Fussed About Cuba

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Heinz Dieterich

Excerpted from Latin America: From Colonization to Globalization, Ocean Press, 1999 [assorted interviews conducted between 1985 and 1998]

QUESTION [from May 1985]: Why is it impossible for Latin American nations to be sovereign and live free from interference by the United States?

CHOMSKY: Well, it’s impossible because they can’t live in the shadow of a violent and sadistic superpower that is committed to domination and control. The United States is committed to ensuring that the resources of Latin America are available for the American economy in the manner in which the American economy desires them. This is part of a global pattern, but of course, the imprint is heaviest on the Caribbean Basin, where the influence of American power has been greatest for the longest period.

If we ask ourselves why the United States is so fussed about Cuba, the answer is the same. The answer is given very clearly by some simple statistics. For example, there was recently a study by the Overseas Development Council, which puts out a “quality of life index” every year compiled on the basis of mortality rate, infant mortality, life expectancy, and literacy. This is for the world. I think the top countries are places like Iceland and Japan, then you go down to the Scandinavian countries and then you get to the United States, which had a rating of 97 in their index. And Canada is about the same, a little higher. The next country in North America is Cuba: 95. Then you have to go down to 89 before you start reaching the rich Latin American countries. Well, any country that is that high on the quality of life index — that is, highest in its achievements in health standards, reducing infant mortality, increasing life expectancy, increasing literacy — obviously that country is an enemy. I mean, it must be that they are using their resources for their purposes, not for our purposes. And therefore we are going to destroy them.

In the case of Cuba, the United States has done everything it can to drive them into the hands of the Russians — to ensure that there is a maximum amount of internal repression and brutality inside Cuba to reduce the possibility that it could be a model for anyone else. But there is still this tremendously threatening development. While throughout the whole region that the United States supports and backs, you have torture, murder, starvation, slave labor, and so on and so forth, there is one little corner of Latin America that has actually come to match the standard of living of the United States, which is astonishing. This is the richest country in the world, by any possible measure. Cuba is one of the poorest countries in the world and it has approximately the same quality of life index, in terms of health and so on, that the United States has. That’s really scary and that’s an enemy. That’s what they mean when they say, “We can’t tolerate another Cuba.” It is bad enough that there is one country that can serve as a model for this kind of development. Suppose there were two, suppose there were three. …

QUESTION [from October 1991]: How significant is the Soviet Union’s withdrawal of its troops from Cuba?

CHOMSKY: The withdrawal of troops, as such, is of no major significance because their presence was basically symbolic. What is very important is the withdrawal of economic subsidies.

QUESTION: What will be the consequences?

CHOMSKY: In 1959-60, the Eisenhower administration made an explicit decision to overthrow the Cuban government. There are planning documents from March 1960 and, later, from the Kennedy administration, that document this decision. The United States employed methods that ranged from a widespread campaign of terrorism to direct invasion. When the invasion failed, the terrorism campaign was intensified. This included economic strangulation, a cultural quarantine and the intimidation of anyone who attempted to break Cuba’s isolation. Obviously, no small country can resist such attacks.

The situation is even more difficult in the case of Cuba because of its historic relationship with the United States. In fact, it had been colonized by, and was entirely dependent on, the United States. But even a truly independent country would have been incapable of enduring such an attack. Cuba only survived because of its relationship with Eastern Europe. The relationship was inefficient and very costly, but at least it allowed Cuba to survive. Ever since the Soviet Union began to collapse and disappear from the world stage, one of the United States’ main objectives has been to achieve an end to support for Cuba by the Soviet Union and its former allies — leaving Cuba to fall into U.S. hands. During the 1980s, relations with Cuba were presented as the real test of Gorbachev’s new thinking. That is, the answer to the question of whether Gorbachev was really serious, or whether the Cold War would continue, was supposedly to be found in his aid to Cuba.

Obviously, it is considered totally illegitimate to help someone that the United States wants to destroy. The reasoning is simple: everything that the United States does is right, by definition. Therefore, anyone who interferes with what the United States does is, by definition, wrong. This is the primary assumption that everyone accepts. And so the proof of Gorbachev’s new thinking, and its seriousness, consisted of whether or not he would allow the destruction of Cuba.

