There have been criticisms everywhere of Donald Trump’s June 16 speech announcing a hardening of the Cuba embargo, as it is called in the United States. The criticisms of Trump’s Cuba policy reveal the limited understanding and influence of the so-called Left in the United States, and the narrow perspective and strategy of the opponents of the “embargo.”
Some have argued that the embargo violates the rights of U.S. citizens to engage in commerce and to travel. However, we ought to appreciate that the rights to trade and travel are not without limit. Governments reasonably and necessarily regulate them, and they have the authority to restrict them, if there are compelling reasons. In defense of its embargo, the U.S. government has claimed that the Cuban government is undemocratic and denies human rights. If this were true, a case reasonably could be made that the U.S. government has the authority to impose restrictions on its citizens with respect to Cuba, as a dimension of a foreign policy promoting democracy in the world.
Therefore, the legitimacy of the U.S. government’s restrictions of its citizens with respect to Cuba depends upon the validity of its claim that Cuba is not democratic. Yet many of those who oppose the embargo assume that Cuba has an undemocratic political process, and they do not analyze the U.S. government’s claim to this effect. They in effect are saying, “It may be that Cuba violates human rights, but our farmers and agricultural enterprises want to sell there, and our citizens want to travel there, so let’s ignore violations of human rights.” This is a weak and unprincipled argument. Trump has the moral upper hand when he calls for a return to a Cuba policy that makes clear a commitment to democratic values and for an end to tolerance of violations of human rights.
Those who oppose the economic and financial blockade of Cuba should challenge the fundamentally false assumption, held by both defenders and opponents of the embargo, that the Cuban political process is undemocratic and that Cuba denies human rights. Such an argument would go beyond pointing to the excellent and universal systems of health and education in Cuba. It would explain the Cuban alternative structures of popular democracy, which function without electoral parties and without campaign contributions. These structures were developed in the 1970s by the revolutionary project as an alternative to representative democracy, which the revolutionary leadership perceived as a form of democracy that benefits those with greater financial resources. The outstanding health and educational systems are a consequence of popular democracy. Inasmuch as the elected delegates to the National Assembly of Popular Power are not dependent on the campaign contributions of a corporate class to sustain their political careers, they are free to address the social and economic rights of the people, to the extent that limited resources permit. Once this is understood, one could not reasonably deny that Cuba has exemplary norms and practices with respect to democracy and human rights; and the deceptions and distortions of the politicians and political intellectuals who created and have maintained the embargo would stand exposed.
The embargo should be ended not because it restricts the trade and travel of U.S. citizens, but because it was established and is maintained on false premises. Presenting such an argument requires knowledge of the Cuban political process and its structures of popular democracy, However, for the most part, the U.S. opponents of the blockade have not informed themselves of the Cuban political process and the historical development of its structures, which would provide them with a potent arm in the battle of ideas.
Some have argued that the “embargo” has not worked, so we need to use other strategies in undermining the Cuban Revolution. They ask, “What other strategies could we try?” They do not ask, “Why has the embargo failed?” If they were to reflect on the latter question with seriousness and persistence, they eventually would arrive to awareness that the Cuban Revolution is a popular democratic revolution, capable of invoking the people to material sacrifice in defense of their revolution.
If they subsequently were to ask, “Was our mistaken policy with respect to Cuba simply a misunderstanding of the particular situation in Cuba, or have we opposed democracy in other nations as well?” Serious and persistent investigation of this question would lead to awareness that U.S. opposition to popular democratic revolutions and governments is the general norm in U.S. foreign policy, even as the United States persistently claims that its actions promote and protect democracy. If such awareness were combined with commitment to the proposition that U.S. foreign policy ought to be based in democratic values, it would lead to a search for a democratic reformulation of foreign policy, based on the principle of respect for the sovereignty of all nations, rejecting imperialism in its various manifestations.
Barack Obama was among those who argued that the Cuba embargo is not working, and he sought an alternative strategy for undermining the Cuban Revolution. The Obama strategy was to promote the expansion of an entrepreneurial middle class, which would ally itself with U.S. economic interests and seek changes in Cuba that would facilitate greater possibilities, with less regulation, of foreign investment in Cuba. Like his ten predecessors, Obama assumed that Cuban political processes and structures are undemocratic. And like all U.S. presidents from William McKinley to George W. Bush, Obama pursued imperialist policies with respect to Cuba, Latin America, Asia and Africa, seeking to secure markets for U.S. goods and capital. The Obama opening was characterized by a turn to a different imperialist strategy, keeping intact the goal of undermining the Cuban popular democratic socialist revolution. At the same time, the U.S. Left did not seize the moment of the opening with Cuba to ask the necessary relevant questions that would expose and delegitimate the essentially anti-democratic character of U.S. foreign policy.
