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A Historical Perspective on the Cuba-U.S. Relationship

Historian Renata Keller recently spent nine months at the Kluge Center researching Cuba’s relationship with Mexico and the United States during the Cold War. She spoke with Program Specialist Jason Steinhauer about the announcement that the U.S. and Cuba will begin to normalize relations between the two countries.

Hi Renata, thanks for speaking to us. Let’s start with this: soon after Fidel Castro’s rise to power, the U.S. viewed Cuba as a security threat. What was the basis for that viewpoint?

When Fidel Castro seized power in 1959, the United States did not initially view Cuba as a security threat. The Library of Congress actually holds the papers of Philip Bonsal, who was U.S. ambassador to Cuba during the first two years of Castro’s rule. In Bonsal’s correspondence from his time in Havana you can see that he and other U.S. officials were struggling to figure out just what Castro intended to with his newfound power. Pretty quickly, it became clear that the reforms that the Cuban revolutionaries were determined to undertake would harm U.S. business interests on the island. A series of escalating confrontations drove the U.S. and Cuban governments apart, and Castro turned instead to the United States’ greatest rival and enemy, the Soviet Union, for support.

Cuba’s alliance with the Soviet Union was the main reason the United States viewed Castro as a security threat–a fear that was arguably vindicated during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The other reason that U.S. leaders viewed Cuba as a security threat was because Castro, Che Guevara, and others supported and encouraged revolution throughout Latin America and Africa.

That leads to my next question, which is that the position of some U.S. policymakers through the second half of the 20th century was that Cuba was a Soviet satellite and fomenter of revolution in Latin America. Does the historical record support that viewpoint?

The Soviet Union heavily subsidized Cuba’s economy for decades, but that support did not make Cuba a Soviet “satellite.” Castro was nobody’s puppet; on numerous occasions he criticized Soviet policies and pursued his own goals in ways that challenged or compromised Soviet plans. As historian Piero Gleijeses has shown, Cuba’s role in supporting revolutions in Angola, Zaire, the Congo, Guinea Bissau, and Namibia demonstrates that the Soviets sometimes found themselves following Castro’s lead rather than the reverse.

The historical record is less clear on Cuba’s exact role in “fomenting” revolution in Latin America. Cubans participated in failed revolutionary efforts in Panama, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Bolivia, as well as in the successful Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua. Cuba provided supplies and training for many Latin American revolutionaries, and–more importantly–the Cuban Revolution provided hope for change. However, I think it is safe to say that conditions in those countries were bad enough that many if not most of those uprisings would have taken place without Cuban participation or support.

You’ve examined memoirs of Cubans in the Library of Congress and in Cuba. Can you categorize how Cuban civil society viewed the U.S. during the Cold War Era?

Based on the Cuban memoirs and press that I’ve read, I would say that Cuban civil society had very conflicting views of the United States during the Cold War. The most fervent supporters of the Cuban Revolution viewed the United States as an imperialist threat thanks to the long history of U.S. intervention in Cuba dating back to the 19th century and the U.S.’s continuing efforts to undermine Castro’s government. But another large portion of the Cuban population looked to the United States with more longing than fear or anger. These were the people who were frustrated with the situation in Cuba and viewed the United States as either a savior or a haven.

In your travels to Cuba, what was your own impression of what the Cuban people wanted vis-à-vis the U.S.?

Most of the people I met in Cuba just wanted to talk to someone from the United States and find out what I thought about Cuban-U.S. relations. I got the impression that most people would favor better relations, both in terms of person-to-person contact and in terms of commercial opportunities.

Your research at the Kluge Center looked at Mexico’s relationship with Cuba during the Cold War. Could you summarize how Mexico’s view of Cuba differed from the U.S. view?

Mexican leaders were much more concerned about the impact of the Cuban example than the threat of Cuban meddling. In the U.S. view, the best way to keep the Cuban Revolution from spreading was to isolate Castro. The Mexican government, on the other hand, refused to cut relations with Cuba and argued instead that best way to prevent similar revolutions was to address the local conditions that made people want to imitate Castro.

And it seems Mexico’s policy toward Cuba evolved through the Cold War, from supportive to more critical. How does the historical evidence explain this shift?

Mexican leaders initially praised the Cuban Revolution and compared it to the Mexican Revolution of 1910. I argue in my forthcoming book that they did so in order to capitalize upon the widespread popular enthusiasm for Castro and redeem their own revolutionary legacy. Once Castro started aligning himself more with the communist camp, however, Mexico’s defense shifted subtly from applauding the Cuban Revolution to defending Cuba’s right to self-determination and non-intervention. Even as Mexican leaders’ enthusiasm for the Cuban Revolution waxed and waned over the years of the Cold War, they were always careful not to criticize Castro or appear to interfere in Cuba’s domestic politics.

As we enter a new chapter in U.S-Cuban relations, historians will now take the new reality into consideration when interpreting the past 50 years. How do you expect the history of this period to be viewed: as a series of Washington policies that ultimately did not produce their intended results and were thus abandoned, the will of a new generation of Cubans and Americans that pushed their leaders towards a new understanding, the ultimate détente of 20th century Cold War paradigm, or something else?

Great question! Given that the policy of isolating Cuba has been failing for more than 50 years, and the Cold War has been over for about 25 years, I’d say that the biggest reason we are seeing a change has to do with generational shifts. As President Obama pointed out in his recent speech, most people no longer remember why or how our two countries became enemies in the first place. Gallup polls show that most Americans–even Cuban Americans–now support normalizing diplomatic relations. And my guess, based on the personal experiences in Cuba that I’ve already talked about and most of what I’ve read, is that the majority of Cubans now favor closer ties, as well. I think these generational changes were the main impetus, but it required leadership to respond to the changing circumstances and take a chance on reconciliation.

Renata Keller is an Assistant Professor of International Relations at Boston University and former Kluge Fellow at the Kluge Center. More about her work can be found on our website.

3 Comments

  1. Gene Morral
    December 20, 2014 at 9:28 pm

    Wonderful to see this, good work

  2. Merritt
    January 5, 2015 at 1:20 am

    I am definitely of the generational shift group. I believe this is a great chance to open up commerce and education sharing with Cuba again. We will all be the better for it.

  3. Rafael
    May 30, 2016 at 7:01 pm

    The degree of hostility toward a people can be measured by the number of executions and by the number of citizens that participate in mass exodus or die in the attempt. In this, Castro has the upper hand. No other country or government in history excepting the Spanish colonial rule has killed more Cubans than Castro. Those that have followed his example in South America do so for personal gain in obtaining eternal power and ruin freedoms and the economy in the process. It is fascinating how many out there claim to know that Castro is good for the Cubans, I guess so long as they do not have to be Cuban and live there or drown in the mass exodus.

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