Even as an American Filipino, an Asian American, it’s hard not to be engaged by
the historical news happening in Cuba.
People are getting choked up over seeing the first American president in Cuba
since Calvin Coolidge in 1928.
(White House photo)
And you’ll hear that fact over and over this week. “For the first time in 88
True, we are watching history–evolve.
If we look at U.S.-Cuban history, it has always started from a very bad place,
marred by a sense of arrogance and paternalism, even before the Spanish
You’ll recall as a result of the U.S. victory in that war, the Treaty of Paris
forced Spain to give up Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Guam to the U.S. in 1898.
To sweeten the deal, the U.S. got the Philippines, too. But it cost our
country an additional $20 million. It’s a little more than the $24 the Dutch
paid for Manhattan. But the Philippines is a 7,200 island archipelago, after
For that price, the U.S. got my father too.
Filipinos in the Philippines weren’t “Americans.” Nor were they citizens.
They were officially called “nationals,” the nice word for “colonized.”
And when Coolidge was heading to Cuba in 1928, that very year, my dad was
coming in by boat from Manila to San Francisco for the first time.
My father was on the Dollar Steamship Company’s President Pierce, named for
the 14th president of the United States—and perhaps the worst president who
Pierce was a Democrat from New Hampshire, but he also was a moral compromiser.
He was a pro-slavery, anti-abolitionist friend to the South.
Pierce would hardly be considered a “good” Democrat today. An expansionist who
believed in manifest destiny, he cut his teeth fighting the Mexicans in the
So let’s see, he was worse than Trump and his wall. Pierce fought and killed
Mexicans, and he was pro-slavery.
That made his road to the presidency similar to Trump’s as well. Pierce faced
a brokered convention in 1852, when after 48 ballots—that’s right, 48—he
finally secured the nomination with a boost from Southerners.
But what makes Pierce relevant this week is his foreign policy stand.
His best “less than shining moment” was the Ostend Manifesto, Pierce’s attempt
to buy Cuba from Spain, with the intent of annexing it into a slave state.
The South needed a place to expand slavery, right? And why not Cuba?
For you NCAA fans, Cuba could’ve been another member of the SEC!
As you can see, before Fidel Castro, even before Calvin Coolidge, if we want
to figure out the place where our attitudes toward Cuba developed, we must not
forget the deeds of our 14th President Franklin Pierce, 162 years ago.
That’s what they really mean when they say there’s lots of history to
overcome. It goes further back than you think.
Given all that, I thought it was amazing to see the two presidents Obama and
Castro engage in their news conference Monday, in what I call their “Barack
and Raul show,” a formal and yet informal pas de deux. Pointed at the front
end, but slightly more playful toward the Q&A.
(White House photo)
But due to all the history, it’s still a careful dance.
In his opening remarks, Castro had his moments.
“Much more can be done if the U.S. blockade could be lifted,” Castro
said through a translator. “We recognize the position of President
Obama and his administration against the blockade, and his repeated
appeals to Congress to have it removed. The most recent measures
adopted by his administration are positive, but insufficient.”
Castro complained that the blockade contains “discouraging elements
and intimidating effects, and extraterritorial outreach.”
He was referring to the land currently occupied by Guantanamo Naval
base, saying it would be “necessary to return” that territory to Cuba.
The question of human rights is the other huge issue that stands
between the U.S. and Cuba. Again, Castro did not back down.
“There are profound differences between our country that will not go
away,” Castro said, who outlined them as the political systems,
democracy, the exercise of human rights, social justice, international
relations, world peace, and stability.
“We defend rights,” Castro said, and threw it back at the U.S. “In our
view, civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights are
indivisible, interdependent and universal. Actually, we find it
inconceivable that a government does not defend and insure the right
to health care, education, social security, food provision, and
development, equal pay and the rights of children. We oppose political
manipulation and double standards in the approach to human rights.”
But then Castro borrowed from old Cold War speak to say, “We should
learn the art of coexisting with our differences in a civilized
manner,” and to “focus on the things that bring us closer than those
that pull us apart.”
When it was time for Obama to speak, he was gracious, and acknowledged
“We have a half-century of work to catch up on,” and how the
relationship “will not be transformed overnight.
That’s for sure, but knowing the history goes back more than 160
years, this will be a much slower dance in Cuba than anyone thought.
More fireworks came in the Q&A, when CNN reporter Jim Acosta asked a
general question about the release of Cuban political prisoners.
“Give me a list of political prisoners and I will release them
immediately,” Mr. Castro shot back. “Give me name or names and if we
have them, they will be released before tonight ends.”
President Obama brought the conversation back to what opening
relations with Cuba is all about: commerce.
He said opening up dialogue to build new Cuban-U.S. constituencies
could push Congress to end the embargo. He mentioned the opening up of
joint entrepreneurial ventures on the internet, or in agriculture.
But it always comes down to human rights.
Of course, this hasn’t stopped imports from big human rights violators
in Asia–namely, China.
China, the big communist/capitalist contradiction, part-friend,
part-owner of U.S paper, part enemy, was the elephant not in the
room. And then Obama mentioned it.
“Keep in mind, I’ve got fierce disagreements about the Chinese on
human rights,” Obama said. Oh, but so di others back to Bush One.
Remember the phrase, “Butchers of Beijing”? Again, history.
“I’ll be going to Vietnam later this year,” Obama continued. “I have
deep disagreements with them as well. When we first visited Burma,
people questioned if we should be t raveling there because of
longstanding human rights violations in our view. The approach that
I have taken has been if I engage frankly, clearly, stating what our
beliefs are, but also being clear we can’t force change on any
particular country, ultimately, it has to come from within. That is
going to be a more useful strategy than the same kind of rigid
disengagement that for fifty years did nothing.
“I have faith in people,” Obama said optimistically. “If you meet
Cubans here, and Cubans meet Americans and they’re meeting and talking
and interacting and doing business together, and going to school
together, and learning from each other, then they’ll recognize that
people are people, and in that context, I believe that change will
It may not happen during his tenure as our 44th president. But it’s a
far cry from the sentiments of our 14th, Franklin Pierce, who just
wanted to buy Cuba outright.
That was wrong. And this is now.