America Returns to Cuba

BEIJING – Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba is the first by a US president since Calvin Coolidge went in 1928. American investors, expat Cubans, tourists, scholars, and scam artists will follow in Obama’s wake. Normalization of the bilateral relationship will pose opportunities and perils for Cuba, and a giant test of maturity for the United States.

The Cuban Revolution led by Fidel Castro 57 years ago was a profound affront to the US psyche. Since the founding of the US, its leaders have staked a claim to American exceptionalism. So compelling is the US model, according to its leaders, that every decent country must surely choose to follow America’s lead. When foreign governments are foolish enough to reject the American way, they should expect retribution for harming US interests (seen to align with universal interests) and thereby threatening US security.

With Havana a mere 90 miles from the Florida Keys, American meddling in Cuba has been incessant. Thomas Jefferson opined in 1820 that the US “ought, at the first possible opportunity, to take Cuba.” It finally did so in 1898, when the US intervened in a Cuban rebellion against Spain to assert effective US economic and political hegemony over the island.

In the fighting that ensued, the US grabbed Guantánamo as a naval base and asserted (in the now infamous Platt Amendment) a future right to intervene in Cuba. US Marines repeatedly occupied Cuba thereafter, and Americans quickly took ownership of most of Cuba’s lucrative sugar plantations, the economic aim of America’s intervention. General Fulgencio Batista, who was eventually overthrown by Castro, was the last of a long line of repressive rulers installed and maintained in power by the US.