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Posts Tagged ‘Barack Obama’

obama-hope-shelter-copy-400x400Nunca antes en la historia de Estados Unidos el legado internacional de un presidente ha enfrentado una amenaza tan inminente como la que se cierne sobre el de Barack Obama como consecuencia de la victoria de Donald Trump. El empresario neoyorquino representa una amenaza directa e inmediata a los logros diplomáticos del primer presidente afro-americano.

A la llegada de Obama a la Casa Blanca en 2009, la imagen internacional de Estados Unidos estaba seriamente dañada tras ocho años de gobierno republicano. La guerra en Afganistán, la invasión de Irak, Guantánamo y las imágenes de Abu Ghraib afectaron negativamente la percepción global de la nación estadounidense. Un estudio del Pew Research Center de diciembre de 2008 revelaba que el 36% de los británicos, 72% de los franceses, 68% de los alemanes, 40% de los brasileños, 51% de los sudafricanos y 84% de los japoneses compartían una imagen negativa de Estados Unidos.[1]  La esperanza de cambio que su elección generó, unida a su inteligencia y capacidad de comunicación, le permitieron a Obama revertir esa situación y convertirse en un presidente muy popular a nivel internacional. Otro estudio del Pew Research Center de junio de 2016 revelaba que el 86% de los alemanes, 84% de franceses y 74% de españoles poseían una visión positiva de Obama.[2] Ese mismo estudio reflejaba una notable mejoría de la imagen de Estados Unidos, pues el 63 % de los franceses, 57% de los alemanes, 56% de los indios y 72% de los japoneses favorecían a la nación estadounidense sobre China. Tan popular es Obama que le echaremos de menos a pesar del uso de drones asesinos, de la ambivalencia ante el golpe de estado en Honduras, del fracaso de la intervención en Libia, de la inacción en Siria, de los $38 millardos de ayuda militar a Israel, etc.

Trump aún no ha puesto en marcha ninguna de sus propuestas  y ya ha sembrado la incertidumbre, la duda, la consternación y la indignación a nivel mundial.  Todo ello a costa de la imagen de Estados Unidos y de su sistema democrático.

Tal vez el mayor logro diplomático de Obama sea el acuerdo con Irán. En una muestra clara del pragmatismo que le ha caracterizado, Obama reconoció que una solución militar al tema del programa nuclear iraní hubiera sido desastrosa, y unió fuerzas con  China, Alemania, Francia, Rusia, el Reino Unido y la Unión Europea en busca de un arreglo diplomático.  A pesar de la oposición visceral del Primer Ministro de Israel Benjamín Netanyahu y sus aliados Republicanos, se logró un tratado que aunque imperfecto, marcó el triunfo de la diplomacia y el primer paso hacia una mejora en las relaciones iraní-estadounidenses en más de treinta años.

Existen razones válidas para pensar que Trump constituye una amenaza contra este tratado, pues le atacó de forma directa durante la campaña electoral. Además, algunos de los miembros de su círculo más cercano y futuros miembros de su administración (Mike Pompeo, John R. Bolton, James Mattis y Rudolph Giuliani) han rechazado abiertamente el tratado y favorecen un cambio de régimen en Irán.

El restablecimiento de relaciones diplomáticas con Cuba es otro de los logros del presidente saliente. Obama reconoció lo anacrónica, errada y solitaria que resultaba  la política estadounidense hacia Cuba,  rechazó el enfrentamiento y apostó a favor de la apertura y el acercamiento como fuerzas de cambio.  Las declaraciones de Trump a  la muerte de Fidel Castro –unido a sus compromisos con los sectores más conservadores de la comunidad cubano-estadounidense– constituyen una amenaza directa a la política de Obama.

Obama entendió y respetó los límites del poder estadounidense en un orden internacional cada vez más complicado. El pragmatismo definió sus prioridades. De ahí que no enfrentara frontalmente a Putin en Ucrania y que mantuviera una posición firme, pero a la vez contenida con relación al mar de la China Meridional. El aislacionismo que ha anunciado Trump podría socavar la credibilidad estadounidense entre sus aliados y generar, además, vacíos de poder que podrían aprovechar sus competidores. Todo ello a costa de una mayor inestabilidad internacional.

Está aun por verse cómo será la política exterior de Donald Trump, pero es claro que el legado de Obama peligra.

 

[1] Pew Research Center, “Global Public Opinion in the Bush Years (2001-2008)”, December 18, 2008, http://www.pewglobal.org/2008/12/18/global-public-opinion-in-the-bush-years-2001-2008/. Consultado 15 de noviembre de 2016.

[2] Pew Research Center, “As Obama Years Draw to Close, President and U.S. Seen Favorably in Europe and Asia”, June 29, 2016, http://www.pewglobal.org/2016/06/29/as-obama-years-draw-to-close-president-and-u-s-seen-favorably-in-europe-and-asia/. Consultado 15 de noviembre de 2016.

(*) Las opiniones vertidas en el presente artículo son de exclusiva responsabilidad del autor y no representan necesariamente las de la Universidad del Pacífico.


Norberto Barreto Velázquez

Lima, 9 de diciembre de 2016


Publicado en Perspectiva Global, blog del  Área de Economía, Negocios y Relaciones Internacionales (AENRI), Universidad del Pacífico, 9 de diciembre de 2016.

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Inside the Crazy Back-Channel Negotiations That Revolutionized Our Relationship With Cuba

Mother Jones    September/October 2015
 Inside the Crazy Back-Channel Negotiations That Revolutionized Our Relationship With Cuba
On a rainy day last December, President Barack Obama gathered a small group of senior officials in the Oval Office and placed a telephone call to Raúl Castro. Sitting on a couch to Obama’s left were National Security Council aides Benjamin Rhodes and Ricardo Zuniga, personal emissaries whose 18 months of secret negotiations were about to culminate in the first substantive conversation between the presidents of the United States and Cuba in more than half a century.

Obama later told reporters that he’d apologized to Castro for talking for such a long time. “Don’t worry about it, Mr. President,” Castro responded. “You’re still a young man and have still the time to break Fidel’s record—he once spoke seven hours straight.” After Castro finished his own lengthy opening statement, Obama joked, “Obviously, it runs in the family.”

Raúl Castro meets with President Obama on the sidelines of the 7th Summit of the Americas in Panama City, Panama in April, 2015. Estudio Revolucion/Xinhua/ZUMA

Despite the levity, both leaders understood the seriousness of their 45-minute conversation. “There was,” one White House official recalled, “a sense of history in that room.”

At noon the next day, the two presidents stunned the world when they simultaneously announced the dramatic breakthrough. Obama repudiated 55 years of US efforts to roll back the Cuban revolution, declaring that peaceful coexistence made more sense than perpetual antagonism. Both leaders described a prisoner exchange that had occurred earlier that morning. For “humanitarian reasons,” Cuba had released Alan Gross, incarcerated since December 2009 for setting up illicit satellite communications networks as part of a US Agency for International Development (USAID) “democracy promotion” program. Cuba also released Rolando Sarraff Trujillo, a CIA spy whom Obama called “one of the most important intelligence agents that the United States has ever had in Cuba.” In return, Obama commuted the sentences of the last three members of the “Cuban Five” spy ring—Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero, and Ramón Labañino—imprisoned for 16 years after they were caught infiltrating anti-Castro Cuban American groups and providing information that (the United States claimed) allowed Cuba to shoot down two planes flown into its airspace by an exile group, killing four Cuban Americans. (The other two members of the Cuban Five had been releasedearlier, having completed their sentences.)

 But the prisoner exchange was only the beginning. Obama promised to loosen restrictions on travel and trade, and authorize telecommunications companies to bring internet services to the island. For its part, Cuba pledged to release 53 political prisoners and engage with the International Red Cross and United Nations on human rights and prison conditions. Most importantly, the two presidents agreed to reestablish diplomatic relations. On July 20, Cuba’s foreign minister, Bruno Rodríguez, traveled to Washington to raise the Cuban flag over the former embassy on 16th Street; on August 14 Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Havana to reopen our embassy in the sleek, modernist structure built for that purpose in 1953.

What brought about this radical change was a unique alignment of political stars: a shift in public opinion, particularly among Cuban Americans; a transition in Cuban leadership from Fidel to Raúl, followed by Cuba’s slow but steady evolution toward a market socialist economy; and Latin American leaders no longer willing to accept Cuba’s exclusion from regional affairs. Seizing the opportunity were a handful of dedicated US legislators, well-financed lobbyists, Alan Gross’ aggressive legal team, an activist pope from Latin America, and a woman hell-bent on getting pregnant.

But one factor trumped the rest: Obama’s determination. He was, one top aiderecalls, “a president who really wanted to do it.”

ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN

Obama’s push to break “the shackles of the past” began shortly after his reelection, when, according to one aide, he “told us we needed to design a play to run with Cuba.” By April 2013, Obama had chosen Rhodes and Zuniga to lead the negotiations. Rhodes had joined Obama’s 2008 campaign as a speechwriter and was personally close to the president. “All it takes is one Google search for these guys to know that Ben speaks to the president, and has daily access, and can be a trusted back channel,” explained a former White House official. Zuniga, meanwhile, had served in the US Interests Section in Havana (the embassy stand-in) and as the State Department’s acting coordinator for Cuban affairs.

