Cuba and U.S. Government

Noam Chomsky

Excerpted from Rogue States, 2000

Cuba and US government

Cuba and the United States have quite a curious-in fact, unique- status in international relations. There is no similar case of such a sustained assault by one power against another-in this case the greatest superpower against a poor, Third World country-for 40 years of terror and economic warfare

In fact, the fanaticism of this attack goes back a long, long time. From the first days of the American Revolution the eyes of the founding fathers were on Cuba. They were quite open about it. It was John Quincy Adams, when he was secretary of state, who said our taking Cuba is "of transcendent importance" to the political and commercial future of the United States. Others said that the future of the world depended on our taking Cuba. It was a matter "of transcendent importance" from the beginning of US history, and it remains so. The need to possess Cuba is the oldest issue in US foreign policy.

The US sanctions against Cuba are the harshest in the world, much harsher than the sanctions against Iraq, for example. There was a small item in the New York Times recently that said that Congress is passing legislation to allow US exporters to send food and medicine to Cuba. It explained that this was at the urging of US farmers. "Farmers" is a euphemism that means "US agribusiness"-it sounds better when you call them "farmers." And it’s true that US agribusiness wants to get back into this market. The article didn’t point out that the restriction against the sale and export of food and medicines is in gross violation of international humanitarian law. It’s been condemned by almost every relevant body. Even the normally quite compliant Organization of American States, which rarely stands up against the boss, did condemn this as illegal and unacceptable.

US policy towards Cuba is unique in a variety of respects, first of all because of the sustained attacks, and secondly because the US is totally isolated in the world-in fact, 100 percent isolated, because the one state that reflexively has to vote with the United States at the UN, Israel, also openly violates the embargo, contrary to its vote.

The United States government is also isolated from its own population. According to the most recent poll I’ve seen, about two-thirds of the population in the United States is opposed to the embargo. They don’t take polls in the business world, but there’s pretty strong evidence that major sectors of the business world, major corporations, are strongly opposed to the embargo. So the isolation of the US government is another unusual element. The US government is isolated from its own population, from the major decisionmakers in this society, which largely control the government, and from international opinion, but is still fanatically committed to this policy, which goes right back to the roots of the American republic.

Cuba has brought out real hysteria among planners. This was particularly striking during the Kennedy years. The internal records from the Kennedy administration, many of which are available now, describe an atmosphere of what was called "savagery" and "fanaticism" over the failure of the US to reconquer Cuba. Kennedy’s own public statements were wild enough. He said publicly that the United States would be swept away in the debris of history unless it reincorporated Cuba under its control.

In 1997 at the World Trade Organization (WTO) when the European Union brought charges against the United States for blatant, flagrant violation of WTO rules in the embargo, the US rejected its jurisdiction, which is not surprising, because it rejects the jurisdiction of international bodies generally. But the reasons were interesting. It rejected its jurisdiction on the grounds of a national security reservation. The national security of the United States was threatened by the existence of Cuba, and therefore the US had to reject WTO jurisdiction. Actually, the US did not make that position official, because it would have subjected itself to international ridicule, but that was the position, and it was publicly stated, repeatedly. It’s a national security issue; we therefore cannot consider WTO jurisdiction.

You’ll be pleased to know that the Pentagon recently downgraded the threat of Cuban conquest of the United States. It’s still there, but it’s not as serious as it was. The reason, they explained, is the deterioration of the awesome Cuban military forces after the end of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union stopped supplying them. So we can rest a little bit easier; we don’t have to hide under tables the way we were taught to do in first grade. This elicited no ridicule when it was publicly announced, at least here. I’m sure it did elsewhere; you might recall the response of the Mexican ambassador when John F. Kennedy was trying to organize collective security in defense against Cuba back in the early ’60s in Mexico: the ambassador said he would regretfully have to decline because if he were to tell Mexicans that Cuba was a threat to their national security, 40 million Mexicans would die laughing.

This hysteria and fanaticism is indeed unusual and interesting, and it deserves inquiry and thought. Where does it come from? The historical depth partly explains it, but there’s more to it than that in the current world. A good framework within which to think of it is what has now become the leading thesis in intellectual discourse, in serious journals especially. It’s what’s called the "new humanism," which was proclaimed by Clinton and Blair and various acolytes with great awe and solemnity. According to this thesis, which you read over and over, we’re entering a glorious new era, a new millennium. It actually began 10 years ago when the two enlightened countries, as they call themselves, were freed from the shackles of the Cold War and were therefore able to rededicate themselves with full vigor to their historic mission of bringing justice and freedom to the suffering people of the world and protecting human rights everywhere, by force if necessary-something they were prevented from doing during the Cold War interruption.

