John Lawrence Tone is associate dean of the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts and professor of history in the School of History and Sociology. He teaches courses on Cuban and Spanish history and has written the prize-winning book, “War and Genocide in Cuba.”
Cubans have long had a love/hate relationship with the United States. And with good reason. Even when they were colonial subjects of Spain, Cubans admired America. They played baseball, took vacations and pursued college degrees in America. They named children after George Washington. But Cubans also understood the warning issued by the prophet of Cuban independence, José Martí, that America was a colossus that would at times seek to thwart a better, more inclusive, and more progressive Cuba. Cubans looked with gratitude upon the critical aid that the United States lent them in their war of independence against Spain, but rejected as poison the American claim to have freed Cuba in 1898, a claim that ignored the contributions of Cubans and many others. When Cuba became a republic, its first constitution was modeled on America's. Its capitol in Havana was a replica of the capitol in Washington, D.C. But Cubans understandably resented parts of the constitution that were forced upon them by the United States, such as those allowing for (and frequently resulting in) American intervention in internal Cuban affairs under a wide range of circumstances.
The list of grievances and complexities is long and rarely understood by Americans who see simply that Cubans are eager to embrace American ways and American products. They are eager, but they are also cautious and resentful. And this must not be forgotten as the American-Cuban relationship shifts.
Cubans will call us to task for a current grievance that will surprise no one: the fact that the United States singled out Cuba over five decades with punishing economic and political isolation not visited on even worse regimes. But there is more: Cubans understand, as do most Cuban experts, that American hostility has been the key to the survival of communism on the island. Indeed, the long history of grievances against America practically guaranteed the longevity of a man like Castro, who at every turn knew how to emphasize his anti-Americanism in order to secure domestic support. In short, this historic moment of change in the Cuban-U.S. relationship will call for a deep understanding of history and some degree of humility on the part of Americans.
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