The Cost of Freedom
When Fidel Castro announced in February that he would be stepping down as Cuba’s leader – after forty-nine years in power – US President George W. Bush hailed this moment as the beginning of a ‘democratic transition,’ adding that ‘the United States will help the people of Cuba realize the blessings of liberty.’ This ‘help’ will presumably take the form of economic aid; the US Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba has already pledged $80m to galvanise the shift from ‘repressive control’ towards ‘freedom and genuine democracy.’
Given that no formal diplomatic relations have existed between the two countries since the US imposed a strict economic embargo on the island state nearly fifty years ago, it is hard to believe that the American government finds itself suddenly in a reconciliatory mood, or that its foreign policy has taken an uncharacteristically altruistic turn. In the US’s bringing, as a New York Times editorial puts it, ‘the good word of democracy’ to Cuba, one is apt to consider an ulterior motive at work.
Let us, for a moment, assume that the American government really does have Cuba’s best interests at heart. Are we then also to accept that the United States has the right to intervene in another nation’s domestic affairs? That the United States knows what is best for Cuba, or indeed anywhere else in the world, and is entitled – obliged, even – to embark on a global mission of edification in matters of freedom and equality? That there exists a universally relevant concept of ‘genuine democracy,’ that this ideology exists and is successfully practised in the United States, and that this is to what we should all aspire? To answer ‘yes’ to any of these questions would seem rather presumptuous. Yet these are the presumptions embedded in US foreign policy, and in the sentiments expressed by the Bush administration with regards to the transformation of Cuba.
George Orwell warned that ‘political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.’ Bearing this in mind, we would do well to maintain a healthy scepticism when considering the gauzy platitudes of American political speech. What, for example, does President Bush mean by ‘genuine democracy?’ Words like ‘liberty,’ ‘freedom’ and ‘equality’ are commonplace – and more or less interchangeable – in American political parlance, but what do they actually connote?
The United States has a unique concept of equality; based not on power or wealth, but on opportunity, therefore incorporating a gamut of social and economic status. This apparent contradiction is resolved, theoretically speaking, by placing no restriction on any individual’s opportunity to move through the social scale, and this ‘unrestricted latitude’ has, in the case of America, traditionally facilitated such movement.
Liberty, the principle that allows the individual to be different from others, is the means of keeping the scale open. In America, class hierarchy is conceived of as a ladder to be ascended, and anyone, supposedly, can climb the ladder. While liberty might seem inconsistent with equality – the principle that requires the individual to be similar to others – in America, liberty, meaning ‘freedom to grasp opportunity,’ and equality, also meaning ‘freedom to grasp opportunity’ have become almost synonymous. But equality, if conceived of as potential, has no intrinsic value; it can be substantiated only through actual movement to a higher social level. Material acquisition therefore comes to be regarded as mechanism, proof and goal.
Conviction in the virtue of materialism has always been central to American mythology. Thomas Jefferson, in 1802, wrote that the ‘pursuit of wealth… is high-minded,’ having earlier, in the Declaration of Independence, established the basic tenets of the American character, ‘truths,’ so the rhetoric has it, ‘held to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.’ Jefferson, in appropriating the words of John Locke, altered the original clause ‘Life, Liberty and Property’, with the implication that spiritual fulfilment and material acquisition have equivalent objective worth. His justification for this change was pragmatic – property was not, evidently, available to every man, however ‘equally created’ he might be. The ‘Pursuit of Happiness,’ conveniently unquantifiable, serves as an abstract compromise. Despite their implausibility, these ideas received and still retain a most tenacious hold in the American system of values.
Until the latter decades of the nineteenth century, an abundance of material resources allowed America’s entrepreneurs to flourish, helping to perpetuate faith in the idea that diligent perseverance of the individual would invariably be rewarded with material gain. But then, in 1890, the Bureau of the Census officially declared that the internal frontier was closed, and, as Howard Zinn writes:
The severe depression that began in 1893 strengthened an idea developing within the political and financial elite of the country: that overseas markets for American goods might relieve the problem of underconsumption at home and prevent the economic crises that in the 1890s brought class war.
The practice of equality, when conceived of as potential, is contingent upon perpetual economic expansion, and when the domestic market has been thoroughly exploited, business interests must inevitably look further afield. The Department of State explained in 1898: ‘The enlargement of foreign consumption of the products of our mills and workshops has … become a serious problem of statesmanship as well as of commerce.’
Indeed, the interests of politics were becoming entangled with those of business, and both were grounded in an a quest for economic advancement – a phenomenon that would augment in the twentieth century into the ‘military-industrial complex’ and come to define American foreign policy to this day.