That renewal of the saintly mission is quite explicit; it’s not left to the imagination. Clinton gave a major speech at the Norfolk Air Station on April I, 1999, explaining why we have to bomb everybody in sight in the Balkans. He was introduced by the secretary of defense, William Cohen, who opened his remarks by reminding the audience of some of the dramatic words that had opened the last century. He cited Theodore Roosevelt, later to be president, who said that "unless you’re willing to fight for great ideals, those ideals will vanish." And just as Theodore Roosevelt opened the century with those stirring words, William Clinton, his successor, was closing the century with the same stand.

That was an interesting introduction for anyone who had taken a course in American history, that is, a real course. Theodore Roosevelt, as they would have learned, was one of the most extraordinary racist, raving lunatics of contemporary history. He was greatly admired by Hitler, and for good reason. His writings are shocking to read. He won his fame through participation in the US invasion of Cuba. By 1898 Cuba had essentially liberated itself from Spain after a long struggle, but the US wasn’t having any of that, so it invaded to prevent the independence struggle from succeeding. Cuba was quickly turned into what two Harvard professors, the editors of the recent Kennedy Tapes, call "a virtual colony" of the United States, as it remained up until 1959. It’s an accurate description. Cuba was turned into a "virtual colony" after the invasion, which was described as a humanitarian intervention, incidentally.

At that time, too, the United States was quite isolated. The United States government was isolated, of course, from the Cuban people, but it was also isolated from the American population, who were foolish enough to believe the propaganda and were overwhelmingly in favor of Cuba libre, not understanding that that was the last thing in the minds of their leaders-or, from another point of view, the first thing in their minds, because they had to prevent it.

The noble ideals that Roosevelt was fighting for were in fact those, in part: to prevent independence through humanitarian intervention. However, at the time he actually spoke, in 1901 or so, the values that we had to uphold by force were being demonstrated far more dramatically elsewhere than in Cuba, namely in the conquest of the Philippines. That was one of the most murderous colonial wars in history, in which hundreds of thousands of Filipinos were slaughtered. The press recognized that it was a massive slaughter, but advised that we must continue to kill "the natives in English fashion," until they come to "respect our arms" and ultimately to respect our good intentions. This was also a so-called humanitarian intervention.

Every one of these 1898 actions and what followed was connected in some fashion or another, usually quite explicitly, to this long-term objective. This includes the so-called Theodore Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, which formally established the US right to rule the Caribbean. The repeated invasions of Nicaragua, Woodrow Wilson’s very bloody invasions of the Dominican Republic and Haiti-particularly ugly in Haiti because it was also suffused by extreme racism (Haiti will never recover from that and in fact may not be habitable in a couple of decades)-and many other actions in that region were all part of the new humanism, which we’re now reviving.

Probably the major achievement was in Venezuela, where in 1920 Woodrow Wilson succeeded in kicking out the British enemy, at that time weakened by the First World War. Venezuela was extremely important. The world was shifting to an oil-based economy at the time. North America, mainly the US, was by far the major producer of oil, and remained so until about 1970, but Venezuela was an important oil resource, one of the biggest in the world-in fact, the biggest single exporter until 1970, and still the biggest exporter to the United States. So kicking the British out of there was very important. Venezuela also had other resources, such as iron, and US corporations enriched themselves in Venezuela for decades-and still do-while the US supported a series of murderous dictators to keep the people in line.

The "Kennedy tapes," the secret tapes of the Cuban missile crisis, are not all that revealing since almost everything in there had already come out in one way or another, but they do reveal a few new things. One of the new things is an explanation of one of the reasons the Kennedy brothers, Robert and John F., were concerned about missiles in Cuba. They were concerned that they might be a deterrent to a US invasion of Venezuela, which they thought might be necessary because the situation there was getting out of hand. Missiles in Cuba might deter an invasion. Noting that, John F. Kennedy said that the Bay of Pigs was right. We’re going to have to make sure we win; we can’t face any such deterrent to our benevolence in the region. After the missile crisis, contrary to what’s often said, the US made no pledge not to invade Cuba. It stepped up the terrorism, and of course the embargo was already in place and imposed more harshly, and so matters have essentially remained.

