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The Grass and the Elephant: Cuban Perceptions of the United States

By Dr. Carlos Alzugaray

Most Cubans have paradoxical if not contradictory perceptions about the United States. We can view our neighbor to the north both with admiration and suspicion. Americans are considered to be good friends, but their government is our worst enemy. We are passionate and obsessive about the principles involved in our complicated relationship, while we can also be pragmatic and cold-blooded about the interests involved. Hyperbolically, our view of U.S. policy and politics can go from well-known stereotypes to deep analyses of the inner workings of that very diverse society.

For most Cubans, the presence of the United States in our lives does not require actual contact with Americans. As Professor Lou Perez of the University of North Carolina has argued, Cuban national identity was formed over the 19th and 20th centuries in a country strongly interconnected with the U.S.

Four different stimuli—two physical, two socio-political—have produced complex results: geographical neighborliness and geopolitical asymmetry, historically contentious relations, and strong transcultural influences.

Geographically, we are the closest of neighbors. Most Cubans live less than 1,000 miles from American continental territory. Miami, the city with the largest concentration of Cubans after Havana, is a mere 35 minutes away by air. We share a common ecosystem and similar environmental and health hazards.

Although Cuba is both Latin American and Caribbean—it is even a bridge between the two sub regions—its closeness to the United States creates in most Cubans a tendency to compare themselves with Americans in economic and cultural terms.

At the same time, both nations are asymmetrical. The U.S. territory is 89 times larger than Cuba’s. There are 29 times more Americans than Cubans. Total United States gross domestic product is 80 times Cuba’s. If neighborliness can create the necessity of working together, asymmetry can produce an opposite result.

An additional geopolitical factor has contributed to determining the relationship and, therefore, Cuban attitudes. Occupying 30 percent of the total territory of the West Indies and controlling the three main access points between the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, and the Gulf of Mexico, our island was an early object of desire for the Founding Fathers. Thomas Jefferson stated in 1809 that Cuba would be the most important acquisition that the U.S. could make and in 1823 John Quincy Adams elaborated the “ripe fruit doctrine”: the island was like a fruit that would fall into the hands of the United States as soon as it became ripe and was separated from Spain. This idea became so pervasive among American elites in the 19th century that it led to the Spanish-Cuban-American War, military occupation, and the establishment of a protectorate over the country that lasted from 1902 to 1959.

My own perspective about the relationship between Cuba and the U.S. developed in that period. I was born in 1943 to a family with an upper-class social and political legacy. My grandfather and my father, both lawyers and politicians, felt a profound admiration for the United States and its political system but rejected American domination of Cuba specially because, in their view, it was the root cause of ubiquitous corruption and the rise of two dictators, Gerardo Machado in the 1920s and Fulgencio Batista in the 1930s.

In conditions of close geopolitical and geo-economic asymmetry, it seemed that Americans behaved toward Cuba using Thucydidean logic: Big powers do what they want; small powers suffer what they must. And the results were negative, among them the ubiquitous presence of mafia businesses in Havana, closely linked with the Cuban political class, especially Batista. Most Cuban upper-class elites reacted to that reality with an attitude that served as a perfect excuse not to do anything about the problems of the country: Yes, reforms were good ideas to solve issues like poverty, dependency, illiteracy, inequality, unfair distribution of the land, “gangsterismo,” prostitution, and, finally, political corruption. Nevertheless, nothing should be done that would endanger the privileged relationship with the United States, which was, after all, inevitable, not to say beneficial.

In the meantime, a majority of Cubans started to think like the grass close to an elephant, according to a Swahili oral proverb. It does not matter if the elephant is making love or making war; it will always trample on the grass.

The tragedy of Cuban upper-class elites in pre-revolutionary Cuba was that they felt they had a deal with their American counterparts: In exchange for their legitimating the status quo, which was convenient for both, the U.S. should protect their privileged position. In 1959, neither saw the Revolution coming, with its enormous telluric force. After it happened, Cuban elites were convinced that Washington would not countenance the transformation, that it would eliminate the problem and return them in no time to their previous position of privilege. The U.S., for its own similar reasons, shared that purpose and set in motion a multi-track strategy to destroy the Revolution.

Most of the pre-revolutionary elite left for the United States with the firm conviction that it would be a fleeting exile. Initially they gladly served as instruments of U.S. policies toward the Cuban Revolution, which reached levels of obsessive compulsion after the Bay of Pigs failure. The embargo and other hostile policies were designed to bring about a regime change in Havana, a strategy that was perceived in Cuba as a relentless, obsessive, and irrational onslaught. With that, Americans also isolated themselves from those Cubans who remained in the island, supporting the Revolution and suffering enormous sacrifices on the pedestal of patriotism and social justice.

The revolutionary elites tackled their task with nationalist and social zeal. Their approach to Washington was to make skeptical attempts at a modus vivendi without renouncing their main objectives: transforming Cuba and leaving underdevelopment behind.

Here the third stimulus, this time of a socio-political nature, kicked in. As they looked at the history of Cuba’s relations with the U.S., they were reaffirmed in the predicament of José Martí, the 19th century apostle of Cuban independence. Having lived in the United States for 15 years and written extensively about its politics, economics, literature, art, and journalism, he recommended that Cuba be independent of the U.S. and that it strive to play a significant role in Latin American and Caribbean resistance to North American encroachment.

As the attempts at reaching an arrangement floundered between 1959 and 1963, almost provoking the annihilation of Cuba during the missile crisis of 1962, Havana, with overwhelming popular support, adopted policies of resistance. Frustration with the United States increased when it was learned that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated as he was launching an initiative to come to some agreement with Cuba. It seemed that there was no other choice than to radicalize and go from resistance to defiance.

