The revolution that defies the laws of gravity
As the Revolution turns 50, Francisco Dominguez, CSC executive member and Head of Latin American Studies at the University of Middlesex, looks back on the history and impact of Cuba on the US and Latin America
The United States has got Cuba under its imperialist skin, but not since 1959 but it intensely coveted the possession of the Pearl of the Antilles from much earlier.
As early as 1808, President Thomas Jefferson sent a special envoy to find out if Spain would sell Cuba to the United Sates. A year later, Jefferson writes to his successor, James Madison: “I candidly confess that I have ever looked upon Cuba as the most interesting addition that can be made to our system of States ought, at the first possible opportunity, to take Cuba.”
Although Madison did not quite agree, he nevertheless instructed his secretary of state to tell the British that the U.S. will not sit idly by if Britain were to try and win possession of the island.
In 1823, the then Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams predicted the likelihood of the annexation of Cuba ‘within half a century.’ Unsurprisingly, an annexationist movement emerged in Cuba; sections of the plantocracy fearful of a repetition of the slave rebellion in 1794-1804 which established the first independent black republic in Latin America, made an alliance with US slaveowners, aimed at preventing Cuban independence by securing its annexation to the U.S.
The 1840s and 1850s were characterised by filibuster expeditions from U.S. territory designed to seize the island.
In 1848 U.S. President James Polk tried secretly to purchase Cuba from Spain.
In 1854, under President Franklin Pierce, a secret plan is drawn up, the Ostende Manifesto, which recommends the purchase of Cuba in order to avoid it becoming a second Haiti, and should Spain refuse then the U.S. ‘shall be justified in wresting it from Spain... upon the very same principle that would justify an individual in tearing down the burning house of his neighbor if there were no other means of preventing the flames from destroying his own home.”
Pierce’s successor, James Buchanan tries vigorously but unsuccessfully to interest Congress in buying Cuba. By the 1880s Cuba is a peculiar Spanish colony since 83 percent of its exports go to the U.S. and only 6 percent to Spain. The last U.S. effort to buy Cuba off Spain is under President Grover Cleveland in 1896. The only option open is to take it by force.
Of all the pronouncements by 19th U.S. leaders on Cuba, perhaps the most arrogant is Quincy Adams’s, who considered Cuba’s annexation so inevitable that said that were Cuba to break off from Spain, by virtue of ‘the laws of political as well as of physical gravitation’, the island ‘can gravitate only towards the North American Union.’ Sadly the island’s history up to 1959 confirmed Adams’s laws of gravitation.
José Martí, Cuba’s national hero was painfully aware of the imperialist aims of the U.S. towards Cuba and on the eve of Cuba’s second war of liberation (1895-1898) he thinks his duty to prevent the U.S. from becoming the imperialist Hegemon in the Caribbean and Western Hemisphere, saying “All I have done up to now and shall do hereafter, is to that end.... I have lived inside the monster and know its insides.”
And in 1898 just when the Cuban patriots are about to finally defeat Spain, the battleship USS Maine mysteriously blows up in Havana harbour, allowing U.S. President McKinley to declare war on Spain and send an invading force to Cuba in what would become the Spanish-American War, but which for Cubans is the U.S. intervention in Cuba’s War of Independence.
The U.S. would not allow Cuba to participate in Spain’s acceptance of Cuba’s independence with the U.S., not the Cuban, flag being raised over Havana, followed by the installation of a U.S. military government of occupation until 1902, when the occupation finally ended and Cuba was allowed to have an independent administration of sorts.
The settlement of 1902, which guaranteed U.S. interests in the island through the Platt Amendment, will make Cuba a de facto U.S. Protectorate in that it gave the U.S. both the constitutional right to militarily invade Cuba and to set up military bases in the island in strategic places such as Guantanamo.
The U.S. will invade Cuba again in 1906, in 1912, in 1917, in 1933, during the revolutionary overthrow of pro-U.S. dictator Gerardo Machado, Roosevelt ordered 29 U.S. warships to surround the island, and, under very different conditions, the U.S. will invade it again in April 1961.
