Cuban sovereignty was the big winner—reaffirmed and finally respected—as Cuban President Raul Castro and U.S. President Barack Obama simultaneously announced historic new agreements that reestablish nation-to-nation relations between the two countries.
The United States acquiesced, “capitulated,” some are saying, by admitting that a policy intended to isolate and subvert Cuba over fifty years, has not worked. The US’s enforced expulsion of Cuba from hemispheric organizations such as the OAS, embargoes of Cuban goods and international transactions, the prohibition and prosecution of American citizens’ travel to Cuba—have only stimulated Cuba to independently cast for a much broader network of major trading partners and political allies.
Most immediately, the policy change dictates: renewal of diplomatic relations; exchange of convicted spies for both sides and release of numerous political prisoners in Cuba; removal of Cuba from the US list of states that sponsor terrorism; the lifting of many financial restrictions imposed internationally by the US on Cuba; much freer travel and investment options.
The new agreements signals a historic shift from fifty-four years of hot and cold war, a half century that saw Fidel Castro and his band of rebels win a revolutionary war against the bloody and corrupt dictatorship of General Fulgencio Batista, who was consistently upheld by the United States as the Cuban people suffered killings and torture at the hands of his army and secret police.
In 1959, the young rebel commander and his army of mountain “long-hairs” took power with deep and widespread support from the Cuban people – actually euphoric in their vindication– as the revolution declared itself the fulfillment of a Cuban-based sovereignty, vowing to never accept dictated policies from any foreign power, particularly the United States. It would go on to confiscate all US-owned property on the island and, after defeating a US-organized invasion, to declare itself a socialist republic.
Cuban sovereignty predates and is poised to survive, the Castros’ leadership. At the triumph of his revolutionary war, Fidel, his brother and comrade in arms, Raul, and other major personalities of charismatic quality, commanders like Camilo Cienfuegos and the now universal icon, Che Guevara, women leaders like Celia Sanchez, emerged on the Cuban scene in the context of a quest for sovereignty with a long history—upheld, though not necessarily owned by their revolution.
Cuba—the dream of its freedom—resides in a history of self-determination that begins with Cacique Hatuey, first martyr of Cuban independence, burned at the stake by the Spanish in 1512, and still present, in legend and ceremony. Cuba’s quest for independence is a dream strongly sustained through four centuries of resistance to Spanish dominion, English invasion, American dominant intrusion and Soviet “superior authority.” Way before Fidel Castro, from Cacique Hatuey and other insurgent caciques, to the heroic independence wars of José Martí and Antonio Maceo in the late 1800s—beyond socialism and capitalism—the struggle of Cuba has been about sovereignty.
Cuba—its very name is Taino, ancestral message meaning “big land, well-planted.” The Spanish court, by royal decree, renamed the island Juana, then Fernandina. Neither renaming took; Cuba it has remained, indigenous in its roots, a rebel streak of resistance and traditional knowledge—layered in varieties of migrating cultures from Iberia and Africa, but over centuries, foundationally, “cubano.” That sovereignty struggle, Cuba’s fight to throw over colonial and imperial domination, to establish its right to be a nation and a people, has been deeply felt, traumatic, glorious, and continuous.
For 30 years of bloody war (1868-1898) by horseback machete charges and a constantly tortured and repressed clandestine movement, the Cuban revolution of that era refused all offers of “autonomy status” from Spain’s colonial government, nor did it entertain notions of “annexation” and/or “statehood” from the United States. The legendary patriot figures of Antonio Maceo and José Martí, and other major generals and chieftains of that crucial historical moment, overwhelmingly held out for complete sovereignty. It was in the ethos of Cuban revolutionary tradition. José Martí offered “to give my life” for the cause of sovereignty, which he did in 1895. General Antonio Maceo, who fought 300 battles against a Spanish army ten times larger than his own, and who carried the scars of 25 bullet wounds and several saber wounds on his warrior’s body, died in his final battle (1896) under the banner of “Cuba soberana, libre e independiente.” His mother, Mariana Grajales, Mother of the Cuban Nation, offered proudly the lives of eleven of her sons and her husband to the same cause.
Fidel’s nationalist movement was possible in Cuba in 1959, and his trajectory and discourse had acceptable logic for Cubans, because it was grounded in the history of 1868-1898, when at the end of thirty years of independence struggle and three wars, Cuban fighters controlled the countryside and had Spain at a standstill.
Looking for its war of the moment, in 1898, an expanding American empire, rallied to war with Spain, blew its ships out of the sea and took over her remaining colonies in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. That forceful occupation of Cuba truncated the powerful ethos of sovereignty, dream of two sacrificed and martyred generations. A US-imposed, “Platt Amendment,” inserted in Cuba’s new constitution, granted to the US the right of intervention in Cuban governance. This “American” right suspended Cuba’s dream of sovereign freedom and forced an open path for American enterprises to dominate Cuban economic life and for the US government to meddle in Cuban political life, essentially propping up a string of dictators and corrupt politicians over 50 years.
That insult to Cuba’s historical psyche would be the seed, sixty years later, that would propel Fidel Castro to revolutionary leadership and upon gaining power, to a sovereign defiance that saw him train the full militancy and military capacity of his devoted people against American interests in Latin America, Africa and even in Asia.
Whatever one’s opinion on the value of socialism versus capitalism, or of Fidel Castro’s long trajectory as a combative figure, it is this characteristic of the Cuban revolutionary, his willingness to challenge the American behemoth, that dominates his legend and defines the nature of long-seething American hostility toward Cuba. More than a thorn, Cuba has been a lance poking at the side of the American giant, whose endeavor to isolate and destroy it has collapsed now in the recognition of its own failure.
Cuba, during its years in the Soviet Union’s orbit, was perceived to be a dependent state of that global American nemesis, and devoid of its own indigenous force. But the very proof of Cuba’s indigeneity, as germ if not always pilot of its convoluted revolutionary process, is in its sovereign survival beyond the collapse of the Soviet bloc, when petroleum supplies dried up, Soviet-style farms went belly up and caloric intake across the country dropped by two thirds.
But survive Cuba did, as a nation and as a sovereign government. Its people held off starvation, in no small part, by massively planting and adapting from the old Taino crops and medicinal herbal knowledge, while launching agro-ecological projects across the whole island. That new era, now a quarter century along, required huge sacrifice and a “make-do” attitude harking back to the Great Depression. The notion of “food sovereignty,” a lost memory during the Soviet-supplied era, remains high in the present agenda, and the message of the elder Taino cacique from the eastern mountains, don Panchito Ramirez, of community, peace and food abundance, is resonating.
The present era—rapprochement after half a century of open hostility—requires redefinition, adaptation and transformation. The dream of sovereignty, and its practical exercise, remains central to the future of the Cuban people.
Jose Barreiro (Taino) is Assistant Director for History and Culture Research, Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.