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The “Smart Imperialism” Crowd

A new diplomatic memoir makes a "national interest" case for warmer relations with Cuba.

The Cuban Embassy in Washington, DC. Getty Images

Our Woman in Havana is the new nearly three-hundred page memoir by career diplomat Vicki Huddleston, focusing on periods in her career where she played a role on crafting or implementing American foreign policy towards Cuba. Like most memoirs of this kind, it is best understood as half-diary, half-pamphlet, with reminiscences of her time in office bookended by her views on the present and future of US policy towards Cuba. Diplomatic memoirs of this kind have a long history of informing US policy towards Cuba. Former diplomat Wayne Smith’s The Closest of Enemies: A Personal and Diplomatic History of the Castro Years is one of the better known examples. As for Huddleston, she uses her book to make the liberal case for engagement with Cuba, highlighting the ways in which Republicans have undermined the normalization of relations, the counterproductive nature of the embargo, and the numerous potential benefits of better relations between the two countries.

While not devoting a significant part of her book to it, Huddleston does acknowledge the rapacious and colonialist bent of past American policy towards Cuba. Fairly early on, she notes that “the contradiction that haunts our relationship with Cuba is that the United States has always coveted the island. And perhaps this foundational contradiction is what makes the US-Cuba relationship so fractious.” As she acknowledges towards the end of the book, “the United States still wants to be the preeminent foreign power in Cuba.” While these sections by no means constitute a complete catalogue of Cuba’s grievances, it is noteworthy that she pushes back against the false historical memory of the United States as benefactor and patron which still exists on the American right and among a fair number of those in the center.

It is therefore puzzling that in several other sections of the text she tries to frame American foreign policy as the victim of an intra-familial squabble between Cubans, Cuban exiles, and Cuban Americans. Time and again in her memoir, she argues that US policy toward Cuba has been “principally designed to help Cuban Americans regain the country they lost.” Much of the world, she says, is confused by American policy towards Cuba, but “what they fail to understand is that our Cuba policy is actually domestic policy, not foreign policy.” “American presidents,” she argues in a later chapter, “for domestic political gain, have allowed themselves to become entangled in a family feud” between Cuban American exiles and the Cuban government.

While right-wing Cuban exiles and Cuban Americans have undoubtedly been well organized and effective in helping shape Cuba policy, readers should be wary to attempts to shunt responsibility for poor relations between the two countries onto their shoulders. Organizations like the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) and politicians like Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Bob Menendez, Marco Rubio, and others have had such success because their objectives have often coincided with (or at least not been diametrically opposed to) established American foreign policy goals — specifically, the overthrow of the post-1959 government in favor of a new economic and political order favorable to American business interests and geo-strategic military calculations.

As Peter Kornbluh and William LeoGrande point out in Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana, the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s removed the main force motivating the United States to find a better modus vivendi with Cuba. During the Cold War, the major points of concern had been Cuba’s alliance with the Soviet Union, its aid to guerrilla movements in Latin America, and its intervention in Angola, where Cuban troops played a key role in fighting off an invasion from apartheid South Africa. By the early 1990s, the Soviet bloc had collapsed, Cuba had withdrawn from Africa (where its aid to Angola against apartheid South Africa is still celebrated), and most of the guerrilla movements in Latin America were laying down their arms. And given the ravages of Cuba’s post-Soviet economic collapse during that decade, Havana was no longer in a position to provide effective military support for left movements in the Third World, even if it had wanted to.

As American global hegemony reached its — in hindsight exceedingly brief — apex, it could afford a dysfunctional Cuba policy. The urgency to normalize relations was gone. Cuba policy could be taken over by special interest lobbies precisely because repairing relations with that country’s government was no longer seen as an urgent geo-strategic priority.

This is unintentionally illustrated by Huddleston’s own case for engagement and normalization. She underlines the threat of “growing ties” with China and Russia, which undermine the “opportunity for a strategic alliance between the United States and Cuba and reduce potential US political and economic influence.” At a presentation of her book in Washington last March, she made the point more bluntly, saying that “we need a policy where we don’t have an enemy ninety miles off our shores.”

Right-wing Cuban exiles and Cuban Americans may be well organized, their presence in Florida may be electorally strategic, and they may have influence in Congress, but ultimately they can be and are overridden if normalization is seen as more beneficial.

The Liberal Case for Engagement

Huddleston’s memoir seems to recognize the colonialist bent of US policy towards Cuba but simultaneously tries to differentiate between nineteenth- and early twentieth-century policies, the Cold War policies of the latter half of the twentieth century, and US policy goals in the region more recently. For Huddleston, American hegemony over the Western Hemisphere is undoubtedly a noble cause and the expansion of American political and economic influence over Cuba a mutually beneficial exchange. Engagement and normalization are, to her, simply more effective tools in advancing American interests, which are, ultimately, good.

