Tending the Backyard: US Foreign Policy in Cuba and Haiti, 1898-2014

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President Obama yesterday announced that the time had come for the USA to “cut loose the shackles of the past” and re-establish full diplomatic relations with Cuba. This move would return US-Cuba ties to the state they existed prior to the severance of 1961.

Or would it? The Guardian yesterday wrote that this move presents an “opportunity for the US and Cuba to engage on genuinely equal terms for the first time in their long and troubled history,” the gist of the article being that since 1809 (when Jefferson tried to buy Cuba from the Spanish) Cuba has been on the unfortunate end of an unequal relationship.

In that sense Cuba is no different to many other Caribbean and Latin American countries. There is a unique dynamic and a unique history between Cuba and the United States, but it is a relationship best understood within the context of wider US policy in its own “backyard”. Haiti, Cuba’s neighbour (and my primary area of study) shares many similar past experiences with the USA, including tourism, migration and the potential establishment of a naval base. The outcomes, however, have been dramatically different.

GUANTANAMO BAY, or the MÔLE ST. NICOLAS?

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Guantanamo Bay, back in the day

Guantanamo Bay is an infamous symbol of 21st Century US foreign policy, as an internment and torture camp. It became a US Naval Base after the USA invaded Cuba in 1898, as the Cubans neared victory in their struggle for independence against a crumbling Spanish army.

The invasion came as the American press, screaming for benevolent intervention, reached its peak. Manifest destiny broke from the mainland, into the Caribbean, spurred on by the paternalist desire to help America’s neighbours in their supposed hour of need (even though the war was nearing its end). Strategic concerns were never far away; Mariola Espinosa has written that a desire to control Yellow Fever was central to US policy in Cuba, and in addition to that there is Guantanamo.

The Platt Amendment gave Cuba its “independence” (so long as it behaved itself and stayed clear of Yellow Fever), but kept Guantanamo Bay for the USA; its deep, peaceful waters a clue to growing US intentions in the Caribbean. The Navy had desired a deep harbour in the Caribbean for decades, but their first choice had been the Môle St Nicolas in northwest Haiti (where Columbus landed in 1492).

In 1891, the USS Philadelphia anchored off the coast of the Môle with orders to acquire it through aggressive negotiation; only through the skill and integrity of Haitian Foreign Minister Anténor Firmin and US Ambassador to Haiti Frederick Douglass was the gunboat diplomacy of the US Navy deterred. Douglass made the case to Washington that there was “no one point (in Haiti)…more sensitive than the cession of any part of their territory to any foreign power”, having fought so hard to win independence and keep it during the Haitian Revolution. This move cost Douglass his job. (see Carolyn Fleur-Lobban, Introduction to “The Equality of Human Races” by Anténor Firmin, 2000, p. xlv)

As the decade wore on and US paternalism acquired a “big stick”, the USA would soon invade Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, occupy the Panama Canal Zone, and extend control in Puerto Rico. Haiti was invaded in 1915, after the assassination of President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam. The new occupiers discussed annexing the Môle, but eventually decided that it was not worth the risk to occupied Haiti’s stability, when they already had one deep harbour in Cuba.

The opportunity to capture Guantanamo was less risky in newly-independent Cuba, and came much sooner, than the chance to take the Môle. And with it, a permanent seat of US military power nestled itself in a Cuban harbour, and not a Haitian one.

WHAT HAPPENS IN CUBA…

Cuba tourism

Cuba under Batista is famous for being the USA’s “playground”. A place where the rich and glamorous of early-twentieth century America could enjoy the banned vices of home, in casinos and brothels nestled in a tropical paradise. Christine Skiwot’s Purposes of Paradise finds similarities in Cuba’s experience in tourism with Hawaii, at this time not yet a state. Military intervention became cultural, as the US tourist industry cultivated a class of loyal elite (and paler-skinned) Cubans and Hawaiians who grew rich from the hedonistic trade.

What is less-known is that the Haiti of President Paul Magloire, described by David Nicholls as a “playboy” president, underwent similar changes, although this began in Haiti much later; as the Black Republic was previously seen as too exotic a place for rich white American tourists, but the situation changed and resorts grew alongside a newfound Vodou-tourist experience that offered a profane, tourist-friendly version of serving the spirits.

Whilst Hawaii moved to American statehood in 1959, Cuba and Haiti took radically different routes. Fidel Castro overthrew Batista and installed a socialist government; and Haiti became ruled by the authoritarian François Duvalier. US attempts to kill Castro are well-known, but Kennedy also wanted Duvalier dead, and Duvalier was famously hostile towards foreigners in Haiti. However Duvalier’s pragmatic anti-communism (usually directed at his political opponents) kept American relations above-freezing, and in his final years, he became a good friend of Richard Nixon. Castro’s government survived CIA plots, Kennedy’s disastrous attempt to direct a Cuban exile invasion at the Bay of Pigs, and the Cuban Missile Crisis that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. The US embargo on Cuba survived with it, and Americans were banned from visiting Cuba.

François Duvalier died in 1971, and his son and successor Jean-Claude was unabashedly pro-American. Much of the vice that flowed into Havana was now redirected towards Port-au-Prince, especially sex tourism. Through this, HIV was introduced into Haiti in the late-1970s and, as rumours (incorrectly) flew in the USA that HIV-AIDS originated in Haiti, the tourist industry was destroyed, plunging Haiti into further economic difficulty.

