In September 1933, a Cuban army sergeant named Fulgencio Batista y Zaldivar led a coup against the Cuban government that was called the Revolt of the Sergeants. For the next seven years, Batista exercised effective control of the Cuban government. Then in 1940, he promulgated a progressive constitution and won popular election as president of Cuba under that constitution.
Batista carried out social and economic reforms, advancing health care and promoting labor unions, earning him the support of Cuba’s nascent Communist Party. But Batista’s constitution limited him to a single four-year term as president, and his hand-picked candidate to succeed him lost the 1944 election.
Batista ran for president again in 1952. Trailing badly in three-way race, Batista engineered another coup and resumed the presidency. His second time around, Batista was no progressive. Although Cuba as a whole did well economically, inequality was severe. Batista was the first non-white Cuban president, and perhaps for that reason, he badly wanted the approval of Cuba’s economic elite. When Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., was asked to assess the second Batista government for the Eisenhower Administration, he concluded, with considerable prescience:
“The corruption of the Government, the brutality of the police, the government’s indifference to the needs of the people for education, medical care, housing, for social justice and economic justice … is an open invitation to revolution.”
Batista cultivated a corrupt relationship with American organized crime running gambling, prostitution and drug operations in Cuba. John Kennedy, during the 1960 presidential campaign, condemned Batista’s regime and the Eisenhower administration’s support for it:
“Fulgencio Batista murdered 20,000 Cubans in seven years … and he turned Democratic Cuba into a complete police state – destroying every individual liberty. Yet our aid to his regime, and the ineptness of our policies, enabled Batista to invoke the name of the United States in support of his reign of terror. Administration spokesmen publicly praised Batista – hailed him as a staunch ally and a good friend – at a time when Batista was murdering thousands, destroying the last vestiges of freedom, and stealing hundreds of millions of dollars from the Cuban people, and we failed to press for free elections.”
The revolution predicted by Schlesinger was led by Fidel Castro, who took power on January 8, 1959, a week after Batista fled to exile in Portugal, granted asylum by the Portuguese dictator Antonio Salazar.
Castro’s revolution was followed by several waves of Cuban emigration to the United States, mostly to the Miami area. Many of the first emigrants, who included large numbers of the social and economic elites that Batista had courted, hoped to be able to return home soon, and worked hard to make it so.
In July 1960, the American government responded to confiscation of some American-owned properties by reducing the import quota for Cuban brown sugar. The Soviet Union promptly promised to buy the excess sugar. Economic sanctions escalated to embargo three months later, and the embargo has been strengthened by a series of executive and legislative acts, most recently the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000.
The American embargo has earned worldwide opposition. Every year since 1992, the United Nations General Assembly has adopted resolutions condemning the embargo as a violation of international law and the UN Charter. In recent years, of all the nations in the world only Israel has joined the United States in opposing these resolutions.
Disproportionately influenced by the Cuban-American voting bloc in the large electoral swing state of Florida, American presidents and would-be presidents have been almost entirely unwilling to take on the embargo, or the broader issue of American-Cuban relations. Cuban-Americans are free to send money called “remittances” to family members in Cuba, and to travel to Cuba, but any suggestion that American tourist travel to Cuba be allowed, or that the trade embargo be loosened, is met by widespread Cuban-American condemnation: American trade and tourism would provide the money needed to keep the Castro regime in power. Curiously, Cuban-American remittances and travel to Cuba aren’t said to have the same effect.
Cuban-American immigrants are aging, and their children and grandchildren do not share their anti-Castro animus. American attitudes as a whole have softened toward Cuba.
President Obama announced yesterday the resumption of normal diplomatic relations with Cuba, and he asked Congress to lift the economic embargo. He said that after 50 years of shunning Cuba without any benefit to show for it, we should try something else.
American standards for establishing and maintaining diplomatic relations are not, and should not be, especially strict. Today, we lack diplomatic relations only with Bhutan, Iran, and North Korea. Neither democratic self-government nor respect for human rights has been a pre-condition for diplomatic relations with the United States. After all, we have embassies in Belarus, in Vietnam, in China, in Sudan, in Venezuela, in Saudi Arabia, in Russia.
Karl Marx said that capitalism is a natural stage of development on the way to socialism, but I think he may have had it backwards. The moral justification for capitalism is the notion that we compete on a level playing field and succeed or fail entirely according to our own merits. But if the playing field is not level, and we succeed or fail in large measure according to the circumstances of our birth, capitalism loses moral legitimacy.
Castro’s Cuba has leveled its playing field in many respects, so that capitalism could succeed now in a way that it could not under Batista. I don’t want to diminish in any way the Cuban government’s abuse of its people, but the fact is that Cubans enjoy universal education and universal medical care. The Cuban literacy rate is 99.8 percent, comparable to the American literacy rate of 99 percent. Cuban life expectancy is 79.4 years, comparable to Americans’ 79.8 years – and Cubans spend a mere fraction on health care of what we spend.
Anti-Cuban sanctions have a history of fuzzy rationale. Initially intended to punish Castro for confiscating American property, sanctions have variously been held up as means to turn Castro away from the Soviet Union, achieve regime change in Cuba, moderate Castro’s anti-American actions abroad, and enhance Cuban civil rights. Throughout, though, the suspicion has hung in the air that the real purpose of the sanctions was to court the votes of Florida’s anti-Castro Cuban-Americans.
News reports yesterday and today showed popular celebration in Havana – the Cuban people are overjoyed at President Obama’s news. Especially if we are going to preach the gospel of democracy, we should trust the Cuban people to know what is in their interests, and stop worrying about whether a decent respect for Cuba helps or hurts the Castro regime.