Time to move U.S.-Cuba relations forward again—despite Trump
In this June 16, 2017 file photo, a television set shows U.S. President Donald Trump announcing his new Cuba policy, declaring he was restoring some travel and economic restrictions on Cuba that were lifted as part of the Obama administration's historic easing, in a living room festooned with images of Cuban leaders at a house in Havana, Cuba. | Ramon Espinosa / AP

Cuba gained international prominence when their government consolidated political power after the defeat of U.S. mercenary forces in 1961 at the Bay of Pigs. With the victory of the Cuban revolution assured, these two events altered the course of history in Latin America. Cuba was no longer a U.S. semi-colony.

Cuba’s status as a pseudo-republic had been conditioned upon the illegal occupation of Cuban territory for a U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo against the will of the Cuban people. Not until the 1960 UN Declaration Against Colonialism [Resolution 1514 (XV)] held that all interference in the internal affairs of other states violates “the people’s sovereign rights and their territorial integrity” was the matter of Cuba’s independence addressed in a serious manner.

A change of circumstances had occurred. Terms of treaties and contracts forced upon the Cuban people by the U.S. government outlived their usefulness and were no longer valid. The right of a legitimate government to institute its own laws with consent of the governed and to implement justice and equality for the good of all guaranteed the attainment of independence with which to preserve the right to self-determination. U.S. blockade policy against Cuba was an illegal act that contradicted conventional international law since Cuba was not at war with the U.S. government.

As the development of international law progressed through the UN Charter on Human Rights, history, ethics and political necessity pointed the way forward. With the spread of national liberation movements around the world, the Act of State Doctrine established precedent to bring continuity to emerging governments shedding imperialism. What is the Act of State Doctrine and how does it apply to Cuba?

The AOS Doctrine is a common law principle that prevents U.S. Courts from questioning the validity of a foreign country’s sovereign acts that take place within its own territory.  It is a concept in international law that prohibits interference in the conduct of foreign affairs of independent countries to facilitate international peace and security. Several factors serve to explain its application to Cuba.

Nationalization of U.S. property (factories, land, public utilities, banks, machinery etc.) in Cuba following the revolution was a legal public act by a sovereign government to protect its national interest. Confiscation of wealth—illicitly obtained by unscrupulous individuals through misappropriation of U.S. bank loans for public works projects—was the means to fund industrialization in a single-crop agricultural economy dependent on export of cane sugar, rum, and tobacco products.

To pay owners for property expropriated, the Cuban Republic created 30-year bonds through a special fund made up  of 25% of revenues on the sale over three million metric tons of sugar to the U.S. In July 1960, the U.S. terminated the sugar quota whereby fair compensation became impossible to implement. Although the U.S. government broke diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961 and imposed an ironclad blockade in 1962 with the approval of Congress, Cuba still offered to negotiate a settlement on equal terms with the U.S. government and U.S. companies. Washington never permitted it. Finally, compensation agreements were signed with France and Switzerland in 1967, Great Britain in 1978, Canada in 1980, and Spain in 1988 to satisfy Cuba’s obligation. But never with the United States.

Cuba enacted laws in the 1990s that invited foreign investment. However, with the fall of the East European socialist bloc and disappearance of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba was forced to rely only on its own methods of survival. But even though the rest of the socialist world was largely disappearing and thus removed any kind of national security excuse to target Cuba, U.S. intent toward the island remained the same: take it over through economic dominance and intimidation of smaller, less powerful nations that could be influenced by their example.

For instance, passage of the Helms-Burton Act by Congress in 1996 was a calculated attempt to usurp the constitutional power of the U.S. president to conduct foreign relations with Cuba regarding international trade.  Furthermore, by declaring no U.S. Court “shall decline to make a determination” on liability for trafficking in confiscated property, Helms-Burton violated an ethical principle of international law that prohibits interference in the sovereignty and territorial integrity of independent nations.

Restoration of Title lll of that Act in 2019, which allows companies to sue in U.S. courts for the return of property taken during Cuban nationalization, is the latest attempt to deny Cuba’s right to exist as a sovereign nation. The Helms-Burton Act, signed by Bill Clinton, thus became a means to utilize extraterritorial measures against Cuba on trade policy, control the vote in South Florida, and extort money from U.S. citizens who visit Cuba.

The purpose of Helms-Burton is to destroy the Cuban people’s will to resist and isolate their economy from access to U.S. travel and bilateral trade relations. It was shattered by the Barack Obama/Raul Castro détente that happened in December 2014, but the Trump administration is continually moving to reverse that progress. But it hasn’t closed off all possibilities for forward movement.

The fact that several governments of U.S. states, Congress, and popular organizations could talk over their differences with Cuba made possible the reversal of decades of U.S. hostility and aggression. The next stage of struggle will be to return to the bargaining table with Cuba to negotiate normalization of relations and push Congress to repeal Helms-Burton.

Many thanks to Tom Whitney for help with this article.


Richard Grassl
Richard Grassl

Richard Grassl is a member of the Carpenters union in Washington state.