Once recognised by the populace as important for prosperity, expansionist policies gained widespread appeal. And while an ‘open door’ policy to foreign trade was preferable, military action could always deliver what this more ‘sophisticated’ approach to imperialism could not. Particularly if the motive appeared to be one of generosity.
Such was the case in Cuba.
By 1898, Cuban rebels had been fighting their Spanish conquerors for three years in an attempt to win independence. This struggle appealed to the American people; according to Zinn, ‘popular support of the Cuban revolution was based on the thought that they, like the Americans of 1776, were fighting a war for their own liberation.’ The American government also observed with interest the events unfolding in Cuba, but from a quite different perspective. Power and profit were in mind, but not independence for the island.
Trade with Cuba was becoming increasingly profitable. An estimated $30m to $50m of American capital was already invested in plantations, railroads, mines and other enterprises on the island, and the revolt against Spain presented an unprecedented opportunity for the United States to intervene and seize even greater control of Cuba’s resources.
To exploit the commercial possibilities, America needed Spain out of Cuba, but this task could not be left to the Cuban rebels, who would merely replace the collapsing Spanish regime. Nor could the insurgents be officially recognised as such; legal recognition would have enabled the United States to give aid to the rebels without sending in an army. Military intervention was the only means of ensuring American hegemony. As Walter Lafeber has written:
By mid-March, [President McKinley] was beginning to discover that, although he did not want war, he did want what only a war could provide; the disappearance of the terrible uncertainty in American political and economic life, and a solid basis from which to resume the building of the new American commercial empire.
The American media helped to perpetuate the notion that ‘liberty’ was largely a matter of freedom in enterprise. One New York publication, the Commercial Advertiser, demanded intervention in Cuba for ‘humanity and love of freedom, and above all, the desire that the commerce and industry of every part of the world shall have full freedom of development in the whole world’s interest.’ Here again we find the curious notion that what is best for the United States is best for the world: another case of self-interest masquerading as common good. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that when McKinley asked Congress for war on April 11, he made no mention of Cuban independence.
To quell fears that Cuba would be annexed, Congress passed the Teller Amendment, pledging that the United States ‘hereby disclaims any disposition of intention to exercise sovereignty, jurisdiction, or control over said island except for pacification thereof, and asserts its determination, when that is accomplished, to leave the government and control of the island to its people.’When American forces moved into Cuba, they were welcomed by the rebels, who believed the amendment would ensure Cuban independence. They were mistaken.
Spanish forces were defeated in just three months, and, as Philip Foner writes:
Even before the Spanish flag was down in Cuba, U.S. business interests set out to make their influence felt. Merchants, real estate agents, stock speculators, reckless adventurers, and promoters of all kinds of get-rich schemes flocked to Cuba by the thousands… Thus, simultaneously with the military occupation began… commercial occupation.
American contractors began taking over railroads, and mines, as well as timber, tobacco and sugar properties. By 1901, at least 80 per cent of Cuba’s export minerals were controlled by American companies. True to the Teller Amendment, Cuba was not annexed. But the United States army refused to rescind until a further clause, the Platt Amendment, was incorporated into the new Cuban Constitution. The Amendment afforded the United States ‘the right to intervene for the preservation of Cuban independence, the maintenance of a government adequate for the protection of life, property, and individual liberty.’
Independence, conceived of as such, is no independence at all. And it was on these terms that Cuba was drawn into the American sphere.
Cuba remained a victim of colonial vassalage for nearly sixty years. Then, during the 1950s, Fidel Castro led a revolution against Batista’s dictatorship, fighting guerrilla warfare from the mountains and jungles, and, in 1958, marching across the country to Havana, overthrowing the government on New Year’s Day, 1959. Castro, in power, immediately moved to set up a nationwide system of education, housing, and land distribution.
These new programs needed financial support, and the United States was not keen to give it. Only countries where America could establish political and corporate influence were deemed worthy of economic aid. The true aim of America’s benevolence was becoming increasingly transparent: the bolstering of military presence in anti-Communist countries. When John F. Kennedy took office in 1961, he launched the Alliance for Progress, a supposedly humanitarian initiative to better the lives of people in Latin America. It transpired to be, for the most part, military aid to keep in power right-wing dictatorships – like the one Castro had deposed.
Cuba had set a dangerous precedent: defiance of US hemispheric policy, and a direct threat to American business interests. When the International Monetary Fund, dominated by the United States, refused to loan money to Cuba, Castro signed trade agreements with the Soviet Union.
