Cuba’s place in America’s history of exceptionalism

REUTERS/Joe Skipper
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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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Comments (27)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 11/29/2016 - 10:55 am.

    It is ironic to the extreme that the bastion of freedom used a seized corner of a dictator’s country to carry out illegalities.

  2. Submitted by Montgomery Granger on 11/29/2016 - 12:33 pm.

    Cuba’s place in America’s history of exceptionalism

    First, US military actions have been essential to our existence. We saved the world for democracy in WWII, and still have troops in Germany, Japan and Italy over 70 years after the end of the war, not as conquerors but as friends and allies. We haven’t always gotten it right, but that has never been the military’s fault. Wars are won by soldiers and lost by politicians. The little actions that make up the vast bulk of the list you present are evidence of an active defense. Essential for survival. Second, Castro stole Cuba from the Cuban people, and held iron-fisted their liberty and freedom for decades. The US is the proper benefactor of Cuba, won from Spain in the Spanish American War in the 1898 Treaty of Paris,m along with Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. Guam and Puerto Rico are still in US control. PR residents are all US citizens. Castro STOLE assets and property from US citizens when he took power. He never repatriated any of it. It’s time to take it back, but only by force if necessary. A few carrier groups and clandestine operations along with a BIG PR push for adopting Cuba as the 51st state should excite enough ex-patriot nationalists and internal freedom fighters to destabilize the country into submission. Once a proper state, Cuba may have it’s own governor and representatives, and all of it’s people citizens of the United States. Now what could possibly be better than that?

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/29/2016 - 01:02 pm.

      Another Carribean island

      Puerto Rico, is very ambivalent about its relationship to the United States.
      Some are happy with its current status as a territory, others favor full statehood, still others favor independence.
      I doubt that Cubans are any more unified in their feelings towards us.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/29/2016 - 02:21 pm.

      ¡Cuba, Sí, Yanqui, Quizás!

      “The US is the proper benefactor of Cuba, won from Spain in the Spanish American War in the 1898 Treaty of Paris,m along with Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines.” Not quite. The Treaty of Paris ceded Cuba to the United States, but US law (the Teller Amendment) disclaimed “any disposition of intention to exercise sovereignty, jurisdiction, or control over said island except for pacification thereof, and asserts its determination, when that is accomplished, to leave the government and control of the island to its people.”

      The US Supreme Court has held that the Cuban nationalization of American assets did not violate the established norms of international law. Banco Nacional de Cuba v. Sabbatino, 376 U.S. 398 (1964).

      “Once a proper state, Cuba may have it’s own governor and representatives, and all of it’s people citizens of the United States. Now what could possibly be better than that?” How about letting the people of Cuba determine their own destiny, without resorting to colonialist policies?

      • Submitted by Montgomery Granger on 11/30/2016 - 10:07 am.

        Well taken, Holbrook. However, the issue of self-determination would be simple if not for the blood spilled and assets stolen, not to mention the disenfranchisement of Cuban ex-patriot nationalists residing in the United States. There is deep interest in seeing a free and democratic Cuba. Who is Cuban and who is not? We have a generation of Cuban Americans who have never set foot on Cuban soil, but who may be very interested to visit or reside there as they see fit. Making Cuba the 51st state would make it easy for them to go there and live in peace and for those who wish to come here as well. The “established norms of international law” change. I’d say the individuals and companies left without their property or assets would be able to challenge the findings in Banco national de Cuba v. Sabbatino. That, too would be easier were Cuba a state rather than a sovereign nation. Just sayin’.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/30/2016 - 10:32 am.

          The 51st State

          You have presented no reason for making Cuba the 51st state beyond the convenience of Cuban-Americans. That doesn’t seem like sufficient justification for reviving imperialist land-grabbing (Does anyone else hear unpleasant echoes of “Annex the Sudetenland?”).

    • Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 11/29/2016 - 11:12 pm.