The settlement of 1902 would make Cuba a second-class playground for U.S. businesses, gangsters and the entertainment industry, especially on gambling, drugs and prostitution, in an arrangement presided over by an intensely corrupt and growingly parasitic rich elite. The U.S. would also be central in the establishment of the Batista dictatorship in 1952.
Thus, when in that year Batista stages a coup, suspends the Constitution, cancels the elections and becomes dictator, President Truman immediately recognizes his government and sends military and economic aid.
On the eve of the Cuba Revolution in 1959, the U.S. has more than the decisive influence in the island; it both ran it and owned it. In September 1960, a former U.S. ambassador to Cuba said this: “Until the advent of Castro, the United States was so overwhelmingly influential un Cuba that...the American ambassador was the second most important man in Cuba, sometimes even more important than the President [of Cuba].”
This view as confirmed by NYT journalist, Tad Szulc who wrote: “For the fifty-seven years of its independence, Cuba has lived more as an appendage of the United States than as a sovereign nation.”
A less well known fact is that under Batista and his henchmen, in the spat of seven years, an estimated 20,000 Cuban citizens were murdered. This is the stuff that leads people to revolution. Fidel explained at the time: “Revolutions are remedies -bitter remedies, yes. But at times revolution is the only remedy that can be applied to evils more bitter.” (1 May 1960).
Fidel’s triumphant entry into Havana on January 8, 1959, was to bring to completion the process of national liberation began back in 1868 and which was to set Cuba on a collision course with the main obstacle to the historically elusive goal of genuine independence, which the actions of the U.S. had so humiliatingly truncated since 1898.
Ten US Presidents have come and go, with each, in different degrees, pursuing the same Cuba policy of using every means available to crush it. The U.S. inability to destroy the Cuban revolution for so long seems a paradox since, at least in the 20th century, US governments always succeeded in overthrowing any Latin American government they did not like. Cuba was to be the exception.
How can we explain the survival of the Cuban revolution? Right wing commentators have produced and will be producing ‘learned’ articles and analyses in the coming period which seek to minimise the positive changes that the revolution brought to the country’s population.
The most frequent argument is that despite gains in education and health, the overall situation of Cuba is one where the original dreams of the revolution have not been fulfilled. Its economy, infrastructure and services are in ruins, reality which have become starker since the collapse of the Soviet Union. That it is only the dictatorial nature of its political regime that keeps ‘Castro in power,’ but that, however, no sooner, this ‘obstacle’ is out of the way, Cuba’s socialism will collapse. The key point of these analyses is that the revolution is a failure.
Notwithstanding Cuba’s severe problems in many of the fields highlighted by anti-revolution viewpoints, to suggest that the Cuban Revolution is a failure flies in the face of reality, not only because of the impressive levels of social developments the Caribbean island has achieved -now universally recognised-, but because it has done this against the unremitted hostility and aggression of the most powerful country in the history of humanity.
Given the facts of the latter, had Cuba managed to achieved only 10% of what is has actually done, it would have been extraordinary in and of itself.
The question to ask in a retrospective analysis of half a century of Cuban Revolution is how much more could have been achieved had it not been for the unrelenting U.S. war of attrition against it.
US policy towards revolutionary Cuba has not only involved sharp exchanges at international fora such as the UN or the OAS, mutual denunciations of evil acts or of evil intent, the breaking of diplomatic relations, the termination of economic trade, even the mutual development and deployment of ‘defensive’ nuclear weapons, all instruments of a ‘normal’ foreign policy which the U.S. applied against the Soviet Union and its allies.
Since the very onset of the revolution, U.S. foreign policy towards Cuba has been designed to not just overthrow the Castro regime but to crush it with the maximum amount of brutality so as to set such an example in its backyard that no other country did ever think of even contemplating imitating Fidel.
