One Hundred Years of Ambiguity

One Hundred Years of Ambiguity

Mini Teaser: Cuban independence was granted by the United States rather than earned by the Cubans. A century later, neither side has figured out exactly what Cuban nationalism means.

by Author(s): Irving Louis Horowitz

Double standards are inspiration to men of letters, but they are apt to be fatal to politicians. . . . Modern politics is, at bottom, a struggle not of men but of forces. The men become every year more and more creatures of force, massed about central powerhouses. The conflict is no longer between the men, but between the motors that drive the men, and the men tend to succumb to their own motive forces.

-Henry Adams (The Education of Henry Adams, 1905-06, chapter XXVIII)

Much ink has been spilled to determine whether Fidel Castro was a Communist before his seizure of power in 1959, or whether he became one at some later date. While the results are inconclusive, what is certain is that Castro was a Cuban nationalist long before the triumph of the July 26th Movement. Understanding Castro's Cuba therefore requires examination of that nationalism-its historical roots and its political consequences-as much or more than examination of Castro's communism. This, in turn, obliges us to study the imperfect origins of independence in Cuba itself. Such study requires a century-long retrospective, not just a look at the 42 years in which the Castro regime has held political power.
Two dates stand out in the American-Cuban relationship: 1898 (the year Spain surrendered Cuba to the United States following the Spanish-American War), and 1959 (the year the Soviet shadow to the Cuban Revolution ended any chance of resolving the contentious issues dividing Havana and Washington). There are other critical dates in Cuban internal political dynamics, such as 1925-33, the period of the Gerardo Machado dictatorship, and 1934-59, the populist-militarist era of the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship. But they do not matter nearly as much as 1898 and 1959, which is a sad reflection of the fact that, unlike most other countries, Cuba's political history has been marked by popular passivity and hence a tendency toward largely undisturbed military and then totalitarian rule.

Despite the importance and drama of the Spanish-American War, 1902 is a better starting date for this narrative than 1898 because it was only after the four years of American colonial hegemony that Cuba could begin to define its status as an independent nation. The four-year interregnum between 1898 and 1902 demonstrates the simple fact that real liberation, much less democracy, cannot be given-certainly not by the armed forces of an occupying power. National independence must be earned; it must be won against opposition. What the United States was able to provide, and the wisest thing in its power to grant, was schooling in the practices of a free and autonomous society. The Cubans were allowed to act as if they had won and created some of the basic rights and duties of a democratic nation. The immediate consequence of this was to heighten a note of ambiguity in a political situation already less than clear-cut.

As it happened, Cuba has been unable, ever since 1902, to clarify its status vis-à-vis the United States. This was not entirely the fault of Cubans. The native Cuban regime in 1902 was established under the ostensible protection of the Platt Amendment, which was terminated only in 1934 as a part of the Good Neighbor Policy. Thus, in 1902 and 1934, not much less than in 1898 and 1959-and, of course, in October 1962-external forces rather than internal actors determined the course of Cuba's national existence. Around these dates one may plot, so to speak, Cuba's one hundred years of ambiguity.

Cuba has never been the master of its own fate in its independence struggles. Without minimizing the bitterness of the Cuban popular classes against Spanish colonial rule-or, for that matter, the bravery of the Cuban guerrillas who fought the best troops of the Spanish empire-the plain fact of the matter is that the United States and Spain set the terms of Cuban independence. Native forms of national struggle were not entirely absent; indeed, by 1897 it became evident that the Spaniards were unable to impose a purely political or legal solution on the island, and that raw military force was required. In such circumstances, the indigenous resistance in Cuba could not hope to achieve more than a military stalemate-at least in the short term-without external intervention, whether the resistance wanted it or not.

