In 1972, President Nixon began a process to normalize relations with communist China. In his own stumbling-into-stuff-way, President Reagan did the same with the Soviets in the 1980s. Both countries were powerful and in a position to really challenge the United State. When all these changes happened, having two Republican presidents reach out to Cold War enemies wasn’t really an issue.
Then there is Cuba. The Caribbean nation has posed no real threat to U.S. hegemony, be it in economic or military terms.
Why then did the U.S. boycott against Cuba last for more than five decades?
There are many reasons. Conventional wisdom would say that the role of the Cuban community played a key role. They had the ability to influence presidential elections. But were they always (or ever) that powerful? The first waves of Cubans leaving the island in the 1960s did not become a powerful lobby as soon as they landed. I’ve heard countless stories of professionals leaving everything behind and even having to go to school again as their credentials from Cuba or Spain were not accepted when they arrived to the U.S.
Sure, the Cuban community eventually grew strong, economically and politically, and many in the exile community kept a score to settle with Castro, while planning for their return to the island. But when the Cuban community was in a position to exert its political power and support the continuation of the embargo, the embargo was already in place. Therefore, the embargo was not created by the Cuban exile community. The “Cuban lobby” and the desire to win elections became an expeditious myth to continue the embargo.
The main reasons for the establishment and subsequent continuation of the embargo was American hubris and a historical interest in controlling the island. And it started in the 19th century. Read what Thomas Jefferson wrote in July of 1823 to James Monroe:
I have been lately visited by a Mr. Miralla, a native of Buenos Ayres, but resident in  Cuba for the last seven or eight years; a person of intelligence, of much information, and frankly communicative. I believe, indeed, he is known to you. I availed myself of the opportunity of learning what was the state of public sentiment in Cuba as to their future course. He says they should be satisfied to remain as they are; but all are sensible that that cannot be; that whenever circumstances shall render a separation from Spain necessary, a perfect independance [sic] would be their choice, provided they could see a certainty of protection; but that, without that prospect, they would be divided in opinion between an incorporation with Mexico, and with the United States.—Columbia being too remote for prompt support. The considerations in favor of Mexico are that the Havana would be the emporium for all the produce of that immense and wealthy country, and of course, the medium of all its commerce; that having no ports on its eastern coast, Cuba would become the depot of its naval stores and strength, and, in effect, would, in a great measure, have the sinews of the government in its hands. That in favor of the United States is the fact that three-fourths of the exportations from Havana come to the United States, that they are a settled government, the power which can most promptly succor them, rising to an eminence promising future security; and of which they would make a member of the sovereignty….
I had supposed an English interest there quite as strong as that of the United States, and therefore, that, to avoid war, and keep the island open to our own commerce, it would be best to join that power in mutually guaranteeing its independence. But if there is no danger of its falling into the possession of England, I must retract an opinion founded on an error of fact. We are surely under no obligation to give her, gratis, an interest which she has not; and the whole inhabitants being averse to her, and the climate mortal to strangers, its continued military occupation by her would be impracticable. It is better then to lie still in readiness to receive that interesting incorporation when solicited by herself. For, certainly, her addition to our confederacy is exactly what is wanting to round our power as a nation to the point of its utmost interest.
Soon enough, the Monroe Doctrine is declared on December 2, 1823.
Part of the doctrine reads as follows:
We owe it, therefore, to candor and to the amicable relations existing between the United States and those powers to declare that we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety. With the existing colonies or dependencies of any European power we have not interfered and shall not interfere. But with the Governments who have declared their independence and maintain it, and whose independence we have, on great consideration and on just principles, acknowledged, we could not view any interposition for the purpose of oppressing them, or controlling in any other manner their destiny, by any European power in any other light than as the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States. In the war between those new Governments and Spain we declared our neutrality at the time of their recognition, and to this we have adhered, and shall continue to adhere, provided no change shall occur which, in the judgement of the competent authorities of this Government, shall make a corresponding change on the part of the United States indispensable to their security.
Add the Manifest Destiny narrative coined in the 1840s (originally used to explain the United States’ purely economic need to reach the shores of the Pacific), and it should not surprise you that administration after administration (and business interests) were deeply intrigued by the island. By the 1850s (as explained by Louis Pérez) “it was possible for the United States to think of the Caribbean islands as naturally Americans.”
Then came the war of 1898 when the Cuban Revolution was first thwarted, as Fidel Castro’s famous speech would claim.
During that era, Alfred T. Mahan, the most important American military strategist of the early 20th century, explained the purchase of Louisiana and the Florida as part of the Jeffersonian idea to exclude European powers from the Americas, a philosophy that Mahan extended to Cuba, Puerto Rico and eventually to Panama.
So that was the final ingredient: military reasoning for controlling the Caribbean.
We know what happened after the US intervened in the Cuban Revolution of 1898. Cuba became a de facto protectorate of the U.S. Puerto Rico and the Philippines became American colonies.
