Cuba has held a fascination in the American imagination for many years—long before the infamous revolution of 1960. The revolution perhaps heightened this fascination in the way we all might love James Dean—he is oh so bad, yet oh so handsome, and oh so bad. The U.S. ideology, since World War II, has defamed and vilified the non-capitalistic economies of the world and linked this animosity to the perceived undemocratic governments of those countries. In part, we might say that this disparaging process has been done outside the understanding of history or perhaps our role in that history. Take Cuba, for example. Like many of the Caribbean Islands in the 1950s, U.S. tourism and investments (in mines, public utilities, railways and the sugar industry) real estate and bank holdings played a key in Cuba’s “market” economy (to the tune of about $1 billion). Americans flocked to Cuba as a playground to our south where, perhaps, all the social rules did not apply. Some historians have likened Havana from the 1920 to 1960 to Las Vegas where all that we would not pursue in our normal lives, we partake of in Las Vegas, because, after all, it is legal. A military coup in 1952 foisted by General Batista declared Batista President of Cuba. (General Batista had done this before in 1933 and proclaimed Mendieta president and seemingly ruled the country from behind presidents for a decade). During this period, little can be seen in way of a response from the U.S. against this very undemocratically elected president. Investments continued. Development continued. Tourism continued. All the while, regular Cubans in the countryside and in Havana itself drastically suffered economically (ultimately living in abject poverty) under President Batista and they also disagreed with the very amoral behavior of the foreigners and bourgeoisie.
The story of the 1960 revolution in Cuba that I learned in school never took into account the conditions that hundreds of thousands of Cubans lived in nor told of the economic investments of the U.S. and our complacency with a sitting president who took his position by force. My history lesson slandered the revolution and its leaders—Fidel Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos, and Che Guevara (also completely ignoring his iconic status in numerous Latin American countries). I was taught that this government was violent, ousted the President and at base was in complete opposition to democracy. The culmination of this lesson was solidified in the said audacity of the revolutionaries to distribute goods (food and housing) and services (education and healthcare) to the vast numbers of people in poverty. My history book never pointed out that the anger and the even further position of the economic embargo of the U.S. government rested on the reality that the goods and services distributed belonged to U.S. citizens and corporations gained under undemocratic governments who ignored the needs of its own people for the favor of the U.S.
Now, as noted in my disclaimer, I am not supporting a political candidate nor government. I am not, in this piece, a blind cheerleader for Castro. Rather, I am thinking about this history and how we frame what and how we think about things. This past June, I traveled to Cuba. I am still astounded by the number of people who have remarked to me—“Oh, yeah, now that Cuba has opened itself up to us.” I have tried with all tact to say, “Cuba has never closed itself to us or to other tourists. We, as U.S. citizens, have always been allowed to travel to Cuba. It is the U.S. Government that has forbidden re-entry into the U.S. directly from Cuba. And, in addition, we have not been allowed to bring goods from Cuba into the U.S.” In other words, the policy has forbidden us, as free people, to travel where we like and spend our money how we like. Cuba has always welcomed us.
I am well aware of the critiques lodged against a socialist economy. However, I think it is vital that we not rant against an economic system and claim our distrust of it is because we assert it is undemocratic. This is a logical fallacy. Economic systems and governments are not the same thing. After all, the U.S. invested in a pre-1960 capitalist Cuba when a very undemocratic government ruled. We have since 1960 not supported a socialist economy in Cuba, despite the fact that it was regular ordinary people who supported and constituted the revolution; and, it is the people, now, who elect representatives to their local governments and to the national committee. My question, have we not supported Cuba because it has a socialist economy? Or is it because we have named and acted toward the government as though we believe it to be undemocratic? If it is the latter, which is what I learned in school, then we must account for all the decades of supporting an undemocratic government in Cuba, which also happened to support capitalism. In addition, how do we explain the current democratic processes in Cuba today? And, if this is our line of thinking, at what point do we need to examine (and possibly critique) our own seemingly democratic processes in the U.S.? Or, perchance, do we not support Cuba because we feel as though goods have been stolen from U.S. citizens? If this is the case, then, we must keep better accounting books and first pay for all that was acquired from the Cuban people at unfair prices or with no payment at all prior to demanding our own reparations.