Speakers Give Talk on Tumultuous History of U.S.–Cuba Relations


Guests Lee Schlenker and Marcel Lueiro Reyes delivered the talk “Grassroots Solidarity in an Age of Hostility: Building Alternative Relationships Between the U.S. and Cuba” at the Axinn Center on Tuesday Oct. 10. Schlenker works for the organization Witness for Peace in Havana, Cuba, and Reyes, a Cuban popular educator, works for the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center, also located in Havana.

Witness for Peace, whose headquarters is located in Washington, D.C., is an activist organization that strives to protect Latin American nations against oppressive U.S. corporate practices and foreign policies, such as the United States embargo against Cuba. The organization examines the effects of free trade agreements, sends delegations to Cuba, and mobilizes communities within the United States.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center, according to its mission statement, is a “Christian-inspired macroecumenical organization” focused on “solidarity and popular participation.” The organization offers programs that cultivate critical thinking among its theologically educated leaders.

Reyes, who spoke in Spanish and was provided a translator, began the talk with a poem, and then spoke of his interest in the history of Cuba. He described the theme of relations between the U.S. and Cuba as “complex and marvelous,”  and then delivered a general history of the relations from the perspective of a Cuban citizen.

According to Reyes, the strengthening of U.S.–Cuba relations started in the 19th century, when Cubans grew tired of an oppressive, bureaucratic Spanish regime that imposed slavery. The nation looked toward American influence, since the U.S. represented modernity and civilization. Reyes also referred to how Cuba benefitted from U.S. capital expansion, since it received important goods such as electricity and railroads. Such goods arrived in Cuba two to three years before they were brought to Europe.

Reyes pointed out that in 1880, there were 170 tobacco factories with Cuban workers and managers in the United States. Many U.S. cities were even founded by Cubans. Conversely, one Cuban city had a population of 70 percent U.S. citizens. The United States and Cuba even sent soldiers to fight in one another’s respective wars for independence.

Reyes spoke of how the cultural and religious exchange between the two nations grew stronger as many Cubans turned away from the Catholicism imposed by Spain, and embraced Protestantism. Additionally, many Cubans who studied at U.S. universities learned to play baseball, and brought the sport to Cuba. Later on, famous Cuban–Americans icons in contemporary culture would include performance artist, sculptor, painter, and photographer Ana Mendieta, and jazz influencer Chano Pozo. Famous athletes include Boston Red Sox pitcher Luis Tiant and boxer Eligio Sardiñas Montalvo, widely known as “Kid Chocolate.”

Reyes went on to mention that three major events in the 20th century would severely impact U.S–Cuban relations. First, the creation of the Platt Amendment, whose conditions defined the withdraw of U.S. soldiers in Cuba after the Spanish–American War, was implemented in Cuba’s constitution. These conditions include: the guarantee that Cuba could not transfer land to any country but the U.S., a limitation to the countries with which Cuba could negotiate; the establishment of a U.S. naval base in Cuba, and the U.S.’s right to intervene in Cuba to preserve Cuban independence. The Cubans felt betrayed by the United States and believed that their nation could only be independent if they confronted these imperialist policies of the United States.

Reyes noted that the second major event, the Cuban Revolution, led to the overthrow of dictator Fulgencio Bautista and the rise of communist leader Fidel Castro. As president, Castro implemented radical socialist reforms and strengthened economic and diplomatic ties with Soviet Union, which upset the United States. Reyes stated that the Bay of Pigs invasion, a failed U.S. attempt at assassinating Castro, made the already damaged relationship between the countries irreparable.

Reyes argued that the third major event, the creation of a blockade, imposed unnecessary suffering onto the Cuban people. The blockade failed to complete its objective of destructing the Cuban economy. Reyes showed that despite such setbacks, health care and education until college was made free, in addition to the advancements in biotechnology and medicine.

Clearly, Reyes provided an economic, political, and cultural history of Cuba that intrigued members of the college community. “Our speaker Marcel [Reyes] gave very interesting details about what trade and movement back-and-forth was like before we had our current boundaries,” said David Stoll, professor of anthropology, who introduced the speakers. “I was fascinated with how [Reyes] said that it was Cuban troops who were part of the [Revolutionary War].”

“In essence, as you go through the typical education system, all that you hear about Cuba is the Cold War era, especially the Cuban Missile Crisis,” said Frank Gavilanez ’20, who attended the lecture. “But in addition to that, you rarely hear about other aspects of Cuba. What struck me in this lecture was the migration of Cubans and Americans, and how both of these people fought for the independence of each other’s countries.”