A Return to Détente With Cuba
Biden Must Rediscover Obama’s Patient Optimism
While I was on a visit to Moscow a short time after the Soviet collapse, a retired senior Red Army general sighed nostalgically when I asked about his time in Cuba during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. “Kuba,” as he called it, heavy on the K, the rest of the word drawn out in a kind of caress, had held a special place in the Soviets’ hearts, he said. Its commitment to revolution was passionate and courageous, and in exchange, the Soviets had given everything they could to help sustain the country, going to great lengths to make sure the islanders had whatever they needed to survive. “We spoiled them,” he said, throwing up his hands and chuckling ruefully.
Cuba inhabits a special place in the imaginations of its one-time allies and would-be possessors. In the last hundred-odd years, these have included the Spaniards and the Americans, as well as the Soviets. All regard Cuba with the covetous memories of former lovers—longing mingled with knowledge of the island’s practical side, its transactionalism.
Almost from the beginning of its recorded history, Cuba has been seen in such terms, as a supine beauty ready to be seduced and taken, its fruits exploited. In a letter to Spain’s King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1492, Christopher Columbus wrote lyrically of the island’s charms:
The multitude of palm trees of various forms, the highest and most beautiful I have ever met with, and an infinity of other great and green trees; the birds in rich plumage and the verdure of the fields; render this country, most serene princes, of such marvelous beauty that it surpasses all others in charms and graces as the day doth the night in luster. I have been so overwhelmed at the sight of so much beauty that I have not known how to relate it.
After Columbus’s first footfall in the New World, Cuba fell prey to every manner of European freebooter. They were mostly Spaniards, but the British, the Dutch, and the French also came as buccaneers, planters, slavers, and fortune seekers. Just as fortresses were built to ward off the marauders, explorers such as Hernán Cortés launched expeditions from Cuba for the conquest of new lands and new treasures. Eventually, Cuba was turned into a vast plantation for sugar, the cash commodity of its era, and into a great hub for the racket that evolved with it—the African slave trade. Spain’s colonial tenure ended in the twilight years of the nineteenth century with the emergence of the United States as a world power, hungry for its own offshore dominions. By then, the economies of the two lands were deeply intertwined, with American slave ships supplying most of the African captives brought to Cuba and American merchants buying most of the island’s sugar, rum, and tobacco—all of it produced with slave labor.
The Americans had coveted Cuba ever since the time of the Revolutionary War, and in Washington, the debate about taking ownership of the 750-mile-long island that stretched languorously so near American shores was open and unselfconscious. Presidents James Monroe and John Quincy Adams both advocated annexing the island, as did Thomas Jefferson, who wrote, “I candidly confess that I have ever looked on Cuba as the most interesting addition which could ever be made to our system of states.” In 1852, Franklin Pierce won the presidency on a promise of annexing Cuba as an ideal bolster to the southern slave economy, and the next year, his vice president, William Rufus King, a slave-owning cotton planter from Alabama himself, took the oath of office while on a visit to the island.
Cuba’s Creole elites were torn between those who wished to stay with Spain, annexationists seeking protection and profit from greater involvement with the United States (particularly with its slave trade), and those who sought national independence. The idea of true sovereignty had been a battle cry reverberating throughout Spanish America since the French Revolution, and most of the hemisphere’s colonies had broken free since the early nineteenth century.
Cuba inhabits a special place in the imaginations of its one-time allies and would-be possessors.
Alongside the struggle for freedom from Spain, there were also numerous unsuccessful slave revolts and just as many reprisal massacres. Cuba’s colonialist planters were fearful of “another Haiti,” where a bloody slave revolt at the end of the eighteenth century had ended French colonial rule and brought freedom for its enslaved people.