      The little actions and defense

      I think you mean these little actions are “evidence of an active imperialism.” They have only been “essential for survival” if you mean survival of the concentrated wealth in the hands of the plutocrats who control the levers of power in this country. Castro really did not “steal” any assets from the imperialists. Anyway, who cares if they did?

      • Submitted by Montgomery Granger on 11/30/2016 - 10:10 am.

        Call it what you want, but the facts don’t change because you don’t care. The property and assets were stolen, and retribution is in the air. A few carrier groups, some shadow warriors and ex-patriot nationalists and voila! you have counter revolution!

        • Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 11/30/2016 - 06:50 pm.

          What are the facts?

          I think it’s more like “A few carrier groups, some shadow warriors and ex-patriot nationalists and voila!” You have what the CIA and Allen Dulles hoped they could pressure JFK into at the Bay of Pigs. You can call it what you like as well but most people in this country do not wittingly support such naked grabs for power and wealth. They would rather deny that it’s ever happened at all.

  3. Submitted by Joyce Prudden on 11/29/2016 - 01:25 pm.

    List of Military Actions

    I can’t get the link to work.

  4. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 11/29/2016 - 09:29 pm.

    Real life

    “Mossadegh in Iran, … Allende in Chile.” Sure, Chile with Allender would become another Cuba and I doubt any of those who wanted Pinochet jailed would have picked Cuba over Chile now to live. And Mossadegh would have made Iran a Soviet satellite which wouldn’t have been good for Iranians… So maybe America should be thanked for taking actions in those countries… which it didn’t in Venezuela and failed in Cuba which is why they are where they are today.

    Let’s talk about how Castro “succeeded in improving the lives of many Cubans.” I have never lived in Cuba but I lived in the Soviet Union and I can describe the “success” there but it will be too disturbing to read. I will just say that health care that all have access to was pathetic: dirty linen in hospitals where beds were set in the corridors, cold showers for moms about to give birth, bribes that were expected all the time, lack of good medications.. and I am talking about Leningrad, where everything was much better than everywhere else except Moscow. And speaking about Castro being “beloved,” so was Stalin (and Mao).

    And finally, America has very little to do with Cuban people’s suffering since America has been the only country refusing to deal with Cuba – all the rest of the world did.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 11/30/2016 - 07:50 am.

      If you haven’t lived in Cuba….

      ….perhaps some readings on the quality of life in Cuba as compared to the other “sugar belt” Caribbean countries would be in order.

      ….perhaps some reading on the medical successes of a poor Caribbean country would be in order.

      It ain’t heaven, nor is it hell. But I would think that hell might be closer to places like Honduras or Guatemala where drug gangs and hereditary oligarch run the country, poverty and illness unrelieved by government assistance is endemic, and the political status quo is enforced with death-squads.

    • Submitted by Greg Gaut on 11/30/2016 - 09:39 am.

      In health care at least, Cuba was not the Soviet Union

      Mr. Gutman has never lived in Cuba, nor has he apparently done the most basic research about it. He is undoubtedly right about Soviet healthcare, but Cuba was different, at least in health care. Cuba raised its life expectancy at birth from 64 (1960) to over 79 today (a bit higher than the US). Russia’s life expectancy, one of the inheritances from Soviet times, is today about 70, having rebounded from a terrible nosedive in the years following the end of the Soviet Union. Some say that infant mortality figures are the best indicator of the success of a health care system. Cuba has 4.5 infant deaths per 1000 live births, around the level of most developed countries. The US lags sadly and inexcusably behind at 5.8. Russia is at 6.9. These figures, by the way, come from the World Bank and the CIA, hardly friends of Cuba.

      • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 11/30/2016 - 10:08 pm.


        Getting information about Cuba from the Guardian and BBC is almost like getting it from Granma… I also want to remind everyone that Cuba was strongly subsidized by the Soviet Union for over 30 years allowing them to live better than they would have on their own. As for Honduras and Guatemala, at least people can leave those countries unlike Cuba.

        • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 12/01/2016 - 08:00 am.