Over the next 18 months, the two men met nine times with a small team of Cuban officials in various locales, from Ottawa to Rome. From the start, it was clear that before any discussion of normalizing relations could occur, both countries wanted their imprisoned citizens released.

But US officials believed that such a direct exchange would be politically toxic. Instead, they hoped their growing rapport would convince the Cubans to free Gross. As a show of good faith, they arranged for the wives of Hernández and González to secretly visit them. In exchange, the Cubans permitted Judy Gross regular visits with her husband, held in a military hospital in Havana.

“We thought this would lead to the release of Alan Gross,” one US official recalls. But the Cubans continued to hold out for the swap, even as the parole dates for two of their five spies neared. Eventually US negotiators realized their strategy was doomed. In May 2012, Clinton received a memo from her team that stated: “We have to continue negotiating with the Cubans on the release of Alan Gross but cannot allow his situation to block an advance of bilateral relations…The Cubans are not going to budge. We either deal with the Cuban Five or cordon those two issues off.”

The memo hit at an opportune time. Clinton and Obama had just returnedfrom the Sixth Summit of the Americas, where they’d been chastised by heads of states furious over the US stance on Cuba. “It was clearly an irritant and a drag on our policy in the region,” says Roberta S. Jacobson, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs.

Clinton had previously pushed the White House to liberalize regulations on educational travel to Cuba, finally going directly to the president to bypass White House aides worried about political fallout. In the wake of the summit debacle, she instructed her deputy to assemble what one adviser called “the full monty” of potential actions to change Cuba policy. “I recommended to President Obama that he take another look at our embargo,” Clinton recalls in her memoir. “It wasn’t achieving its goals and it was holding back our broader agenda across Latin America.”

Following his reelection, Obama approached Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry about replacing Clinton as secretary of state—and immediately raised the prospect of a new approach to Cuba. Kerry was receptive. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he’d been a vocal critic of the USAID democracy promotion programs that financed Gross’ secret missions to Cuba. Kerry had also long opposed the US economic embargo, and played a key role in normalizing relations with Vietnam—a triumph he hoped to repeat with Cuba.

Still, when a new round of secret talks began in June 2013, Kerry was not privyto them. Only a handful of US officials knew, among them Vice President Joe Biden, White House chief of staff Denis McDonough, and National Security Advisor Susan Rice. No one at the Pentagon was “read in.” Although Kerry was eventually brought into the loop, “we kept it fairly tight on our side, and the Cubans, I think, did the same on their side,” a senior US official said. “We didn’t want any wrench to be thrown in the gears that could complicate attempts to secure Alan Gross’ release.”

The effort at secrecy was aided by Canada, which allowed the two sides to meet in Ottawa and later Toronto. The Cubans’ top priority was still getting their spies back—particularly Gerardo Hernández, who, as the ringleader of the Cuban Five and the broader crew of spies known as the “Wasp Network,” was serving two life sentences. Zuniga and Rhodes came to the table with a more fluid approach. “We had no fixed vision of what an agreement would be,” recalls a White House official knowledgeable about the talks. Instead, they wanted to “try out different formulas” to explore what could be agreed on. “We never went in thinking there would be a grand bargain.”

But politically the White House was in a tricky spot. If all that came out of the talks was a prisoner exchange and a few travel and trade tweaks, Obama’s initiative would not register as a serious policy change. Lifting the embargowas in Congress’ hands, but restoring diplomatic ties was the one dramatic action he could take unilaterally.


“Look, I wasn’t even born when this policy was put in place,” he told the Cubans. “We want to hear and talk about the future.”


During the first negotiating sessions, the US team had to listen to the Cubans recite the long history of US depredations against the island, starting with the Spanish-American War in 1898. To old hands, it was the requisite throat-clearing to be endured before getting down to real business. But Rhodes had no prior dealings with Cuba and at one point interrupted the diatribe. “Look, I wasn’t even born when this policy was put in place,” he told the Cubans. “We want to hear and talk about the future.”

Historical disagreements were only the beginning. The US team wasn’t willing to talk about the USAID programs or Guantán­amo; the Cubans weren’t willing to discuss human rights or US fugitives hiding in their country. “There were a lot of dry wells for us and for them,” according to a White House official. Both sides were eager to talk about the prisoners, but a straight-up trade—Gross for the three remaining members of the Cuban Five—was still a nonstarter for the White House. The president had said repeatedly that Gross had done nothing wrong, was not a spy, and therefore could not be exchanged for spies. In the administration’s public portrayal of Gross, he was just a development specialist attempting to bring internet access to Cuba’s small Jewish community. To the Cubans, Gross was a covert operative engaged in a program to subvert their government, and the Cuban Five were patriots protecting their country against the far-right zealots of Little Havana.

To break the deadlock, the US negotiators raised the case of Rolando Sarraff Trujillo, who’d been a top CIA mole inside Cuban intelligence until his arrest in the mid-1990s. Sarraff had provided the United States with information that led to the prosecution of many Cuban spies, including Ana Montes, the Defense Intelligence Agency’s top Cuba specialist; State Department employee Walter Kendall Myers and his wife, Gwendolyn; and the Wasp Network—including the Cuban Five.

During negotiations in Toronto in January 2014, the Americans suggested that if the ailing Gross were released on humanitarian grounds, they would swap the three Cuban spies for Sarraff. But the Cubans did not want to give up Sarraff—a double agent they considered so treacherous they’d held him in solitary for 18 years.

Left: Alan Gross greets Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) on Dec. 17, 2014. Right: Gross departs Havana with his wife, Judy Gross, attorney Scott Gilbert, and members of Congress. Lawrence Jackson/White House

Negotiations got even pricklier in May 2014, when the Obama administration announced it was swapping five Taliban leaders held at Guantánamo for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, a US soldier captured and imprisoned by the Taliban since 2009. The political uproar in Congress and the media was intense, especially after Bergdahl was reported to have deserted his post. From the US perspective, this made a similar trade with Cuba completely out of the question. The Cubans, however, figured that since Washington had traded five Taliban combatants for one US soldier, the White House would eventually agree to trade their three spies for Alan Gross.

It took months of negotiations for US diplomats to convince the Cubans that the only exchange the White House could abide would be trading spies for spies, namely the Cuban agents for Sarraff. Finally the Cubans relented, and talks turned to what one US official describes as “a bigger package”—including the restoration of full diplomatic relations.

A TICKING TIME BOMB

In defending the Bergdahl deal, Obama officials cited intelligence indicating his mental and physical health were deteriorating after five years of captivity. They faced a similarly dire situation with Alan Gross. More than four years after being arrested, Gross was despondent over the administration’s inability to obtain his freedom. At one point he lost more than 100 pounds. By December 2013, when the coauthor of this article, Peter Korn­bluh, visited him in the military hospital where he was held, he seemed determined to get out on his own—dead or alive. “I’m a ticking time bomb. Tick. Tick. Tick,” Gross warned during the three-hour visit, in which he alluded to a plan to break down the “flimsy” door of his cell and challenge the heavily armed guards on the other side. A few months later, in April 2014, Gross went on a nine-dayhunger strike. On his 65th birthday on May 2, he announced it would be the last he would spend in a Cuban jail.

When Gross’ terminally ill, 92-year-old mother, Evelyn, took a severe turn for the worse in late May, negotiations became urgent. Meeting in Ottawa in early June, the Cubans pushed for a quick prisoner trade, expressing their fear that Gross would kill himself when his mother passed away. US officials, meanwhile, worried that if Gross died in a Cuban prison, a change in US policy would become politically impossible.

Kerry reached out to Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodríguez and proposed a “furlough” to the United States—Gross would wear an electronic bracelet to allow the Cubans to monitor his movements, and he would return to prison after his mother’s death. “Alan promised unequivocally that he would return to incarceration in Cuba after visiting his mother at the hospital in Texas,” his lawyer Scott Gilbert recalls, “and I offered to take his place until he returned. That is how important this was.”

But the Cubans considered the plan too risky. After Evelyn Gross died on June 18, 2014, Kerry warned Rodrí­guez that if any harm came to Gross while in Cuba’s custody, the opportunity for better relations would be lost.

Left: Alan Gross talks with President Obama onboard a government plane headed back to the United States. Right: Gross arrives at at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. Lawrence Jackson/White House

Gross was in “a difficult state of mind,” Gilbert recalls. As the summer progressed, he refused to meet with officials from the US Interests Section who routinely brought him care packages, and he told his wife and daughter that unless he was released soon, he’d never see them again. His lifeline was Gilbert, who pressed the Cubans to allow him to speak to Gross every day, and who traveled to Cuba 20 times to sustain his client’s morale.

STORK DIPLOMACY

Gross was also taking regular calls from Tim Rieser, a top aide to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). Rieser was instrumental in securing better conditions for Gross in return for one of the more unusual confidence-building measures in the annals of diplomacy—a long-distance effort to impregnate the wife of Gerardo Hernández, the jailed Cuban spymaster.

