The United States Reengages Cuba: The Habit of Power


American University (Washington, DC) presents a variety of essays in the Implications of Normalization forum, sponsored by their Center for Latin American & Latino Studies and the Cuba Program at the Social Science Research Council. These articles aim to delve into the ramifications of changes in U.S.-Cuba relations. Here are excerpts of a fascinating article by Louis A. Pérez, Jr.: “The United States Reengages Cuba: The Habit of Power.”

Expectations soared on December 17: “Sweeping changes,” exulted the New York Times, “ushering in a transformational era.” “A truly historic moment,” pronounced the Huffington Post. Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami rejoiced over the “game changer” announcements, and the Brookings Institution predicted “seismic change” in the offing. A “bold new policy,” proclaimed the Chicago Tribune. Maybe . . . .

That the announcements of December 17 in Washington and Havana portended change could hardly be gainsaid, of course. Some things did indeed change. Cubans and Americans at the highest levels of government were speaking to each other—instead of at each other. That’s something. To reopen embassies in Havana and Washington: that’s something, too. All to the good, of course. [. . .] But it is also true that some things have not changed, and therein lurks the specter of a past foretold, for much of what has not changed is precisely what has been at the source of the estrangement of the past 55 years.

[. . .] The “bold new policy” appears to suggest less a change of ends than one of means, from a punitive policy devised to impoverish the Cuban people into rebellion to a benign policy designed to empower the Cuban people as agents of change. And indeed the operative phrase of the new policy is precisely “to empower the Cuban people.” Not a changed relationship with the government of Cuba, but a changed relationship with the people of Cuba—what Chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana Jeffrey DeLaurentis explained to the Harvard Crimson, “to extend a hand to the Cuban people.” A portentous distinction, to be sure, one that implies more than a semantic detail, and indeed invites the conclusion that “to try something new” implies a new way to try regime change.

[. . .] The policy is designed to drive a wedge between the Cuban people and the Cuban government, to wean the Cuban people off their “dependence” on the State as a means to promote the development of civil society and market economy, whereupon the Cuban people thus “empowered” would be motivated to act in behalf of their own economic interests as agents of political change. [. . .] The United States, Secretary Malinowski indicated, favored those policies in which “the Cuban people will be less dependent on their government and will have more power to shape their future. That is what we hope will happen.” One of the virtues of the black market in Cuba, Malinowski suggested, was that people “in addition to enriching themselves, become more independent, and less dependent on the state.” [. . .]

The revision of regulatory policies was designed principally to increase financial support for the emerging private sector. U.S. trade regulations, explained Matthew Borman, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Export Administration, have been revised “to empower the nascent Cuban private sector by supporting private economic activity,” as well as “improve [Cubans’] living standards and gain greater economic independence from the state.” Indeed, by authorizing American companies to engage in telecommunications sales, Secretary Jacobson suggested, “and acting to get information into Cuba, to work with entrepreneurs . . . we can begin to increase the pace at which people separate themselves from the state.” All in all, of course, policies the Americans deem to be in the best interest of the Cubans. The United States, Jacobson explained to Congress, wished to help the Cuban people “to be able to do what they wish. To be able to make their own decisions.” Simply put, Jacobson indicated, to enable “the Cuban people to freely determine their own future,” to “empower the Cuban people” and enable them “to take their lives into their own hands.”

Habits of power persist. At some point in the nineteenth century, Americans arrived at the conviction that Cuba’s destiny was the possession of the United States. “We are guardians, self-appointed, to the Cuban people,” the New York Times pronounced in 1899. The sentiment informs the logic of the new policy. Resumption of normal diplomatic relations suggests the U.S. intent to establish an “activist” embassy, with an ambassador and/or embassy assigned to “empower the Cuban people.” They would follow the footsteps of past U.S. ambassadors to Cuba who inserted themselves deeply in Cuban internal affairs, including Enoch Crowder, Sumner Welles, Spruille Braden, and Earl E. T. Smith, among others, all of whom assumed something of a proconsular bearing in Havana. [. . .]

The specter of a new American embassy as site of opposition to the present Cuban government looms large. There is precedent for this, too: in 1933, when Ambassador Sumner Welles arrived to Havana in the name of U.S. “interest in the welfare of the Cuban people”—per his instructions—and thereupon proceeded to remove the government of Gerardo Machado and remained to conspire against the government of Ramón Grau San Martín.

The “bold new policy” toward Cuba emerges out of a tradition—indeed, a legacy—of entitlement, out a history in which the propriety of American power assumed the appearance of the natural order of things: all in all, culturally-determined and historically-conditioned practices from which the prerogative of power was normalized. [. . .]


[Many thanks to Arnold August for bringing this item to our attention.]

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