Fast forward to the Cuban Revolution of 1959, and it is not surprising to hear President Kennedy during his presidential campaign and after being elected president invoking, of all things, the Monroe Doctrine to discredit the Eisenhower administration’s (Nixon included) “weak” policies regarding Cuba and Castro.
On October 6, 1960, Kennedy gave a major campaign speech about Cuba. Here are some excerpts:
This is a critical situation – to find so dangerous an enemy on our very doorstep. The American people want to know how this was permitted to happen – how the Iron Curtain could have advanced almost to our front yard. They want to know the truth – and I believe that they are entitled to the truth. It is not enough to blame it on unknown State Department personnel. Major policy on issues such as Cuban security is made at the highest levels – in the National Security Council and elsewhere – and it is the party in power which must accept full responsibility for this disaster.
The story of the transformation of Cuba from a friendly ally to a Communist base is – in large measure – the story of a government in Washington which lacked the imagination and compassion to understand the needs of the Cuban people – which lacked the leadership and vigor to move forward to meet those needs – and which lacked the foresight and vision to see the inevitable results of its own failures.
And it is a tragic irony that even while these policies of failure here were being pursued our policymakers received repeated and urgent warnings that international communism was becoming a moving force behind Mr. Castro and the revolution – that our interest and the interests of freedom were in danger – that a new Soviet satellite was in the making.
Candidate Kennedy also said this:
Today time is running out in Latin America. Our once firm friends are drifting away. Our historic ties are straining under our failure to understand their aspirations. And although the cold war will not be won in Latin America, it could very well be lost there.
If we continue to repeat our past errors – if we continue to care more for the support of regimes than the friendship of people – if we continue to devote greater effort to the support of dictators than to the fight against poverty and hunger – then rising discontent will provide fertile ground for Castro and his Communist friends.
What can a new administration do to reverse these trends? For the present Cuba is gone. Our policies of neglect and indifference have let it slip behind the Iron Curtain – and for the present no magic formula will bring it back. I have no basic disagreement with the President’s policies of recent months – for the time to save Cuba was some time ago.
The following is from a press conference President Kennedy gave on August 29, 1962:
Q. Sir, would you tell us what the Monroe Doctrine means to you today in the light of world conditions and in Cuba?
THE PRESIDENT. The Monroe Doctrine means what it has meant since President Monroe and John Quincy Adams enunciated it, and that is that we would oppose a foreign power extending its power to the Western Hemisphere. And that’s why we oppose what is being—what’s happening in Cuba today. That’s why we have cut off our trade. That’s why we worked in the OAS and in other ways to isolate the Communist menace in Cuba. That’s why we’ll continue to give a good deal of our effort and attention to it.
Kennedy followed an old tradition among American politicians and strategists who considered Cuba as an extension (a backyard?) of the United States. The embargo policy was strengthened by JFK’s campaign rhetoric, which ironically has not been historically rejected by the Cuban American exile community who will always place the blame of Kennedy for the Bay of Pigs.
From a 2011 article about Kennedy’s legacy:
After the botched Bay of Pigs invasion, Kennedy became a curse word among many Cuban exiles who blamed the president for abandoning their brothers on the beaches to Fidel Castro. Even a half-century later, the community’s anger continues.
“Kennedy betrayed the Cuban people,” Vicente Blanco told the Orlando Sun Sentinel this month while another Bay of Pigs veteran named Carl Sudano remembered that after the assassination in Dallas, “I shed no tears.”
Yet even with all the failures to stop the Castro government, the embargo remained. American hubris kept it alive.
It was obvious that the embargo did not hurt the regime but the people of Cuba. In fact, it strengthened the regime as it galvanized Cuban support for it. And it made the U.S. look like a regional bully.
But the idea that the U.S. should be able to control Cuba perpetuated a failed and ill-conceived policy—even after the fall of the Soviet bloc.
It is great to see that the Obama administration has come to its senses and that is not hiding behind that useful tool of the “Cuban lobby.” Without question, over five decades of failers will soon be dismantled.
Yet I am also not that naive, I know there are numerous political reasons moving the Obama administration to follow a new path. Mainly among them is the role that Latinos will play in the next elections, that Puerto Ricans in Florida are more progressive and a significant voting bloc. Most importantly, a large sector of the Cuban-American population does not share the view of the old guard regarding the embargo.
All in all, I could not be happier that this policy is coming to an end.
Maybe we will finally be able to have a real “America for the Americans.”
Harry Franqui-Rivera is a historian, a blogger and a researcher at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, Hunter College, CUNY. He has a forthcoming book, “Fighting for the Nation” on the Puerto Rican experience in the Spanish and U.S. military. He has recently published in online magazines on the topic of Puerto Ricans in the Korean War and the Diaspora. You can follow him @hfranqui.