Cuba and America: A Primer on History and Politics

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The relationship between Cuba and the United States is a relationship of history and politics. It is a relationship which shows the nature of Capitalism and Imperialism. It is a relationship which also shows the nature of the struggle for Socialism and Socialist Revolution. Cuba, the first revolutionary Socialist state in Latin America, has managed to survive as a revolutionary Socialist state despite that relationship — a relationship forced upon Cuba by the most powerful Capitalist state in the history of the World — the United States. In many ways the relationship between Cuba and the United States defines part of the nineteenth-century, the twentieth-century and the present-day — between Revolution and Counter-Revolution. In history and politics the old struggle and old relationship between Cuba and the U.S. defines much of the history and politics surrounding us today.

The history and politics between Cuba and the United States began in the nineteenth-century. The modern relationship between Cuba and the United States is a product of the nineteenth-century, and the twentieth-century; a product of Imperialism, Capitalism, Revolution, Rebellion, Class Struggle, and War. In the nineteenth-century, the United States effectively took Cuba from the Spanish Empire and fought a war with Spain in 1898 over the issue of American power in Cuba. In the twentieth-century, the United States effectively controlled Cuba and Cuban politics — before the triumph of the Cuban Revolution of 1959.

The political relationship between Cuba and the United States has been defined by the Cuban Revolution. The modern relationship between Cuba and the United States is also the product of the Cuban Revolution of 1959 — the Cuban Revolution led by Fidel Castro, the Cuban Revolution of 1953-1959, the Cuban Revolution of 1959-1962. The Revolution changed the relationship between Cuba and the United States by making Cuba both independent of the power of the United States and in conflict with the United States. The conflict which has persisted between Cuba and the United States, since then, has been a fundamental reality of the Cuban Revolution — as an anti-Imperialist Revolution and one determined to see Cuba retain its Independence from foreign domination, specifically that of the United States.

Fidel Castro (far left) and Che Guevara (centre) lead a memorial march in Havana on 5 March 1960, for the victims of the La Coubre freight ship explosion. (Source: Public Domain)

Since 1959, to the present, the United States has sought to undermine the Cuban Revolution and the Revolution in Cuba. This struggle against Cuba and the Cuban Revolution has defined Cuba since 1959. This struggle, from the American and Cuban sides, has also helped to define both States during and since the Cold War. In the United States it has shown the persistence of the U.S. Government to overcome the Cuban Revolution. In Cuba it highlights the success and strength of the Revolution of 1959, both politically and socially. For the rest of South America and Central America the Cuban Revolution still represents the possibility of social progress and revolution. In the terms of the history of South America and Central America, the Cuba Revolution represented the ability of a State, Society and Nation in the American hemisphere to break from the United States and to chart its own social development and economic development. That the Revolution in Cuba survived the twentieth-century, and still survives to this day, is a testament not simply to Cuba, the Cuban State, the Cuban Communist Party or the Cuban Revolutionaries of 1959, but to the Cuban people themselves.

The political and historical relationship between Cuba and the United States cannot be seen in isolation from the history of American Imperialism in the rest of South America and Central America.1 From the nineteenth-century, through the terrors of the twentieth-century, the United States has acted to maintain its own power and its own Imperialism in both South America and Central America — preventing both social progress there and social revolution. The history of American relations in South America and Central America is the history of U.S. support for dictatorships, oppression, exploitation, coups and military occupation. It is a history which continues in the politics of today — in U.S. Imperialism and U.S. policy.

The Spanish-American War of 1898 began and defined the relationship between Cuba and the United States – a war in which Cuba traded Spanish Imperialism and Spanish Domination, for American Imperialism and American Domination. In 1898, the United States formally invaded Cuba as part of its War against Spain, beginning an occupation which would last until formal Cuban independence in 1902. In political terms and economic terms this merely transferred Cuba from Spain to the United States, despite American promises that Cuba would be allowed to be both free and independent as an independent republic. Much of this period of Cuban history, from 1898 to 1959, can formally be called the ‘American Period’ — in which Cuba was both formally and informally part of the American sphere, American power and American interests. At the same time, besides political subservience to the United States, Cuba became economically dependent and economically subservient to the United States, beginning a process of economic domination which would not end until the Revolution of 1959. After 1898, Cuba was nominally independent, but would remain an American puppet and an American satellite, through various interventions, coups and counter-revolutions, until the Cuban Revolution of 1959. The period of 1898 to 1959, the first period of Cuban history in modern history, was one where Cuba was prevented from both political independence and economic independence — again a period which lasted as part of Cuba’s history until the triumph of the Revolution of 1959.

American interest in Cuba began long before 1898. Before 1898, in the nineteenth-century, the United States had taken an interest in Spanish Cuba — as part of the emerging U.S. doctrine of American interests in Latin America and the Monroe doctrine. As part of the process of emerging American Imperialism, in both the nineteenth-century and the twentieth-century, Cuba was part of American visions and American designs for American power in Central America — of American power and American Imperialism outside of the United States.