Examples of the above include sponsored sabotage, espionage, terrorism, hijackings, trade sanctions, embargo, and outright invasion. On the sabotage front, the US is either proven or heavily suspected of having perpetrated, organized and/or engineered the launching of air raids to burn sugar cane fields, setting fire to tobacco warehouses, detonating bombs on power plants, military attacks against oil refinery installations, detonating bombs in department stores, funding, training and arming of guerrillas in Cuban territory, hijacking of boats, kidnappings, mining of harbours, blowing up of ships and railway lines, contaminating of Cuban pigs with swine fever leading to the slaughter of 500,000 pigs, releasing of mosquitoes contaminated with hemorrhagic dengue fever, introducing germs to spread hemorrhagic conjunctivitis, tobacco mold, sugar cane fungus and African swine fever. And the Bay of Pigs invasion of April 1961, followed by the preparation of a second, bigger, invasion which ended in the October 1962 Missile Crisis. U.S. strategists considered the more ‘humane’ way of invading Cuba by spraying Cuban troops with lethal botulinum toxin which was expected to lead to the death of between 70,000 to 140,000 Cuban troops so that “We could move our forces in and take over the country and that would be it.”
Furthermore, there is conclusive evidence that U.S. agencies have attempted to assassinate Fidel Castro at least 683 times. Most certainly U.S. agencies have considered the assassination of other leaders of the revolution.
But whereas U.S. policy failed in Cuba, it succeeded everywhere else in Latin America.
In Guatemala in 1954, when the US government engineered the U.S. actively participated in the overthrow of the democratically elected Arbenz government that had the temerity to embark upon a land reform that was to redistribute hundreds of thousands of has of unused land owned by US company United Fruit in order to both provide its impoverished peasants with cultivable land so as to improve their standard of living, and reduce the country’s dependency on the costly importation of food.
Arbenz’s ouster unleashed a wave of brutality -which is only now beginning to subside- whose toll is in the region of 300,000 lives. And, there is plenty of evidence to demonstrate what US foreign policy intended to achieve in Cuba by the examples of the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile followed by military dictatorships in the Southern Cone in the 1970s, the death squad regimes in Central America in the 1980s, the invasion of Panama in 1989, the war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the devastation of the economies of the region in the 1990s and Plan Colombia.
The cost in human lives, in decline of living standards, in physical and psychological suffering has been in the hundreds of millions. How high would the cost for Cuba have been, had US policy succeeded?
The Communist Party of Cuba had an estimated membership of 55,000 in 1969 which by 1997 it had risen to about several hundred thousands. The dismantlement of Cuba’s revolutionary state (party, armed forces, state functionaries, and all kind of cadre), a cherished objective of the U.S. would have led to the brutal purge of hundreds of thousands of arrests and killings. The invasion of Panama in 1989, a significant smaller affair than the invasion of Cuba would be, left 5,000 people dead.
The Cuban Revolution is turned 50 on 1 January 2009. Its survival for five decades against as many decades of unremitting U.S. aggression ranks probably among the most significant achievements in modern history.
Furthermore, despite Cuba’s many difficulties, most of which originate in the condition of economic isolation to which the US subjects it to, Cuba has one of the lowest infant mortality rates and one of the highest life expectancy rates in the world, it has more doctors per head of population than any other country on earth, and among many other positive features, it is one of the most cultured and educated countries in this planet.
These cultural gains have helped produce or contribute to develop a broad and sophisticated intelligentsia which include literary giants of the calibre of Alejo Carpentier, Virgilio Piñera, Nancy Morejon, Anton Arrufat, Atilio Estevez, José Lezama Lima, Nicolas Guillén, Senel Paz and more recently the hugely successful Leonardo Padura.
Although Garcia Marquez is better known as a household name, it could be argued, that from a literary viewpoint the works of Carpentier surpass that of the Colombian Nobel Prize with jewels such as The Kingdom of this World, The Rite of Spring, and his magnificent Explosion in the Cathedral.