This idea was first conceived in early 2011, when the head of Cuba’s Interests Section in Washington met with the State Department’s Julissa Reynoso to deliver a diplomatic note stating that Cuba did not see “any solution” to the incarceration of Hernández and that his wife, Adriana Pérez, was nearing the age of 40. Cuba sought US support to “facilitate” her ability to get pregnant.


It was one of the more unusual confidence-building measures in the annals of diplomacy—a long-distance effort to impregnate the wife of Gerardo Hernández, the jailed Cuban spymaster.


After what she calls a “sensitive” meeting on the matter, Reynoso explored the possibility of a secret conjugal visit between Pérez and her husband, but efforts to arrange such a rendezvous “fizzled out” due to Bureau of Prisons regulations. Two years later, in February 2013, Pérez met with Leahy, who was visiting Cuba with his wife, Marcelle. In a Havana hotel room, Pérez made an impassioned appeal to the Leahys to help her find a way to have a child with her husband, who had been in jail for 15 years. “It was an emotional meeting,”Leahy remembers. “She made a personal appeal to Marcelle. She was afraid that she would never have the chance to have a child. As parents and grandparents, we both wanted to try to help her. It was a human thing. It had nothing to do with the politics of the two countries.” But it would.

Leahy asked Rieser to find a solution. A conjugal visit was a nonstarter, but there was precedent for allowing an inmate to provide sperm for artificial insemination. Eventually, Rieser secured approval and the Cubans flew Pérez to a fertility clinic in Panama.

Meanwhile, Rieser was pressing the Cubans to improve the conditions for Gross: “I wanted to make clear to them that we cared about the treatment of their people, just as we expected them to care about the treatment of ours.” The Cubans reciprocated, permitting Gross to be examined by his own doctors, giving him a computer and printer, and allowing him more outdoor exercise.

As Pérez’s pregnancy became obvious, the State Department asked the Cubans to keep her out of the public eye, lest her condition stir speculation that a US-Cuban rapprochement was in the works. “We had given our word to keep the pregnancy and all of the process around it a secret in order not to prejudice the greater objective, which was our freedom,” Hernández later explained. When he landed in Cuba, state television showed him being greeted by Raúl Castro and, to the astonishment of his countrymen, a nine-months-pregnant wife. Three weeks later, on January 6, 2015, their baby girl, Gema Hernández Pérez, was born.

Although Leahy’s “stork diplomacy” contributed to the success of the Cuba-US negotiations, even he was unaware of the secret talks underway. Meanwhile, he served as the unofficial leader of a group of senators and representatives who pressed Obama and his aides for change at every opportunity. “All of us had been pushing the president when we saw him at ceremonial functions for a few seconds—telling him, ‘You’ve got to do something on Cuba,'” recalls Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.).

Leahy decided that to get the attention of the president, a former legal scholar, he’d have to flesh out the legal basis to release the Cuban spies. The senator’s staff collaborated with former White House counsel Greg Craig to draft a 10-page memo of options “to secure Mr. Gross’ release, and in so doing break the logjam and change the course of U.S. policy towards Cuba, which would be widely acclaimed as a major legacy achievement.” The document, dated February 7, laid out a course of action that would prove to be a close match with the final accord. “It was a damn good memo,” Craig says.

Still, it took until May 1 before Leahy, along with Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Reps. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and McGovern, finally met in the Oval Office with Obama, Biden, and Susan Rice. They urged Obama to press for Gross’ release and replace the policy of hostility with one of engagement. “You said you were going to do this,” McGovern reminded the president. “Let’s just do it!”

“We’re working on it,” Obama told them, but he gave no hint of the back-channel diplomacy then well underway.

“There was a bit of tension with the president. We’re pushing him, and he’s pushing back,” McGovern recalls. “We were pretty aggressive.” At the meeting’s end, the members were not very optimistic. “We were not reassured that this was going to happen.”

A NEW NORMAL

Three days earlier, a series of billboards appeared in the Washington Metro stations nearest to the White House and State Department. “Mr. President, it’s time to take action on Cuba policy,” read one. Another declared, “The American people are our best ambassadors. It’s time to allow all persons to travel freely to Cuba.” The ads, which generated significant media buzz, were sponsored by a new advocacy group, #CubaNow, which positioned itself as the voice of the younger, more moderate Cuban American community in Miami.

#CubaNow was the brainchild of the Trimpa Group, an unusual organization that matched deep-pocketed donors seeking to change policy with a political strategy and advocacy campaign. In 2003, for example, founder Ted Trimpa developed a lobbying strategy to mount a marriage-equality movement across the country financed by multimillionaire businessman Tim Gill.

Nine years later, in October 2012, Gill traveled to Cuba on a US-licensed tour with a wealthy friend, Patty Ebrahimi, who was born and raised in Cuba but left with her family a year after Fidel Castro seized power. Ebrahimi chafed under the restrictions of the tour imposed by US Treasury regulations. She couldn’t go off on her own to visit the neighborhoods of her youth, track down family friends, or see her old schools. “The idea that I could go anywhere else in the world, including Vietnam, North Korea, or Iran, without special permission from the US government but couldn’t go to Cuba without a license angered me,” she recalled. As she vented her frustrations to Gill in the lounge of the Saratoga Hotel in Havana, he offered a suggestion: “You should use your money to change the policy.” A few months later, he introduced Ebrahimi to Trimpa.

Gerardo Hernandez with his wife Adriana Perez after the birth of their daughter.

Gerardo Hernández with his wife Adriana Pérez after the birth of their daughter. Estudios Revolucion

After conducting a three-month survey of the political landscape, the Trimpa Group reported that “the highest level of decision makers within the Obama administration” wanted change—they just needed political reinforcement to push for it. After consulting with her husband, Fred, the former CEO and owner of Quark Software Inc., Patty gave the lobby shop $1 million to finance a campaign to embolden the White House.

“My decision to take up this work was an emotional one,” she later said. “We did it because we wanted to help,” Fred Ebrahimi noted. “We did it because we thought we could be effective.”

The Trimpa Group pulled out all the stops. It counseled Ebrahimi to make donations to key political figures such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Durbin—donations intended to gain access and “be in the room,” according to Trimpa’s strategic plan. The lobby shop hired Luis Miranda, who had recently left his position as Obama’s director of Hispanic media, and sought the blessing of Jim Messina, Obama’s deputy chief of staff, to launch a public campaign promoting a change in Cuba policy. The Trimpa team also met with key foreign policy officials. To all the players, the Trimpa Group insisted that there would be no political blowback for Democrats in Florida if Obama changed Cuba policy. To bolster that argument, they financed a series of opinion polls. One, conducted by an Obama pollster, John Anzalone, found that Cuban Americans in Florida—especially the younger generation—favored engagement. And the Atlantic Council conducted a national poll sponsored by Trimpa that found, as a New York Times headline would put it, that a “Majority of Americans Favor Ties With Cuba.”

The polls were intended to “show broad support for change,” “create a new normal,” and “give voice to the silent majority,” says James Williams, the political operative who oversaw the Trimpa Group’s efforts.

Williams also had the support of groups key to the Cuba debate, ranging from funding powerhouses (like Atlantic Philanthropies, the Ford Foundation, and the Christopher Reynolds Foundation) to policy shops (the Washington Office on Latin America, the Center for Democracy in the Americas, and the Latin America Working Group) to elite think tanks (Brookings and the Council of the Americas).

On May 19, 2014, this coalition released an open letter to Obama signed by 46 luminaries of the policy and business world, urging the president to engage with Cuba. The signatories included former diplomats and retired military officers—among them former UN Ambassador Thomas Pickering—and Cuban American business leaders like Andres Fanjul, co-owner of a Florida-based multinational sugar company. But the name that attracted the most attention was John Negroponte, George W. Bush’s director of national intelligence.

The same day, not coincidentally, the conservative US Chamber of Commerce announced that its president, Tom Donohue, would lead a delegation to Cuba to “develop a better understanding of the country’s current economic environment and the state of its private sector.”

Soon after that, the New York Times launched a two-month editorial series slugged “Cuba: A New Start.” The weekly editorials were the work of Ernesto Londoño, who talked to administration officials, Leahy’s office, and the Trimpa Group. “There was really no collusion or formal cooperation in what they were doing and what we were doing,” he told Terry Gross on Fresh Air. The Times simply saw an opportunity to push the policy it advocated forward. “We figured it was worthwhile to give it a shot.”

All these forces, in other words, were marshaled to push Obama through a door whose threshold he had already crossed.

DIVINE INTERVENTION

And let’s not forget the pope.

Even as the secret negotiations continued, members of Congress kept looking for allies to press Obama on Cuba, and provide him cover from attacks from the right. In a September 2013 meeting at Rice’s office, Durbin floated a new idea: What about getting the new pope involved? As the first pontiff from Latin America, Francis knew Cuba well. After accompanying Pope John Paul II on his 1998 visit to the island, Francis—then the assistant archbishop of Buenos Aires—had written a short book about the trip, Dialogues Between John Paul II and Fidel Castro. And the Vatican had credibility with Havana because of its consistent opposition to the embargo.

