“Make them do whatever we want”

How to read the Cuban street protests in light of U.S.-Cuba history

by Ken Sehested

Cuba seems to have the same effect on U.S. administrations
as the full moon once had on werewolves.
—Dr. Wayne Smith, former director of the
US Interest Section in Havana, Cuba

Medieval European maps traced the outline of the entirety of its exploration. Just outside the bounds of what was known they inscribed the words “Here Be Dragons.”

Here Be Dragons is an appropriate mythological metaphor for the U.S. public’s image of our nearest offshore neighbor. Preoccupation with Cuba was a terrifying experience six decades ago when we came within a hair’s breadth of a full-scale nuclear war with the Soviet Union.[1]

One result of the terror—both shaping and being shaped by U.S. foreign policy—was the locking of public perceptions in a time warp. The U.S. embargo has not only been economic but also diplomatic and cultural.

Except in rare moments—like President Obama’s dramatic trip to Cuba in 2016[2] and, just recently on 11 July, the angry protests of Cubans in numerous cities across the nation,[3] the largest in decades, some met with violent repression and arrests—most in this country think little about U.S.-Cuba relations.

We just don’t get much news from there; and the little we hear is shaped by a woeful lack of historical context.[4]

Nothing that we say is accurate without a crash course in the tortured history of U.S.-Cuba relations.

And nothing could be more helpful in allowing Cubans to negotiate their future than ending the U.S. embargo, an utterly failed policy propped up not as a tool of diplomatic leverage but as a wedge in U.S. domestic politics.[5]

In this matter, we are the pariah nation.[6

§ §  §

In 1859, the Committee on Foreign Relations of the United
States Senate
reported favorably a bill “to facilitate
the acquisition of the Island of Cuba.”[7]

§ §  §

Few know that the U.S. was considering annexing Cuba not long after solidifying our own independence. In 1820 Thomas Jefferson thought Cuba is ‘the most interesting addition which could ever be made to our system of States’ and told Secretary of War John C. Calhoun that the United States ‘ought, at the first possible opportunity, to take Cuba.’”[8] In 1823 Secretary of State John Quincy Adams predicted the U.S. would annex Cuba with 50 years.[9] In 1854 President Franklin Pierce supported a plan to annex Cuba, by force if necessary.[10]

Few know that the Cuban people’s first constitution contained a provision allowing the U.S. to intervene in its affairs.[11] Or that the treaty ending the U.S. war with Spain (giving the U.S. control of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines), the U.S.-based “Island of Cuba Real Estate Company” opened for business to sell Cuban land to Americans.[12]

We are largely ignorant of the imprint of the U.S. military’s boot there: of stepping in to steal the Cuban nationals’ expulsion of Spanish rule in 1898; of the Marines’ occupations of 1906-09, 1912, and 1917-22; the 1971 disastrous “Bay of Pigs Invasion.”[13] Still today the U.S. maintains a naval base at Guantanamo Bay on Cuba’s eastern shore.

Few know that for more than a quarter century the U.S. propped up the brutal dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, who murdered as many as 20,000 of his critics and allowed the American Mafia to construct and control casino gambling, prostitution, and drug business, protected from U.S. law enforcement.

It is the rare scholar that knows by 1950 the U.S. owned most of Cuba’s sugar industry and foreigners owned 70% of the arable land. Or that by 1956, U.S. corporations controlled 90% of Cuba’s telephone and electric services; 50% of public railways; and Cuban branches of U.S. banks handled 25% of all deposits.[14]

Your school history class probably didn’t mention that in March of 1960, barely a year after the Cuban Revolution, U.S. President Eisenhower signed off on a Central Intelligence Agency project entitled “A Program of Covert Action Against the Castro Regime,” to create an organization of exiled Cubans to train for and carry out terrorist attacks on Cuba.[15] Or that the established U.S. policy on relations with Cuba—from the outset—called for “denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government.”[16]

Furthermore, what do you make of the fact that China and Vietnam, also communist countries, are among our largest trading partners? And we frequently sell boatloads of military equipment to Saudi Arabia, among the most dictatorial governments in the world, where converting to Christianity is punishable by death.

§  §  §

We do control the destinies of Central America, and we do
so for
the simple reason that the national interest absolutely
dictates such
a course. . . . Central America has always
understood that
governments which we recognize and
support stay in power,
while those we do not recognize
and support fail.[17]

—Under-Secretary of State Robert Olds, 1927,
quoted in Walter LaFeber’s “Inevitable Revolutions”

§  §  §

My personal interest in US-Cuba relations originated with a providential encounter with Rev. Raúl Súarez, a Baptist pastor in Cuba. A mutual friend connected us. I was fascinated to hear about the life of churches in Cuba, and astounded when Raúl quoted from memory long passages from the writings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.[18]

Since that day I have traveled to Cuba numerous times and developed a network of friends and contacts. During those trips I heard this repeated refrain, “Cuba is neither heaven nor hell.” Almost all also say that they thoroughly support the values of the Cuban Revolution, but not its administration, with varying degrees of dissent. Do we, as citizens of the U.S., not exhibit the same diversity of opinions on our government?