It’s surprising how old themes persist. I’ve always thought that the East-West conflict was misinterpreted, given that the conflict was, at its root, a North-South one. But it’s amazing how themes born during the first days of the U.S. republic continue totally unchanged. Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams, both “founding fathers,” spoke of the need to incorporate Cuba into the nascent U.S. empire. Jefferson wanted simply to annex it. But in those days they couldn’t do it because an obstacle existed. And the obstacle at that time was England. The English fleet made it impossible for the United States to simply conquer and annex Cuba.

The theory held by everyone at the time was that Cuba, following what John Quincy Adams called “the laws of political gravitation,” would fall into our hands like a “ripe fruit.” Let’s wait for the fruit to ripen and fall into our hands. That was precisely why the United States was always against Cuba liberating itself from Spain. The United States exercised enormous pressure on Mexico, Colombia and others to prevent Cuba’s liberation. [Simón] Bolivar [known as “the Liberator” for his leading role in South American independence from Spain] was all too aware of this and was very saddened by it. But from the U.S. point-of-view, its position made sense. If Cuba achieved its independence, it would not fall into its hands like ripe fruit. They were also very worried about democratic tendencies and liberation movements in Cuba, which aimed to liberate slaves and struggle for equality for Afro-Cubans, all of which was intolerable for the empire. Therefore, for various reasons, the United States was opposed, from the early 1800s, to the liberation of Cuba. It maintained this position until, at the end of the century, it in fact conquered Cuba and made it a colony, under the pretext of liberating it from Spain. And it effectively continued as a U.S. colony until the government of Fidel Castro came to power in 1959.

Of course, hostilities by the United States began immediately. In late 1959, the CIA was already involved in subversive activities. In March 1960, the Eisenhower administration had produced the secret documents mentioned above. They said their objective was to replace the Castro regime with one “more devoted to the true interests of the Cuban people and more acceptable to the U.S.” And it continued: this must be done “in such a manner as to avoid any appearance of U.S. intervention.” This was already the leitmotif of our policy in March 1960. Kennedy continued this policy and it has been perpetuated to this day, because we have to make sure that the ripe fruit falls into our hands.

We can overlook the bit about “the true interests of the Cuban people” — it doesn’t deserve a comment. But as far as the second part — “a government more acceptable to the U.S.” and the avoidance of an “appearance of U.S. intervention” — there is a reason: Latin American countries must be able to pretend that they don’t know what is going on. It is difficult for the rulers of Latin American countries to openly approve violent intervention by the United States. From that, a consensus is born. We pretend that no U.S. intervention exists and the Latin American governments pretend to believe it. That is how hemispheric affairs are carried out. With the policy of the embargo, the cultural quarantine, possibly sabotage, and with external support for Cuba declining, the United States assumes that Latin American regimes will be too intimidated by the boss of the hemisphere to break with this policy. Europe and Japan could do it but, again, the issue is not important enough for them to warrant confronting the United States.

QUESTION: Is it possible that the United States will take advantage of these circumstances by launching a military operation, as in [the Gulf War against] Iraq?

CHOMSKY: I think this will depend to a large extent on the U.S. domestic political situation and the situation within Cuba. We don’t have access to the actual secret plans of the elite but they can be surmised. Obviously, they suppose that with the policy of strangulation the situation in Cuba will severely worsen. And, as the situation deteriorates, there will naturally be protests which, in turn, will bring about repression. The activities of the repressive apparatus will grow ever more rigorous, due to the growing effects of the policy of strangulation, and then we will have the natural cycle of more repression, more dissidence and, perhaps, violence. Cuban exiles will land, they will create more problems and at some stage the United States could invade.

The United States will not invade Cuba while it considers that there will be armed resistance. It will not attack someone who can defend themselves. That is obvious. The idea is to “liberate” the country at no cost to U.S. interests, that is, to wait until the internal situation is so bad that U.S. troops can invade without much opposition — or, possibly, with the approval of the population, unable to stand the situation any longer.

QUESTION: Like in Panama?

CHOMSKY: Yes, Panama is a good example. You keep torturing people until they finally accept you, like a liberation. And one has to understand this, because the situation is so horrible that the only way to survive is under the domination of the colossus of the North. …

QUESTION [from January 1992]: Did the execution of the terrorist Betancourt weaken or strengthen Cuba’s position?