          Mr. Gutman–why not provide a source that supports your contention that Cuba has a bad health-care system. Use whatever reputable source you want. The rest of the world knows more about Cuba than those who have never been there and reflexively equate Cuba/bad. To tell you the truth–I would believe the BBC and The Guardian over your bald contentions about a country you admittedly don’t know anything about.

          And then consider the possible reasons why parents from many Central American countries are willing to commit their unaccompanied minor children to the tender mercies of “mules” to get them into the US and out of their countries.

        • Submitted by Greg Gaut on 12/01/2016 - 11:46 am.

          Please take a moment

          I wish Mr. Gutman would just take a moment and check out the CIA and World Bank health stats. He would find, for example, that whereas life expectancy in Cuba is 79.4, people can expect to live only to 72 in Guatemala and 73 in Honduras. As for infant mortality, in Cuba it is an admirable 4.5 per 1,000 live births, but in Guatemala it is an awful 22 and Honduras 17.7. This is not to say that Cuba was a democracy or that the population didn’t suffer in other ways. But let’s have the discussion based on reality and not on Mr. Gutman’s sorry experience with health care in the former Soviet Union.

  5. Submitted by Greg Gaut on 11/29/2016 - 09:53 pm.

    Had to laugh…

    …when I read the comment above about helping Cuba out by making it a state. The irony is that if Cuba became part of the US, more Cubans would have to be imprisoned. Today, Cuba has 510 people per 100,000 in prison. The US is a world leader with 716 per 100,000. And of course, in the US, a disproportionate part of that number is African-Americans. So black Cubans would be in for it! And Cubans would have to start dying sooner if they became US citizens, since life expectancy in Cuba is higher. Oh, and then there is the lower Cuban infant mortality rate, but you get the idea.

  6. Submitted by Peter Swanson on 11/30/2016 - 05:44 am.

    Dark Light

    “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.” That’s big of you. Eric, are you one of the ones who want to cast him in a dark light?

  7. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 11/30/2016 - 08:41 pm.

    Well, Yeah, But

    Batista may have been an undemocratic dictator, but I recall the words of FDR on another Latin American dictator: He’s a bastard, but he’s our bastard.

    The only dictators we don’t like are the ones that oppose us.

  8. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 12/01/2016 - 09:38 pm.

    More information

    Here is a more balanced information It was actually the first site that popped up when I tried to search for bad sides of Cuban health care. There were of course more sites about that. And by the way, if I have never been to Cuba, people I knew (back in the Soviet Union) were and they were not fond of what they saw. Another point I want to make is that capitalism is not a guarantee of prosperity so there are capitalist countries where life is not good; socialism, on the other side, is a guarantee of a failure (there are no prosperous socialist countries in the world). And to answer Mr. Rovick’s question, many in Central America are willing to risk their lives to get to America, not to get out of those countries; otherwise, why don’t they all go to Cuba? And finally, let’s compare Castro with Pinochet: The latter was less brutal if you judge by the number of people killed, helped his country prosper economically, and left power voluntarily… but I do not remember any praise for Pinochet from the media in America or from the left in general. Why?

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 12/02/2016 - 08:24 am.

      Here’s the take-away–Cuba has done a lot with a little. The Michigan medical students quoted in your article were surprised by the limits of equipment, supplies, doctor pay and “finishes” of medical facilities, compared to where they came from.

      For your reference, GDP per capita:

      USA……………$ 56,100
      Russia………..$ 26,000
      Cuba…………..$ 9,700
      Guatemala……$ 7,800
      Honduras……..$ 5,100

      Those numbers should impress you–Cuba is obviously batting above it’s apparent economic limits with respect to health care. Obviously not able to afford all of the trimmings as the US care system but with comparable results, but from your reports obviously doing better than the Russian system, and clearly doing better than countries like Honduras or Guatemala.

    • Submitted by Greg Gaut on 12/02/2016 - 02:17 pm.

