The continuing debacle of US foreign policy towards Cuba

Alan Gross had travelled to Cuba as a subcontractor for the US Agency for International Development (USAid). The 64 year old American was detained in 2009 after travelling repeatedly to the island, to clandestinely promote internet access using sensitive communications equipment (prohibited under Cuban law). Gross is currently 4 years into a 15 year prison sentence. The truth is that Alan Gross is just the latest unfortunate human pawn in what has now been more than half a century of disastrous US foreign policy towards Cuba.  This month he undertook a hunger strike in a desperate protest against his incarceration and perceived abandonment by his own government.

The hunger strike coincides with the latest debacle in US foreign policy, as it emerged this month that USAid had covertly established and funded a twitter-like text based service called ZunZuneo on the island. The service aimed to bypass the island’s strict censorship laws by distributing messages critical of the Cuban government. The clandestine nature of the service was confirmed as it was revealed that ZunZuneo was established using Spanish front companies to hide its true origins. It’s very public unveiling this month is a propaganda coup that Fidel Castro himself could not have replicated.

This is just the latest farcical episode in what has been almost 55 years of failing US foreign policy towards Cuba. It wasn’t long after Castro took power in 1959 (by toppling military dictator Fulgencio Batista), that the CIA first began plotting to overthrow his revolution. There were more than 600 known plots to assassinate the bearded guerilla fighter, plots which even Hollywood couldn’t script: from a poisoned wet suit and an exploding cigar, to a handkerchief submerged in lethal bacteria. In 1961 Castro’s forces repelled a CIA orchestrated invasion comprised of about 1,400 exiled Cubans at the Bay of Pigs. The following year the Kennedy administration imposed an embargo of the island, which remains to this day.

The embargo, bloqueo (blockade, as its known to Cubans), severely restricts US economic, social and political relations with the island. Imagine if Norway found itself blockaded by every country in the European Union for half a century, and you’re coming close to imagining what has happened to Cuba since 1962. There’s little doubt that Cuba is an economic basket case, a country stuck in a time warp, but this is hardly surprising considering the circumstances.

To anyone who has lived in Cuba, it’s clear that the revolutionary system does not enjoy widespread support. Cuban society is restrictive and oppressive and the vast majority of Cubans don’t support the continuation of what is now a quasi-communist state dominated by the military. The truth is that the US embargo promotes a siege mentality on the island that only helps the Castro government. Whilst communism has few supporters on the island, Cubans have long memories and have not forgotten the US exploitation of Cuba prior to the revolution in 1959. Deep rooted nationalism is an obvious Cuban trait (and has been since the late-1800s when Cubans rebelled against Spanish colonial rule), and the mainstream media often fails to report that Castro led a nationalist uprising against a corrupt military dictatorship in the 1950s. It was a nationalist rebellion rather than a communist revolution. In fact Fidel Castro spent his first year in power distancing the revolution from communism (unlike his brother and current Cuban President Raul Castro, and Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara who had been convinced communists for years prior to the success of the revolution). It wasn’t until 1961 that Fidel Castro declared a socialist revolution. The turn to communism followed years of hostility from the US, during which time they enormously reduced the US sugar quota (on which the Cuban economy relied upon). Concerns over possible US intervention (which it turned out happened to be well founded) resulted in Castro’s revolution turning to the Soviet Union for protection, as they say, the rest is history.

Disastrous US foreign policy towards Cuba has been Castro’s greatest gift. The revolution has blamed all its country’s ills on el bloqueo, Uncle Sam and Yankee imperialism. This scapegoat hasn’t changed at all since 1961, and we can see exactly the same narrative being deployed across Latin America. The Venezuelan leader, Nicolas Maduro, blames his country’s problems (including the well documented recent protests) on the greedy Yankees who are hell bent on toppling his government and getting their hands on Venezuela’s oil. It’s not difficult to sell this narrative to Latin Americans, because the truth is that recent Latin American history has been plagued by outrageous examples of US imperialism and exploitation. In the case of Cuba, it seems that US foreign policy makers are doing everything they can to perpetuate this narrative. Whilst the US are now “friends” with other former mortal enemies like communist China and Vietnam, the US still seems to be entirely incapable of rationally managing relations with Cuba (its proximity to US shores is clearly an important factor).

The US continues to funnel millions of dollars into promoting regime change in Havana. This year’s budget for radio and television Martí for example (an anti-Castro propaganda service based in Florida) is $27 million. A huge amount, considering the fact that Cuba successfully jams its signals (almost nobody in Cuba can actually watch or listen to Martí). The US treasury may as well burn $27 million (or better yet, build a new hospital or school). US meddling in Cuba only galvanises support for the revolution, it only confirms the Cuban people’s existing suspicions that the Yankees are exploitative and up to no good. What is rarely reported in the mainstream media, is that bloggers like Yoani Sánchez are often perceived to be US lackeys in Cuba, even by those who wouldn’t otherwise support the communist system. Covert actions like the ZunZuneo programme simply confirm existing suspicions. Washington apparently fails to realise that the cold war is over. Old fashioned espionage, which breaches respect for national sovereignty, can never lead to success in a proud and ultra nationalistic country like Cuba.

The politically powerful Cuban-American lobby in south Florida (the most hard line of which fled the revolution in the late 1950s and 1960s) have been the architects of a firm no-engagement policy since 1962. As the older generations of exiles die out, so do the archaic attitudes they held. With this regeneration comes hope, hope that US foreign policy makers in the not-too-distant future will finally realise that only a complete cease in espionage, a total dismantling of the embargo, and unrestricted political, economic and social engagement can succeed in truly changing Cuba. Anything that is perceived as ‘intervention’, will only be met with opposition by the vast majority of Cubans. To a Cuban, the only thing worse than their government telling them what to do, is a foreign government telling them what to do.

As the two Cold War adversaries continue to play their games, Alan Gross, who has lost more than 49 kilos since his arrest, sits desperately in a small cell with two other prisoners for 23 hours a day. Whilst Gross was foolish, he is also just another victim of a misguided US foreign policy which has continued to fail since 1962. The US has not only failed in its objective to topple communist Cuba, but it has actually succeeded in prolonging it. It has galvanised nationalism amongst the Cuban people on the island, people who would have otherwise cast off the shadow of communism years ago.