Raul Castro talks with Pope Francis

Pope Francis talks with Cuban President Raúl Castro during a private audience at the Vatican May 10, 2015. Gregorio Borgia/Pool/Reuters

All parties saw the wisdom of divine intervention. Leahy sent a confidential message to Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega, asking him to encourage the pope to help resolve the prisoner issue. Drawing on the close ties between Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, and Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, the White House also “got word to the Vatican that the president was eager to discuss this” at an upcoming meeting in March with the pope in Rome, according to Craig. And at a strategy meeting of the Cuba advocacy groups, Tim Phillips of the peace group Beyond Conflict suggested approaching Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston. “We knew that O’Malley was very close to the pope,” recalled Craig, who had ties to the Catholic Church hierarchy in Boston from his days as a foreign policy aide to Sen. Ted Kennedy. “O’Malley had spent time in Latin America, spoke Spanish fluently, had known the pope before he became pope, and had a relationship with the pope that was unusual, certainly much, much better than McCarrick’s.”

In early March 2014, a small group of Cuba policy advocates, including representatives of the Trimpa Group, Phillips, and Craig, met with Cardinal O’Malley in the rectory of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston. “We explained the recent trends, the conversations with POTUS and others in the administration and Congress,” Phillips recalls, “and indicated this was a historic moment, and a message from the pope to POTUS would be significant in moving the process forward.” Craig brought a letter from Leahy urging the cardinal to focus the pope’s attention on the “humanitarian issue” of the prisoner exchange. Leahy personally delivered a similar message to Cardinal McCarrick, and arranged for yet another to be sent to Cardinal Ortega in Havana. There now were three cardinals urging the pope—as yet unaware of the secret dialogue between Washington and Havana—to put Cuba on the agenda with Obama.

Three weeks later, Obama met the pope in his private library, a marble-floored chamber overlooking St. Peter’s Square. There, they spoke for an hour under a frieze of Renaissance frescoes. Obama “told the pope that we had something going with Cuba and said it would be useful if he could play a role,” according to a White House official familiar with the meeting. A few days later, Francis summoned Ortega to enlist his help.

Over the summer, the pope wrote forceful, confidential letters to Obama and Raúl Castro, imploring the two leaders “to resolve humanitarian questions of common interest, including the situation of certain prisoners, in order to initiate a new phase in relations.” To safeguard his communications, the pope sent both letters via papal courier to Havana—with instructions to Cardinal Ortega to personally deliver the message into the president’s hands. Ortega then sent his top aide to Washington to advance his clandestine diplomatic mission. But arranging a secret face-to-face meeting with the president of the United States was easier said than done. Alerted to the problem, Cardinal McCarrick conferred with White House officials, who enlisted his help as a secret back-channel go-between. In early August, McCarrick traveled to Cuba carrying a note from Obama that asked Ortega to entrust McCarrick with delivering the pope’s letter to the White House. But Ortega’s papal instructions were to deliver the message himself. McCarrick left Cuba empty-handed.


To make sure the meeting did not leak, US officials kept Cardinal Ortega’s name off of the White House visitor logs. Meeting with the president on the patio adjacent to the Rose Garden, Ortega delivered the pope’s letter in which Francis offered to “help in any way.”


Back in Washington, McCarrick worked with McDonough to arrange a secret meeting for Ortega with the president. On the morning of August 18, Ortega gave a talk at Georgetown University—providing a cover story for his presence in Washington—and then quietly went to the White House. (To make sure the meeting did not leak, US officials kept Ortega’s name off the White House visitor logs.) Meeting with the president on the patio adjacent to the Rose Garden, Ortega finally completed his mission of delivering the pope’s sensitive communication, in which he offered to “help in any way.”

It was a convoluted process, but an unprecedented gesture. “We haven’t received communications like this from the pope that I’m aware of other than this instance,” a senior US official recalls. “And that gave, I think, greater impetus and momentum for us to move forward.”

OPEN TO CHANGE?

By late October, the pope had invited the negotiators to Rome. “It was less a matter of breaking some substantive logjam but more the confidence of having an external party we could rely on,” says a senior US official.

It was at the Vatican that the two sides hammered out their final agreement on the prisoner exchange and restoring diplomatic relations. Rhodes and Zuniga also noted Obama’s intention to ease regulations on travel and trade, and to allow US telecom companies to help Cuban state enterprises expand internet access. They acknowledged these initiatives were aimed at fostering greater openness in Cuba, though they delivered this message respectfully. Cuban officials said that while they had no intention of changing their political system to suit the United States, they had reviewed the Americans’ list of prisoners jailed for political activities and would release 53 of them as a goodwill gesture. The pope agreed to act as guarantor of the final accord.

Obama’s National Security Council met on November 6 to sign off on the details. Later that month, the negotiating teams convened one last time in Canada to arrange the logistics of the prisoner exchange.

On December 12, Zuniga called Alan Gross’ wife, Judy, to the Executive Office Building to tell her the good news. Four days later, on the eve of Hanukkah, Scott Gilbert called his client to tell him he’d soon be a free man. “I’ll believe it when I see it,” Gross replied.

He didn’t have to wait long: Early the next morning Gross was taken from his prison cell in Havana to a small military airport, where he was met by his wife, his attorney, and members of Congress who had worked to win his release. The prisoner exchange was choreographed so carefully that the blue and white presidential plane sent to bring Gross home was not cleared to depart Havana until the plane carrying the three Cuban spies touched down on a nearby runway.

Once in the air, Gross was given some of his favorite foods—popcorn and corned beef on rye—and took a call from Obama. After clearing Cuban airspace, he called his daughters to tell them simply, “I’m free.”

Obama called on Congress to rescind the embargo—a policy, as he said, “long past its expiration date.” But with Republican majorities in both houses and a presidential election in the offing, getting Congress to end the sanctions looks to be a lot harder than reaching an agreement with Havana. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who has led the Republican tirades against the deal, says thepresident gave the Cuban government “everything it asked for” and got nothing in return. “I am committed to unravel as many of these changes as possible,” he added.

While Rubio and the rest of the old-guard anti-Cuba lobby fume, the process of normalization is moving forward. Obama officially removed Cuba from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, and US and Cuban flags fly over the newly reestablished embassies in Havana and Washington.

But maybe the most symbolic moment came at the Seventh Summit of the Americas in April, when Obama and Castro met privately in person for the first time and reaffirmed their commitment to normalize relations. Although Castro prefaced his speech before the assembly with a 50-minute litany of US transgressions against Cuba, at the end his tone changed to conciliation and even warmth. “I have told President Obama that I get very emotional talking about the revolution. I apologize to him because President Obama had no responsibility for this,” Castro said, noting that nine other US presidents could have reached out to Cuba and didn’t. “In my opinion, President Obama is an honest man. I have read his autobiographies and I admire him and his life and think his behavior comes from his humble background. There, I said it.”

Obama chose not to revisit old bitterness: “America never makes a claim about being perfect. We do make a claim about being open to change. The United States will not be imprisoned by the past. We’re looking to the future.”

This article is adapted from the new, updated edition of the authors’ book, Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana, to be published in October, ©2015 University of North Carolina Press.

It was a touchy subject, but one we learned had already been broached following the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, which led to unprecedented US-Cuban cooperation on disaster relief. Over the next two years, two top State Department officials—Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Julissa Reynoso—secretly negotiated with Cuban officials in Creole restaurants in Port-au-Prince, subterranean bars on Manhattan’s East Side, and a hotel lounge in Santo Domingo. US officials focused on freeing Gross, while the Cubans requested that the wives of Cuban spies Hernández and René González be allowed to visit their husbands in jail. (These women’s visas had previously been denied because they too were suspected of being covert agents.) The Cuban position “started with ‘Treat our guys better,'” says a US official with knowledge of the talks, and evolved into “‘We want them all home.'” By September 2011, the Cubans had explicitly proposed swapping the Cuban Five for Alan Gross.“JUST DO IT!”At noon, Obama announced the deal with Cuba to the nation: “We will end an outdated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests. Neither the American nor Cuban people are well served by a rigid policy that is rooted in events that took place before most of us were born.” Raúl Castro was more restrained, focusing on the return of the three Cuban “heroes.” Normalization of diplomatic relations received just a single sentence, followed immediately by a reminder that the embargo —”the heart of the matter”—remained in place.

PETER KORNBLUH

Director, Cuba Documentation Project

Peter Kornbluh directs the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive in Washington, DC. He is co-author of Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana.

WILLIAM LEOGRANDE

Professor of Government

William LeoGrande is a professor of government and a specialist in Latin American politics and US foreign policy toward Latin America. He has written five books, including Our Own Backyard: The United States in Central America, 1977-1992. Most recently, he is coauthor of Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana.

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We Know Why Obama Changed US Policy Toward Cuba. But Why Did Cuba Change Its Policy Toward the US? 

