Dr. Kwame Nantambu

An Overview of U.S. Policy Toward the Caribbean in the 1970s

Part 1

Pages: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4
by Dr. Kwame Nantambu
November 20, 2005


The analysis in this article takes the position that it is necessary to establish the focus and role of the United States in the world so as to ascertain its foreign policy toward any given geographical region. In other words, it is the totality of the United States global posture in past decades and the specificity of its role in the past decade that provide the necessary backdrop against which we can examine its policy toward the Caribbean in the 1970s.

United States Global Position and the Caribbean

The global post-war system was initially bi-polarized with the United States as the dominant political and military power over a weakened Europe and Japan in the Western corner with the Soviet Union the dominant political and military power in the East. This conclusion is corroborated by Chinweizu when he asserts that:
In World War II, the United States saved the old imperial nations of Europe--from loosing their global empires to the Axis Alliance of Challengers--namely, Germany, Japan, and Italy. Thereafter, leadership of the West passed into the hands of America. With leadership came the responsibility of championing Western expansion into those parts of the world that had managed to escape their control, as well as the responsibility of protecting the Western empires from the uprising of their subject peoples. The first responsibility would pit the American-led West against the Soviet Bloc countries in a titanic struggle called the Cold War...
To the United States, the Cold War represented the expression of two antagonistic and competing world centers and in order to legitimize its own pursuit of global interests within this expansionist framework, an ideological justification was derived by presenting the international class struggle as a confrontation between capitalism (free enterprise, freedom, democracy and Christianity) and socialism (collectivism and atheism). This theology not only received support from the domestic ruling elite to the extent that the Cold War was based on the notions that a Soviet expansion must be halted by both military and political means and this in turn would create the preconditions for an eventual mellowing or even breaking up of the Soviet system, but it also fashioned United States policy toward the Third World and the Caribbean.

For example, during the second phase of the Cold War, 1950-62, which spanned the spectrum of the Korean War (1950-51) to the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962), the theater of the Cold War significantly broadened. In this instance, both the United States and the Soviet Union began to look beyond the old world for new gains. Military manifestations of power showed themselves in the Korean War, Suez Canal conflict of 1956, the Soviet Union invasions of Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and superpower reappraisals of the non-aligned or neutralist Third World in the early 1950's. The Soviet Union abandoned the Stalinist dichotomy contained in his two-camp doctrine and began to represent itself as a friend of the Third World and embarked on an anti-imperialist struggle with its support for national liberation movements.

The United States, for its part, expressed a disapproval of neutrals and fence-sitters in the Third World and commenced an extensive and generous foreign aid program coupled with a firm anti-colonialist, pro-Third World stance.

The supposedly anti-colonialist stance needs looking into a little further. For while it is a fact that during 1961 and 1962, the Kennedy administration did take a strong anti-colonial stance with regard to Portuguese colonialism in Africa, there was, however, a major policy shift from the initial, anti-colonial stance of the Kennedy Administration in mid-1962. The Kennedy administration subsequently became less critical of Portugal's colonialism and henceforth refused to support Third World efforts in the United Nations to bring about an arms embargo and sanctions against Portugal. It has been suggested that the change in policy was largely due to the United States desire to renew its lease, scheduled to expire in December 1962, for the use of air and naval facilities on the Azores Islands. In addition, access to the Azores was a base the Pentagon considered indispensable to Cold War defense plans. Another suggestion was that the Pentagon, specifically Dean Acheson and some southern senators, urged Kennedy to assist, not condemn, Portuguese efforts to carry out its civilizing mission in Africa.

