Much of what appears as “novel” thinking in US imperial strategies, masks deeper historical foundations. Numerous authors have already explained how Latin America and the Caribbean, from the early 1800s onward, have served as “laboratories” for incubating and developing strategies of destabilization, intervention, occupation, and counterinsurgency. More recently, counterinsurgency was being sold as a new solution for Afghanistan and Iraq, producing new manuals, but on top of the already existing ones developed for Vietnam. The roots of counterinsurgency go back even further in the Americas, from the US’ Indian Wars, to the conquest and occupation of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Cuba, and further back still with the creation of militarized Amerindian mission towns by Roman Catholic colonial authorities in the Caribbean, dating back to the 1600s. What might be new is some of the language and some improvisations in technique in line with social and technological changes. Here we consider how Cuba functioned as a testing ground of post-World War II “force multipliers,” and how older policies are being reinvigorated in the present US approach to Cuba.
Precedents: Practicing with Cuba
Dissatisfied with an excessive reliance on nuclear weapons as a strategy for countering Soviet influence during the early years of the Cold War, General Maxwell D. Taylor, US Army Chief of Staff (1955-1959) during the Eisenhower years, emphasized flexible response which in turn introduced the idea of what are now called “full spectrum operations”: “True security demanded that the United States acquire the means ‘to react across the entire spectrum of possible challenge’. A new, more diverse mix of capabilities that would enable the United States ‘to respond anywhere, any time, with weapons and forces appropriate to the situation’ defined the essence of flexible response” (quoted in Bacevich, 2010, p. 61). Under President John F. Kennedy, non-nuclear “options” would gain greater weight as part of a “flexible response” to the spread of socialism in the periphery (Bacevich, 2010, p. 65). An impetus to expand this range of options came in the wake of the disastrous defeat for the US-sponsored invasion at the Bay of Pigs, Cuba. General Taylor reappeared as Kennedy’s chair of the Cuba Study Group, after the failure of Operation Zapata (the Bay of Pigs invasion). That group included CIA director Allen Dulles and Robert Kennedy. The group urged the president to persist in attempting to overthrow the government of Cuba, recommending that “new guidance be provided for political, military, economic and propaganda action against Castro” (Bacevich, 2010, p. 75).
Allegedly “wary of action that smacked of naked imperialism” (Bacevich, 2010, pp. 76-77) the White House welcomed the Cuba Study Group’s recommendations which took the shape of “Operation Mongoose”. This Operation was headed by Attorney General Robert Kennedy and involved, “an aggressive program of covert action that aimed to get rid of Castro and subvert his revolution” — Robert Kennedy declared his intention to “‘stir things up on [the] island with espionage, sabotage, [and] general disorder’,” working with Cuban exiles, and with direct military intervention as a last resort ([quoted in] Bacevich, 2010, p. 77). All government agencies in the US would coordinate their efforts to overthrow the Cuban government. Robert Kennedy’s “Special Group (Augmented)” secretly colluded “with the Mafia in plots to assassinate Castro, fantastical schemes aimed at inciting popular insurrection, and a program of sabotage directed at Cuba’s food supply, power plants, oil refineries, and other economic assets” (Bacevich, 2010, p. 78). Thirty-two specific tasks were involved in Attorney General Kennedy’s plan, ranging from “‘inducing failures in food crops’ and mounting sabotage attacks to recruiting defectors and devising ‘songs, symbols, [and] propaganda themes’ to boost the morale of an all but nonexistent indigenous resistance” (Bacevich, 2010, p. 78). Rather than negating “paranoid conspiracy theory,” US plans fully embraced conspiracy, relying on the use of non-US government operatives to do some of the dirty work of US imperialism. In addition—and this is relevant to one of the opening theses of this work on force multipliers—the failure of covert options always entailed “upping the ante” to more overt, direct responses. The failure of US force multipliers can often commit the US to more direct use of force.