In such a vacuum of power, the United States was able to extend as well as to impose its Monroe Doctrine over a Spanish colony. It did so first by insisting on a pacific solution that did not require outright subjugation of the native peoples and then, when it became apparent that Spain did not have a civil administrative infrastructure that could impose such an outcome without using military force, moved to intervene directly. Spain's frailty thus allowed President McKinley to move into the power vacuum in fairly simple fashion-something that his predecessor, Grover Cleveland, resisted doing. But nothing has been simple since. In 1902 Cuba became a relatively independent nation, modeled after the United States in its formal apparatus of government. The arguments over the one hundred years since 1902 confirm the use of the term "relative." Radicals argue that "relative" means that Cuba enjoyed little true independence. Conservatives claim that all sovereignty, especially for a small nation with a single-crop economy, is necessarily relative.

One of the few scholars writing on Cuba who deeply appreciated this ambiguous legacy is Hugh Thomas. In an essay focusing on the Batista era, he stated the historical situation frankly:

Cuba was not China or Nicaragua. It was a state whose independence from Spain in 1898 was in effect secured for it by the United States as a result of the Spanish-American war. As such, Cuba's freedom of action was limited for thirty years (1902-34) under the Platt Amendment, enabling the United States to intervene legally in the island's internal affairs under certain circumstances. Such intervention occurred several times-in 1906, 1912, 1917 and 1933. Although after 1933 the country's industries and services were increasingly 'Cubanized' by local entrepreneurs, much of the aura of the old days still hung about U.S. Cuban relations in the 1950s.

Thomas goes on to note that "Cuban national history read by students at the University of Havana revived memories of the early part of the century, when U.S. business involvement promoted the rapid economic development of the island and at the same time put a damper on the rhetorical romantic Cuban nationalism articulated by José Martí during two ruthless wars against Spain (1868-78 and 1895-98)." Castro was indoctrinated by this special reductionist reading of Cuban-American history-that U.S. domination repressed Cuban national aspirations.

The problem for Cuba, after securing its independence, was the ambiguity of the outcome. It achieved a result that it desired without devising a method for accomplishing it. The result was that regimes in Cuba from 1902 through 1959 wrestled with a dilemma that they could not resolve. A group of democratic reforms introduced in 1933 was identified with Machado and represented a step toward securing greater autonomy, for on their account the Platt Amendment was soon lifted. But the reforms fell prey to a series of coups and were weakened further by the illegitimacy of the Batista regime. Instead of resolving matters either with regard to Cuba's political culture or relations with the United States, the Batista dictatorship was halfhearted and inconclusive, like so many earlier regimes. Into such a situation Fidel Castro came to power-not as living vindication of Marxism-Leninism, but as part of an effort to move Cuba beyond ambiguity and to nationalist closure, and, in consequence beyond the suffocating sphere of American influence.

The absence of closure before 1959 clearly helps to explain the ferocity of Castro's resentment of the United States. This resentment is not simply a consequence of generic factors (big power versus small power, or Anglo versus Hispanic cultures). Rather it is a result of the specific history of Cuba and its intersection with the United States from 1898 to the present. In a nutshell: the United States invaded Cuban soil and, no less, liberated it from the Spanish empire. Castro's May Day speech of 2001 indicates his unbending hostility toward and suspicion of the United States. He denounces hemispheric trade agreements as "annexation." He says such a free trade "would mean more neo-liberalism, less protection for industry and national interests, and more unemployment and social problems. National currencies would disappear to be replaced by the dollar, and all monetary policy across the region would be dictated by the U.S. Federal Reserve." The distant echo of the Platt Amendment can be heard in his remarks. It is not simply a policy difference, but a psychological distance that is reflected in Castro's words. How this came about is worth reviewing.

