The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Cuba:
The U.S. Trying to Settle an Old Score

Nov 11, 1994

Between August and early September, Cuba once again returned to the front pages. A refugee crisis had been building throughout the summer as an increasing number of Cubans sought to leave the island for the U.S. Within a period of 10 days, 3 Cuban ferries were hijacked for that purpose. Then on August 5, a riot broke out along the Havana waterfront. Fidel Castro responded by announcing that the Cuban government would no longer stand in the way of people trying to leave for the U.S. Within a period of about one month, over 35,000 people set sail on mainly homemade rafts and boats.

The U.S. government has always used immigration as a political ploy to discredit and disrupt the Cuban regime. On the one hand, ever since the 1960s the U.S. severely restricted most legal immigration from Cuba. But on the other hand, it encouraged hijackings by promising Cuban refugees automatic residency status. For the U.S., this worked as long as not too many people took them up on the offer. But given the current strong anti-immigrant political atmosphere in the U.S., once the flood from Cuba began, the Clinton administration slammed the door in their face. The refugees were picked up just outside Cuban waters by the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard. The refugees found themselves back in Cuba, this time squeezed into a camp set up at the U.S. Navy's base on Cuban soil, Guantanamo Bay. Others were sent to camps in Panama. Most remain in camps to this day. As a punitive measure against Castro, the U.S. cut off the flow of dollars from the Cuban-American community to their relatives in Cuba. Last year, the amount of these dollars was comparable to the scarce hard currency Cuba earned from a tourist industry that the Cuban government had been promoting for years; so this was a harsh blow.

To halt the flow of refugees, the U.S. was forced to sit down and negotiate with the Castro government. In so doing, the U.S. extended tacit recognition to an isolated and ostracized Castro. The U.S. agreed to grant a minimum of 20,000 Cuban visas per year, a sharp increase from the 2,000 visas they granted the previous year. In return, the Cuban government agreed to end the refugee crisis by stopping all boats and rafts.

But the U.S. refused, and continues to refuse to discuss anything else that would at all normalize diplomatic and trade relations between the two countries. Not only has the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba not been relaxed, the severe tightening by the so-called "Cuban Democracy Act" of 1992 continues. Under this act, trade with Cuba by U.S. subsidiaries in other countries is forbidden. So is the sale of products containing U.S.-made components. And any ships that had been in Cuba are refused entry to U.S. ports for six months. With these measures the U.S. unilaterally cut back Cuban trade with all other countries. And it increased the costs to the Cuban economy for the trade that was left.

In recent years, commentators have pointed out the seeming anomaly of the U.S.'s continued hardline stance toward Cuba. They say the Soviet bloc fell apart 5 years ago, and the U.S. has been normalizing relations with the last of the Soviet bloc countries, North Korea and Viet Nam. Most governments, including Canada, Mexico, Japan and Western Europe, have long ago normalized relations with Cuba. The U.S. seems to be isolated on this issue. This is symbolized by the General Assembly's practically unanimous condemnation for the last 3 years of the U.S. trade embargo.

U.S. Hardline Policy on Cuba

It seems that the U.S. ruling class itself is raising the question of ending the embargo and even recognition of Cuba. For example, its major publications, from the "moderate" New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times to the business press of the Wall Street Journal, have all called for an end to the embargo and a normalization of relations with Cuba. Some of its political spokespeople express the same idea. This September, Senator Claiborne Pell, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and Representative Lee Hamilton, the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, went on record in an Op-Ed piece in the Washington Post calling for an end to major features of the embargo. In 1992, the U.S. War College had already published a study recommending that the best way to bring Castro down would be to recognize the regime. And last year, a delegation of retired U.S. military officers were taken on an unofficial tour of Cuban military installations. Admiral Eugene J. Carroll, former Commander of the Sixth Fleet, later wrote in the L.A. Times that it was time to lift the embargo.

Certainly, the strengthened U.S. trade embargo has cut into some business and profits for U.S. corporations. Before the act was passed, U.S. subsidiaries in other countries had increased their trade with Cuba to about 700 million dollars per year. While some subsidiaries, like the giant grain exporter, Cargill, seem to be able to get around the embargo, with subterfuges, most of this business has been lost. Besides that, as worsening economic conditions force Castro to open up Cuba to outside investment, Spanish, Canadian and Mexican capitalists have all taken advantage of the absence of U.S. corporations. This year a Mexican company bought a half interest in the Cuban telephone company for a reported 1.5 billion dollars.

But the reason for this hardline policy against Cuba has never been economic: basic political reasons outweigh the economic considerations. On the scale of things, the Cuban economy is a drop in the bucket. (Besides, as long as the U.S. continues the embargo, the opportunity for U.S. competitors to make a profit are also kept to a minimum.)

