When President Obama announced this week that he was normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba, pundits agreed that U.S. and Cuban leaders had finally marked the end of the Cold War. The American government suspended diplomatic relations and stopped trade with Cuba in the early 1960s to dissuade the revolutionary government in Cuba from building close ties to the Soviet Union. President Eisenhower began to squeeze the Castro government by forbidding the export of U.S. oil to Cuba. Castro responded by purchasing Soviet oil. Ike then told U.S.-owned refineries to refuse to process that oil. Castro seized the refineries. He moved closer to the Soviets, and the U.S. responded by planning the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion.
It’s tempting to see the escalating tensions between the U.S. and Cuba through the lens of the Cold War, but the most important historical lessons to take from that escalation are about the relationship of the U.S. to Latin America as a region and to its individual nations. The U.S. began to play with the notion of granting or withholding formal diplomatic relations to affect another nation’s internal politics – especially during a period of upheaval – during the Mexico Revolution (1910-1917). Woodrow Wilson, who was president during that crisis, differentiated between de facto and de jure recognition of regimes. It was one thing to know who actually ran a government, but quite another to bless that government with recognition, trade relations, or approval. Wilson wanted to promote Mexican stability in the midst of a complex revolutionary environment, and so the U.S. backed the least popular and, ultimately, weakest contenders, who represented the traditional government. Despite the futility of Wilson’s maneuvering, subsequent administrations embraced diplomatic recognition as a policy instrument.
Diplomatic recognition was neither an ineffective nor a problematic tool for the U.S. from the 1920s through much of the Cold War. No other powerful nation could contend with U.S. economic, military, or political power in the Western Hemisphere, and so there were real costs for smaller nations if the U.S. withheld diplomatic recognition, thus jeopardizing trade. Metaphorically wagging its finger and telling a regime to reform itself was also morally, economically, and politically preferable to sending the Marines to foster regime change as the U.S. tried in Nicaragua, Haiti, and Cuba in the 1910s-1930s or plotting with a regime’s internal opponents to overthrow it, as the U.S. did in Guatemala in 1954 and attempted in Cuba in 1961. So American refusal to recognize the Castro government for more than 50 years was precipitated by Cold War politics, but wasn’t driven by them.
That the U.S. policy toward Cuba came from a different history than Cold War tensions shows in the fact that the U.S. maintained diplomatic relations with a large number of Communist governments during the Cold War and even normalized relations with China in the 1970s despite the complexity of relations with Taiwan, which the U.S. had recognized as the home of the Republic of China since the 1949 civil war. It was Cuba that remained uniquely outside U.S. diplomacy.
The longevity of U.S. policy toward Cuba was partly because the 80% of Cuban-Americans who live in Florida were valuable voters in what is usually a swing state in U.S. presidential elections. But that fact only explains one factor in the longevity of the policy. U.S. policy toward Cuba was first and foremost a relic of the ways inter-American relations operated from the nineteenth century through the Cold War. That legacy of intervention dovetailed with U.S. politics to maintain a set of anachronistic policies toward Cuba. Indeed, nostalgia for an era when, at least in retrospect, it seemed as though the United States could bend Latin America to its will buttressed a Cuba policy that no U.S. ally supported. The absence of allies for the embargo and rejection of diplomatic relations not only neutered U.S. policy, it also revealed how much inter-American relations had changed. Even conservative Latin American governments have traded with Cuba and maintained complete and regular diplomatic relations.
Perhaps the clearest sign that things have changed in the Hemisphere is that the opening with Cuba was facilitated by Canada’s Conservative Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, and Pope Francis, who is an Argentine. Our hemispheric neighbors and partners, who had long ago rejected attempts to isolate Cuba, worked to end the U.S. policy. That fact reflects important changes in U.S. power and its relationship to Latin America and Canada. And so, the opening to Cuba is less about the end of the Cold War and more a sign that even though the United States is the richest and most powerful nation in Hemisphere, it does not dictate the region’s politics.