Pivotal to any analysis of this history is the fact that in the year 2002-one hundred years after Cuba's acquisition of independence and more than 42 years after the imposition of Communist dictatorship-one can still speak of Cuba in terms of a single-crop economy, although the sugar crop is sweetened by other revenue streams. However one feels, or better said, to whatever one ascribes the causes, the fact is that Cuba is an economy dominated by dollarization, and tourism is a major source of income. The classical situation of small nations of the Caribbean-still extant in Cuba-is indicative of the hard truth that the politics and ideology of Marxism-Leninism comprise a sort of fool's gold, a fantasy land of autonomy. The Castro regime is strong enough to goad the United States but weak enough to require appeals for aid to other Western powers. The writing of this scenario was already on the wall with the Cuban missile crisis, which was precipitated as well as settled by the major contestants in the Cold War. The turf may have been Cuban, but the decision-making had distinctly Russian- and English-speaking voices. Listen to the analysis of Adam B. Ulam, perhaps the sharpest Sovietologist of his time, of the events of October 1962:

Riding Russian coattails brought quiet rather than solution for the Castro dictatorship. It created a transitional equilibrium that became permanent more through inertia than design. And so it was with the Cuban Revolution of 1959. That cataclysmic event finalized the resentment and focused the animosity toward the United States for its involvement in Cuban affairs. It did not provide a solution in 1902 that satisfied either democrats or autocratic landholders within Cuba, nor did it bring to closure the sense of solitude and isolation that Marxism promises in theory, but that Leninism-Stalinism took away in practice.

Left-wing scholars take the view that if there had been no U.S. invasion or occupation, Cuba would have ridden the coattails of the 1895 uprising toward full autonomy. In this view, the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898, with a heavy loss of American lives, provided President McKinley with a pretext to intervene in the conflict. The demands were for Spain to terminate its concentration camp policy, offer an armistice to Cuban rebels, and accept the United States as a final arbiter between the parties. Cuban independence was not mentioned. Benjamin Keen and Mark Wasserman develop an interesting view-one that parallels Fidelista historiography:

The ensuing war was short and nasty. American commanders ignored their Cuban counterparts, excluding Cuban generals from decision making and relegating Cuban soldiers to sentry and clean-up duties. Incompetence was the dominant feature of both the Spanish and American war effort. American military actions were incredibly ill prepared and badly led. The only major land battle of the war, the famous charge up San Juan Hill, which helped to catapult Theodore Roosevelt to national prominence, was very nearly a catastrophic defeat for the United States. Spain, to some extent, defeated itself, for its generals believed the war lost from the beginning and sought above all to minimize their losses. Thus, in a bizarre little war, the United States Army, wretchedly led, scandalously provisioned, and ravaged by tropical disease, swiftly defeated a demoralized, dispirited Spanish army and snatched the fruits of victory from the Mambises, the Cuban guerrilla fighters who had fought gallantly in a struggle of three years duration. The exclusion of Cuban leaders from both war councils and peace negotiations foreshadowed the course of Cuban-American relations for the next sixty years.

The unspoken assumption in this account of events, in which Spaniards-and especially Americans-marginalize Cubans, is that Castro put an end to such humiliation. But he did no such thing. The negotiations between the United States and the USSR over the missile installations aptly demonstrated that Castro had no more input in the solution than the Cuban guerrilla leader Antonio Maceo had in the settlement between the United States and Spain. The further presumption is that, if left to their own devices, Cubans would have put an end to Spanish rule. Such an outcome was certainly the wish of José Martí, Antonio Maceo and Máximo Gómez, but whether that wish would have become reality is problematic. Under the direction of General Valeriano Weyler, Spanish military policy shifted to anti-guerrilla tactics. The Spaniards then drove back the Cuban revolutionists to the eastern end of the island. All seemed lost until the U.S. military bailout. What we do know for certain is that the interregnum ended in May 1902 with the voluntary departure of the U.S. military and the declaration of a free and sovereign Cuba.