Usually, much of U.S. policy toward Cuba has been attributed to the political influence of the ultra-conservative section of the Cuban-American community led by Jorge Más Canoso. However, even granted the Miami Cuban-American influence, it is hard to imagine that such a small minority could dictate U.S. policy to the U.S. government and ruling class.

The U.S. ruling class and its government have their own reasons to continue this policy; they want to settle accounts with Castro. Fidel Castro has been a big headache to the U.S. for 35 years. He has defied — and outlasted — eight U.S. presidents, starting with Eisenhower. Clinton is Number Nine. Today the Clinton administration may finally have a chance to get even with Castro.

Never before has Cuba been so vulnerable to U.S. pressure. With the collapse of the Soviet bloc 5 years ago, Cuba lost its main political and military allies. This also sent the Cuban economy into a free fall. The Soviet bloc had been Cuba's lifeline, supplying subsidies, oil, other energy supplies and industrial equipment for sugar and raw materials. Most of that trade and aid is now gone. Instead, to make matters worse, Russia is demanding that Cuba begin to pay back 25 billion dollars Russia says it owes. Coupled with the U.S. embargo, Cuban economic life is strangling from a lack of almost everything — food, medicine, energy, even soap.

Obviously, this growing misery and desperation is an opportunity for U.S. imperialism. Time, it seems, is on the U.S. side. Now finally, the U.S. is in the position to make an example of Castro and those who brought him to power and supported him.

Thirty-five Years of Trying to Bring Castro to Heel

For the U.S. government, Castro was a major problem from the beginning. It started with the way he came to power, by leading a popular revolution that overthrew a U.S.-sponsored dictator, Batista. It was Castro's original sin. Then Castro dared to call into question the absolute sanctity of U.S. corporate interests that owned much of the agriculture and industry in the country. When the U.S. tried to call Castro to account, Castro found ready allies with the rival Soviet bloc, providing the Soviets with their first foothold in the U.S. preserve, the Western Hemisphere. Barely a year later, together, they had brought in some old nuclear-tipped missiles. For the U.S., the devil himself was sitting and smoking a big, fine cigar 90 miles away from the Florida coast.

In response, the U.S. tried to create havoc for Castro. The U.S. broke diplomatic relations and set up a trade embargo. And the U.S. pressured every Latin American government to break diplomatic and trade relations with Cuba as well. Only the Mexican government resisted. The CIA bombed fields and factories. A ship in Havana harbor was blown up. In 1961, the U.S. engineered the Bay of Pigs invasion. After that fiasco, the CIA ran Operation Mongoose, with a budget of 50 million dollars per year, hiring 2000 agents to carry out small-scale attacks against Cuba. They enlisted such infamous Mafia bosses as Sam Giancana to help organize at least eight assassination attempts against Castro. The U.S. foreign policy establishment not only displayed vindictiveness, but ineptitude.

For the U.S., the stakes were higher than just one regime in Cuba. The bearded Cuban guerrillas seemed to prove that it was possible to revolt in the middle of what U.S. imperialism had considered its own backyard — and get away with it. They inspired imitators all through Latin America in the 1960s and 70s. In response, the U.S. military invaded the Dominican Republic in 1965, and in 1967, U.S. backed forces in Bolivia finally tracked down and murdered Che Guevara.

This did not prevent the U.S. on occasion from sending out feelers to see whether the relationship between Cuba and the U.S. could be changed, and what it would cost the U.S. As early as 1963, under Kennedy, there were some informal attempts at "improving" bilateral relations. But this was interrupted by Kennedy's assassination, perhaps with the cooperation of Cuban exiles. A new initiative began in the early 1970s, within the context of the new U.S. policy of detente with the Soviet Union and China, following the U.S. setback in Viet Nam. In 1973 under Nixon, the U.S. made some small side agreements with Cuba. In 1974, the U.S. State Department conducted broader secret negotiations with Castro. A shift was signaled in 1975 when Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was quoted in the press as saying that "there was no virtue of perpetual antagonism with Cuba". At that point, trade with Cuba by some U.S. corporate subsidiaries operating out of Canada and Argentina began. On July 29, 1975, with U.S. support, the collective inter-American sanctions on Cuba were lifted. Shortly afterwards, the U.S. modified its own embargo policies, loosening up trade with Cuba. In one of many measures, the U.S. stopped denying aid to countries that allowed their ships or aircraft to carry goods to or from Cuba, and it permitted the docking in the U.S. of ships of third countries engaged in such traffic. On September 23, the State Department formally announced, "We are prepared to improve our relations with Cuba."

