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Some Make Peace With The Past . . . And Then There Is Cuba


August 5, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE MIAMI HERALD. All rights reserved.

After the Spanish-American War (1898), the United States occupied Cuba and Puerto Rico. In 1902, the Cuban republic was born, albeit under the Platt Amendment where by Washington could intervene in Cuba to protect order and property. Until 1952, Puerto Rico was ruled by U.S. military and civilian administrations. For more than a decade before the 1916-1924 U.S. occupation, the Dominican Republic had been a U.S. protectorate.

Working out their close intimacy with the United States has been a central element in Cuban, Puerto Rican and Dominican national development. In 1940, Cuba adopted a progressive constitution that ushered in three democratically elected governments. In 1952, Puerto Rico became a self-governing commonwealth. Between 1930 and 1961, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo ruthlessly ruled the Dominican Republic.

Had there been no coup d'état on March 10, 1952, Cuba might well have trodden a different path. Democratic governments over the 1940s and the 1950s could have allowed Cuba and the United States the opportunity to craft a less imbalanced relation as, in fact, Mexico and the United States did during those decades. Instead, Fulgencio Batista's dictatorship exacerbated what Cuban intellectual Jorge Mañach called ''republican frustrations'' and paved the way for the revolution of 1959.

Since the 19th century, Puerto Ricans have been autonomists, that is, they first sought a looser tether from Madrid and then the same from Washington. A longing for independence has never gripped Puerto Rican society. Puerto Ricans, nevertheless, have had a strong cultural identity that survived U.S. efforts to banish Spanish as their language and ''Americanize'' them.

During the late 1930s, two men -- Luis Muñoz Marín and U.S. Gov. Rexford Tugwell -- sowed the seeds of the commonwealth. The Great Depression had taken a steep toll on Puerto Ricans, and Muñoz Marín opted to improve his people's living standards over pursuing independence. Tugwell and Muñoz Marín forged a New Deal-like, state-centered program of economic modernization and established a political timetable for Puerto Rican self-government.

Like Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua, Trujillo governed the Dominican Republic like a sultan, effectively blurring the boundaries between the public treasury and his own. Nationalism, order and progress were his tripod. Dominicans, however, have generally been more aroused against Haiti than the United States. In 1937, the generalissimo savagely whipped up these feelings by massacring 18,000 Haitians who had ''occupied'' territory on the Dominican side of the border. In 1961, the dictator was assassinated.

In the nascent 21st century, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic have largely put their pasts behind. Puerto Rico is still a commonwealth, though since the late 1960s pro-statehood forces have gained much ground. It is, however, highly unlikely that there would ever be a change in status: Puerto Ricans don't want independence, and the United States doesn't really want to welcome the island into the Union. Puerto Rico is permanently -- if indeterminately -- bound to the United States.

By the mid-1990s, it seemed as if the Dominican Republic had turned the page. Institutional and electoral reforms had strengthened democracy. Under Leonel Fernández's administration (1996-2000), the country was well governed and the economy well managed. Though Hipólito Mejía (2000-2004) set the clock back considerably, a new Fernández presidency is in the wings and cause for hope. Moreover, the Dominican Republic is set to join the U.S.-Central American Free Trade Agreement.

And then there is Cuba.

During the Cold War, the United States and Cuba might have normalized relations without changes in the island's domestic order. Had Havana embraced a sound program of economic restructuring in the early 1990s, the U.S. embargo might have been history already.

Now a democratic transition -- which is, first and foremost, in the Cuban people's interest -- seems to be the surest road to normalization. Under Castro or a successor regime that obdurately persists in ruling like him, Cuba will continue to lag.

Only when Cuba's political leaders embrace geographic nearness to the United States as a Cuban national asset will Cuba be able to catch up and make peace with its past.

But, the sooner we -- the U.S. Cuban diaspora -- also do what is right by the Cuban people now, the easier will future normalization be. We are the indispensable bridge between Cuba and the United States. It is up to us whether we walk it for good or ill.

Marifeli Pérez-Stable teaches sociology at Florida International University.

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