Written Wednesday, 19 January 2011
By Saul Landau and Nelson P. Valdés
On December 18, 2010, Cuban President Raúl Castro warned Cubans: the nation faced a crisis. The disastrous condition of Cuba’s economy no longer allowed the state any maneuvering room to walk the dangerous “precipice” of inefficiency, low productivity and corruption. Without reforms, Cuba would sink — and with it the effort of every generation seeking a free Cuba since the first native revolt against Spanish colonial rule.
Cubans understood that since 1959 the Revolution, with all its faults, had safeguarded the nation’s independence – national sovereignty. From 1492 (Columbus’ landing) through December 1958, foreign powers had decided the fate of Cubans.
By the early 19 th century a ” Cuban ” had emerged — not a Spaniard on a faraway island or an enslaved African, but a hybrid product of three centuries of colonialism who sought self-determination — like the American colonial population in 1776.
When Batista and his generals fled, a U.S.-backed coup effort among Colonels failed to materialize despite all the plots behind the scenes led by the U.S. government. The rebels then established the modern Cuban nation, which quickly became a real and until then almost unimaginable challenge to U.S. domination.
This unstated truth, understood in Havana and Washington, put the countries on a collision course. Washington refused to cede control; the Revolution rejected U.S. authority. Since 1898, the U.S. had treated Cuba as an appendage of its economy. U.S. companies owned Cuba’s largest sugar mills, its best land, the phone and utility companies, the mines and much else. The Cuban government, like those of its neighbors in the “U.S. backyard,” had automatically obeyed Washington’s policy dictates.
Revolutionary defiance, reducing rent by 50 percent and passing an agrarian reform law, without asking permission, got attention in Washington. The words “dictatorship” and “communist” began appearing routinely in government-spun news reports.
The island of 6 million people with sugar as its cash crop lacked both material and human resources needed to secure real independence. Washington understood this. Some U.S. officials, wrote E. W. Kenworthy, “believe the Castro Government must go ‘through the wringer’ before it will see the need for United States aid and agree to the stabilization measures which will make it possible to get aid.” (“Cuba’s Problems Pose Tests for U.S. Policy,” NY Times , April 26, 1959)
When Cuban leaders either ignored or ridiculed Washington ‘ s warnings, President Eisenhower, in March 1960, authorized a CIA covert operation to overthrow the Cuban government — ending in the April 1961 Bay of Pigs “fiasco.” In October 1960, however, in response to Cuba’s nationalization of U.S. property — an escalating confrontation of Cuba acting and Washington punishing – Ike imposed an embargo on Cuba.
But even in April 1960, the State Department had issued its punishment guideline: “[E]very possible means should be undertaken promptly to weaken the economic life of Cuba. … a line of action which, while as adroit and inconspicuous as possible, makes the greatest inroads in denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of the government.” (Office of the Historian, Bureau Of Public Affairs, U.S. Department Of State; John P. Glennon, et al., eds., Foreign Relations of the United States, 1958-1960, Volume VI, Cuba -Washington D.C.: GPO, 1991, 885.)
Havana responded by doing the unthinkable: In 1961, Cuba allied itself with the Soviet bloc. To secure independence, Cuban leaders became reliant on Soviet assistance.
In 1991, the Soviet demise left Cubans – finally — with total political “independence” and no outside material support with which to maintain their nation. The embargo took on heightened dimensions.
In 1959, revolutionaries in their 20s and 30s did not predict the ferocity of U.S. punishment, nor grasp that their sin of disobedience reached beyond the dictates of U.S. power, and to the core of a global system. Washington was the informal world capital.
In that role, Washington relentlessly attacked Cuba — even after it ceased to exercise Hemispheric hegemony. The control mantra still seeps through the walls of national security offices and by osmosis enters the bureaucrats’ brains: “We permit no insubordination.” Cubans had to pay for the resistance of their leaders. Washington’s lesson: Resistance is futile.
Last month Raúl Castro informed Cubans of the need for drastic reforms. The revolution had trained, educated and made healthy the Cuban population. But, Raúl admitted, the state no longer can meet some basic needs Cubans had assumed as human rights (entitlements). One million people, he announced, would lose jobs; social programs reduced or eliminated.
Cubans’ non-productivity — lax work ethics, bureaucratic inefficiency, and absence of initiative – had become compounded by corruption. The U.S. embargo leads to shortages and encourages bureaucratic misdeeds. A bureaucrat enhances his income by “solving ” the very “obstacles” the same bureaucrat helped create.
After 51-plus years, Washington’s punishment appeared to force Cuba into accepting a shock doctrine, but without all the regressive social costs most Third World countries have paid. In 1980, a Jamaican remarked after Prime Minister Manley submitted to the
International Monetary Fund’s punishing austerity measures: “We’ve been IMF’d. ”
The Cuban revolution again enters unscripted territory. Reformers, however, count on deep resources — a public with social consciousness absorbed through decades of education and experience.
World geo-political changes, however, offer Cuban leaders some advantages: China, Brazil and some European Union states have become potential counters to U.S. hardliners. With breathing space Cubans might still avoid the worst consequences of Washington’s obsolete 50 year old shock doctrine.
Saul Landau is an Institute for Policy Studies fellow whose film WILL THE REAL TERRORIST PLEASE STAND UP premiered at the Havana Film Festival. Nelson Valdés is Professor Emeritus, University of New Mexico.