Long after the juvenile Republican presidential campaigns and campaigners of 2016 are forgotten, President Barack Obama’s movement toward normalization of relations with Cuba will still be talked about. That overdue effort is another reason why Obama’s practical and cautious foreign policy is superior to the bombastic and outdated belligerency of the Republicans.
The history of American domination of Cuba presents a textbook case of the anti-democratic brutality and stubborn ideological self-interest of 20th-century American foreign policy. After Cuba won its independence from Spain in 1898, the US military repeatedly landed on the island to promote American economic interests against the protests of poor peasants, whose land had been taken by giant landowners, many of whom were US citizens. Repressive dictatorships were put into place and supported by American armed forces against all popular Cuban attempts to create more democratic systems.
Fulgencio Batista represents the essence of 20th-century American policy in Latin America. From his base in the Cuban army, he overthrew the authoritarian government of Gerardo Machado in 1933. Supported by Franklin Roosevelt, Batista encouraged American economic interests in Cuba as he manipulated elections to dominate Cuban politics into the 1950s. After Batista overthrew another government in 1952, President Eisenhower threw full US support behind his corrupt and repressive regime.
Fidel Castro and others tried unsuccessfully to overthrow Batista in 1953, and were captured and jailed until 1955. Castro resumed the struggle from Mexico, and then landed in Cuba in 1956 and created a small guerrilla army in the Sierra Maestra mountains. The US government withdrew its support of Batista and after a three-year struggle, Batista fled the island and Castro’s forces entered Havana in January 1959.
Within two months, the CIA formulated plans to overthrow Castro, fearing the spread of communism in Latin America. CIA clandestine intervention had already been “successful” in the 1954 coup against the elected Guatemalan government of Jacobo Arbenz. Thirty years of dictatorship followed, including the deaths or disappearances of about 250,000 people.
After a series of escalating measures by both sides, the Cuban government nationalized property held by foreigners, mostly Americans, in August 1960. The Eisenhower administration responded by freezing Cuban assets in the US, cutting diplomatic ties, and instituting a commercial, economic, and financial embargo in October 1960. After John F. Kennedy took office, he allowed the Cuban invasion plans to proceed, leading to the disastrous Bay of Pigs fiasco in April 1961.
The Bay of Pigs may have been a failure, but US-sponsored regime change, military intervention, and suppression of democratic opposition as “communist” continued to be basic elements of our Latin American foreign policy. After failing to destabilize the elected government of Joao Goulart in Brazil with a propaganda campaign, the CIA supported a military coup in 1964. The result was the suspension of civil liberties and abolition of political parties for the next 21 years, supported by widespread torture. In 1973, the CIA supported a military coup by General Augusto Pinochet against Chile’s elected government, leading to 17 years of military dictatorship in which thousands were killed or tortured. In 1976, the US supported a coup by Argentina’s military against the elected government, which led to 7 years of “Dirty War”, in which 30,000 people were “disappeared”. After 1968, both Republican and Democratic administrations gave “Operation Condor” technical and military assistance, helping right-wing dictatorships in Latin America to use state-sponsored terror to silence opposition. As many as 60,000 people were killed.
Just before his assassination, President Kennedy had been exploring the possibility of a meeting between Cuban and American representatives. He told French reporter Jean Daniel, who was on his way to Cuba: “I believe that there is no country in the world including any and all the countries under colonial domination, where economic colonization, humiliation and exploitation were worse than in Cuba, in part owing to my country’s policies during the Batista regime. . . . Batista was the incarnation of a number of sins on the part of the United States.”
The embargo Eisenhower initiated was a product of that immoral American foreign policy, which justified smashing democracy in Latin America because it threatened American interests. It has been continued for 55 years with the ironic justification that the Cuban government violated human rights, while we supported far more repressive and deadlier regimes throughout Latin America.
American foreign policy in Latin America surrounding the time when the Cuban embargo was instituted has become an embarrassment. President Obama had to acknowledge American support for the military dictatorship and our role in the Dirty War when he visited Argentina last week.
No balance sheet could possibly justify American encouragement for dictatorship, torture, and mass murder across Latin America. The admission that we, much more than the Castro brothers, are responsible for human rights violations is long overdue. Ending the Cuban embargo is one necessary step in creating a real “good neighbor policy”.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, March 29, 2016