Latin America’s romantic attachment to the idea of revolution began in Cuba and achieved its greatest strength there. And it may well come to an end there.
The Spanish-American War of 1898 (Theodore Roosevelt’s “splendid little war”) was a major chapter in the American assertion of “manifest destiny,” which claimed the U.S.’s right to determine governments and policies for its Latin-American neighbors. Throughout the Spanish-speaking world, in Latin America and Spain itself, the conflict was experienced as an historical tragedy.
For much of the 19th century, Latin America’s liberal elites had viewed the U.S. as their model and political inspiration. After the defeat of Spain, and the stripping of almost all the vestiges of its empire, the liberals and their local enemies, the Catholic and conservative elites, found one common theme of agreement: They now favored a new continental nationalism that was explicitly anti-American.
A Uruguayan intellectual, Jose Enrique Rodo, wrote an essay called “Ariel” (with its metaphors inspired by Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest”) in which he formulated the opposition between the Anglo-Saxon world and Latin America as a conflict of civilizations. The U.S. was “Caliban” (barbarous, greedy, materialist), unsuccessfully intent on dominating Latin America, which was depicted as “Ariel” (civilized, spiritual and inherently superior.)
Nicaragua’s Ruben Dario, the greatest Latin-American poet of the time, wrote “Ode to Roosevelt” in the early 1900s, warning the American president that “a thousand cubs have issued from the Spanish lion” and labeling U.S. domination as a matter of “iron claws.”
Dario’s prophecy was fulfilled in 1959. The leader of the Cuban Revolution against the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista could accurately be described as one of the “cubs” of the “Spanish Lion.” Fidel Castro’s father, Angel, was a veteran (on the Spanish side) of the 1898 war. After the defeat of Spain, he had settled on the island and became a rich and prominent member of the rural upper-middle class. The conversion of Cuba, for all practical purposes, into a U.S. protectorate bred resentment, fueled by the U.S. Marines’ repeated interference in the country’s politics. (It’s no accident that the most anti-American area of Mexico is Veracruz, which was invaded by the Marines in 1914.)
As early as 1922, the Mexican historian Daniel Cosio Villegas predicted that “hatred for the Americans will become the religion of Cubans.” In 1947, the same distinguished liberal intellectual wrote that there is in Latin America “a dense layer of distrust and rancor toward the United States.” He predicted that one day “no more than four or five agitators in the principal countries of Latin America” would “launch a campaign of defamation and hatred toward the United States,” and the continent would “seethe with unrest and be ready for anything.”
The friendship and accord between Che Guevara and Castro weren’t only tactical and military but ideological. Che came from a tradition of cultural anti-Americanism prevalent in the Southern Cone (Argentina and Uruguay). This was an area with very little direct contact with the U.S., but which, as a result of an economic upsurge in the years before 1929, saw America as a competitor and itself as a cultural alternative to “the American way of life.”
Castro’s Caribbean anti-Americanism had more political origins. It carried the weight of the 1898 war and its long sequel of U.S. intrusions into the life of the island. But the revolution that Fidel and Che constructed wasn’t just inspired by nationalism; they also sought political redemption through an enthusiastic reprise of the Russian Revolution.
At least since 1956, the Soviet system was being criticized in the USSR itself. In Cuba, however, the Latin-American history of grievances toward the U.S. far outweighed any measure of precaution. And no less than three generations of young Latin-Americans in almost every country dedicated their lives (and often, tragically, their deaths) to emulating the “redemptive” exploits of the “Latin-American David” against the “American Goliath.”
The Cuban experiment in social revolution headed by a dictator has broken all records for longevity on the Latin-American continent (and perhaps elsewhere as well) but it required, for almost three decades, aid from the Russian Goliath. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, after an anguished interim for Cuba, a new Goliath, rich in oil, came to the aid of Fidel’s government: the Venezuela of Hugo Chavez. But even this flood of oil couldn’t mask an economic collapse.
Although the Cuban system still has its fervent devotees in Latin America, a large part of the center-left (now convinced of the advantages of democracy) has recognized that the social achievements (in education and health) of the Cuban Revolution didn’t require the imposition of a totalitarian regime. And the example of China has surely inspired the Cuban hierarchy toward an economic opening of the island.
No one can predict the nature of the Cuban transition after the death of one or both Castro brothers. The possible scenarios range from peaceful and orderly to violent and apocalyptic. But the U.S., with an eye on the two upheavals of the past, should recognize that modern Cuba isn’t simply a relic of the Cold War, but also the product of a deep and long-rooted Iberian-American nationalism.
It would be extremely wise of the U.S. to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, to call off the trade embargo and to form an appropriate policy for the third era of this tangled history, one that may begin at any moment.
(Enrique Krauze, the author of “Mexico: Biography of Power” and “Redeemers: Ideas and Power in Latin America,” is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. This article was translated from the Spanish by Hank Heifetz.)
To contact the writer of this article: Enrique Krauze at email@example.com.
To contact the editor responsible for this article: Max Berley at firstname.lastname@example.org.