April 21st, 2006
Just 90 miles from Key West, Florida rests a tropical island, home to one of the most controversial and least understood societies in the world. There lies Cuba; 47 years removed from revolution and still presided over by the same man: a tyrant, clinging to the last vestige of despotism in a free region, according to President Bush and Condoleezza Rice; or perhaps he's a hero, leading the masses and proudly waving the gauntlet of socialism and a hard-earned independence from American hegemony.
Although the issue of Cuban-American relations has been on the backburner in recent years, it is of the utmost importance that we gain a thoughtful understanding of the revolution and it's governance if we are to analyze the future turns our relations could take unburdened by the influence of dogmatic anti-communism and reflexive leftism.
American policy on Cuba has often bordered on the hysterical, due to our own Cold War delusions and a gross ignorance of Cuban political culture and history. Since the foundation of Communist Cuba, the United States has enforced a sweeping embargo on the island, refusing to sell even essential medicines to the nation, which is forced to seek alternative resources, often shipping (and paying for) goods from hundreds of miles away. Anti-embargo sentiment is not limited to the radical left, however. In fact, it is routinely condemned by the international community. This past November, the United Nations voted 182-4 to condemn the embargo, with only Israel, Haiti, Palau and the United States voting in favor. For an embargo imposed in the name of human rights, Cuba is an odd choice placed alongside the brutality of Pinochet, Somoza and other tyrants who presided over mass killings and brutal wars. In fact, a quick glance at the island makes it abundantly clear that the worst human rights violations are occurring in our own prison base at Guantanamo Bay.
Unfortunately, the hysteria and misunderstanding of Cuba continues to this day. The Office of Foreign Assets Control, while having dealt with only a few terrorism related cases since 9/11, has processed hundreds of cases involving violations of the U.S. embargo on Cuba, a chilling vision of the depth of our anti-communist hysteria that continues unabated some 15 years removed from the Cold War. But to understand how we arrived here requires a look at the past half-century leading up to this point.
In 1952, General Fulgencio Batista led a coup that overthrew an increasingly corrupt and oppressive Cuban republic just months before upcoming elections, establishing a military dictatorship. The civil society, which had been greatly mobilized over the past decades in response to assorted colonial dictatorships and defunct democracies, immediately opposed the new dictatorship and several guerilla groups formed, including Fidel Castro's 26th of July movement.
Espousing social justice and seeking to establish a functioning democracy, they launched an attack on the Moncada barracks, but were quickly beaten and scattered. After some time in jail, members of the group organized in Mexico and returned to Cuba in 1956 to launch what would within three years be a highly successful revolutionary struggle.
Batista's responses to the civil unrest and rural rebellion grew increasingly brutal: as student and opposition groups led protests and strikes on a daily basis, the regime censored the press and outlawed many political parties. Batista's police regularly fired on protestors, and the army brutally tortured and killed dissidents and activists, including the slaughter of hundreds of peasant families suspected of having revolutionary sympathies.
As the population increasingly turned against the regime, the guerrilla fighters in the farmlands and the activists in the cities gained significant ground, and by 1959 Batista's army was defeated. The American response was tragically misguided, yet entirely predictable. An embargo was created and followed by almost two decades of destabilization efforts by the CIA, running from assassination attempts on Castro to acts of terror and sabotage committed against the Cuban population to complete diplomatic isolation.
Fidel Castro took power as a national hero and capitalized on his immense popularity to institute certain radical and undemocratic changes, most notably the imprisonment of about 15,000 counter-revolutionaries and the creation of another censored press, although much of this was overshadowed by the new government's mass mobilization on behalf of the peasants.
The communist regime built hundreds of schools and hospitals across the island, and, along with the training of thousands of doctors and teachers, engaged in what was probably the most successful public health and education initiative in the world. While the U.S. government blinded itself with McCarthyite visions of Gulags, the Cuban government brought the country's social realities on par with the best of the developed world: universal health care was provided and one of the highest doctor to citizen ratios in the world was established (by far eclipsing that in the U.S.), the infant mortality rate decreased to among the lowest in the world, unemployment and illiteracy were all but eliminated and free education was provided, along with a land reform bill that nationalized all the land that was owned by foreign companies (then amounting to approximately 75 percent of the island's land) and redistributed it much more equitably. Perhaps most impressively, life expectancy quickly rose from 58 to 73 years, now standing alongside the U.S. at 77.
Although decades of dictatorship is a quite unsavory prospect, these figures demonstrate how remarkable a change the Castro regime brought to the people of Cuba, and explain his incredible base of popular support. However, with the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba lost its foremost trading partner and the quality of life in Cuba greatly deteriorated.
The United States refused to lift the embargo even as Cubans struggled to feed themselves, triumphantly predicting that the economic struggles spelled the end for Castro. But it was Castro's strength of personality alone that held the fragile system together, as he introduced mild market reforms to boost the economy while he stubbornly refused to open the system politically.
If our concern for the Cuban people is to go beyond simple anti-communism, we must eliminate the embargo and engage in normal trade relations with Cuba, an act that would be both economical and enlightening for both our peoples.
Unfortunately, such critical respect for the Cuban people, Fidel Castro, and the politico-economic system as a whole has proven beyond the grasp of seven American presidents and seems even further out of reach for this administration.