This semester I’m taking a course on the forbidden fruit of US foreign relations: Cuba. My classmates and I will be traveling there in a few weeks, and as we prepare we’ve learned quite a bit about the enigma that is this people’s Republic.
US relations with Cuba can be characterized as a grudge wedged tightly into a 90 mile strip of sea and immovable by either nation. American travel to Cuba is very tightly restricted, as is Cuban travel here; trade is forbidden; and cultural exchange has been obscured by this lack of contact and a bit each of mystique, fear, anger, and politics.
While the Cuban diplomats that are here in the U.S. aren’t allowed to travel more than 25 miles outside their posts in DC (and our diplomats move within 15 miles in Havana), our class was fortunate enough to get a visit from representatives of Cuba’s mission to the UN last week. They had not prepared a lecture, but rather made their introductions and then invited us to ask them anything. At CGA we’re all required to take at least one class in international law, and it immediately showed. The first question asked for the results of Cuba’s most recent review at the UN Human Rights Council; the second question was how Cuba could join only 11 other nations in voting against last week’s General Assembly resolution to condemn the government of Assad for the murder of more than 6,000 people in Syria.
As a class, we sensed our Cuban guests had heard these questions before; and indeed, they said so. While Pinochet went unpunished, they told us, while the US invaded Iraq, twice, Cuba has sat in the seat of the accused and heard the West bring trumped up charges against it in order to justify an embargo that does more to deprive Cuban of their rights than any Castro ordinance.
They first explained that the Western concept of human rights is incomplete. When we speak of human rights, we mean civil rights – speech, expression, assembly. But before one can think, write, dissent, one needs education, health care, and housing. (With this I agree. The US worked hard to exclude these rights from the Universal Declaration, despite much disagreement from the socialist countries, and today they are central to the Declaration of the Occupation of New York City.) In Cuba, education, health, and housing are guaranteed to all; when you walk into a hospital, we were told, no one asks if you are part of the 1 percent or the 99.
Following this explanation, and throughout the entire discussion of human rights, Syria, and the responsibility to protect, were a litany of US crimes (none disputed by me). And as these diplomats fought to defend their unpopular stance, not on the side of Assad but opposite the international community, something serious was revealed about US-Cuba and US international relations. We, the United States, have absolutely no credibility with the rest of the world.
I realize this is a radical statement, and it is wholly mine. But it’s what I gleaned from this discussion. Very few nations on this earth have the freedom of entirely lacking relations with the super power. From that unique position, Cuba can stand up to us and not fear that our aid, our corporations, or any other form of our money or power will leave them in a lurch. The have suffered from the inability to exchange ideas, goods, or money; but as this is partially self-imposed and a 50 year status quo, they have earned the freedom to call the kettle black. No other nation can do that. And though we may think our carrots and sticks, bigger than anyone else’s, earn us credibility in the world, when we see the US that Cuba sees, we realize we are wrong.
The representatives of la revolucion expressed quite clearly that the US cannot be trusted to bully through UN resolutions (as they saw it) and not follow them with war. We have purchased too many counterrevolutions, assassinations, coups, and dictators to our benefit for the world’s small states to trust us with this ‘responsibility to protect.’ Their history led them to feel, and their unique freedom led them to say, that a condemnation of Assad, like an invasion of [insert Middle Eastern/Arab nation here], was as much or more about US interest as any concern for human rights. Furthermore, any precedent for such international action would legitimize US attempts to plant the WMDs in Cuba, so to speak. (My analogy, their sentiment.)
For the record, I’ve hardly considered the “against view” or R2P before. And of course, whatever I think of the US, I’m horrified by what’s happening in Syria. The Cuban representatives expressed fear that, like past “crises” in Latin America, this situation was fabricated to Western benefit. My Twitter feed begs to differ. There is a horrible, undeniable massacre occurring in Syria and the international community needs to do something about it. Now. The Syrians are asking us to. But despite contradictory and weak arguments from the Cubans, our history stared us in the face in this classroom.
How can we expect them to trust us? We took their nation from them on the verge of their independence from Spain. We occupied for a decade, and then pulled the marionette strings of their politics for another five. And when they rejected our colonialism, and then our neo-colonialism, we invaded their shores and sent mercenaries to kill their hero in another land. Are we surprised that unwavering protection of sovereignty is their official policy? Yes, their stance is born of resentment; but can we honestly think it is a resentment unshared by other nations? Our stalemate with Cuba is revelatory of our place in international relations. Our carrots and sticks are in decline, and for many places pale compared to China’s. What will do when we no longer have them? When “trust” (acquiescence) is no longer mandatory? Many Americans have been calling on our leaders to earn some real credibility in the international community. Not NDAA, selective invasion, revengeful assassination, world-police credibility, but honest concern and advocacy for human rights and peace. Our relations with Cuba are one more place and one more reason we need it.