Cuba, Castro, Philippines
To understand Cuba’s history and Fidel Castro is to better understand our own history, and especially what our future might be. Both countries share a history of Spanish and American colonialism, and many other historical circumstances. Both countries have been crucial in American geopolitics: Cuba just 150 kilometers away from Florida, the Philippines a gateway to Asia.
Cuba’s occupation by Spain started in 1492, earlier than the Philippines,’ but converging with the latter in the 19th century. Spain lost many of its Latin American territories during the 19th century, with Cuba and the Philippines remaining as their most prized possessions. When unrest broke out toward the end of the century, Spain responded with full force. It was much worse in Cuba, where people were herded into reconcentrados, said to be the predecessors of concentration camps. Some 200,000 to 400,000 Cubans died in these camps.
As unrest in Cuba spread, the United States, its giant Big Brother, began to worry about its economic interests on the island. (Don’t think of some tiny atoll; Cuba is about a third of the size of the Philippines, still sizeable.)
The United States sent in a ship, the Maine; but on Feb. 15, 1898, the ship exploded while docked in Havana’s harbor. Spain was blamed and the Spanish-American war broke out in April. Among the battles fought between Spain and the Philippines was that of Manila Bay on May 1, 1898, an almost farcicial encounter between Spain’s obsolete naval vessels and the more modern US fleet.
A debilitated Spain agreed to meet with the United States to hammer out a peace treaty. US President William McKinley instructed his negotiators to go for the entire Philippines, not just Mindanao, which was what Spain had intended to give up. America got its way in the Treaty of Paris, where they got Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines; it paid $20 million for our islands, never mind that Filipino revolutionaries had declared Asia’s first republic. The Philippine-American War broke out shortly after the US Senate ratified that treaty; it was a war that saw some 200,000 Filipino casualties, mostly civilians.
Spain agreed to Cuban independence, but the United States, through a Platt amendment to the Treaty of Paris, retained the right to intervene in Cuban affairs, particularly in finances and foreign relations. It also obtained a lease on Guantanamo Bay, where it built a naval base.
Cuban independence was declared in 1902, but in the decades that followed, the United States intervened repeatedly in Cuban affairs, including actual occupation of the country in 1906. The occupation was brief, but America did not have to worry about its control over Cuba, with its hold on the economy and its politicians.
Starting in 1934, Cuban politics was dominated by Gen. Fulgencio Batista, who was president from 1940 to 1944 and then from 1952 until 1959. Cuba actually became fairly advanced economically in the 1950s, but marred with its gross neglect of rural areas and rampant corruption. Fidel Castro, a young lawyer, launched a long rebellion that ended in victory in January 1959.
The United States was initially pleased with, but wary of the new government, with suspicions that Castro was a communist. As early as March 1960, US President Dwight Eisenhower approved a plan of covert action against Cuba. Castro in turn became more openly Left, declaring himself a socialist then a communist. (It turns out though he had been a communist as early as 1947, while in law school.)
This was the height of the Cold War and the United States was worried about a communist neighbor so close to its border. It went all out against Fidel Castro, imposing sanctions and financing Cuban exiles to launch a Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961. Castro in turn drifted toward the Soviet Union. In October 1962, the entire world was plunged into a Cuban missile crisis when the United States discovered that the Soviets had been installing nuclear missiles in Cuba; the world never came so close to a nuclear war. The Soviets finally agreed to withdraw the missiles in exchange for the United States’ withdrawing similar warheads in Italy and Turkey.
At home, from 1959 to 1966, Castro had to deal with a rebellion waged by the old regime and anticommunist forces. Some 3,200 Cubans were executed during this period, mainly politicians, police and informers from the former regime. Reports of torture and detention were to continue throughout Castro’s regime, and history will have to judge this record against the backdrop of continuing US pressure on Cuba, including several assassination attempts on Castro.
After the Soviet Union fell in 1991, support for Cuba came to a standstill. With the US embargo forbidding any kind of trade and assistance to the island nation, Cuba had to find ways to sustain its economy. China later came in, and in recent years, two leftist governments—in Venezuela (itself now in crisis) and Ecuador.
Cuba did develop into a model for health, education and social services, as well as for biotechnology, and it is classified “high” in terms of UNDP’s Human Development Index even if its economic indicators are low. (Our own health secretary visited Cuba shortly after assuming office and returned convinced that we should learn from the Cuban model, which emphasizes primary health care services at the level of communities.)
In 2008, Castro turned power over to his brother Raul, and as Cuba moved to more liberal policies, relations with the United States have thawed, with President Obama visiting earlier this year. There are concerns now that US president-elect Donald Trump will be less friendly to Cuba.
While Castro has been vilified as a dictator and a human rights violator (his death was welcomed with celebrations in Florida by Cuban exiles), the response inside Cuba has been one of massive grief and mourning for a leader known for his dedication to the nation and a simple life, and untainted with corruption despite 50 years of power. Outside of Cuba, he has been eulogized by politicians—communist and noncommunist alike—for standing up against his giant neighbor.
Castro has been cremated, his ashes now making a long journey across the country before interment. It should be a time for Filipinos to reflect as well the sharp similarities and contrasts between Cuba and the Philippines, such as Castro’s burial and Marcos’.
We should be thinking, too, of our current government and its drift away from the United States. The Cold War may have ended, but the Philippines definitely faces foreign policy challenges similar to those confronted by Cuba in the 1960s. Will Duterte be deft enough to maneuver around the superpowers?
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