One Hundred Years of Ambiguity: U.S.-Cuba Relations in the 20th Century

By Horowitz, Irving Louis | The National Interest, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

One Hundred Years of Ambiguity: U.S.-Cuba Relations in the 20th Century


Horowitz, Irving Louis, The National Interest


Double standards are inspiration to men of letters, but they are apt to be fatal to politicians. . . . Modern politics is, at bottom, a struggle not of men but of forces. The men become every year more and more creatures of force, massed about central powerhouses. The conflict is no longer between the men, but between the motors that drive the men, and the men tend to succumb to their own motive forces.

Henry Adams (The Education of Henry Adams, 1905--06, chapter XXVIII)

MUCH INK has been spilled to determine whether Fidel Castro was a Communist before his seizure of power in 1959, or whether he became one at some later date. While the results are inconclusive, what is certain is that Castro was a Cuban nationalist long before the triumph of the July 26th Movement. Understanding Castro's Cuba therefore requires examination of that nationalism--its historical roots and its political consequences--as much or more than examination of Castro's communism. This, in turn, obliges us to study the imperfect origins of independence in Cuba itself. Such study requires a century-long retrospective, not just a look at the 42 years in which the Castro regime has held political power.

Two dates stand out in the AmericanCuban relationship: 1898 (the year Spain surrendered Cuba to the United States following the Spanish-American War), and 1959 (the year the Soviet shadow to the Cuban Revolution ended any chance of resolving the contentious issues dividing Havana and Washington). There are other critical dates in Cuban internal political dynamics, such as 1925--33, the period of the Gerardo Machado dictatorship, and 1934--59, the populist-militarist era of the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship. But they do not matter nearly as much as 1898 and 1959, which is a sad reflection of the fact that, unlike most other countries, Cuba's political history has been marked by popular passivity and hence a tendency toward largely undisturbed military and then totalitarian rule.

Despite the importance and drama of the Spanish-American War, 1902 is a better starting date for this narrative than 1898 because it was only after the four years of American colonial hegemony that Cuba could begin to define its status as an independent nation. The four-year interregnum between 1898 and 1902 demonstrates the simple fact that real liberation, much less democracy, cannot be given--certainly not by the armed forces of an occupying power. National independence must be earned; it must be won against opposition. What the United States was able to provide, and the wisest thing in its power to grant, was schooling in the practices of a free and autonomous society. The Cubans were allowed to act as if they had won and created some of the basic rights and duties of a democratic nation. The immediate consequence of this was to heighten a note of ambiguity in a political situation already less than clear-cut.

As it happened, Cuba has been unable, ever since 1902, to clarify its status vis-a-vis the United States. This was not entirely the fault of Cubans. The native Cuban regime in 1902 was established under the ostensible protection of the Platt Amendment, which was terminated only in 1934 as a part of the Good Neighbor Policy. Thus, in 1902 and 1934, not much less than in 1898 and 1959--and, of course, in October 1962--external forces rather than internal actors determined the course of Cuba's national existence. Around these dates one may plot, so to speak, Cuba's one hundred years of ambiguity.

Cuba has never been the master of its own fate in its independence struggles. Without minimizing the bitterness of the Cuban popular classes against Spanish colonial rule--or, for that matter, the bravery of the Cuban guerrillas who fought the best troops of the Spanish empire--the plain fact of the matter is that the United States and Spain set the terms of Cuban independence. …

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