Likewise, Cuban cinema enjoys a justified world reputation with gems such as Memories of Underdevelopment, Strawberry and Chocolate, Lucia, The Last Supper, Vampires in Havana, Madagascar, The Waiting List and the more recent, Guantanamera. Belying stories of Cuba’s intellectual stagnation and showing the rather vigorous artistic creation that characterises the island Latin American cinema directors flock to Havana every year to show their latest films in the internationally acclaimed Festival de Cine de la Habana.
Cuba’s achievements in ballet also enjoy huge international reputation, and so does the country’s popular music which is encouraged and promoted by the revolution and which has led to the rise of singers of the stature of Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanés.
Cuba’s scientific establishment, despite the huge odds against it and severe lack of resources, ranks amongst the most developed in the world with extraordinary progress on biotechnology and the medical sciences in general which has made the most progress on human medicine and which led none other than the Financial Times to comment that “In spite of years of economic isolation and relative impoverishment, [Cuba] has built one of the most advanced -yet least known- biotech industries in the world [...] but in some fields of biology, Cuba is genuinely on the cutting edge, boasting technology that would provoke envy -and not a little disbelief- almost anywhere.” (FT, Jan 13, 2001). Ten years after the collapse of the Soviet Union!
But it is Cuba’s willingness and determination to share what is good at, such as its impressive developments in medicine and education, which it takes everywhere it can to help the poor and the needy especially in developing countries, that make it stand as an inspiring example.
It is well known that are there Cuban doctors and paramedics in many internationalist missions around the world at any moment in time. They provide these services particularly in time of crisis -such as during the earthquake in Pakistan and the hurricane in Central America- totally free of charge, as a matter of obvious solidarity which they see as a moral obligation stemming from the ethical principles on which the revolution rests.
Not only are there Cuban medical personnel somewhere in an internationalist mission, Cuba deploys more of them than the whole of the World Health Organisation.
And Cuba’s political solidarity in Africa perhaps stands as one of the shiniest examples in the world.
Risking everything, including the revolution itself, Cuba responded to the desperate call of Angola facing military invasion by hugely superior and better equipped South African forces, twice -in 1975 and 1987. Faced with defeat by Cuban troops, South Africa even considered the use of tactical nuclear weapons.
Cuba’s victory at Cuito Cuanavale in 1988 dealt a mortal blow to the apartheid regime and its military bullying of Southern Africa, it further allowed Angola to affirm its sovereignty, and contributed to Namibia’s aim of achieving independence. Nelson Mandela has said about this:
Cubans came to our region as doctors, teachers, soldiers, agricultural experts, but never as colonizers [...] They have shared the same trenches with us in the struggle against colonialism, underdevelopment, and apartheid. Hundreds of Cubans have given their lives, literally, in a struggle that was, first and foremost, not theirs but ours. As Southern Africans we salute them. We vow never to forget this unparalleled example of selfless internationalism.
Indeed, Cubans have shared every anti-imperialist trench, in all five continents. This is the most profound sense in which Cuba is a revolution, sense immortalised by Che Guevara who said: “...the true revolutionary is guided by strong feelings of love...Above all, always capable of feeling any injustice committed against anyone anywhere in the world”.
Cuba’s internationalism mostly focuses on selfless assistance to countries and communities in need in time of disaster. Between 1960 and August 2008, 270,743 Cuban civilians have given technical assistance to more than 160 countries, and in 45 years over 185,000 health professionals and technicians have delivered health services and medical attention in 103 developing nations, never expecting anything in return.
Yet, nothing has thus far led to moderate, let alone a change of policy, the US relentless pursuit of crushing the revolution by means of brutal force.
The economic blockade has not even been relaxed despite the fact that the UN General Assembly has voted, with ever larger majorities, to end the US blockade against Cuba 17 times and as many years.
It is the longest blockade in history having survived 10 consecutive U.S. administrations, and is the main obstacle to the Caribbean country’s economic and social development. It is estimated that the blockade has made Cuba lost some US$ 80bn.
In fact, the U.S. has steadily intensified the blockade ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union with ever more Draconian pieces of legislation such as the Mack Amendment, the Torricelli Law, the infamous Helms-Burton Bill, to be followed, under Bush, by a stream of travel restrictions imposed on Cuban-Americans as well as a virtual prohibition for them to send remittances to relatives living in the island.
