Family feuds can drag on for decades. We’ve all known siblings who had a big bust-up over something years ago, something nobody can even remember anymore, and still refuse to be in the same room as one another, let alone speak. Families can be unforgiving, whereas friendship can be a little more flexible at healing old wounds and burying the proverbial hatchet. Like America and Cuba. They’re friends again. But were America and Cuba ever really friends as such? Their pre-1959 relationship often seems more like that of pimp and whore, whereas ever since the Bay of Pigs/Missile Crisis era of the early 60s, the US has been akin to a vindictive neighbour who has persuaded the entire street to send Cuba to Coventry.
Cuba fell under American influence following the US triumph in the Spanish-American War of 1898, just one of the conflicts comprising the 222 years America has spent at war with someone out of the 239 years since the 1776 Declaration of Independence. The official US spoils of war in this particular case were buying the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico from Spain for $20 million; but with the distance between America and Cuba being a paltry 93 miles – meaning the likes of Florida is far closer to Cuba than it is to Washington – the Caribbean island was viewed as a more useful purchase, and had been by four US Presidents who tried to haggle with Spain to buy it. However, it wasn’t until America offered support for Cuban communist rebel forces seeking to overthrow Spanish rule in 1895-98 that the opportunity arose. Hmmm, the US providing military assistance for revolutionaries attempting to instigate regime change – now, where have I heard that before?
After throwing off the shackles of Spanish colonial rule, Cuba was bound by trade agreements with the US that made 1902 independence disputable; Cuba’s neighbour already had something of a monopoly on its import and export market, but the stipulations laid down by America in the 1903 Platt Amendment enabled the US to effectively control the Cuban economy as well as establishing a naval base at Guantanamo Bay and forcing Cuba to lease land to mine for coal. The nation that vociferously opposed European imperial expansion clearly had no qualms in assembling its own unofficial colonies-cum-satellite states, and for the next half-century, America made the most of its canny purchase and also served to transform Cuba into a prime holiday resort for the rich, leaving the running of its casinos to Mafiosi. Anyone who has seen ‘The Godfather Part II’ will have a fairly vivid impression of America’s relationship with Cuba during this period.
It’s impossible to reflect upon Cuba’s status as the wealthy American’s favourite vacation location without mention of Fulgencio Batista Zaldivar, controller of the Cuban Army, who led a military coup in 1933 that resulted in various puppet presidents with Batista pulling the strings until finally being elected as President of Cuba himself in 1940. One of the first acts of his administration was to issue the 1940 Constitution of Cuba, an act of progressive legislation that established public education and healthcare, land reform and a fixed minimum wage, a gesture that supported the common opinion that Batista was amongst the most democratic of Latin American leaders. Batista was regarded as an ally of the USA, declaring war on Japan the day after Pearl Harbor, and indeed lived in the States after losing office in 1944.
Batista served to ruin his reputation when he returned home to run for the Presidency again in 1952. With his gambit appearing certain to backfire, he instigated another military coup, ousted the incumbent President and grabbed the reins of power. From this moment on, Batista introduced a brutal dictatorship that revoked many of the progressive policies outlined in the 1940 Constitution of Cuba and oversaw the considerable widening of the gap between rich and poor, as well as becoming the role model for every dark-skinned actor with a bad Spanish accent portraying the ‘El Presidente’ of a banana republic in at least one episode of all those ITC series produced in the 60s. When the people protested, Batista cracked down on the media and used his unchallenged power to imprison, torture and execute the opposition. Estimates vary wildly as to how many Cubans died under Batista’s dictatorship, with anything from 1,000-20,000 claimed. What is certain, however, is that Batista remained very much America’s friend, despite the cruel and corrupt nature of his regime, perhaps because he had crushed the communist threat on the island as well as awarding lucrative contracts to US companies to exploit and profit from Cuba’s natural resources and giving the Mafia a free hand to run Havana.
The guerrilla uprising led by ex-attorney Fidel Castro had been brewing ever since Batista had seized control in 1952, but it gradually found a receptive audience amongst the grass-roots of poor native Cubans as well as students and intellectuals due to the deteriorating way of life for those beyond Batista’s avaricious elite. As support for the communist rebels spread to the middle-classes and their numbers swelled into increasingly successful fighting forces, Batista’s reprisals were vicious even by his standards. But when the US sensed which way the wind was blowing and withdrew the military support it had provided for Batista during the first couple of years of the revolutionary campaign, the writing was on the wall. Batista fled Cuba on New Year’s Day 1959, flying to the Dominican Republic with a personal fortune of over $300 million.
When Castro’s forces reached the Cuban capital a week later, the Revolution was proclaimed a victory, even (initially) by the US. However, Castro’s revenge on those opposed to his rule mirrored Batista’s tactics, and the blind eye America had employed during the reign of their former friend didn’t apply when the new man in Havana preferred to cosy up to the Soviets. Following the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco, a US-sponsored attempt at a coup led by anti-Castro Cuban exiles that a wary President Kennedy had inherited and scaled-down, the USSR were discovered to have placed several nuclear missiles on the island and the rest, as they say, is history. Khrushchev backed down, the world retreated from the precipice of Armageddon, and Cuba entered a period of isolation from the neighbour whose economic sanctions against it dictated a way of life for the vast majority of Cubans that wasn’t promised in the revolutionary manifesto.
Castro’s retirement as President in 2008 saw his brother Raul take over and the slow beginning of negotiations to end half-a-century of hostility with the US. The President of Cuba met the President of the USA last December and Obama announced the dawn of a new relationship. The usual exchange of prisoners was the first gesture, and though there were no clear indications the embargo would finally be lifted, there was an evident if tentative thaw between the two nations that would allow a relaxation of trade. This must be as big a relief to America as it is to Cuba. Much to Uncle Sam’s irritation, the allure of a cultural and economic boycott had long prompted western musicians to immerse themselves in Cuba’s hip music, its classic cars, and the enduring iconic properties of Che Guevara.
The Batista era will not be returning; too many Cubans retain memories of the dictatorship for them to allow America to manipulate the island’s fortunes in quite the same way ever again; and even those who weren’t around in 1952-59 have had these memories handed down to them. Fidel Castro quickly proved to be a pretty accomplished dictator himself, but his obstinate refusal to make peace with the USA as well as his reputation as the man who dethroned a sadistic tyrant has ensured his legend as one of the most remarkable world leaders of the twentieth century. Anyway, there are few ‘good guys’ at the top; the top is not designed with them in mind. I should imagine the number of death warrants bearing the signature of American Presidents, even if by proxy, since 1959 far outweigh those bearing the name of Fidel Castro. Perhaps America and Cuba are kindred spirits after all?