A quite different, conservative reading of the same events comes to us from Milton Eisenhower, the brother of Dwight D. Eisenhower and a diplomat and educator in his own right. Milton Eisenhower viewed the American intervention as an appropriate response to Spanish imposition of taxes and other restrictions on direct trade in sugar and tobacco between Cuba and the United States. He saw this as parallel to the American pre-Revolutionary War slogan of "no taxation without representation." Indeed, Eisenhower goes so far as to declare Spanish cruelties as "forerunners of Hitler's mass executions in World War II." In this situation, Cuba "seemed a natural ally if not a dependency of ours." While there is a big gap between an ally and a dependent state, and while trade irritants hardly seem sufficient cause for an invasion, it is worthwhile listening to this voice of American rationalism:

For four years following the victory over Spain in 1898, the United States maintained military rule in Cuba. This seemed essential, for the former colonials had had no experience in self-government. Our military control was honorable. Local governments, the courts, and other public agencies were improved. Progress in agriculture, education, health (especially in the campaign to eliminate yellow fever), transportation, trade, and general living standards was noticeable but not notable. There was little if any serious thought given to changing inherited social customs. The Cuban people themselves did not then seek such change. Most of them wanted independence-only large landowners objecting-and they got it, with qualifications in 1902. The limitation on independence was the Platt Amendment to our treaty with Cuba. In the ensuing years of quasi-independence, Cuba suffered the indignity of numerous interventions by the United States, saw most of its own Presidents promise honesty and reform only to fatten their own pockets, lived in fear of slaughter by military and guerrilla leaders, and came to accept betrayal as an inevitable condition of government.

The range of professional opinion across the political spectrum, then, confirms this uneasy sense of ambiguity in Cuban national life. All recognize that the United States served as both colonial master of the Western Hemisphere and also democratic liberator from colonialism. Fernand Braudel sees this duality as a function of the "degree of isolationism that has been a basic feature of the United States." Carl Becker, while bemoaning the less-than-sterling conduct of American intervention, nonetheless sees such behavior in terms of a defense of "democratic institutions to which America was committed" and opposition to "the extension of the European political system [Becker's italics] to this continent." Raymond Aron considers the United States guilty of "a great power policy, even an imperialist policy in the ordinary sense of the term." This classical colonial policy was followed by a more recent policy of benign, or not so benign, neglect of Latin America. Aron goes on to say that "a sense of geography and memories of the past are at the root of these [American] feelings and this behavior." More recently, Henry Kissinger noted that, by the start of the 20th century, "America found itself commanding the sort of power which made it a major international factor, no matter what its preferences." In short, from the Monroe Doctrine to the Platt Amendment, the United States was pursuing a policy of "national interest" and not just "remaining unentangled" in its immediate neighborhood. Each of these statements is a variation on the same contradictory theme: America simultaneously as dictator and liberator.

Clearly, in these two views the moral glass of American power is seen as half empty on the far Left and more than half full on the conservative Right. Perhaps no one caught the spirit of ambiguity more ably than Hubert Herring, who in his great History of Latin America wrote that the Cuban Republic from 1902-34 "was now free-but not free to make her own mistakes." He added philosophically that "a clear lesson on the education of nations, as of children, [is] that none learns to order its life unless granted the privilege of going wrong as well as of going right." Projections of what might have been notwithstanding, it is a fact of history that Cuban independence was granted and not earned. This may be viewed as a bitter fact of island history, or a tribute to a people on a small island navigating colonial forces far larger than itself. What is no less evident is a Cuban Revolution of 1959 that saw itself as settling accounts with the legacy of 1898-1902. Castro's strength is less a function of the authority of Marxism-Leninism as an ideology than of an unrequited nationalism as a mobilization tool.

