In this 1899 cartoon published, Uncle Sam lectures his new students: The Philippines, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and, Cuba. Past and potentially future U.S. acquisitions fill the rest of the classroom.
“School Begins,” Puck, January 25, 1899.

Journalist Richard Scheer: Well, to begin with, why are we in a state of war with Cuba?

Author and historian Gore Vidal: Well, that’s vanity. The Kennedy boys got it in the teeth with the Bay of Pigs. Vengeance. An old Irish emotion.


After having meticulously ignored rampant protests against the Haitian President (and barely noticing his assassination at the hands of a US informant and a Miami-based security firm), Western media is ablaze with discussion of Cuba. For a little over a week, the island has seen several protests as the government has struggled to acquire adequate medical material to combat new strains of COVID-19. 

Cuba has been embargoed by the US since 1960, which makes this trade embargo the longest standing trade embargo in modern history. Still, the socialist government in Cuba has proved resilient to this failed policy. This cruel measure, which prevents Cubans from importing basic goods, has cost the island more than $144 billion, forces Cubans to spend $2 billion importing food, more than double the price without sanctions. 

Clearly, the blockade is the primary reason the small island nation cannot properly equip itself in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic (although, given these difficulties, it still has faired admirably, producing several successful vaccines, and having one of the best doctor-patient ratios in the world). All of the doctors and research in the world will prove insufficient if the continent’s preeminent colonial power is preventing you from supplying your hospitals.

Still, the #CubaSOS protest movement (based, like the mercenaries who assassinated the Haitian president, and the private military contractors who invaded Venezuela in 2020, in Miami) have focused on the Cuban government as the primary culprit for the current difficulties. Conservative politicians in the United States, who have long advocated the overthrow of the Cuban government, are clear on this point.

Marco Rubio, the Cuban-American senator for Florida, and former Republican presidential candidate, tweeted, “The evil regime in #Cuba is alive But it has been fatally wounded.”

Rubio is clearly disappointed with the continued survival of the communist government in Cuba. This is understandable, as Rubio has been successful in “wounding evil regimes” via his support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the 2011 American intervention in Libya, the Saudi-backed coalition’s assault on Yemen, and continued Zionist settlement of the occupied territories

The Democratic Party seems slightly more sensitive to the effects of the blockade than do their Republican colleagues. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, a star of the “progressives” within the Democratic Party, released a statement on the protests which condemned the blockade. She did, however, leave space to criticize the “anti-democratic actions” of the besieged and beleaguered Cuban government.

Despite some members of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party like Cortez acknowledging the brutal impact of the blockade of Cuba, their understanding falls short.

The blockade is merely the surface level of the century-long American war against Cuba. This war has consisted of open colonial invasion, US-backed military juntas, and an eternal covert CIA campaign against the Cuban government, including more than 630 assassination attempts against Fidel Castro, many of which were cartoonish (he was provided with an exploding cigar, poisoned ice cream, and an underwater exploding sea shell).  

Understanding the long arm of US reach in Latin America lays bare the reasons for Cuba’s current difficulties, and provides the necessary context to understanding this recent spate of “protests” across the island. 

When the Catholic Church feebly attempted to apologize for its crimes (including the crusades, the inquisition, and countless others), Bishop Piero Marini explained, “Given the number of sins committed in the course of 20 centuries, [reference to them] must necessarily be rather summary.” Disturbingly, the same is true regarding the history of the colonial assault on Cuba, though we have far less than 20 centuries to cover here. 

At the Crossroads of Empire

Since 1492 Cuba has suffered at the hands of imperial powers, beginning with the Spanish forces of Columbus massacring the island’s inhabitants (the Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas gives a brutal description of this in his 1552 work, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies).

Cuba solidified its importance to the colonialists after the Haitian Revolution of Toussaint Louverture in 1791. Those French slave-owners which had escaped Louverture’s liberation campaign made their way to Cuba, reinforcing the island’s reliance on the slave economy:

Between 1790 and 1867 over 780,000 African slaves were imported to Cuba making the island the greatest slave-importing colony in the history of the Spanish empire and the center of the nineteenth-century slave trade to the Caribbean.

Laird Bergad, The Cuban Slave Market

These slaves were forced to primarily harvest sugar and tobacco, which were the drivers of Cuba’s (and therefore Spain’s) economy. Spanish Cuba’s main ally in the preservation of slavery, and also its main consumer of sugar, was the young United States of America, another economy based on plantation slavery.

The US purchased the majority of the island’s sugar, and was nearly its exclusive source for manufactured goods, the classic colonial arrangement. Cuban resources became so critical to the United States (a recurring theme in the history of this disastrous relationship) that John O’Sullivan, the man who coined the imperial term “Manifest Destiny,” lobbied then US President Polk to ‘buy’ Cuba from the Spanish.

But why pay for something which you can simply take? Four hundred years of Spanish rule in Cuba came to a screeching halt when the United States launched the Spanish-American War of 1898, seizing Guam and the Philippines in the Pacific, and Puerto Rico and Cuba in the Caribbean. With the resource-rich Cuba at its front door, and the Spanish Empire in decay, the United States needed a reason to wage war.