This Imperialist interest in Cuba, by the United States, as with all American interests in South America and Central America, has defined the history and politics of the United States in Cuba. A history and politics from the 1820s, through the 1860s and 1890s, through the twentieth-century, through the Revolution of 1959, to the present day.

Cuban politics, on the Left, understood the nature of American Imperialism and American exploitation in Cuba. This formed the basis of Cuban revolutionary politics in the twentieth-century and the Cuban Revolution of 1959, alongside the need to free Cuba from the Batista dictatorship of 1952 to 1959.

José Marti, the great hero of Cuban Independence and Cuban Freedom, in the nineteenth-century, always noted the danger of American intervention and American Imperialism in Cuba. Like many in Cuba, from the 1890s to the present, from Marti to Castro, from 1898 to 1959, Marti worried and feared the power of the United States in distorting Cuban independence and Cuban freedom. For Marti, the hope of the American Revolution of 1776 had turned quickly into the reality of American Imperialism.

Fidel Castro, as leader of the Cuban Revolution, based his Revolution on opposing U.S. Imperialism in Cuba and Latin America. Castro, as leader of the 26th July Movement of 1953, leader of the revolt of 1953, leader of the revolutionary war of 1956-1959, leader of the Cuban Revolution of 1959, and leader of the Cuban Revolution in general, understood this history and this politics in the relationship between Cuba and the United States. Even in the immediate aftermath of the victory of the Revolution of 1959, when relations between Cuba and the United States might have travelled in another direction, Castro and the Revolutionaries of 1959 seem to have been cautious about American intentions, and most of them understood the history and politics of America’s history and America’s politics in Cuba.

The Revolution of 1959 in Cuba is the decisive event in the history of Cuba — and the history of Cuban-American relations since 1898. The victory of the Cuban Revolution of 1959 changed the relationship between the United States and Cuba. Just as the wars of independence in the nineteenth-century, the 1895 war for Cuban Independence and the Spanish-American War of 1898 all changed Cuba’s relationship with Imperial Spain, so too did the Cuban Revolution change America’s power in Cuba. In political terms and economic terms the Revolution of 1959 destroyed America’s power in Cuba. The Revolution, effectively, ended one period and replaced it with another — with the victory of the Revolution itself. With the downfall of the Batista regime and the victory of the Revolutionaries, Cuba became free from American influence and American dominance — in both political terms and economic terms. This change in the relationship between Cuba and the United States, was one that the United States could not accept – given the reality of American power in South America and Central America in all the centuries since the nineteenth-century. With the victory of the Revolution the United States resolved to recapture Cuba and restore American influence to Cuba — a policy which has continued to this day, in differing terms and differing wording. With the victory of the Revolution, Cuba became a target for further American aggression and American Imperialism — as the United States attempted to overthrow the revolutionary government for its own political and economic interests. In terms of the relationship the victory of the Revolution of 1959 was the single most important event — as it ended the old relationship and started a new one. Cuba gained its own political independence in the event of the Revolution of 1959.

The Cuban Revolution, due to Cuban politics and American politics, has had to face many foes. The Cuban Revolution, due to the dynamics of having to face both a national foe (the Batista Government, the Batista Dictatorship, Cuban Capitalism) and an international foe (the United States of America, American Capitalism and International Capitalism), has had to settle accounts with both national enemies and international enemies. This dynamic within the Cuban Revolution, while not unique in the history of Revolutions, has certainly affected the Politics of the Cuban Revolution. Instead of simply facing a national bourgeoisie or a national dictatorship the Cuban Revolution had to face down the external threat of a Capitalist Superpower, while also trying to make a Social Revolution and a Political Revolution.

The political relationship between Cuba and the United States, after 1959, was structured by the nature of the Cuban Revolution itself. In order to free Cuba from the social reality of its oppression and exploitation, the Cuban Revolutionaries had to struggle against more than simply the National Capitalist Class of Cuba, or even the Batista dictatorship, they had to struggle against the USA itself. This fact became apparent after the events of 1960-1962, from the Bay of Pigs in 1961 to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

The historical relationship between Cuba and the United States was also defined by the necessities and realities of the Cold War. At the height of the Cuban drama with the United States, the events of 1959-1963, from the Bay of Pigs in 1961 to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, it was impossible for Cuba to avoid the wider struggle of the Cold War — between the USA and the USSR. This aspect of the struggle between Cuba and the United States furthered the social context and international context of the Cuban Revolution; both for the better and for the worse; that it was a Revolution in the American sphere; that it was a Revolution in Uncle Sam’s backyard. This heightened the potential of the Cuban Revolution, in the 1950S and the 1960s, but also left it isolated — and even more vulnerable to the wrath of the United States. Cuba, in the age of the Cold War, could not be allowed to provide a model of a successful Revolution or a successful Society. The result was the reality of U.S. Policy towards Cuba — one of confrontation, aggression, threats, blockade, sabotage, terrorism, and threatened invasions. This U.S. Policy, a relationship of antagonism and U.S. Threat, has survived even the Cold War itself — surviving into the 1990s, the 2000s and the present. Despite this Cuba managed to survive and achieve its own form of Social Progress and Social Revolution.

