Five myths about Cuba

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Ada Ferrer is the Julius Silver Professor of Latin American and Caribbean History and History at New York University and the author of “Cuba: An American History”.

Cuba is a country and many myths. There is the Cuba of the former exiles, whose pain and nostalgia only make them see their ancient homeland in its virtues. There is the Cuba of Fidel Castro: a nation redeemed by its revolution and whose failures, if any, are always the fault of American policy. Then there are the Cubas of the United States on the left and on the right. The first sometimes resembles that of the Cuban government. The second is an imprisoned island whose inhabitants await the end of a 62-year nightmare. As citizen protests across Cuba captured the world’s attention this summer, these myths, along with a host of other misconceptions, resurfaced.

Myth # 1: The Cuban Revolution of 1959 was Communist.

Every time Cuba makes the headlines, journalists and The politicians regularly refer to the “Communist Revolution of 1959”, as NPR did in April. Story manuals also explain that “Cuba became a communist nation in 1959”.

Yet the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power was not initially Communist. It was a broad movement whose main objective was to oust strongman Fulgencio Batista. While individual Communists supported the revolution, the Communist Party of Cuba, a powerful ally of Batista, did not decide to support Castro until near the end of the struggle, around the same time the United States announcement an arms embargo against the Batista regime. Most of the people who made and welcomed the revolution didn’t because they wanted communism. Many of them, in fact, were ardent anti-Communists. The other of the revolution goals – restoring the 1940 constitution, putting an end to government corruption, giving land to the landless – were dominant political demands and not the special responsibility of the Communists. The turn to communism occurred in 1961, more than two years after the revolution came to power.

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Calling for a communist revolution from the start distracts our attention from the internal dynamics among Cubans, the escalating confrontation with the United States, and a Cold War that left little room between the two camps that ruled the world. All of these things played a role in transforming a democratic movement into a communist state.

Myth # 2: Cuba was friends with the United States before Castro came to power.

After Cuba’s independence in 1902 and prior to the 1959 revolution, Americans generally viewed the relationship between the two countries as a lasting friendship. Diplomats negotiated treated always referring to their “friendly relations”. As the relationship began to deteriorate after 1959, U.S. officials was talking of the “traditional spirit of friendship” that Fidel Castro endangered. Even today, commentators sometimes refer to pre-revolutionary Cuba as “a friendly getaway to a neighboring island”.

Prior to 1959, Cuba and the United States were allies and trading partners, but the relationship has never been equal. In 1940, over 80 percent of the island’s trade was with its northern neighbor. Washington’s ambassadors wielded inordinate power, sometimes dictating presidential cabinet appointments, straining national budgets, and directing other priorities. Cubans and Americans also understood the relationship in very different ways. Long before Castro’s reign, politicians, intellectuals and ordinary Cuban citizens regularly denounced American influence. This sensitivity helps explain how Castro was able to mobilize popular support in his stalemate with the United States so soon after taking power.

Myth # 3: Miami is full of Cuban Americans who have lost property to Castro.

In 2000, a journalist called the Cuban-American old guard in Miami a “privileged and imperious elite … always ready to jump on expensive speedboats to reclaim huge family estates as the old Communist dictator stops breathing.” More recently, thee commentator ccompared them to the Nazi war criminals who fled to Argentina.

Some analysts temper these stereotypes, indicating a generational shift among Cuban-Americans. Former exiles (who were never exclusively wealthy) have dwindled in numbers, and their children and grandchildren are less attached to harsh politics in Cuba. Yet such characterizations of Cuban Miami are missing something essential.

Cuban migration to the United States occurred in waves, each more diverse than the last. By far the largest wave is made up of people who arrived after 1995: they now represent 44 percent of American Cubans in Miami-Dade County. Among them are many who, out of necessity, once worked for the Communist state and attended public schools. The alumni association of what has long been Havana’s most prestigious boarding school under communism – the VI Lenin Vocational School – has meetings in Miami (in 2018 it was at a club called Revolution). In 2020, a majority of these newcomers were enthusiastically pro-Trump and generally supported his aggressive policies against the Cuban government. Yet most of them are still looking for ways around U.S. restrictions to help their families at home, which 84 percent of them still have. Miami, in other words, is as complicated as Cuba.

Myth # 4: Cuba is an island “frozen in time”.

After Barack Obama and Raúl Castro began normalizing relations between their two countries in 2014, people from all over the world flocked to Cuba to see him “before it changes,” as one leader of one travel agency. American journalists also descended on Havana – so many that in 2016 WNYC radio created a fictional style guide for them. He identified the phrase “frozen in time” as required in all of their reports. Cuba lends itself to the description. Most of its buildings are old; his cars too. Old music is leaking from hotels built in the 1920s or earlier, and internet access is still limited. “The feeling of ‘frozen in time’ – everything is real,” concluded a reporter from “PBS NewsHour”.

Time, however, does not stand still for any country. Throughout the 1960s, the revolution transformed Cuban society, virtually eliminating private property and creating a one-party state. The new alliance with the Soviet Union changed the geopolitical importance of Cuba; it also changed what people ate and what they watched on television. Decades later, the end of the Cold War and the loss of subsidies from the Communist bloc again drastically changed the lives of Cubans. Severe austerity and shortages meant people lost an average of 20 pounds – there was much less food, and without gas, they walked or biked everywhere.

To survive, the state has given priority to tourism; locals have witnessed the return of foreign visitors, now tourists seeking pleasure rather than sugar harvest volunteers. The government legalized the dollar in 1993, changing the way Cubans interacted with their families abroad, with each other, and with the state. Thirty years later, people, buildings and infrastructure are all the older. Cuban society today is not what it was on the eve of the revolution; it’s obvious. But it’s also not the same as 30 years ago.

Myth # 5: The embargo is the key to understanding Cuba.

In July, as Cubans protested in the streets, President Miguel Díaz-Canel did what the Cuban government has been doing for almost 60 years: he blamed the embargo. Abroad, many progressives have followed suit, identifying the embargo as the main cause of Cuban discontent. “Let Cuba live,” urged a letter in The New York Times calling on Biden to end it.

Observers are right to point out that the embargo, which the US Treasury Department calls its “most comprehensive sanctions program,” creates significant economic hardship for Cuba. However, these difficulties cannot explain all the misfortunes of the island. Cuba trades with other countries; it even imports food from the United States (in greater quantities this year than last year). The embargo cannot explain the policies of the Cuban government, including those that criminalize artistic expression not approved by the authorities, to name but one example.

Cuba’s hardline supporters in the United States have urged Biden to maintain and strengthen the sanctions. During the deep Cuban economic crisis of the 1990s, American politicians made the same argument and severely tightened the embargo. Yet the Cuban government survived; indeed, it has increased repression and human rights violations. The past 60 years prove that the embargo is neither the explanation for the failures of the Cuban government nor a path to regime change or democracy. The truth is much simpler: the embargo is a failed policy that has never failed to achieve its objectives.

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