From its origins in 1868, Cuba’s own bid for independence was enmeshed with the movement for abolition. That year, a patrician planter named Carlos Manuel de Céspedes gathered his slaves on his land and declared them free at the same time as he asked them to be his soldiers in a war of independence against Spain. From then on, in the bloody conflicts and the uneasy periods of peace that followed, Cubans never ceased fighting for their independence, and Black Cubans, additionally, for their freedom. By the mid-1890s, the brutal vicissitudes of war—culminating in the Spanish general Valeriano Weyler’s infamous concentration camps, in which as many as one-tenth of the total Cuban population died of disease, hunger, or mistreatment—had helped create a powerful “live free or die” penchant in the Cuban psyche.
By the time the ill-fated USS Maine steamed into Havana Harbor in January 1898, Cuba had produced an admirable canon of heroes and martyrs. Among them were the battle-hardened Antonio Maceo, known as “the Bronze Titan,” and the diminutive journalist and poet José Martí, who, on the eve of his death in battle in 1895, had written presciently to a friend that Cuba’s freedom might yet be won from Spain only to be stolen by the United States.
Ordinary Americans, by and large, sympathized with the Cuban rebels. There were also politicians—Theodore Roosevelt and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge prominent among them—who saw imperial opportunities for the United States. In 1896, the American war correspondent Richard Harding Davis wrote a paean to Cuban courage in “The Death of Rodriguez,” a piece about a youthful rebel he had observed readying himself for death in front of a Spanish firing squad. Comparing the young man’s stoicism with that of the American revolutionaries who had died trying to free themselves from British colonial rule, Davis wrote, “He made a picture of such pathetic helplessness, but of such courage and dignity, that he reminded me on the instant of that statue of Nathan Hale that stands in the City Hall Park above the roar of Broadway, and teaches a lesson daily to the hurrying crowds of moneymakers who pass beneath.”
Americans have long sought to remold Cuba to their taste and convenience.
Although dispatches such as Davis’s helped build up American war fever, it was the mysterious February 15, 1898, explosion that sank the USS Maine in Havana Harbor, killing 256 U.S. sailors, that set the Spanish-American War in motion. With Spain’s military defeat secured after a mere 16 weeks of war, the apple of Madrid’s eye fell to the upstart Yankees.
Over the next half century, Americans sought to remold Cuba to their taste and convenience. Within two years of the Spanish ouster, Washington oversaw the ratification of a Cuban constitution that gave the United States the right to intervene in Cuba and secured Guantánamo Bay as a permanent U.S. naval base. U.S. policymakers also changed the existing land tenure system, opening it up to outside investors and fueling a real estate boom in which Americans and their sugar corporations were the primary beneficiaries. During Prohibition, Cuba became the anything-goes escape for Americans wanting to drink alcohol, gamble, or get divorced. Along the way, Cuban nationalists rebelled, and many died at the hands of the dictators whom the United States saw fit to install or leave in place.
By the time Fidel Castro began cutting a swath across Fulgencio Batista’s gangsterish Cuba in the 1950s, the island’s political firmament was primed to explode. Indeed, looking back over Cuba’s volatile history, it seems inevitable that whenever the battle for Cuba’s sovereignty was finally won, it would be a big and dramatic event—and it was.
In Cuba, Ada Ferrer brings home this epic in all its heady progression. In her foreword, the author, born in Cuba but raised and educated in the United States, explains that this book is the result of 30 years of research. A professor of history at New York University, Ferrer has made the island and its surroundings—and the relationship between her biological homeland and her inherited one—the subject of her entire career. She has written two previously acclaimed historical works, Freedom’s Mirror and Insurgent Cuba, and there is no doubt that this monumental new book represents another formidable piece of original scholarship. It is written, moreover, in an admirably paced narrative style, which, one suspects, will earn it pride of place among the published histories of Cuba.
Looking through the prism of the relationship between Cuba and the society that was eventually established as the United States on the nearby mainland, Ferrer starts with Columbus’s landing and the subsequent genocidal campaigns that saw the Spaniards hunt down the island’s inhabitants, the native Taínos, to near extinction. She continues on through the next four centuries of sugar plantations and slavery and the intertwining of Cuba’s destiny with that of the United States.
