A recent trip to Cuba gave me some perspectives on American history and politics. In writing this, my main conclusion has been that there’s always another layer of historical nuance to peel back, another qualifier that brings us closer to the truth of what happened and why. I’ve had to be more cursory than I’d like, as a result! All photographs are my own.
When I was in high school, I somewhat incessantly drew connections to colonialism in history classes. I wasn’t trying to be obnoxious — it was simply strange to me that my classmates spoke mainly of colonialism with respect to the thirteen colonies and the Boston Tea Party, as if it were a relic from the time of hoop skirts and tricorn hats, an outdated concept irrelevant to our current world. I was acutely aware that Indian independence happened in 1947, recently enough that the generation of my own parents’ parents could tell me about it firsthand. I knew that the 20th century military struggles were not just World Wars and Cold War proxy wars, but also successful independence movements in Africa and Asia, harbingers of the demise of the British and other European empires nearly two centuries after our own Declaration of Independence. I had also read that the rapid economic rise of India and China, in this new age of globalization, had been inevitable and simply delayed some decades by colonizers . Surely colonialism was the most important force dictating recent world history!
I understood America not as an old-school colonizer but as a militarily powerful empire that used limited direct force, such as the CIA, to protect a central economic and political interest: preventing the spread of communism. The language of political ideas we used in APUSH sounded distinct from that used to describe the older empires: we called it manifest destiny instead of conquest, American exceptionalism instead of superiority, spheres of influence and Open Door instead of access and control, the Monroe Doctrine instead of dictating future colonization of the Americas. In retrospect, these differences were superficial, merely reflecting geopolitics before WWII and American hegemony — back when we needed to tread lightly. This was not a history consistent with the ideals of freedom and opportunity that immigrant families like mine seek in America. Yet, I couldn’t deny that I, an American citizen by birth, was in many ways a beneficiary of our history as a global bully.
As a hegemon, we modern Americans have the privilege of remaining ignorant of many of our nation’s past actions abroad, since the consequences may not surface in our daily lives. The fascinating history of Cuba, the island nation of 12 million approximately 100 miles off the Florida coast, provides an interesting lens by which to view our country.
Cuban independence, according to current Cuban history, was won in 1959. After a series of unsuccessful independence struggles against the Spanish, it was considered achieved after the defeat of US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista, who had suspended the 1940 Constitution and allowed inequality to increase, with most of the prominent sugarcane industry being owned by Americans. Batista seized power through a 1952 coup, sensing he would lose an upcoming election to Fidel Castro. After years of declining popularity and increasing support for Castro’s rebel movement, Movimiento 26 de Julio, even after its disastrously unsuccessful attempt to seize the barracks in Santiago de Cuba in 1953, Batista finally lost US backing in December 1958 and fled to the Dominican Republic. The rebels came out of hiding in the Sierra Maestra mountains by Santiago, and Fidel Castro proclaimed victory from the town hall balcony in the main square on New Year’s Day, 1959.
Unlike Iran or Chile, Cuba maintained independence from American influence. With the rise of socialist thought and the US unable to install another puppet dictator after the failure of Batista, Cuba fell into the Soviet camp. It didn’t happen immediately. Castro was a larger-than-life figure who received a warm welcome from the people when he visited New York in the spring of 1959. He returned in January 1961 for the UN General Assembly and opted to stay in Harlem, among a majority black population at a hotel popular among black politicians. He met with a variety of prominent political and cultural figures, including Malcolm X, Nikita Khrushchev, Langston Hughes, and Allen Ginsberg. At the UN, he gave a four and a half hour speech condemning US foreign policy in Latin America and Africa and explicitly aligned Cuba with the Soviets and Khrushchev. Cuba’s aware and deliberate resistance to becoming another one of our banana republics  or puppet nations, and in particular the nationalization of formerly private, often foreign-dominated industries, meant that the US and Cuba were both politically and economically at odds. The export embargo began in 1960 after the oil refineries were nationalized and the US cut off diplomatic relations in 1961. The actions of the American government towards Cuba represented the views of the individuals in power, but Castro’s trips to New York remind us that he had ideological sympathizers in the US.
