Knot and noose


By exploiting Kennedy’s style, Barack Obama has drawn attention to Cuba’s role in the lionised former president’s foreign policy failures, writes Gavin O’Toole


IT HAS BECOME something of a cliché. When Dan Restrepo, one of Barack Obama’s key advisers on Latin America, speculated about the new president employing “direct diplomacy” in the region, his reflex was to employ the language of John F Kennedy.

Restrepo reverted to the great Democratic president’s tendency to use a chiasmus, with the celebrated phrase: “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”

He was giving an early indication of a possible approach by the new US leader to policy in Latin America, a region Obama has neither visited nor, indeed, expressed much interest in – despite the huge solidarity show to him in the presidential election by Hispanic voters.

Comparisons with the Kennedy phenomenon to suggest a clear departure from recent political developments have been used skilfully by the Obama team, not least with his visit to Berlin in July that attracted hundreds of thousands of over-excited Germans.

Latin Americanists will now be paying close attention to the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago in April for clues to any genuine US policy shifts in the region – in particular towards Cuba, today celebrating the 50th anniversary of a revolution that Washington has singularly failed to overturn.

Mistakes of the Kennedy era

Ironically, the Cuban anniversary throws into relief both the Kennedy-esque style embraced the Obama bandwagon, but also how the new incumbent in Washington might usefully learn from the many mistakes of the Kennedy era. There appear to be parallels between the global context in which Obama is taking power and that of 1962 to which even Russia’s strongman Vladimir Putin has alluded by comparing US plans for a missile shield in Europe with the Cuban missile crisis.

By modelling himself upon Kennedy, therefore, Obama has taken a considerable risk with his reputation – and also posed questions about whether he completed his history assignments at high school.

Cuba was simultaneously Kennedy’s Gordian Knot and, in all likelihood, his noose. His failure to find a way out of the spiralling enmities that entrenched the US embargo by correctly analysing the true nature of the Castro regime; his dithering that both fatally undermined policy consistency and simultaneously destroyed any hope of a rapprochement with the Cuban government; his personal animosity, along with that of his brother, the then attorney general Robert Kennedy, towards Castro that culminated in a series of shambolic plots to kill him; and his almost catastrophic brinkmanship during the Cuban missile crisis, in which older and wiser men skilfully forced the US to withdraw its Jupiter nuclear missiles from Turkey, drastically changing the balance of power in south-eastern Europe; all undermined US influence in the Caribbean Rim and Latin America. Just as Kennedy pushed Castro into the cold embrace of the USSR, he helped to set the scene for a generation of Cold War guerrilla conflicts in the Americas and two debilitating decades of military authoritarianism. Such was the US president’s ineptitude in what passed for a policy on Cuba that, four months after the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs invasion at Playa Girón, the great revolutionary Che Guevara delivered a message to him through his young White House aide Richard Goodwin: “Thank you for Playa Girón. Before the invasion, the revolution was shaky. Now it is stronger than ever.”[1]

Kennedy’s much-vaunted Alliance for Progress in Latin America was, above all else, the expression of US recognition in the wake of the Cuban Revolution that, when it came to communism in the region, the status quo ante would no longer suffice. Founded in an almost slavish devotion to the belief in US moral purpose, the eventual impact of this approach was a far cry from the new era of negotiation, accommodation and friendship that the rhetoric it was dressed up in promised. In fact, precisely because the Kennedy doctrine adopted such an ideological position towards the affairs of other states, it resulted in an hysterical containment policy built upon overt interventionism and, as a result, bloody conflict that fuelled the Cold War arms race significantly.

If anything, Kennedy came to embody the sheer folly of unilateralism and of an imperious president acting as his own secretary of state.

