Want to understand the historical context for the recent rapprochement between the United States and Cuba? Then read Listen, Yankee! Why Cuba Matters, by activist and author Tom Hayden. Along with high-ranking Cuban insider Ricardo Alarcón, quoted extensively in the book, Hayden is uniquely positioned to provide insightful political and cultural background to this new era in US-Cuban relations. Order Listen, Yankee! now from Truthout by clicking here.
The US embargo of Cuba, like a bad hangover from the Cold War, has lingered on for far too long. After decades of bingeing on the country’s particularly potent brand of anticommunism, the nation’s ruling elite has found it near impossible to kick its predilection for holding Cuba to a higher standard than it does for putative US allies and, for that matter, the United States itself.
Stay in the loop
Never miss the news and analysis you care about.
Finally – though by no means too soon – Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro announced on February 17 that each government would step toward normalized relations. This moment has huge implications for the politics of the Americas and beyond. But, in anticipation of congressional intransigence and hawkish swagger over appeasing the totalitarian Castros, the future would be better served with a comprehensive understanding of the history of US-Cuba relations.
A recent release by Tom Hayden – Former SDS activist and author of “The Port Huron Statement” – tackles this tall order.
Listen Yankee!: Why Cuba Matters is part historical survey, part joint memoir, interweaving the political analysis and personal reflection of two progressive activists – one from each side of the Florida straits. In Hayden’s words, it’s about “two old men” taking a look back at 50 years of international diplomacy. The end result is a useful primer on the fraught history of US-Cuba relations from a rare and welcome perspective.
Alarcón’s personal story and eminent likability puncture a hole in the wall of chest-thumping, anticommunist propaganda erected over so many years.
Hayden chronicles the complex yet strangely static relationship between the two countries, interspersing anecdotes and commentary from Ricardo Alarcón – the author’s primary interlocutor and Cuban foil. Alarcón who, in Hayden’s words, is the “Cuban ambassador to the United States who-might-have-been,” emerges as a fiercely intelligent statesman with an immense knowledge of international politics and commitment to social justice movements.
Through his conversation and letters, Alarcón functions in two important ways: as a counter-point to Hayden’s contemporaneous experience in the US New Left and as usurper of the one-dimensional straw man image of Cuban officials doggedly circulated by Republicans and Democrats pandering to dated political sensibilities. This is particularly valuable, given the initial stages of normalization currently underway. Alarcón’s personal story and eminent likability puncture a hole in the wall of chest-thumping, anticommunist propaganda erected over so many years.
Hayden borrows the book’s title from the 1960 work by radical sociologist C. Wright Mills, who made the prescient argument that tension between the United States and Cuba was due largely to the former’s inability to listen and meaningfully respond to Latin grievances. Hayden provides the historical framework to prove Mills’ thesis, presenting an arching narrative of United States hubris on the international stage and its double-standard approach to isolating and designating hostile nations.
Independent Reds: A Missed Opportunity
Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of the troubled history between the United States and Cuba was the very real possibility of peaceful coexistence. Formed by an independent movement married to Bolivar-inspired nationalism, the revolutionary Cuban state could have been a stable, nonantagonistic neighbor. One that just so happened to be socialist.
“The tremendous problem faced by the world is that it has been placed in the position where it must choose between capitalism, which starves people, and communism, which resolves economic problems but suppresses liberties.”
As Hayden remarks, “The Cuban Revolution was a Cuban creation, not an event implanted by a foreign power,” adding that it was initially, “neither Communist nor led by a vanguard party,” as was the case with the Soviet Bolsheviks. Cuba viewed the world in a “North-South context more than an East-West one,” with special emphasis on the “hungry bloc,” as opposed to an ideological commitment to the USSR.
Take, for example, a 1959 proclamation by Fidel quoted in Hayden’s book:
Standing between two political and economic ideologies being debated in the world, we are holding our own position. We have named it humanism . . . the tremendous problem faced by the world is that it has been placed in the position where it must choose between capitalism, which starves people, and communism, which resolves economic problems but suppresses liberties . . . Capitalism sacrifices man; the communist state, by its totalitarian concept, sacrifices the rights of man.
While leveling criticism against the United States, the speech nonetheless betrays an independent streak that – should the United States not have engaged in assassination attempts, subversion and outright invasion – could have been cultivated, leading to tolerance, maybe even a productive, trans-ideological relationship.
There certainly was precedent. The United States embraced an independent red when Kennedy accepted Yugoslavia’s Josef Broz Tito as a guest to the White House. The difference in treatment between Yugoslavia and Cuba – of course – stems from the Monroe Doctrine’s presumption of US dominance in the Western Hemisphere, as well as the racist, parochial view of Latin countries held by Washington’s ruling elite. Despite this deeper antipathy embedded in the US state, however, President Kennedy pursued backchannel talks aimed at cooling tensions with Cuba.
Yet on the very day of Kennedy’s murder in Dallas, the CIA carried out one of the earliest assassination attempts against the Castro regime. A depressing view of just how virulent and undemocratic the US deep state is, US intelligence prerogatives exploded any piecemeal progress made by Kennedy and would forcibly destruct later efforts as well through its relentless campaign of killings, spying and deployment of right-ring terrorists. This aggressive US stance, consequently, drove Cuba into the USSR sphere out of necessity.
Throughout the secret campaign to topple the Castro regime, politicians continued the McCarthy-esque discourse that reduced Cuba to a communist trope. This rhetoric was an easy and expedient ploy. Justified by US aggression and entrenched in self-congratulatory jingoism, this political stance also appealed to right-wing, pro-Batista exiles who held a powerful sway over the Florida electorate.