From the outset, Castro had an image of Cuba as larger than life, certainly larger than the life of the island. From the start, Castro's self-image was that of Simón Bolívar in an era of communism. He sought to bring the future to the entire hemisphere-if not on horseback, like Bolívar, then as a foot soldier in the mountains. Castro was and remains the embodiment of nationalism tinged by a greater, if ultimately counterfeit, internationalism. The fusion of the two was solidified by the ideology of Marxism-Leninism in the form of the tradition of the Comintern-centered in Havana rather than in Moscow. In each decade, from the Tri-continental in the 1960s through a variety of conferences over the next forty years, Castro maintained that his position was properly in the vanguard, not the backwater, of revolutionary consciousness. So while foreign intervention and great-power intrigue pockmarked the history of Cuba from 1898 to 1959, the history of Cuba after 1959 was supposed to turn this around and make Cuba a world political actor-militarily, diplomatically and otherwise (such as through its international medical teams).

This effort has had modest results. On the one side, there was the removal of nuclear warheads from Cuba as a result of a Soviet-American deal, the embarrassment of Cuban troops participating in a losing effort in the Syrian Golan Heights, the humiliating defeat of Cuban troops in Grenada, the routing of the Cuban military presence in Angola and Namibia. These initiatives, aimed at re-inforcing Castro's role in world affairs, failed in frustration and loss of prestige. But on the other hand, Cuba has had a tremendous impact on hemispheric affairs: for example, from the Venezuela of guerrilla Douglas Bravo to the Venezuela of General Hugo Chávez. Castro's impact on the Nicaraguan Left is widely recognized. Alliances have been forged with China for advanced military supplies, replacing those lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Training and arming Palestinians from the PLO forces is ongoing. There is scarcely a dictatorship in the world-from Kim Il Sung's in North Korea to Muammar Qadaffi's in Libya-that has not enjoyed the benefit of Castro's warm embrace. As the late Arthur P. Whitaker predicted as long ago as 1962, "although Cuba's ties with the Communist bloc make it difficult to appraise the difference between the two, Fidelismo is probably a greater potential threat than communism to the interests of the United States in Latin America. This is because Fidelismo expressed so well and for so long the rising Latin American tide of both continental nationalism and populism."

However, what neither Whitaker nor Thomas could have anticipated was that national interests and populism would develop in Central and South America along an autonomous axis different from anything envisioned by Fidel Castro-or, for that matter, by Simón Bolívar. What has actually occurred, to Castro's obvious and public chagrin, is the development of international alliances at the political level, and regional and global market relations that extend far beyond the borders of nations in North or South America. Everything from telephone companies to oil drilling arrangements has changed the old system. Latin America is no longer a decidedly junior partner to North America. It is simply a partner whose size and scope depends upon investment prospects and corporate profits.

What has drastically reduced the significance of Castro as a player in global affairs is not a direct assault on Cuba's shores, but the sheer capacity of nearly every other Latin American nation simply to bypass Cuba on its own road to a new century. Henry Adams' "forces" are indeed at work. While Cuba remains a force to contend with, its xenophobic nationalism has institutionalized an economic backwardness that has in turn created a diplomatic impasse. Cuba is now isolated from the trends sweeping the region. Bolstered by revitalized democracies from Mexico to Brazil, Latin America is undergoing a degree of economic integration unforeseen by the allies of the United States and unnoticed by its enemies. Economic upheaval notwithstanding, the situation in 2002 is profoundly more favorable to the forces of hemispheric democracy than it was in 1961, or for that matter throughout the 1960s and 1970s. This illustrates Fidel's myopia as the century of ambiguity nears its end. Post-Castro Cuba will become part of an extraordinary hemispheric vitalization in which the fabled ogre of U.S. domination is absent. The problem of Cuban nationalism and jealousy for its sovereignty will be bound up in choices concerning hemispheric multilateralism, not obeisance to a new Platt Amendment. The long-term positive future of Cuba is neither utopian nor ideological. Rather, it is normalization in the best sense of politics, and rationalization in the best sense of economics.

Irving Louis Horowitz is University Professor Emeritus and Hannah Arendt Professor of Sociology and Political Science at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. He is the author of Behemoth: The History and Theory of Political Sociology, and editor, with Jaime Suchlicki, of Cuban Communism, now in its tenth edition.

Essay Types: Essay