Cuba seen in the mirror of Ukraine
The war in Ukraine forces a clear-eyed and informed analysis on those who fight for social justice, defend freedom and democracy, oppose war, and value national independence. It is particularly important for Cuban Americans who favor normalization of relations with the United States to focus on facts and how Ukraine can be modeled onto Cuba. We need to be careful not to fall for false assumptions, faulty logic, and such re-writing of history as strategic alliances might suggest. It’s not like being a fan of team red or team blue. Serious truths have to be spoken to the powers that be.
One false assumption has become a meme in current news reports and people at large who follow current events, “legitimate security interests of Russia.” Russia does have such interests, but the implication that Ukraine violated them is pure propaganda. For example, accusations that Ukraine has been developing biochemical and bacteriological weapons are recognized as false by the whole world except Russia. Accusations that Ukraine was committing genocide against Russians in Donbas are equally known to be false. There are many more examples, some of which I’ll list below, and some people believe these falsities. Just listen to what Putin articulated as his justifications for the invasion to realize his falsehoods.
What Putin is openly relying upon is (1) the notion that Ukraine as a country does not exist; it’s a part of Russia; and (2) a modern version of the so-called Brezhnev Doctrine, an assertion of a Soviet security sphere in Eastern Europe similar to the Monroe Doctrine and other fig leaves worn by powers throughout the world until the end of World War II to cover their naked aggressions. This doctrine would dictate that Ukraine’s sovereignty cannot be larger than that of the Warsaw Pact prior to the demise of the Soviet Union after the Revolutions of 1989.
This doctrine of “limited sovereignty” is dead because the notion that big bully states can control the government or determine the political system of smaller, less powerful neighbors has been thoroughly rejected by the international community in every conceivable forum, declaration, charter, or treaty for the past 70 years, including by the Soviet Union and Russia.
An equally wrong view is the idea that some independent nations cannot determine through a democratic and free process with whom they seek alliances because NATO’s open-door policy is “provocative.” Russia recognized this principle when it signed in 1999 the Charter for European Security, where it reaffirmed the “inherent right of each and every participating State to be free to choose or change its security arrangements, including treaties of alliance, as they evolve.” Arrangements like the Hitler–Stalin Pact, which resulted in the partition of Poland, and the like are unacceptable in modern times.
Putin’s reckless imperialistic actions and a growing pile of war crimes and human rights abuses have resulted in the displacement and migration of millions of innocent civilians, the deaths and maiming of tens of thousands in mere weeks, the utter destruction of cities, towns, and villages, and a shock to the world economy, most of all Russia’s, which could be the road to a humiliating and costly defeat, as Russia already suffered in Afghanistan. Putin, under false pretenses, has moved the needle of the Doomsday Clock closer to 12 p.m. by using thinly veiled nuclear threats and making it likely that a wrong move or miscalculation will lead to worldwide annihilation.
One, NATO has not “moved east.” NATO has an application process for countries that want to join. Some, like Sweden and Finland, considered it and decided not to proceed. Still, they object to the Russian proposal that NATO make a commitment not to further expand, because it limits their future options. Norway did apply and was accepted. These are decisions of sovereign nations. Nor has NATO “threatened” Russia, which has an extensive record of aggression and invasions. If anything, Russia has presented as much or more of a threat to NATO nations and other small European countries as any reciprocal threat. And at this particular time, there was no evidence that Ukraine would have imminently joined NATO.
Second, Ukraine never “belonged” to Russia, except temporarily starting in the late 1700s when the extreme west of Ukraine fell under the control of the Austrians and the rest became a part of the Russian Empire. Ukraine has prehistoric roots and it became a part of the Soviet Union only when the Red Army established control at the end of the Ukrainian-Soviet War following the chaotic period of the Russian Revolutions of 1917. A thousand years before Moscow was a mere small village, Ukraine was already a federation of peoples. Its current capital, Kyiv, was a world center of civilization, knowledge and culture as the capital of the Kievan Rus, which emerged as a powerful nation in the Middle Ages but disintegrated in the 12th century. This was Russia’s and Ukraine’s common ancestral land.
Third, the missile emplacements in Romania and Poland are no more of a threat to Russia than the Russian nuclear submarines and other elements of its nuclear triad are a threat to the whole world at the same time that they provide a deterrent through the theory of Assured Mutual Destruction. In any case, such placement cannot be blamed on Kyiv and will not change even if Russia pulverizes Ukraine. A greater threat to everyone could be Russia’s recently-minted hypersonic missiles. The invasion will only lead to a hardening of NATO’s defenses and more interest by neutrals such as Sweden and Finland in joining NATO.
Fourth, talking about missiles: in the so-called Budapest Memorandum, an agreement signed by Ukraine, Russia, the United States, Ireland, and the United Kingdom in 1994, Ukraine acceded to the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and surrendered what was then the third largest nuclear stockpile. In exchange, the other parties agreed, among other things, to (1) respect the independence and sovereignty and existing borders of Ukraine; (2) reaffirm their obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine; (3) never use any of their weapons against Ukraine except in self-defense; and (4) seek immediate U.N. Security Council assistance should Ukraine become the victim of an act of aggression or an object of a threat of aggression in which nuclear forces are used. Clearly, Russia has violated all these and other provisions. Do you think it would have done so if Ukraine had kept its nuclear arsenal?
