As the year 2014 began its course, Cuba observed the 55th anniversary of the triumph of what is still known as the Cuban Revolution. Without a doubt, Fidel Castro’s ascendance into global political superstardom was a watershed moment not only in Latin America’s general political history, but also in its relations with the US.
Things may have evolved somewhat on both sides of the Florida Straits, but the very essence of the last six decades of bickering has not changed at all. On the US side, many of the restrictions imposed by the ongoing embargo, such as those on remittances from and travel by Cuban exiles, have been lifted by the Obama administration, but the official rhetoric – vigorously fanned by the most ardent anti-Castro elements in the Cuban-American community and duly transmitted by people like Republican Ileana Ros Lethinen (FL) and Democrat Robert Menéndez (NJ) – continues to insist that Cuba is a repressive and brutal totalitarian regime. On the Cuba side, the government has relaxed its own restrictions on travel abroad and now allows small-scale private businesses, but the official rhetoric – delivered yet again in Raúl Castro’s speech commemorating the occasion – continues to insist that the country is still under threat by a US government still intent on snuffing out the Revolution for the benefit of global capitalism and imperialism.
From the standpoint of the US, a more measured and less ideological assessment of the Cuban Revolution would have to begin with the open acknowledgement of six decades of political and economic neocolonialism starting with the take-over of Cuba after the Spanish-American War; continue with the realization that the vast majority of Cubans demanded a deep overhaul of their institutions, deteriorated by decades of corruption and fraud; and finish with the realization that both were powerful reasons for Fidel Castro, brother Raúl, and his companions to take up arms – first in 1953 and later between 1956 and 1959 – against US-backed autocrat Fulgencio Batista. (The Eisenhower administration eventually pulled the plug when it was certain that his head has about to roll.) In all, although the Cuban Revolution initially meant many different things for many different people, it was the by-product of national liberation. Once US interests were targeted and the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations responded with confrontation and destabilization, it was a matter of time for Fidel Castro to embrace Soviet assistance more and more. Consequently, Fidel Castro’s embrace of Marxism-Leninism was not an imposition from another power (as it happened in Eastern Europe after WWII), but was rather facilitated by US hostility. And then there is the embargo, which has not achieved its main objective but (with the exception of food and humanitarian aid shipments from the US) opened up the Cuban economy – and nationalized US assets – to investors (and tourists) from everywhere else.
None of the preceding lets Cuba off the hook. It is true that the Cuban health care system is the envy of the world and its education system has alfabetized almost the entire population, but they all came at the cost of another neocolonial relationship, this time with the Soviet Union. In any case, years of haphazard economic improvisation (such as the failed attempt to harvest 10 tons of sugar in 1970) gave way by the mid-1970s to the constricting and ongoing Soviet-style central planning — probably the most powerful disincentive to the incipient private businesses the Cuban government has now allowed. Those who cannot open up their own paladar or have relatives in South Florida that can send over a pair of Nike sneakers or wire $100 simply head for the US (at least 44,000 did so in 2013, according to Miami’s El Nuevo Herald — the highest number in 10 years). But the saddest part of the Cuban Revolution was once artfully explained by William LeoGrande: The conflicts Castro faced with the US and its Cuban allies required great sacrifices that were easy to obtain if there was no dissent, but it all led to overblown threats. Ironically, six decades of ineffective embargo (which the Cuban government still calls a “blockade”) became a convenient way for the Cuban government to hide its mistakes in economic policy, while the ongoing siege mentality has once forced blogger-critic Yoani Sánchez into prison and is arguably behind the mysterious car accident that took the life of dissident Oswaldo Payá.
The best way to end this staring contest starts with the words of the late John Paul II in his historic visit to Cuba in 1998: Cuba should open itself to the world and the world should open itself to Cuba. Paraphrased for the current state of affairs, Cuba should be open to the type of fundamental changes the US wants and the US should be open to just dealing with Cuba as a sovereign entity and not as a pariah. Attempts at dialogue exist, such as the recently restarted migration talks, but it should not end there. It all starts with the end of the embargo, which will deny the Cuban government one of its most effective excuses for insisting on the anachronistic Revolution as-is and start stripping the proverbial clothes of the emperor. If the Cuban government does not want to be left in the buff, it should allow for real accountability, instead of acting like the cornered cat.
It is time to stop the itch.
POSTCRIPT: Amy “Tiger Mom” Chua and her husband have declared in their just-published book, The Triple Package, that Cuban-Americans are among a handful of groups that have what it takes to succeed: impulse control, insecurity, and a superiority complex. Chew on it at will.