Cuba and Jamaica: Imperialism’s impact on sovereignty

BY:Anita Waters| August 20, 2020
Cuba and Jamaica: Imperialism’s impact on sovereignty


This article is an expanded version of my contribution to the Marxist Classes Seminar on Imperialism, broadcast June 28 and July 26, 2020. The latter date was an auspicious one for a talk on Cuba. Every year, July 26, 1953, is commemorated there as the opening salvo in the armed resistance to imperialism that led ultimately to the victory of the Cuban revolution in 1959.

In this article I contrast two experiences of what Lenin calls “weaker nations” in an age of monopoly capitalism and imperialism. Special attention to Cuba and Jamaica is appropriate for two reasons.

First, both countries exemplify the constraints on national sovereignty that imperialism imposes. From 1898 until 1959, Cuban internal and external affairs were fundamentally in the control of political and economic actors in the United States. Jamaica, a British colony until 1962 and dominated by the United States in more recent years, has had periods of extreme hardship in its relations with global finance capital. Both Cuba and Jamaica have paid the price that comes with asserting national autonomy.

Second, both countries illustrate how imperialism can be resisted. Jamaica in the 1970s briefly moved in a socialist direction, only to succumb to the pressures of imperialism’s demands in 1980. It has collaborated with finance capital ever since. After January 1, 1959, Cuba has had the most successful history in the Western hemisphere of resistance to imperialism. Cuba celebrates intentional anti-imperialism in monuments and national commemorations. Looking at these two countries can show the benefits of resistance, and the costs of collaboration.


The essence of imperialism is economic. The monopoly stage of capitalism is characterized by increasing concentration of industrial production and monopolies, the domination of finance capital, and the division of the world among the great powers.

Capitalism has always sought to expand outward, seeking new markets for its commodities, new populations whose labor is exploitable, and new sources of raw materials. As Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto: “The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.” But in the late 1800s, with the consolidation of the power of banks and the decline of free competition among manufacturers, this expansion took a quantitative and qualitative leap. The global capitalist economy sought with a vengeance to divide the whole world into spheres of influence, “spheres for profitable deals, concessions, [and] monopolistic profits,” in Lenin’s words.[1]

National sovereignty

Let’s consider the concept “national sovereignty.” Every political theorist in the European canon has something to say about what is called a “normative theory of national autonomy,” addressing the powers of self-determination that should be granted to every independent nation. Once “recognized” by other nations in the world, a sovereign nation ought to act with autonomy and independence, regulating its affairs without foreign interference.

But in Marxist terms, “national sovereignty” is the appearance which masks reality. Instead of 193 individual nation-states determining for themselves their own domestic and foreign policies, the scope of their actions is constrained by the financial institutions to which they are indebted and the centers of imperialism on which they are compelled to depend. They cannot act autonomously without fear of retaliation, including violence. In other words, the concept of national sovereignty hides the reality of real relationships that global capitalism imposes on imperial centers and so-called developing nations. (More on that term below).

Jamaica and Cuba compared

My own background is as a sociologist who studied Caribbean political culture, mostly of Jamaica and Cuba, and I was constantly exposed to the utter inability of the nation-states of that region to regulate their own internal and external relations with autonomy. There are innumerable instances of Caribbean national autonomy being reined in by the United States, whose ruling class considers the region under its sphere of influence. This reining in sometimes takes the form of U.S. Marines landing on the beaches and proceeding to use force to install a new government, or international banks creating dependencies and then dictating austerity policies, or organizations like the International Republican Institute and National Endowment for Democracy selecting some citizens and training them to oppose their governments, which is how President Aristide of Haiti was overthrown. (These organizations have more money than ever under Trump.)

For a time in the 1970s, Jamaica asserted its autonomy over its own internal affairs. The government of Michael Manley embraced socialism in 1974. It exerted greater control over the nation’s bauxite resources (the mineral mined to make aluminum), took control of land that was left uncultivated by absentee owners and put it in the hands of the rural poor, expanded free education and social services, and, even more dangerously, initiated friendly relations with the revolutionary government of Cuba. A bitter campaign against Manley, emanating from the United States, was launched on numerous fronts, including discouraging tourism, selling weapons to rival political gangs, and sending evangelical preachers whose main message was “Jesus wants you to vote against socialism.” By 1980, after a very bloody election, the pro-Socialists were defeated, and a new, U.S.-friendly government came into power and was generously rewarded by the Reagan administration. Some of you might remember Reagan’s policy called the Caribbean Basin Initiative. Calling the region a “basin” was offensive and repulsive, worse than “America’s backyard” and just a step away from Trump’s “shithole.” However, these epithets tell some truth about the real relationship between the imperial powers and weaker states.