The New York Journal’s headline on February 17, 1898, a mere two days after the explosion. The articles are filled with the now-debunked claims that the ship was the victim of a Spanish attack.

Luckily for the Americans (save those on the ship) the American battleship USS Maine exploded in the harbor of Havana. Although investigations have since revealed that the explosion was most likely an accident caused by munition storage (with some maintaining the Americans detonated their own ship), the US government was convinced. Spain sank our ship.

With a new rallying cry of “Remember the Maine!” the United States launched the Spanish-American War. 

In just ten short weeks the United States had replaced the Spanish Empire with its own, and began its occupation of, most prominently, Cuba and the Philippines (the Philippines deserves attention of its own, as the Americans would occupy the nation for 48 long years, until 1946). 

The US then began the first 4 year occupation of Cuba. Having conquered the island, the Americans made a, particularly in retrospect, ruthless move to secure the longevity of their position.

The Cuban government, their hand forced by the American occupation, was made to sign a lease giving land for a naval base. The naval base would eventually become more widely known to Americans than even the Spanish-American War: the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base

The American war in Cuba and occupation had disastrous results, as described by General Fitzhugh Lee, the American commander of Havana: 

Business of all sorts was suspended. Agricultural operations had ceased; large sugar estates with enormous and expensive machinery were destroyed; houses burned; stock driven off for consumption by the Spanish [he obviously fails to mention the Americans] troops, or killed. There was scarcely an ox left to pull a plow, had their been a plow left….The great fertile island of Cuba in some places resembled an ash pile, in others the dreary desert.

Richard Gott, Cuba: A New History

Their naval base secured, the Americans ended their occupation in 1902. This peace would prove short-lived, and the United States would occupy Cuba twice more in the coming years.

Each intervention was explicitly done to protect US economic interests, giving them the macabre name, “Sugar Interventions.” Each subsequent period of Cuban history is to see a form of the sugar intervention. Though it may not always be sugar, (sometimes it’s trading or casino rights) the US has never turned from this policy of intervening to secure Cuban resources.

Rich Americans in the casino in the Hotel Nacional in Havana, 1957. The Casino was the sight of a famous meeting of mob bosses in 1946, led by Meyer Lansky. Lansky led the mafia’s division of assets in Cuba. (Photo: Ralph Morse, LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Fulgencio Batista and the Mafia in America’s Playground 

With a variety of tools at their disposal, the US empire does not merely rely on direct intervention. The Americans have often had a “man in Havana.” The most prominent of these was certainly Fulgencio Batista, the military dictator who ruled Cuba in the 40s and from 1952 to 1959 with the backing and blessing of the United States.

Batista’s importance to our story cannot be overstated. The United States exerted an incredible amount of control in Batista’s Cuba, and ever since Batista was overthrown by Fidel Castro, the United States has sought to regain this control. 

At the height of Batista’s power, American corporate interests controlled a shocking amount of the island’s economy: 90 percent of Cuba’s mines, 80 percent of its public utilities, more than half of its railways, 40 percent of its sugar production, and a quarter of all bank deposits, totaling more than one billion in assets.

While impoverished Cubans could not afford schools, and children suffered from worms embedded in their feet, wealthy Americans took full advantage of this highly perforated economy. Cuba’s casinos were full.

Playwright Arthur Miller succinctly noticed that, “the Batista society was hopelessly corrupt, a Mafia playground, a bordello for Americans and other foreigners.”

The primary mobster in charge of this racket was Meyer Lansky, known as “The Mob’s Accountant.” Lansky made a deal with Batista. In return for the exclusive rights to run casinos across the island, Lansky would provide Batista with up to thirty percent of the revenue from his mob ventures.

All of this revenue would soon vanish. The mafia’s holdings, the American corporate stranglehold on the economy, and the US military bases across the island (save Guantanamo Bay) would be absolutely obliterated

Nelson Mandela embraces Fidel Castro in Matanzas, Cuba in 1991. (Photo: Feliberto Carrie via Getty Images)

 All of this hard work building Cuba as a colony of the United States and playground for the rich and organized crime would go up in smoke as Fidel Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara led the Cuban people to overthrow Batista’s dictatorship, and entered Havana in January of 1959.

Cuba Libre: Castro Becomes a Thorn in the Americans’ Side

As communist revolutionaries seized power, they expelled both US capital interests and the mafia-embedded regime. US corporations are still trying to reclaim the billions of dollars they lost in American assets seized during the revolution.

Not was the United States fuming at the loss of its colonial property, but the new revolutionary government would go on to work tirelessly against American imperial interests. 

While today Americans are quick to praise Nelson Mandela and remember the boycott apartheid movement fondly, Castro’s Cuba worked tirelessly against the US backed apartheid regime. As the Americans and Israelis armed the white South African government, the Cuban army deployed to Angola to meet the regime in battle. Cuba’s defeat of the South African army at the battle of Quito Caunavale proved a fatal blow to apartheid, earning Nelson Mandela’s (who was designated as a terrorist by the US at the time) lasting respect.

