Vestiges of Fear in U.S.-Cuba Foreign Policy



“Just yesterday, a leader from yesterday began a campaign for president by promising to take us back to yesterday… But yesterday is over and we are never going back,” Marco Rubio announced, declaring his candidacy for president last year. Branding himself as a leader who believes in the vision of younger generations, Rubio has sought to distinguish himself as more spirited and optimistic than his presidential rivals. His campaign slogan, “A New American Century,” underscores his goal of transforming U.S. politics with fresh ideas. His rhetoric even echoes President John F. Kennedy, as Rubio attempts to convey the same youthful essence that rendered the late Democratic president so well revered in the American collective memory.

However, youthfulness is not the only commonality between Kennedy and Rubio. Their speeches also express fear of Communist infiltration in the Western Hemisphere, resulting in hawkish and gruff foreign policy towards Cuba. Even though Communism in the 1960s presented a real danger to national security, I argue that the Kennedy administration yielded to this perceived threat preemptively, allowing for its infiltration in the Western Hemisphere by way of U.S. obstinacy and paranoia. Furthermore, despite the possibility of nuclear war dissipating with the end of the Cold War twenty-five years ago, today Rubio expresses similar sentiments of anxiety concerning Cuba that disseminate fear of waning U.S. power in Latin America.

Tense relations between the U.S. and Cuba originated in the late 19th century after the U.S. helped Cuba gain independence in the 1898 Spanish-American War. The subsequent 1901 Platt Amendment guaranteed U.S. dominance in the island’s political and economic affairs. It ensured Cuban dependency on U.S. markets for the export of sugar, keeping the island economically subservient to its northern neighbor.  Furthermore, the U.S. controlled Cuba through the tourism industry. U.S. companies built hotels, shops, restaurants, brothels, and nightclubs that provided both the comforts of home and the exotic allure of a foreign country.[1] Hypersexualized and essentialized, Cuba became seared in the American imaginary as an erotic escape from mundaneness and a temporary peek into what was perceived as the lives of hedonistic Latin Americans. Because primarily U.S. companies and Cuban elites profited from the tourism industry, wealth inequality, unemployment rates, and political corruption ensued through the 20th century.

A century of resentment towards the Cuban and U.S. governments culminated in the 1959 Cuban Revolution spearheaded by Fidel Castro. Anti-imperialist and nationalist messages, such as the revolutionary slogan, “homeland or death,” revealed the island’s desire for true sovereignty and the dire need to be its own agent. That same year, when Cuban revolutionaries successfully overthrew the oppressive military dictatorship, the country experienced a period of financial stability and independence. Cuba’s new tourism industry transformed its image, distributed wealth, and eliminated exploitative brothels. Simultaneously, Cuba established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. The U.S. feared that the Soviet Union was penetrating the Western Hemisphere with nuclear weapons and dangerous ideologies. The Kennedy administration refused to allow a political ideology other than democratic capitalism to exist in the Western Hemisphere and implemented the embargo as an isolation tactic. Yet the embargo stunted the revitalizing tourism industry and the Cuban economy at large, making the island vulnerable to foreign influences. Subsequently, the Soviet Union and Cuba strengthened their relationship, which caused the U.S. to completely sever ties with its southern neighbor.

However, diplomatic conversations between the U.S. and Cuba during Cuba’s revolutionary period could have thwarted scandals such as the Bay of Pigs and Operation Mongoose in the early 1960s and furthermore could have allowed for cordial relations between the two countries. It was the lack of open dialogue and the environment of fear that led to an abrupt schism that so easily allowed the Soviet Union to plant danger just 90 miles away from the U.S. coast. Thus, the abandonment and isolation of Cuba in 1960 facilitated the entrance of Communism in the Western Hemisphere, and moreover, the government magnified the fear of the Communist threat with the implementation of the embargo.

Just like Kennedy, Rubio has conflated lack of control and ideological differences with a threat to national security. Despite Rubio trying to embody the spirit of younger generations, his policies suggest otherwise. In his New York Times op-ed, he maintained that until human rights violations and outstanding property claims have been resolved, the U.S. should not engage with Cuba, as the embargo maintains the U.S. “commitment to the Cuban people.”[2] He apparently thinks that isolating the Cuban people is doing them a favor, and furthermore he thinks that he is showing them that the U.S. can nobly take the moral ‘high ground,’ even after all these years. Moreover, when met with the obvious criticism that the U.S. trades with China and Vietnam, who also are guilty of violating human rights, he fell back on the “geopolitical reality” retaliation. He said, “It is not in the national security interest of the United States to have a communist, anti-American tyranny 90 miles from our shores.[3]” In other words, the distance between the U.S. and its Chinese and Vietnamese trading partners ensures our national security, while Cuba’s closeness presents a threat. Implied in his statement is the notion that because we no longer in fear of nuclear war, the Communist ideology presents itself as the only remaining “danger.” Yet Rubio and other pro-isolationists cannot comfortably allow political ideologies other than capitalism in the Western Hemisphere. Anxiety about the U.S. losing its Western Hemisphere hegemony is demonstrated through this identification of a different political ideology as “dangerous.”

Rubio’s qualms about the threats of Communism not only reveal his outdated Cold War perspective, but also uncover the vestiges of fear he fosters based on perceived threats to U.S. domination in the Western hemisphere. Political and economic changes in Cuba have only begun to improve the country’s future, and young Cubans are yearning for greater transformation. Economic engagement with Cuba will yield further political change, but only if obstinacy and paranoia do not continue to inform U.S. foreign policy. Tolerating difference is the only way the U.S. can overcome its propensity for control that has characterized its foreign policy towards Cuba since the late 19th century and is necessary for fostering respectful and productive dialogue in the future.

[1] Céspedes, Karina Lissette. “Cuban Tourism, Sex and Displacement.” Praxis19.2 (2007). 37.

[2]Rubio, Marco. “Marco Rubio: Obama’s Faustian Bargain With Cuba.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 07 July 2015. Web. 25 Jan. 2016.

[3] Siddiqui, Sabrina. “Marco Rubio: I Will Absolutely Roll Back Obama Cuba Policy.” The Guardian. The Guardian, 10 July 2015. Web. 25 Jan. 2016.

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