The role of finance capital in the anti-socialist and anti-democratic campaigns launched against Cuba and Jamaica is described well by another of its victims: Maurice Bishop, prime minister of Grenada. Four months before his nation was invaded and defeated by U.S. armed forces, he explained to an audience in New York:

More and more, because of the influence of one or two countries, and in particular of one country, it is now becoming virtually impossible to get loans from the International Monetary Fund IMF or the World Bank. In fact, we know that there is a hit list which has been developed with countries like Grenada, Nicaragua, Angola, and Mozambique on it. Once any of these countries makes an application to the IMF, regardless of how good technically its program is, the instructions are to try to find all possible ways of blocking those sources of funding.

They are forcing more and more Third World countries to go directly to the international capital market, to the big commercial banks, to get loans. First of all, you have to have what they call a credit rating, and to get a credit rating you have to go to the same World Bank and IMF—not everybody can get a credit rating. But even after you get a credit rating, you have to then deal with the question of very short repayment terms and very high interest rates.

How do the centers of imperialism view the weaker nations of the world? In the 1950s, bourgeois political science saw weaker nations as “underdeveloped,” just not as far along the modernization path as the wealthy metropolitan centers. Before they could be trusted with independence, colonies like Jamaica had to demonstrate that political leaders were “mature;” that the Westminster-style parliaments were firmly in place; that two political parties were formed which both supported capitalism; in other words, politicians had to demonstrate that they had drunk the Kool-aid of anti-communism and of their own cultural debasement. Basic to its demands is imperialism’s insistence on a business environment in which finance capital could reign and flourish.

How the U.S. underdeveloped Cuba

Walter Rodney’s inspired title of his 1968 book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa evokes a standpoint opposite that of the modernization theorists. An anti-imperialist perspective shows that the conditions of poverty and powerlessness experienced in Jamaica and pre-revolutionary Cuba are the results of deliberate efforts on the part of global capital.

Let’s look at Cuba’s experience first. Cuba resisted Spanish domination from 1868 onward, and was fighting a bitter war against Spain when the U.S. intervened in 1898. As a result of the U.S. victory over Spain, Cuba came under a U.S.-dominated sphere of influence. Even before that, U.S. commercial interests had infiltrated deeply into Cuban agriculture. This is exactly the period of time that Lenin is describing in Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, especially chapter 6.

The 1901 Platt Amendment “gave the United States, by constitutional law, the ability to intervene in all of Cuba’s internal affairs.[2] U.S. companies like United Fruit set up 20th-century plantations and paid workers starvation wages, while bringing all the profits from their labor back to American owners. At the same time, organized crime syndicates from the U.S. developed hundreds of brothels and casinos in Havana, with far fewer restraints than they would have had in Nevada or New Jersey. For more than 50 years, the labor of Cubans and the natural resources of their country were completely in the service of U.S. interests. On the eve of the armed struggle against imperialism’s henchman, the dictator Fulgencio Batista, poverty, hunger, sexual exploitation, and illiteracy characterized the vast majority of the Cuban population.

Cuba resists imperialism

On the 26th of July 1953, a handful of revolutionaries from the Federation of University Students and the Orthodox Party organized about 100 young men in an audacious attempt to seize control of the weapons stored at the Moncada Barracks in Santiago, in eastern Cuba. Many aspects of the assault on Moncada went wrong: the barracks had unexpected defenses, some of the forces were lost in the streets of Santiago, and the rebels were woefully ill equipped. Five of the rebels were killed in the gun fight that ensued, many were captured, and those who could retreat did so. Then, with unprecedented brutality, Batista’s army rounded up more than 60 rebels and dragged them back to the Moncada Barracks over the next few days. There, many were horribly tortured and dozens executed.[3] Some of the tortured bodies were strewn on the barracks grounds to make it seem like the aftermath of a firefight, but that fooled nobody. This was the first of Batista’s bloodbaths, and his regime killed about 20,000 Cubans before the revolution was finally successful in 1959.[4] .

Once the revolution was won, and the new Cuban government asserted its autonomy vis-à-vis global capital, the U.S. began a relentless campaign of propaganda, sabotage, diplomatic isolation, and assassination for the next 60 years. Some attacks are covert, like the sabotage the U.S. State Department engaged in under Secretary of State Clinton and President Obama and the CIA’s numerous attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro, and some attacks are indirect, like looking the other way when armed mercenaries from Miami exile groups attacked coastal villages, or when a Cuban exile blew up an airplane in midflight, as happened in 1976. In all, it’s estimated that more than 3,500 Cubans have been killed in attacks initiated by or permitted by the U.S. since the revolution, including the Bay of Pigs.

Since 1961, the U.S. imposed a blockade on Cuba, preventing imports and exports, and in later law tightened restrictions to prevent other countries from trading with Cuba. The blockade costs Cuba more than $4 billion every year. It is a violation of the rights of Cuban citizens, and it causes shortages of vital medicines and medical equipment. One anecdote that illustrates the costly repercussions of the blockade was explained to a group of visitors to an ophthalmic clinic and research institute in Havana during the Bush years. The institute used scarce foreign currency to invest in very costly machinery from Europe, and it entered into a long-term contract to import parts needed to keep the machinery functioning. Within a year, an American company acquired the European firm, contracts were cancelled, and the machinery is idle. At the same time, U.S. citizens are deprived of medical advances developed in Cuban laboratories, as well as opportunities to enjoy Cuban dance companies and other artists, and other products that Cuba offers the world.