Some have argued that the June 16 discourse of Trump is a return to the outdated language of the Cold War. It is true that Trump’s anti-communist rhetoric seemed like it belonged to an earlier time. But the Cold War had distinct dimensions. Insofar as it was a confrontation between hostile and competing empires, the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European socialist bloc. But the Cold War also had its manifestations in the Third World, and the issues at stake in the Third World did not disappear with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Although U.S. foreign policy during the second half of the twentieth century was driven by an anti-communist ideology, U.S. opposition to certain Third World governments was not based in reality upon their communist or socialist tendencies, actual or fabricated. What really was at issue for the United States was the insistence of these Third World governments on their national sovereignty. They laid claim to the right of all nations to be truly independent, and accordingly, to develop their own policies with respect to domestic forms of property, distribution of land, and regulations concerning foreign investment and international capital flow. They maintained that they had the right to exercise their sovereignty, without interference by foreign powers. Moreover, they influenced many other Third World governments to join in affirming certain principles that should guide international affairs, such as the rights of all nations and peoples to self-determination and development. From the vantage point of the United States and the European ex-colonial powers, such pretensions to national sovereignty were an unacceptable threat to the neocolonial world-system, which depends on the subordination of the nations of the world, masked by formal political independence. The rhetoric of the Cold War was invoked by the neocolonial powers as justifications for interfering in the affairs of nations, but this was an ideological maneuver that functioned to obscure that the issue at stake was the intention of some governments to establish the true sovereignty of their nations.
The collapse of the Soviet Union placed independent-minded Third World governments at a political disadvantage; and external debt and the neoliberal project placed the Third World in an increasingly disadvantaged position economically. With the anti-communist rhetoric less effective, the neocolonial powers turned to other ideological frames for justification of their interventionism, including the “War on Drugs” and terrorism, with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 providing the basis for launching the “War on Terrorism.” During the last two decades, as progressive and socialist governments in Latin America sought an autonomous road to development, the United States has justified its interventionism with any workable pretext, with allegations of violations of human rights and participation in drug trafficking being the most common. The June 16 anti-communist discourse of Trump with respect to Cuba is fully consistent with the U.S. rhetorical distortions and interventionist policy toward progressive and socialist governments in Latin America today. Trump’s rhetoric distorts, but it is not outdated
The opponents of the Cuba embargo have to go beyond “it violates the rights of U.S. citizens,” “it hasn’t worked,” and “Trump uses an outdated rhetoric.” They should condemn the policy in an integral form, making the case that the failure of the Cuba embargo, like the U.S. defeat in the Vietnam War, is a symptom of a larger problem. In essence, that problem is the fundamentally undemocratic structures of the world-system, rooted in European conquest and colonial domination of vast regions of the world; and the imperialist policies of the United States, which are designed to preserve world-system structures and to secure a U.S. position of dominance in the neocolonial world-system. The embargo of Cuba has failed because it has been integral to an effort by a global power to preserve undemocratic world structures, standing against a revolution that proclaimed its democratic rights to sovereignty and self-determination. The people of Cuba, led and formed by revolutionary leadership, understood this, and as a result, they have been willing to persistently sacrifice in defense of their revolution, finding in such persistence a sense of meaning and purpose, as each contributed in a modest way in making the world more democratic.
The persistence of the Vietnamese in the face of the barbarous attacks by U.S. military forces led to questioning of U.S. policy in Vietnam, which for many of us led to awareness of the essentially imperialist character of U.S. foreign policy. Similarly, the persistence of Cuba in the face of the fifty-five year embargo establishes the possibility for popular education with respect to the essentially imperialist and undemocratic character of U.S. foreign policy, if progressive and Leftist activists and intellectuals were to explain it in these terms.
The people of the United States feel a sense of loss, for the nation is not what it once was. Accordingly, they are susceptible to the influences of a Donald Trump, who speaks of making America great again. He speaks of an America that once again defends democracy in the world, without ambiguity in its moral proclamations. He wants to expand American military strength, thus investing in the nation’s strongest industry. He calls upon U.S. corporations to invest in production at home, and he intends to free productive processes in the United States from excessive environmental regulations that result from the claims of idealist ecologists. He wants to protect the U.S. border from illegal immigrants, who possibly include terrorists and drug dealers. The Trump discourse recalls the memory of a great power that once was, a nation that sees itself as the most democratic, powerful, and wealthy nation in human history, and that acts in the world with confidence and decisiveness.
The Left dismisses, but has never effectively debunked, the prevailing American grand narrative. The Left should be working on a reconstruction of the American grand narrative: explaining the historical and economic reasons for the U.S. ascent and its relative decline; lifting up heroes from the history of popular movements in the United States, connecting the people to visionaries of the past and to historic popular struggles for democracy; and indicating the necessary national direction in the context of the sustained global crisis, in solidarity with the movements and peoples of the Third World. Trump and his neoliberal opponents should be delegitimated by an informed public discourse that exposes the false premises of both, with respect to Cuba, the meaning of democracy, and the relation of the United States to Latin America and the world.