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  • A Long Legacy of Distrust and the Future of Cuban-US Relations
  • Philip Brenner (bio) and Teresa García Castro (bio)

in 1975, the us house of representatives' committee on foreign Affairs changed its name to the Committee on International Relations. Its members reasoned that "relations" are more serious than "affairs." Indeed, the term "affairs" suggests a superficial interaction with one or two dimensions. "Relations" suggests that the parties interact in many ways, that their engagement is more permanent than an ephemeral tryst, and that each trusts the other.

A relationship without trust is invariably tenuous and vulnerable to challenges that cause it to fail. For this reason, their long legacy of mutual distrust may be the most significant problem that confronts Cuba and the United States in attempting to build on the foundation they have constructed since December 17, 2014 (known as D-17), when Presidents Raúl Castro and Barack Obama announced that the two countries would reestablish diplomatic relations. Distrust continued to envelop engagement between Cuba and the United States in 2015 and 2016 despite their intention to develop a normal relationship.


Each country has its own timeline for narrating the history of distrust. For Cubans, the chronology begins in 1898, when the United States [End Page 459] intervened in the Cuban War of Independence and essentially robbed Cubans of agency in their own affairs. US occupation came to an end nearly five years later, after the Cuban constitutional assembly acquiesced to the demand that it include the Platt Amendment in the new constitution.

The Platt Amendment stipulated that all laws promulgated by the US occupation government, many of which favored US corporations, remain in force. The amendment also required Cuba to allow US intervention whenever it saw the need. General Leonard Wood, the US military governor, acknowledged in a 1901 letter to President Theodore Roosevelt that "there is, of course, little or no independence left in Cuba under the Platt Amendment" (quoted in Schoultz 2009, 24).1

For the next 55 years, Cubans' distrust of the United States was reinforced by US interventions, support for corrupt governments, and complicity in the tyranny of Fulgencio Batista. After the 1959 revolution, distrust was compounded by multiple US efforts to overthrow the Cuban government, assassinate Cuban leaders, support terrorist actions against Cubans both on the island and abroad, and find justifications to close off promising opportunities for rapprochement.

At a 1992 conference, President Fidel Castro evidenced his continuing wariness as he explained why Cuba had risked fomenting US antagonism by supporting Third World revolutionary movements. Cuba's behavior did not matter, he suggested, because regardless of what Cuba actually does, "the United States is always inventing something new in connection with Cuba." Castro continued, "For a long time they said that as long as we had links with the Soviet Union, relations could not improve. So suddenly one day, the Soviet Union disappeared … Now, the latest one is democratic reforms …[T]he US invents new reasons again and again not to improve relations" (Allyn, Blight, and Welch 2002, 298–300).

The common US narrative is that distrust of the Cuban government dates from 1959, because the revolutionaries broke their promise to hold open elections and maintain friendly relations with [End Page 460] the United States. Senator John F. Kennedy asserted during his 1960 presidential campaign, "Castro and his gang have betrayed the ideals of the Cuban revolution and the hopes of the Cuban people" (New York Times 1960, 20).

The United States' distrust also emanated from the suspicion officials held about President Castro's motives. In 2016, a former foreign policy official in President Bill Clinton's administration told a seminar group in Washington, "From the point of view of the United States, Fidel was not a trustworthy interlocutor. He would stab you in the back if he had the opportunity … My view is that Fidel never wanted good relations with the US." (The session was recorded but the remarks were made on a not-for-attribution basis.) This was essentially the view that former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger articulated in explaining why a 1974–75 attempt at rapprochement with Cuba failed. He...


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