United States Cuba Policy & Business Blog

Thursday, November 24, 2011

United States Cuba Relations - JFK's Lost Opportunity

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy ended many hopes and dreams for millions across the world.  With respect to U.S. Cuba relations, many still wonder what might have been had President Kennedy lived.  In understanding the roots of the U.S. Cuba relational conflict,  President Kennedy recognized that the United States had a historical contribution in creating the conditions that led to the Cuban Revolution.   Shortly before the tragedy of November 22, 1963, JFK had been contemplating a way out and forward with Cuba.  Only one month before his assassination, President Kennedy gave an interview to Jean Daniel of The New Republic on October 24, 1963. (1)  It is required reading for anyone seeking to understand the broader context of the breakdown in the relations and the irony that rose and still presides within the pro-embargo/anti-travel side of the issue to this day.

The most salient quotes from the article and President Kennedy were these:

"Every now and then I read articles in the European press pointing out that we Americans were blind to what was happening in the Cuban situation. I have just learned that General de Gaulle [French President Charles de Gaulle]  himself regarded Communism in Cuba as nothing but the accidental and temporary form of a will to independence from the United States. Of course it is very easy to understand this ‘will to independence’ around President de Gaulle.”
      John Kennedy then mustered all his persuasive force. He punctuated each sentence with the brief, mechanical gesture which had become famous:
      “I tell you this: we know perfectly well what happened in Cuba, to the misfortune of all. From the beginning I personally followed the development of these events with mounting concern. There are few subjects to which I have devoted more painstaking attention. My conclusions go much further than the European analyses. Here is what I believe.
      “I believe that there is no country in the world, including the African regions, including any and all the countries under colonial domination, where economic colonization, humiliation and exploitation were worse than in Cuba, in part owing to my country’s policies during the Batista regime. I believe that we created, built and manufactured the Castro movement out of whole cloth and without realizing it. I believe that the accumulation of these mistakes has jeopardized all of Latin America. The great aim of the Alliance for Progress is to reverse this unfortunate policy. This is one of the most, if not the most, important problems in America foreign policy. I can assure you that I have understood the Cubans. I approved the proclamation which Fidel Castro made in the Sierra Maestra, when he justifiably called for justice and especially yearned to rid Cuba of corruption. I will go even further: to some extent it is as though Batista was the incarnation of a number of sins on the part of the United States. Now we shall have to pay for those sins. In the matter of the Batista regime, I am in agreement with the first Cuban revolutionaries. That is perfectly clear.”

In reviewing the historical record, one has to contextually question what happened to Fidel Castro from being the man who proclaimed a belief in representative democracy in the Sierra Maestra Manifesto (2) and the restoration of the Cuban Constitution of 1940 (3),  to becoming the Marxist Leninist Anti American Government figure he declared himself to be in 1961 and set Cuba on its present communist and socialist path.

The Cuban Revolution, political philosophy aside for a moment, sets a nationalistic expression that reflects the essence of being Cuban and what it stands for as a nation in Latin America.  One interpretation is this:  Cuba is unique.  Cuba is sovereign. Cuba will only be governed and have its destiny determined by Cubans alone.  It was a rejection of the manipulation and corruption that existed in Cuba and was encouraged sadly by our multinational companies and the Mafia.  This nationalistic expression even extends into Cuban language and culture. One can see and hear this in the melodious Cuban form of Spanish, Cuban metaphorical euphemisms, and the unique and rich musical rhythms that give heart and soul to much of Latin music.  Politically and most significantly, this nationalistic shield is the buffer and foil against all foreign attempts to control or manipulate it since January 1, 1959, including our misguided embargo and sanctions policies.  That the Cuban government took the path that de Gaulle posited to President Kennedy is plausible when you examine what happened in 1959.  The Cuban Revolution was still being fought even after Batista fled Cuba, only from different locations and many angles.