CHOMSKY: I think it weakened it. More to the point, it is a reflection of Cuba’s weakness. The United States is increasing pressure and getting ready to come in for the kill. By the way, this clearly shows, if any confirmation was needed, the lie in the claim that the United States was against Cuba because of the Cold War. The official doctrine regarding antagonism towards Cuba over the last thirty years has been that it was a tentacle of the “Evil Empire” and that we have to defend ourselves from the Russians. Well, now they can’t even claim that.

And the effect of this abandonment of all pretensions is that the United States has intensified its pressure against Cuba, which demonstrates to any rational person that the Cold War never had anything to do with this problem. What did have something to do with this antagonism was Cuba’s independence, which the United States will, of course, never tolerate. This goes back to the 1820s. The United States opposed Cuba’s independence in Simón Bolivar’s day and continues to oppose it today, for the same reasons. But the more Washington sees the possibility of crushing Cuba and sending it back to the old days — when it could be exploited by U.S. corporations, the Mafia, and so on — the more it closes off economic space and increases terrorist activities. At least, it seems to me that this is the meaning of the last incident with the terrorists. By becoming more repressive, Cuba is reacting in exactly the way the United States wants it to. In some ways that reaction is understandable, but nevertheless it’s still a mistake.

QUESTION: If the reaction was a mistake, what should they have done?

CHOMSKY: I think they could have jailed those people. That would have been appropriate, because they were detained for a terrorist act. And Cuba could have taken advantage of this opportunity to expose U.S. terrorism. But instead of doing this, they executed one of them, giving the United States the chance to swap roles and denounce Cuba for its inhumane behavior.

QUESTION: In 1961, discussions took place in Cuba about what to do with more than one thousand terrorist mercenaries captured in the Bay of Pigs [invasion]. Obviously they couldn’t execute the lot of them and if they were kept prisoner for many years, the United States would undertake an irresistible propaganda campaign to free them. So, it was decided to force the country which sent them to pay ransom. In Betancourt’s case, which is very different, Cuba opted for execution. Was that a mistake?

CHOMSKY: Yes, it was an error now and it would have been an error then. To begin with, it’s a mistake to execute people because it gives the United States a powerful propaganda weapon. And, in any case, it’s not right to do it. Aside from any other consideration, you shouldn’t kill people. In fact, I sent a telegram to Cuba just like I do for Amnesty International’s campaigns against capital punishment and death sentences. I do it for any country, including the United States. The United States uses the death penalty constantly and almost always against Afro-Americans. Thus, the United States has no basis upon which to condemn anybody else who also does it. However, the application of the death penalty is inherently bad and also politically and tactically wrong. It is, in fact, exactly what the Bush government wants — it wants Cuba to be more repressive. The aim of the economic strangulation, of the cultural quarantine and of the recurring terrorism is, to a large extent, to foster larger scale repression within Cuba. Like in Nicaragua. You want the country to be very repressive because it gives you an excuse to continue doing that which made it repressive. This is a classic tactic.

QUESTION: How could the Cuban government fall into what you consider to be a trap?

CHOMSKY: I think that they feel they’re trapped and to a certain extent they are. To be honest, there’s not much they can do. If they follow the road of democratization, if they establish closer relations with Europe and Latin America, and so on, then there might be a small chance that Cuba would escape U.S. pressure. But I think this is a very slight possibility, because the United States is so powerful that nobody will interfere with its plans.

QUESTION: The State Department says that it will not allow any more terrorist excursions from Miami. Can this be taken seriously?

CHOMSKY: You can take it as seriously as you took it thirty years ago. If they want to stop terrorist activities in Miami, they can do it. But they’ve never been interested in stopping them and they’re not interested now. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if they were fostering and organizing the terrorist activities. That is very likely. We will find out in thirty years [when documents become available].

QUESTION: What is the significance of the contrast between the U.S. policy of aggression against Cuba and its soft policy in relation to Haiti?