      I still wish that

      Mr. Gutman would review the CIA and World Bank stats I referred to above and comment on them. The Michigan article reports on how American medical students found things in Cuba that they thought were good and things they thought were bad. Of course, in every health care system there are horror stories. For example Johns Hopkins medical researchers recently concluded that about 250,000 Americans die each from avoidable medical errors. If that was the only thing you knew about health care in the US, your opinion might be a bit skewed. That is why people who are serous about discussing health issues try to get beyond individual stories and compare things like life expectancy and infant mortality rates. I wish Mr. Gutman would too.

  9. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 12/02/2016 - 08:29 am.

    Why do Hondurans and Guatemalans go to the US as opposed to Cuba ?

    The economic pie is larger and land-routes are bigger/easier/cheaper/safer than sea routes.

  10. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 12/02/2016 - 06:58 pm.

    Who checked

    Let’s not mix up comparing health care systems and doctors. There were great doctors in the Soviet Union who could diagnose things without expensive equipment and I am sure there are some in Cuba. But the system that forces pregnant women to go to hospital cannot be a good system. And of course, the question is: why can’t Cuba afford equipment and drugs? The answer: Because Socialism always fails. Now, about statistics that looks so great in Cuba according to the FBI. I wonder if they have agents there who check how many babies die and till what age people live… My guess is that they use statistics that Cuban government provides and I highly doubt that Cuban government is any more truthful than the Soviet government was… and it was not… So maybe people do not live till 80 in Cuba after all. As for going to America vs. going to Cuba, I would guess that Cuba would pay for tickets for those who want to live there but there are no takers… because people want to go to America even at great risk to their lives. And by the way, no one wanted to compare Castro’s and Pinochet’s treatment?

    • Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 12/02/2016 - 11:20 pm.

      What about the embargo?

      If Cuba never succeeded as a Socialist state, it was only because of the US embargo which is only beginning to end. Socialism always fails except when it doesn’t. Many people claim the Scandinavian countries and, for that matter, other European nations, are “Socialist” when they want to make a negative point. But they back away when it’s pointed out these nations are social democracies which are successful in balancing capitalism, high taxes on the wealthier citizens, high standards of living, social welfare and personal liberties.

      Maybe what you claim is true about the Cubans concealing the problems they really have. But did you see Michael Moore’s “Sicko”? If you have any information that he arranged the visit he made with some US citizens to get treatments they couldn’t get in the USA as a propaganda stunt with the Cuban government, please let us all know. From what I know about the US system, it can’t be any worse than here anyway.

    • Submitted by Greg Gaut on 12/03/2016 - 12:22 pm.

      One last try…

      to get Mr. Gutman to review and discuss the CIA and World Bank statistics, both the numbers and how the numbers are arrived at. (Just google “life expectancy at birth” and you get to the CIA World Factbook and the World Bank page pretty quickly.) In American healthcare today, there is a new, and welcomed, emphasis on health care outcomes. That is why something like a country’s infant mortality rate or life expectancy is important. The fact that Cuba has better health care outcomes than other Central American countries and also better than the U.S. is of note. It doesn’t prove that Cuban socialism was superior. It doesn’t say anything about the Soviet Union. But it is a fact that serious people need to take into account when discussing Cuba. Social life is messy and not everything is all one thing or all another.

  11. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 12/03/2016 - 10:42 pm.

    I did try it

    Mr. Kingstad, America was the only country that had Cuba embargo so it is hard to believe that the embargo was the reason for Cuba’s failure… Plus, what is the reason for Soviet Union and Venezuela failure? So yes, Socialism always fails. And even northern European countries are starting to get in trouble – just check the internet. And no, I have not watched any of Moore’s propaganda flicks but I can assure you that Cuban government fooled him, just like Stalin fooled plenty of western intellectuals in the 30’s. You may not understand it but in those countries everything, and I mean everything, that is happening is controlled by the government.

    Mr. Gaut, I did check those websites. FBI’s site does not say how the information was obtained but I noticed that Chile and Panama are right next to Cuba in life expectancy so we should praise Pinochet and Noriega for that…

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