The Cuban government’s domestic and foreign radicalism led to revolutionary initiatives in Latin America and the Caribbean during the 1960s. When these failed, Havana had no alternative but to implement what many radical leaders advised: seek an alliance with the Soviet Union. That alliance began to bear fruits in the 1970s and 1980s.

Copying the “real existing socialist” model of Eastern Europe seemed a viable alternative for the elites. Those were good years economically, and Cuba obtained several significant international successes in the Third World and began reconstructing its relations with Latin America and the Caribbean, which had supported the United States in the 1960s. Strengthened at home and abroad, Cuba’s international initiatives challenged American hegemony not only in the Western Hemisphere but also in Africa. In these conditions, the attempt at normalization that occurred with the Carter administration failed. Between 1981 and 1989, the U.S., convinced that the Soviet Union’s weaknesses would undermine Havana, increased its military, economic, and political pressure, this time using Cuban global revolutionary activism as an excuse.

The détente with the United States in 1977-1981 brought the Cuban exiles back into the picture, initially as “dialogueros” (dialoguers), not as an instrument of a semi-war-like Washington policy. They started doing something that was unimaginable to the majority of elites who left Cuba in the 1960s and installed themselves in South Florida: talking to the Cuban government. One unintended result of this process was the Mariel boatlift of 1980, which had a huge impact both in the island and in the United States.

Paradoxically, that same year a new actor emerged in the equation: a right-wing Republican Cuban-American lobby, which became an important player in the U.S. domestic political process, supporting Washington’s hard-line policies toward Cuba and the election of Cuban Americans to the House of Representatives and, eventually, the Senate.

These exiles had achieved substantial success, in part because they were well educated, in part because they received support from federal and state authorities, and in part because they had the right contacts, having studied or attended summer camps in the United States. If you add to that combination the well-known Cuban ability to adapt and improvise, it is not difficult to explain their surprising achievements when comparing them to other emigrants. The Republican Party and Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign cooperated very actively to foment their political organizing in the Cuban America National Foundation. CANF had the ability to insert itself in the U.S. political process and gave the impression of having enormous influence from 1980 to 2000. In 2000, however, their influence started to wane, as they were perceived as dogmatic extremists in the case of the young boy Elián González, who they refused to turn over peacefully to his father in Cuba.

It is again paradoxical because the Mariel boatlift signaled the arrival on American territory of a new group of Cuban emigrants, which would eventually undermine the influence of the older exiles. Although they were in no way sympathetic to the Cuban government, their primary purpose in emigrating was not influencing the U.S. administration to overthrow the Havana authorities, but to achieve economic prosperity without breaking up with their relatives, schoolmates, and friends who remained in the island.

Notwithstanding the long history of conflict, Cuban and Americans have always got along fine. Even in the worst times, U.S. flags have not been burned in Cuba. We don’t call the Americans gringos or Yankees with a pejorative tone. We say “Americanos,” “norteamericanos,” “estadounidenses,” or the more superlative “yumas,” perhaps derived from the 1957 American Western Film, 3:10 to Yuma. This is due to the long tradition of transcultural influences. In the famous 1950s U.S. TV sitcom "I Love Lucy," the husband of that beautifully crazy American lady is Cuban.

Elites in Cuba, led by Fidel Castro, rose to the challenge of the demise of the Soviet bloc in 1989-1993. Against all odds they were able to save their vision of a nation based in self-determination and social justice. The collapse predicted by the majority of observers did not result. They survived the unilateral moment in world politics and a new U.S. onslaught during the Republican and Democratic administrations of 1989-2009, not without suffering a major economic catastrophe compounded with the adoption by the U.S. of the Torricelli (1992) and Helms-Burton Laws (1996), codifying the economic sanctions and turning them into a law of Congress, not a presidential order, making an eventual normalization of relations even more difficult.

These were perceived as very dangerous years, especially after Sept. 11, 2001. Even though Cuba had nothing to do with anti-U.S. terrorist activities, Washington had included its government in the list of terrorism-sponsoring states in 1982. When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 and later created in the State Department an office whose title was Coordinator of the Cuban Transition, elites in the island felt that they were back to the fateful years of the 1960s. Rightly or wrongly, in their view a U.S. invasion of Cuba became once more a possibility.

Changes in the world and in Cuba in the first decade of the 21st century reinforced in national elites the idea that the socialist model required major economic reform. Additionally, the time for a generational change of power was fast approaching. In 2008, with the election of the pragmatic Raúl Castro as president, the elites launched two major transformations. One, economic in nature, will change a state-centred model into a mixed one, with the private sector playing a significant role. The second, essentially political, will institutionalize a regime that has been basically patriarchal, although with a certain level of democratic consultation.

It is in this context that Cuba and the United States have entered a new era in their relationship, on the basis of the agreements announced by Raúl Castro and Barack Obama on Dec. 17, 2014. This era can be defined by the surprising agreement both presidents achieved. It means, basically, “normalization through diplomatic relations,” not the other way around. Normalization will be a harrowing process. Elite stereotypes have to be overcome. The main question is, can Cuba and the U.S. have normal, civilized relations on the basis of mutual respect? Elites in Cuba tend to think that the onus of this new era is on the United States, but they might have to pay attention to a phrase from José Martí:

“There is that other America, North America, that is not ours, and whose enmity is neither wise nor viable to encourage. However, with firm propriety and astute independence, it is not impossible—and indeed it is possible—to be friends.”

For that to happen, elites have to realize that although the United States might still be a huge elephant, thanks to the Revolution, they have ceased to be the grass.

*****

 *****

Carlos Alzugaray Treto is a Cuban diplomat and educator.

[Photo courtesy of Day Donaldson]

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