Interview with Che

We can gain a strong flavour of what was at stake in that era from the words of one of the few foreign journalists to have been in Cuba at the time of Kennedy’s greatest test, the missile crisis. Sam Lesser, who wrote under the name Sam Russell for the British Communist party newspaper, the Daily Worker (which in 1966 was relaunched as the Morning Star), was sent to Havana a few weeks after the crisis in late October and early November 1962 where he interviewed Che Guevara, then industry minister but the key figure in negotiating the Soviet deployment of missiles on the island. Speaking in an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Whitehead on 13 July 1992, extracts from which were broadcast by the World Service, the journalist revealed how strongly the Cuban people, and Guevara himself, had felt about the US in that period:

“I remember attending a Russian Revolution anniversary meeting which was held at the time – it must have been November the 6th – and at this meeting [the Soviet statesman Anastas] Mikoyan spoke and there were chants, people chanting in a sort of cha cha cha rhythm as the Cubans used to do, probably still do, meaning ‘Fidel Khrushchev we are together’, but outside in the streets if people had been able to get hold of Khrushchev they would have strung him from the nearest lamppost … because of this agreement with Kennedy withdrawing them [the missiles].”[2]

Lesser revealed how he had accompanied the Cuban journalist and writer Carlos Franqui, then editor of the newspaper Revolución, into a room listening into the conversations between the commanders of Soviet and American ships after the deal between Kennedy and Khrushchev as Russian ships taking the rockets out of Cuba reached international waters.

“We could hear the Soviet and American commanders talking to each other in clear – not in code – in English, and the American commander singing out the number, because the rocket was marked, and as the tarpaulin was removed he would shout out, or the lookout man would shout out, the number and it would be repeated, and I remember Carlos Franqui turning round and spitting on the floor and saying ‘Disgusting, this is striptease on the high seas’, and the Cubans were absolutely furious with this.”

It is interesting to note that Franqui eventually broke with the regime and left Cuba, growing increasingly critical of the Soviet Union but also of repression under Castro. The historian John Lee Anderson writes that both Fidel and Che had been incandescent with rage at what they saw as a betrayal by Khrushchev, and Mikoyan had been dispatched to Havana to patch things up. What Lesser had undoubtedly heard in the streets had been Cubans chanting: “¡Nikita, mariquita, lo que se da no se quita!” – “Nikita, you little queer, what you give, you don’t take away!” [3]

In his interview, Lesser also gave a fascinating insight into the determined character of Guevara, whom he talked with for five hours.[4] The great icon of the Cuban Revolution both impressed the journalist with his keen intelligence and the way he overcame his severe asthma, yet exasperated him with his position on the Soviet missiles. Lesser recounted:

“A man of obviously great intelligence, although I thought he was crackers at the time … he went into great detail about the rockets and said that if the rockets had remained under our control – no, not remained, if the rockets had been under control, because they had never been under their [Cuban] control of course – if the rockets had been under our control, and if the Americans had moved a little finger, and he lifted up his hand and waggled his little finger, we would have fired every one off on to New York and Washington, Ohio and Pittsburgh and rattled off a number of other American towns. And I thought to myself ‘Well thank Christ that they weren’t under your control’…”

It is also valuable to note, according to Lesser, that Che did not describe himself as a communist in the strict bureaucratic sense – giving the lie to so much of the crude US propaganda about Cuba but also providing evidence of the dramatic failure of both the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations to understand the true nature of the Cuban regime. Lesser said:

“It was interesting that he had studied, obviously, communist tactics and communist policy and was absolutely opposed to it – and Fidel was not a communist, of course, originally – and certainly Che Guevara had a very poor opinion of communists, and when he elaborated on his ideas on revolution in Latin America in particular, and I recall that he was particularly insistent that this policy of the popular front was doomed to failure. He said ‘You communists are going ahead’ – and he said ‘You communists’ making it quite clear that he did not consider himself a communist at that time… I said ‘Well, you know, surely, the communist parties of Latin America have shown they are capable of organising and leading revolutionary activity, and he turned to me and he said ‘Los partidos comunistas de América Latina son la mierda’, the communist parties of Latin America are shit.”

Spanish civil war

Lesser, now 93, has recently been in the news himself as one of the last remaining British volunteers of the International Brigades that fought in the Spanish Civil War against General Franco’s fascist-backed rebels to be finally rewarded by the Spanish state. In October, Spain’s socialist prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, offered to allow them joint nationality in a gesture of recognition welcomed by survivors. Lesser’s role in one of the most important conflicts of the 20th century provides an intriguing insight into the almost circular trajectory of those great historical forces that helped to shape both the world occupied by Che Guevara and the policy options open today to Obama.