Moreover, during the third phase of the Cold War, 1963-72, both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations implemented paranoid Cold War policies toward the Caribbean. In the early 1960s, the Kennedy administration, for example, supported the CIA's use of $1.2m from the United States Treasury to bring down the government of Prime Minister Cheddi Jagan of Guyana through strikes, terrorism and other covert instruments of intervention. The administration also supported the AFL-CIO's role in instigating and organizing those strikes with the aid of Guyanese labor unions, particularly the Trade Union Council (TUC). CIA agents were in charge of these destabilizing activities. Kennedy and his advisors feared that a communist take-over in Guyana would threaten United States strategic and political interests and rationalized that a Guyana under Forbes Burnham would cause (the United States) few problems than an independent Guyana under Jagan, an avowed Marxist. Indeed the United States government was concerned and determined to ensure that any regime taking the country into independence would give allegiance to the U.S. Inter-American system position. The Kennedy administration also persuaded then British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to postpone Guyana's independence beyond the United States presidential elections. In 1964 then, when elections were held in Guyana, Jagan lost to Burnham through rigged proportional representation election system that presidential assistant Arthur Schlesinger had suggested as the legal way open to bring about the downfall of Jagan. Suddenly terrorism ceased in Guyana with the defeat of Marxist Jagan. And not to be outdone the United States government was relieved that Guyana had passed safely out of the communist orbit through its Cold War interventionist policies.

In 1965, the Johnson administration also convincingly asserted the United States sphere of influence in the Caribbean by the April 28, 1965, military invasion (23,000 U.S. troops) of the Dominican Republic. This military invasion more than anything else, dramatically reversed the United States prolonged adherence to its pledge to foreswear unilateral military intervention. In September 1965, the United States House of Representatives in the aftermath of the Dominican invasion provided perhaps the clearest official statement ever that this country has a right to shape political choices throughout the Caribbean. The House declared that even the threat of intervention by the subversive forces known as international communism would justify the United States resorting to armed force, in the exercise of individual self-defense. The underlying and widely accepted United States attitude--that the United States government has a right to remove from hemispheric political life whatever forces it deems threatening--indeed conditioned the Nixon-Kissinger-Carter response to Salvador Allende's election in Chile and Michael Manley's in Jamaica.

Indeed the 1960s saw the emergence of new independent actors on the global stage and the policies and demands of these independent nations were to challenge Western imperialism in general and United States hegemony, in particular. These policies and demands include the policy of non-alignment, various forms of Socialism, Marxism, Communism and the demand for a New International Economic Order (NIEO). So strong was the impact of decolonization that some authors have argued "that the specific conjuncture out of which United States foreign policy emerged in the 1970s was one of relative weakness that came in the wake of the Indochina debacle. According to Giovanni Arrighi:
At the end of the 1960s the international system entered a new phase which is characterized precisely by the tendency to decomposition of the formal empires constructed during the previous twenty years.... and by the attempt of the U.S.A. to maintain its own hegemonic position on the basis of an informal dominion....The victory of the Vietnamese Revolution accelerated the transformation of the national sovereignty of Third World States from a purely formal autonomy into real political independence - demonstrated at the level of economic relations by more aggressive intervention in the commodity markets and assertions of control over their natural resources....
When the Vietnam War ended, the United States economy had weakened vis-a-vis Western Europe and Japan. As early as 1967, the Johnson administration attempted to broaden the power-base of the state in the fields of international fiscal and monetary policy in an attempt to revitalize the strength of the dollar. The transnational enterprises including the major banks vigorously resisted such efforts and took steps to protect the soundness of their capital. They proceeded to increase the level of foreign investments and the flight of liquid capital to Europe. As a result, the United States balance of payments deteriorated, the dollar was devalued and removed from convertibility into gold. The end of the Vietnam war also saw the United States adapting a new approach to global politics - a politics of detente. According to Frans A. M. Alting von Geusau, detente was an "irreversible process of relations between the socialist states and those of the opposite camp." He indicates further that detente represented a new stage between the two camps in which "the correlation of forces" compelled the capitalist states to give wider recognition to the principle of peaceful co-existence and that this has resulted in a "shift in power relations between East and West in favor of the Soviet Union."

