Much ado about respect


Forget Open Veins of Latin America, Lars Schoultz offers a much more enlightening window upon the main obstacle to better US relations in Latin America


That Infernal Little Cuban Republic: The United States and the Cuban Revolution
Lars Schoultz
2009, University of North Carolina Press
745 pages, hardback

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

WHAT is it about “respect” that you don’t understand? is a question that seems to permeate every page of Lars Schoultz’s comprehensive survey of relations between the US and Cuba.

As this veteran observer of US policy towards Latin America points out in That Infernal Little Cuban Republic, the principal message that Cuba’s revolutionary regime has tried to convey in the 50 years since ties broke down irrevocably is that the island simply wants to be treated with respect.

Notwithstanding the fact that the desire for self-determination and liberty reflected in Cuba’s revolution responded directly to the founding principles of the US itself, and that the term “respect” has become a mantra of social standing in the hazardous inner city, this aspiration is not exactly rocket science. It lies at the heart of the art of diplomacy, and Washington’s failure to acknowledge it has been a persistent irritant in its interactions with its Latin neighbours.

The Mexicans, for example, have in the past gone to great lengths to ensure that diplomatic relations are conducted on the basis of parity and to counter hidden meaning in the presidential set-pieces that define bilateral contacts and any assumption of Anglo-Saxon superiority or hint of cultural condescencion.

Barack Obama appears instinctively to have grasped this with his insistence that relations with Latin America will henceforth be conducted on the basis of “mutual respect” with “no junior or senior partner”. Of course, only time will tell.


Although Schoultz does not go on to explore explicitly what “respect” between states means in theoretical terms, it is not hard to figure out from this excellent historical introduction and overview of the most intractable issue in US policy towards Latin America, and we have many other examples of imperial overreach to guide us. A mentality of arrogance, often based upon racial assumptions, that establishes a higher position in the hierarchy of peoples lies at the heart of an imperial power’s hatred for the weak states that dare to defy it.

The British imperial attitude towards reluctant subject peoples, such as the Irish, for example, greatly hampered efforts to find a solution to the violent relations that prevailed in the north or Ireland. It was only the British Labour party’s effort to acknowledge the respect agenda – through an implicit recognition of Ireland’s sovereign integrity – that broke the destructive 500-year cycle of mutual antipathy and paved the way for today’s uneasy peace. As Schoultz writes:

“Fidel Castro put his finger on what has always been the central problem for Cuban nationalists, telling [Peter] Tarnoff and [Robert] Pastor that ‘it is difficult to talk to you, a powerful, rich and highly developed country with a mentality of arrogance.’” [p. 554]

This was well illustrated in 1978 when the US resumed its spy plane overflights of Havana under a Democratic president just prior to Tarnoff and Pastor’s audience with the Cuban leader. Schoultz writes:

“… the Carter-era overflights were simply one more lesson in Realpolitik 101, the goal of which was to teach a group of slow learners what Thucydides said twenty-five hundred years ago: the strong can do what they want and the weak will accept what they must.” [p. 555]

Schoultz has put his finger on an issue that is likely to grow in prominence in the study of international relations, and one that Obama’s policy advisers would do well to explore.

In an excellent recent paper on the importance of respect in international relations, Reinhard Wolf* points out that scholars seem to have regarded respect as a superfluous, symbolic asset and that states strive only for concrete and tangible goals, such as security, power and wealth. For Anglo-Saxons in particular, it has been natural to take international respect for granted, with the US and Great Britain sitting firmly at the heart of the international system as established powers not to be messed with. Yet as Wolf points out, this neglect in scholarship comes at a considerable price, for it blinds it to a major influence on co-operation and conflict in world politics. He goes on to sketch out a working definition of respect in international relations and its importance to states, international organisations, movements and individual decision-makers.

The antipathy that lies at the heart of the relationship between Washington and Havana helps to explain why respect has rarely entered the equation. The relationship that has been formulated since 1959 – through the hailstorms of the Cold War into the uneasy Cold Peace since 1991 – has been based on the mutual understanding of where power resides, and in particular the astuteness of the Cubans in determining the line they could not cross without triggering a revolution-ending reaction. And that has been the basis of the relationship ever since: learning how to live without crossing the line.

Yet a key point of departure in any conscious effort to change US relations with Cuba would be to invest in symbolic assets that have less to do with power and more to do with prestige. Symbols often play a more important role in the politics of the developing world, and Obama’s recent effort to reach out to the Muslim world does appear to reflect an understanding of this. Wolf writes, for example:

“… there are strong indications that feelings of disrespect aggravated quite a number of bilateral relations. US-Iranian relations, US-Russian relations or recent Polish-German relations seem to be obvious cases calling for detailed investigations. (Also, one may wonder if the US occupation of Iraq might have been far more successful if, instead of condoning the torture and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners, high ranking administration officials had clearly expressed their great admiration for the Iraqi cultural heritage.) Furthermore, polling data show that the perception of disrespect plays a major role in relations between Muslims and Western civilization.”*

Returning to Latin America, Schoultz points out that the attitude maintained by the US towards Cuba exposes a paternalistic ideology of benevolent domination originating in the expansionism of the 19th century that seeks to steer its people, like minors, towards a better future. It is this attitude that remains at the core of the problem, the latest presidential example of which was the creation of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba unveiled in 2004, which set out Washington’s vision of the best form of government for the island, and the latest congressional example of which was the Helms-Burton Act, specifying the type of economic system the Cubans should adopt. Schoultz writes:

“A hostile policy towards any particular Cuban government has always been only a symptom of the underlying problem: Washington’s uplifting mentality. Clearly delusional, for more than a century this mentality has led otherwise sensible people to believe that these Caribbean neighbours will welcome the opportunity to be guided toward a higher and better civilisation by the United States of America, even if these same sensible people would be outraged should some foreign government create a Commission to Improve the United States, especially if this imagined commission were to begin its report by listing sixty-two steps it intended to take to overthrow the current government in Washington.” [p. 557]

Forget Open Veins of Latin America – the book about the rape of the region given a new lease of life when the Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavéz handed it very publicly to Obama with a handshake and an appeal for friendship – That Infernal Little Cuban Republic by Professor Schoultz offers a more nuanced and potentially enlightening window upon the main obstacle to better US relations in the region.

For while providing a valuable explanation for why policy has remained so doggedly unchanged – largely domestic politics, and the protection of economic elites in the form of the wealthy Miami Cubans – Schoultz also provides a mature set of reflections about how to interpret democracy when considering the lessons of policy in the Caribbean Basin.

“… nobody is born a democrat. People become democrats by sharpening their negotiating skills slowly, through debates with others who disagree, often in fundamental ways and often over truly important issues…No rational Cuban on either side of the Straits of Florida would go through the arduous process of negotiation and compromise while the president stands on the White House lawn and waves a 423-page plan to solve everything.” [pp. 565-66]

* Wolf, Reinhard. 2008. “Respect and International Relations: State Motives, Social Mechanisms and Hypotheses”. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Studies Association’s 49th Annual Convention, Bridging Multiple Divides, Hilton San Francisco, San Francisco, CA, USA, March 26, 2008

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

READ A conversation with Lars Schoultz: Q&A about That Infernal Little Cuban Republic

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