An Empire of Vice | The Nation


An Empire of Vice

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As Daniel Erikson shows in The Cuba Wars, a sharp and deeply reported account of dynamics informing US-Cuba policy since the Clinton administration, Castro's government was concerned that Cuba's involvement in Bush's "war on terror" would go beyond the United States' use of its imperial relic at Guantánamo Bay to hold certain prisoners beyond the jurisdiction of US courts. The Cubans "were really worried," Lawrence Wilkerson, longtime chief of staff to Colin Powell, tells Erikson of a visit he made to Havana just after leaving the State Department in 2005. "They wanted me first of all to assure them that we weren't going to invade." In the spring of 2003, Fidel Castro--practiced in paranoia, always more comfortable on a war footing than not--responded to the new provocations by ordering the trial for treason of some seventy-five "dissidents," some of whom were indeed Cubans being paid by the United States to tweak (if hardly, in practice, to destabilize) their government, but most of whose offenses amounted to writing articles and circulating petitions. Some fifty-odd of "the 75" remain jailed today.

About the Author

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

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In 2003 I was living in Havana, and as at so many other times when Cuba had become the subject of hyperventilated fits abroad, the arrests and diplomatic volleys were little more than background noise to the struggles of quotidian life. People who sought more food than allotted by their ration card broke the law daily. That spring, an architect I was friendly with began selling stolen shellfish to feed his family, and his cousin had taken to earning new clothes by satisfying the bedroom predilections of Italian sex tourists. More significant to Cubans than Washington's longstanding obsession with upending their government were concerns over what that government might do to repair a broken economy. Such grave ills aside, not a few Cubans remain proud that theirs is a poor country in which "no children sleep in the streets," as a propaganda billboard near my Havana apartment touted truly. The Communist Party enjoys significant support, especially in the provincias--where peasants fifty years ago lived in dirt-floored huts and still do so today, but now regard free healthcare for their parents and good schools for their kids as birthrights. More generally, it's open to debate whether the Cuban state's solicitude toward its young and its aged is "worth" the repression too often endured by everyone else. But from the standpoint of a failed fifty-year attempt by the United States to change the island's government by isolation, the salient facts about Cuba are that it enjoys good relations and strong economic ties to every other country in the hemisphere, including Canada (not to mention China and the European Union), and that it has a stable government, in evidently firm control of its military and police, which has carried off its recent change to a new head of state with apparently minimal fuss.

Raúl Castro--longtime head of Cuba's military, a dour party man--has, with the illness of his brother, been cast in the unlikely role of reformer. Many in Cuba express hope that Raúl's early gestures at reform, like his opening of the grounds of tourist hotels such as the Hotel Nacional to ordinary Cubans, may augur a larger opening of the Cuban economy. During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama called Raúl's bluff by suggesting that he'd be willing to sit down with Cuba's new leader with a view toward improving relations. Realists predictably think this prospect, like Raúl's proffering of Cuba's "willingness to discuss on equal footing the prolonged dispute" with the United States, is a nonstarter: Obama's secretary of state, back when she was not his head diplomat but primary rival, called his willingness to meet with "foreign dictators" like Cuba's new leader "irresponsible." But during its first weeks, the Obama administration--no doubt cognizant of polls showing that younger Cuban-Americans voice little support for the hardline stance of the past, and that even a symbolic thaw with Cuba would be an easy way to improve relations with the rest of Latin America--successfully marshaled a bill through Congress overturning Bush-era restrictions on family visits and remittances. All this move does is return the United States' Cuba policy to its 2003 status. But it was a key signal that a larger overhaul of the Cuba policy will be on the table in Obama's Washington. At April's Summit of the Americas, the president observed that Cuba's thousands of doctors dispersed throughout the region were "a reminder for us in the United States that if our only interaction with many of these countries is...military, then we may not be developing the connections that can, over time, increase our influence." Obama also declared that a "new beginning with Cuba" could be near. That initial signal, it seems, has been confirmed.

In 1891, José Martí, the most articulate of Cuban nationalists and also perhaps his generation's most perceptive writer on inter-American relations, wrote in Nuestra América, "One must not attribute, through a provincial antipathy, a fatal and inbred wickedness to the continent's fair-skinned nation simply because it does not speak our language, or see the world as we see it, or resemble us in its political defects, so different from our own." For many Cubans, the election of Obama represents an overcoming of political defects, and in his brown face they see not a "fair-skinned nation" but something of themselves; their hope is that Obama will be a leader free of many of his country's old neuroses. The ultimate test of those hopes will be ending the long-running embargo, which Wilkerson, expressing a widely held but rarely stated Washington view, called, in an interview with GQ, "the dumbest policy on the face of the earth." No less incontestable is a remark made in 1974 by the now-ailing barbudo in Havana, who recently expressed doubt that he'd live to see the end of Obama's first term. "We cannot move, nor can the United States," Fidel Castro observed in an interview. "Speaking realistically, someday some sort of ties will have to be established."

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