The Castro Threat

… Cuba was a virtual colony of the United States until January 1959; it didn’t take long before the wheels started turning again. By mid- 1959-we now have a lot of declassified records from that period, so the picture’s pretty complete-the Eisenhower administration had determined informally to reconquer Cuba. By October 1959 planes based in Florida were already bombing Cuba. The US claimed not to be able to do anything about it, and has remained "helpless" throughout the most recent acts of terrorism, which are traceable to CIA-trained operatives, as usual.

In March 1960 the Eisenhower administration secretly made a formal decision to conquer Cuba, but with a proviso: it had to be done in such a way that the US hand would not be evident. The reason for that was because they knew it would blow up Latin America if it were obvious that the US had retaken Cuba. Furthermore, they had polls indicating that in Cuba itself there was a high level of optimism and strong support for the revolution; there would obviously be plenty of resistance. They had to overthrow the government, but in such a way that the US hand would not be evident.

Shortly after that, the Kennedy administration came in. They were very much oriented towards Latin America; just before taking office Kennedy had established a Latin American mission to review the affairs of the continent. It was headed by historian Arthur Schlesinger. His report is now declassified. He informed President Kennedy of the results of the mission with regard to Cuba. The problem in Cuba, he said, is "the spread of the Castro idea of taking matters into one’s own hands." He said, that is an idea that has a great deal of appeal throughout Latin America, where "the distribution of land and other forms of national wealth greatly favors the propertied classes . . . [and] the poor and underprivileged, stimulated by the example of the Cuban revolution, are now I demanding opportunities for a decent living." That’s the threat of Castro. That’s correct. In fact, if you read through the record of internal planning over the years, that has always been the threat. The Cold War is a public pretext. Take a look at the record; in case after case, it’s exactly this. Cuba is what was called a "virus" that might infect others who might be stimulated by "the Castro idea of taking matters into [their] own hands" and believing that they too might have a decent living.

The Berlin Wall fell in November 1989. That ended the Cold War as far as any sane person was concerned.

… A month after the fall of the Berlin Wall the US invaded Panama, killing a couple of hundred or maybe a couple of thousand people, destroying poor neighborhoods, reinstating a regime of bankers and narco-traffickers-drug peddling and money laundering shot way up, as congressional research bureaus soon advised-and so on. That’s normal, a footnote to history, but there were two differences: one difference is that the pretexts were different. This was the first intervention since the beginning of the Cold War that was not undertaken to defend ourselves from the Russians. This time, it was to defend ourselves from Hispanic narco-traffickers. Secondly, the US recognized right away that it was much freer to invade without any concern that somebody, the Russians, might react somewhere in the world, as former Undersecretary of State Abrams happily pointed out.

The same was true with regard to the Third World generally. The Third World could now be disregarded. There’s no more room for non-alignment. So forget about the Third World and their interests; you don’t have to make a pretense of concern for them. That’s been very evident in policy since.

With regard to Cuba, it’s about the same. Right after the fall of the Soviet Union, the embargo against Cuba became far harsher, under a liberal initiative, incidentally: it was a Torricelli-Clinton initiative. And the pretexts were now different. Before, it was that the Cubans were a tentacle of the Soviet beast about to strangle us; now it was suddenly our love of democracy that made us oppose Cuba.

The US does support a certain kind of democracy. The kind of democracy it supports was described rather frankly by a leading scholar who dealt with the democratic initiatives of the Reagan administration in the 1980s and who writes from an insider’s point of view because he was in the State Department working on "democracy enhancement" projects: Thomas Carothers. He points out that though the Reagan administration, which he thinks was very sincere, undermined democracy everywhere, it nevertheless was interested in a certain kind of democracy-what he calls "top-down" forms of democracy that leave "traditional structures of power" in place, namely those with which the US has long had good relations. As long as democracy has that form, it’s no problem.

The real problem of Cuba remains what it has always been. It remains the threat of "the Castro idea of taking matters into [your] own hands," which continues to be a stimulus to poor and underprivileged people who can’t get it driven into their heads that they have no right to seek opportunities for a decent living. And Cuba, unfortunately, keeps making that clear, for example, by sending doctors all over the world at a rate way beyond any other country despite its current straits, which are severe, and by maintaining, unimaginably, a health system that is a deep embarrassment to the United States. Because of concerns such as these, and because of the fanaticism that goes way back in American history, the US government, for the moment, at least, is continuing the hysterical attack, and will do so until it is deterred.

And though foreign deterrents, which weren’t that effective, don’t exist anymore, the ultimate deterrent is where it always was, right at home. Two-thirds of the population oppose the embargo even without any discussion. Imagine what would happen if the issues were discussed in a serious and honest way-that leaves enormous opportunities for that deterrent to be exercised.