Cuba was one of the last important countries in Latin America and the Caribbean to gain independence from the Spanish rule in 1898, when it was freed with the assistance of the United States.
By Prof. Aparajita Gangopadhyay
The United States-Cuba relations have been probably the most turbulent yet steadfast in the last six decades or so. For decades, the relationship has been plagued by hostility, distrust and antipathy for one another. Cuba was one of the last important countries in Latin America and the Caribbean to gain independence from the Spanish rule in 1898, when it was freed with the assistance of the United States. The US involvement in Cuba began in 1903 and was strengthened with the Platt Amendment to the Cuban Constitution. This permitted the US to intervene in Cuba. Cuba was occupied by the United States for nearly half a dozen years. Subsequently, the US-Cuba Treaty of Relations replaced the Constitution in 1903 and the island state of Cuba soon became the home for American control: the production of sugar, tourism and gambling and of course, the associated prostitution. The island became a haven for all activities that brought suffering, misery and unhappiness to the Cuban people. The people suffered under the military rule of General Fulgencio Batista who had been supported by the US government. The overthrow of the military government by Fidel Castro and July 26 Movement led to the establishment of the Socialist state of Cuba which subsequently began to be referred to as the Communist state of Cuba after 1961.
The United States at the height of the Cold War hostilities found it unacceptable to have a ‘Communist’ country only 90 miles off the coast of Florida. The failed Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, the quarantine of Cuba in the aftermath of the placement of the Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962 led to sanctions being imposed against Cuba. It finally resulted in the suspension of Cuba’s membership from the OAS. The new Cuban government in retaliation to the sanctions sought closer ties with the Soviet Union, nationalised all American properties and hiked taxes on US exports to Cuba. Subsequently, the US government imposed an economic embargo and imposed stringent travel restrictions to Cuba. In the next few decades, the US declared Cuba as a ‘state sponsor of terrorism’ for its support to the governments in Nicaragua and in Angola (MPLA). Presidents George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton imposed Cuban Democracy Act 1992 and the Cuban Liberty and Solidarity Act of 1996 that stated that the sanctions would remain in place, and countries that did business with US would not be permitted to have business with Cuba until democracy would be established in Cuba and Castro would be removed from power.
These restrictions and sanctions were in the immediate aftermath of the end of the Cold War when among others, Cuba lost its largest trade partner, i.e., the Soviet Union. This power vacuum created tremendous hardships for the Cuban people and the government. The relations were further strained when the Cuban military shot down and American private plane that was distributing anti-government pamphlets over Cuba. The restrictions on Cuba remained in place for the next decade. President Barack Obama announced that the US would “pursue direct diplomacy” with Cuba and that permitted easing of restrictions on remittances and travel.
Presidents Obama and Raul Castro announced in 2014 that both their governments would restore full diplomatic ties and reduce bilateral tensions. This was the outcome of a secret peace brokered by Pope Francis which included the exchange of Cuban prisoners. The two governments opened embassies and the US removed the designation of a ‘sponsor of state terrorism’. President Obama visited Havana in 2016 which further loosened travel and financial restrictions to the extent that American commercial airlines began offering services. The most significant part of the Obama ‘Cuba Policy’ was that the repealing of the ‘wet foot, dry foot’ policy that stated that the Cubans that reached the US shores without authorisation could seek permanent residency in the US. By repealing this policy, Obama drew parity between Cuban and other undocumented immigrants and this move was welcomed by the Cuban government.
With President Trump the policy has undergone an 180 degree change, with Trump reimposing all the restrictions and sanctions that the previous US governments had mandated. The diplomatic relations remain in a diluted and basic form and the American administration has called ‘Cuba-Nicaragua-Venezuela’ as a ‘troika of tyranny’ blaming them for huge human rights violations and sufferings. The reimposition o the Helms-Burton and Toricelli Act by the Trump administration shows the hardline stand taken by the current US administration.
Cuba is not a simple issue in US foreign policy. The role played by Cuba during the Cold War—identifiable ‘Communist’ enemy at the door, ‘the’ violator of the American principles of democracy and human rights to the more contemporary challenges that arise due to the strong Cuban-American lobby that plays a significant role in Presidential and Congressional elections. Moreover, immigration is the ‘buzz word’ of the Trump administration which looks at all Latin Americans coming from across the border from Mexico as ‘undocumented, dangerous and a threat to the American way of life’. The anti-Cuba rhetoric may not be as loud and harsh as before but remains persistent and voluble.
India’s perceptions on Cuba had undergone a change from the 1960s. Both Prime Ministers Nehru and Indira Gandhi (1968) did not visit Cuba despite visiting a large number of other Latin American and Caribbean nations. India had been one of the earliest countries to recognise the government of Castro in Cuba. The relationship changed dramatically by the mid-1970s especially when Cuba and India both became strong proponents and leaders of the Non-Alignment Movement. The respect and camaraderie between Castro and Mrs. Gandhi during the NAM Summit in New Delhi in 1983 spoke of the closeness between the two sides. India and Cuba has supported each other in the last four decades whether in NAM, or in the United Nations. For instance, Cuba supports India’s candidature to the permanent seat of the Security Council. India has provided aid to Cuba during natural disasters, written off loans and provided food grains to Cuba during the difficult period of the early 1990s. The Cubans have great admiration for Indian cultural and literary icons and have become great followers and supporters of Yoga. The relaxing of US regulations on businesses with Cuba, instance could mean for India new opportunities. Cuba could be the new ‘unexplored territory’ for expanding India’s business interests in the region. Cuban expertise and excellence in producing life saving vaccines, its superb health care, medical tourism and tourism and hospitality industry linked to the pristine beaches could be the place to begin with. The Cuban government is keen to have further economic linkages with India which would end its economic isolation and help Cuba to benefit from the enormous economic success that India is witnessing of late. In a sense, it would be ‘win-win’ situation for both.
(The author is Director, UGC Centre for Latin American Studies and Head, Department of International Relations, Goa University. Views expressed are personal.)