HNN  July 21, 2015

The restoration of U.S. and Cuban diplomatic ties is quite an event, particularly given the hostility that defined relations between the two countries for so long. President Obama’s decision to re-open an embassy in Havana and Raul Castro’s agreement to do the same in Washington continues the thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations. The steps taken by both countries have generated much publicity over the past few months. Numerous U.S. media outlets have produced stories on the implications for Obama’s legacy and the potential fallout for 2016 presidential candidates. As usual Washington politicians and pundits have focused their attention on the reasons for the U.S. shift. Yet, it is not President Obama’s decision to seek a normalization that warrants the most attention, but rather the Castro government’s reasoning behind their determination to chart a new course in U.S.-Cuban relations. In fact, much more can be learned from concentrating instead on what is behind the Cuban leadership’s thinking.

Havana’s recent decisions are deeply rooted in what can best be termed as Cuba’s “revolutionary pragmatism.” Though the Castro government continually speaks the language of revolutionary change, it also has also taken a sensible view to foreign policy matters when necessary. Such an approach has guided Cuban engagement with the world from the 1960s to the present.

“Revolutionary pragmatism” traces back to the very beginning of the Castro regime. In the years immediately following the Cuban Revolution, for example, a top issue in US-Cuban relations included Fidel Castro’s support for anti-US guerilla movements throughout Latin America. Castro repeatedly challenged Latin Americans and others around the world to stand up to the United States. He famously declared in 1962 that it was “the duty of every revolutionary to make the revolution. In America and the world, it is known that the revolution will be victorious, but it is improper revolutionary behavior to sit at one’s doorstep waiting for the corpse of imperialism to pass by.”

Yet, privately, Castro proved willing to develop a foreign policy based on practical considerations. On a recent research trip to Cuba I gained access to the Foreign Ministry Archive in Havana and was surprised at what I found. Many detailed reports from the early 1960s discussed the prospects for revolution in Central and South America, but concluded that conditions were not ripe in many nations for radical change. This reality led to a more pragmatic position being taken by leaders in Havana as they approached Latin America.

The most documented aid came in the form of training young Latin Americans in guerilla tactics who traveled to Cuba. As historian Piero Gliejeses’s excellent studies demonstrate, Castro turned his attention to Africa as early as 1964. Havana’s decision to abandon any large-scale support for revolutionary groups in Latin America was not made due to a lack of enthusiasm for challenging Washington’s traditional sphere of influence, but owed instead to practical considerations.

Similarly, in the 1980s when the Sandinista triumph in Nicaragua offered Havana an ally in Latin America, Castro held to “revolutionary pragmatism.” He counseled Daniel Ortega not to antagonize elite economic interests too much. On a visit to Managua, Castro even declared that allowing some capitalism in the Nicaraguan economy did not violate revolutionary principles. He bluntly told Nicaraguan leaders that they did not have to follow the path taken by Cuba, “Each revolution is different from the others.”

Perhaps the greatest illustration of Cuban flexibility was the Castro regime’s response to the collapse of the Soviet Union. In June 1990, after receiving word that aid from Moscow would no longer flow to Havana, Fidel Castro announced a national emergency. He called his initiative “the Special Period in Peacetime.” Cuba welcomed foreign investment, tourism, the U.S. dollar, and allowed small-scale private businesses. While many prognosticators predicated a complete collapse of the Castro regime, the revolutionary government endured due to its ability to adapt.

Thus, recent developments must be viewed within their proper historical context. As it has in the past, Castro’s regime is pursuing “revolutionary pragmatism.”

The impetus for changes in Cuba’s approach owes to several reasons. First, since the death of Hugo Chávez in 2013 Venezuela has become a questionable economic ally. Political instability coupled with a crumbling economy has likely caused Havana to view a key economic patron in Caracas as increasingly unreliable. A complete breakdown of order in Venezuela would greatly affect the Cuban economy in a negative way. Thus, a better economic relationship with the United States is one way of protecting the island from a changing relationship with Venezuela.

Other reasons for Cuba’s rapprochement with the United States owe to domestic concerns. Since taking power in 2008, Raul Castro has been open to reforms in an attempt to make socialism work for the twenty-first century. Over the last few years the Cuban government has relaxed controls over certain sectors of the economy, but reforms have been slow and halting. Anyone who has spent time in Havana cannot help but notice the aging infrastructure and inefficient public transportation system. A key to any reform agenda is attracting foreign investment, and the United States stands as an attractive partner.

Furthermore, as Raul is poised to step down from power in 2018, Cuba is starting to make preparations for a successful turnover. An improving relationship with Washington may help his likely successor, Miguel Díaz-Canel, better navigate the transfer. In sum, at this point and time, normalization of U.S.-Cuban relations serves Havana’s best interests.

It remains to be seen just how far the Cuban government will go regarding changes in policy. Going back to 2010, Raul Castro declared during a national address that “we reform, or we sink.” His recent push for renewed relations with the United States will likely create an influx of U.S. tourists and more capital from American businesses. In turn, this could place Cuba down the path of other communist nations who embraced elements of capitalism, China and Vietnam notably. Just how far Raul will go with his reform agenda remains to be seen.

Ultimately, a U.S.-Cuban thaw is a positive step. Antagonism between the two countries serves no one, especially the Cuban people. Yet, we should not see the recent shifts as merely Washington changing course. The steps taken by Havana are equally important and should be viewed as part of a long history of shrewd diplomacy. While Cuban foreign policy has traditionally been revolutionary in rhetoric, it has proven once again to be pragmatic in practice.

Matt Jacobs received his PhD in History from Ohio University in 2015. This fall he will be a Visiting Assistant Professor of Intelligence Studies and Global Affairs at Embry-Riddle’s College of Security and Intelligence. He has conducted research at the Cuban National Archive and the Cuban Foreign Ministry Archive, both in Havana.

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President Obama, the National Prayer Breakfast, and Slavery
HNN   February 9, 2015

The controversy over President Obama’s remarks at last week’s National Prayer Breakfast is a strange one. Noting the horrors carried out by the so-called Islamic State and others around the globe claiming to be acting in the name of Islam, the President asserted that American Christians might want to reflect with some humility upon their own past before they condemn an entire faith based on the actions of its most twisted adherents. After all, he observed, “slavery and Jim Crow all too often was [sic] justified in the name of Christ.” The speech enraged former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore, who claimed Obama’s comments were “the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime.” Somewhat less heatedly, Richard Moore, the president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, took issue with Obama’s historical characterization, insisting that “the evil actions that he mentioned were clearly outside the moral parameters of Christianity itself and were met with overwhelming moral opposition from Christians.”

It is hardly unusual for President Obama to elicit criticism, of course, but the criticisms in this instance are particularly odd because, as a matter of history, the contention he put forth at the National Prayer Breakfast is so obviously true. With regard to the defense of slavery especially, Christian justifications for the institution were so ubiquitous in the American South before the Civil War that the only real challenge is in listing their variations. Slavery’s defenders routinely turned to the Old Testament and observed that the Hebrew patriarchs were all slaveholders and that the laws of the ancient Israelites were rife with rules about slaveholding. Looking to the New Testament, they pointed out that Christ himself never condemned slavery, took comfort from the Epistle to Philemon in which Paul urged the enslaved fugitive Onesimus to return to his master, and regularly cited verses commanding that slaves be obedient and submissive. Some defenders made a case for the notion that people of African descent were the lineage of Noah’s son Ham condemned by God to be eternal servants and thus a divinely sanctioned enslaved race, and others argued that slaveholding was part of white southerners’ religious duty to bring Christianity to African heathens.

So vital was Christianity to the southern defense of slavery that some historians have estimated that ministers penned roughly half of all proslavery literature in the decades after 1830, though it was hardly only ministers like Baptist leader Richard Furman who one might have heard state that “the right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures.” Secular politicians drew upon such arguments as well. Jefferson Davis, for example, claimed that slavery “was established by decree of Almighty God” and was “sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation,” while his contemporary, South Carolina Senator James Henry Hammond, blasted opponents of slavery by arguing that “the doom of Ham has been branded on the form and features of his African descendants” and that “man cannot separate what God hath joined.”

It is no less the case that the worldview of many abolitionists was deeply shaped by Christianity as well, and that a significant number of them saw their activities on behalf of the enslaved as their moral responsibility as Christians. Their liberationist faith, however, was not nearly so widely embraced in the public sphere. The dozens of instances of antislavery activists in the North and the South being shouted down, warned out, fired, assaulted, attacked by mobs, and occasionally murdered amply demonstrate this, put the lie to Richard Moore’s belief that Christianity served more as weapon against slavery than it did its greatest shield, and bolster President Obama’s fundamental point that any religion is susceptible to being used for good and evil alike. Mr. Moore, in fact, ought to know this better than most people. The Southern Baptist Convention, after all, was in its origins an explicitly pro-slavery denomination. It only exists in the first place because Baptists in slaveholding states insisted upon the allowance of slaveholding missionaries and broke away from their northern brethren in 1845 rather than accept a restriction on or judgment of their “property rights.” That the SBC has since apologized for and repudiated its historical relationship to slavery is surely something supported by Mr. Moore. That it took until 1995 for it to do so may recommend his reconsideration of how “clearly outside the moral parameters of Christianity” slavery was in the United States.

