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  • Writer's pictureJorge Navarro

Putin Fidel in Context: The U.S. is to Cuba What Russia is to Ukraine

"Havana vanities come to dust in Miami" is how the recently deceased Joan Didion decided to start Miami, her 1991 book on the Cuban exile polemic. With a nod toward her incisiveness and a wink towards my experience of both cities, I'll start this post with an inversion of Didion's opening line that has, over time, proven just as apt: Miami's vanities come to dust in Havana.

Didion wrote her book back in the late 1980s. To date, Cuba manages to remain in our gringo consciousness due to proximity and history, twin waves ferrying and drowning immigrants and progressive ideas alike.

Lately, Havana's dust persists in the form of increased immigration (Hola, Texas), policy shifts and even actual explosions while the U.S.' chronic vanity becomes amplified via resurgent Nationalism and the perpetuation of a pointless, inhumane dance I've referred to before as 'El Danzón de Noventa Millas'.

In the last few days and weeks alone we've seen a hotel explode, the Biden administration easing some Trump-era travel and remittances restrictions, Cuba and the U.S. accusing each other of being 'the bad guy' (re: terrorism, human rights abuses) while arguing about participation in an upcoming 'Americas Summit', and Cuban lawmakers approving a new penal code that human rights groups consider threatening to independent journalism and basic, human rights of dissent.

It's amazing that such news managed to emerge at all, given Russia's invasion of Ukraine, another Covid spike, surging global inflation, skyrocketing housing costs, and the Almighty Johnny Depp-Amber Heard Trial which, apparently, is the only thing Americans are really paying attention to (after the price of gas).

If I had to choose between history and proximity for the reason why the Cuba-U.S. polemic remains relatively top of news-mind, I'd wager that proximity seems to be winning out for no other reason than we tend to forget (or not even know about) histories outside of our own personal or familial stories. And yet, I cannot help but think that Russia -- specifically the evolving fallout from Putin's invasion of Ukraine -- might also be playing a part in how Cuba's being considered these days.

In simple terms, Cuba and Russia have lots in common. Both countries are led by authoritarian regimes that are working to undermine western ideology and increase their own influence in their respective regions. In addition, both countries are allied with each other in order to counter U.S.and/or western influence. Viewed from a wider, historical lens, however, these terms aren't all that simple.

Neither Didion's book nor much of my music (or Podcast, for that matter!) would exist were it not for Fidel Castro's alignment with Russia. And it is that alignment's historical precedents and consequences that bring us to where we are now in regards to how we view matters as seemingly disparate as Russia's expansionism, immigration (re: Cubans flocking to the U.S., Ukrainians fleeing to Poland and other neighboring countries, Russians fleeing Russia - and how differently those immigrants and exiles are treated compared to, say, African or Haitian or Central American nationals), and hemispheric issues of sovereignty and defense.

The parallels between the Cuba-U.S. polemic and the Russian-Ukrainian 'condition' are worth exploring. Doing so might help us better understand the U.S.' relationship with Cuba and, perhaps more importantly, what drives our- and Putin's expansionist ambitions. I say "our" because expansionism takes many forms, and, well, the U.S. has a solidly sordid history of both martial, and economic expansionism the world over.

First, a bit of necessary historical context: The Cuban Revolution of 1959 led by Fidel Castro was, in part, made possible by the Soviet Union's decision to place nuclear missiles on the island (during what is known as the Cuban Missile Crisis). The missiles were, in Cuba's view, a way to protect the island from future U.S. aggression and invasion (which had already happened once, in 1898, and led to Cuba's 'independence' being placed under the protection of the U.S. via the Platt Amendment).

The Soviet Union's decision to place nuclear missiles on Cuba was also made with an eye towards extending its influence in the Western Hemisphere and countering what it saw as U.S. hegemony. This is an important point to remember because it helps explain some of Russia's recent behavior vis-à-vis Ukraine. It also helps explain some of our historic- and recent behavior toward/against Cuba.

Since at least 2014, Russia has been working to undermine Ukraine's pro-Western government while also trying to prevent the country from integrating too closely with the European Union. Putin's reasoning is likely two-fold: 1) to keep Ukraine within Russia's orbit of influence and 2) to prevent the spread of Western (i.e., NATO) influence into Eastern Europe. The latter point is important because, if Ukraine were to join NATO, it would provide the alliance with a direct land route to Russia's borders. This is something that Putin does not want and is likely one of the reasons why he has been working so hard to destabilize Ukraine.

Now, let's bring this back to Cuba.

Cuba has a long and complicated history with the United States. Things have been truly bonkers and fatal after the Cuban Revolution in 1959, which overthrew the US-backed Cuban government, right up until today, with issues discussed in news items linked to above, along with a trade embargo that has been in place since 1962. From the very start of Cuban independence, relations between the two countries have been tense, to say the least.

Ever since the Spanish-American War of 1898, when the United States seized Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines from Spain, we've been meddling in the affairs of Central and South America. It's not that we're imperialists or anything. We just can't help ourselves. If there's a country down there whose government we don't like, we destabilize it (same goes for places like Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan, by the way). It's how we doobee doobee do.

Americans tend to see Cuba as an agrarian backwater, a relic of the Cold War best known for its beaches, cigars, and vintage cars. However, Cubans have a much different view of their northern neighbor. To them, the United States is a powerful and menacing empire, whose actions in the world are driven by a desire for wealth and domination. This was evident well before and after the the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The CIA has a long history of destabilizing governments in Central and South America. In Cuba, they armed and trained paramilitary groups to overthrow the government (e.g. La Brigada 2506, of which my father was a part of). In Nicaragua, they supported right-wing dictators who oppressed the people. In Chile, the CIA staged a coup against a democratically elected government. And in Venezuela, they have been working to overthrow the government for years. All of this is part of a larger pattern of American intervention in the region. As with Russia and its invasion of Ukraine, chief goals are to control the resources of these countries and keep them under the thumb of US economic and political power. This historical convergence (Russia::Ukraine, U.S.::Cuba) is part of a shameful legacy of imperialism and intervention that has caused immense suffering for the people of these smaller, but strategically important countries.

In many ways, Cuba sees the United States much the same way that Ukraine sees Russia. The US is a large and powerful country that has historically interfered in Cuban affairs. There have been economic sanctions and embargoes placed on Cuba by the US for decades. For Cuba, it has always been clear that the US is not to be trusted.

However, there are also some major differences between how Cuba and Ukraine view their respective enemies. For one, Cuba has generally always had much warmer relations with Russia than Ukraine has. And secondly, while both countries have experienced interference from their larger neighbors, Cuba has never been invaded or occupied by the US like Ukraine has been (re: "Crimea river," as one popular Putin-Obama knock-knock meme put it a few years back, Mariupol as of last night). If anything, and if one puts aside how repressive Cuban governance can be, Cuba has managed to be a thorn in the side of 'Yankee Imperialism' for over 60 years. No other country of Cuba's size can say that. Hell, Castro alone outlived or survived 11 U.S. presidential administrations. And given the "results" of the July 11, 2021 protests (mass incarcerations, beatings, minimal or token reforms, etc.), it appears that Cuba's doing as fine as can be for a country recently forced to take hand-outs from Russia and Venezuela alike (you know things are bad when you're turning to Russia and Venezuela for help!).

The U.S. is to Cuba what Russia is to Ukraine, with the former half of the analogy being more about banks than tanks. So maybe that's why we've managed to keep hearing about Cuba lately. Putin Fidel in context just might be making the U.S. take a long, hard look in the mirror.

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