US-Cuban Relations and Discussions on Opening the Border

In December of 2014, President Obama announced his plans to resume US trade relations with Cuba. This sparked massive discussions of why this should not occur from Cuba’s violations of human rights and Cuba’s totalitarian government, to U.S.’s corporate and economic interests in the island and ultimately the US’s imperial goals. From a feminist perspective, Cuba is an interesting case with historic ties to the US and to capitalism. While I have viewed Cuba as a progressive nation tackling poverty, racism, homelessness, quality education, and universal healthcare—for example, the life chances of Cubans of African heritage are significantly better than their counterparts in the US as indicated by infant mortality rates, life expectancy, education and employment—I do not want to uncritically promote the nation as a worker’s or socialist’s haven. Instead, the lack of a multiparty political system, a lack of public elections, and the restrictions of bureaucracy should be criticized; however, the equality and economic justice pursued by the Cuban government does beg the questions—is the democratic notion of liberalism an actual freedom experienced equally by all? Or can a government that is not liberal, in a Western sense, provide better for its diverse citizens?

Before I go into an analysis of the implications of opening the border between US and Cuba, it is important to establish the historical relationship of domination and resistance between US and Cuba. Cuba is a former colony of Spain. Spain colonized Cuba in the early 1500s and implemented a social hierarchy and instituted racial (African and Asian) slavery to extract resources, like sugar, and return it to the center. However, due to the very diverse population of color, race was never able to solidify into the binary—white/black—and complete racial segregation never occurred as it was able to do in the US. Instead, people with different mixes of color where placed into different racial categories. In fact, diverse racial groups united in the common interest of independence to take down Spanish colonialism.

One thing particularly exceptional about the Cuban fight for independence, was it also was a fight to abolish slavery. Black, Asian-, and mixed race Cubans oftentimes fought as generals and troops were racially integrated. However, the overthrow of Spanish control in 1898 led into a new imperial power, the US. The fight for Cuban independence occurred in two wars from 1868-1898. In the last three months of the final war, the US joined the Cuban side even though the Cuban victory was near and essentially guaranteed. The US was a major importer of sugar and fear of a united mixed racial rebellion so near to US shores forced the US to make the decision to ensure Cubans would remain restrained. Thus, US declared war on Spain and in three months, the Spanish-American War was over and Spain handed over Cuba to the US after signing the Treaty of Paris in which Cuban representatives are not invited. The US was granted control of four new territories: Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam. Although the treaty officially grants Cuba independence, the US flag, not the Cuban flag, is raised over Havana. The passage of the Platt Amendment to Cuba’s constitution in 1902 then further solidified US control by giving the US the unilateral right to interfere in the island’s political affairs as well as the right to oversee Cuba’s international relations and economy and to establish a military base in Guantanamo Bay.

With much tension and resentment growing in Cuba, the US led a coup to overthrow the elected Cuban president and replace him with military official Fulgencio Batista who intermittently ruled Cuba on behalf of US interests until 1959. In 1953, Fidel Castro organized an armed revolutionary against the US controlled government that lasted until 1959 and replaced the government with a socialist state. The Cuban socialist revolution had great internal and international repercussions, like the US implemented an embargo towards Cuba which has succeeded in impoverishing the country, and the hundreds of Batista-era agents, policemen and soldiers were convicted of war crimes, murder and torture (the US claims these are trials were human rights abuses) and many capitalist Cubans left or were exiled for supporting the Batista regime. Their property was collected by the state and distributed to the public.

Since then, the Castro dynasty has been committed to transform essential goods from private to public goods, including public education and public healthcare. Cuba has also internalized an international “sharing ethic.” This is essentially the idea that the advancement of an individual only occurs if the rest of the world advances as well, and the state helps to organize and reproduce human solidarity both domestically and internationally. Cuba has come to the defense of many anti-colonial and anti-racist projects around the world. For example, Cubans assisted Angola in defeating the intruding South African Army in the 1980s. This was also a turning point for the liberation of people in South Africa and instigated the release of anti-apartheid leader, Nelson Mandela. Cuba has sent more doctors than any other country to West Africa to combat the biggest outbreak of Ebola. Cuba also offered to send 1600 volunteers to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, even though Cuba was hit worse in the disaster than the US. Sadly, the Bush administration turned down the offer. In Cuba, evacuation was ordered collectively; however, in New Orleans, each person had to find their own way out. In the US, 1800 people died and 1600 of them were African-American. In poor, infrastructural underdeveloped Cuba, only 15 people died.

After hearing that President Obama wanted to restore the relationship between Cuba and US, I was shocked but pleasantly happy, and then concerned after hearing their reasoning. The US has been under a lot of pressure by the UN to end the embargo against Cuba. The US is Cuba’s most natural trade partner as they are only 90 miles apart. Should the borders open, more resources will be accessible to the Cuban people. Instead of importing expense goods like dairy and produce from across the Atlantic Ocean, Cubans will have more options and more money. The sanctions have also denied Cubans access to US created communicative technology (like cellphones and wireless internet) that individuals take for granted around the world. Terminating the embargo will help the Cuban economy grow which will encourage infrastructural and communicative development to give Cuba the ability to aid more people domestically and globally.

However, problems arise with opening the border that highlight the rebirth of US imperial power in Cuba. First, President Obama proposes significantly increasing the amount of money that family members in the US can send back to their relatives in Cuba. Although this may initially sound like a good idea, this plan will rebuild a social hierarchy in Cuba that privileges white men since they are statistically more likely to make more money than people of color and/or women in the US. Secondly, President Obama focuses solely on the spread of US corporations to Cuba and the creation of a tourism sector—the ultimate industry of the wealthy.

The spread of US business to Cuba will facilitate the economic exploitation of the Cuban people, as US corporate interest do in other non-Western countries. The US is speaking for Cuba and what they think (from their particular biased view) is best for Cuba, when historically Cuba has resisted capitalist expansion and US control. On February 12 in the US government, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar introduced a bill to lift the trade embargo on Cuba and the bill was referred to the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs. While this legislation has plenty of bipartisan support—from legislators who argue for the ethical impact of opening the border to legislators who argue for the business benefits of opening the border—I am still cautious to predict that the federal government will resume relations with Cuba within the year. However, this is sparking new discussions on US diplomacy and Cuban socialism. The future is unpredictable, but the growing public resistance in the US against racism, economic inequality, and patriarchy is the first step in reimagining an ethical future of global cooperation and international economic justice.


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