CHOMSKY: In reality there is no contrast; it’s actually the same policy. In Haiti’s case the United States hasn’t taken even the most basic measures, such as freezing the fortunes of the coup leaders that are kept in U.S. banks. That doesn’t even require an embargo; all they have to do is freeze their funds. It would be a measure that would hit them where it truly hurts them. But the United States won’t do it and precisely for the same reasons that it wants to crush Cuba. The Haitian elites are the kind of people that we want in power. And we want them in power in Cuba as well. So, the policies towards Cuba and Haiti are entirely consistent.

QUESTION: Is this why they don’t support Aristide?

CHOMSKY: The earliest documents relating to the overthrow of Castro, dating back to March 1960, are very revealing in this respect. During the Eisenhower administration, the National Security Council approved a resolution mandating the overthrow of the Cuban regime and stipulating that it must be done in a way that does not implicate the United States. That is most important, because the United States has to conserve its credibility among Latin American states. Obviously, U.S. allies in the region are aware, but it’s very important for them to be able to pretend they don’t know what it’s doing. Because if they know, then they have to answer to their own population. That is why the United States carries out subversion and terrorism under a guise — this way its allies can pretend that they don’t know anything. I imagine that this is the reason for the State Department statement you mentioned. It basically means: yes, we’ll continue to do as we have done until now, but in such a way that the region’s rulers can pretend that they’re not aware.

QUESTION: Can you see the United States taking military action?

CHOMSKY: That depends in part on the domestic political situation. The Bush government is trying to build some kind of economic recovery before the elections, some kind of temporary recovery so that Bush can say that the situation is improving. After ten years of economic mismanagement by Reagan and Bush, the economy is in a bad state. No one knows if they can make it recover or not. But if they can’t do it, they’ll need to come up with something extravagant in foreign policy. Foreign policy adventures have the effect of frightening and mobilizing the population. During war the population lines up behind the leader and the flag and this happens regularly, every two or three years. It’s simply a concomitant of economic policies directed against the well-being of the majority of the population. The two things go together like Siamese twins. So, if they don’t succeed in fixing up the economy, then they will try to come up with some foreign policy success and the obvious candidate would be Cuba. You could start writing the editorials already: “We’ve liberated Cuba,” “Utopia is here,” “The whole hemisphere is democratic,” and so on. Domestic factors could accelerate the process, but I think the rational plan entails waiting for Cuba to collapse. If you maintain the embargo, impede contacts, make sure nobody does anything of importance to break the isolation, maintain the cultural quarantine, then the result within Cuba will be suffering — and suffering equals dissidence, protests and rebellion. This will lead to more repression, the people on the streets will be shot at, leading to more resistance and you reach a point at which civil society self-destructs. Then you can send the marines and the people will applaud because everything is falling down. This is the “correct” way of going about it.

QUESTION: Here there are big solidarity movements who collect money to send oil to Cuba. Is their work going in the right direction?

CHOMSKY: It’s the right direction. Given that governments will not do what needs to be done, the task of civil society is to counter U.S. policy. It’s similar to what happened in Nicaragua. You will not succeed in getting governments to resist the U.S. attacks, but you can motivate the people to do it. And you can achieve far from trivial results. These things have to be done in Europe, where they would be much more relevant because it’s much wealthier. It’s crucially important to do such things in the United States, but sadly they don’t happen.

QUESTION: And was the recent congress in solidarity with Cuba in New York a weak or strong start?

CHOMSKY: As was to be expected, the congress was treated as a scandal by the press and the anti-Cuban protesters were the heroes. It was very similar to the Vietnam protests in the 1960s. The protesters were the disruptive ones and the counter-demonstrators were the heroes who were defending freedom.

We have a Cuban exile community dying to taking over Cuba. There is a lot of strong interest from businessmen, including criminal interests. Remember that Cuba was one of the main centers of Mafia activity [before the revolution]. Remember also that we have had thirty years of anti-Cuba propaganda and that Cuba has been one of the principal themes of U.S. foreign policy since 1820. Well, nothing has changed. …

QUESTION [from March 1996]: [Is] the United States-Cuba conflict … [a manifestation] of the New World Order?

