Relations between the US and Cuba took a major step towards normalisation with Barack Obama becoming the first American President to land on the island after 88 years. Grover Cleveland had arrived in a battleship in 1928, when the US was firmly in control of the country and its economy and supporting a dictatorial president quite openly. In the intervening years, much water has flowed under the US-Cuban bridge, unfortunately most of it muddy.
The background to the Cuba-US conflict is intertwined with our own history and to a certain extent some of the dynamics unfortunately still linger into the 21st Century. The Cuban President welcoming Grover Cleveland had been violently pushed out and one of the participating Cuban army officers (Batista) eventually manoeuvred to replace him — including supporting American interests. Batista ruled despotically between 1933-1944 and 1952-1959.
Fidel Castro’s ejection of the Batista dictatorship through a hard fought guerrilla war, interestingly enough engendered quite favourable comment in the US, but as soon as he embarked on nationalising some of the land occupied by American businesses to distribute to impoverished Cuban peasants, he raised eyebrows in the US government. This soon turned to outright hostility when Castro indicated he was opening up trading relations with the Soviet Union.
In an age when the US largest trading partner, which more than any other power, it helped to develop into the economic powerhouse it is today, is communist China, it might sound incongruous to learn that Cuba became America’s number one enemy because it sought to develop relations with the USSR — condemned for being “communist”. But that was back in the days of the Cold War between the US and the USSR when “the friend of my enemy was my enemy”.
That Cuba had nationalised American businesses and was developing into an ally of the USSR sealed its fate. A bungled invasion by the Americans at the Bay of Pigs in 1961 to remove Castro embarrassed them and precipitated the policy enunciated by John F Kennedy: “No other Cubas will be allowed in the hemisphere”. And because Cheddi Jagan was suspect of heading in that direction, his goose was cooked that same year when he failed to make the right noises to the Americans.
But as hopefully we all know, the USSR fissioned and fell like Humpty Dumpty by 1989 and became a capitalist-driven economy. All was forgiven by the US to all of the former allies or suspected fellow travellers of the USSR — and in our case, the free and fair elections of 1992 ensued. But the sanctions, especially an economic embargo slapped on Cuba in 1960, was stubbornly kept in place.
Most outsiders have been taken aback at the retention of the embargo into the present, even in the face of an annual call by the UN General Assembly — supported by all the allies of the US with the notable exception of Israel — calling for its end.
Domestically, the presence of a large number of Cuban Americans in Florida created a domestic Anti-Cuba lobby, funnelled through the Republican Party — against normalisation. Some travel restrictions were lifted starting with President Clinton’s administration and in 2014, after an exchange of “political prisoners” the Obama administration began signalling it was ready to end the embargo.
Polls also showed that a majority of Americans supported that move and that even Cuban-Americans were shifting their stance.
In his State of the Union message earlier this year, President Obama called for Congress to end the blockade, but was stymied by Republican Senators such as Marco Rubio, now running for the Republican Presidential candidacy. In the meantime, ahead of his historic visit, President Obama used his prerogative to issue “Executive Orders” to reduce several restrictions against travel and trade with Cuba.
It would seem, even with the Republican obduracy, the end of the Cuban embargo might be in sight.