The rise of Castro and his half century in power occupy a third of the book’s 33 chapters, a testament both to the dramatic impact of the revolutionary changes he brought to Cuban society and to the complexity of the country’s relationship with the United States. At the end of one chapter, Ferrer writes, “The cold war between these two American republics was never only about the Cold War, never only about communism.” Instead, she explains, it was “a struggle between American power and Cuban sovereignty, and about what the character and limits of each would be.”
For someone whose own family was torn apart by Castro’s revolution, Ferrer manages to take a scrupulously agnostic tone in her scrutiny of Cuban and U.S. history. This alone is an admirable achievement. In her introduction, she explains that it was a conscious effort:
In the process of trying to summon up Cuba’s past, I came to regard it anew. I learned to see it from within and without, refusing the binary interpretations imposed from on high in Washington and Havana and Miami. I began translating Cuba for Americans and the United States for Cubans. Then I used all that to see myself, my family, and my own home—the United States—with different eyes.
Ferrer leaves readers with a present-day Cuba that languishes in the midst of yet another historic juncture: the post-Castro limbo. But the Cubans remain as they have always been, the citizens of an island nation destined by geography to exist in the lee of the American empire. Thanks to Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl, Cuba is politically sovereign but economically vulnerable, and its future is tenuous, with its relationship with the giant of the north as unreconciled as ever.
Ferrer began writing her book in 2015, during the historic U.S.-Cuban détente brokered between U.S. President Barack Obama and Raúl Castro. It was an extraordinary time of hope and anticipation for both Cubans and Americans after five and a half decades of hostility, culminating with Obama’s visit to Havana in March 2016. Recalling how the Cuban capital was spruced up ahead of the big day, Ferrer notes that roads were repaved, buildings repainted, and windows replaced. “Cubans joked that if Obama visited regularly, the city would look new in no time,” she writes. With her historian’s eye for the pivotal moment, Ferrer highlights two crucial parts of the groundbreaking speech that Obama gave in Havana’s venerable Gran Teatro, with Castro in attendance and a live broadcast on Cuban state television. “The first came early,” she recounts, “when the United States’ first Black president began outlining the bonds between the two countries by declaring: ‘We share the same blood. . . . We both live in a new world, colonized by Europeans. Cuba, like the United States, was built in part by slaves brought here from Africa.’” Obama, Ferrer explains, seemed to be saying to Cubans of African descent, “I see you, and I understand your centrality in the past and future of your country.”
The other notable passage in Obama’s speech, according to Ferrer, was his articulation of Cuba’s historical relationship to the United States. “Obama spoke of prerevolutionary Cuba in terms not entirely unlike those used by the Cuban government itself,” she writes. “He spoke of a republic that the United States treated ‘as something to exploit, ignor[ing] poverty and enabl[ing] corruption.’” Of the Cuban Revolution itself, Obama spoke in respectful terms. He referred to “the ideals that are the starting point for every revolution—America’s revolution, Cuba’s revolution, the liberation movements around the world.” Remarkably, Ferrer explains, “an American president spoke about the Cuban Revolution of 1959 and the American Revolution of 1776 in the same breath. More than half a century after it started, the cold war between the United States and Cuba seemed to be at its end.”
Obama’s trip to Cuba was the high-water mark of an opening that did not last.
As it turned out, however, Obama’s trip was the high-water mark of an opening that did not last. The surprise victory of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 U.S. presidential election soon brought an end to the brief U.S.-Cuban rapprochement and coincided with the death of Fidel Castro at the age of 90. It was the end of an era in more ways than one.
In 2018, Raúl Castro, who had succeeded his brother after he fell ill a decade earlier, stood down from the presidency and handed the reins of power to Miguel Díaz-Canel, a handpicked loyalist in his late 50s. Then, in April 2021, two months short of his own 90th birthday, Castro relinquished his post as first secretary of the Cuban Communist Party, also to Díaz-Canel. By then, as he declared at the time, he felt his job was done. In 2019, a new Cuban constitution was ushered in, in which socialism was deemed “irrevocable” as the country’s sole political credo but allowances were made for aspects of capitalism, including private ownership of property and businesses and foreign investment. Somos continuidad—“We are continuity”—has been the transition’s catch phrase.
