In his speech last week announcing the "normalization" of relations with Cuba, President Obama referred to America's "colonial" history on the island. I did a double-take when I heard him say this. For those of us who actually grew up in Cuba, that startling remark sparked some bad memories, of teachers and other communist functionaries trying to indoctrinate us into hating the United States and the republic that existed between 1902 and 1959.
Outside of those environs, save perhaps for some of the more "revolutionary" sectors of Europe, I don't think I've ever heard of the US being a colonial power in Cuba. That's mainly because it didn't happen. President Obama was basically echoing the propaganda of the Cuban government or of Left Bank socialists.
The Castros have always sought to smear the relationship that has existed between the US and Cuba from the time the two countries were European colonies. They have also denigrated the republic and Spain's 400 years of colonial rule. Basically, anything that came before the Revolution is vilified, to the point that some speculate that the city of Havana has been allowed to sink in ruins because the once-beautiful architecture stood as silent and reproaching witness to the glories past.
My fear is that by throwing a line to the Castros, the president may prolong the regime's stay in power
But why would a US president want to give that narrative any credence? Here's what he said:
To the Cuban people, America extends a hand of friendship. Some of you have looked to us as a source of hope, and we will continue to shine a light of freedom. Others have seen us as a former colonizer intent on controlling your future ... Let us leave behind the legacy of both colonization and communism .... We can never erase the history between us, but we believe that you should be empowered to live with dignity and self-determination.
I can see how one might be embarrassed of the past and regret that it can't be erased, if one thought that there is indeed "a legacy of colonization." I'll put it charitably when I say that President Obama has been misinformed. His misreading of Cuban history has no doubt led him to think that he knew better than nine of his predecessors by recognizing a regime that has been a blotch on half a millennium of Cuban history.
No one really knows what the future will be as a result of President Obama's change. My fear is that by throwing a line to the Castros, the president may prolong the regime's stay in power. Either way, the US will continue to play a large role in Cuban affairs — because it always has. We have history here as a guide, and when it comes to history, President Obama need not hang his head in shame.
On the contrary, there's much that the US can be proud of in its past dealings with Cuba, starting with the fact that Cubans helped liberate the original 13 colonies from Britain and, more than a century later, the US paid back the favor in spades by freeing Cubans from their true colonial power, Spain.
In fact, the desire for stronger relations with Cuba was one of the reasons the American colonists rose up. "A fundamental cause of the revolt of the British North American colonies was their desire to trade with Cuba," wrote British historian Hugh Thomas in his 1971 masterpiece, Cuba, or the Pursuit of Freedom. Thomas was referring to the Sugar Duties Act of 1764, which wreaked havoc with the very profitable business between Americans and Cuban sugar planters, who sent their product to be refined in New England. John Adams recognized this fact when he said after the revolution: "I know not why we should blush to confess that molasses was an essential ingredient in American independence."
This was why, at the height of Revolutionary war, when Gens. Washington and Rochambeau launched an appeal for money, a public collection quickly ensued in Havana. The city's leading ladies gave their own jewels to help the Continental Army, leading historian Stephen Bonsal to write in When the French Were Here, "The million that was supplied by the ladies of Havana, may, with truth, be regarded as the ‘bottom dollars' upon which the edifice of American independence was erected."
And, of course, in 1781 colonial troops from Cuba under Gen. Bernardo de Galvez took Pensacola from the British, cutting off their access to the Mississippi. My fifth great-grandfather Antonio Duarte, a captain in Havana's volunteer infantry regiment and a fourth generation Cuban himself, took part.
This history is indeed felt personally. I know Cuban history not only from reading a great deal of it, but also because I grew up in a family where, as Faulkner said in Requiem for a Nun: "the past is never dead. It's not even past."
Three of my four great-grandfathers were involved in the Cuban Wars of Independence from the late 1860s to the late 1890s, on both sides. Their experiences, sufferings, and achievements in that conflict were recounted to me, if not daily, then at least with uncommon frequency. It was like living with ghosts in your living room, though in a good way.
The most important transmitter of information was, as in many families, my paternal grandmother, a regal and commanding presence in our Havana home and still one in my memory. She was seven when the war ended, and 11 when the US occupation came to a close in 1902. Six decades on, her memory remained quite intact.
The strong consensus in my Havana home was that the Cubans could never have beaten Spain on their own. That they had fought the colonial power to a stalemate after three decades of intermittent war was proof of their valor. But Spain was too large a country to vanquish outright, and the concentration camp policies pursued by the Spanish Governor Valeriano Weyler, a grandee of Spain, had devastated the countryside.
Again, I know this because my grandmother's family had to leave the then-chaotic countryside and settle in Havana during the war, and despite the many decades passed, she was still not happy about it.
The Castros have always sought to smear the relationship between the US and Cuba
Her father, a surgeon and sociologist whose books are still used by American graduate students, announced to my great-grandmother one day that he was going to leave the household and join the rebels. She in turn informed him that, if that were the case, she would return to the war-ravished interior with the children and he would never see them again.
As he considered his options, the Spaniards showed up at our house and recruited my great-grandfather to treat their war-wounded. That's how he ended up on the Spanish side, and yes, his daughter, my grandmother, was still fuming about that turn of events decades on.
