Between Memory and History: U.S.-Cuba Rapprochement in a Time of Remembrance

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President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro at a welcoming ceremony for Obama in Havana, Cuba on March 21, 2016.

[From the May issue of The American Historian]

Louis A. Pérez Jr. is the J. Carlyle Sitterson Professor of History and the Director of the Institute for the Study of the Americas at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His most recent book is The Structure of Cuban History: Purpose and Meanings of the Past (2013).

The premonition of a historic moment often contemplates the imminence of change, a sense of crossing thresholds of before and after, even if the “before” is unknown and the “after” is unknowable. December 17, 2014, was one such moment, the date on which President Barack Obama announced the resumption of U.S.-Cuba relations. A “historic announcement,” pundits and policymakers uniformly agreed, a “historical change in U.S. relations with Cuba” promising “a historic new era.” This was the United States pushing history forward, the United States “making historic changes” and initiating a “historic overhaul of relations” among President Obama’s “trophy legacies” based on a “bold decision to chart a new course in U.S.-Cuban relations.” By traveling to Cuba in March 2016, President Obama “stepped into history” and “made history,” seizing a “historic opportunity” during his “historic three-day visit” to Cuba, where he delivered “a historic speech to the Cuban people.”

Traces of hubris, to be sure, and evidence of the ways people often live hermetically sealed within their own history. But self-congratulations of an American “historic achievement” implied more than the performance of a self-contained history. The narratives also served to lift aloft a larger history, informed with a point of view as a matter of discursive intent and into which was inscribed the plausibility of the American purpose, that is, a politics. The narratives anticipated the history through which to problematize U.S.-Cuba relations, a way to merge myth and memory into a usable past, thereupon to situate the United States as subject and Cuba as object, the Americans as actors and the Cubans as acted upon. In the United States, the past fifty-five years of U.S.-Cuba relations are remembered as a breezy blur of some type of discord, recalled variously as a time of “chilly relations” (CNN), or “decades of frigid relations” (ABC), or “years of unfriendly relations” (Yahoo). The Americans remember the past fifty-five years through their intentions. “The United States has supported democracy and human rights in Cuba through these five decades,” President Obama recounted, a policy “rooted in the best of intentions.” The past half-century was an “aberration,” the President insisted, all in all, a mere “chapter in a longer story of family and friendship.” [i]

The Cubans were at the receiving end of American intentions. A half-century of “chilly relations” was experienced in Cuba as a condition of prolonged siege, of single-minded American resolve at regime change: one armed invasion, scores of assassination plots, years of covert operations, and decades of punitive economic sanctions. An embargo—“harsher than on any other countries in the world,” acknowledged Assistant Secretary of States Roberta Jacobson in 2015—designed with malice of forethought to inflict adversity upon the Cuban people and to deepen Cuban discontent through economic privation in the hope that hardship would serve to bestir the Cuban people to rise up and overthrow of Cuban government.

Conflicting memories of the past loom large in the process of rapprochement. Indeed, the United States and Cuba renew relations by way of profoundly different understandings of the history from which the historical present has emerged. The United States envisages normalization as ending antagonisms borne of East-West tensions, the restoration of relations ruptured as a result of the Cold War. The time had come, President Obama exhorted, “to leave behind the ideological battles of the past.” The “policy of isolation,” President insisted, was “long past its expiration date,” a policy “designed for the Cold War [that]made little sense in the 21st century.” Obama was determined to dispose of “the last vestige” of the Cold War. “I have come here,” the President proclaimed upon his arrival to Havana in March 2016, “to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas.”

The Cold War as temporal framework through which to historicize the U.S.-Cuba conflict is not without far-reaching policy implications. It serves to challenge the legitimacy of the Cuban revolution as something of a Cold War anachronism, a way to diminish the moral authority of a government presiding over a system deemed bereft of hope and discredited by history, thereupon to invite the inference that the Cuban regime was also “long past its expiration date.” The Cold War as cause and context of ruptured U.S.-Cuba relations, moreover, serves to efface all the history that preceded it, to foreclose the relevance of the larger history from which U.S.-Cuba relations entered the Cold War phase in the first place. “The Cold War has been over for a long time,” President Obama pronounced at the Summit of the Americas in Panama in April 2015. “And I’m not interested in having battles that, frankly, started before I was born.” Nor was the President interested in the history of U.S.-Cuba relations recounted by President Raúl Castro at the Summit. “If you listened to President Castro’s comments earlier this morning,” Obama remarked later in a press conference, “a lot of the points he made referenced actions that took place before I was born, and part of my message here is the Cold War is over.” The “actions that took place” before the President was born are thus consigned to the dustbin. “It is time, now, for us to leave the past behind,” Obama exhorted.

For Cuba the conflict with the United States has less to do with the Cold War than with the long history of U.S.-Cuba relations. U.S. policy was not an “aberration,” but a continuity, a historically-conditioned reflex designed to punish Cuba for the exercise of national sovereignty and self-determination. The legitimacy of the revolution was vested in its defense of sovereign nationhood, which the United States had opposed since the nineteenth century, by way of the usurpation of Cuban independence after 1898, the seizure of national territory, repeated U.S. military interventions, and endless political intermeddling. The last fifty-five years were more of the same, if by different means.

Cubans summoned history not as rationale for change but as reason to persevere. President Raúl Castro extolled the resolve of the Cuban people in upholding claims to national sovereignty in the face of withering U.S. punishment. “The heroic Cuban people,” Castro exulted in December 2014, “in the face of great dangers aggressions, adversities and sacrifices, have proven to be faithful . . . to our ideals of independence and social justice. Strongly united these past 56 years of Revolution, we have maintained a profound loyalty to those who perished in defending those principles since the inauguration of our wars of independence in 1868.” Days later, Castro addressed the Cuban National Assembly: “It should not be assumed that Cuba would renounce the ideas for which it has struggled for more than a century, and for which its people have shed much blood, in order to improve relations with the United States.”

These are difficult histories to reconcile and indeed serve to set in relief the contrasting paradigms from which the United States and Cuba re-engage. The United States pursues normal relations with instrumental purport, to change Cuba, to restructure its economy, to remake its political system, to reorganize the character of Cuban society. That is, to do what the United States has always done: presume to insert itself into Cuban internal affairs. Normal relations, Secretary of State John Kerry predicted, “will enhance our ability to have a positive impact on events inside Cuba.”

Cuba proceeds with normal relations insisting upon U.S. respect for historic claims to sovereign nationhood. Cuba was disposed, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez emphasized, “to proceed with normalization of relations with the United States on the basis of respect and equality, without prejudice to the independence and sovereignty of Cuba, and without any interference in our internal affairs.”

Thoughtful observers would be wise to lower expectations raised in the immediate “after” of December 2014. Rapprochement will advance in small increments, and slowly. It could hardly be otherwise. There is still much history to be worked out, still much history to make peace with.

[i] Statement by the President on Cuba Policy Changes, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/12/17/statement-president-cuba-policy-changes. Karen DeYoung, “Fidel Castro Says Obama’s ‘Syrupy Words’ Were Enough to Cause a Heart Attack,” Washington Post, March 28, 2016.

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