Huddleston sees Cuba as “our natural ally.” In this sense, perhaps subconsciously, her arguments for normalization are not that far removed from those of the colonialist foreign policy architects she criticizes in her book. Nearly two hundred years ago, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams wrote of America’s Cuba policy using the famous analogy of the island being a “ripe fruit” which, once severed from Spain, would “naturally” gravitate to the United States. First as secretary of state (1817-1825) under President James Monroe and then as President (1825-29), Adams set the foundations of Cuba policy which would be followed for decades. While it was potentially economically beneficial to annex Cuba, Adams worried that any war on the island risked either foreign intervention (specifically British) or a possible Haiti-style slave rebellion which might spread the flame of emancipation to US shores. Therefore, it was better to wait for a better opportunity to take over Cuba without risking outcomes that would hurt US economic interests and geo-strategic calculations.

Today, the liberal case for engagement presses for an end to the embargo in no small part because China and Russia are expanding their political and economic influence over Cuba. Russia has reopened its Cuban listening post at Lourdes and more recently sent a spy ship to Havana’s harbor, in a move likely intended to symbolize the growth of Russo-Cuban ties. Engagement is meant to neutralize the threat of Cuba once again becoming the “satellite” of some major power, with an eye to eventually restoring American political and economic hegemony.

The threat of Cuba being drawn into the Chinese or Russian sphere of influence threatens American hegemony over its “backyard,” heightening pressure to find a better modus vivendi with Havana. Historically, the overriding pull of the “national interest” has won out over any lingering ideological qualms about reaching understandings with previously hostile foreign governments. For example, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger famously spearheaded normalized relations with China within the Nixon administration.

Admittedly the current administration may not be as susceptible to the old “pull” of national interest arguments, given that it is busy unintentionally dismantling American hegemony through sheer incompetence and ignorance of how the empire works.

The Trump Route

Last year the Trump administration took major steps to set back the clock on normalized relations between Cuba and the United States. Based on the pretext that American diplomats had been attacked by some kind of “sonic” device, Trump withdrew a number of US diplomats from Cuba. As we now know, this was done despite private protests from dozens of diplomats stationed in Cuba who had asked to be given the choice to stay. According to an FBI report last year into the supposed “sonic attacks,” it seems pretty clear that no “sonic” weapon was behind whatever did occur.  It should also be noted that after initially cooperating with the investigation into the supposed attacks, Cuba in recent months has taken the official position that the United States simply fabricated them.

Another bad omen for relations between the two countries is Trump’s recent appointment of John Bolton as his new national security adviser. Bolton is well known in Cuba for having pushed the lie that the tropical country had a biological weapons program during the early aughts. He is also well known for bullying those who question his unhinged theories.

Much of Obama’s partial normalization of relations with Cuba has been lost. While the US embassy and consulate in Cuba remain formally open, they have been reduced to skeleton crews. Cubans interested in visiting the United States as immigrants, tourists, or on business (academics, for example) must now travel to a third country for their final interview and to receive their visas. Relations between the two countries seem even icier than at some points during the Cold War. Bolton’s rise suggests things may get even worse.

Behind the “National Interest”

The American left is in a contradictory situation. Liberals pushing for engagement and normalization are key allies against the Right, who would like to maintain the embargo or even intervene militarily in Cuba if given half the chance. But they also want to push a softer version of policies that have the same end goal of preserving or even expanding American hegemony over the Western Hemisphere. They work to make the system more rational, perhaps more humane, but all within the same logic of empire.

This fails to center the essential problem of US policy towards Cuba, and indeed the Third World writ large: namely, that American global hegemony necessitates advancing US interests at the expense of the interests and rights of the rest of the world. Democracy is seen as fine and good only so long as it only elects leaders who don’t threaten US interests. If not, as seen in Guatemala, Chile, and elsewhere, a dictator chosen for his support of American economic and geo-strategic interests will do.

Even a stable and mutually beneficial modus vivendi between Cuba and the United States is ultimately built on quicksand since the next administration can easily overturn old agreements if they are perceived to come into contradiction with American raison d’état. Proponents of “soft power” approaches to preserving and expanding American hegemony, like Obama, can just as easily be replaced with hawkish administrations, like Trump’s.

We can and should hope that Huddleston’s diplomatic memoir sways liberals and moderate conservatives to embrace full normalization of relations with Cuba and bring a swift end to the embargo. But the Left should remember that the root of the problem lies in the imperial project itself.