Sixty years ago, the U.S.-backed Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista fled his island nation, ceding power to a charismatic cigar-chomping revolutionary named Fidel Castro.
Castro quickly seized American-owned properties and embraced the Soviet Union as an ally.
His ascent to power triggered U.S. trade and travel embargos and a botched covert assault on the island, prompting a missile installation by the Soviets and fears of nuclear confrontation. Decades of animosity between America and Havana followed.
Since that time and with only short-lived exceptions, the United States has pursued a policy built around a comprehensive economic embargo in the hopes of forcing a regime change.
The problem, says Vicki Huddleston, chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba under presidents Clinton and George W. Bush, is that the policy doesn’t work.
Huddleston’s South Carolina visit
Now retired from the diplomatic corps, Huddleston flew into South Carolina in September for three days of talks with business, academic and civic leaders as a guest of Upstate International and World Affairs Council Upstate and shared her prescription for more effective U.S.–Cuba relations.
Those relations are at a near-low, Huddleston told Upstate Business Journal.
“The only time where we have had worse relations with Cuba was the Bay of Pigs and the Missile Crisis,” she said prior to a Sept. 18 speech at Greenville’s Commerce Club.
While the Obama administration enacted a normalization process toward Cuba, the Trump administration “slammed the door closed,” she wrote in her 2018 memoir “Our Woman in Havana,” stifling the island’s emerging private sector after years of oppressive state control.
“So you had all these small industries. We had cooperatives that did construction. You had individuals who ran little B&Bs, rented out rooms, ran restaurants, you know, provided everything from haircuts to music … finally they have a little bit of money. They have a little bit of independence. Everyone believes we should be fostering this private sector,” Huddleston told UBJ.
The impact of policy failure
Although certain exceptions exist for non-state small-business enterprises, the current administration’s big-stick approach to trade, tourism, and family remittances hurts both ordinary Cubans and U.S. business interests, Huddleston said.
“Cuba has a pretty sophisticated medical industry and manufacturing of medicine, so you could expand that. You could have cooperation with various U.S. pharmaceuticals,” she said. “There’s hardly been any housing construction in Cuba at all — so that immense need, if people have money — and that means some kind of industry.”
Huddleston, who also served as ambassador to Madagascar and Mali, delivered lectures on countering terrorism in Africa at the University of South Carolina-Upstate and Furman University and one on executive power and diplomacy at Clemson University during her stay.
“I believe from my point of view what has happened is that under this administration we have backed away from the international system that the United States built after World War Two, was a system of laws, of rules, of trade, of immigration, of nations supporting, helping each other … and now we are allowing that system to disintegrate,” Huddleston said.
Cuba might now be brokering a “soft landing” and helping to effect regime change in Venezuela if Obama’s more conciliatory approach to Havana had been allowed to play out, the former mission head added.
During her visit, Huddleston autographed copies of her memoir. In it, she details both serious and humorous encounters with Fidel Castro, her initiative to arm Cubans with transistor radios as an end-run around the regime’s party line, the staging of a counter exhibition of exile art, and the canine celebrity of her Afghan hound, Havana, a regular crowd-pleaser in the city’s dog shows.
Huddleston now lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.