Detente, however, failed to stymie the tide of nationalism that was gushing forth from Third World countries who were seeking to extricate themselves from superpower suzerainty. This avalanche brought about a change in United States policy. For one thing, the Nixon Doctrine, reflecting "a new attitude concerning the United States role in the World's political economy" had as its central theme the realized truism that "the economic and political dominance once held by the United States no longer obtained because of the relatively more rapid advance experienced in such countries as Japan, the Soviet Union, and those in Western Europe." Furthermore, "foreign aid to less developed countries had failed to accelerate their economic growth to desired levels and had not elicited widespread allegiance to (Western) democratic political ideals." Indeed the old arguments that foreign aid can be used as a bulwark to combat Communism and secure world peace had worn thin. And according to Andrew Kopkind,
the 1970s saw America entering an era of intense intra-capitalist competition for markets, resources and capital. The principal external threats came from insurgencies in those developing countries that had become dependent on American economic assistance and industrial investment. The global strategy that Kissinger derived from that perspective was detente; the agreement with the Soviet Union to stabilize world politics in the interests of both imperialist powers. China, too, was brought into the club--not specifically as a 'card'...to play against Russia, but as part of the (new) global great-power (tri-polar) establishment....
By 1972, the redefinition of American foreign policy was clearly leading the United States into increased reliance on a triangular pattern of politics as a means of survival and consolidation. The institutional framework for trilateralism is the Trilateral Commission which was formed in 1973 in order Ato wield the world's industrial giants into an alliance that would rule the world and exploit their own citizens: and in order to terminate Axis rivalry, the United States was to join them to create a new, three-sided axis that would subdue the rest of the world, not militarily, but economically. In a more realistic sense, we would suggest that the following events triggered widespread fear of a disruption of the Western industrial economies and the international economic order to precipitate the formation of the Commission. These included accelerating inflation and United States balance of payments deficits which caused the August 15, 1971 demise of post World War II Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates, coupled with the October 1973 oil crisis and subsequent spiraling of prices which not only placed a severe burden on international payments and fueled inflation, but also led to mounting debts by oil-importing countries. Needless to say, Third World countries felt the greatest impact of the crisis and this heightened their demand for a NIEO. This demand brought about a reorganization of the imperialist division of labor and an alteration of the way in which international surplus flows to the center and periphery thereby affecting conditions of accumulation.

In the meantime, Third World countries like Jamaica established diplomatic and economic ties with socialist countries and socialist economic integration groupings such as the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA). United States militarism in Indochina was severely attacked both nationally and internationally. Public opposition to the war not only tore the United States society apart but also engendered a distrust of its institutions. Western allies also questioned United States motives in the war. The United States was then faced with the task of rescuing its waning global position. European allies lost faith in the United States as a world leader in the 1970s. This loss of confidence together with structural crises within the capitalist system provided the impetus for the Europeans, principally France and West Germany, to chart an independent course in global politics.


During the Nixon and Ford administration, the Caribbean was basically ignored. Overall, United States policy toward the region can be safely described as one of "benign neglect" except when there was a perceived threat of communist intrusion. This was so because then Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger was so preoccupied with other pressing global issues such as the Middle East conflict, detente with the Soviet Union, China, Western Europe, Vietnam, and Southeast Asia, that he did not have time to devote to the Caribbean.

As far as detente is concerned, however, Kissinger's selective application of detente to China and the Soviet Union, but not to Cuba and his pique at Jamaica's detente with Cuba was based on the notion that big powers are in a position or even have the right to divide up the world into distinct spheres of influence. Kissinger's obsession with issues of detente "gave the impression that the dominant system determined the course of all world events to the exclusion of other actors in the international system." But as Michael Brecher correctly points out: "It is dangerous to assume that the 'elephants' (the superpowers) are the only members of the international system (and) to ignore the 'squirrels' (Third World countries) by virtue of a specious claim that the 'elephants' determine all or most of their actions." According to Kissinger's view, the spheres or zones were mutually exclusive and each superpower had the right to police its area of strategic interest. Neither Jamaica nor Cuba was considered power centers and they were in what United States policy-makers considered their sphere of influence. The failure of Kissinger to extend the policy of detente to Cuba was a result of the contradiction between a great power sphere-of- interest policy and the existence of a revolutionary society within that sphere. State Department officials feared that in recognizing Cuba, the stage would be set for a realignment of forces within the Caribbean around an alternative anti-imperialist pole. The process of trying to isolate the Cuban component of United States policy from the general problem of containing its impact on the rest of the Caribbean has continued to plague United States officials.

