The unequal US-Cuban power relationship stretches back to the turn of the 20th century.
President Obama’s decision to reopen the US embassy in Havana and to begin easing commercial and travel restrictions continues to be regarded by supporters as the highpoint of Obama’s foreign policy agenda to date. But the move has its fair share of detractors, too. To understand the predominantly Republican opposition to trade liberalization with Cuba, we must look beyond the Cold War. We must look further back into America’s imperial past.
More Than a Cold War Hangover
The Democratic leadership has explained Obama’s sizeable shift in US policy toward Cuba. ‘We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests’, Obama stated. ‘Neither the American nor the Cuban people are well-served by a rigid policy that is rooted in events that took place before most of us were born.’ Nancy Pelosi similarly noted that ‘we must acknowledge our policy towards Cuba is a relic of a bygone era that weakens our leadership in the Americas and has not advanced freedom and prosperity in Cuba.’
Obama and Pelosi should look much farther back than the 1961 Cuban Embargo. The unequal US-Cuban power relationship stretches back to the turn of the 20th century.
Americans may have largely forgotten the first 60 years of US interventions in Cuban affairs – from the late 19th century to the mid-20th – but Cuban memories are longer. When Fidel Castro took power in 1959, his justification for doing so was not in stark cold-war anti-capitalistic terms. Rather, he harkened back to an earlier era of US-Cuban relations and to Cuba’s right to international freedom of trade. In a January 1959 speech, he warned that American diminution of Cuban sovereignty, stretching back to the late 19th century, would no longer be tolerated, and in front of the United Nations in 1960, Castro denounced American economic nationalist policies toward Cuba, declaring that it was an inalienable right that Cuba be allowed to freely ‘sell what it produces’ and to see its exports increase: ‘Only egotistical interests can oppose the universal interest in trade and commercial exchange.’ So when the Eisenhower administration showed itself indisposed toward normalizing US-Cuban relations, Castro turned instead to the other major geopolitical player, the Soviet Union, ‘to sell our products’.
In January 1961, stemming in part from the Cuban-Soviet trade agreement, the United States put in place the now infamous trade embargo against Cuba and severed diplomatic relations. The embargo has since stunted Cuban political and economic growth, and has accordingly served as an easy scapegoat for Fidel and his brother Raúl by allowing them to blame the United States for any and all economic woes befalling Cuba.
Even a cursory look at US trade policies toward other communist states shows how the US embargo against Cuba was – and remains – far more than a Cold War hangover.
Republican Imperialism of Economic Nationalism
In other words, if the embargo were merely an antiquated relic of the Cold War, how do we reconcile the contradiction of American trade liberalization with communist China during the Cold War, but not with Cuba even a quarter century after Cold War’s end? Is it perhaps from political pressure from anti-Castro groups within the United States? Considering that a majority of Cuban-American voters and US business interests would now favor easing political and economic restrictions against Cuba, that line of argument looks increasingly flimsy.
The primary inspiration for the Cuban embargo is something much more emotional and irrational than some outdated fear of communism at America’s backdoor. It is something that reaches back more than a century to America’s imperial past, something ingrained in the American psyche, a collective unconscious support for the nineteenth-century Monroe Doctrine: the self-ordained, unilateral US right to intervene in Western Hemispheric affairs. More specifically, the Cuban embargo is a modern-day manifestation of the Republican party’s longstanding imperialism of economic nationalism.
After the American Civil War, the Republican party stood proudly upon a political economic platform of high protectionism. And by the 19th century’s fin de siècle, it also stood proudly in demanding American colonialism. These two Republican planks – imperialism and economic nationalism – became entwined.
Republican President William McKinley, the ‘Napoleon of Protection’, oversaw the acquisition of a formal American empire following a successful US war against the Spanish in 1898. Newly obtained American colonies now included the Philippines and Puerto Rico, and, more informally, Cuba.
Cuba had been guaranteed ostensible independence from the United States, but the 1901 Platt Amendment allowed the United States ‘the right to intervene’ in Cuban affairs, including through military occupation, throughout the early twentieth century. The Republican administration of Teddy Roosevelt soon thereafter doubled down on undermining Cuban sovereignty through the restrictive 1903 Reciprocity Treaty, which maintained a discounted protective policy toward Cuban exports to protect US sugar growing interests. Following the treaty’s passage, Roosevelt expressed his private delight at the coercive idea of pulling Cuban political-economic strings through Republican-style trade reciprocity.
This despite the fact that Cuban liberals wanted free trade with the United States. In 1902, for example, the Corporaciones Económicas, an influential conglomerate of Cuban creole businessmen, lobbied the US Congress for Cuban-American free trade. Luis V. de Abad, representing Cuban tobacco interests, at the same time was also appealing to Washington for trade liberalization instead of ‘prohibitive’ tobacco duties of over 125 percent, which had left the Cuban worker with ‘less bread and butter in his home’, and more ‘worse off than under Spanish domination’. And Juan Gualberto Gómez, leader of the Cuban Liberal Party, similarly castigated the 1903 Reciprocity Treaty, calling instead for unrestricted free trade with the United States.
But Republican economic nationalist politicians ignored such cosmopolitan Cuban demands. As historian Mary Speck has explored, Republican protectionist unwillingness to grant free trade to Cuba would thereafter culminate in the 1930 Hawley-Smoot Tariff, ushering in a new Cuban ‘era of economic depression and political unrest’.
Cuba’s Century-Long Desire for Free Trade
So when Raúl Castro called for an end to the embargo based on economic and humanitarian grounds in late December, he was therefore just reiterating a century-long Cuban call for free trade with the United States – a call that has for so long fallen on deaf American ears.
From this longer perspective of US-Cuban trade relations, the 1961 Embargo Act marked not the beginning, but the high-water mark of American economic nationalist imperialism towards Cuba.
When Republican politicians today like former Governor Jeb Bush of Florida say liberalizing trade ‘undermines the quest for a free and democratic Cuba’, or when House Leader John Boehner suggests that normalizing relations ‘should not be revisited… until the Cuban people enjoy freedom’, they are in fact undemocratically ignoring a century of Cuban demands for free trade.
Republican opponents of diplomatic normalization and trade liberalization also appear woefully ignorant of the fact that since the Second World War, Democratic and Republican administrations alike have advocated international trade liberalization for the expressed purpose of increasing political and economic freedom throughout the globe, even more so since the end of the Cold War. As Bill Clinton’s National Security Council advisor Anthony Lake put it in 1993: ‘On one side is protectionism and limited foreign engagement; on the other is active American engagement abroad on behalf of democracy and expanded trade.’
Thus, when Florida’s Republican Senator Marco Rubio says ‘this entire policy shift… is based on an illusion, on a lie, the lie and the illusion that more commerce and access to money and goods will translate to political freedom for the Cuban people’, he is reflecting a bygone Republican sentiment that was used to justify American imperialism toward Cuba a century ago: a protectionist sentiment that baldly contradicts the Republican party’s own neoliberal free-market rhetoric that it has espoused in the decades following the Second World War.
Rubio and other Republican detractors of Obama’s Cuban policy must throw away the antiquated remnants of America’s imperial past. Ending the Cuban embargo would be an excellent start.
Dr. Marc-William Palen is a lecturer in imperial history at the University of Exeter, and a research associate in US Foreign Policy at the US Studies Centre, University of Sydney. His forthcoming book with Cambridge University Press is The “Conspiracy” of Free Trade: The Anglo-American Struggle over Empire and Economic Globalization, 1846-1896.