Editor’s note: The following article is excerpted from the book Listen, Yankee! Why Cuba Matters, which was published this spring by Seven Stories Press. Hayden, a key figure in the American New Left, says the book is “my quest to understand the long history of the sixties generation through the prism of the Cuban Revolution and the American response.” Greg Grandin, a history professor at NYU, calls Listen, Yankee! “a memoir and a meditation, a thoughtful reflection on the inter-American struggles of activists, intellectuals, and politicians for a more just world.”
Until the Obama administration, the United States government never heeded the advice of many rational voices over the years who argued for coexistence with Cuba, choosing instead to hear those strident advocates who sought to embargo, isolate, and ultimately overthrow the Cuban Revolution. Republicans have been most explicit in their demands for a rollback, while many liberal Democrats have explored normalization (John Kennedy), turned away from the prospect (Lyndon Johnson), proposed a path to recognition and reversed themselves (Jimmy Carter), or canceled the prospect after a confrontation (Clinton), failing in the end to achieve that goal for five decades.
One explanation after another fell away with the passage of time. Since the Soviet Union has dissolved, Cuba cannot be its pawn. Since guerrilla wars have subsided in Latin America, Cuba cannot be accused of fomenting them. Since our government has diplomatic relations and trade with one-party states like China, there is no reason why Cuba should be treated differently. If it’s about compensation for our casinos, oil and sugar companies, and Cuban families expropriated in 1960, Cuba, which has negotiated settlements with other countries, says it is willing to negotiate. If it’s about political prisoners, Cuba has released many or most of them. If it’s about atheism, the Vatican has good relations with Havana. The search for reasons for the impasse could have gone on endlessly, but thankfully it has ended without a new death. Fidel told two advisers to President Carter, Robert Pastor and Peter Tarnoff, on one of their visits to the island during the Carter presidency: “Your policy is to wait for me to die, and I don’t intend to cooperate.” Indeed, Fidel outlasted the embargo, defying all predictions to the contrary.
There is another explanation for how long it has taken, which requires returning to the exhortation in sociologist C. Wright Mills’s 1960 book, Listen, Yankee. The title reflects the complaint that Cubans could not receive a fair hearing as long as US officials assumed superiority in the relationship, with the right to bend Cuba to America’s will—that US leaders’ historic failure to listen to the voices of the original Cuban revolutionaries was at the heart of a tragic misunderstanding. But wasn’t that the basic cry of the Cubans and other small countries from the beginning? When Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, told historians in a 2014 book that “the whole business of Castro seemed to be a piddling affair,” he was reflecting a longstanding superiority complex.