Joshua D. Rothman is Professor of History and Director of the Frances S. Summersell Center for the Study of the South at the University of Alabama. He is the author, most recently, of “Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson” (2012), and is currently working on a book about the slave traders Isaac Franklin, John Armfield, and Rice Ballard.  This article was first published at www.werehistory.org: serious history for regular people

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Deconstructing ‘Uncle Tom’ Abroad: The Case of an American President

Figure 1. ‘Onkel Barack’s Hütte’, Die Tageszeitung, June 5, 2008.

Figure 1. ‘Onkel Barack’s Hütte’, Die Tageszeitung, June 5, 2008.

In 2008, when Barack Obama was selected as the Democratic presidential candidate over Hilary Clinton, a German leftist newspaper headlined an article ‘Onkel Barack’s Hütte’ – ‘Uncle Barack’s Cabin’ – accompanied by a picture of the White House (see Figure 1).  This witticism was based on an historical allusion to Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly (1852), by Harriet Beecher Stowe – a nineteenth-century antislavery novel and popular culture phenomenon.  Following the story of Uncle Tom, an African American slave sold by his master to settle debts, the novel unapologetically brought the controversial issue of slavery to the forefront of the American psyche.  The character of Uncle Tom experiences the benevolent paternalism and cruel exploitation of chattel slavery, and eventually dies at the hands of a malicious master.  What does it mean for a twenty-first century presidential candidate, who became the 44th President of the United States, to be described in such terms?  The rhetorical implications of this epithet demonstrate how media and popular culture shape ideas about history, race, and politics, even beyond the United States.

A tension exists between the use of such epithets and the enthusiasm with which the first African American president was greeted in the United States and internationally.  And yet this belies the historical significance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and its ongoing ability to shape discourses about American race relations.  ‘Uncle Tom’ has been understood as a pejorative term since the mid-twentieth century.  Die Tageszeitung’s article has been described as ‘satirical’, but the historical meaning of ‘Uncle Tom’ is so racially loaded that it cannot be so easily relegated to the realm of satire.[i]  Martin Luther King, Jr., Clarence Thomas, and Colin Powell have likewise been referred to as ‘Uncle Tom’, and so this has become ‘the standard epithet for any black man who serves whites and does not carry a gun.’[ii]  When Palestinian journalist Abdel Bari Atwan repeated the ‘Uncle Tom’ epithet to describe Obama in 2013, he chose not to attack a policy or political statement, but to denounce the president with an offensive racial slur.[iii]

It is therefore worth considering why the ‘Uncle Tom’ epithet has, in recent years, been mobilised internationally.  The answer can be found in Uncle Tom’s Cabin itself, a novel which exemplified the possibilities surrounding nineteenth-century mass culture.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin emerged at the height of the antislavery movement and had profound impact on American society.  It was first serialised in The National Era from June 1851, the subscriptions of which spiked from 17,000 to 28,000 over the course of its 40 week run.  When published as a novel in 1852, over 300,000 copies were initially sold; since then, over 200 editions of the novel have been printed.  When President Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, he is rumoured to have said, ‘So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!’  This anecdote encapsulates the influence of Stowe’s narrative in nineteenth-century America.[iv]

Figure 2. Courier Litho. Co., c.1899. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Figure 1. ‘Onkel Barack’s Hütte’, Die Tageszeitung, June 5, 2008.

Subsequently the novel became one of the first examples of the mass circulation of popular culture.  Its various adaptations, including children’s pedagogical texts, songs, and sheet music, were soon distributed both nationally and internationally.  Uncle Tom’s Cabin instigated a new approach to merchandising souvenirs, from toy figurines to candles, based upon the story’s leading characters.[v]  These translations mythologised key scenes and characters from the original novel, bringing them to mass audiences in the United States, then England, and by 1853 in Europe and beyond.  Following the Civil War, blackface minstrelsy theatrical companies toured the United States and throughout the world, including Australia.[vi]

Figure 3. Courier Litho. Co., c.1899.  Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Figure 3. Courier Litho. Co., c.1899. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

From the outset, the circulation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin meant it became a lens through which race in America was understood internationally.  Stowe may have been the ‘head of the school’ of the ‘literature of social change’, but, much like her abolitionist contemporaries, she perpetuated ideas about black inferiority.[vii]  Yet unlike her contemporaries, Stowe gained a much wider platform upon which to disseminate negative racial stereotypes (see Figure 2).  Historians describe how Stowe relied on stereotypes to depict her African American characters: Uncle Tom was the faithful and martyred slave; Eliza and Cassie were ‘tragic mulattas’; Topsy, an enslaved child, represented the ‘coon’ stereotype (see Figure 3); Aunt Chloe and Dinah were the embodiment of the mammy archetype; and Sambo and Quimbo were depicted in terms of the ‘brutal black buck’, or the depraved and over-sexualised African male.[viii]  Ever since, references to ‘Uncle Tom’ have implied a gentle, forgiving, and passive individual; in short, not the makings of an American president.

The popularity of the novel continued long after the Civil War.  The novel’s already problematic representation of race proliferated in the nineteenth-century adaptations that relied on blackface minstrelsy, and the narrative sometimes underwent so much alteration that its original antislavery themes became obfuscated.[ix]  It later became one of the most frequently filmed stories of the silent film era.  Early adaptations cast white actors in burnt-cork blackface to portray the enslaved, but with the decline of blackface minstrelsy, later adaptations cast African American actors.  Its continued influence was accompanied by ever-changing narrative meanings, which did not always have a clear antislavery message.  More recent adaptations include the German language film Onkel Toms Hütte (1965) – which gives specific context for the 2008 Die Tageszeitung reference – and a lacklustre American television series of 1987.  Many such adaptations have been criticised for ‘Tomming’, wherein black characters remain subservient to white characters, thus appealing to the ‘repressions and fantasies’ associated with a vision of racial hierarchy and race relations that continues in contemporary America.[x]

For Jim O’Loughlin, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a popular artefact through which changing concerns about race and nationhood can be understood, because it served as an ‘agent of cultural change for almost one hundred years.’[xi]  Since this novel and its adaptations became one of the early examples for the mass circulation of popular culture, this is almost as true internationally as it is in the United States.  But the process whereby Uncle Tom’s Cabin was brought to international audiences meant its racist stereotypes were not necessarily accompanied by the original novel’s redeeming feature – its antislavery message.  The international cultural memory of American history presented Uncle Tom’s Cabin continues to rely on such stereotypes, which are damaging because of their clichéd contemporary familiarity.

A sense of disconnect therefore exists between the historical evaluation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the contemporary willingness to use ‘Uncle Tom’ as a politicised rhetorical device.  A historical lens enables readers to at once understand the novel as a flawed product of its time and an important agent of social change.  Stowe’s personal commitment to antislavery went hand in hand with the dissemination of racist stereotypes that were nonetheless common in nineteenth-century America, but the contemporary reiteration of such stereotypes in America and abroad is not an innocuous mistake.  History is intrinsic to making any meaning of the phrase ‘Uncle Tom’, so those who mobilise it understand its racist legacy.  This does not overlook the historical foundations of such epithets, but in fact shows a willingness to mobilise a history of chattel slavery and racial hierarchy for political gain.

As David S. Reynolds writes, ‘We may hope for a time when America is, in President Barack Obama’s phrase, “beyond race,” when we can erase the negative usage of Uncle Tom because it is inapplicable to social reality.’  Yet Obama himself perhaps most prominently continues to experience the legacy of nineteenth-century popular culture in a way that debunks the myth of a post-racial America.  The recent Sony hacks, where executives speculated over whether Obama would like films such as Django Unchained (2012) and 12 Years a Slave (2013), the latter based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 slave narrative of the same name, show how history and popular culture are very much linked to the expression of racism in America.[xii]  The Uncle Tom’s Cabin phenomenon, the success of which was intrinsically linked to the expansion of mass culture across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, demonstrates the degree to which national prejudices can be naturalised, rather than critiqued, through international circulation.  When transported beyond the United States, the racism within American popular culture has subsequently been used to undermine a president beyond American borders.  Uncle Tom’s Cabin remains at the locus of the referential network upon which this political rhetoric continues to be built.


Footnotes

[i] Carolyn E. Price, ‘A German Take on Obama’s Win: Onkel Barack’s Hütte, or Uncle Barack’s Cabin,’ Digital Journal: Politics, (2008) http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/255969.

[ii] Hollie Robbins, ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Matter of Influence,’ The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History: AP US History Study Guide, 2014, http://ap.gilderlehrman.org/essays/uncle-tom%C3%A2%E2%82%AC%E2%84%A2s-cabin-and-matter-influence.

[iii] Media Hawk, ‘Palestinian “Journalist” Calls Obama “Uncle Tom”,’ The Commentator, March 26, 2013, http://www.thecommentator.com/article/3047/palestinian_journalist_calls_obama_uncle_tom.

