Jesse Robison

Jesse Robison

America’s history with Cuba has been a mixed bag. We liked the country when it served our interests, but we have been fighting an ideological and economic war with Cuba since shortly after Fidel Castro came to power in 1959.

The United State’s formal relationship with Cuba began at the end of the Spanish-American war in 1898. We entered into that war with Spain after an explosion from an unknown cause sunk the USS Maine in Havana harbor.

At that time Cuba was fighting its third war in an attempt to gain independence, and the U.S. had tried repeatedly to buy the island from Spain without success.

The entry of the United States into Cuba’s war for independence included deploying forces there, and in Puerto Rico and the Philippines. Spain was defeated three months after our involvement, and in the Paris Treaty of 1898 agreed to relinquish sovereignty over Cuba while ceding its colonial properties of Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines to the U.S. for $20 million.

Spain’s last colonial governments in the Americas ended with the treaty, and our expanded influence in the Caribbean furthered the Monroe Doctrine initiated in 1823 that opposed any additional colonial efforts in the Western hemisphere. The United States became the dominant power in the Americas and has remained so ever since.

In exchange for Cuba’s independence, America extracted a one-sided lease providing for the indefinite rental of 45 square miles of land at Guantanamo Bay for the express purpose of operating a “coaling and naval station.”

The last treaty signed regarding the property was in 1938 and required the U.S. to pay $4,085 a year. Come forward 81 years, and we are still sending that amount of money annually to Cuba for 45 square miles of strategic land. The Castro government never cashed a check and Cuba wants the land returned.

For an extended period America and Cuba had a “golden” relationship after independence was obtained from Spain. What fueled that was our capitalist development and exploitation of the island’s rich land primarily for production of sugar, rum and tobacco.

By 1926 U.S. companies owned 60 percent of Cuba’s sugar industry and imported 95 percent of the total Cuban crop. American business investments had become substantial throughout Cuba, and we supported governments that were friendly to our interest no matter how corrupt or abusive they were to human rights.

That all ended when Fulgencio Batista, originally elected President in 1944, fled Cuba with a stolen fortune as his hand-picked government was overthrown in the 1959 Revolution. Batista had orchestrated a coup in 1952 when he returned to Cuba and seized power.

Many good reforms were initiated when Batista first came to power including the 1940 Constitution that provided for worker rights, free elections, universal suffrage and civil liberties.

However, after Batista seized power in 1952 he suspended that constitution and began a reign of corruption and brutal murder. He was supported by the United States, and President Kennedy subsequently observed that our backing of Batista put us on the side of tyranny.

As has often happened, the United States aligns itself with foreign governments when they are friendly to our political and business objectives, human rights be damned. Our country has a dark history regarding Latin countries including Chile, Argentina, Guatemala, Nicaragua and others. That support indirectly furthered the murder of hundreds of thousands of innocent people (many who were disappeared) to advance political and capitalist policies.

A book would be required to detail all that has transpired between Cuba and the U.S. since Fidel Castro came to power, and some of our actions have not been honorable. We maintain a base by military force against Cuban desires, and we operate a prison there where human rights abuses have occurred.

Our country participated in multiple attempts to overthrow Fidel Castro and to have him assassinated. We have imposed oppressive financial sanctions against this Caribbean island for sixty years with no success in changing Cuba’s government or human rights policies.

The Cuban missile crisis was arguably precipitated by our economic sanctions that drove Castro into Russia’s hands.

In order to end our embargo, the U.S. has demanded that Cuba change its political system and reimburse those who lost business interests after the 1959 revolution.

I’m no fan of Cuba’s existing government, but it is hard to see how we hold the moral high ground given our history before and after the Castro(s) came to power.

There was a brief moment in the last 60 years when President Obama loosened restrictions and allowed travel to increase to Cuba. It seemed like the U.S. had finally come to its senses regarding foreign policy there, but President Trump reversed that positive development by increasing sanctions.

Returning to a policy that has not worked for 60 years will not bring about the desired results. The policies we have maintained only serve to punish the Cuban people who are already suffering the consequences of communism.

Anyone who has visited Cuba and truly looks at what is happening there will tell you Communism as an economic system is an abysmal failure. Countries destroy human productivity when they try to compensate everyone equally. When you have a system that financially rewards taxi drivers and bartenders earning tips over those in high-skilled occupations you have a fundamental problem.

Having said that, I am no fan of unfettered capitalism. The best government systems in the world blend the productive benefits of capitalism with a healthy social safety net. We could see more of that developing in Cuba if we continue to normalize relations by increasing economic ties between our countries.

There was a slight improvement in human rights and freedoms initiated by Raul Castro after the “Cuban thaw” developed when Obama loosened sanctions. That ought to have signaled to our current political leaders that returning to the status quo of full sanctions would be counter productive.

Continuing this failed policy has had the affect of driving Cuba towards Europe, China and Russia (again) for its economic needs. Does that make any sense given the island’s geographical proximity and natural market relations to the United States? We also provide the Cuban government excuses for not making progress with human rights due to our hypocritical policies.

If Trump can open discussions with North Korea, he certainly ought to be able to realize that a substantive conversation with Cuba is long overdue. A wise leader would open economic ties and seize the moment to engage in meaningful dialogue (also see Normalizing US-Cuba relations: escaping the shackles of the past by William M Leogrande, May 2015 article from International Affairs).

America could help bring about improvements to conditions and human rights in Cuba if we would consider something besides Trump’s current position that “we will not lift sanctions on the Cuban regime until all political prisoners are freed, freedoms of assembly and expression are respected, all political parties are legalized, and free and internationally supervised elections are scheduled.”

Trump’s demands have polarized discussion and are ironic given our maintenance of Guantanamo. They do not suggest we have a man at the helm who knows how to make good deals.

Doug Bandow, writing for National Interest observed the following regarding Trump’s stance in an article advocating for policy change in Cuba:

“...the president’s action is the triumph of ideological blindness over painful experience. If nearly sixty years of embargo and other sanctions won’t create democracy on the island, his arbitrary tightening won’t do so.

Far better to send more Americans, more money, more goods and opportunities to Cuba. More Western employment and contact would spread the virus of liberty” (see It’s time for a policy change on Cuba, National Interest (Online) December 6, 2018).

Anyone who has had a chance to observe what is happening on the ground in Cuba would agree with Mr. Bandow’s position. The long suffering people in Cuba would benefit as would America. Sixty years of punishment has been fruitless, particularly recognizing our support of Batista’s tyranny helped bring Castro to power. We need a leader with vision to change our failed policy.

Jesse Robison is a Pocatello native who has lived in Mexico and other places. He was educated at Idaho State University and University of Idaho. Robison works as a mediator and insurance law consultant, but his passion is public art. He has spearheaded numerous art improvements throughout Pocatello, including the Japanese garden located at Pocatello Regional Airport, and he serves on the Bistline Foundation. Robison currently resides in Pocatello.