An Empire of Vice | The Nation


An Empire of Vice

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When Fidel Castro took command of Havana in January 1959, few in or outside Cuba knew much about him beyond his magnetism and rousing oratory; apart from Castro's loathing of Batista and idolizing of Martí, his politics--as the Eisenhower administration's "watch and wait" approach to his government shows--were vague even to close observers. Soon enough, his strident nationalism and messianic bent were clear. But even as Castro's government began seizing lands owned by US companies as part of its first agrarian reform in June 1959--and powerful Washington interests began urging Eisenhower to respond by ending the longstanding US agreement to purchase most of Cuba's sugar--few foresaw the antagonisms and escalation to come.

About the Author

Joshua Jelly-Schapiro
Joshua Jelly-Schapiro teaches geography and literature at the University of California, Berkeley.

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With Cuba's continued access to the chief market for its main crop looking unsure, and radicals like Che Guevara at Fidel's ear, whatever doubts Castro had about Leninism disappeared. In February 1960 a delegation of Soviet ministers arrived in Havana and signed an agreement to purchase much of Cuba's sugar; Che traveled to Moscow a short while later to secure Havana's ties to the Eastern Bloc. Three years after Khrushchev had promised "we will bury you," the Soviets had established a Communist beachhead in easy range of Florida, on an island, moreover, that the United States had regarded as an amour propre. The trauma was deep. In Washington a flurry of panicked recriminations over how this could have been allowed to happen--traced by Lars Schoultz with insightful verve in That Infernal Little Cuban Republic, a comprehensive history of US-Cuba relations since World War II--was translated into an ill-conceived CIA-sponsored invasion in April 1961. The Bay of Pigs fiasco did Fidel the great favor of allowing him to oversee the defeat of imperialist invaders on Cuba's beaches. In the months following, the Kennedy administration hatched a tragicomic series of attempts to kill Castro with explosive seashells and poisoned cigars (a job for which the CIA contracted the president's old Havana pimp, Santo Trafficante, now in Miami). But no matter. In October 1962, Washington's worst fears were realized when a US spy plane over Cuba's countryside snapped photos of Soviet missile launchers nestled amid royal palms.

Whether or not the Cuban missile crisis was the most dangerous and direct confrontation of the cold war, it's clear that Cuba's role was that of pawn or prop. This did not comfort Castro, who harbored deep resentment when Khrushchev failed to consult him before Moscow agreed to remove its nuclear missiles--a reaction that reveals the particularly Cuban pathos of this puffed-up leader of a smallish island driven by the need to be treated and seen as head of a big powerful nation (or at least a sovereign one). The longstanding US irritation with Cuba, Schoultz observes, stems from its leaders' persistent denial of the base precept of political realism distilled in Thucydides' dictum that the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must. Schoultz presents his history as a "case study in the trials and tribulations of realism"--an investigation into how for the past fifty years a weak state has "gotten away" with standing up to its vastly stronger neighbor and how, conversely, the stronger was made to let the weaker do so.

For three decades, of course, a large part of how Cuba "stood up" to the US empire lay also in its becoming the client state of another empire. This truth did not prevent Cuba from becoming a new kind of symbol across a Latin America long frustrated by the condescension of its Northern hegemon. Across the hemisphere, the mythic story of Cuba--a miraculous fable about a merry band of longhairs who went into their country's mountains and a few years later swept into its capital on the shoulders of its poor--was one that women and men who loved justice would seek to re-create from El Salvador to Colombia to Bolivia and Peru. In Washington, conversely, a new guiding metaphor for Cuba emerged: that of a malignant cancer whose spread had to be contained at all costs. And so it was that many thousands of those Latin Americans who went to the continent's jungles during the '60s, '70s and '80s, some toting photos of Che and Fidel in their knapsacks, died awful deaths with those whose cause they raised, too often the "disappeared" victims of US-backed dictatorships and death squads.

Since the cold war's end, US policy mavens have argued over the extent to which those dark decades' abuses were, if not justifiable, understandable given the strategic threat posed by the prospect of another Soviet satellite in its "backyard." What the years since the USSR's fall have also laid bare, however, is the extent to which Washington's approach to Cuba itself has been driven by other than simply rational aims like containment. "Castro is not merely an adversary, but an enemy," a 1993 report from the US Army War College observes, "an embodiment of evil who must be punished for his defiance of the United States.... There is a desire to hurt the enemy that is mirrored in the malevolence that Castro has exhibited towards us." For US politicians in national campaigns, being "tough on Cuba" long ago took its place with being "a friend to Israel" as a sine qua non of victory. As Cuba's potential threat to US security has progressively dwindled to nearly nil, US antagonism toward its government has only deepened. The Cuban Democracy Act of 1992 codified the embargo as US law and was toughened in the Helms-Burton Act signed by Bill Clinton in 1996, which prohibited US companies from dealing with foreign firms engaged in business with Cuban property seized by the revolution, and also mandated that the embargo could not be lifted until such time as Cuba is run by a government "that does not include Fidel Castro or Raúl Castro."

More recently, George W. Bush, who owed his presidency to south Florida, used his office in 2004 to funnel $59 million in new funding to no-bid Miami-Cuban boondoggles like the propaganda networks Radio and TV Martí. He also moved to close one of the embargo's few loopholes by introducing strict limits on remittances Cuban-Americans may send to family members on the island and on the number of trips they may take to visit them. Bush also placed Cuba on the US list of "state sponsors of terror" (based on an alleged chemical weapons program whose existence his own State Department doubted) and, in the long run-up to the 2004 election, established, at the heart of the executive branch and under the chairmanship of Secretary of State Colin Powell, a Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba. It was charged with determining how "to hasten the end" of the Castro dictatorship and in May 2004 produced a report recommending, for example, that in the wake of an anticipated violent transition, Cuban schools be kept open "in order to keep children and teenagers off the streets."

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