The first major feature of detente, the mutual recognition by great powers of spheres of influence, not only excluded Cuba (by definition) but also served as the basis for continuing United States hostility not only to Cuba but also to Jamaica under Prime Minister Michael Manley. The second feature of detente was the hope of opening up a vast new market for United States goods in China and in the Soviet Union. Conversely, United States policy-makers saw few economic opportunities in Cuba, where the economy is closely integrated with that of the Soviet Union and lacking in strategic materials. In the case of Jamaica, this article will show that the United States was principally worried about Manley's Democratic Socialism and his very close association with Cuba -- an association the United States perceived that Castro was cultivating to capitalize on "targets of opportunities" in the Caribbean.

The Nixon administration's neglect of the Caribbean is further reflected in the President's Report to the Congress on United States Foreign Policy for the 1970s dated February 25, 1971 and May 3, 1973 in which the word 'Caribbean' was only mentioned six times at a maximum in the two reports.

The parameters of the administration's Caribbean policy were reflected in two ways, viz: (i) President Nixon's "concern that Cuba became the first member of the American family to welcome into the hemisphere the armed power of a non-American state," that "there is no evidence that Havana's military ties with Moscow have markedly changed" and further that the United States "will consider a change in policy toward Cuba when Cuba changes its policy toward the other countries of the hemisphere;" and

(ii) Nixon viewed Multinational Corporations (MNCs) as "an important factor" in hemispheric relations and instructed U.S. representatives at the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) and World Bank "to oppose loans to countries that expropriated American property without compensation. Although Cuba and the United States signed an anti-hijacking treaty on February 15, 1973, in 1974 the Nixon administration abstained in the vote by the Organization of American States (OAS) to lift sanctions against Cuba. In fact, Secretary of State Kissinger did not attend the OAS foreign ministers meeting in November 1974 because events in the Middle East kept him away. In July 1975, however, when the outcome seemed obvious, the United States reversed its policy and voted along with 15 other Latin American nations to lift sanctions against Cuba.

Therefore, 1975 marked a drastic change in United States policy toward Cuba. In a speech in Houston on March 1, l975 Secretary Kissinger, for example, revealed that although the United States' "main concern was still Cuba's ...military connection with Moscow...we are prepared to move in a new direction if Cuba will." According to authoritative sources, this "speech signaled a move to reverse U.S. policy toward Cuba." In fact, since 1973, the United States government gave positive signs that it was softening its former intransigent policy toward Cuba. The United States vote in July 1975 to lift OAS sanctions against Cuba and the decision by President Ford in August 1975 to relax the economic embargo against Cuba to permit sales by American subsidiaries abroad and to remove penalties on other nations that trade with Cuba were signs of improved relations between the two governments. According to the State Department, these decisions were "part of a slow, guarded turn toward normalizing U.S. relations with the Communist government of (President) Fidel Castro." Only trade conducted through third nations was affected by the new policy but the ban on direct trade between Cuba and the United States was still to be continued. Spokesmen for the administration, reiterated that the United States found "no virtue in perpetual antagonism" between the two governments, that the United States was ready to "enter into a dialogue with Cuba...on the basis of reciprocity" but that "any change in (U.S.) bilateral relationship with Cuba will depend on Cuba's attitude."