The recent street demonstrations in Cuba are due to multiple layers of frustration. Despite the fact that Cuba is the only country in Latin America to produce its own vaccine, the country’s surge in COVID cases triggered unrest rooted in other complaints, which include anger at the government’s monetary policy shift in January, which dramatically increased the price of food and consumer goods; the lack of simple medicines; repeated electricity outages; dismal performance of Cuba’s inefficient, centrally-controlled economy; and outrage over the government’s human rights record and lack of political accountability.[19]

Many of my Cuban friends report an avalanche of disinformation about the pandemic, from shadowy sources, very similar to what we are experiencing in the U.S.

The Cuban government, of course, blames the U.S. economic boycott, a brutal measure which has lasted long beyond the Cold War’s legacy and is the longest such sanctioning policy in U.S. history.

Is the embargo the root cause of Cuba’s problems?[20] Maybe. Maybe not. Near the conclusion of this reflection I will offer a policy prescription to test this opinion.

§  §  §

It is my duty to prevent, through the independence of Cuba,
U.S.A. from spreading over the West Indies and falling
with added
weight upon other lands of Our America. . . .
I know the Monster, because
I have lived in its lair—and
my weapon is only the slingshot of David.
—José Martí, poet, philosopher, and journalist (Cuba’s
national hero, considered the “Apostle of Cuban Independence)
in his final letter, 18 May 1895, the day before he is killed in
the revolt against Spanish rule

§  §  §

Needless to say, the audience here is my own fellow citizens. My goal is to offer historical context to expose a history largely unknown, one that we must take into account in our bilateral relations.

The key element we fail to recognize is that the Cuban revolution’s understanding of human rights, and the resulting idea of “freedom,” is different from that in the U.S.

For instance, despite its relative poverty, Cuba’s infant mortality rate is lower than that of the U.S., and its literacy rate is higher. Prior to its revolution, Cuba was considered among the wealthier countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. Yet its level of income inequality prior to its revolution was similar to that of the U.S. today, where 0.1% of the population earns as much as the bottom 90%.[21]

Cuba has one of the largest doctor-to-patient ratios in the world.[22] By contrast, in the U.S. more than half a million citizens file for bankruptcy every year because of medical bills.[23] The homeless population in the U.S. is over half a million, whereas Cuba has virtually none.[24]

Few in the U.S. even know Cuba has elections.[25] Or that a 1990 dialogue between Fidel Castro and a group of 70 pastors and religious leaders led to a roll back of many religious discrimination policies and the substitution of “secular” for “atheistic” as a national descriptor in the country’s constitution.[26]

Given the recent public demonstrations, there is considerable anger among Cubans over their governance. But after the 2020 murder by police of George Floyd, 15-25 million U.S. citizens marched in cities in every state, a few of which turned violent and many resulted in arrests by police.

While it’s true that some Cubans (and many Cuban Americans) are calling for extreme measures, including violent overthrow of Cuba’s government, a recent poll in the U.S. reveals that one in three citizens agree with the following statement: “The traditional way of life [in the U.S.] is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.”[27]

§  §  §

In one of his early visits to the U.S., Rev. Francisco “Paco” Rodés
asked me
to help him find a kitchen cabinet handle to replace
a broken one in his
home. These are the sorts of consumer items
often difficult to find in
Cuba. No problem, I said, and I drove
him to a nearby home improvement
store. It took a few minutes
to find the right aisle. Then Paco’s eyes
bulged in wonder: hundreds
of different shapes, colors and designs of
cabinet handles. Then
he turned to me, with a sly grin on his face,
raised his arms and jubilantly announced, “FREEDOM!”[28]

§  §  §

Back then to the prior question: Is the Cuban government’s claim that its nation’s ills can be traced directly to the embargo an established fact or a fig leaf to cover its own failures?

There’s only one clear way to find out, and the burden is on the U.S., not Cuba, to provide the answer. An act of Congress and a presidential signature would end the embargo.[29]

If such a policy improved the lives of the Cuban people, its government’s excuse would be quickly exposed. The people themselves would know soon enough. And so would we.[30]

I do not know what freedom should look like in Cuba’s future. And, given our history of interference, the U.S. lacks credibility to instruct.

But I wonder about one thing, and I fear another.

Did Cuba’s independence leaders, working hard to fend off manipulation by the U.S., end up fending off the always-needed reforming influence of its own people?

My fear is that, in whatever change comes to Cuba, freedom might look like what one thoughtful Cuban friend said to me. When I asked if he thought the embargo would ever be lifted, he paused for a moment and then said: “Yes, but I fear your country will simply buy ours.”

Cuba’s resident population has been attempting to throw off colonial occupation since Columbus landed in 1492 (thinking it was a coastal island of Asia). He wrote:

“This is the most beautiful land ever seen by human eyes.” Then he went on to comment on the indigenous Taíno people of what is now Cuba: They “are so naive and so free with their possessions that no one who has not witnessed them would believe it. When you ask for something they have, they never say no. To the contrary, they offer to share with anyone. . . . With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”

And in his letters, he repeatedly invoked the name of “our Saviour” and “His holy service” as justification for this subjugation. (Is it any wonder that the Cuban Revolution’s government declared itself atheistic?)

