against the United States." So, we were faced, in 1959, with a leader that wanted to change Cuban society, that wanted to transform Cuban society, that was interested in remaining in power for a long time, not to have elections and to be a nice leader in the Caribbean, and the most anti-American.

Dr. Lilia Fernandez 
If I could add something to that, that makes a lot of sense, you know, thinking about the strong critiques of the United States in the region, given the tremendous amount of influence and economic and political power that the US exercised throughout Latin America during this time. So it's not surprising to see that someone like Castro would have had these ideas early on. And that the United States would have seen him as potentially threatening from the very beginning. I think once Cuba allied itself with the Soviet Union, that took on paramount significance for us because in the context of the Cold War, the Soviet Union was our greatest enemy.

Dr. Jaime Suchlicki 
Castro emerges out of his years in the manta as a guerilla, in an alliance with the Cuban Communist Party as well as other groups that oppose Batista. So he was very close to the communist party. His brother, Raul, was a member of the youth branch of the communist party, had been to Eastern Europe behind what they call, "The Iron Curtain." So there was a very close relationship, although Fidel Castro, given his nature and his actions, was not to be considered a Marxist. He didn't have a clear ideology. His clear ideology was anti-Americanism. His desire was to remain in power. And it is in that context that he brings the Soviet Union to support him.

Hideaki Kami 
I think to explain about Fidel's reaction to the United States, one thing we have to also know about is counter-revolutionary attacks on Cuba, I mean, Cuban people, from South Florida and other Caribbean countries, like after the revolution took place. There are so many people who started to leave the country and started to attack the revolution from outside. I think that will also affect the Cuban government's decision to make a move towards the communist bloc at this point.

Leticia Wiggins 
We're also curious, what has been Cuba's relationship to other Caribbean countries since 1959 and in what ways will the change in the US embargo affect the relations of Cuba to other islands and to other countries in the Americas and the world? And so, Jaime, we can ask you to begin here.

Dr. Jaime Suchlicki 
Since 1960, Castro has been an ally, first of the Soviet Union, and sometimes with China, and at some times with Middle Eastern countries like Iran. Right now, Cuba is a close ally of Venezuela, which is providing Cuba 100,000 barrels of petroleum at payment. So Cuba is an ally of Venezuela, is an ally of China, an ally of Russia, and an ally of Iran. These are the four countries that provide Cuba help, aid with no conditions. So it's a good relationship for General Raul Castro because he received all this aid without preconditions. They don't ask for new internet in Cuba. They don't ask for the praise. They don't ask for human rights. They just provide credit to an ally and aid to an ally. Relationship with the Caribbean has not been important for the Castro regime. Venezuela is a key ally and one that has come to replace the Soviet Union as a supporter, as an ally, as a provider of money and credit. Some of the petroleum that Venezuela is providing Cuba is being resold in the world market. So Cuba receives money for reselling Venezuelan petroleum. The United States is coming to this game, asking Cuba for concessions, for change, for human rights.

Patrick Potyondy 
And I wonder if the other guests want to weigh in here as well.

Dr. Lilia Fernandez 
Yeah, I think that Professor raises some important points. One of the things to keep in mind, however, when we think about international relations and global diplomacy from the perspective of the United States, there are many other countries around the world that also commit very serious human rights violations against their own citizens, against their populations, and some of whom do so very flagrantly and with whom we still have very good relations. So I think that the issue of human rights in Cuba is something that we should be concerned about, but I don't know that the question of the embargo necessarily pivots on that particular issue.

Hideaki Kami 
I think the US embargo issue is also relevant to US relations with other countries, such as Japan or Canada or Mexico, and in these countries, almost all US major allies did not like what the United States has been doing in Cuba. It basically did not work unless the United States have other countries joining this policy framework, because the embargo is basically economic isolation. And if the United States is the only one country that kept doing this forever, basically Cuba could get away with this without making anything meaningful. So I think that is one consideration Obama was taking off right now. And I'm not even sure the Obama administration was thinking Cuban policy in terms of whether or not Cuba makes an internal change. I think the State of the Union Address yesterday basically mentioned that it could stand up for democratic values, or whatever. But he also mentioned that the major [step] was taken to remove the legacy of mistrust in the Western Hemisphere, because so many Latin American countries basically look to US policy to Cuba, the kind of offense of the exercise of national sovereignty, so it is quite unpopular. So that may be one thing that the US government is thinking right now.

Patrick Potyondy 
And so, moving on to our last, final, kind of takeaway question, what does the past tell about the future in this case? That is, can we use past relations, either before or after the Castro, as a means to understand what the future of US-Cuban relations will look like? And Lilia, if you please, take us away on this one?

Dr. Lilia Fernandez 
Sure, I think President Obama made a very good point last night in the State of the Union Address when he said, we've been pursuing a policy for over fifty years, and if it's not working, then we know it's time to revisit that and think about other options. I think it's a really good point that he makes there. And I think that one of the things that we need to keep in mind going forward is the larger context of US-Latin America relations: our interventions throughout the region over the course of the twentieth century, our economic policies in different countries, our relations with other military dictatorships in the region as well. And as historians, of course, we all believe that there's a lot to learn from the past in terms of guiding our future actions.

Hideaki Kami 
Yeah, I think it's very difficult to answer this question since US-Cuban relations has been almost unpredictable, right? I mean, when Eisenhower cut relations with Cuba, he didn't expect that this situation would continue for over 50 years. But because of the continuation of hostilities for so many years, we have so many issues to talk about. I mean, Guantanamo could have been one issue. Maybe US embargo or blockade, or Prisco opening Cuba, whatever. I think also migration could be important, because for Obama, migration issue is very important political issue, and Cubans have been the only critical nationality that could have special access to US residency and also US citizenship. So that has a lot to do with the future of Cuban-American community. So, I think, just maybe very important things to see.

Dr. Jaime Suchlicki 
The one lesson I think we can learn about the history of US-Cuban relations is that it is not the United States who should dictate policy in Cuba. And it is not the United States in a Cuban government that should decide the future of Cuba. The future of Cuba has to be decided by the Cubans in the island, and they were not consulted. When the President made his statement, the President ignored Cubans, went ahead and made a deal with a dictatorship. So it's repeating the things that the American government has done in the past. We need to get the Cubans on the table. We need to force the Cuban government, or at least encourage the Cuban government, to sit down with the leadership of the Cuban people, the opposition, to discuss the future of Cuba.

Leticia Wiggins 
Great. Well, Dr. Lilia Fernandez is the author of Brown in the Windy City and a history professor at Ohio State. Hideaki Kami is a PhD candidate at OSU, writing a dissertation on US-Cuban relations. And Dr. Jaime Suchlicki is a professor of history at the University of Miami and author of Cuba: From Columbus to Castro. We'd like to thank you all for joining us.

Patrick Potyondy 
Thanks very much.

Hideaki Kami 
Thank you.

Dr. Jaime Suchlicki 
Thank you.

Dr. Lilia Fernandez 
Thank you for having me.

Patrick Potyondy 
This edition of the Origins podcast, History Talk, was brought to you by the Public History Initiative and the Goldberg Center in the history department at The Ohio State University. Our main editors are Steven Conn and Nicholas Breyfogle. Our executive producer is David Staley. Our audio and technical advisor is Paul Kotheimer. Our audio producers and hosts are Patrick Potyondy and Leticia Wiggins. You can find our podcasts and more at our website, origins.osu.edu, on iTunes and on SoundCloud, and as always, you can find us on Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr. Thank you for listening.