As Cuba worked against them on the issues of Apartheid and Palestine, the Americans did not sit idly. Not even three years after the Cuban revolution, the United States organized an invasion of the island by right-wing Cuban exiles based, as always, in Miami. The 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion represents, perhaps more than any other single event, the unholy alliance of the Cuban-American exile community, the CIA, and the mafia.

T.J. English, author of Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba and Then Lost It to the Revolution and The Corporation: An Epic Story of the Cuban-American Underworld, is one of the preeminent authorities on the subject:

 Well, the [members of the] 2506 Brigade that were the Bay of Pigs invaders were CIA-trained. And after they got out of prison from Cuba, many of them, including Jose Miguel Battle [a towering figure in organized crime], joined the U.S. Army –and continued their CIA connections.

T.J. English

These CIA-trained invaders met with a humiliating defeat as soon as they landed. Fundamentally, it was a defeat from which the CIA/exile campaign to delegitimize the Cuban government would never fully recover. The plan was for these exiles to inspire an island-wide uprising against a “deeply unpopular” Castro regime. 

“The rest of the world, previously ill-informed about the degree of popular support for the Castro government, came to understand the claims of the Cuban exiles were a shame: the Revolution was not about to fall. Even with US assistance, the exiles had failed to convert their dislike of Castro into a popular movement to overthrow him. Castro was there to stay.” Richard Gott, Cuba: A New History.

The invasion relied heavily on the assumption that Cuban air force and army personnel would defect and join the exiles. This, clearly, failed to materialize.

The CIA, from this point on, realized that a propaganda campaign against Castro and Cuban socialism would be required before they could return American corporations to the island. While too bizarre and complicated to explain here, one of the earliest examples of this psychological operation was Operation Northwoods, where the CIA planned, but never executed, attacks against its own population and military assets, which they would then blame on the Cubans to justify another invasion of the island. Remember the Maine?

Today’s (and Tomorrow’s) War on Cuba

“This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.” Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History

The history of the United States and Cuba is nothing if not one single catastrophe, with wreckage accumulated over time. Unfortunately, shattered Cuban lives and hopes comprise much of this wreckage.

Although it has been nearly 60 years since the United States has been able to openly invade Cuba (due to the defiance of Cuban revolutionaries), the CIA has found new, inventive ways to destabilize the Cuban government, following the Operation Northwoods model. 

Western media have been following the songs of this current protest movement, running headlines like “Hip-hop song becomes drumbeat for Cuban protest.” Much like the teams who invaded Venezuela and assassinated the Haitian president, these artists are based in Miami.

This appears the result of a CIA operation, exposed in a bombshell report by the AP, where the agency would focus on, “manipulating artistic movements into cudgels to be used against foreign enemies.” How can any legitimate journalistic outfit mention anti-government hip-hop in Cuba without mentioning that it has been meticulously cultivated by US intelligence? 

The CIA also dominates online spaces which seek the destruction of the Cuban government, and much like their attempts to assassinate Castro, their methods tend to be cartoonish. Through USAID, a common weapon in the CIA’s arsenal, they managed to create a fake US-state controlled version of Twitter, called ZunZuneo.

Ordinary Cuban’s using this application were entirely unaware it was being directed by the CIA: “There will be absolutely no mention of United States government involvement,” according to a 2010 memo from Mobile Accord, one of the project’s contractors. “This is absolutely crucial for the long-term success of the service and to ensure the success of the Mission.”

And what exactly is this mission? The same as the mission in 1898, to influence politics on the island and regain control of their markets. 

Despite this ongoing effort, the American right, and misguided corners of the American left, insist that Cuba’s government is responsible for the difficulties it now faces. Like Marco Rubio, other members of the American state are united on this point

“For decades, Cuba’s dictatorship has used violence and repression to silence its people, rather than permit the free exercise of democracy and their basic social rights,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez [a Democrat] in a statement. “This must end. The world’s eyes are on Cuba tonight and the dictatorship must understand we will not tolerate the use of brute force to silence the aspirations of the Cuban people.”

This sounds, if anything, like a form of professional jealousy. The United States is of course the authority on using force to silence the aspirations of the Cuban people. The arrogance is breathtaking.

Imagine funding and running a torture camp, Guantanamo Bay (as Bob Menendez does), and waxing poetic about the abuses of the Cuban government. While this might appear to be hypocrisy, or a contradiction, it of course is not. 

Arundhati Roy, the Indian author and political activist, summarized this dynamic better than I ever could in her work The End of Imagination

Here we are, confronted with an Empire that has conferred upon itself the right to go to war at will and the right to deliver people from corrupting ideologies, from religious fundamentalists, dictators, sexism, and poverty, by the age-old, tried-and-tested practice of extermination. Empire is on the move, and Democracy is its sly new war cry. Democracy, home-delivered to your doorstep by daisy-cutters. Death is a small price for people to pay for the privilege of sampling this new product: Instant-Mix Imperial Democracy (bring to a boil, add oil, then bomb).

Arundhati Roy, The End of Imagination

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Michael Avanzato is a Research Affiliate with the Palestine Land Studies Center in Beirut. He received his M.A. in Public Policy and International Affairs from the American University of Beirut.