Ada Ferrer is the Julius Silver professor of history and Latin American and Caribbean history at New York University and the author of “Cuba: An American History.”
Cuba is one country and many myths. There is the Cuba of the old exiles, whose pain and nostalgia make them see their former home only in its virtues. There is the Cuba of Fidel Castro: a nation redeemed by his revolution and whose failings, if any, are always the fault of U.S. policy. Then there are the Cubas of the U.S. left and right. The first sometimes resembles that of the Cuban government. The second is an imprisoned island whose people await the end of a 62-year nightmare. As citizen protests across Cuba captured the world’s attention this summer, those myths, as well as a host of other misconceptions, arose again.
Myth No. 1: The Cuban revolution of 1959 was communist.
Whenever Cuba is front-page news, journalists and politicians routinely refer to the “1959 communist revolution,” as NPR did in April. History textbooks likewise explain that “Cuba became a communist nation in 1959.”
Yet the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power was not initially communist. It was a broad movement whose principal aim was ousting strongman Fulgencio Batista. While individual communists supported the revolution, Cuba’s communist party, a strong ally of Batista, did not decide to back Castro until almost the end of the struggle, about the same time the United States announced an arms embargo against Batista’s regime. Most people who made and welcomed the revolution did not do so because they wanted communism. Many of them, in fact, were ardent anti-communists. The revolution’s other goals — restoring the 1940 constitution, ending government corruption, giving land to the landless — were mainstream political demands and not the special purview of communists. The turn to communism occurred in 1961, more than two years after the revolution came to power.
Calling the revolution communist from the outset draws our attention away from internal dynamics among Cubans, the escalating confrontation with the United States and a Cold War that left little room between the two camps that ruled the world. All those things played a role in transforming a democratic movement into a communist state.
Myth No. 2: Cuba was friends with the U.S. before Castro came to power.
After Cuban independence in 1902 and before the revolution of 1959, Americans generally regarded the relationship between the two countries as an enduring friendship. Diplomats negotiated treaties referring always to their “relations of friendship.” As the relationship began to sour after 1959, American officials spoke of “the spirit of traditional friendship” that Fidel Castro was jeopardizing. Even today, commentators sometimes refer to pre-revolutionary Cuba as “a friendly nearby island escape.”
Before 1959, Cuba and the United States were allies and trading partners, but the relationship was never equal. In 1940, more than 80 percent of the island’s trade was with its northern neighbor. Washington’s ambassadors had outsize power, sometimes dictating appointments to presidential cabinets, weighing in on national budgets and directing other priorities. Cubans and Americans also understood the relationship in very different ways. Long before Castro’s rule, politicians, intellectuals and ordinary Cuban citizens routinely denounced U.S. influence. That sensibility helps explain how Castro was able to mobilize popular support in his standoff with the United States so soon after taking power.
Myth No. 3: Miami is full of Cuban Americans who lost property to Castro.
In 2000, one journalist called the Cuban American old guard in Miami a “privileged, imperious elite ... ever ready to jump on expensive speedboats to reclaim huge family estates the moment the old communist dictator stops breathing.” More recently, one commentator compared them to the Nazi war criminals who fled to Argentina.
Some analysts temper such stereotypes, pointing to a generational change among Cuban Americans. The old exiles (who were never exclusively wealthy) have diminished in numbers, and their children and grandchildren are less committed to hard-line policies on Cuba. Still, such characterizations of Cuban Miami miss something essential.
Cuban migration to the United States occurred in waves, each more diverse than the one before. By far the largest wave is composed of people who arrived after 1995: They now account for 44 percent of Cuban Americans in Miami-Dade County. Among them are many who, of necessity, once worked for the communist state and attended government schools. The alumni association of what was long Havana’s most prestigious boarding school under communism — the V.I. Lenin Vocational School — has reunions in Miami (in 2018, it was at a club called Revolution). In 2020, a majority of these recent arrivals were enthusiastically pro-Trump and generally supported his aggressive policies against the Cuban government. Yet most of them still look for ways around U.S. restrictions to help their families at home, which 84 percent of them still have. Miami, in other words, is as complicated as Cuba.
Myth No. 4: Cuba is an island ‘frozen in time.’
After Barack Obama and Raúl Castro began normalizing relations between their two countries in 2014, people around the world flocked to Cuba to see it “before it changes,” as one tour company executive put it. American journalists descended on Havana, too - so many that in 2016, WNYC radio created a mock style guide for them. It identified the phrase “frozen in time” as required in all their reporting. Cuba lends itself to the description. Its buildings are mostly ancient; so are its cars. Old music wafts out from hotels built in the 1920s or earlier, and Internet access is still limited. “The ‘frozen in time’ feel - all real,” concluded a “PBS NewsHour” reporter.
Time, however, stands still for no country. Throughout the 1960s, the revolution transformed Cuban society, virtually eliminating private property and creating a one-party state. The new alliance with the Soviet Union altered Cuba’s geopolitical significance; it also changed what people ate and what they watched on TV. Decades later, the end of the Cold War and the loss of subsidies from the communist bloc drastically changed Cuban lives yet again. Severe austerity and shortages meant that people lost an average of 20 pounds - there was much less food, and, without gasoline, they walked or biked everywhere.
To survive, the state prioritized tourism; locals witnessed the return of foreign visitors, now fun-seeking tourists rather than sugar harvest volunteers. The government legalized the dollar in 1993, changing the way Cubans interacted with family abroad, with one another and with the state. Thirty years later, people, buildings and infrastructure are that much older. Cuban society today is not what it was on the eve of the revolution; that is obvious. But neither is it the same as it was 30 years ago.
Myth No. 5: The embargo is key to understanding Cuba.
In July, as Cubans protested in the streets, President Miguel Díaz-Canel did what the Cuban government has done for almost 60 years: He blamed the embargo. Abroad, many progressives followed suit, identifying the embargo as the primary cause of Cubans’ dissatisfaction. “Let Cuba live,” exhorted a letter published in the New York Times calling on Biden to end it.
Observers are correct in pointing out that the embargo, which the U.S. Treasury Department calls its “most comprehensive sanctions program,” creates significant economic difficulties for Cuba. Yet those difficulties cannot account for all of the island’s woes. Cuba trades with other countries; it even imports foodstuffs from the United States (in larger amounts this year than last). The embargo cannot explain Cuban government policies, including those that criminalize artistic expression not approved by officials, to cite just one example.
Cuba hard-liners in the United States have urged Biden to maintain and tighten sanctions. During the deep Cuban economic crisis of the 1990s, American politicians made the same argument and severely hardened the embargo. Yet the Cuban government survived; indeed, it increased repression and human rights violations. The last 60 years prove that the embargo is neither the explanation for Cuban government failures nor a path to regime change or democracy. The truth is far simpler: The embargo is a failed policy that has never come close to meeting its objectives.
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