Today, nearly every Cuban town seems to have signboards with government-approved slogans or quotes from Fidel Castro, Raúl Castro, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, or Camilo Cienfuegos. They are certainly nationalistic and perhaps propagandistic, often mentioning lucha (struggle) or trabajo (work), and may cause some Americans to triumphantly exclaim, “Communism!”
What both the signs and the American seem to miss is how many core socialist ideas grew out of a dream of social justice, a desire to reduce inequality, and a forceful anticolonial sentiment. We don’t have to accept or endorse the political philosophies of figures like Fidel Castro and Che Guevara for us to consider their ideas as a counterpoint, to contrast our own weaknesses as a nation, or to illuminate the darker parts of our history. Any story about the past is inherently political from the perspective of the facts and narratives included and those left out. (I mean, good luck getting 100% representation).
To understand modern Cuba, we should consider the history of Spanish colonization and influence on the island, beginning with Columbus in 1492 and the immediate demise of native populations from disease and conquest. For three centuries, Cuba remained pastoralist with a modest economy and served as a stopping point for Spanish ships. In the 1800s, Cuba became a major sugar producer. The slave trade increased as large plantations became the norm, and a growing upper class remained loyal to the Spanish crown. Taxation and Creole-Spanish conflict led to attempted independence wars in 1868 and 1895 (when Martí was killed) which, along with US victory in the Spanish-American war, weakened Spain’s grip on the island. American influence increased even as Cuba established nationhood in 1902. Evidence of this history includes military forts in port cities, the remains of slave-labor plantations, the railroads built specifically for sugarcane transport, the magnificent houses of an affluent ruling class (many of whom fled in 1959), the population of Afro-Cubans who have ancestors who were brought to the Caribbean as slaves, Catholicism and the Yoruba religion of Nigerian origin, and the Spanish language.
Spanish colonization and American influence did shape a unifying nationalism that paved the way for the 1959 revolution, but it also created a political environment critical of capitalism and sensitive to issues of social justice, egalitarianism, and equal opportunity. As was the case in many post-colonial nations , Cuban socialism grew out of the struggle for independence and the rejection of colonial norms. Che Guevara preserved a popular account of his personal political awakening in Motorcycle Diaries, a memoir of his travels throughout Latin America that details the desperate social and economic inequality which inspired the young Argentine doctor’s political ideas.
(A side note to Americans: It is interesting to note that right-wingers like Newt Gingrich, Rudy Giuliani, and Dinesh D’Souza have repeatedly attacked Barack Obama for being an “anti-colonialist.” Why would Americans speak ill of anticolonialism? Weren’t we once a colony? Well, yes, but those declaring independence from Britain were themselves successful colonizers of indigenous lands. These days, institutions such as Harvard still take academics such as Niall Ferguson seriously, and MIT invites Henry Kissinger to campus. Mainstream politicians invoke the founding fathers but ignore the fact that we were formerly ruled by the British and had a war over it, not to mention a centuries-long commitment to more glaring evils like slavery — here’s a reminder of how deep that one goes. Call me crazy for thinking racism a likely factor in this selective history. Surely neocolonialists will Make America Great Again, even if Obama is black and doesn’t think our country should rule the world!)
In 1959, Cuba began a transformation from a third world to a second world country. Almost immediately, a successful literacy movement engaged an estimated million Cubans and raised the literacy rate to 96%. In the years that followed, Cuba nationalized its industries, established socialized healthcare and ration ships, and exerted its influence abroad in the struggle against empire. In the post-WWII and Cold War era, this meant siding with Soviet-backed independence movements and countering American-backed ones (recall that the British and French colonial empires had been on the Allied side). The most notable participation in a liberation war was Cuba’s presence in Angola from 1975 through 1991. Castro’s government made the argument that for Afro-Cuban soldiers, who knew their ancestors had been brought across the Atlantic on slave ships, the fight could be personal as well as ideological; however, race relations in Cuba weren’t perfect and the war in Angola had high political stakes. Cuban forces were also involved in the Nicaraguan Revolution. In both Angola and Nicaragua, Cuba aligned itself with leftist or Marxist movements, while the US aligned with rightist counterrevolutionaries.
