Background to the touch down

President Barack Obama's historic visit to Cuba

by Ken Sehested

       In case you missed this historic video (1:10)—of President Barack Obama and family deplaning in Havana, Cuba, on Monday morning, 21 March 2016.

        Even now, during the Christian community’s Passion Week, a countersign—the Promise embedded within the Passion—can be discerned. History, despite its bloodied face, is not fated; and we, among history’s actors, need not abandon the field in hopes of a private realm of bogus atonement detached from fleshly circumstance.

Right: Air Force 1 on approach to the José Martí International Airport in Havana. Photo by Jose Luis Casal.

        The last (and only other) sitting US president to visit Cuba was Calvin Coolidge, in 1928, and then only to speak at the 6th Pan-American conference. Following his term in office, former US President Jimmy Carter visited Cuba in 2002 and 2011. In fact, shortly after Carter was elected in 1976 he issued a secret directive on Cuban policy aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations.

        (For more background on Carter’s visits to Cuba, see Jennifer Lynn McCoy, “How Jimmy Carter Paved the Way for Cuba Breakthrough” Newsweek,  and Peter Kornbluh, “Jimmy Carter: Lift Trad Embargo Against Cuba,” The Nation.)

         Following the Spanish-American War of 1898, when the US took control of Cuba and instituted a military occupation, planning for an “election” were set in motion, with US Administration vetting potential candidates with the intent of restricting the “mass of ignorant and incompetent” and promote “a conservative and thoughtful control of Cuba by Cubans,” in the words of US Secretary of War Elihu Root.

        Despite that move, members of the independence party of Cuba defeated most of the US-back candidates for office. Although the US recognized the new government, work began immediately on what became the US Congress’ Platt Amendment as part of the Military Appropriations Act of February 1901 governing the military occupation, which allowed control of Cuba without actual annexation.

        “Article I, limited the Cuban government from entering into any treaty or contract with a foreign power that would allow that foreign power any control over Cuba, politically or militarily.

        “Article II barred the Cuban government from contracting any public debt, paying interest on any debt, and ensured that the government of Cuba maintained adequate funds for government expenses as well as revenues of the island.

        “Article III stipulated the United States reserved the right to intervene in Cuba for the purposes of maintaining Cuban independence as well as ensuring that the Cuban government was capable of protecting human life and property.

        “Article VIII required these tenets to be incorporated into the new Cuban constitution.

        "Lastly, the Amendment ceded Guantanamo Bay to the United States for use as a naval base in perpetuity.” (Quoted in Ann-Marie Holmes, “The United States and Cuba: 1898-1959”)

        Forced to choose between partial sovereignty and no sovereignty, the Cuban legislature approved these stipulations.

        This particular story is a classic example of the “big print giveth, small print taketh away” aphorism and illustration of a longer, highly ambiguous pattern of US promotion of democratic values around the world.

        Before we can address these matters, we must first know them.

#  #  #

©Ken Sehested @