In April 1959, Fidel Castro visited the United States expecting to meet with President Eisenhower as the new head of state of Cuba.  He was not received by President Eisenhower but instead by Vice President Richard Nixon, a diplomatic snub that likely sent a discouraging message.  Castro came with two significant requests besides the general ones that a new head of government would normally make in establishing relations with us; the extradition of Batista regime officials who escaped or fled Cuba and the return of approximately $500 million dollars that were plundered from the Cuban treasury in the waning days of the Batista regime and deposited into U.S. banks.  We rejected those requests.  In addition, terrorist type attacks continued on Cuba from Batista loyalists, many who resided in Southern Florida or operated from abroad.  This along with a host of other actions, ie. CIA sponsored assassination attempts on Castro, led to the total breakdown of relations, trust, and eventually led to the embargo.

After reading the Daniels interview with President Kennedy, one can surmise that JFK rejected the escalation of the conflict when he cancelled U.S. military support for the Bay of Pigs invasion on April 17, 1961 and recognized that even after the resolution of the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962 with the Soviets, he was searching for a way to restore relations with Cuba.  That opportunity unfortunately did not come to pass.  Had JFK lived and won a second term, perhaps there would not be the tragic history of the conflict that has ensued since 1959.  

The ironies that remain is that the children of Batista loyalists who fled to the U.S. now serve in the U.S. Congress,  including Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fl)  and Fidel Castro's own nephew, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fl), the son of Batista ally, Rafael Diaz-Balart.  The rejection by JFK of further escalation contributed to the political alignment of the hard line exile community toward the Republican party and dominance in South Florida politics.  Miami became the heart of revisionist Cuban history ala Batista even with parks and streets bearing the names of Batista officials from pre-Castro Cuba.  The Cuban Americans used their political skills to became the most favored Hispanic immigrant group with special treatment under U.S. law.  The U.S. Embargo and anti travel sanctions became the religion of U.S. Cuba policy, despite their failure to bring democracy to Cuba and hypocrisy in our foreign policy.  Alternately,  what it became was a manipulative instrument of U.S. domestic politics translated into national congressional and presidential politics: Support the embargo and travel restrictions and get our votes and money too. Instead of these Batista legacies seeking a rational and intelligent way to reconcile with their brethren on the island, they still seek to continue this senseless fighting to maintain our policies of humiliation, isolation, hatred, and revenge. Democracy does not stem from these.

Whatever material things Cuban Americans lost in Cuba, their sacrifice was not in vain by what they gained in becoming a vibrant and more influential part of the United States Hispanic community.  However the Batista legacies and hardliners are squandering whatever real influence they could have had with the island of their ancestors.  Who is actually influencing Cuba now?  The children of the Mariel boatlift and those who came to the U.S. afterwards and who have family and active roots still in Cuba.  These are the Cuban Americans who will actually lead the way to Cuban and American reconciliation. (4)

In Cuba, while the Castros may have lasted so long in a tactically brilliant defense and use of Cuban nationalism to upstage the economic attack and isolation from us, the failures and limits of the Cuban political and economic system have also reached the plain view of the Cuban people and the entire world to see.  But again, Cuba's future will not be decided by Cuban dissidents who are funded by the U.S. taxpayer nor will it be decided by our interference.  There is a dissident movement in Cuba, but it is not the one we think or fund.  
Perhaps when our contribution to the insanity that is U.S. Cuba policy ends with the lifting of our travel restrictions and the embargo, positive American influence can become a bridge to a reconciliation of two nations who by their people are really good friends.  Cubans living abroad will reconcile with those who live on the island, and a new dynamic in U.S. Latin American relations, perhaps a "Partnership for Progress with the Americas" can truly begin. - Tony Martinez

(1)  Unofficial Envoy, An Historic Report from Two Capitals by Jean Daniel  The New Republic, 14 December 1963, pp. 15–20

(2) The Sierra Maestra Manifesto, July 12, 1957

(3) The 1940 Constitution of the Republic of Cuba

(4) "Pull of Family Reshapes U.S. Cuban Relations",  Lizette Alvarez,  New York Times, November 21, 2011 http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/22/us/cuban-americans-take-lead-in-building-ties-with-cuba.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all%3Fsrc%3Dtp&smid=fb-share