Barack Obama last month became the first president since Calvin Coolidge to visit the island of Cuba. His three-day trip marked the culmination of a process of political rapprochement which was foretokened two and a half years ago by a handshake in Johannesburg.
The ‘historic’ visit was covered extensively by the media here in Britain, and most of such coverage served inevitably to reinforce the established narrative of international relations, namely that the well-intentioned capitalist West is fundamentally benevolent, while its chosen enemies are pure evil and deserving of the heartiest outrage, if not always regime change by force.
Hence Obama, travelling aboard Air Force One, was grandiosely described by the Guardian as having arrived in Havana on a ‘chariot of hope’. Throughout the course of the trip and after its conclusion, the same paper took pains to portray the president as thoughtful and conciliatory, as if such reasonableness is the stock-in-trade of the United States when dealing with those who stand in the way of its imperial machinations. Then again, that the Guardian‘s reportage was so favourable can hardly come as a surprise; this radical journal recently abased itself before the ‘charm’ and ‘coolness’ of a man who last year tossed a total of 23,000 bombs on six different Muslim-majority countries.
At any rate, as Obama’s excursion unfolded, the message from across the corporate media was clear: the magnanimous United States had descended from its moral high ground to ‘heal the bitterness of the past’ it shares with the pariah state ninety miles to its south. Nevertheless, many criticised the president for failing to properly confront Raúl Castro about the multitude of real or perceived problems that, in their view, are necessary features of what they erroneously believe to be ‘Communism’. Some angrily wondered why Obama had sought a rapprochement at all.
Of course, even the briefest abstract of the history of U.S.-Cuban relations can tell us which side is the more worthy recipient of our denunciations. In 1898, the United States invaded Cuba and seized control of it from Spain; a three-year long military occupation followed, paving the way for the Platt Amendment — which formally limited the sovereignty of the Cuban people — and six decades of imperialist exploitation. Three more military interventions occurred before the foregoing piece of legislation was effectively repealed, but by then the damage had been done: American corporations, like the infamous United Fruit Company, came to own or lease a huge number of the latifundias which generated the island’s wealth. That wealth was sucked out of Cuba, or funnelled into the opulent enclaves inhabited by Yankee mobsters and executives, leaving its producers — the native workers — immiserated, humiliated and justifiably full of resentment. From 1952, the military dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, whom Washington supported and who killed and tortured thousands, ensured that foreign capital was adequately protected from the people. In short, then, Cuba during the first half of the twentieth century was at least as much a victim of U.S. hegemony as many of its Latin American neighbours.
Fortunately, revolution was on the horizon. In 1959, after an arduous two-year long campaign, a band of guerillas led by Fidel Castro quite sensationally succeeded in toppling the hated Batista, who, fearful for his life, fled the country. Soon after ascending to government, Castro and others — among them a certain Che Guevara — embarked on a course of land reform which rather upset the imperialist trespassers. They began to dismantle the extensive network of American commercial interests which had for generations been denying Cubans what was rightfully theirs. Plantations and refineries were confiscated by the state and strict limits imposed on the amount of land that any one individual or enterprise could own. The effect of all this was to push American capital out of the island, so that it could no longer pillage the fruits of her people’s labour.
Washington, of course, was not best pleased by these developments. If the Castros and Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos had helped to rouse the largo lagarto verde of Guillén’s famous poem, then the United States spent the next fifty or more years trying vengefully to slay it. There was the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, which saw 1,400 CIA-trained Cuban exiles launch an ill-fated assault on the country’s southern coast. There was Operation Mongoose, a sustained and unlawful campaign of sabotage aimed at extinguishing the nascent revolution. There were also the countless and varied attempts by the CIA to assassinate Fidel Castro.
And then there was the economic violence. In early 1960, President Eisenhower slashed the Cuban sugar quota in the knowledge that the economy of Cuba, after years of suffering under American hegemony, was dependent on sugar and on the United States, its leading export customer. By the end of the year, that punishing measure had mutated into a full trade embargo which continues to strangle Cuba to this day, despite the repeated condemnations of the United Nations, which considers el bloqueo to be illegal. In any case, all this and more led Professor Noam Chomsky to aver in 1985 that ‘Cuba has probably been the target of more international terrorism than the rest of the world combined’.
And yet, notwithstanding the occasional fleeting mention of the embargo, or of the United States’ ‘mistakes’ in Latin America (for Western elites, in the eyes of their courtiers in the press, are constitutionally incapable of evil), the craven British media did not dare to situate Obama’s recent trip in the actual historical context of U.S.-Cuban relations. Instead, it focused on the dearth of democracy in Cuba and on the ‘dismal human rights record’ of that country’s rulers.
Never mind that the United States is essentially an oligarchy in which elections are a sham, because even the most prominent politicians — like Hillary Clinton — are bought by big business so that they can represent its interests. Never mind that across the Land of the Free — whose racist penal system has spawned the largest prison population of any country in the world — terrorists in uniform are still executing black men, women and children with impunity. Never mind that American whistleblowers — that is, those who expose the skulduggery of their government and of the corporations to which it is in thrall — have been prosecuted with a vengeance by President Obama, who has also all but abrogated his citizens’ right to privacy by expanding surveillance to near-Orwellian dimensions. And never mind that some of the most egregious human rights violations to have taken place on the island of Cuba have occurred upon the stinking wound that is Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, which of course has been occupied by the United States for more than a hundred years.
We should always do well to remember that while Castro’s Cuba assisted the indigenous peoples of Angola, South Africa and Guinea-Bissau in their struggles for liberation, the United States slaughtered hundreds of thousands of people in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos; helped to bring about many hundreds of thousands more deaths in Indonesia and East Timor; kept up its murderous meddling in Latin America, from Nicaragua to Chile; laid waste to the Muslim world through its illegal invasions of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya; continues to facilitate the ‘incremental genocide’ of the Palestinian people by way of its unconditional support for Israel; and all the while maintains in existence nearly a thousand military bases right across the globe.
In addition, we ought not to forget that while healthcare is beyond the reach of many in America, it is free for everyone on the island of Cuba. Indeed, as the United States bombs hospitals in Kunduz and elsewhere, we should remember that doctors and other medical personnel are nowadays Cuba’s principal export. It is also worth mentioning that as student loan debt in the United States approaches one and a half trillion dollars in total, young people in Cuba benefit from education that is subsidised entirely by the state.
In light of all this, Obama’s visit to Cuba stands at best as a fine example of what Chris Hedges calls the ‘hollow stagecraft of political theatre’, and at worst as a particularly outrageous instance of chutzpah and false sanctimony from the most violent state actor in the history of humankind.
Let us not deceive ourselves as to the real reason behind Obama’s trip. It is true enough that this president — like many of his predecessors — is very keen indeed to use his last year in office to secure his legacy. He wants to be remembered as the benign and peaceable leader he most certainly has not been. But of course, this desire of his cannot fully explain why he deigned to visit a country which has for generations been brutalised by the ruling class he represents.
Capitalism relies for its continuation on the penetration of new markets. The Financial Times reported on March 16 that the ‘sole US investment [in Cuba] to date remains a two-man tractor maker from Alabama’. Obama is therefore surely no more than a stalking horse for the octopus of American capital, which wants to wrap its tentacles once again around the economy of this defiant Caribbean island. As such, the president’s visit — and Raúl Castro’s acquiescence — looks as though it might function to usher in the latest, rather regrettable phase of Cuba’s trajectory: it appears that the largo lagarto verde is on the verge of going from villein to villain and back again.