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No Island Is an Island

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A year ago this month, at a Texas-Cuba Trade Alliance conference in San Antonio, attendees discussed post-embargo relations between the United States and its estranged island neighbor. The bottom line? According to a conference report in Texas A&M’s AgriLife News journal, exporting “food and other agricultural products to Cuba could bring some $57 million to Texas farmers and result in 1,500 new jobs.” That’s not much in relative terms; according to the federal Department of Agriculture, Texas farm income was about $7.1 billion in 2007. But it’s safe to say that in this economy, farmers would welcome the 0.08 percent uptick.

The economic mess that’s taken hold of the globe since last year probably has cut even that potential, but the real specter haunting Cuba trade has less to do with Karl Marx and the bad economy than with stateside demagogues and a series of underinformed policies stretching back almost to the beginning of American democracy.

That Infernal Little Cuban Republic is University of North Carolina political science professor Lars Schoultz’s nearly 800-page dissection of that history’s finer points.

According to Schoultz, the uplifting of the Cuban people began with John Quincy Adams (as secretary of state under President James Monroe) envisioning the island as one of several “natural appendages to the North American Continent.” That attitude carried through to Teddy Roosevelt’s progressivism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when it morphed into a desire to assist the island’s “white, liberty-loving patriots” in revolution against their Spanish colonial masters. These policies would later serve as the undercurrent that drenched Cuba in U.S. dollars and influence, leading to the 1959 revolution led by Fidel Castro, who climbed to power over the back of brutal U.S.-backed Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Paternalistic American postures would then inform the aggressive stances taken toward Castro by presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower through George W. Bush. Along the way, the U.S. diplomatic corps did its best to fuel Washington’s vision of Cubans as emotionally fragile children in need of international assistance. Typical is a U.S. embassy opinion regarding Batista’s 1952 coup: “Until Cubans learn that discipline and sacrifice are a necessary part of democracy, the upsets such as just occurred will be inevitable.”

Schoultz focuses on the Castro years, which he reconstructs in impressive detail, fleshing out such well-known events as the doomed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion with eye-opening depth. Better yet, often-glossed questions such as when, why, and even whether Castro ever became anything more than a nominal ally of the Soviet Union (the answer is a qualified “yes”) are aired with the fullness of Schoultz’s four decades of wrestling with the Cuba question.

Still, there’s something missing. Schoultz inadvertently hints at it about halfway through his first chapter when he writes, “It was easy to understand why José Martí had warned that ‘the scorn of our formidable neighbor who does not know us is our America’s greatest danger.'” The line is from the best known of Martí’s many published efforts, “Our America,” an 1891 essay exploring Latin American identity. He concludes that such a thing can’t exist if it’s lorded over by the United States. To Schoultz, Martí is a background figure with a cameo in the Castro-dominated history of modern U.S.-Cuban relations. To Cubans, though, he’s much more. Still referred to on both sides of the Florida Straits as Cuba’s capital-A Apostle of independence, Martí and his ideas have done much to shape the concept of Cuban nationalism. No one is more central to Cuban political identity, not even Castro. And nothing was more central to Martí’s concept of independence than the idea that it be defined by freedom from influence-seeking helping hands.

Viewed through this lens, the details to which Schoultz devotes such effort seem to downshift in importance. The Bay of Pigs invasion takes on the color of a patently stupid mistake, not for its tactical shortcomings so much as for the absence of historical perspective that might have allowed President John F. Kennedy to foresee how a suspicious Cuban populace would view U.S. intervention. Most important, Castro’s alignment with the Warsaw Pact comes into focus as a lesser-of-two-evils choice rooted primarily in U.S. intransigence.

Schoultz isn’t the first writer to be distracted by the outsized presence of Castro, but his blinders illustrate the shortcomings of the U.S. obsession with the former Cuban leader. By looking at this single segment of Cuban history and U.S.-Cuba relations, we create a convenient (read: communist) scapegoat, without which we might have to deal with our own country’s complicity.

Even as excitement builds around the possibilities of post-embargo Cuba, the U.S. perspective on its island neighbor is slow to change. The latest step in this halting advance was taken in late May, when the Castro regime agreed to talks with the Obama administration about migration policy and the resumption of mail service.

In the short term, that might not mean much to Texas farmers, or the planeloads of tourists waiting to invade the island. But when the farmers and tourists do eventually come to Cuba, they’ll be carrying the baggage of the entire history of U.S.-Cuba relations. It would do them some good to read up on it. They could start with Schoultz, but they’d want to supplement their study with a fair dose of Martí.

Freelance writer Mike Kanin lives and works in Austin.

Mike Kanin has covered Austin politics for InFactDaily and the Austin Chronicle. He’s now publisher of InFactDaily.