The Desire to Annex Cuba from the Inside Out
In the context of the recent resumption of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the US, it is important to note and understand the term “engagement” as it reappears in the US narrative on Cuba–a concept that will be the subject of coming articles. Recently, Obama stated: “I believe that we can do more to support the Cuban people and promote our values through engagement” (Obama, 2014b). Announcing the new phase of Cuba-US relations, Obama stated, “I am convinced that through a policy of engagement, we can more effectively stand up for our values”. Obama insists that, “the United States has supported democracy and human rights in Cuba through these five decades,” as he attempts to sell his policy as a continuation of that theme, in order to allay the fears of domestic expatriates and more reactionary elements of Cuban-American opinion. Obama’s policy is clearly in line with everything he has said in the passages quoted throughout the work presented in this series: he intends to rely on force multipliers. His call for lifting travel restrictions on US citizens, is thus justified as follows: “Cuban Americans have been reunited with their families, and are the best possible ambassadors for our values”. Repeatedly throughout his announcement, Obama speaks of “engagement,” “openness,” US citizens traveling to Cuba and serving as “ambassadors” who take part in “people-to-people engagement”. Obama also committed the US to supporting “humanitarian projects,” the growth of a Cuban private sector, and to open the floodgates to US telecommunications access to Cuba. In other words, if we have learned anything, then we would understand that there is nothing at all innocent about Obama’s remarks. This does not mean that Cuba will not or cannot resist; it means it must continue to do so, only with even greater vigilance.
In the years and months leading up to the December 17, 2014, announcement of renewed diplomatic ties, a series of reports revealed several programs of covert US intervention in Cuba, which Obama would hope to institutionalize as “normal bilateral relations”. For example, in 2009 Alan Gross, a USAID contractor, was imprisoned in Cuba for crimes against the state: “Gross was sent to Cuba to secretly distribute Internet equipment to Jewish community groups, part of a congressionally mandated program to encourage Cuban democracy” (DeYoung, 2014/12/17). More recently, in a series of detailed revelations published by the Associated Press, USAID, “infiltrated Cuba’s hip-hop scene, recruiting unwitting rappers to spark a youth movement against the government”, having developed a four-year program that compromised critics of the government. We also learned that the hip-hop operation ran simultaneously with two other USAID programs: “the launch of a secret ‘Cuban Twitter’ [ZunZuneo] and a program that sent Latin American youth to provoke dissent—and also involved elaborate subterfuge, including a front organization and an exotic financial scheme to mask American involvement”. At the centre of the plot was Creative Associates International, “a company with a multimillion-dollar contract from USAID,” whose goal was stated as follows: “commandeer the island’s hip-hop scene ‘to help Cuban youth break the information blockade’ and build ‘youth networks for social change’” (Butler et al., 2014/12/11). Soon after the reports were published, USAID director Raj Shah resigned (Kumar, 2014/12/17). The Cuban American “youth group,” Roots of Hope, which was involved with the covert USAID program to create ZunZuneo, is currently partnering with Google as the latter seeks to essentially build Cuba’s Internet. A US academic, Ted Henken, “a Baruch College professor who has studied Cuba’s Internet issues,” told a newspaper that, “it is less likely that Web connection and services coming from the United States, such as Google’s, will be seen as a Trojan horse now that the Obama administration has explicitly rejected a regime change policy and moved toward engagement” (quoted in Torres, 2015/7/3). While Henken may understand certain Internet issues, he botched the analysis of what the US government means by “engagement,” given what we have learned from US government documents and public proclamations.
