Why Cuba Matters

When President Barack Obama met Cuban leader Raul Castro in the last summit of the Americas on April 11, he said: "The United States will not be imprisoned by the past. We're looking to the future and to polices that improve the lives of the Cuban people."

But this is a past worth remembering today as political activist Tom Hayden argues in his new book Listen Yankee: Why Cuba Matters. By deciding to reestablish diplomatic relations with Cuba last December, President Barack Obama is trying to change a complex history he inherited between these two countries.

Listen Yankee, as Hayden explains, is an opportunity to remember past mistakes made by U.S. presidents in their approach to Cuba. But the book is more than that. Hayden conducted several long interviews with Cuba's representative for the United Nations for 30 years, Ricardo Alarcon, and shorter interviews with U.S. diplomats. He wrote a book, part memoire and part social history, on the role of Cuba in international politics. Hayden started his research in 2006 and is not shy to praise himself in the book for predicting Obama would approach the Cuban government before the news was public.

Hayden dedicated a significant part of his life to Cuba. He was one of the leaders of the Students for a Democratic Society, an organization born at the same time of the Cuban revolution and critical of U.S. imperialism, the Cold War proxy wars, and racial discrimination. American radical sociologist C. Wright Mills, who wrote a famous pamphlet named Listen Yankee in 1960, inspired many SDS militants. Mills argued the U.S. feeling of superiority impeded the country listening to Cuban voices. If they had, Mills said, the U.S would have realized the Cuban revolution was not a Soviet revolution at all, but a response to U.S. imperialism in the island. It was a cry for independence.

"It may be that Obama is the first Yankee president to listen," Hayden writes. What does he need to hear 50 years after Mill's book?

Hayden divides his book into 16 short chapters that could be understood as brief lessons for foreign policy makers. He explains, like Mills, what the U.S. failed to recognize of the Cuban Revolution, a revolution inspired by Peruvian philosopher Jose Carlos Mariategui and not as much by Lenin or Stalin. Mariategui criticized Soviet communism and wanted a 'Latinamericanization' of European Marxism. Cubans, like Mariategui, disliked Soviet power. Hayden explains how Fidel Castro reacted after learning the Soviets were negotiating with Americans over the dismantling of weapons in Cuba after the missile crisis, without consulting him: "He swore, kicked the wall, and broke a looking glass in his fury."

But Hayden notes the 'Yankee' threat pushed Cubans toward the Soviet Union. He reminds readers that the U.S tried to poison Fidel Castro several times hoping the revolution would end with his death.

Listen Yankee is also the story of how the Cuban Revolution influenced social movements within the United States. Hayden remembers Castro's meeting with Malcolm X in New York before the U.S. embargo, and the importance of the Cuban revolution among American intellectuals like poets Allen Ginsberg, LeRoi Jones, and historian CLR James, who wrote: "the Cuban Revolution marks the ultimate stage of a Caribbean quest for identity."

The Cuban revolution also became a worldwide cultural icon. The Cuban Missile Crisis inspired Stanley Kubrick's movie Doctor Strangelove, and the revolution inspired Italian writer Giangiacomo Feltrinelli -publisher of Doctor Zhivago- to fantasize about creating a revolutionary guerrilla movement in the French Alps.

Former colonies admired Cuba. Hayden remembers hearing about Che Guevara's death by radio in the streets in Hanoi, and the sorrow the news immediately caused. The Cuban government was the first to recognize the Viet Cong as the legitimate representative of the South. Even if the U.S. didn't see it this way, many Cubans felt Vietnam "was deterring the option of an American attack on Cuba, and therefore Vietnamese blood was being shed on their behalf."

The globalization of the revolution was Cuba's biggest achievement, but it also became the largest obstacle to improving relations with the U.S., when Jimmy Carter was president. Hayden narrates with detail how the Cuban revolutionaries decided to fight against European colonialism in Angola, South African apartheid leaders, and Somalia's invasion of Ethiopia. Most Cuban assistance came with little or no help from the Soviet army, explains Hayden. But Jimmy Carter's security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski convinced the president not to normalize relations with Cuba arguing they were opening the way for Soviet dominance in Africa.

Hayden argues that right wing Cubans living in the U.S. spoiled relations with Cuba during the Clinton years. They also promoted the Helms-Burton Act, a law that gave Congress power over diplomatic recognition of Cuba and the embargo. "The Helms-Burton law remains a structural impediment to any future normalization," Hayden writes about Obama's new challenge. He now has to convince Congress to overturn this law. Hayden argues Obama might not get as much opposition from U.S. Cubans as in the past, since the Cuban diaspora has significantly changed with the arrival of working class black Cubans that are Obama voters. They are not as anti-Castro as first generation Cuban immigrants.

Listen Yankee is not a book focused in political and social problems inside Cuba. But it is not trying to glorify the revolution either. Hayden admits there are human rights violations in the island. He imagines that the revolutionaries of the sixties would not be able to defend the armed struggle today. They would be defending democratic left-wing presidents like former Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales.

The book ends with a warning to Obama regarding his position towards Venezuela. Hayden criticizes Obama's sanctions against the country and considers he is again missing a historical analysis. "Everybody talks about the fall of the Berlin Wall, but nobody talks about the Caracazo," Hayden wrote. The end of the Soviet Union meant little to Venezuela. But the Caracazo, the five days in February 1989 that Venezuelan security forces shot three hundred people who were protesting against neoliberal reforms, inspired a generation that later elected former president Hugo Chavez. By ignoring what chavizmo represents for Venezuela, the way former presidents ignored what castrismo represented for Cubans, Obama risks duplicating mistakes of the past.

Listen Yankee could not be more timely. It is an opportunity to study what failed in previous decades to construct a new future with Cuba and with Latin America. Raul Castro, the first Cuban head of state to attend the Summit of the Americas since 1962, did want to talk about the past when he met Obama in Panama. Castro gave him a short history lesson that started when former U.S. president John Quincy Adams said Cuba would become an American satellite in the nineteen century, to the U.S. Bay of Pigs attack in 1962.

But Castro also acknowledged, "President Obama has no responsibility for any of this. How many presidents have we had? Ten before him, every one of them have an outstanding debt with us, except President Obama."

Anybody who reads Listen Yankee will have an opportunity to understand this debt. Tom Hayden, by reviewing this unheard past, allows readers to understand why Cuba will probably not capitulate to Wall Street and the unregulated market in the next years as some analysts predict. The history of Cuba and Latin America will probably lead Cuba towards a political and economic system closer to the one other left-wing South American governments have chosen. Obama and the U.S. government will have one key responsibility during this process: to listen.