Anti-Communist sentiments had been brewing in the American psyche for some years. The House Un-American Activities Committee had, throughout the Fifties, been busily interrogating its citizens about their Communist connections, distributing anti-Communist propaganda, instilling in the American public a dread of Communists and of Soviet attack. A culture of fear had been manufactured in which it was easy to gain mass support for a policy of rearmament. In his first year as President, Kennedy increased military spending by $9 billion, so that, by 1962, the United States had overwhelming nuclear superiority – eight times as many bombs and warheads as the USSR. This, of course, was all in the name of defence. Yet America’s ‘Good Neighbor Policy,’ one ‘opposed to armed intervention,’ had become redundant. Noam Chomsky writes:
Within months of the success of the Castro revolution, Cuba was being bombed from US territory, and by March 1960 the US had secretly determined to overthrow the regime. This had nothing to do with Russia, Communism, dictatorship… rather, with independence.
The March plan called for the overthrow of Castro in favour of a regime ‘more acceptable to the US.’ Despite intelligence reports that popular support for Castro was high, the US would determine ‘the true interests of the Cuban people.’
The United States had also signed a treaty called the ‘Charter of the Organization of American States,’ which reads: ‘No state or group of states has the right to intervene, directly or indirectly, for any reason whatever, in the internal or external affairs of any other state.’ The overthrow of Castro was therefore to be carried out ‘in such a manner as to avoid any appearance of US intervention.’ The CIA armed and trained 1,400 anti-Castro Cuban exiles in Guatemala, and, in April 1961, landed at the Bay of Pigs, expecting to provoke a general rising against the regime. But the intelligence reports proved to be accurate: Castro was popular, and there was no rising. The CIA’s forces were defeated in three days.
Kennedy’s response was to implement ‘Operation Mongoose,’ a program of ‘paramilitary operations, economic warfare and sabotage,’ launched in late 1961, intended to visit ‘the terrors of the earth’ on Fidel Castro.
The ‘final definition’ of the project recognised that ‘final success will require decisive US military intervention’after terrorism and subversion had laid the basis… In February 1962, the Joint Chiefs of Staff approved a plan… to use ‘covert means… to lure or provoke Castro… into an overt hostile reaction against the United States; a reaction that would in turn create the justification for the US to not only retaliate but destroy Castro with speed, force and determination.’
(Noam Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival,America’s Quest for Global Dominance)
The Cuban problem now carried top priority in the United States Government, and the plan was to be implemented in October – when the missile crisis erupted. Even before the crisis, Kennedy had broadened the partial trade restrictions imposed after the revolution by Eisenhower to a ban on all trade with Cuba. A year later travel and financial transactions by US citizens with Cuba was prohibited. The embargo was tightened under the Reagan administration, and codified into law in 1992 with the stated purpose of ‘bringing democracy to the Cuban people.’ The Cuban Democracy Act, as it is called, states that ‘The government of Fidel Castro has demonstrated consistent disregard for internationally accepted standards of human rights and for democratic values,’ adding, ‘There is no sign that the Castro regime is prepared to make any significant concessions to democracy or to undertake any form of democratic opening.’ No reference is made to the human rights record of the United States, which itself supports and conducts far worse crimes than the Castro regime, including its crimes against Cuba. The embargo has effectively barred even food and medicine; in 1999 the Clinton administration eased such sanctions for all countries on the official list of ‘terrorist states,’ apart from Cuba, which was, Chomsky claims, ‘singled out for unique punishment.’
Again we must question the American concept of democracy. A democracy which seeks to control the political and economic mechanisms of another state is a dangerous thing indeed, particularly if such a democracy will not recognise any international authority. When the European Union called on the World Trade Organisation to condemn the embargo on Cuba, the US declared that the WTO had no competence to rule on US national security or to compel the US to change its laws, and then withdrew from discussions.
The embargo remains in place to this day, and a report, drawn up by the US Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, includes further measures for enforcing those sanctions already in place against the Communist regime. The commission’s members include US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who said the report and funding aimed to help ‘Cuba’s brave opposition leaders and to encourage those Cubans still silent out of fear but free in their hearts and minds to dream of a better future.’ The Cuban government said the plan was an act of aggression, violating Cuba’s sovereignty and international law, and dissident journalist Oscar Espinosa Chepe told foreign news agencies:
I really appreciate the solidarity of the United States government and people, but I think that this report is counterproductive… I believe Cubans have to be the ones who solve our problems and any interference serves to complicate the situation.
President George W. Bush, in his address to the nation following the 9/11 attacks, declared that Americans were hated for their ‘freedoms… of religion… of speech… to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.’ This, emphatically, is untrue. If Americans are hated, it is not because they practise democracy and value freedom, but because their government claims to want to bring these things to people in countries whose resources are coveted by multinational corporations. The ‘good word of democracy’ turns out to be merely a veil for economic exploitation. This we should remember when we consider America’s role in the future of Cuba, and the nature of American influence across the globe.
Will Brady is based in Edinburgh, where he works as a freelance graphic designer, photographer and, occasionally, writer.