Then the process was interrupted — by Castro. Castro, acting with the support of the Soviet Union, sent troops to Angola, where a war of independence from Portugal and civil war was raging. The Cuban troops were sent to aid the MPLA, the main nationalist guerrilla force that was fighting, among other things, South African troops. For Castro, it was an opportunity to increase Cuban influence and gain allies on other continents, and therefore bolster his future position in eventual negotiations with the U.S.

For the U.S., Castro's troops roaming Africa presented further problems. But this did not stop the Carter Administration from taking up the diplomatic initiative with Cuba once the Angolan civil war ended and the Cuban troops departed. In June 1977, there was a formal agreement to set up diplomatic "interest sections" in each others' capitols. The U.S. lifted the tourist ban to Cuba and granted tourist visas to some Cubans. It also permitted the resumption of some charter flights between the two countries.

Of course, all of these measures were very limited and tentative. And this was as far as things ever went. By 1979, the U.S. government faced new upsurges in the Caribbean and Central America. The governments in Grenada and Nicaragua were overthrown by movements that looked to Cuba for support. A civil war broke out in El Salvador, again involving guerrillas with Cuban support. Once again, Cuba was supporting movements and governments that opposed the U.S. And then in 1980, Carter had his own showdown with Castro. Castro called Carter's bluff over Cuba's treatment of refugees. Castro let loose the Mariel boatlift, and went so far as to invite Cuban Americans to bring their boats to Cuba and pick up the refugees. It was a major embarrassment to the U.S. and especially the Carter administration.

The U.S. responded by breaking relations with Cuba. In 1981, when Reagan came in, the diplomatic interest sections were closed down. Secretary of State Alexander Haig stressed that the U.S. was going to clean up house in "its own backyard", and threatened Cuba, which he represented as the source of all the problems. (This did not stop Castro from once again sending tens of thousands of troops back to Angola, to block South African troops when that civil war heated back up.) In 1983, 20,000 U.S. troops invaded tiny Grenada, with a population of 80,000. Then the U.S. Contra War successfully wore down the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. And then the El Salvadoran guerrillas settled and gave up their fight. Cuba was once again isolated in Latin America.

U.S. policy towards Cuba has always been affected by the general political situation. For example, in 1979, when the Shah of Iran was overthrown, U.S. hostages were taken and the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, Carter moved away from the policy of detente with the Soviet Union, and changed at the same time the U.S. stance toward Cuba.

When the Soviet bloc collapsed, resulting in each country in that bloc prostrating itself in front of the U.S., Cuba was isolated throughout the world.

With the Soviet Union gone and the revolts subsiding in Latin America, Cuba no longer represented a threat to the United States. This could have been an opportunity for the U.S. to settle with Castro on very favorable terms. And Castro made it clear that Cuba was open to U.S. business and investment, that "market" reforms were on the order of the day and that Cuba was not in any position to make trouble for the U.S.

Confronted with the changed situation, the Bush administration slightly softened U.S. policy towards Cuba. The U.S. agreed to a series of openings, in terms of cooperation in specific fields that were favorable to the U.S., from negotiating on connecting phone service, to Cuba's cooperating in the arrest of some drug traffickers, or the U.S. sending back some Cuban prisoners.

But in the heat of the 1992 election campaign, U.S. policy effectively changed, raising the stakes. Candidate Bill Clinton strongly endorsed the Torricelli bill further tightening the embargo. It was passed by the Democratic-controlled Congress and signed into law by a somewhat reluctant Bush. In the last two years, the Clinton administration has been relentless in enforcing the embargo. One more time, the Democrats demonstrated that they are quite capable of carrying out the most aggressive foreign policy in the interests of U.S. imperialism.

The U.S. is intent on turning Cuba, defiant so long, into a completely negative example, and a complete U.S. victory. For the U.S., it is not enough for Cuba to open completely to U.S. investment, as the Soviet bloc has done. Today, the U.S. is demanding complete capitulation from the regime which dared to defy it for so long. The U.S. fears that if they allow Castro to survive, even if he is not victorious, he will at least not be defeated. U.S. policy is now geared to trying to deprive him of that.

Behind Castro's Continued Support

Yet, there is no indication that Castro is about to be overthrown or to capitulate. In some sectors of the Cuban population, there must be a certain crumbling of support for Castro. The increased flight of the population demonstrates that. But polls taken in the last years have consistently shown that while most people are critical of the policies of Castro and the Cuban government, in general they do not blame him for the terrible crisis that they face today. Instead, they blame the situation on the U.S.

Castro still has a base of support in the population for many reasons, which are both economic and political. First, because the Cuban Revolution that overthrew Batista was supported by most of the population. And after the revolution, Castro moved to solidify his base, choosing for example, to support the peasant demands for the land over the interests and profits of U.S. corporations.

