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Cuba’s place in America’s history of exceptionalism

On the list of U.S. military actions over the last century, Cuba pops up seven times, starting with the 1898 Spanish-American War.

A U.S. Army guard stands in a corridor of cells in Camp Five, a detention facility at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station in Guantanamo Bay.
REUTERS/Joe Skipper

First a brief rant on American exceptionalism/imperialism. Then a few words on the passing of Fidel Castro.

Mainstream U.S. political culture suffers from a great deal of self-inflicted blindness, much of which is rooted in the silliest elements of American exceptionalism.

We believe there are international rules, laws and norms that are necessary to a peaceful, orderly world system, of which the United States is, in some unofficial sense, the ultimate guarantor, and because of our special role, which is rooted substantially in our belief in it, we are the exceptional exception to the rules and laws and norms that apply to others.

Without being too clear about it, we arrogate to ourselves the right to defy the rules and norms, in order to defend the rules and norms, kind of like the old saw from Vietnam, in which a major who had just overseen the destruction of a village, including the death of most of the civilian population,  told a reporter that he had had to “destroy the village in order to save it.”

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The United States gets into more wars and sponsors more coups than anyone else. Pretty much all of these actions are in the category we sometime call “wars of choice,” insofar as we are pretty much never reacting to an invasion of our territory or an attempt to overthrow our government. In fact, we are the nation that imposes sanctions, invades, bombs and overthrows other governments, more than anyone else.

Sometimes we overthrow dictatorships and try to replace them with democracies. Sometimes, more than you might realize, we have overthrown democracies and replaced them with dictatorships. (If you need some examples, start with Mossadegh in Iran, Arbenz in Guatemala and Allende in Chile.)

U.S. military actions: the list

Here’s one professor’s list of U.S. military actions of the past century. I didn’t count them but it approaches 200. Some are dinky, some are more CIA actions than military ones, some are domestic. You may disagree that they all belong on the list. But most of them, unarguably, do belong on such a list. I don’t believe there is any nation that would have a list anywhere near this length over a similar period.

The common thread that runs through most of the cases is that those we overthrow are almost all doing something, often in the economic realm, that annoys major U.S. interests, sometimes strategic or military interest but especially business interests. During the Cold War, many of the actions were efforts to overthrow governments that aligned or might align with the Soviet Union.

Cuba pops up on the list of military actions seven times, starting with the 1898 Spanish-American War, which the United States provoked, in part, so it could seize control of Cuba from Spain. (“Remember the Maine” meant that Spain had blown up a U.S. ship — the U.S.S. Maine – only it was never clear that Cuba  was responsible and the latest research mostly casts doubt on the Spanish guilt).

Just after that war, the U.S. Navy established its base at Guantanamo, a base it still controls, despite having been in a hostile relationship to Cuba since the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power.

Decades of attempts against Castro

See, I told you I’d get around to Castro. Castro, as you know, died last Friday of natural causes, notwithstanding many efforts by the United States through the decades to overthrow or kill him. Killing or overthrowing foreign leaders is one of those things that is against the laws and norms of international relations, except when we do it on the ground of American exceptionalism.

In the eyes of much of the world, Fidel Castro has a mixed legacy. He succeeded in improving the lives of many Cubans, compared to what they had experienced under the previous plutocrats who ran the country in the interests of the wealthy. Access to health care for all was one of Castro’s  signature achievements.

But Castro can also rightly be called a dictator, which is what those who want to cast him in a dark light – whether for reasons of American imperialism or others — usually call him. It’s a fair term. He took power by coup, or something like a coup. He ruled by fiat without allowing opposition parties. He executed many opponents. He did not respect freedom of speech or press. He seized private property although, unlike many in similar circumstances, it was not to enrich himself or his cronies. Despite all these problems, he seems to have been far more beloved than hated by the population over which he ruled, although he was generally hated by those Cubans who fled, usually to America, to get away from Castro’s Cuba.

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I don’t doubt that if Castro had ever decided to seek election, the United States would have gone to great lengths to bring about his defeat. We are now outraged-outraged-outraged at emerging evidence that Russia might have interfered in our election. And I share the outrage. But it’s a little hard to swallow given the U.S. role in putting governments into and out of power around the world for a century or more. Nonetheless, Castro never submitted his rule to free, fair democratic elections.

Personally, I favor democracy for all countries. And democracy has never prevailed as widely around the world as it does now. But I note that there are many rulers around the world whose power does not derive from election, including many that are close allies of the United States, like the Saudi monarchs, for example. There are many more.

I don’t doubt that at various times during his long rule, Castro could have called an election, even a free and fair election — and won it. But the idea that Castro must be viewed as a villain because he eschewed electoral democracy is a colossal oversimplification.

Batista’s election, and comeback by coup

For one thing — and I can’t believe how seldom this is emphasized when Castro is villainized — the guy Castro overthrew, Fulgencio Batista, was also a dictator.

Cuba has never had a political system that would rank very high on a list of democratic norms. But it had elected presidents – including Batista for one term in the 1940s. Batista even presided over a government that included socialists and communists.

But, after leaving office, Batista later attempted a comeback, running for a new term. When he realized he would not win election, Batista went the coup route, seizing power by force three months before the election (that he would have lost) could be held. The United States did not come to the rescue of democracy in Cuba.

More to the point, it wasn’t Castro who snuffed out democracy in Cuba. It was Batista, who governed without benefit of election for seven years until Castro overthrew him.

How’s this for a further irony: Young Fidel Castro was planning to run for office when Batista ended Cuba’s democracy by coup. It was Batista’s coup that led Castro to turn to guerrilla action. I’m impressed with how seldom this part of the story comes up when people decide to villainize Castro as a dictator.

The U.S. government had friendly relations with dictator Batista in the 1950s, and Batista had very friendly relations with U.S. organized crime figures who owned and operated gambling casinos serving American tourists to the island, plus a thriving drug trade. Such was the man whom Castro replaced by coup, and Castro’s success in taking power was also related to the lack of support for Batista among the population that wasn’t benefiting from the casinos or drug trade.

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Cuba’s Cold War role

Of course, Castro’s real offense against America had little to do with democracy and much more to do with the Cold War. Castro became a leading voice against U.S. domination of the hemisphere and, in that role, made common cause with the Soviet Union, which was interested in spreading communism.

Naturally unhappy about that, the John F. Kennedy administration imposed an embargo on U.S. trade with Cuba, which increased both Castro’s anti-U.S. impulses and his reliance on the Soviet Union. And, of course, this led to a secret agreement to base Soviet nuclear weapons in Cuba, which Castro felt would make it less likely that the U.S. would overthrow him.

I was a kid in 1963. I was scared that the world might end over the Cuban Missile Crisis. I’m very glad that JFK and Nikita Khrushchev found a way to avoid nuclear war. Castro’s role in that narrowly averted disaster certainly elevated his place in the U.S. demonography. But in judging his decision to allow the Soviet missiles to be situated in Cuba, one must remember that the United States was pledged to the overthrow of his government, and had attempted it, unsuccessfully, with the botched Bay of Pigs landing in 1961. It should be noted the two events ended with both the removal of the missile sites and a U.S. pledge to stop trying to overthrow the government of Cuba.

Many Latin American countries were dictatorships during the Castro decades. Many of those dictators did much less than Castro did to improve the lives of their own people. And many problems of the Cuban people owe more of their suffering to the U.S. determination to make Castroism fail than they do to Castro’s actual policies.

But I’m still rooting for a peaceful transition to democracy in Cuba when Fidel’s brother Raul, age 85, leaves the scene.