Cuba’s implementation of socialism did not create utopia. A planned economy could be difficult to maintain. The government restricted Cubans from traveling outside the country by boat and did not allow foreign media. The revolution created both political and economic refugees in the decades following. The fall of the USSR and the loss of Soviet economic subsidies in the early 1990s marked the beginning of Cuba’s “special period.” During this time, the Cuban government imposed extreme austerity measures and staunchly refused to reform the economy or political structure. Many Cubans attempted to leave to other countries for better economic circumstances, and illegal migration to the US peaked.
Cuba today remains a poor country by most economic standards, despite high accessibility to free healthcare and education. Imports are still difficult because of the US embargo. It is also somewhat incredible that it maintains the practice of exporting doctors and nurses to other countries — though it is sometimes met with political resistance, as in Brazil today. It’s a complex arrangement: the positions are usually paid for by the host government negotiating a deal with the Cuban government, which keeps a majority of the pay, so the program is a major source of income for Cuba (in fact, medical staff are Cuba’s main export). Even so, these doctors and nurses often earn more than they would at home and play a remarkable humanitarian role in improving healthcare access. Tourism, though it currently brings in less revenue than the export of medical staff, is another large source of income. There are other economic norms in Cuba that will seem unfair to most Americans; for example, even private cacao farms must simply give a large percentage of their harvest to the government, which uses different agricultural processes from the smaller farms.
Nicholas Kristof writes, “Cuba is neither the demonic tyranny conjured by some conservatives nor the heroic worker paradise romanticized by some on the left. It’s simply a tired little country, no threat to anyone, with impressive health care and education but a repressive police state and a dysfunctional economy.” Though I can’t comment on the role of the police, I saw evidence of the other points during my visit, particularly accessibility to healthcare and rations, a difficulty with importing everyday goods, and a lack of transportation infrastructure. I’m also aware of the brain drain problem, and the fact that many Cuban students have to look beyond the island for further educational and economic opportunities — the spotty Internet infrastructure may have a lot to do with it. This need to seek education elsewhere seems especially true for STEM students who want to go beyond theory and into application. So, while there is a history of strong social programs and educational access for the population in general, those who excel in their fields might find opportunities lacking. If a doctor’s pay is low, is that person’s value to society being deflated?
Cuban history at the time of Fidel Castro’s death in 2016 seems to indicate that the Revolution was neither totally successful nor completely unsuccessful. We’re likely to see further opening up of Cuba under the government of Miguel Díaz-Canel, who transitioned into power in 2018 after Raúl Castro stepped down. I personally hope this opening up includes better Internet access for regular Cuban students.
What should we make of Cuban history, in contrast to our own? While America made the capitalist bet and has been economically successful by some metrics, many would say we’ve completely failed at exporting democracy — consider our recent involvement in the Middle East — at a high military cost. One could argue that spreading American ideals was always a shoddy cover for maintaining short-term economic interests and quashing dissent. Our geopolitical alliances often favor countries that lack stated American values, such as freedom of speech or gender equality, over countries where progressive social movements have been successful. Throughout our relatively short history as an independent nation, we have dealt unsuccessfully with dictators. And through our involvement in military coups or interventions gone awry, we have often given more power to the factions within other countries that view America as evil. It was, to expand an earlier point, our 1953 intervention that toppled a progressive democracy in Iran and gave credibility to the religious conservatives who ultimately took over.
Cuba, a country of 12 million, appears to have integrated cultural influences more than our nation of 300 million has, intentionally or not. Visitors in search of Cuban culture witness a mixture of Spanish, African, Afro-Caribbean, Soviet, and American influences, in addition to more recent globalization. Classic cars with new engines pass by houses with Spanish colonial facades and concrete block Soviet apartments. Both Christianity and the Yoruba religion are prevalent, and the Casa de Cultura and Casa de Trova in most towns showcase a wide variety of music and dance, including son, salsa, rumba, and jazz. We saw shiny new BMW and Mercedes Benz cars in seemingly rural places, and our tour bus was brought over from China on a container ship. Also, the national rum is cheap and has the same price everywhere.
American culture, to many of us, consists of disjoint pockets of varying cultural histories, religious inclinations, societal values, and political leanings. An oversimplification of these independent subcultures leads us to the rural-metropolitan “two Americas” divide that became so discussed after the 2016 election . My friends who grew up in one kind of America and then migrated to another for school or work say the contrast can be jarring. It’s hard to name any single aspect of American culture that is truly ubiquitous. There’s pop culture now, sure, but is there a deep American cultural tradition?