According to published reports, President Castro welcomed the new U.S. policy change, but insisted that "bilateral relations could not be normalized until all sanctions were lifted." And when President Ford enumerated the pre-condition for normalization of U.S.-Cuban relations, viz, withdrawal of Cuban support for Puerto Rico, Angola and liberation struggles in Latin America, President Castro was equally firm and clear when he explained that:
...although economic relations with the United States may be useful to our country, these relations will never be re-established on the basis of giving up one single iota of our principles. The Cuban Revolution will not abandon the principle of proletarian internationalism for normalization of relations with the United States. And as long as the U.S. government continues to be the mainstay of colonialism, neo-colonialism and reaction, Havana's foreign policy will remain unacceptable to Washington...
The specifics of the Ford administration's policy changes toward Cuba indicated that:

(i) It will be U.S. policy to grant licenses permitting transactions between U.S. subsidiaries and Cuba for trade in foreign made goods when those subsidiaries are operating in countries where local law or policy favors trade with Cuba. Trading licenses, however, will still be required, subject to U.S. regulations on exporting strategic goods, technology, and American-made components;"

(ii) Nations whose ships or aircrafts carry goods to and from Cuba no longer will be "penalized by loss of U.S. bilateral assistance;"

(iii) The U.S. will modify regulations that prevent foreign merchant vessels engaged in Cuban trade from being refueled in the United States and;

(iv) Congress will be asked to change legislation that prohibits nations trading with Cuba from receiving American food aid under PL480.

It should be pointed out that as a result of this policy change, sales to Cuba by foreign subsidiaries abroad of U.S. companies ran at a level greater than those of any single country except the Soviet Union and Japan. In fact, from October 1975 to June 1976, the first nine months in which the U.S. Treasury licensed sales, about $177 million worth represented grains and cereals, mainly from Canada. And in response to this U.S. policy change, the Castro government returned to Southern Airways almost $2 million taken from hijackers of one of its planes in 1972. The United States regarded this act "as a demonstration of Castro's desire for improved relations. However, during the Ford administration circa late 1975, Manley's domestic policies and foreign policy support for Castro's activities in Africa, among other things, were sufficient to attract Kissinger's attention and to drastically alter United States policy toward the Caribbean. More specifically, the Ford administration was piqued at President Castro sending one-eighth of Cuba's standing-army - 20,000 soldiers- to fight on the side of the pro-Soviet Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) in the liberation war in Angola in 1975-76. Kissinger regarded that act as a "geo-political event of considerable significance," while President Ford indicated that Castro's action destroyed "any opportunity for improvement of relations with the United States" and that any "official moves toward rapprochement (with Cuba) abruptly ceased."

It should be noted also that following on the heels of souring relations between the two governments, on October 6, 1976 an explosion on board a Cuban jet liner killed 73 persons, including 57 Cubans, 11 Guyanese, and 5 North Koreans. The jet exploded in mid-air shortly after taking off from Barbados to Jamaica. President Castro linked the bombing to Cuban exiles working with the CIA and suggested that there was a direct correlation between Cuban troops in Angola and the bombing of the Cuban jet. To this, we should add that by 1971, Times of the Americas revealed that "some 20 attempts on the life of Premier Castro" were made "all of them directed, financed and equipped by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency." In sum, the Nixon and Ford administrations' hope for a "new dialogue" and "a serious and hopeful dialogue", respectively, with the Caribbean did not materialize. The so-called "Nixon Doctrine" did not work. While it worked in Asia to the "Vietnamization" of the war, in the Caribbean it amounted to simple neglect. The United States regarded Cuba as "the avant-garde of the anti-American crusade in the region" and as a result, its sole policy objectives were "to thwart Cuba's export of revolution to other Latin American countries and to reduce Cuba's military ties with the Soviet Union." While of course there have been several arguments for and against normalization of relations with Cuba, one thing is clear, namely, that normalization of relations with Cuba represented a confession of failure of the 16-year old United States "policy of economic denial" and geo-political and hemispheric isolation. Indeed Fidel Castro has shown that "geographical determinism can be reversed" and that his policy of promoting proletarian internationalism is immutable as evidenced by the fact that he has "survived countless U.S. efforts to unseat him and (has) outlasted four American Presidents".


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