Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The USA and Cuba: that strange obsession

The Jamaica Observer

Franklin W Knight

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

IN one of the truly poignant scenes of the movie A Lion in Winter, the aging English monarch Henry II looks despairingly at his spurned, imprisoned, and feisty queen, the dazzling, acerbic Eleanor of Aquitaine, and remarks: "How in the name of bleeding Jesus did we, from where we started, arrive at this impasse?" It is, among other things, the doleful tale of a love that had lost its heated passion and political rationale.

The inexplicable and tactless outburst of President George W Bush on Cuba last week reminds one of King Henry. The strange obsession that so many presidents of the United States have had about Cuba, especially since the Castro revolution of 1959, is remarkable indeed. One might reasonably ask how Cuba and the United States arrived at this impasse given the way they started.

Cuba and the United States started out under the best of circumstances. When George Washington and his bold but pathetically overmatched army took on the British monarch in 1776, Cuba was one of their first and strongest allies. That, however, was another George, and a far nobler age. The strong initial links were forged by a wealthy Spanish secret agent, Juan de Miralles of Havana, Cuba, who travelled to the United States in 1777 to assess for Spain the potential success of the fledgling republic. Miralles obviously liked what he saw and immediately hit it off with the inner circle of Washington. He ended up establishing a business relationship with Robert Morris, the Philadelphia merchant who gave his fortune to the revolution and served as Washington's principal finance minister.

Through Miralles' Cuban connections, the American army received regular and desperately needed supplies of sugar, flour, uniforms and arms. Miralles himself lent money to several continental towns as part of the war effort against the British. Unfortunately, in the bitterly cold winter of 1779 he contracted pneumonia in Morristown, New Jersey.

During his illness, Miralles was attended by Washington's personal physician as well as his wife, Martha. When he died in April 1780, Miralles became the first foreigner to be given a full military funeral in the United States, although the country had yet to win the war and be recognised internationally as an independent country. Washington wrote to the Spanish governor of Cuba as well as the widow of Juan Miralles extolling the wonderful qualities of his new-found friend and political supporter. After such an auspicious start, things could only go downhill for the neighbouring countries.

During the nineteenth century, the United States made several offers to purchase Cuba, and the two countries became slowly alienated from each other. Many issues contributed to the mutual alienation, although both Cuba and the United States shared a strong incipient nationalism and a penchant for free trade. Cubans, however, could not share the official sentiments of Manifest Destiny with the United States, the arbiter of all things American. Then in 1898, the United States entered the Cuban war of independence belatedly and without an invitation. Worse, they proceeded to disregard the Cubans and settled matters with Spain, subordinating the Cuban Republic to a colonial status-like control until 1959.

Nevertheless, the alienation remained at the official level only. Cubans and North Americans share a deep and abiding admiration for one another. When permitted by their governments they enthusiastically partake in each other's culture. American consumer brands such as Coca-Cola, Uncle Ben's and Colgate still elicit wild acceptance in Cuba, while Cuban products like rum, cigars, music and art still appeal to North American tastes.

The mutual popular admiration runs counter to an implacable political hostility that under the George Bush administration has demonstrated its nastiest side. Since 1960 the United States has incessantly tried to assassinate Mr Castro and overthrow his government. The United States has mounted military expeditions, supported internal and external anti-Castro factions, maintained an ineffective commercial embargo, and encouraged internal dissent in an expensive and futile campaign undermined not only by the manifest ineptness of its operatives, but also by the devotion of Cubans to their leader.

It was ironic that Mr Bush should describe Cuba as a gulag. After all, the North American president is not noted for accuracy of information or precise use of language. In any case, nothing in Cuba more closely approximates a soviet gulag than the illegally constructed US prison at Guantánamo Bay where the United States has held hundreds of prisoners for years without any formal accusations, charges or trials. Nor have the conditions of incarceration conformed to international standards.

The United States consistently supports terrorists against Cuba - the most egregious example being the case of Luis Posada Carriles who bombed a Cuban airliner off Barbados in 1976 killing all the passengers. Posada was convicted for his crime in Venezuela, escaped from prison, entered the United States illegally and walks about as a free man in Miami. Moreover, Cubans are the only illegal immigrants to the United States who are received with open arms.

The United States has enormous domestic and global problems. At home, the present administration faces a struggling economy, a deplorable deterioration of the national highways, a disastrous health system and a public education system that is failing on many fronts. Abroad interminable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been bleeding the country literally and figuratively. Additionally, serious problems loom with North Korea, Iraq, India, Pakistan, Russia and Turkey. Cuba does not present a threat of any kind, either to the United States, or to global politics and the global economy.

Cubans have been good neighbours, generously sharing their slender resources and providing the highest level of per capita foreign aid of any country in the world. It even trains doctors from the United States without cost. During the Cold War, the Cuba card might have served some purpose. The Cold War is over. It is time for the United States to drop the tired language and silly posturing toward Cuba. Moreover, people in glass houses should not throw stones.

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