Benevolent Domination: The Ideology of U.S. Policy toward Cuba

By Schoultz, Lars | Cuban Studies, July 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

Benevolent Domination: The Ideology of U.S. Policy toward Cuba


Schoultz, Lars, Cuban Studies


The United States and Cuba have not had normal diplomatic relations since January 3, 1961, eleven U.S. presidents ago. In contrast, the U.S. refusal to recognize both the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China lasted for only five presidents, sixteen and twenty-two years, respectively. And die United States has not simply declined to have normal diplomatic relations with Havana: Washington has also spent most of the past half century in an open attempt to overthrow the island's government. There is nothing like Cuba in the history of United States foreign policy. This long-standing estrangement is the product of several concrete concerns related to U.S. security, to U.S. economic interests, and to U.S. domestic politics. But underlying these concerns and governing the policies of the past eleven administrations is an ideology based above all else on a belief, widespread in the United States, that Cubans, like most Latin Americans, are a stunted branch of the human species. Our euphemism for these people and their societies is "underdeveloped."1

This ideology is not a facade masking selfish interests and, in particular, a selfish interest in eliminating challenges to U.S. hegemony in the Caribbean. Rather, it is most useful to think of this ideology toward Latin America as the software Washington has created to take a keystroke from the environment- a revolution, for example - and process it through the policymaking computer and onto the monitor as policy. Working quietly in the background, this software is difficult to examine because it is politically incorrect to hint at its intellectual core: a firm belief that, in any hierarchy of peoples, Latin Americans are beneath the United States. Or as the minutes of a February 1959 National Security Council meeting have the CIA director warning: "Mr. Allen Dulles pointed out that the new Cuban officials had to be treated more or less like children. They had to be led rather than rebuffed. If they were rebuffed, like children, they were capable of doing almost anything." As one U.S. diplomat reported in the mid-nineteenth century, "Were it not for the civilizing influence of the United States, this country would by degrees revert to the aboriginal state in which Al varado the Spaniard found it."2

The best way to begin - but only begin - to explain U.S. policy toward revolutionary Cuba is not with this ideology, but with a frank recognition that senior U.S. officials are extremely busy, all but overwhelmed by an endless array of pressing issues, some of them matters of life and death; it would take both time and political capital to terminate today's complex embargo that has been cobbled together over half a century. Then, after acknowledging the importance of inertia, the next step is to observe that the United States has important interests to protect in Latin America, and the estrangement that began a half century ago was largely a response to the Cuban government's reluctance to address these interests to Washington's satisfaction. Correctly or incorrectly, wisely or unwisely, the United States came to perceive Cuba's revolutionary government as a threat to its interests.

For three of the past five decades, roughly from 1960 to 1990, the most important of these interests was to protect U.S. security. Although small Caribbean nations lack the power to threaten the United States, their territory can serve other major powers as a launching pad. And so the first statement of U.S. policy toward Latin America, the 1811 No-Transfer Resolution, was aimed to stop the British from securing a toehold in Spanish Florida, and the 1823 Monroe Doctrine was based on the same bedrock principle: prudent people keep potential adversaries as far away as possible, and Cuba is close.

"We will bury you," Nikita Khrushchev boasted in 1956, just as Cuba's revolutionary leaders were planning their campaign to seize power.3 Then in early 1960, a year after the rebels' victory, he sent the first deputy chair of the Council of Ministers of the Soviet Union, Anastas Mikoyan, to open a scientific, cultural, and technical exhibition in Havana. …

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