It is altogether fitting that Little Havana, the community in Miami which has long been a stronghold of support for the embargo against Cuba, is getting its own museum.
The community has no doubt catalogued, and oftentimes shaped, U.S. policy toward Cuba in all its complexities. Perhaps the museum’s first exhibit will be designed in the months to come as President Trump announces the results of the ongoing Cuba policy review.
What we’re reading
As we mark time waiting for the administration’s Cuba policy review to end, this is what we learned this week.
As USA Today and the Miami Herald both reported, the administration had planned to announce changes on May 20, the 115th anniversary of the founding of the Cuban Republic, but the policy review wasn’t finished and, besides, the President would be overseas.
We are now hearing that day will come and go without a word from the White House on Cuba policy.
What we’re remembering
Although the May 20 event has been set aside, it’s worth reflecting on that for a moment. Proponents of harsh sanctions on Cuba have long observed May 20th for its symbolism as a “day of independence” for the Cuban Republic that preceded the Castro revolution. But history is more complicated than that.
In 1898, the U.S. intervened on Cuba’s side in its war for independence from Spain. Upon the defeat of Spain, the U.S. claimed Cuba as a conquered territory, thus preventing “the transfer of Cuba to Cubans,” as historian Louis A. Pérez puts it. Spain’s loss represented a half-step toward sovereignty for Cuba.
The U.S. intervention also represented a setback for race relations on both sides of the Florida Strait. For 30 years, according to a Newsweek history of the period, a “truly integrated” Cuban army with black and white officers leading its ranks had fought the war against Spain on the island’s soil.
U.S. forces fighting in Cuba were integrated as well, but our black fighters hardly received the recognition or credit they deserved. In one battle, according to the account in Race and Empire, “If it had not been for the Negro Cavalry the Rough Riders [with whom Teddy Roosevelt rode] would have been exterminated.” For too many years, their gallantry could have been a state secret.
Once the war ended, U.S. occupying forces, under the command of Major General Leonard Wood, made certain to purge black officers and leaders from Cuba’s army, whom they called “uneducated and uncultured” and worse.
As Cuba moved toward its new status as a Republic, the United States imposed the Platt Amendment on the Cuban Constitution, granting “the U.S. the right to intervene in the island whenever they pleased, to control all Cuban international treaties, and to possess naval stations on Cuban territory,” as one Cuban intellectual told us.
Thus, after May 20th, 1902, and the start of the Cuban Republic, the country was still subject to the neocolonial authority of the U.S., and the U.S. intervention may have resulted in a step-back for racial equality in Cuba as well. Why anyone would want to choose this date to announce Cuba policy reforms deserves further reflection.
What we’re hearing
The specifics of what President Trump will announce are still subject to conjecture. But the consequences of rolling the policy back to its pre-December 17th state are pretty clear.
Repealing President Obama’s Presidential Policy Directive would take back the recognition of Cuba’s sovereignty as the fundamental basis of U.S.-Cuba policy. It would also discard key U.S. commitments to prosperity for the Cuban people and the expansion of U.S. commerce with the island, and would threaten to end law enforcement information sharing, which senior retired military leaders agree protects U.S. security against terrorism.
A rollback of U.S. engagement with Cuba would create a void into which nations like Russia – which is now selling Cuba subsidized oil, building infrastructure projects on the island, working to modernize the Cuban military, and even restoring the Cuban Capitol’s dome – will surely fill.
Ending post-December 17th reforms could cut the legs out from U.S. airlines, hoteliers, cruise ships, telecom firms, and other industry sectors that have made financial commitments to doing business in Cuba that would not have been possible in the prior half-century.
While some people-to-people travel categories may ultimately remain in place, taking back any of the people-to-people travel reforms would cut deeply into Americans’ travel rights and the profits enjoyed by the new private-sector Cuban businesses – the restaurants, the beds-and-breakfasts, the tour guides, and other small firms – businesses that create jobs and put money into the pockets of Cubans willing to work for an employer other than the state.
And, any diminution of economic activity in Cuba caused by cutbacks in U.S. travel and trade policies could adversely affect Afro-Cubans, who have the least access to remittances from family members living abroad, and whose living circumstances are often the most fragile.
Even more sadly, the administration and policy hardliners are likely to cast any reversal of current policy as being in the service of human rights. “The president has committed to addressing U.S. policy towards Cuba in a way that supports our national security, democracy and human rights,” as Senator Rubio was quoted by USA Today. Yet it was only as a result of the December 17th diplomatic breakthrough that diplomats from Cuba and the U.S. have been able to embark on a process for addressing our differences on this and many other important issues. Going backward gets us nothing.
What we believe
The existing policy of engagement is good for the U.S. national interest, good for the interests of the Cuban people, and a solid foundation for respectful and cooperative relations between the U.S. and Cuban governments. The new policy has done everything from slowing illegal seaborne migration down to near zero to reconnecting Cuban families by phone, email and snail mail, to providing all Cubans the relief that could only come from reduced tensions with their government’s nearest adversary. We think this policy should be expanded, not diminished, and we believe any cutbacks will represent, at best, a missed opportunity for continuing the normalization process; at worst, the needless rehashing of a historical wrong.
The pity of it is grounded in politics. As USA Today writes, “Cuba experts don’t expect Trump to make the kind of wholesale changes to Cuba policy that he hinted at during his presidential campaign.” The paper quotes Frank Mora, director of the Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University in Miami, who “said Trump has never been adamant about shutting down Obama’s Cuba opening, but feels he must do something to satisfy Cuban-American voters, and members of Congress, who supported him in Florida.”
Going further, it cites Frank Calzon, executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba, who “opposed Obama’s decision to open up relations with the island.”
But even he “doesn’t expect — or want — Trump to change some of the core aspects of the opening.” Why? Because, Calzon said, “You can never go back.”
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