The Cuban people deserve to set their sights on a future freed from imperial meddling. Toward that purpose, and for us in the U.S., the first two steps require that we tell the truth about our nation’s orchestration of terrorist attacks on the country (for more than six decades) and then press hard for an end to the embargo.

# # #


[1] U.S. President John Kennedy made a secret deal with Soviet Nikita Khrushchev that the U.S. would removed its nuclear weapons in Turkey in exchange for the Soviets withdrawing their missiles from Cuba. “The Cuban Missile Crisis, October 1962,” Department of State, Office of the Historian. For decades the U.S. has had nuclear weapons, based on land, ships, and submarines, ringing the Soviet borders.

[2] See “Background to the touch down: President Barack Obama’s historic visit to Cuba,” by Ken Sehested

[3] Hundreds of protests against coronavirus-related restrictions have occurred in at least 34 states in the U.S. —Wikipedia

[4] For some “did you know?” background on Cuba, see Ken Sehested’s “Thirty-five interesting facts about Cuba and its US relations

[5] See “A Time For Change: Rethinking U.S.-Cuba Policy,” Lilah Rosenblum, Washington Office on Latin America

[6] This past June the United Nations General Assembly voted (for the 29th straight year) to end the US embargo of Cuba. The vote: 184-2. Only Israel joined the U.S. in opposition.

[7] “Cuba and Congress,” Albert J. Beveridge, The North American Review, Vol. 172, No. 533 (Apr., 1901, p. 537), University of Northern Iowa

[8] Quoted in “Cuba-United States Relations,” footnote in Wikipedia, citing The American Empire Not So Fast, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. World Policy Journal

[9] Cuba-United States Relations,” Wikipedia, citing Cuba and the United States : A chronological History Jane Franklin. Ocean Press; 1997.

[10]Ostend Manifesto,” Wikipedia

[11]Platt Amendment,” Wikipedia

[12]Cuba-United States relations,” Wikipedia

[13]Bay of Pigs Invasion,” Wikipedia

[14]Fulgencio Batista,” Wikipedia

[15]Operation Mongoose,” Wikipedia

[16]Memorandum From the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State [Lester D. Mallory] for Inter-American Affairs,” Department of State Office of the Historian

[17] The US has overthrown the democratically elected governments of numerous governments: In Iran in 1953, in Guatemala in 1954, in Chile in 1973. [For more, see “The U.S. tried to change other countries’ governments 72 times during the Cold War,” Lindsey A. O’Rourke, Washington Post and “United States involvement in regime change,” Wikipedia

[18] Raúl, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Havana, would later found the Martin Luther King Center and, later still, become among the first three Christians to be elected to the Cuban National Assembly.

Also see “Martin Luther King Jr. in Cuba: A Cuban pastor’s story of King’s influence,” by Francisco Rodés

[19] See “Explainer: Causes of the protests in Cuba,” Andrea Rodríguez, Associated Press.

[20] “No one will ever know the extent to which the US embargo has created the current failed state of Cuba, and the extent to which it is a failure of the socialist system. The US determined at the outset of the Cuban Revolution that it could not risk finding out if socialism could work, that would be too much a threat to our system if in fact it did. So we created every obstacle we could to ensure that it did fail, and then when we are successful in its failure, we can blame it on socialism.” Personal correspondence with Stan Dotson who, with his spouse Kim Christman, has lived in Cuba for much of the past six years. I highly recommend Stan’s book, “Cuba: A Day in the Life,” a wonderful collection of stories from everyday life.

[21] See “Income Inequality in the United States.”

[22]Countries With The Most Doctors Per Capita,” World Atlas.

[23]25+ Medical Bankruptcy Statistics to Know in 2021,” Christo Petrov, Spendmenot.

[24]List of countries by homeless population,” Wikipedia

[25] Ken Sehested, “Cuba’s historic electoral process November 2017 – April 2018: For the first time since its revolution, Cuba will not have a president named Castro,” by Ken Sehested

[26]CUBA: Churches Tackle Divisions by Discussing Ethics, Not Doctrine,” Dalia Acosta, Inter Press Service News Agency and “Sanctioning Faith: Religion, State, and U.S.-Cuban Relations,” Jill Goldenziel, Harvard University

[27]Poll shows disturbing level of support for political violence,” Dominick Mastrangelo, The Hill.

[28] The author’s personal story. Also see “Martin Luther King Jr. in Cuba: A Cuban pastor’s story of King’s influence,” by Francisco Rodés

[29]Why the Cuba embargo needs to end, explained in 3 minutes,” Zack Beauchamp, Vox

[30] For more see “Bring Down the Wall in the Caribbean: A resolution in support of renewed diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba,” written by Ken Sehested, approved by the 23-25 June 2016 annual meeting of the Southern Conference of the United Church of Christ and later approved by the 31st General Synod of the United Church of Christ, June 30-July 4, 2017.