In a book published in 1920, my great-grandfather recounted with great sadness how Weyler ordered an orphanage cleared so he could use it as a military hospital, and sent the orphans to an abandoned convent which lacked water, sewage and electricity. The convent, he wrote, turned "into a horrible butcher house" where upward of 80 of "the tender souls died."
Another great-grandfather, my namesake Miguel Gonzalez, was plucked out of his village in northern Spain and sent to Cuba to fight (just like Fidel and Raul Castro's own father, Angel). Yet a third great-grandfather, though also a northern Spaniard, loved Cuba so much that he joined the rebel cause, and fought on their side.
Their recollections, handed down to me two generations later, were that the rebels were not winning, to put it mildly. They saw both sides up close, and concluded that the rebels were on the defensive while Weyler was killing thousands.
Enter the United States. Historians, being of their ilk, have always stressed the role played by the "Yellow Press," especially the part owned by Hearst, in instigating the decision by President McKinley to enter the war on the side of the Cubans. I guess no good deed shall ever go unpunished.
For my great-grandfathers, caught in the carnage of the fighting, the US help came in the nick of time. Upon seeing Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders, one of them joyfully uttered a loud profanity, a story also passed on, especially as he was a devout Catholic who had founded churches and helped hospitals.
The Spanish-American War itself was a quick thing, a 10-week affair that left the United States in charge of the Spanish possessions of The Philippines, Puerto Rico and Cuba. The first two were colonies; Cuba was not.
Cuba was to be occupied militarily only until it could rule itself. There were never plans for permanent control. A condition of the war, in fact, was the Teller Amendment, which stated that that the United States "hereby disclaims any disposition of intention to exercise sovereignty, jurisdiction or control over said island." When peace was achieved, the president was directed "to leave the government and control of the island to its people."
For my great-grandfathers, caught in the carnage of the fighting, the US help came in the nick of time
The military occupation lasted four years, during which Cubans and Americans worked together to bring sanitation and democratic practices to the island. President McKinley wrote to the military governor Leonard Wood: "I want you to go down there to get the people ready for a republican form of government. I leave the details of procedure to you. Give them a good school system, try to straighten out their courts. Put them on their feet as best you can. We want to do all we can for them and get out of the island as soon as we safely can." Hardly an order to colonize.
It culminated in elections and the founding of the republic in 1902. One of my great-grandfathers gave my great-grandmother a ring with a ruby, a diamond and a sapphire to commemorate the red, white and blue of the Cuban flag. It will be worn by my daughter one day.
In 1906, unrest on the island drew a two-year re-occupation. It was uneventful, and the US once again turned over sovereignty to Cubans after free elections.
Was the US perfect during the military occupations? No. No country ever is. It gave American companies exclusive rights that had some unhealthy economic results. Cuba never truly diversified away from sugar, for example.
But this is small potatoes. Besides, how different is that from what the Chamber of Commerce wants to do now, with Obama playing the role of Teddy Roosevelt and Howard Taft? For make no mistake, President Obama's decision to re-establish relations has the full endorsement of the Chamber, which sent a reconnoitering team to Cuba earlier this year. According to a friend of mine who participated in a meeting with them, members of the Chamber are already boasting that they, too, like their antecedents in the early 20th century, will be given special rights.
There was also what was called the Platt Amendment, which gave the US the right to intervene in Cuba whenever it felt it had to act "for the preservation of Cuban independence." Many Cubans felt it unduly interfered with the island's sovereignty, so the amendment was repealed in 1934.
For the remainder of the Republic, the US was its largest trading partner and played a key role on the island. Was this good or bad? Here are some stats for you.
In 1957, Cuba was third in all of Latin America in per capita food consumption. It also had Latin America's lowest infant mortality rate. Only 12 countries in the world were ahead of it. Its rate of 32 deaths per 1,000 live births put it ahead of France, Belgium, West Germany, Japan, Italy, Austria and former colonial power Spain. Maybe it was because its 128 doctors and dentists per 100,000 people was six physicians better than the UK's.
But by the late 1990s, after 40 years of Fidel, Cuba ranked among the last in per capita daily caloric intake.
In the 1950s, Cubans ranked first in Latin America (and fifth in the world) in television sets per capita. Its literacy rate was also only fourth in Latin America, behind only Argentina, Chile and Costa Rica. And those who were literate could read what they wanted. Cuba also had 58 national newspapers which spanned the political spectrum — the fifth-most in Latin America. All were private and independent. Today Cuba has Granma and Juventud Rebelde, both unreadable mouthpieces of the Communist Party.
Yes, in the 1950s Cuba had the dictator Fulgencio Batista. But my grandfather could still denounce him on the radio and live.
Since Fidel Castro overthrew Batista, the US has been one of very few countries to stand by the people of Cuba in denouncing the repression they suffer. While Europeans, Canadians and Latin Americans were happy to vacation in an island prison, and their lonely middle-aged men were able to take advantage of the poverty of the Cuban women, our government has been supporting civil society by appropriating some $16 million a year to that end. I hope that ending this support for civil society will not be next on President Obama's bucket list, though it will definitely be among the first demands that Raul Castro will issue.
I'd say that overall, warts and all, our president should be very proud of the US's record in Cuba, and not want to see it erased. This, and not the "history" that President Obama apparently reads, was the result of the US influence in Cuba. It's too bad President Obama chose to downgrade it.