U.S. response to Cuba rooted in history, not current reality

Center for the Humanities Newsletter Photo
David Bernell

Apart from one extraordinary exception, U.S. relations with previously hostile nations eased dramatically following the end of the Cold War. In the “curious case” of Cuba, relations not only failed to mend but may have worsened.  

The usual explanations for the phenomenon—that Cuba poses a threat to U.S. safety and material interests—are not sufficient, says David Bernell, a Center Research Fellow and assistant professor of political science in OSU’s School of Public Policy. In his book-in-progress, The Curious Case of Cuba in American Foreign Policy, Bernell argues that American foreign policy toward Cuba is not an objective response to a set of self-evident challenges to U.S. interests and principles. Rather, it is rooted in American and Cuban identities as they developed within the politics of the region.

American policy toward its geographically tiny neighbor has long emphasized Cuban “difference, illegitimacy, and inferiority.” To get at the origins of this attitude and the reasons for its perpetuation, Bernell is focusing largely on the language of official U.S. documents, including presidential speeches, Congressional testimony, State Department reports, and various non-governmental publications that heavily influence lawmakers.

“In American representations of Cuba, the U.S. is routinely characterized as superior by virtue of its democracy, freedom, exceptionalism, wealth, and peacefulness,” said Bernell. “Cuba is, by sharp contrast, portrayed in terms of its inferiority to the U.S. through language that characterizes Cuba as underdeveloped, communist, dictatorial, subversive, and a routine violator of human rights.”
The two most significant areas of political contestation that led to Cuba’s unique position relative to the United States are its place, along with Latin America in general, in the context of regional hierarchy, and its place in the context of the Cold War and anti-communism.

“The U.S. found itself faced with a Soviet client state and ally as well as an independent and troublesome neighbor. Castro succeeded in challenging U.S. hegemony in Cuba while also turning to communism and the Soviets. In doing so, he made Cuba the single location where the attributes which secured American superiority in the region meshed with those that were central to the struggle against communism.”

With respect to both U.S. regional hegemony and U.S. anti-communism, said Bernell, the representations and understandings of Cuba in these two important domains have not altered substantially since the collapse of communism and the end of the Cold War. “Even though Cuba and communism represent no threat to American interests around the world, the respective understandings of American and Cuban identities have not shifted in the American government.”

In spite of the Cold War’s end—and in part because of the very circumstances of its end, in which the U.S. now enjoys a preeminent position in global affairs—the themes and understandings that have driven American policy toward Cuba in the past continue to resound in American political discourse.

“They argue for, justify, and make sense of a U.S. policy of hostility and isolation, which is not easily modified in spite of a greatly changed international setting.”