Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

Sweig Offers New Perspective on Historic Cuban-American Conflict

August 3, 2010

A holdover from a past era, the United States’ conflict with Cuba remains an issue for policymakers and the public alike. Julia E. Sweig, director for Latin American studies at the Council of Foreign Relations, has recently penned a concise history of US-Cuban relations to clarify the origins of the continued struggle.

In a talk at the Institute in the spring, Sweig said her motivation for writing Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2009) lies in her belief that American foreign policy toward Cuba “might be on the cusp of change.” American policymakers, she said, must adapt to the 21st century and abandon the strategies of the Cold World era.

In her dealings with the government, Sweig has experienced both “frustration and expectation” in facilitating this shift in foreign relations; after a half century of polarized conflict, however, she does not anticipate an immediate watershed change. In order to properly place Cuba in the present day system of international power relations, one must first determine how the island nation “project[ed] itself globally for over a century.”

For Sweig, the “theme of thwarted nationalism within Cuba” is a major factor that informed relations with the US throughout the last century. Sweig said the US imposed restrictions like the 1901 Platt Amendment on its island neighbor to preserve its economic interests in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. Cuba ceded tracts of land to the US (e.g. Guantanamo Bay), and, in return, Washington gave Cuban sugar priority in its domestic market.

In 1952, opponents of the Batista regime formed a coalition to build a “functioning social contract” directly inspired by the New Deal. Cuban political “consciousness,” Sweig said, was “formed by proximity to the US.” The Cuban revolutionary movement of the 1950s did not support an anti-American platform, but rather struggled “to create a functional, equitable society.” Following the fall of the Batista government in 1959, however, the US could no longer turn a blind eye to the revolutionary tumult in Cuba.

American strategists entertained several schemes to oust Castro from power and place Cuba in an economic stranglehold. But in response, the revolutionary factions attempted to extricate American influence from Cuba and counter its economic hegemony in the region.

Throughout her talk, Sweig deconstructed the notion that the US and Cuba are locked in a timeless, Manichean conflict. The capitalist-communist antipathy that came to define the power struggle was not always present, she said. Throughout the 1940s, the Communist party within Cuba was only the third largest in South America; this group joined the revolution at a late stage. Their entrance into the conflict “paralleled the exodus of the technocratic professional class from Cuba.”

Castro’s allegedly radical agrarian reform, moreover, was “enormously modest and designed by legal experts to be consistent with international laws.” Despite the modest nature of Castro’s nationalization, US corporations viewed these developments as a personal attack, Sweig said. By the late 1960s, however, Castro’s political project had culminated in the total elimination of private enterprise from Cuba.

According to Sweig, the first signs of a strategic shift began to appear in the 1980s as Cuban-Americans became involved in the US political system. Cuba found itself in dire straits following the fall of the Soviet Union, losing over 30 percent of its GDP from the subsequent cut in Soviet subsidies. The US continued to uphold its economic sanctions, but the cultural tension between the two countries began to dissipate.

During the 1990s, the opportunities for “contact for institutions outside of the governmental realm” grew; academics, scientists, and religious figures could participate in this network of exchange. The attacks of September 11, 2001, however, led the Bush administration to bolster its defense against its historic enemies. The cultural connection with Cuba was terminated shortly thereafter.

Sweig concluded her discussion with several insights into the future of Cuban-American political relations. The continued embargo with Cuba prohibits any fruitful exchange between the two powers. In the past, Cuba has justified its “worst abuses on the human rights front” as a result of economic strain. The Cuban economy, furthermore, has yet to be fully integrated within a global network of trade; Cuba selects carefully who invests in its infrastructure and in which sectors.

She added that despite the “retirement” of Fidel Castro from political office, the Communist regime has remained surprisingly dominant in the political arena. The stable succession of power has not been “something [that] the US policy toolbox has been able to effect.”

Raúl Castro, the new President of Cuba, has embarked upon a series of progressive reforms with the intent of “improv[ing] the material and spiritual lives of Cuban people.” But recent hurricanes and economic depression have somewhat hindered these efforts, prompting the Cuban people to actively express their grievances.

“The sense of the clock ticking is very, very acute on the island,” Sweig said.

While the Cuban people were initial supporters of the Obama administration, Sweig adds that American attempts to reconcile with its erstwhile foe have been too limited in breadth. The “legacy of the revolution” in the Cuban political culture is twofold: citizens feel themselves entitled to the basic rights and protections guaranteed by the Communist party, but they remained intent on “keeping the US at a healthy distance.”

Her talk was sponsored by the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies.

By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Zak Leonard ‘10