¿Vamos Bien?

Eric Hershberg

  • Cuba in the American Imagination: Metaphor and the Imperial Ethos by Louis Pérez
    North Carolina, 333 pp, £32.95, August 2008, ISBN 978 0 8078 3216 5
  • Cuba in Revolution: A History since the 1950s by Antoni Kapcia
    Reaktion, 208 pp, £15.95, September 2008, ISBN 978 1 86189 402 1

Colin Powell’s service to the cause of regime change wasn’t confined to Iraq. George W. Bush got him to chair his Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, which in 2004 produced a report suggesting ways to undermine the Cuban government and replace it with a system of ‘open market’ capitalism and multi-party elections. Citing the Eastern Bloc as a precedent, the commission proposed a series of initiatives aimed at destabilising Cuba’s ‘totalitarian’ government with a view to ‘rebuilding’ the country’s institutions afterwards. The report even called for the vaccination of children and other basic health services, as if these were not already available to all Cubans, and demanded the restitution of property formerly owned by Cubans living in the US – and if not outright restitution then at least compensation. The report ‘envisioned’ and ‘welcomed’ the contributions of these Cuban Americans to the transformation of Cuba, praising their ‘business acumen and capital’ as well as their ‘entrepreneurial spirit and patriotism’.

The tone and substance of the report can’t have surprised anyone interested in US-Cuba relations: overt and covert plots to subvert the revolutionary regime have been a constant of American policy since Eisenhower. Indeed, the conviction that the United States has a right to dictate what happens in Cuba can be traced as far back as the presidency of John Quincy Adams, when conventional wisdom held that Spain’s dominion over Cuba would inevitably give way to the island’s incorporation into the United States.

‘It’s in the neighbourhood’s interest that Cuba be free,’ Bush said when he introduced the Powell commission’s report. As Louis Pérez notes, American politicians and pundits have been speaking this way since the 1830s. Cuba is a ‘neighbour’, but like any good neighbour it is expected to behave itself and tend its garden properly. Such remarks presuppose a population of children. The objective of American policy, the Powell commission proclaimed, should be to ‘support the Cuban people as they … work to transform themselves’ and to ‘enable the Cuban people to develop a democratic and civic culture … and the values and habits essential to both’. On top of that, Cubans are expected to express their gratitude for American tutelage; indeed, American journalists were appalled by their failure to be grateful when the US intervened in what the Cubans saw as their war of independence from Spain – which Americans christened the ‘Spanish American War’.

Pérez draws on politicians’ speeches, newspaper editorials and comic strips published over the century and a half before the revolution to show that Cubans were consistently represented not as agents of their own destiny but as innocent victims of the diabolical Spaniards. It’s true that not everyone in the US who argued in favour of intervention in Cuba’s war of independence did so in order to advance an imperial project. Spanish rule was brutal, Spanish conduct of the war even more so, and there was often a humanitarian impulse behind the support for intervention. In 1898 the Teller Amendment resiled from any plans to annex the island and supported the idea of an independent Cuba. But as Pérez shows, the amendment was greeted with disdain by the McKinley administration, by many members of Congress and by the media, and was soon replaced by the 1901 Platt Amendment, which authorised the US intervention. Cartoons showed a benevolent Uncle Sam teaching an infant Cuba how to ride a bike: a symbol of ‘freedom and liberty, self-possession and self-control’.

The US military occupation of Cuba began on 1 January 1899, 60 years to the day before Che Guevara led a ragtag band of guerrillas into the streets of Havana. The decades in between saw an ignominious sequence of American interventions and puppet governments, finally brought to an end by a revolution as daring as it was unlikely.

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