CHOMSKY: … The reaction to Cuba’s downing of two light planes [in February 1996] is another example of fraud perpetrated by the intellectual community. For thirty years, the United States has carried out terrorist warfare against Cuba, blowing up factories and applying a very severe embargo, because we had to defend ourselves from “the Russian threat.” There’s no longer a Russian threat. So, what happens? The United States extends its attacks on Cuba. This tells you exactly how significant the Russian threat was… At any rate, Cuba now seems more vulnerable and therefore the United States intensifies its attacks. … Of course Cuba shouldn’t be downing planes. But ask yourself, what would happen if Libyan planes flew over New York dropping leaflets, calling on people to overthrow the government and, probably, throwing down instructions on how to blow up a building. What would happen? Well, we don’t need to ask. …

Israel doesn’t down planes, because no one goes there. But it does sink boats. Israel has carried out terrorism in international waters for years. It attacks ferries that travel from Cyprus to Beirut, sometimes sinking them. It has killed people in the water, kidnapped people traveling on ships and jailed them for twenty years without any charges being laid. This is public knowledge. Has anything done by Cuba come even remotely close to this? No. Does anyone care about Israel’s activities? No. This means that anyone who screams about what the Cubans have done can’t be taken seriously even for a second. It’s like asking Hitler if he was against the killing of human beings. The collection of politicians gathered at the international terrorism conference in Egypt last week consisted of the biggest terrorists around. The fact that they can meet as anti-terrorists without causing ridicule or anger is truly amazing.

U.S. policy on Cuba is at a turning point. There’s a sort of balance. The business community is no longer keen on the blockade, but there are other forces that want to make sure that no one adopts the Cuban’s bad ideas. While this whole scandal about Cuba was going on, the government of South Africa accepted a new group of Cuban doctors who had gone to work in rural areas. President Mandela and others complimented Cuba for its solidarity and support. At that moment, Cuba probably had more doctors working in rural areas than the rest of the world put together — it certainly had more than any other country. That’s the type of thing that worries the United States. The poor of South Africa received the Cubans with affection, as you can imagine. But this didn’t appear in the news here. The news agencies didn’t cover it. Those are the things that have always worried the United States, because they send the wrong message, that independence is possible, that a country can work to resolve its domestic problems rather than for a foreign master, and so on. This is the dangerous message. Everyone must know that the people who send that message will be seriously hurt, not only must they be sent out of business but they should be struck hard, in Mafia Don style. If someone doesn’t pay protection money, you don’t only take their money, you punish them as well. On the other hand, U.S. corporations want to go to Cuba and steal. And now that they see that Cuba might collapse, they want to participate and ensure that everything doesn’t end up in the hands of the Japanese and the Europeans. So there’s a conflict similar to the one that occurred over Vietnam and this is reflected in the country’s foreign policy. …

QUESTION [from January 1998]: The first question is about the Pope’s trip to Cuba. In terms of this visit, what are Cuba’s interests and what are the Pope’s interests?

CHOMSKY: Well, Cuba is clearly interested in becoming more integrated into world society and escaping the exclusion imposed by the United States. As for the Pope, it’s hard to say. He may be trying to compensate for the role that he has played in helping to undermine much of the progressive church in Latin America, or he may see this as another move towards continuing that enterprise. It’s rather hard to know.

QUESTION: In 1898, the United States sent the battleship Maine to Havana; in 1998 the Pope goes there. Who’s the more dangerous of the two?

CHOMSKY: The sinking of the battleship Maine was the pretext for the U.S. intervention which essentially terminated the liberation war [which the Cubans were waging against the Spanish] and turned Cuba into a U.S. colony. We know what that led to. The interaction with the Pope is, I think, uncertain. It could mean many things. The most positive interpretation or hope is that it could offer more opportunities for Cuba to escape the strangulation imposed by the U.S. embargo and continuing terror.

QUESTION: So past experience is no guide — what the Pope tried to do in Nicaragua is no indication?

CHOMSKY: It’s very hard to say. The agenda that the Pope pursued not only in Nicaragua, but even more dramatically in Brazil and then El Salvador, and elsewhere, has been to undermine the “preferential option for the poor” in the Church, which was such an extraordinarily powerful force. It was countered with extreme violence, and the Vatican’s role was not helpful, to put it mildly. On the other hand, the Pope has also taken a stand against the savagery and inhumanity of the neoliberal version of state capitalism and the way it’s being imposed on the Third World, and what it’s leading to. There still remain conflicting elements within the church and I don’t think it’s possible to predict the outcome. I think it will depend a lot on what happens at the local level — just as in the case of the rise of liberation theology in the 1960s and 1970s. It was largely a reflection of things that were happening at the grassroots level.