Although Ferrer shies away from a final judgment on the Castro era, she highlights growing discontent among ordinary people. Many Cubans, she writes, “seemed to be more interested in change than in continuity. It wasn’t necessarily a political position, simply an overriding sense that they wanted improvement—in their earnings, their diets, their daily commutes, their choices and opportunities, their lives.”
Today, life on the island is more difficult than it has been for years. The COVID-19 pandemic closed Cuba off from the outside world and shut down foreign tourism, one of the country’s most important sources of income, for a year and a half—aggravating the penury that came to characterize the Trump years. While in office, Trump adopted a hostile tone with Havana and closed down most of the economic openings that had been authorized by Obama to alleviate economic hardship on the island. Ordinary Cubans, writes Ferrer, felt these impacts most acutely. “Those who had opened small businesses hoping to capitalize on the rise of U.S. tourism shut their doors and parked their carts. . . . Food supplies dwindled, lines grew longer, prices climbed higher.”
Despite his victory in the 2020 U.S. presidential election and notwithstanding his campaign promise to roll back the most deleterious of Trump’s measures, Joe Biden has made few changes to existing U.S. Cuba policy out of an apparent fear of reprisal from the influential conservative Cuban American vote in Florida. This lack of change, combined with chronic shortages of basic essentials, has led to a widespread feeling of pessimism. When protests erupted in cities and towns across the island in July 2021—an unprecedented display of dissatisfaction by ordinary Cubans—the government blamed the United States for stoking the discontent and cracked down hard.
Under pressure, order was soon restored. But with ongoing shortages that evoke memories of the deprivations of the so-called Special Period of the early 1990s that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, it’s an open question how long the situation can last. The Castro brothers are no longer in power, and a new generation of Cubans, born after the demise of the Soviet Union, are not part of the socialist inheritance. These Cubans, who represent about a third of the population, are less ideological than their parents and grandparents and wish mostly to live normal lives. They want to work and live and travel and to express themselves freely as people do almost everywhere else in the Western Hemisphere. Many now also have the means to know what they are missing out on, thanks to access to the Internet and social media. In the face of this generational sea change, Cuba’s government wields power in an existential limbo and fills the void by exhorting its citizens to be faithful patriots. It is their duty, so Havana claims, to stand up for the Cuban independence that was fought for, won, and consolidated by the revolution and through socialism.
Cubans increasingly express aspirations that transcend national sovereignty.
Whether Cuba’s ruling Communist Party can secure another half century in power by embracing capitalism and controlling it within an autocratic state, as China and Vietnam have done, remains to be seen. A “modestly mixed economy,” observes Ferrer, is what appears to be on the government’s drawing board. But dissatisfaction with government control remains, and Ferrer suggests that the state will likely continue to repress those who disagree with its policies—pointing to an early decree by Díaz-Canel prohibiting artists from performing or exhibiting in public without prior permission from the Ministry of Culture.
Ferrer rightly defines the current Cuban reality as a “crisis,” with a future that is far from clear. She makes the point, however, that “improvement in the day-to-day lives of Cuban people depends on more than the occupant of the White House.” Such changes also depend on decisions taken by Cuba’s government and, ultimately, by the Cuban people themselves. In the end, she suggests, it will be up to Cuba’s citizens—ordinary civilians—to show both governments the way forward.
Meanwhile, Cuba’s people increasingly express aspirations that transcend historical concerns about national sovereignty. In the short term, it seems likely that more of them will join the calls for greater freedom in their everyday lives. Yunior García is a 39-year-old playwright who has emerged as a spokesperson for Cubans demanding change. As he put it recently, without flourish, “We want a country where everyone has a place, an inclusive country where the rights of all citizens are respected.” Sometimes, the simplest things are the most elusive.