Why Don't Cuba and the USA Like Each Other?
For more than fifty years now, the US and Cuba have snarled at each other across the Florida Straits. Havana is one of the few airports in the world that won’t come up on expedia. American credit cards don’t work there. US law prohibits all trade with the island—the United Nations has regularly said this is illegal, but the American government doesn’t care. The bad blood is thick and old.
The two countries got on fairly well until Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba in 1959. After that, Communist Cuba became the sworn enemy of capitalist America. The US tried to get rid of Castro, with an invasion and then a string of assassination attempts, but failed. So the US was left with the humiliation of a Communist country in the Caribbean, a sea that had often been called America’s lake. No wonder Americans were angry.
But why did Cuba become Communist? To understand that, you need a bit more of the history between the island and its powerful neighbour to the North. Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean, and it’s perfect for cultivating lucrative crops such as sugar. As a result, the idea of seizing Cuba had tempted American leaders for a long time. Thomas Jefferson said he had always looked on Cuba as “the most interesting addition which could ever be made to our system of states.” But Cuba had been under Spanish control since Columbus landed there in 1492.
America’s chance came when Cubans rebelled against Spain in 1895. Three years later, the US joined the war on Cuba’s side, after which the Spanish had no chance. The US government then had to decide what to do with Cuba. They were torn between the desire to respect the wishes of the Cubans now celebrating their independence and the desire to annex the island.
Their solution was to tell the new Cuban government that they could have their independence but only if they gave the US strategic naval bases (including Guantanamo Bay) and allowed the US president to intervene in Cuba whenever he wanted.
For the next sixty years, American influence in Cuba was enormous. Americans controlled more than 40% of the sugar industry, 50% of the railways, and 90% of the telecommunications and electricity. Most Cubans, meanwhile, were landless and poor. They resented not just American economic control but also the way traveling American businessmen had turned Havana into a city of brothels and casinos.
This was the background to Castro’s revolution. He promised Cubans land, justice, and an end to American dominance of their island, and thousands joined him. As his armed revolution gained support, Cuba’s hated president fled the island.
For the US, the change of government was bad. Worse was what Castro did next: taking over all US land and business interests on the island, with little compensation (the Cuban government calculated the amount paid on the basis of the meager valuations submitted by the companies on their tax returns). Tens of thousands of middle- and upper-class Cubans lost their property and fled to the United States.
Castro parceled out land to peasants and factory workers. With the state now in charge of most property, renting a house was cheap. Free education meant children of peasants were becoming doctors. Investment in health care led to dramatic improvements in infant mortality. Life expectancy soon matched that of the US.
However, the island’s economy was crippled by the American decision to forbid all trade with Cuba. This was when Castro started to cozy up to the Communists. Russia bought Cuban sugar. Cuba would not have survived without Russian support, which eventually amounted to several billion dollars a year. Life became harder for Cubans after 1991, when the Soviet Union fell and the money dried up.
It’s difficult for America to normalize its relations with Cuba because of large numbers of Cuban exiles in the United States. Most live in Florida, which is often a decisive state in American presidential elections. Candidates therefore court the Cuban vote. In 2004, President George W. Bush won over Cuban Americans with hardline policies against the island—helping him to win Florida and therefore the presidency. Obama worked to mend relations. Trump has done the opposite.
Looking to the future, there are reasons to hope. Fidel Castro is dead. Younger Cuban-Americans are often more moderate than their parents, and they want to be able to visit the island and connect with their heritage. The current Cuban government is opening up the island’s economy from the suffocating grip of Communism. Flying from Miami to Havana may one day be as easy as flying from Miami to Mexico City. But for a long while yet Cuba, like Vietnam, will be remembered as one of the few places America lost. That makes it unlikely that the relationship will ever be a normal one.