Guevara, whom he interviewed 24 years after the war had ended for the International Brigades, had himself been influenced at an early age by the Spanish conflict, not least because of his family’s own, personal links with it. Guevara’s uncle, the communist poet and journalist Cayetano Córdova Itúrburu, had been a former editor of the 1920s avant-garde literary magazine Martín Fierro and an active, radical participant in the struggles of the Agrupación de Intelectuales, Artistas, Periodistas, Escritores (AIAPE, the Association of Intellectual, Artists, Journalists and Writers) against the perceived onslaught of fascism on Argentine culture under José F Uriburu. As vice president of AIAPE, Córdova Itúrburu had travelled to Spain in 1937 during the civil war and published accounts of his journey, and the young Ernesto had been exposed to all the dispatches, notes and articles that he had sent back to his Aunt Carmen in this period.

Given the depth of the radical tradition that found its expression in the Cuban Revolution and the consistent failures of US policy towards the island, it might be assumed that Obama has an historic opportunity to learn from Kennedy’s mistakes. But analysts are not holding their breath, despite his campaign promise to lift the Bush administration’s restrictions on family travel to the island and on remittances sent back to it “right away”, and to move towards normalising relations with Havana by talking with the Cuban government.

The new administration appears to have returned, even before it has taken office, to a lack of policy clarity towards its old adversary. Obama’s pledge to shut the detention centre at Guantánamo Bay soon after he takes office in January, for example, is juxtaposed against official silence on what to do with the 250 detainees currently being held there. Aides have been desperately trying to spend some of the political capital built up by the Obama campaign on finding a European haven for the detainees before the new incumbent takes office. Obama’s choice of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State also directly contradicts the clear hints he made of a change in tone towards the island away from the “failed policies of the past”. On the primary hustings and with one eye on contributions to her campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination from the rightwing Cuban exile lobby, she had denounced Obama’s initially positive tone in uncompromising terms as “irresponsible and, frankly, naïve” and had called for continuing economic sanctions in keeping with the retroactive and extra-territorial legislation shamelessly passed during her husband’s inglorious reign and epitomised by the Helms-Burton act. Moreover, any promise by Obama to lift restrictions on family travel to Cuba and remittances is uncontroversial, as the move would be supported by anti-Castro Cuban-Americans themselves who now see these as further weapons in the economic war against the regime. Hardly an act of consensus-building. Nor does there seem any chance of a breakthrough on the 46-year-old US trade embargo – not least because of the Cuban-American lobby’s influence in Congress bought generously with the funds pumped into congressional contests.

Given these political obstacles, it is likely that economic factors will be the only catalyst for any change of tone in Washington during Obama’s tenure.

In December, leaders of Caricom awarded the organisation’s top honour to Fidel Castro and urged the Obama administration to end the US embargo on Cuba. The move came during a summit in Cuba itself – the third between Caricom and Cuba since 2002 – that focused on the impact of the global financial crisis on the region and followed a similar recommendation from the Rio Group (which brings together all Latin American countries) which Cuba had been permitted to join in October. As the recession bites, the economic downturn will also strengthen the hand of a growing number of US companies that want to trade in agricultural goods with Cuba, and of Big Oil, the petroleum giants who want a slice of the reportedly significant reserves discovered off the Cuban coast. A shift to the left in Latin America that has further alienated the US from what it claims as its back yard has also been cleverly exploited by the new Cuban president, Raúl Castro, who has been subtly taking advantage of the presidential transition in the US and renewed international interest in Cuba to deepen regional and global economic links and improve trading relations with neighbours.

It would, therefore, seem that, as it celebrates the 50th anniversary of one of the western hemisphere’s most important revolutions, Havana finds itself in a stronger bargaining position vis-à-vis Washington than for some time. While Obama may be inclined to adorn himself with the moral mantle once worn so ostentatiously by Kennedy, he would do well in his dealings with the Cuban people to learn from the past and not to repeat the mistakes made by his illustrious predecessor.

[1] Anderson, John Lee. 1997. Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life. London: Bantam Books. p. 509
[2] With thanks to Andrew Whitehead, Sam Lesser and Shen Liknaitzky. This recording is to be deposited with the British Library Sound Archive
[3] Anderson, op. cit., p. 544
[4] This interview is also referred to by Anderson, op. cit., p. 545

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books

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