A look through the history of Cuba’s foreign policy, however, points to another story, one of US double standards and culpability in nefarious and antidemocratic adventurism.
Nonetheless, US officials maintained relations with their Cuban counterparts – albeit with an absurdist twist. Alarcón describes a number of friends he made in the US political establishment. He often met with officials in backchannel talks, though discretely, as he describes the bizarre steps taken to appease the popular government and media narrative of a fundamental break between the two countries:
The [US] mission . . . had barricades so it was impossible to go out without being noticed. . . . One of our people came by in a normal car, entered the garage to pick me up, and I would lie down on the back floor of the car. Then we drove to the Carlyle Hotel, and I could sit up. Going back, I would lie down in the back.
These procedures, while comical in nature, were required due to official US prohibitions on interactions between US and Cuban officials. But the prohibition was talk, a political sheen that generated the popular notion that the United States was being tough with antidemocratic Cuba. In reality, state officials just met in the shadows, often striking tones both cordial and quotidian, if not entirely productive, for ending the embargo and Cuba’s isolation.
Denying Cuba’s Good Works
One of the key steps to the normalization process is the removal of Cuba from the US list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. This designation has enabled Republicans and Democratic to peddle the same tired narrative, creating a feedback loop that entrenches the popular understanding of Cuba as an evil, untrustworthy nation. A look through the history of Cuba’s foreign policy, however, points to another story, one of US double standards and culpability in nefarious and antidemocratic adventurism.
While the United States was propping up the racist government in South Africa, Cuba supported an array of young nations that emerged in the wake of decolonization. The revolutionary government in Cuba sent health professionals – esteemed throughout the developing world – along with military advisers to Algeria as the nation struggled for independence. In Guinea-Bissau, Cubans helped defeat Portuguese forces, which in part led to the dissolution of the Salazar dictatorship and the democratization of Portugal. When South Africa invaded Angola in an attempt to curtail growing nationalism and antiracism movements in the region, Cuba intervened on its own, without the USSR’s blessing, and helped drive out the pro-Apartheid forces.
Juxtaposing Cuba’s policy history and that of the United States raises the question: Which of the two truly sponsored terrorism?
Many of these operations have had positive, lasting effects. Hayden writes: “Cuba . . . trained thousands of Angolan doctors, engineers, and schoolteachers; the Cubans carried out one million medical consultations and sixteen thousand surgeries in a nine-month period of 1977 alone.” These gestures are just a few of many and are doubtlessly among the factors that led the international community to recognize, cooperate with, and ultimately respect the Cuban government. But these facts are all but struck from the US historical consciousness, as Hayden writes, “Cuba’s risk taking entered history in southern Africa and among third world countries, but is missing in the mainstream American narrative of South Africa.”
It is exceedingly difficult to look at this history, compare it to US policy over the past five decades, and understand how the pro-embargo movement has had such lasting power in US politics. For 22 consecutive years, the UN General Assembly took up a resolution to end the Cuba blockade. Even in October of 2014, the vote was 188-2 in favor, with the United States and Israel holding steadfast to the same uninspired, dead-end policy of isolation.
Hayden is forthright concerning Cuba’s less-than-sterling track record on freedom of speech and other failures of democratic governance.
Cuba is not, nor ever has been a North Korea. It holds positive, constructive relationships around the world. Hayden remarks that “Cuba was praised by Nelson Mandela, an American icon, for making possible the defeat of South African apartheid.” Juxtaposing Cuba’s policy history and that of the United States raises the question: Which of the two truly sponsored terrorism?
Helms-Burton and the Next Step
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States – instead of reevaluating its Cuba policy – upped the ante. In 1992, President Bush signed the Cuban Democracy Act (also supported by then-candidate Bill Clinton). The specifics of the bill were onerous. Hayden:
The law tightened the screws of the embargo by prohibiting sales of food or medicine to Cuba. It capped cash remittances. It forbade foreign subsidiaries of US companies from trading with the island, and blocked foreign ships from leaving or entering ports for six months if they had entered Cuban waters.
During his tenure, President Clinton signed the Helms-Burton Act. The bill stipulated that no Cuban government would be recognized if led by a Castro, essentially cementing right-wing fantasies as foreign policy imperatives. This law, which remains in effect today, will be a tricky hurdle to the normalization process, as rabidly anti-Castro figures such as Marco Rubio will make a stand using this and other legal vestiges of US anticommunist fanaticism.
These efforts may slow the process, but they will not stop it.
Throughout Listen Yankee!, Hayden is forthright concerning Cuba’s less-than-sterling track record on freedom of speech and other failures of democratic governance. He writes that Fidel “disturbingly” supported the USSR invasion of Czechoslovakia, and – slightly tongue-in-cheek toward critics – that there “is no question that Cuba suffers what can be politely called a deficit of democracy.” But compared to the misdeeds of US satellite nations past and present – from the marauding death squads of Chile, to the torture chambers and stonings of Saudi Arabia – Cuba has displayed a relative discretion and benevolence sorely lacking in US-affiliated governments.
While acknowledging the imperfect nature of the Castro regime, Hayden argues that these “criticisms miss the central point. After more than fifty years of pressure . . . Cuba still stands,” concluding that “another perspective is needed.”
Even with regard to the US embargo’s ostensible goal of toppling the Castro regime, the policy has utterly failed. Having moved past this important first step of acknowledging this failure, President Obama has inched the United States toward a better relationship not only with its Caribbean neighbor, but with the whole of Latin America. The United States is now better positioned to develop trust, mutual respect and cooperation throughout the Americas.
This prospect sure sounds more appealing than what has happened up to now: the United States keeping up bad foreign policy habits with its arms crossed, glaring out over the straits, huffing and pouting over the colony that could have been.