To better assess the recent change in U.S.–Cuba relations, we need a fuller historical understanding.
Much of the discussion in the United States during the last some weeks has tended to focus on undoing the effects of the past fifty-plus years, a time that the Wall Street Journal has characterized as a period of “long-strained relations.”
But Cuba has experienced these years of “long-strained relations” very differently than the United States has. In Cuba, this period of “long-strained relations” has signified half a century of sustained U.S. efforts at regime change, including punitive economic sanctions and political isolation, one armed invasion, scores of assassination plots against the Cuban leadership, and years of covert operations, including sabotage of Cuban agriculture, industry, and transportation.
If only it were so simple a matter. In fact, Cuban memory reaches deeply into the past, to 150 years of U.S. policy dedicated to obstructing Cuban national sovereignty and self-determination. U.S. meddling in Cuban affairs has seared its way into Cuban memory, and must be understood as the context with which Cuba approaches dialogue with the United States.
That is why the Cubans engage the United States warily. This is the reason President Raul Castro spoke on Dec. 17 of the Cuban commitment “to be faithful to our ideals of independence.”
U.S. proponents of the much-welcomed initiatives to renew diplomatic dialogue with Cuba make the case for normal relations on the basis that decades of political isolation and economic sanctions have failed to produce the desired outcomes. The new policy, President Obama affirmed, will serve to “end an outdated approach.” He emphasized the need “to try something different.” The old policy, he said, “hasn’t worked.”
Of course, the policy has not “worked.” Of course, a new policy is very much warranted. But it is also true that proponents for a change of “an outdated approach” should tread warily, for in Cuba it does not require much of a political imagination to infer ominously the larger meaning of pronouncements that justify the abandonment of a policy that “has not worked”––not worked at what? Time to try “something different”––meaning regime change? Does one deduce that what has changed is the means and not the ends?
In fact, the rationale for policy change is very much advanced on the grounds that normal diplomatic relations will provide the United States with “the opportunity to influence the course of events,” as Obama has said.
Nor are official Cuban suspicions allayed with much-publicized and seemingly obligatory meetings between visiting U.S. delegations and dissidents. One could only imagine the howls of indignation in the United States if an official Cuban delegation got together with representatives of Occupy Wall Street.
The task at hand between Cuba and the United States has as much to do with the past as it does with the present. The Obama administration needs to move forward sensitively.
Louis A. Perez Jr. is the J. Carlyle Sitterson Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His most recent book is The Structure of Cuban History: Meanings and Purpose of the Past (2013). He can be reached at email@example.com.