The Castro government then pursued policies that led to the rise in the standard of living and well-being of the vast majority. Per capita income grew from $250 per year before the revolution to $2500 per year by the mid-1980s. The Castro leadership made health and education priorities, and they got results. Before the revolution, it has been estimated that the literacy rate was about 21 per cent. Today its literacy rate is estimated at about 99 per cent, much higher than that of the U.S. As for health, before the revolution, the average life span was about 52 years. Today it is 25 years higher, comparable to the most advanced industrial countries. Infant mortality rates are also comparable to the industrialized countries, and better than in most U.S. cities.

Also, the fact that hundreds of thousands of the privileged and wealthy left Cuba in the years after the revolution left openings for part of a whole generation, which received a social promotion to take positions of responsibility and power.

Economically, these improvements were made possible by a relatively high economic growth rate. It is estimated that in the 1970s Cuba's economy grew at a rate comparable to that of the most successful of the underdeveloped countries, such as Taiwan. The main advantage that Cuba had compared to the other underdeveloped countries was that for a period of time, its development was not completely dictated by imperialism. Also, of course, Cuba benefitted from a large subsidy from the Soviet Union. But how much of this was a real subsidy is debatable. Certainly, the figures bandied about by the CIA of 5 or 6 billion dollars per year are fictitious. It is estimated that a country like Israel received a subsidy at least 3 times greater than Cuba. Perhaps, at the most, Cuba received a subsidy comparable to that of Puerto Rico, where much of the population lives in such squalor that millions have been forced to emigrate to the U.S. And, of course, Cuba had several things weighing it down, starting with the U.S. economic embargo, and the threat of war.

However, Cuba's position in the world economy never changed. Over the last 35 years its economy has never stopped being basically on one crop, that is, sugar. Its economic performance continued to depend upon the crop size and world price. The fact that it was able to substitute the dependence on the Soviet bloc for U.S. imperialist control over Cuba, did not exempt it from the necessity of the world market.

Of course, with the collapse of the Soviet bloc the situation of the Cuban people is drastically changing. Over the last 5 years, the average standard of living has been cut in half. With the growing shortages, there has been a growth in the black market. U.S. dollars are playing more and more of a role in the economy. And people, more desperate than ever, are willing to do anything to grab access to those dollars. And this means the return of many of the social ills and symbols of demoralization, such as crime and prostitution, from before the revolution.

However, despite the fact that part of the population wants to flee, there is no sign that increased U.S. pressure has brought many people to take its side against Castro.

The Current Stalemate and Beyond

In the last period, the U.S. has repulsed all Castro's offers to compromise. Of course, if the Castro regime holds on, the U.S. could always change its policy and loosen or even drop the embargo, as a large part of the U.S. foreign policy establishment has urged. This might benefit a privileged minority in Cuba — and Miami. But for most in Cuba, this would not bring much of an improvement to their living conditions.

If the U.S. ended its embargo, the center of Havana might return to its former splendor. New hotels might sprout up for the enjoyment and pleasure of U.S. tourists, like before the revolution. Sleek new cars equipped with cellular phones could take the place of many of the old, 1950s vintage Detroit clunkers. But at the same time, the plague of unemployment and hunger would grow with a vengeance. The social programs of health and education would be largely dismantled, as being too costly.

This corresponds to the experience of other countries that have been brought back under U.S. and European imperialism's direct domination. For most, the much advertized peace and prosperity did not materialize. On the contrary, the people in Nicaragua are worse off now than under the Sandinistas. The U.S. never came through with the investment and aid that it had promised. If anything, the population is more pauperized than ever. In Eastern Europe, the Iron Curtain has come down and the U.S. government has proclaimed friendly relations. The news media reports that there are no more long lines in front of stores that are well stocked with products from all over the world. Yet only a very small part of the population can enjoy these privileges. At the same time, unemployment is growing, while those with jobs simply do not have the money with which to buy anything. And to justify this, the rulers have all relied on a right-wing reactionary jingoism, designed to set the different groups against each other.

For the past 35 years, Cuba under its nationalist leadership has been able to bring a certain amount of progress to the population by keeping imperialism at bay. But the threat of imperialism always persisted. And today, in a difficult period for the oppressed people of the world, this pressure is greater than ever, and it is depriving the Cubans of whatever progress they had made.

For how long can a determined, but isolated people on one small island hold out against imperialism? It seems to be a miracle that Cuba has been able to continue to resist over these 35 years. For Cuba, as for the rest of Latin America and the underdeveloped countries, opposing imperialism is not enough. If these countries are to develop, if their people are to become free, imperialism must be destroyed. The people of the underdeveloped countries cannot destroy imperialism alone. They can only accomplish this by combining their forces with those of the working masses inside the big imperialist powers. But that is a path that Castro and the Cuban nationalists never proposed.