Listen Yankee

Cuba, the United States and Our America

Matías Vernengo

It often comes as a surprise to most Americans that Latin Americans generally resent that in the United States people think of themselves as uniquely American—as if the rest of the continent somehow has another name. Latin America is, in fact, a name created by the French, supported by local elites, that invaded Mexico to collect foreign debt and to try to re-establish European colonialism. The Latin heritage, being a common one between Maximilian’s new court and the Mexican people, gave the region is appellative, but a tarnished one. That is why José Martí, the hero of Cuban independence, referred to “Our America,” to contrast it with the other, the one Americans fancy as the only one.

The relations between the two Americas was always complicated, and at least since the infamous Monroe Doctrine, plagued by the asymmetric power of the United States and its interference in the region. For that reason many see the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba as a significant step in the right direction, one that leads to a more benign relation with Latin America. And for the most part it has been seen as a good omen by almost all progressives, and correspondingly as a setback and proof of Obama’s weakness by most conservatives.

Note that the Cuban Embargo, which remains in place, does not clearly divide groups along partisan lines, with both Cuban-American Senators—Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.)—denouncing Obama’s measures. The complaints from the anti-Castro Cuban-Americans, and from a few conservatives, was predictably that the United States should not have relations with anti-democratic regimes that violate human rights. By the way, Cuba is in the State Department’s short list of countries that sponsors terrorism, alongside Iran, Sudan, and Syria, but not Pakistan.

The surprise of the reestablishment of diplomatic relations was compounded by the apparently contradictory news, a few days later, that the United States would impose additional sanctions on Venezuela for human rights violations. This emphasis on sanctions as way of dealing with what is seen as an authoritarian government, even though the Venezuelan government was elected in clean, democratic elections, contrasts with the new emphasis on dialogue that the Cuban policy change seemed to indicate. However, there is no contradiction in Obama’s policy towards Latin America, and his changes towards Cuba should not have been surprising.

At the 2009 Summit of the Americas, Obama had said, “The United States seeks a new beginning with Cuba. I know there’s a longer journey that must be traveled to overcome decades of mistrust, but there are critical steps we can take toward a new day.” Even before his recent joint announcement with Raúl Castro, Obama lifted travel and remittance restrictions on Cuban Americans, authorized U.S. telecommunications companies to contract with Cuba to provide improved television, radio, telephone, and Internet access, and granted visas to many Cuban scholars who had been denied permission to travel.

Further, in 2009 Cuba was readmitted to the Organization of American States (OAS), mostly as a result from Latin American pressure, in particular from the left of center governments in the region. The United States opposed Cuban readmission, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton agreed to a compromise to save face and avoid a defeat. The OAS revoked the 1962 ban on Cuba, while the latter had to accept “the practices, purposes, and principles of the OAS,” meaning a commitment to democracy and human rights, at least in the eyes of U.S. diplomacy.

The point is that U.S. policy always used a combination of pressure, including sanctions, with diplomacy to promote its interests in the region, and the change in the mix, with more dialogue with Cuba and more force applied on Venezuela, is a continuation of that same tradition. In that sense, the new policy towards Cuba is a more rational policy, given the failure of the embargo as acknowledged by Obama, oriented towards the same goal—regime change on the island. More importantly, regime change in Cuba and the foreign policy towards the region is essentially geared to protect the economic interests of American corporations.

Note that Obama’s policy has been essentially a continuation of both Clinton and Bush policies of promoting pro-corporate Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) in the region, signing treaties with Colombia and Panama during his term. FTAs essentially strengthen corporations in the United States, and local elites in developing countries, hurting workers in both places. And since the left-of-center governments in the region thwarted U.S. policy favoring a NAFTA style FTA for the region as a whole, the United States has pursued bilateral trade agreements instead.

This strategy has been pursued quite successfully, in fact, and currently the United States has trade agreements with all the countries on the Pacific coast of the Americas, except Ecuador( which interestingly enough is dollarized, in other words, has adopted the U.S. currency). For those concerned with the failure of the European project of unification, as shown by the crisis in peripheral countries, it is worth noticing that the U.S. informal plan for integration in the region involves more draconian rules. In a nutshell, the plan consists of free trade with even less labor mobility and rights for migrant workers, and a veiled support for policies that strengthen the role of the dollar in the region—El Salvador is the only country both dollarized and in a FTA with the United States.

In the aftermath of the Cuban Revolution, C. Wright-Mills reminded Americans in Listen Yankee that, beyond the direct role of U.S. administrations, the vicarious role of U.S. corporations in the exploitation of the people of Latin America was at the heart of the Revolution. He pleaded for the United States to help Latin Americans destroy the vested interests working inside Latin America and U.S. corporations operating in the region. That message for a more civilized relation between the two Americas still resonates.

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