by Zoltan Zigedy
US President Barack Obama came to Havana with a cautiously crafted, calculated message to the people of the world, the people of the US, and the people of Cuba.
To the people of the world, Obama was signaling, on his part, a new posture towards the Republic of Cuba. His expressed desire to remove the blockade and to open up relations must be taken at face value and welcomed. How far he intends to pursue this goal and with how much energy is to be seen. That it is part of a carefully cultivated “Obama Doctrine” blossoming in the last year of his Presidency should be apparent.
In his confessional series of interviews with Jeffrey Goldberg for The Atlantic, he makes his posture towards Latin American anti-imperialism clear: “When I came into office, at the first Summit of the Americas that I attended, Hugo Chávez—the late anti-American Venezuelan dictator—was still the dominant figure in the conversation,” he said. “We made a very strategic decision early on, which was, rather than blow him up as this 10-foot giant adversary, to right-size the problem and say, ‘We don’t like what’s going on in Venezuela, but it’s not a threat to the United States.’ ”
Obama said that to achieve this rebalancing, the U.S. had to absorb the diatribes and insults of superannuated Castro manqués. “When I saw Chávez, I shook his hand and he handed me a Marxist critique of the U.S.–Latin America relationship,” Obama recalled. “And I had to sit there and listen to Ortega”—Daniel Ortega, the radical leftist president of Nicaragua—”make an hour-long rant against the United States. But us being there, not taking all that stuff seriously—because it really wasn’t a threat to us”—helped neutralize the region’s anti-Americanism.
If we substitute “anti-imperialism” for “anti-Americanism” (tellingly, Obama doesn’t count Latin America as America), we can see that the Obama Doctrine is a more clever and, therefore, more insidious policy to maintain US dominance in the region; overt tolerance coupled with covert intervention promises more success than an earlier strategy of saber-rattling and brute force.
To the people of the US, Obama was underscoring what he hopes to be perceived as his foreign policy legacy, an opening to Cuba that will stand with Nixon’s rapprochement with the Peoples Republic of China and Reagan’s overtures to Gorbachev’s USSR. Like Reagan’s move, Obama’s Cuba trip was a charm offensive meant to sell the image of a benign super power putting aside long-standing differences in order to “open up” opportunities for business and bring Cuba back into the Western fold.
But unlike his predecessors, Obama presses his initiative late in his term, leaving the heavy lifting to those who will follow. The fact that he never tackled the Helms-Burton Act early in his service (and a host of other promises and expectations) when he inherited a super-majority in the legislative branch demonstrates both a slug-like caution and a shallowness of conviction, a less flattering part of his legacy.
To the Cuban people, Obama brought to Havana a caricature of past relations and the attitude of a friendly big brother. He made his point of selling market reforms, outside investors, and Western-style “democracy,” wrapping it with a ribbon of smarmy good-neighborliness. While the Western media and liberals saw this as a moment of Obama’s greatness and magnanimity, one man saw it differently. Charged with protecting Cuban sovereignty and dignity for the last fifty-six years, Fidel Castro Ruz wrote from retirement, reminding the world that while Cuba seeks normal country-to-country relations with the US, it neither forgets nor forgives the transgressions of the past.
Nor does it trust the promises of the future. In a not-too-subtle reminder — direct enough for even the planners and speech writers in the State Department — Fidel quotes Antonio Maceo, Afro-Cuban leader of the mambises [guerrilla fighters] in the liberation struggle against Spain: “Whoever attempts to appropriate Cuba will reap only the dust of its soil drenched in blood, if he does not perish in the struggle.” Fidel offers “brother Obama” a history lesson in the long and relentless effort to overthrow the Cuban revolution by its “neighbor” to the North.
Nor will he allow the neighbor to the north to shrug off the Cold War as merely a past misunderstanding. He reminds Obama that the Cold War battle lines in Africa divided colonialism and apartheid from African liberation. Without embarrassing Obama with the fact that the US stood with those opposing African liberation, Fidel revisited Cuba’s intense, principled and long support for Africa’s freedom.
In contrast to the truncated, simplistic, and self-serving account of the struggle for racial equality in the US offered by Obama (“But people organized; they protested; they debated these issues; they challenged government officials. And because of those protests, and because of those debates, and because of popular mobilization, I’m able to stand here today as an African-American and as President of the United States. That was because of the freedoms that were afforded in the United States that we were able to bring about change.”)
Fidel reminded the US President that the revolutionary government “swept away racial discrimination” in Cuba and persistently fought manifestations of racism. Unlike in the US, the Cuban people fought racism along with their government, not against the government’s promotion of it; where racism persists in Cuba, it is in spite of the government, not because of it.
Fidel, with a Marxist dedication to historical context, understandably views US overtures with some skepticism, doubting that the changes mark an epiphany from the long-standing policy of defeating the revolution. But as one its leaders and staunchest defenders, he makes his position clear: “No one should be under the illusion that the people of this dignified and selfless country will renounce the glory, the rights, or the spiritual wealth they have gained with the development of education, science, and culture… We do not need the Empire to give us anything.”
Cubans should be filled with pride that they enjoy the wisdom and vigilance of one of the last century’s greatest revolutionary leaders. We should all be appreciative of the exceptional commitment to truth and principle of this warrior for socialism and peace.