The place of finance capital in this blockade is clear. As every U.S. visitor to Cuba finds out, U.S. banks don’t do business with Cuban banks, period. During the Obama administration, when some exceptions to trade restrictions were introduced, export to Cuba was made impossibly complex by the inability to pay and to receive payment. In 2018–19, it was estimated that the losses to Cuban financial institutions was $725.8 million. U.S. banks are prohibited from working with Cuban banks, but foreign banks also refuse to do business because of U.S. pressure on them.

Who is coming out ahead?

Comparisons of social indicators for Cuba and Jamaica ultimately show that while Jamaica succumbed to imperialism’s every demand and Cuba fought hard and pay a high price to resist it, the Cuban people have longer life expectancies, less economic inequality, and more opportunities for education than do Jamaicans. Cubans are less exposed to violence, homelessness, and food insecurity than their counterparts.

One statistic that is used to compare countries in terms of overall social well-being is the Human Development Index. Cuba ranks 72nd among nations, Jamaica 96th. Cuban life expectancy is 77.8 years compared to Jamaica’s 72.6. Cuba’s infant mortality rate is 4 per 1,000 live births; in Jamaica, 12 babies out of every thousand die in their first year. (The corresponding statistic for the U.S. is 6.) The mean years of schooling is higher in Cuba than Jamaica (11.8 compared to 9.8 years). Education is free through the tertiary level in Cuba, while in Jamaica, families must pay school fees even at the high school level. Cuba attracts more visitors than people in the U.S. realize. Almost twice as many foreign visitors visited Cuba in 2017 compared to Jamaica (4.7 million versus 2.5 million).

One staggering statistic is the difference in the rates with which civilians are killed by police. In Cuba, gun crime is virtually nonexistent. I found reference to one single case of police killing a civilian in recent decades. In fact, Cuban methods of neighborhood peacekeeping are said to provide models that could be emulated in the U.S. In contrast, Jamaican police kill civilians at a rate 10 times that of the United States. In the U.S., police killed 46 individuals per 10 million in the population; Jamaican police killed 473 per 10 million. In a single event in May 2010, when the imperial world (specifically, the United States) had demanded that Jamaica round up the gangster Dudus Coke and extradite him to the U.S., police entered a garrison neighborhood in Kingston with guns blazing to retrieve him, leaving 73 Jamaicans dead.

Celebrating anti-imperialism

Finally, it is notable the way Cuba celebrates anti-imperialism. Two examples are the framing of the battle at the Playa Girón (Bay of Pigs) and the José Martí Anti-Imperialist Tribuna.

Playa Girón was the site of an April 1961 invasion of Cuba by a paramilitary force of about 1,500 Cuban exiles who had been trained and funded by the Central Intelligence Agency. Cuban forces defeated the mercenaries within 72 hours, capturing 1,180 of them, who were released the following year in exchange for about $53 million worth of privately donated baby food and medicines. A billboard there proudly proclaims that it is the “first great defeat of Yankee imperialism in Latin America.” There is an extensive museum in Playa Girón that documents the poverty of that region of the country in the Batista years, when many people eked out a living selling charcoal, through the dramatic battle in which Fidel Castro himself commanded the Cuban forces to victory.

The José Martí Anti-Imperialist Tribuna was built in 2000 during the Elián González crisis as a setting especially for anti-U.S. protests. Its location is strategic, adjacent to the American Interests Section (once the embassy) and in sight of both the monument commemorating Americans lost when the Maine blew up mysteriously in Havana Harbor in 1898, setting in motion the U.S.’s infiltration of the Cuban political economy, and the Hotel Nacional, where Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano, and other “distinguished” Americans once presided over their little empires. Among the structures in the Tribuna are commemorative plaques celebrating anti-imperialists from Cuba, the United States, and elsewhere. Americans celebrated here include Abraham Lincoln, Henry Reeve, Malcolm X, and Frederick Douglass.

These and other sites in Cuba provide opportunities for Cubans and visitors alike to reflect on the importance of the struggle against what Lenin recognized as “the swindling tricks of finance capital.”[5]


[1] Lenin, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism.
[2] Fidel Castro and Ignacio Ramonet, My Life: A Spoken Autobiography (New York: Scribner, 2006), p. 50.
[3] Paul J. Dosal, Cuba Libre: A Brief History of Cuba (Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson, 2006), p. 68.
[4] Leo Huberman and Paul M. Sweezy, Cuba: Anatomy of a Revolution (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1960), p. 29.
[5] Lenin, Imperialism.

Image:  Dan Lundberg, Creative Commons (BY-SA 2.0).


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