One further reality of the U.S. and Cuban relationship is the reality that the Cuban Revolution turned into a major Revolution of the twentieth-century. That Cuba attempted to re-assert its independence in 1959 was something which already upset the United States — and provoked U.S. Reaction. That Cuba declared its willingness to a make a Socialist Revolution in Cuba, and a Revolutionary Society in Cuba, was something which the United States would not accept and could not accept. Both a Social Revolution and a Political Revolution, indeed a Socialist Revolution, in Cuba, were all events which the United States could not accept from Cuba or from Latin America. This is the reason why the United States pushed for reaction and counter-revolution in Cuba and did all it could, for decades, to undermine both Cuba and the Cuban Revolution. That the Cuban Revolution of 1959 turned from a Nationalist Revolution into a Socialist Revolution was part of both Cuban politics and Cold War politics, but it also reinforced the revolutionary threat that Cuba posed to the United States — that it threatened the strength of U.S. hegemony in the Western Hemisphere and in Latin America. If Cuba could free itself from foreign and U.S. domination then other states in Latin America, in both South America and Central America could do the same. The United States feared this wave of revolutions that Cuba’s experience and Cuba’s example could inspire. This reality of the Cuban Revolution, as a Revolution which inspired International Revolution, throughout Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Third World, was what made the Cuban Revolution a danger to the United States — and was what provoked the reaction of the United States. The Cuban Revolution, even today, still inspires with is powerful international example of Social progress and Social Revolution — across Asia, Africa, Central America and South America. But the key fact of why the United States spent so much of the Cold War fearing a Revolution which emerged from such a small island was the reality that the Cuban Revolution was an inspiration, both in Cuba and the rest of the World. The Cuban Revolution showed that American Imperialism could be confronted and defeated — a lesson which still remains today in the struggle for Social Revolution and Socialist Revolution in Latin America.

The Cuban Revolution is also part of a wider political history in Latin America — between Latin America and the United States. The history and the politics of the Cuban Revolution cannot be understood without reference to the wider history of Latin America — specifically the relationship between Latin America and the United States.2 In basic terms the history and politics of Cuba’s relationship with the United States is similar, almost exactly the same, as the relationship between Latin America and the United States.3 In terms of understanding the traditional and historical conflict of the peoples and states of Latin America to the United States the reality of American Imperialism and American support for the Right in Latin America is vital. The history of Latin America and the United States is a history of Imperialism of the latter against the former. This is what makes the Cuban Revolution, and the history of Cuba, so important in both political and historical terms. Cuba’s history with the United States, and the trajectory of the Cuban Revolution, marches what has occurred in Latin America across two long centuries of American Imperialism and American Empire. In terms of the politics of Latin America, and Cuba, today, that relationship still haunts the politics of the region. Only a further Social Revolution, and Socialist Revolution, in the region, can hope to break that history — and with it the dominance of the United States. The victory of the Latin American Revolution is vital for the hopes for a Revolution in the United States.

The relationship between Cuba and America is the product of history and politics. The political future of the political relationship between Cuba and the United States will probably be over-determined by the history and past of that relationship.4 It will be determined by the old struggle between revolution and counter-revolution. If the Cuban Revolution is to survive the early decades of the twenty-first century, the present-day, it must remember the reality of its previous relationship and current relationship with the United States — one in which the United States sought to overthrow the Cuban Revolution, the Cuban State and to return Cuba to the status of being a economic colony dominated by the United States. Indeed a better relationship between Cuba and the United States would be preferable — a softening and opening up of relations between the two based on equality and mutual respect, as almost happened in the 2010s — but that does not seem to be the ideal of the United States or its Government. Indeed the majority of American Presidents have seen the Cuban Revolution as a threat and American governments have remained the impassable foe of the Cuban Revolution and Cuba itself. In the context of the wider struggle for social change, social revolution and socialist revolution in South America, in Central America, in Latin America, it seems that the United States will remain a foe of that progress, until the day that major social and political change occurs in the United States itself. For Latin America the relationship between the United States and the Cuban Revolution is their relationship with the United States in microcosm. Cuba, despite its real problems in the twentieth-century, has managed to survive against U.S. Imperialism. The survival of the Cuban Revolution is a victory for the Latin American Revolution.

*

G.LL. Williams is a graduate of the LSE and ANU. 

Notes

  1. American Imperialism began in Central America and South America. The history and politics of U.S. Imperialism, from the nineteenth-century, found their origins in American foreign policy in Central America and South America, from the earliest days of the United States.
  2. See the work of Richard Gott, Cuba: A new history (2004).
  3. See the work of Hugh Thomas, Cuba: A History (2010). 
  4. The history of Cuban politics and Cuban society really cannot be understood, from 1898, from 1959, without the impact of U.S. Imperialism; both in terms of Cuban political ideas and Cuban political concerns.

Articles by: G.LL. Williams

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