America's blind spot

Since Fidel Castro and his guerrilla army marched into Havana on New Year's Day 22 years ago Cuba has been a thorn in the side of an often belligerent United States government. From President Kennedy onwards successive US leaders have done everything in their power (and often beyond it) to undercut Cuba's attempts to follow a radically different devel­opment path.

The CIA led a series of bizarre assassination attempts on Castro himself, including trying to poison his famous cigars. A full-scale trade embargo begun in the early 60s continues to this day. The American military still occupies Guantanamo Naval Base on the southeast end of the island-despite repeated Cuban protests about violation of its national sovereignty.

The US press and much of the mass media in other Western nations are almost rabid in their denunciation of Dr. Castro and his associates. Most of the criticism is justified with standard anti-communist argument. The Cuban govern­ment is unacceptable because it refuses to play according to the ground rules of the Western liberal democracies. Walking hand in hand with the Soviets on foreign policy and sending troops to the front lines of the liberation struggles in

Africa only confirm the US view of the island as an unsavoury international pariah. And adding insult to injury, the upstarts have the nerve to do all this only scant miles from the Florida beaches in the Caribbean Sea. The US has always treated that stretch of water as a kind of seventh Great Lake, filled with salt water and lined with palm trees.

For almost 100 years Washington has con­sidered the Caribbean Basin part of its sphere of influence. And it's been none too subtle about methods of keeping a firm hold. The Marines have been one way. Twenty-five thousand troops occupied the Dominican Republic in 1965 when Juan Bosch's socialist party threatened to win at the polls. American soldiers occupied Haiti from 1915-1934 to 'stabilize' the government. The CIA helped organize the botched Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1962.

Washington passed the infamous Platt Amendment in 1902, after the Cuban War of Independence, giving America the 'right' to intervene in internal Cuban affairs. Military bases were quickly established. And in the same year, after the Spanish-American War, Puerto Rico was annexed outright. The Canal Zone was leased and the Panama Canal built and in 1917 the Danish Virgin Islands were bought, again for 'security purposes'.

America's strategic interest in the region is clear-cut. From Haiti to Trinidad the islands stretch like a girdle across the Atlantic entrance to the Panama Canal. There are also important supplies of bauxite (critical for aluminum and the US aerospace industry) in Jamaica, Guyana and Surinam. But the clincher is oil. Half of all American oil imports pass through Caribbean shipping lanes and one-sixth of all US consump­tion is refined there.

But Cuba is not a military force, at least not one capable of matching American fire­power. And treating the island as a threat to US energy supplies is clearly ludicrous. The trade blockade has nipped all economic ties so US business has nothing more to lose. In fact Cuba appears to pose no direct threat at all. So why does the tiny nation of ten million continue to be the whipping boy of American politicians?

The reason is not just that Cuba is run under a different political system, but that by the most basic measures of development it seems to beworking. Health care, food, housing, employment, education: all have improved immeasur­ably for Cuba's poor majority over the last two decades. That doesn't mean there aren't soft spots in the armour of Dr. Castro's revolution. There are. From a flabby,self-indulgent bureau­cracy to nagging shortages of consumer goods. But when both sides of the ledger are totalled the revolution's achievements are remarkable. And when compared to other Central American and Caribbean countries, unique. And that, from the point of view of Washington, is worrisome.

In the last two years popular leftist revol­utions in Nicaragua and Grenada, civil war in El Salvador and deepening class conflict in Jamaica have made the US sit up and take note of potential Cuban influence. Washington's response has been typically heavy handed.

The first step was to announce formation of a Caribbean Task Force based in Key West, Florida. Its function is to 'monitor intelligence and communication' and supervise increased military manoeuvres. The second step was to increase aid to the English-speaking Caribbean, most of it in the form of military assistance (from $1 million in 1979 to nearly $10 million in 1981). That includes $5 million for Barbados, which seems to be the odds-on choice for most likely client state. Military training funds have also been proposed for the Bahamas, Barbados, Dominica, Jamaica, St. Lucia and St. Vincent. Haiti and the Dominican Republic (the countries closest to Cuba) between them will get almost $1 billion in military assistance in 1981.

But shoring up the military and throwing dollars at the poor has had precious little success in solving poverty. The proof of the pudding is in the eating and all indications are that the portions are going to get smaller  for the Caribbean's poor. Cuba, still heavily dependent on Soviet aid and sugar exports, will face its own problems. But it will remain a symbol of radical changeand an example of independence and resolve against the hemisphere's dominant superpower. And thatalonewill keep its profile high in the Caribbean.

In the long run by remaining blind to the revolution's success and by remaining so unbendingly opposed to any hint of socialist­style change, the US may do more to increase Cuba's status and influence in the Caribbean than to undercut it. Time will tell.

New Internationalist issue 094 magazine cover This article is from the December 1980 issue of New Internationalist.
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