What has been covert—and denied until it was exposed—can become more or less overt now, if one takes Obama’s announced intentions at face value, and if one believes the Cuban authorities and the revolutionary system that has benefited the majority will simply be passive unlike ever before. Obama is first of all interested in spearheading the development of the Cuban private sector: “Our travel and remittance policies are helping Cubans by providing alternative sources of information and opportunities for self-employment and private property ownership, and by strengthening independent civil society”. Several announced policy changes are intended to make it easier for US citizens “to provide business training for private Cuban businesses and small farmers and provide other support for the growth of Cuba’s nascent private sector”. Secondly, the US hopes to expand “Internet penetration” in Cuba; allowing for the commercial export of US telecommunications goods and services, “will contribute to the ability of the Cuban people to communicate with people in the United States”. Thirdly, in order to provide political protection for these US intrusions, “a critical focus of our increased engagement will include continued strong support by the United States for improved human rights conditions and democratic reforms in Cuba,” and in very bold language the White House adds: “Our efforts are aimed at promoting the independence of the Cuban people so they do not need to rely on the Cuban state”. The intention to diminish the power of the Cuban state, to sideline it, and to thus lower the sovereign protection of Cuba, is stated plainly in commonplace neoliberal terms. The US Congress is already funding “democracy programming” in Cuba—ironic, given Cuba’s already extensive system of participatory democracy and mass mobilization (White House, 2014).
In language that reminds one of the meaning of “circuit rider,” Obama stated the following in his July 1, 2015, announcement of the upcoming opening of embassies:
“With this change, we will be able to substantially increase our contacts with the Cuban people. We’ll have more personnel at our embassy. And our diplomats will have the ability to engage more broadly across the island. That will include the Cuban government, civil society, and ordinary Cubans who are reaching for a better life.” (White House, 2015b)
However, since US diplomats will be required to inform the Cuban authorities of their travel in the island, and since they will be watched regardless, it’s not certain that the US will be doing anything other than placing a few Cuban individuals on the front-line of US policy. The “normalization” of relations is nowhere explained by Cuban authorities as a desire to surrender or to change the socio-economic system to become more like the US—though this has not stopped wishful thinking on the part of certain “ugly American” would-be looters and raiders, driven by gilded dreams of plunder. Instead, it is cast as a victory for Cuba, since it was obtained without having given the US any of its long-sought concessions and since it involved a more than tacit admission by the US that decades of seeking regime change amounted to a complete failure.
Bacevich, A.J. (2010). Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War. New York: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company.
Butler, D.; Weissenstein, M.; Wides-Munoz, L.; & Rodriguez, A. (2014/12/11). US Co-opted Cuba’s Hip-Hop Scene to Spark Change. Salon.com/Associated Press, December 11.
DeYoung, K. (2014/12/17). Obama Moves to Normalize Relations with Cuba as American is Released by Havana. The Washington Post, December 17.
Kumar, A. (2014/12/17). USAID Administrator Shah Resigns. McClatchyDC, December 17.
Obama, B. (2014b). Statement by the President on Cuba Policy Changes, December 17. Washington, DC: Office of the Press Secretary, The White House.
Torres, N.G. (2015/7/3). Cuba Has Doubts as Google Pitches Expanded Internet. Toronto Star, July 3.
White House. (2014). Fact Sheet: Charting a New Course on Cuba, December 17. Washington, DC: Office of the Press Secretary, The White House.
————— . (2015b). Statement by the President on the Re-Establishment of Diplomatic Relations with Cuba, July 1. Washington, DC: Office of the Press Secretary, The White House.
Don Bohning, (2005), “U.S. Covert Activities Against Cuba: The Untold Tale of Secret Foreign Policy,” ReVista: Harvard Review on Latin America,
Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, (2015/8/12), “Google and China in battle over Cuba’s Internet future,” CNBC,
Julie Hirschfeld Davis, (2015/7/19), “As U.S. and Cuba Relations Warm, Property Claims Issue Is Revived,” The New York Times,
Fox News Latino, (2015/7/1), “U.S. says its diplomats in Cuba will be free to travel and speak with Cubans,”
Marcia Frellick, (2015/7/7), “As Cuba-US Relations Thaw, Potential Medical Advances Grow,” Medscape,
Micheline Maynard, (2014/12/17), “Five Industries Set To Benefit From The U.S.-Cuba Thaw,” Forbes,
Paul Richter, (2015/8/14), “Top U.S., Cuban diplomats spar over human rights after U.S. Embassy in Havana reopens,” Los Angeles Times,
TeleSur, (2015/7/117), “Cuban Official Warns US Still Seeking Regime Change,”
Robert Sandels, (2015/8/21), “Cuba and the United States: the Claims Game,” CounterPunch,