Donald Trump, with modest pomp and circumstance from American media, honored a campaign promise this week in reversing the Obama administration’s 2014 decision to begin normalization of relations with Cuba, surrounded by a militant cadre of Republicans hankering to hurtle us back to the good old days of the Cuban missile crisis. From a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted last year, we have that a majority of Americans support lifting the decades-long embargo imposed on Cuba, yet Secretary of State Rex Tillerson offered the tough guy stance on continued human rights abuses within the island nation. Aside from the official response from Cuba reported by CNN detailing the myriad human rights abuses within the U.S. going on right now, one need not look far for the craven double standard present not just in Trump’s bungled, clumsily heavy-handed foreign policy, but in American foreign policy generally traversing the (narrow) political spectrum of post-war administrations. For example, despite myriad internal abuses documented over the years by Human Rights Watch, perpetration of massacres in Yemen, generation of radicalized ISIS militants as documented by Patrick Coburn of the Independent, the murderous tyranny Saudi Arabia’s monarchy enjoys broad American dispensation; Trump gleefully boasts, disingenuously according to the Brookings Institute, of multi-hundred billion dollar Saudi arms deals after a visit featuring a sword dance and a strange glowing orb. Cuba, by stark contrast, somehow continues to draw the ire of extremists both inside and out of the American political aristocracy. Though we may face temptation to hypothesize that
- Trump’s open embrace of the repressive, morally repugnant regime in Saudi Arabia tightly follows Trump’s successful business dealings with said regime,
- Trump’s haphazard hostility to Qatar, home to the largest U.S. air base in the region perhaps follows his difficulty in securing business deals in said Qatar and thus
- an unsuccessful endeavor to circumvent illegally the Cuban embargo in the 1990s, together with disastrously unpopular domestic and foreign policy missteps leaves him with a need for a convenient bogeyman in the dictatorship to the south,
none of Trump’s foreign policy, though perhaps unusually egocentric and idiotic, is particularly shocking when placed in proper historical context. When George W. Bush delivered his first state of the union address in 2002, he thumbed his nose at Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, declaring them to be an “axis of evil,” reversing the meager efforts by his predecessor Bill Clinton in thawing relations with Pyongyang in the so-called Agreed Framework. Bush, like Trump to follow and Reagan to precede, seemed to have only a very slight understanding of geopolitics or the incredibly dangerous, malevolent game of poking-the-bear that is harsh sanctions and embargoes. Indeed, this unique combination of ignorance and possible malevolence is worth examining, notable resource being Neil Buchanan’s recent discussion in Newsweek. But returning to Cuba, fully appreciating the gravity of Trump’s intention to frustrate normalization requires investigating the deeply intertwined history with the rest of Latin America, the United States, the Soviet Union, and indeed the European imperialists who conquered it 500 years past. Over the next handful of articles, I’ll detail the post-colonial history of what was once called the “Pearl” of the Spanish Empire in the hopes that of sharing the moral and ethical legacy demanded of us as citizens responsible for our government’s deeds.
In 1492, Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, on behalf of the Spanish monarchy, landed in Hispaniola and Cuba searching for a shorter trade route with the East Indies; upon arrival, he immediately set to the task of conquering and later exterminating the Taíno, the native peoples, installing a colonial government to oversee crop cultivation, resource extraction and, a very, very distant priority, Christianization of the fast-dying peoples. An aside, one can find an instructive first-hand account of Columbus and his initial expedition in Howard Zinn’s Voices of a People’s History of the United States, with thematically familiar vignettes of generous, open-minded natives offering succor and sustenance to their strange European visitors, only to be repaid with savagery, rape, pestilence, and butchery.
For over two centuries, Spanish dominance remained in play despite frequent attempts at usurpation by other European powers, but for a brief interlude in the eighteenth century during the Seven Years’ War in which the British claimed Havana, introducing tens of thousands of African slaves to the island. Demographically, non-white Cubans constituted roughly forty percent of the population in 1775, cresting at fifty-eight percent in the first half of the nineteenth century. Liberation movements stirred, partly due to the French revolution and independence of the thirteen British colonies to the north; contributing perhaps more resonantly was a slave uprising in Haiti in 1791, together with independence efforts by both whites, blacks, and so-called mulattos, or mixtures. Under pressure to close the slave trade (Britain had outlawed slavery in its colonies in 1807), Spain weakly complied, spurring uprisings throughout the middle decades of the 1800s. Of particular note, documented by Jose Canton Navarro in his History of Cuba, was the Conspiración de La Escalera, a vicious campaign to quell slave revolts with torture, murder, and exile owing its name to torture involving a ladder and a whip.
Instructive is the influence beginning in the nineteenth century of the independent thirteen colonies to the north on Cuba, to which we’ll return in subsequent articles.