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The Cuban Conundrum

INSIDE THE CUBAN REVOLUTION: Fidel Castro and the Urban Underground, By Julia E. Sweig, Harvard University Press: 254 pp., $29.95 THE CUBAN REVOLUTION AND THE UNITED STATES: A History in Documents, 1958-1960, Edited by Mark Falcoff, U.S. Cuba Press: 452 pp., $32

July 21, 2002|LOUIS A. PEREZ JR. | Louis A. Perez Jr. is the author of numerous books on Cuba, including "On Becoming Cuban: Identity, Nationality and Culture," and teaches at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

But "the real story" about Castro's "larger designs" cannot be divined from State Department records alone. These documents reveal less about Cuban motives than they do about Washington's perceptions of Cuban behavior. Insight into Castro's motives and objectives is not to be found in American documents but rather in Cuban materials, such as the texts of Castro's speeches, interviews and correspondence. These are precisely the kinds of sources that Sweig uses to such good effect in her book but that are ignored by Falcoff.

If Falcoff's use of documents is one-sided, so too is his chronology. His selection of March 1958--the occasion of the U.S. arms embargo against Batista--as the starting point of his history is disingenuous. The author implicitly suggests that the United States played a generally salutary and principled role in the Cuban drama of the 1950s. But relations between Washington and Havana have a far larger history. Ignoring this history makes it virtually impossible to understand much of anything that followed the revolution's triumph. Any serious examination of U.S.-Cuba relations during the crucial years of 1959 and 1960--and thereafter as well--must be set against the larger historical setting.

It is true that Castro rose to power with an "attitude" toward the United States. But even the most cursory review of the previous 60 years of relations between the United States and Cuba provides some understanding of the sources of this attitude. But it is enough to begin with March 10, 1952--the date of Batista's illegal seizure of power--to appreciate Cuban attitudes. It was the unabashed warmth that the United States showered upon the Batista government that irked so many Cubans, a warmth made all the more egregious in the face of U.S. exaltation of democratic principles.

The United States trained and equipped the Cuban army units deployed against Castro and his men in the Sierra Maestra. Falcoff acknowledges the U.S. role in supplying the Batista government with arms but pleads that "since Cuba was a sovereign state, there was no way for the United States to control effectively the deployment and use of its weaponry once transferred to it." It is difficult to reconcile this disclaimer with the pronouncement made by Earl Smith, the former U.S. ambassador to Cuba, who boasted to Congress in 1960 that "[T]he United States, until the advent of Castro, was so overwhelmingly influential in Cuba that ... the American Ambassador was the second most important man in Cuba; sometimes even more important than the President."

What Falcoff fails to grasp (and what the selective documents he's at pains to promote do not reveal) is that momentum for change in Cuba was related less to political issues than to social and economic problems. Falcoff's allusion to "Cuba's large and dynamic private sector" obscures the structural sources of the Cuban predicament. By the middle of the 1950s, sugar production could no longer sustain the country's economic development. Twenty-five percent of Cuba's workers were chronically unemployed: It was much like what the United States had experienced during the worst years of the Depression, except that in Cuba it happened every year because of the dependence on the annual sugar harvest. All through the 1950s, Cuba's economy was contracting, unemployment was spreading, the cost of living was increasing and the standard of living was declining.

This was the situation confronting Castro when he came to power. The new government was subject immediately to powerful popular mobilizations to do something about the deepening crisis. Reforms could not have been undertaken without challenging the historically privileged place the United States occupied in Cuba. Castro's determination to advance the primacy of national interests led inevitably to confrontation with the United States. It is, of course, no surprise that Washington would have responded with all the means at its disposal to defend what it regarded as its legitimate interests. It is, however, at this point that Cuban actions, U.S. reactions and Cuban counteractions become complex, climaxing in the rupture of U.S.-Cuba relations and the establishment of Cuba-Soviet ties.

To suggest that Cuban actions were unrelated to U.S. policy, as Falcoff does, is simply not tenable. U.S. policy has consequences. That these consequences are often not the ones intended--or perhaps even the ones desired--should not obscure the fact that they are nevertheless consequences of U.S. policy. To recognize this relationship is to acknowledge that the United States is often implicated in misfortunes of its own making. The question then becomes how to undo the effects of misjudgments and miscalculations.

One place to start is to recognize that responsibility for outcomes must be assumed jointly by both sides. Or to put it another way, as Jean Renoir has his character remark in the "Rules of the Game": "Everyone has his reasons."

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