What Happened When We Stayed the Course in Cuba

News Abroad

Mr. Gonzalez is a faculty member in the departments of history and interdisciplinary studies at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., and a writer for the History News Service.

President Bush has told Americans that his policy in Iraq will remain unchanged. With even prominent Republicans seeking to alter course, Americans may wonder why the president remains so determined. They should look to the lessons Bush draws from history.

Bush is a student of history. What has it taught him? That determination succeeds and weakness fails.

In a recent speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Bush said that history provides "lessons applicable to our time." These lessons, he said, teach us that American troops can bring democracy to Iraq, just as they did to nations in Europe and Asia in the years following World War II. But we must remain determined, said Bush; if we waiver, Iraq will become another Vietnam.

No one should be surprised that Bush or anyone else invokes the sad example of the nation's exit from Vietnam, but instead of fixing on Vietnam, Bush should consider the case of Cuba. From 1898 to 1959, America was steadfast in Cuba - and the result was disastrous.

Much like the Bush administration in Iraq, the McKinley's administration introduced democratic institutions to Cuba after its armed intervention during the Spanish-American War of 1898. Following elections, America ceded sovereignty to a new Cuban government in 1902.

But American troops remained in Havana and elsewhere. In order to protect Cuba's nascent democratic institutions, the McKinley administration planted U.S. troops on Cuban soil and required the Cubans to recognize America's right to intervene should American interests be threatened.

American troops did not bring democracy, however. Instead, they helped to prepare the way for dictatorship, revolution and anti-Americanism. Between 1906 and 1933, U.S. presidents intervened more or less continuously in the affairs of Cuba, often using troops to put down rebellions and resolve disputed elections. Tired of such interventions, Americans eventually came to support a series of corrupt, authoritarian but pro-United States leaders in the 1930s and 1940s.

Those who led the Cuban revolution of the 1950s (and Fidel Castro was only one leader among many) sought to end American influence on the island. Everyone knows what happened next. Castro became both a dictator and one of the world's foremost antagonists of American foreign policy.

From 1898 to 1959, the United States guided Cuban politics. It maintains troops on Cuban soil today - at notorious Guantanamo Bay. For at least six decades, Bush and his neoconservative allies may be surprised to learn, American steadfastness was not the problem; American control was.

Before 1959, Cuban politicians served American interests first, Cuban interests second. American corporations dominated the island's economy and politics. Sovereign in name, but not in fact, Cuba was little more than a satellite of the American political and economic system.

All this suggests another lesson for President Bush: Struggling new governments require not just freedom from tyranny, but also freedom to guide their own economic and political futures. They require autonomy.

As an American protectorate, Cuba never had autonomy, and it remains unclear if Iraq will. The administration plans to keep American troops in Iraq for decades. No Iraqi can now be prime minister, it seems, without the permission of the U.S. government.

It's unlikely, however, that President Bush will want to absorb this lesson. He long ago decided what history has to teach him: Success requires determination and only determination. The rest is just the carping of critics. It's too bad for him - and for us - that the lessons of history are not so reassuring.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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Arnold Shcherban - 11/8/2007

"To cite" those would be equivalent
to describe many decades of the US
foreign policy in the so-called Third World, i.e. in Central and Latin America, Asia, and Africa.
"To cite" those would be synonym to describe the history of US (direct or by proxy) agression and terror, or sponsorship and support of brutal dictatorships AGAINST the will of the GREAT MAJORITY in such countries as Vietnam, Cambodia, Cuba, Guatemala, Haiti, Argentina, Brazil, Chili, Nicaragua, Grenada, Panama, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, etc.
But many ideologically deeply settled folks prefer not to listen,
read, and analyse anything that lies outside of the good old dogmas of the official propaganda such as
"noble altruists - we, evil doers - they."
I would add that as good as this country is for its own citizens (and it is, comparatively, a very good one), it has been so far one of the worst (among big influential countries) towards the Third World folks.

Mike A Mainello - 11/2/2007

Could you cite specific examples of "US-UK corporate capital and their Iraqi elitarian clients" or are you just parroting the liberal, moveon.org group think?

Arnold Shcherban - 11/2/2007

"Fair constitutions" ... for the interest of the US-UK corporate capital and their Iraqi elitarian clients.
Is it a childish naivety or deliberate lie of Pan-Amerikana zealot?

Mike A Mainello - 10/30/2007

I guess we should just build a big wall, beef up security and ignore all the world's problems.

Darfur - who cares.

Chinese human rights violations - who cares.

Iran obtaining nuclear weapons, Pakistan and India duking it out over border issues - a local problem.

Israel and the PLO - may the best country win.

Wow isn't foreign policy easy.

President Bush and his team have worked hard to guide both Afghanistan and Iraq in creating fair constitutions that they could live with, not ones we wanted. President Bush has also been criticized because he has not "pushed" the Iraqi government to adopt political reforms. It seems to me that he is allowing the Iraqi government to find their own solutions to problems and not become a puppet of the US.

As far as staying the course, the administration and the government have not been rigid in their strategy. The surge (a shift in strategy) has helped calm Iraq and gain the trust of the people. Deaths, both military and civilian, are down.

Hopefully we continue to learn and adapt from our mistakes.

Lorraine Paul - 10/29/2007

for most of the countries in South America. US interference has led to bloody revolutions and bloodier dictatorships!