[iv] Claire Parfait, The Publishing History of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1852-2002 (Hampshire: Ashgate, 2007), 17-21 and 211-40; Daniel R. Vollaro, ‘Lincoln, Stowe, and the ‘Little Woman/Great War’ Story: The Making, and Breaking, of a Great American Anecdote,’ Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association (2009): 18-34.

[v] Thomas F. Gossett, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1985), 164-5.

[vi] Marcus Wood, Blind Memory: Visual representations of slavery in England and America 1780-1865 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), 146; Sarah Meer, Uncle Tom Mania: Slavery, Minstrelsy, and Transatlantic Culture in the 1850s (Atlanta: University of Georgia Press, 2005), Chapter Two: ‘Minstrel Variations: Uncle Toms in the Minstrel Show’; Melissa Bellanta, ‘Uncle Tom in the White Pacific: African-American Performances of the ‘Slave Sublime’ in Late-Colonial Australasia,’ Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History 15, no. 3 (2014).

[vii] Carolyn L. Karcher, ‘Stowe and the literature of social change,’ in The Cambridge Companion to Harriet Beecher Stowe, ed. Cindy Weinstein, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 203.

[viii] Donald Bogle, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films(New York: The Viking Press, 1973), 3-18; George M. Fredrickson, The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817-1914 (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1971), Chapter Four: ‘Uncle Tom and the Anglo-Saxons: Romantic Racialism in the North.’

[ix] Edward Mapp, Blacks in American Films: Today and Yesterday (Metuchen: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1972), 17; Peter Noble, The Negro in Films (New York: Arno Press & The New York Times, 1970), 31.

[x] Stephen Railton, ‘Readapting Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction on Screen, ed. R. Barton Palmer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 73-74.

[xi] Jim O’Loughlin, ‘Articulating “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”,’ New Literary History 31, no. 3 (2000): 574.

[xii] David S. Reynolds, Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America (New York: W.W. Norton, 2011), 273; Esther Lee, ‘Sony Hack: Scott Rudin, Amy Pascal Made Racist President Obama Jokes in Leaked Emails, Apologize for Insensitive Remarks,’ US Weekly, December 11, 2014, http://www.usmagazine.com/celebrity-news/news/sony-hack-scott-rudin-amy-pascal-joked-about-president-obamas-race-20141112.

Ana Stevenson

s200_ana.stevenson Stevenson is a PhD Candidate (History) at The University of Queensland, Australia.Her honours thesis looked at the historical significance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and Gone with the Wind (1936), and her research interests revolve around women’s history, the rhetoric of American social movements, and transnational feminism(s).Ana is on the Lilith Editorial Collective, which produces the Australian Women’s History Network’s Lilith: A Feminist History Journal.Currently, Ana is a Visiting Scholar in the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Program at the University of Pittsburgh.

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 The Cold War and the Origins of US Democracy Promotion

Robert Pee

U.S. Studies Online   Forum for New Writing

May 8, 2014

Soft power is the power to influence foreign governments, foreign publics, and world public opinion through the non-forcible projection of culture, ideology and political value systems. Soft power, in short, as its foremost scholar Joseph Nye explains, is “attractive power”. It has been a key facet of US foreign policy since the outbreak of the Cold War and its significance has continued to grow through the expansion of global communication networks and the ideological conflicts of the post-9/11 era.

This Featured Blog Series interrogates US soft power in terms of its historical and contemporary deployment, investigating the strategies, organisational frameworks and tactics which have shaped the US deployment of soft power, how this deployment has interacted with other foreign policy tools, and how overseas populations and elites have received US soft power and negotiated its meaning.


NEDDuring its time in office the Bush administration channelled over $1 billion to Arab democrats through the US Agency for International Development, the State Department and the Middle East Partnership Initiative,[1] with much of this funding going to democratic groups in previously-favoured dictatorships, such as Egypt. The Bush administration argued that the shift was necessary to safeguard US security by containing Islamist movements.[2] This equation between support for democratic groups overseas and US national security was not new, however; instead, the idea originated during the final stages of the Cold War, when a loose network of American intellectuals persuaded the Reagan administration to support the foundation of the National Endowment for Democracy. According to this network, strengthening pro-US parties and civil society groups in the Third World could be used to shore up the Washington’s geopolitical position vis-à-vis the Soviet Union by blocking Marxist movements from seizing power in allied dictatorships.

Democracy promotion was conceptualised by actors outside the national security bureaucracy from 1972 onwards to resolve the strategic and organisational tensions which had marked US attempts to export democracy as a tool of national power in the Cold War. Strategically, policy-makers had disagreed over whether to support authoritarian regimes in the Third World or democratising economic and social reforms. Those who advocated support for right-wing dictatorships argued that attempts to create democratic governments would destabilise friendly states and possibly result in Communist takeovers; supporters of the democratic option claimed that it was the repression and inequality which characterised dictatorships that drove Third World populations to support Communist movements.[3] This division in the foreign policy elite led to an incoherent and disjointed strategic approach, in which democratising reforms were supported in some cases but not in others, and were often soft-pedalled or abandoned if they began to threaten existing US interests. Organisationally, the state had struggled to direct a covertly-funded state-private network of US civil society groups, deployed to co-opt key foreign demographic groups to the US cause, in a way that both preserved the credibility of US groups as private actors and was effective in achieving national security goals.[4]

Democracy promotion was proposed after these modes of intervention had declined. The exposure of the state-private network’s covert state funding in 1967[5] destroyed the credibility of the groups involved as private actors, and thus their operational effectiveness, while the Nixon administration implemented an overall strategy of supporting authoritarian regimes to contain Communist/radical movements. The basic blueprint for democracy promotion was outlined shortly after by William Douglas, a development theorist.

The new democratisation strategy outlined by Douglas strove to avoid the strategic dilemma which had led the state apparatus to implement inconsistent policies, and the credibility issues caused by the exposure of covert funding of private groups. Strategically, Douglas called for a democracy campaign embracing the whole Third World arguing that the creation of democratic states would produce governments less vulnerable to Communist subversion and prevent the West from being cut off from important raw materials.[6] To achieve this, socioeconomic reforms and the projection of democratic ideology should be replaced by direct aid to democratic parties overseas delivered by a non-state League for Democracy composed of Western and Third World democratic parties. This organisational arrangement would ease disagreements over whether the US should support dictatorships or democratic reform as the best guarantee of stability in the Third World, as the US government could maintain its support for dictatorships in the short-term while handing over diplomatically sensitive reform programs to a non-state actor, meaning that both strategies could be pursued simultaneously. The credibility problems caused by the exposure of the state-private network’s covert funding in 1967 could be solved by making government contributions to the League overt and transparent, or by turning to foundation grants or private donations as sources of funding. However, neither the Executive nor US civil society were interested in the idea initially. The Nixon administration believed efforts to democratise friendly dictatorships to be destabilising, while many US liberals linked democratisation and modernisation to the failure of US policy in Vietnam.

This changed in the second half of the 1970s as the US faced a growing wave of Third World revolutions,[7] re-opening the question of how political intervention could best be implemented to block the emergence of radical governments. The Carter administration attempted to steer a middle course between support for authoritarianism or democratisation by pressuring existing dictatorships to liberalise in order to defuse popular anger while leaving the structures of the regimes essentially unchanged – the essence of Carter’s Human Rights policy in the Third World.[8]However, the administration proved unable to implement the competing policies of preserving relations with allied authoritarian regimes and fostering reform through the US national security bureaucracy. Pressure for reform was often blunted or blocked by bureaucratic struggles between the Bureau of Human Rights and other agencies such as the Departments of Commerce, Treasury, the State Department’s Bureau for Security Assistance, and the Department’s regional bureaux, which sought to preserve relations with friendly authoritarian regimes such as the Philippines and Pakistan.[9]

Politicians in the Democratic Party offered a solution to this problem by founding a non-state organisation which could act as a channel for such initiatives outside the state apparatus – the American Political Foundation – in 1979. The APF was inspired by the West German Party Foundations: political training institutes, each linked to a West German political party, which implemented political assistance programs overseas with West German government funds.[10] The APF was established by George Agree, a former Congressional aide to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, to follow this example by forging transnational party links to defend and extend democracy.[11] However, the organisation was small and lacked a clear strategy, adequate funding from business or foundations[12] and support from the Carter White House.

The decisive shift which opened up the possibility of convergence between non-state democracy promoters and the national security bureaucracy was the failure of Carter’s policies to prevent revolution in Nicaragua. The administration had failed to manage the competing imperatives of pressuring the Somoza dictatorship to liberalise so as to draw popular support away from the Marxist FSLN insurgency, while maintaining a regime strong enough to combat the insurgents militarily. The administration’s last-ditch attempt to remove Somoza in favour of a government of pro-US democrats to ward off the final FSLN victory failed because its chosen proxies within Nicaragua lacked the political skills and organisational strength to block a revolutionary takeover.[13]

A solution to this problem was conceived by Michael Samuels of the CSIS, who contacted the APF in early 1980. Samuels proposed that political aid programs to strengthen democrats in friendly authoritarian states threatened with revolution should be begun before these revolutions materialised. These programs would create strong pro-US political movements which could take power after the breakdown of a dictatorship and block revolutionary takeovers, preserving the target country’s geopolitical alliance with the US. They would be carried out through the “American Political Development Foundation”, a semi-private organisation receiving US government money overtly[14] — a further development of Douglas’ League for Democracy and Agree’s APF, but one which was wholly American rather than transnational, and tied to a current and specific US foreign policy problem, which made it more likely to gain the support of policy-makers.

