Cuba and Obama

U.S. – Cuba relations have always been far from ‘normal’

Online Athens – Aug 23

By Louis A. Perez Jr. / Tribune News Service

U.S.-Cuba relations are still far from normal — and may never be.

Secretary of State John Kerry has heralded the renewal of diplomatic ties, symbolized by the formal reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana, as a step “to restoring fully normal relations between the United States and Cuba.”

But there are still many obstacles in the way.

The U.S. economic embargo on Cuba continues, and there is no indication that it will be lifted anytime soon in a Republican-controlled Congress. The United States also retains control of territory seized at the beginning of the 20th century on which the Guantanamo Bay military base has been built. And the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, whereby Cuban immigrants are granted automatic U.S. residence within a year of their arrival, remains in effect.

Over the last 200 years, “normal” U.S. conduct toward Cuba has been filled with conflict.

All through the 19th century, the United States saw Cuba — in Thomas Jefferson’s words — as “the most interesting addition which could ever be made to our system of states.” It alternately offered to purchase and threatened to seize the island from Spain. In 1898, the United States intervened in Cuba’s war for independence, arriving in the guise of an ally but remaining in the role of conqueror.

The U.S. military occupation ended only after Cuba ratified the Platt Amendment, whereby Cuba relinquished claims to self-determination and national sovereignty and authorized the United States to intervene for “the protection of life, liberty and property.”

U.S. armed interventions followed in rapid succession. The military occupation of 1898-1902 was followed by another occupation in 1906-1909, an armed intervention in 1912 and another military intervention in 1917-1921. During these decades, U.S. meddling in Cuban internal affairs knew virtually no limits. The United States abrogated the Platt Amendment in 1934 at precisely the moment that it aided and abetted the rise of Col. Fulgencio Batista as the pro-American strongman in Havana, a role he would play for much of the quarter-century that followed.

All through the first half of the 20th century, U.S. ambassadors in Havana assumed the role of pro-consuls, presiding unabashedly — as if it were perfectly “normal” — over the management of Cuban internal affairs. Former Ambassador Earl E.T. Smith acknowledged in 1960, “The United States, until the advent of Castro, was so overwhelmingly influential in Cuba that … the American ambassador was the second most important man in Cuba, sometimes even more important than the president.”

Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution ended the exercise of U.S. power, for which the Cubans would not be forgiven. For 50 years, the United States retaliated with covert operations, assassination plots, political isolation and punitive sanctions, all for a return to the old days.

So, what has constituted “normal” in the Cuba-U.S. relationship has been U.S. determination to control Cuba and Cuban resolve to resist U.S. control.

Now, there is the challenge of fashioning a mutually acceptable model of what makes for normal between the United States and Cuba.

Matters are not off to a good start. Both governments are operating with different notions of “normal relations.” The Cuban government has laid out an explicit protocol, what President Raul Castro has outlined as mutual respect for self-determination, national sovereignty “on the basis of sovereign equality,” and to coexist “with our differences in a civilized manner.” The United States, though, contemplates “normal relations” as a way to influence outcomes in Cuba.

These two versions of how the United States and Cuba should approach each other will be difficult to reconcile.

– Louis A. Perez Jr. is the J. Carlyle Sitterson Professor of History and director of the Institute for the Study of the Americas at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of several books on Cuba. He wrote this for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues affiliated with The Progressive magazine. Send email to pmproj@progressive.org mailto:pmproj@progressive.org.

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