If our culture is instead based on American values, we should note inherent contradictions and be wary of hypocrisy. It’s common to emphasize gratitude towards those who serve in the military, though we could better support benefits for veterans. In contrast to the strong historic symbolism of the American factory worker, individual protections are collateral damage to corporate aspirations as unions decline, and our longtime manufacturing advantage is shrinking with new technologies abroad. US universities are acclaimed, but even progressive states like California have decreased public funds for state schools as tuition rises. The quality of and support for primary and secondary education varies hugely across regions. Despite our stated economic success, rising, extreme inequality is one of the most dominant economic and political issues in America today . You could argue that it’s harder to be poor in America; a poor Cuban can still get free healthcare and college. On the other hand, and rich Americans get to hold on to essentially all of their income , while private businesses in Cuba cannot. America also has a wealth of premier universities — for those who can afford to attend.
After both the 2016 Brexit referendum and the 2016 US General Election: Trump triumphant, nationalism filled international news as a primarily anti-immigrant sentiment, one fueled by shifting demographics and a global refugee crisis. This nationalism is one that conflates whiteness with country, one that willfully ignores history in order to proclaim that real Americans, or real Brits, have pale skin and practice certain faiths. In studying American history, you can read about the pre-Columbian indigenous groups, black cowboys, immigrant Chinese transcontinental railroad workers, immigrant German and Irish Catholic soldiers in the Union army, Mexican and Filipino farmworkers, and quickly realize that this brand of nationalism is based on a selective history that is perversely and profoundly wrong. (You c̶o̶u̶l̶d̶ should also read the book A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn.)
This nationalism grew stronger in response to an immigration crisis at our southern border. That humanitarian crisis is in turn caused by decades of our own shortsighted foreign policy in regions such as Central America. In contrast, the nationalism that gripped the anti-colonial independence movements of the 20th century is tied to the struggle against empire and, loosely, emphasizes a timely unity over division as a means to overthrow a common suppressor.
Just as it is understandably difficult for us modern Americans to truly grasp colonialism, I think it even more difficult to understand nationalism that is not exclusionary in our current political climate. Has there ever been a significant instance of modern Americans being united against a common oppressor, when so many groups have been disenfranchised for so long in our nation’s history? The World Wars may seem like good candidates, but there’s a stark difference between an oppressor and an enemy. It’s been a long time since our nation was truly oppressed by another, making it difficult to imagine growing a nationalism based in unity .
It’s also a bit scary that our relationships with countries like Cuba remain clouded by the Cold War, the striking split between capitalism and socialism leaving little room for nuance (social democracy, anyone?) in discussing issues like healthcare, education, industry, and trade. A total swing in the other direction isn’t necessarily the best response to every problem of the status quo. We should at this point be able to have a nuanced discussion that acknowledges the successes and failings of both of these political and economic ideologies, going beyond political labels by recognizing both as just that: ideologies, not policies. The implementation details matter the most.
This discussion has the potential to heal some of America’s current political divisiveness. We should have it, and looking at the current House of Representatives and the Democratic candidate platforms beginning to form for 2020, it seems that we will. In doing so, we should be free to design our society around our values. Unlike many other nations, we don’t really have the excuse of a colonizer. No one is stopping us but ourselves.
Notes and Further Reading
 Factors contributing to economic decline or stagnation included the Opium Wars in China, the mandated export of raw materials and import of finished British goods in India, and the forced opium trade of the East India Company in both countries.
 The United Fruit Company played a prominent role in 20th century US imperialism in Latin America and the Caribbean.
 Imperialism, Colonialism, Socialism, and Communism are all overloaded terms, as is Capitalism. I’ve typically seen and associated colonialism with the British and European empires, imperialism with the US, socialism with Latin America, the US, Modern Europe, and the USSR, and communism with China and the USSR, but this simple breakdown isn’t always accurate. Wikipedia is pretty enlightening.
 Due to US tax code, it’s possible to be a millionaire and pay little to no federal income tax.
 Optimism says climate change can be this unifier; pessimism says it will be a catalyst for conflict over limited resources.