Fifth, the unilateral exits of the United States from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty under G.W. Bush and the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty under Trump were stupid and in fact gave freer rein to Russia to fortify its nuclear triad, so that cannot justify the invasion either.
Sixth, it’s true that the United States and other powers throughout history have committed atrocities, war crimes, and plenty of injustices, have invaded countries for pretextual reasons, and often lie to the people using their vast misinformation machinery. But the fact someone else has done wrong is not a justification for doing the same wrong. There’s no logic in Whataboutism, and the history of U.S. militarism, imperialism, and false narratives has led some on the left to rationalize Russian aggression and exaggerate Western responsibility.
Seven, Ukraine has a history of political convulsions, revolutions and counter-revolutions, populism, nationalism, ultranationalisms, and fascist and nazi movements––not unlike some other European nations––but the notion that fascists were taking over recently is absurd in light of the democratic election of Zelensky, a Jew, by the Ukrainian people. The most dangerous fascism rearing its ugly head in that part of the world and at this moment in history, i.e., a merging of corporatism (by proxy through the oligarchs) and the state, led by an authoritarian cult figure (Putin) who pursues notions of ultranationalism, manifest destiny, and exceptionalism, is occurring in Russia.
Progressives need to pronounce it clearly: there is no possible justification for the invasion of Ukraine and its horrors in the 22nd year of the twenty-first century. Period. Stop playing Putin’s game or parroting his talking points.
On March 14th, Marina Ovsyannikova, an editor at Russia’s state-owned Channel One, did just that. She interrupted the network’s evening newscast to challenge Putin’s lies and declare that she was ashamed of having been a tool of propaganda of his regime. She shouted, “Stop the war! No to war!” while holding up a sign reading: “No War. Don’t believe propaganda. They’re lying to you. Russians against war.” In a previously recorded video she courageously declared, “We Russians are thinking and intelligent people. It’s in our power alone to stop this madness. Go protest. Don’t be afraid of anything. They can’t put us all in prison.”
Recently, Cuba faced a tough challenge in light of the circumstances: a U.N. General Assembly resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which ultimately was approved 141 to 5. Cuba, however, was one of 35 nations that abstained. Some were surprised that Cuba, despite its strategic alliance, did not vote against it. In fact, Cuba’s ambassador Pedro Luis Pedroso Cuesta went a little farther and referred to Russia’s “non-observance of legal principles and international norms.” Cuba still amplified Russian talking points about the West instigating the crisis because of NATO’s expansion, for example. Cuba had to walk a tight rope, but showed a little courage.
Cuban diplomats and government figures know Cuban history. They know, for instance, that for 200 years the focus of Cuba’s struggles has been a fierce defense of sovereignty and independence. How could Cubans justify or defend the invasion of Ukraine in light of Cuban history, the anti-imperialist rhetoric of the past sixty years, and the shadow of the Monroe Doctrine?
Cuba had been placed in the same awkward position twice before. In 1968 the Soviet Union and allies invaded Czechoslovakia to overthrow the reformist communist government of Alexander Dubcek. The Cuban government said nothing for three days. When Fidel Castro finally spoke, instead of condemning the invasion, he excused it as a “bitter necessity” to protect socialism and the integrity of the socialist bloc. He asked rhetorically, “Will they send the divisions of the Warsaw Pact to Cuba if the Yankee imperialists attack our country?”
Cuba, however, did not positively support the Soviet action. As Fidel Castro acknowledged later, “Anything which affects the principle of non-intervention affects us, and we know it,” he said. Despite disagreements between Cuba and Moscow, Fidel would not side publicly with the United States. “We have always had a friend in the Soviet Union and we have always had an enemy in the United States,” he said. “Therefore, we could not possibly align with the United States against the Soviet Union.” In other words, realistically we are not totally sovereign.
The other time was in 1979 when the Security Council called the General Assembly into emergency session to consider a resolution condemning the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Cuban ambassador Raúl Roa accused the United States of “rolling drums of a new cold war,” but conceded that Cuba faced a “historical dilemma” because many of its friends saw the resolution as a defense of national sovereignty and independence. “Cuba will always uphold that right,” Roa promised, but would “never carry water to the mill of reaction and imperialism.” Cuba voted no on the resolution, which passed 104 to 18, but Roa said nothing to justify or defend the Soviet action.
There’s an apt saying, however, that “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”
So, despite its awkward position, Cuba has managed three times to sail between Scylla and Charybdis in the U.N. concerning similar issues central to the essence of Cubanity by adhering to a part of the truth. The rest of us who are free to do so can help a little by breaking through the fog of war with the whole truth instead of buying justifications––whether we are fans of team red or team blue. We’ll be joining millions throughout the world who have been demonstrating against the invasion. Is that too much to ask? Even in Russia, tens of thousands have taken to the street despite prohibitions on even the use of the words “attack,” “invasion,” or “war.” Marina Ovsyannikova and thousands more have ended up in prison. But we won’t, and it won’t take much courage.