QUESTION: Why did the United States not try to annex Cuba at the end of the liberation war as had happened with Puerto Rico, Hawaii and Guam?

CHOMSKY: Remember, they didn’t literally annex any of those places. Hawaii wasn’t technically annexed and didn’t become a state until the 1950s. Guam was taken as a protectorate and kept that way (in opposition to the general structure of the world system after World War II). Puerto Rico remains a dependency, but not technically annexed. For U.S. investors, it was a good decision in terms of profit to allow Cuba a nominal form of independence under U.S. domination. It was turned into a kind of a plantation and later a gambling center and a tourist center and so on.

There are various techniques of control and direct annexation is by no means the most efficient. The period in which Europe — and, of course, the United States is an extension of it — literally took over the colonies and ran them from the metropolis was mainly the late 19th century. By the early 20th century, it was mostly eroding throughout the world and other forms of domination, often more efficient ones, were replacing it. Even in the days of colonial control, it was a mixed system. For example, when the British ran India, technically it was run from London, but in fact it was largely administered by Indians.

QUESTION: Does the death of [CANF leader] Mas Canosa open new possibilities, or is it of only marginal importance?

CHOMSKY: The question really is what the effect will be within the Cuban community, mainly in Florida and a few other places. Will it lead to the development of other tendencies within that community that might help move things toward a more productive, constructive relationship with Cuba and weaken the intense and rather violent pressures that have come from that community under Mas Canosa’s leadership?

I think that it’s by no means definite which direction U.S. policy will take. Strong elements of U.S. business are in favor of an opening to Cuba, which would essentially reintegrate it within the U.S. system, but in the manner of other semi-independent areas. So, for example, when Castro was in New York, he was greeted by a group of businessmen led by David Rockefeller.

The same kind of thing happened in the case of Vietnam. In fact, in the 1950s there was a serious split in U.S. policy as to what attitude it ought to take towards China. Should it take an attitude of extreme hostility, driving China into the hands of the Soviet Union, knowing, of course, that there was a serious conflict between them? Or, should it adopt essentially the policy that was later taken by Nixon and Kissinger, who integrated China into the U.S.-dominated system while leaving it with a degree of independence and autonomy? Those are tactical choices. It can go either way.

Take an even more dramatic case. In the late 1940s, the CIA intelligence analyses identified Bolivia and Guatemala as the two major threats to U.S. interests — meaning U.S. domination in the hemisphere — because both had what they called “radical nationalist movements.” The United States took opposite stands in those two cases. In the case of Guatemala, it moved to overthrow the government with a military coup. In the case of Bolivia, where the government was more radical — Trotskyite-led and radical miners and so on — it took the opposite stand. It integrated them into the U.S. system. The end result is not too different in the two cases; the United States simply made opposite tactical choices in somewhat similar situations. It could have gone the other way.

These are tactical decisions based on tentative and uncertain judgments. The goals are fairly clear, but there are many ways of realizing them. The hawkish way is to try to realize them by force. The dovish way is to realize them by the use of overwhelming financial and economic power and inducements that will incorporate them within the system in other ways. And if you look through the history of certainly the last fifty years, but in fact all history of European expansion over the world, it’s taken many forms. Japan was never conquered, but it could have been.

QUESTION: So, one possibility for Cuba is that it will go the way Vietnam has?

CHOMSKY: Well, that’s one prospect, but there are others. Third World solidarity and people to people solidarity between the First and the Third World could allow space for a very different set of developments throughout the Third World altogether. Remember, these divisions are not based on colors on maps. The richest and most powerful country in the world is the United States. But a substantial part of the population, in fact by some criteria a majority of the population, really faces problems not unlike those of the Third World — diminishing incomes, loss of security of work, and so on. These are problems that have been growing in the past twenty years particularly in the Anglo-American societies, but also throughout the rich countries, as the world system gradually changes. Policies which resemble structural adjustment are implemented within the rich countries as well. So American workers and Mexican workers are at last recognizing common interests which they indeed have.