by Avi Davis
Christopher Columbus did not discover America. At least not North America. On October 12, 1492 – the day we celebrate as Columbus Day – he instead landed at one of the thousand islands that make up the Bahamas Archipelago. The closest he got to North America was two weeks later, when he set anchor on the north-east coast of what today we know as Cuba. Although Columbus would make landings in his later voyages on the Central American coast and the northern coast of South America, he did not step one foot on the coast of the land mass that would one day constitute the territory of the United States of America.
While other Spanish explorers would land, 20 years later, on the north-east coast of La Florida and name it for the Spanish crown, neither the Spaniards nor the Portuguese would show much interest in colonizing the continent until at least 170 years passed, when the first Spanish Jesuit mission was established in California.
This is quite significant because since Columbus’ time, it was Cuba and the nearby Hispaniola, respectively only only 90 and 170 miles south of the southern most Florida key, which became the center of the New World administration for Spain. And since that time Cuba never sought to be claimed as part of the North American continent and has jealousy guarded its Spanish heritage. While the United States might have dominated the island economically for the 300 years prior to the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and extended military rule there for several years following the conclusion of the Spanish- American War in the early 20th Century, Cuba did not become an American protectorate like Puerto Rico or Guam and had its independence recognized by the U.S. as long ago as 1902. Annexation has been expressly forbidden in Congress by the Teller Amendment of 1898.
While relations post independence were rocky, the Cuban government generally showed deference to the U.S. since it was almost wholly dependent on trade with its northern neighbor. The Castro Revolution in 1959 altered that completely when the communist leader began the nationalization of both American owned businesses and land holdings while developing a political alignment with the Soviet Union. The imposition of a U.S. economic embargo was soon followed by the severing of diplomatic relations. A cold war has existed between Cuba and the United States ever since.
Barack Obama’s decision last week, however, to open diplomatic relations with the Castro regime,is a volte face which will bring with it a host of new problems.
The exchange of ambassadors and the opening of Cuba to American tourism will not change that much in the dynamic between the two countries. Cuba already has a solid (if illicit) U.S. tourist industry and tacit diplomatic exchanges have been going on for years. It has been argued that the opening of full diplomatic relations will allow modern American freedoms to sweep into Havana and that the Internet will have a galvanizing impact on the local hunger for freedom. In this regard, the President said that “our sanctions on Cuba have denied Cubans access to technology that has empowered individuals around the globe.” Yet we have seen how ruthlessly other authoritarian regimes in China, Russia, Iran and North Korea have sought to control the Internet as well as the exit of their citizens, even for vacations abroad. And it seems to ignore one other salient point: the Castro brothers control all aspects of Cuban life, and have, until now, effectively blocked the Internet for domestic use and show little interest in relaxing their stand.
The argument made by the President – that Cuba is isolated (read that as ‘desperate’) and needs American investment – is not true. Cuba has thousands of investors – European, Latin American and Asian – all over the island but the country is still poor. Why? Because the profits of local Cubans flow into the Cuban Treasury and are used to enrich the current oligarchy which controls everything from the means of production to the country’s retail infrastructure.
And we shouldn’t be so sanguine about the likely rush of American businesses into Cuba. In order to do business there companies will almost certainly need to partner with the Cuban government or the Cuban military – if business relations with other Communist and post Communist countries worldwide are to provide any guide.
Foreigners also won’t have such an easy time moving around Havana. As the Wall Street Journal’s Mary Anastasia O’Grady commented last week:
“The isolation is caused by the police state, which controls and surveils foreigners’ movements, herding most visitors into resort enclaves. Foreign journalists who vocally oppose the Communist Party line are not allowed into the country. More visitors won’t do anything to reduce Cuban poverty. The regime pockets the hard currency that they leave behind and pays workers in worthless pesos. Foreigners who decide to reward good workers without state approval can face prison.”
The most serious issue of normalization however centers around the 53-year-old U.S. economic embargo and whether it should be lifted. When the embargo was first imposed in 1961, the Castro Government looked to its communist allies for trade and then where it found markets and resources among fellow South American countries with it shared a Spanish legacy. In the past 15 years one of the main economic partners was Venezuela which provided both oil, food stuffs and subsidies to the perennially poor island nation. But now that source of funding is drying up as the Venezuelan economy continues to collapse due to reduced demand for its oil. It can no longer do much for Cuba.
All of which might provide enough incentive, it is argued, for the Castros to relax their iron grip on the country and permit both economic and political reforms.
But before any one gets too excited and thinks of dismantling the embargo, there are a few questions the Castro government should answer.
One is a question about compensation for the $1.8 billion in American assets confiscated in 1960 when Fidel Castro nationalized the economy, which adjusted for 2014 values represents approximately $7 billion today. Some of these assets were the vacation homes and bank accounts of wealthy individuals. But the lion’s share of the confiscated property was sugar factories, mines, oil refineries, and other business operations belonging to American corporations, among them the Coca-Cola Co., Exxon, and the First National Bank of Boston.
A 2009 article in the Inter-American Law Review described Castro’s nationalization of U.S. assets as the “largest uncompensated taking of American property by a foreign government in history.”
Today, there are nearly 6,000 property claims still active – even though some of the original claimants have died and many of the corporations which had business interests on the island no longer exist. Federal law, under the 1996 Helms Burton Act , actually mandates that any attempted normalization of relations be preceded by a resolution of these claims.
Which poses just a few problems. For one thing, Cuba is unlikely to ever have enough cash on hand to fully compensate the claimants, especially while the embargo is still in place; and secondly, sorting out who owns what after 53 years could prove something of an intense legal bottleneck for a Cuban justice system ill-equipped to deal with extensive land ownership issues.
There are also many outstanding personal human rights claims against the Cuban government stemming from its mistreatment of POWs following the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion in April, 1961 which involved both U.S. and Cuban nationals.
Cuban agents who committed torture of American POWs in Vietnam are also still at large. At a holding pen in North Vietnam known as ” The Zoo” between August 1967 and August 1968, 19 American servicemen were brutally beaten by interrogators assessed to be Cuban agents working under orders from Hanoi. The torture and the known identities of some of these Cuban agents were made public in testimony before the Senate Committee on International Relations on November 4, 1999.
This is not to mention the thousands of people who attempted to flee Cuba over the past 50 years by air or boat (among them U.S. citizens) and who were either killed or abandoned by merciless Cuban coastguards.
An accounting should be demanded.
The Cuban embargo has been dismissed as a limp holdover from the Cold War, lacking relevance to our contemporary world. That is a mistake. The Castro regime committed significant crimes against American citizens and corporations over a number of years. Normalization of relations does not make them any less criminal and we would be foolish to simply shrug our shoulders and embrace our new friends in Havana, as if they never happened. To do otherwise will make the Castro Brothers the only true winners of the detente Obama is proposing – resulting in not only a miscarriage of justice, but setting a poor example of how to deal with other rogue regimes who are likely, over the next several years, to suffer Cuba’s ignominious fate.
* For a fascinating review of the reality of modern day Cuba, please see Allan Wall’s travelogue Cuba’s National Question and Ours
** For an excellent piece on the outcome of the Obama declaration on Cuba please see this article: Obama and Cuba in the American Thinker