Paul Farmer, in his book on AIDS in Haiti, wryly notes that had the epidemic started when Havana was the “tropical playground of the Caribbean”, before Castro and the embargo, HIV may have found its way to Cuba, not Haiti.

WET FEET, DRY FEET, BOAT PEOPLE, BOEING PEOPLE

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Elian Gonzalez captured in Florida by Federal Agents, 2000

Castro and Duvalier’s regimes both resulted in a massive movement of people from Cuba and Haiti to the United States, and this exodus followed the same pattern. The first to move were the elites, who joined small but already-established communities in the USA, especially Miami. In Cuba this elite faction was already decidedly pro-American, having benefited from the Batista regime and targeted by Castro’s property reclamation (a fine example being the Bacardi family). Light-skinned and educated, they were often able to adapt quickly to American society. The Cuban-exile community became a loud, critical bloc in Miami politics; one that has helped to uphold the embargo on Cuba until this very week.

Haiti’s elite were mostly chased out by the elder Duvalier’s repressive policies; the brain-drain that followed has given birth to a well-known tale that there are more Haitian doctors in Montreal than in Haiti.

In the 1970’s both economies were suffering; Cuba’s isolation in the Americas was proving difficult for economic prosperity, and Jean-Claude Duvalier’s neoliberal kleptocracy kept wages and opportunities down, as repression and terror remained. The impoverished people of the Caribbean followed their elite forebears to Florida, often in flimsy boats at the mercy of the sea, or worse.

The hypocrisy of US foreign policy was laid bare by the movement of these “boat people”; Under the Cuban Adjustment Act, Cubans were given the right to claim asylum as political refugees, although the political situation in Cuba had somewhat calmed in the 1970s. Haitians, whatever their motives for leaving, were classed as economic migrants and granted no such privilege. This, of course, depended upon whether they made it at all; the “Wet foot, dry foot” immigration policy with regards to Cuba meant that migrants had to reach south Florida to be given asylum. If they failed to make it ashore, they were turned back. For Haitian political refugees, being turned back would leave them at the mercy of Duvalier’s paramilitary force, the tontons macoutes.

Access for the poorer, darker-skinned migrants did not mean asylum in the same sense as the early migrants. The newer arrivals found it difficult to integrate into the traditionally-elite Cuban exile community of south Florida. Haitian migrants were ostracised by much of the community, especially after the outbreak of HIV-AIDS. Despite the Cuban Adjustment Act, new Cuban migrants to the United States can still be in an uncertain and precarious position, as highlighted by the Elian Gonzalez case of 1999-2000. Yet whilst the boat people struggled, Haitian elites continued to migrate to the USA on flights; known as the “Boeing People”, their feet never got wet, and found it easier to gain more secure terms of residence.

END OF THE EMBARGO

Channel 4 struggling to get the hang of the Unequal Relationship

Since the fall of Jean-Claude Duvalier, Haiti has been invaded twice more by the USA on grounds of benevolence, and its economic and political situation is dependent on Washington. Cuba’s isolation in the Americas had ended long-before yesterday, and has been an active participant in recent Latin American affairs, as well as providing healthcare workers to aid Ebola treatment in West Africa. Migrants continue to come to the USA from both countries, in their thousands.

The end to the embargo would allow the Cuban diaspora to once again connect with family on the island through regular travel and improved telecommunications, as Haitian-American communities have been able to do. Cuba would benefit in global relations, as the USA would no longer treat it as a pariah state.

There has been a lot of concern on the effects of American neoliberalism entering Cuba. Haiti has felt the full force of American business exploitation over the past forty years; wages are still low, and free trade has caused irreparable damage to Haitian agriculture on more than one occasion. If it is truly an opportunity for true equality between the USA and Cuba, then the USA will have to break its traditional habit of viewing Caribbean countries as economic and cultural playthings that exist in its backyard.

Yet the point of this blogpost has been to suggest that historically-speaking, the impact of US foreign policy in the Caribbean cannot be easily predicted, and is at the mercy of a variety of factors. The benefits and drawbacks of this decision on the Cuban communities of the Americas cannot be foreseen, and there is still a long way to go.

Then again, to read this in Ishaan Tharoor’s piece in the Washington Post yesterday…

It’s a strange irony that some of Washington’s biggest proponents of free trade don’t want to see the United States enable such liberalizing changes in Cuba. Closer ties to Cuba, including trade links, will ideally lead to a deepening of Cuba’s own curtailed civil society. That, at least, is the current message of the Obama administration. The more open Cuba gets, the more access its people may have to the Internet and to outside channels of information. That, the hope goes, may speed political reform in Havana.

Critics may point to countries like China and Vietnam, where decades of economic development and free enterprise have yet to yield any real liberal, democratic dividend. But Cuba is fundamentally different; it exists in the U.S.’s shadow and its links to the American mainland, including some 1.5 million Cuban Americans, mean that even the most dogged authoritarian leader will struggle to inoculate the regime from American influence — that is, once Washington finally chooses to engage with Cuba.

Morality, free trade, “back-yard” politics.

Nothing changes.

(Title picture: McDonald’s at Guantanamo Bay)

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