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U.S.-Cuba Relations: Longing for a Fresh Start?

After 40 years of missed opportunities, will Cuba and the United States be able to normalize their relations?

January 30, 2002

After 40 years of missed opportunities, will Cuba and the United States be able to normalize their relations?

After Mexico, Cuba is America’s closest Spanish-speaking neighbor. After some 30 years of oversight by Americans, the island country is enjoying quite an upsurge in popularity. The success of the Buena Vista Social Club movie and the music made by the Cuban musicians it profiled has taken America — and the world — by storm.

U.S. Tourism to Cuba — although still illegal — is increasing, and important segments of the U.S. business and farming lobbies advocate the removal of restrictions on doing business with Cuba.

Even Cuban leader Fidel Castro, once an arch-rogue on the list of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, gets a more sympathetic hearing. A television mini-series made about him, Fidel, aired on the U.S. network Showtime in January 2002. “He Fought for Freedom. He Settled for Power,” say ads for the series.

So it would seem then that the U.S. policy toward Cuba over the past 40 years has come to nothing. Ever since breaking relations with Castro’s regime in 1961, the United States has maintained a draconian array of economic and other sanctions against Cuba.

In fact, some historians now maintain that sanctions against Cuba were counterproductive. Early on, U.S. economic and military pressure did much to drive Castro into the arms of the Soviet Union.

How so? At the time, the Cuban leader feared being overthrown by U.S.-backed exiles — and he was looking for a protector.

Second, the sanctions and the perception that the Cuban David has managed to stand up to the American Goliath for so long only bolstered Castro’s popularity among ordinary Cubans — and many other people around the world.

Sanctions in general fail to achieve their desired end. The international record has shown that sanctions are completely useless when applied in hopes of toppling an oppressive or unfriendly regime. But in the case of U.S.-Cuba relations, they also ended up harming America as well.

How so? Cuba, you see, is one of the closest Spanish-speaking neighbors of the United States — not just geographically, but historically and culturally as well.

As the new American nation contemplated its future expansion in the early 19th century, there were many political leaders — especially in the Southern states — who advocated an expansion into the Caribbean. The aim would be to drive out European colonial powers from the region.

At the time, Cuba was the focus of those plans — which would have probably altered world history dramatically.

In fact, few people remember that America’s first major conflict after the Civil War was not World War I — when dough-boys from the United States went to aid Britain and France against Germany — but the Spanish-American War of 1898, when Americans came to the defense(!) of Cuba against its European colonial masters.

Even back then, Americans had a lot of respect for Cuba — a lot more than for any other country in Latin America. As a result of its victory in the Spanish-American War, the United States acquired two colonies, Puerto Rico and, for a while, the Philippines. But it was Cuba which was truly liberated — and became the first independent state in the Western Hemisphere since the collapse of the Spanish and Portuguese empires in Latin America.

Unlike Mexico and smaller Caribbean nations such as Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, or more obscure countries in South America, this affinity for Cuba can be traced through the 20th century.

Ernest Hemingway spent time in Cuba — and wrote glowing accounts of its people. The mambo craze of the early 1950s originated there. In fact, if it weren’t for the rupture of the late 1950s and 1960s, the United States would have had a much closer relationship with Cuba in recent decades.

Instead of harboring a group of insular and resentful Cuban exiles in Southern Florida, America could have moved gradually towards accepting a Hispanic culture in its midst and embracing a more bilingual, multicultural society. If it had not been for the U.S. overreaction of the early 1960s, this welcome fusion would surely have occurred a lot earlier.

In fact, there is a lot of nostalgia among ordinary Americans for what could have been. Not surprisingly, the recent surge of popularity of Cuban bands has been focused on older musicians — the survivors of the bygone era of the late 1940s and the early 1950s. It is as if Americans want to scratch out the past 40 years — and get a fresh start with Cuba.

And, to non-Americans at least, the United States could gain a lot in the process. Cuban culture, by tradition, embodies a joy in life, while still being earnest and focused on doing business. The long-standing U.S. openness — and acceptance — of things Cuban might relax U.S. society in useful ways.

At least, anybody who has witnessed all those stiff Anglos hop around at Cuban concerts here in the United States cannot but mourn the fact that four decades of enticing exposure were lost — to America’s social and cultural detriment.