Samuels’ proposal led to the coalescence of a loose network of non-state democracy promoters, including Douglas and the APF, which successfully lobbied the Reagan administration to support the initiative.[15] This led to the foundation of the legally private but government-funded National Endowment for Democracy, headed by Carl Gershman, a neoconservative and former Reagan administration official, in 1983 to channel funding to democratic groups overseas.[16] Under Reagan and George H.W. Bush the organisation aided the democratic forces which succeeded pro-US dictatorships in the Philippines and Chile, and those which replaced Marxist governments in Nicaragua and Poland,[17] thus safeguarding US national security interests in the final phase of the Cold War. The NED’s programs were also precursors of the later governmental initiatives in USAID and the State Department deployed by George W. Bush and Barack Obama in the Middle East. The NED itself is still active and counts among its board members former George W. Bush administration figures, such as previous NSC official Elliott Abrams, responsible for policy towards the Near East and Global Democracy Strategy, and Zalmay Khalilzad, former ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq.[18]

The origins of US democracy promotion were bound up with the search for an effective method of preventing the emergence of revolutionary governments in the Third World, which could damage Washington’s geopolitical position vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. The democracy promoters’ solution to the strategic dilemma of whether to support dictatorships to achieve short-term stability or democratic reform to create long-term stability was to lodge democracy programs in a non-state organisation. This would make democracy programs credible to Third World democrats and plausibly deniable to dictatorships, allowing the US to support dictatorships and strengthen democratic successor movements simultaneously. The strategic considerations which originally drove Cold War democracy promotion reappeared in US foreign policy towards the Middle East after the 9/11 attacks,  with the growth of democracy being expected to contain a disparate collection of Islamist groups, rather than Marxist rebels supposedly acting at the behest of Moscow.

However, previous strategic tensions re-emerged as the George W. Bush and Obama administrations both soft-pedalled democracy promotion in friendly Middle Eastern states such as Egypt when it clashed with immediate geopolitical objectives,[19] and were able to do so because the US government funds the NED and now implements the bulk of US democracy promotion programs.[20] Due to this back-tracking the fall of the authoritarian Mubarak regime was followed by a power struggle between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military rather than a pro-US democratic successor elite. Thus, the tension between the pursuit of democracy and short-term US national security interests, which democracy promotion was originally generated to resolve, continues to operate as a basic feature of US foreign policy.


Footnotes

[1] Eric Patterson, “Obama and Sustainable Democracy Promotion”, International Studies Perspectives, 13 (2012): 29.

[2] Bush argued in 2003 that “As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export.” George W. Bush, “Remarks at the 20thanniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy,” 6th November 2003, available from http://www.ned.org/george-w-bush/remarks-by-president-george-w-bush-at-the-20th-anniversary, accessed 2nd May 2014.

[3] Compare the assertion of George Humphrey, Eisenhower’s Treasury Secretary that “whenever a dictator was replaced, communists gained” with Kennedy’s argument that “Dictatorships are the seedbed from which communism ultimately springs up.” Quoted from Tony Smith, America’s Mission: The United States and the Worldwide Struggle for Democracy in the Twentieth Century (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993), 192 and David F. Schmitz, The United States and Right-wing Dictatorships, 1965-1989 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 261.

[4] For further details on the state-private network see Hugh Wilford, The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2008).

[5] Tity de Vries, “The 1967 Central Intelligence Agency Scandal: Catalyst in a Transforming Relationship between State and People,” Journal of American History 98, no. 4 (2012).

[6]William A. Douglas, Developing Democracy (Washington DC: Heldref Publications, 1972).

[7] Richard Saull, The Cold War and After: Capitalism, Revolution and Superpower Politics (London: Pluto Press, 2007), 139.

[8] James Earl Carter, Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President (Fayetteville, Arkansas: University of Arkansas Press, 1982), 143; and also Anonymous, “Presidential Review Memorandum 28: Human Rights”, Jimmy Carter Library, 8th July 1977, accessed 20th March 2009, http://www.jimmycarterlibrary.org/documents/pddirectives4.

[9] Victor Kaufman, “The Bureau of Human Rights during the Carter Administration,” The Historian 61, no. 1 (1998).

[10] Donald M. Fraser, “A Proposal that the Democratic National Committee employ at least one staff member assigned to follow and work with political movements abroad”, 1977, Folder 6: Reports and Proposals, Box 1, George E. Agree Papers, Library of Congress, hereafter LOC.

[11] George Agree, “Proposal for a pilot study of international cooperation between democratic political parties,” 9thMay 1977, Box 1, Folder 6: Reports and Proposals, Box 1, George E. Agree Papers, LOC.

[12] Difficulties with securing funding were mentioned in the minutes of organisation’s annual board meetings in 1980 and 1981. See APF, “Minutes of 1980 Annual Meeting, Board of Directors of American Political Foundation”, 19thMarch 1980 and “APF, Minutes of 1981 Annual Meeting, Board of Directors of American Political Foundation”, 7th July 1981, Folder 3: APF Minutes, Box 1, George E. Agree Papers, LOC.

[13] See Robert A. Pastor, Not Condemned to Repetition: the United States and Nicaragua, (Boulder, Colorado: Westview, 2002), 82-99 and Morris H. Morley, Washington, Somoza and the Sandinistas: State and Regime in US Policy towards Nicaragua 1969-1981 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1994), 174-181.

[14] Michael A Samuels, Project Proposal: A Comprehensive Policy Response to Expanding U.S. Interests in the Third World, 1980, 1, attached to George Agree, Letter to Mr Michael A. Samuels, 15th February 1980, Folder 1: APF Correspondence, Box 1, George E. Agree Papers, LOC.

[15] See General Accounting Office, Events Leading to the Establishment of the National Endowment for Democracy, 6th July 1984, accessed 27th December 2006, http://www.gao.gov/products/NSIAD-84-121, 1, for meetings between democracy promoters and officials and Alexander Haig, memo to the President, 8th March 1982, DDRS, accessed 11thDecember 2006, for the proposal of a semiprivate democracy institute to Reagan in the wake of these meetings.

[16] Nicholas Guilhot, The Democracy Makers: Human Rights and International Order (New York, Chichester: Columbia University Press, 2005), 90.

[17]William I. Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, US Intervention and Hegemony (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 129-137, 175-193 and 221-239; Thomas Carothers, In the Name of Democracy: US Policy Toward Latin America in the Reagan Years (Berkeley & Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1991), 94-95 and 158-160; and Gregory Domber “Supporting the Revolution: America, Democracy and the End of the Cold War in Poland, 1981-1989” (PhD thesis, George Washington University, 2008),  accessed 15th July 2013, http://transatlantic.sais-jhu.edu/ACES/ACES_Working_Papers/Gregory_Domber

_Supporting_the_Revolution.pdf, 209-216, 335-350 and 410-411

[18] See http://ned.org/about/board, accessed 3rd May 2014.

[19] Fawaz Gerges, Obama and the Middle East: The End of America’s Moment (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 162-164.

[20] The Obama administration cut US government funding for democracy promotion in Egypt and restored the Egyptian government’s ability to veto the transfer of US funds to Egyptian groups, thus limiting the freedom of USAID and of NDI and IRI, NED’s Republican and Democratic Party Institutes, which provide aid to foreign democratic political parties. Richard S. Williamson, “Turning a Blind Eye to Egypt”, September 30th 2010, available from http://www.iri.org/news-events-press-center/news/iri-board-member-richard-williamson-urges-support-egypts-democratic-ac, accessed 26th April 2014

blog snapshotRobert Pee has recently graduated the University of Birmingham with a PhD. His thesis, titled “Democracy Promotion, National Security and Strategy under the Reagan Administration: 1981-1986”, examines the relationship of democracy promotion to national security in US strategy, with a particular focus on the origins of the National Endowment for Democracy and on democracy promotion during the Reagan administration. His research interests include US Democracy Promotion during the Cold War and the War on Terror, national security strategy, the role of non-state actors in the formation and execution of US foreign policy, and US policy towards the Arab Spring

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US-Cuba Embargo Goes Beyond the Cold War

The unequal US-Cuban power relationship stretches back to the turn of the 20th century.

Cuban propaganda poster in Havana featuring a Cuban soldier addressing a threatening Uncle Sam. Photo by KPu3uC B PoccuuCuban propaganda poster in Havana featuring a Cuban soldier addressing a threatening Uncle Sam. Photo by KPu3uC B PoccuuPresident 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.

 

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