The highlight of Cuba policy under Bush was the appointment of a Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba with the goals of bringing about “an expeditious end of the dictatorship,” and a plan to achieve that aim. The Commission’s 500-page Report (6 May 2004) is effectively a U.S. blueprint for regime change, which would involve a US occupation of the island.
This was followed (10 July 2006) by a 160-page second report under the auspices of Condoleezza Rice which developed the blueprint further and included a secret clause which contains recommendations that have not been published, supposedly due to reasons of “national security and effective implementation”. And, in case there was any doubt as to the meaning of the objectives contained in these two reports, the Bush administration appointed, Caleb McCarry as Cuba Transition Coordinator.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, US aggression towards Cuba actually intensified, but was no better towards the region anyway. As examples of the latter, we have the coup against Chavez in 2002, the ousting of Aristide in Haiti in 2004, the intervention in Bolivia aimed at depicting Evo Morales as narco-trafficker and more recently -September 2008- a wave of violence in Bolivia’s East was designed to overthrow President Morales. In all of them the US has been, or is suspected of having been, centrally involved.
In the 21st century there is an important difference, however. Unlike developments in the 20th century, notwithstanding its vigorous efforts, the U.S. has thus far not being able to get rid of any of the governments in does not like in the region.
Conversely, in this century the Cuban example has become irresistibly contagious with many nations standing up to the U.S. and successfully confronting multinational corporations, as manifestations of their generalised desire to take their destiny in their own hands.
Furthermore, they have adopted or are adopting social policies which, like in Cuba, seek to guarantee universal free health and education. Furthermore, there is a growing regional current that is putting an end to U.S. military presence in their territories. In some recent instances, this has been carried out not very diplomatically or even courteously.
Thus, in the colossal battle that began 50 years ago, the whole region -a few exceptions notwithstanding, and with all the specificities of the national situations taken into account- has shifted sharply not so much towards Cuba -which it has done anyway- but towards a Cuba-like orientation.
The recent Rio Group summit (33 Latin American and Caribbean nations) met in Brazil and gave a warm welcome to a new member, Cuba which was represented by its president, Raul Castro.
Bolivia’s President Morales reminded the heads of state that Cuba had been expelled from the Organisation of American States back in 1960 at the behest of the United States. The contrast with the situation in 2009 could not be starker. At the summit Raul told the story of what happened on 18 of December exactly fifty three years ago, on occasion of the rather disastrous disembarkation of the yacht Granma in Playa Las Coloradas, in Eastern Cuba:
“From the 5th to the 18th [of December 1956] 13 days went by. Fidel thought I was dead, I thought he was dead. Most of the comrades in the group had fallen, others were assassinated after being taken prisoner or being wounded or exhausted.”
“Myself, with the remaining 5 fighters left of the group under my command, resisted a military siege for a full week during which we could only eat small bits of sugar cane. We did not use up energy moving about, were without water or food of any kind, until bouts of dizziness told us that we had to take the risk and leave our hideout. It was thus, 13 days after the siege, on 18th December, 1956, up there in the Sierra Maestra, that local peasants put two groups of guerrillas in touch with each other. One was Fidel’s, the other, my own.
“After the initial hug we gave each other at midnight, he pulled me away and asked me: ‘How many rifles do you have?’ I told him ‘Five’. To which he said: ‘And I have two, which makes it seven. Now, we definitely will win the war!!’”
This spirit symbolises the revolution. Cuba will fight for its revolution, against all odds. Its merits, after 50 years of being in what is perhaps one of the most vulnerable geopolitical positions in the world, barely 90 miles away from its sworn enemy, just become ever more impressive.
Had Cuba not carried out the 1959 Revolution, Quincy Adams’s ‘laws of political as well as of physical gravitation’, would have certainly asserted themselves with a vengeance. Fortunately, the Cuba Revolution seems to defy gravity.