The Stars and Stripes has a mixed record on Havana’s troubled streets

Make no mistake Cuba’s regime is a vicious dictatorship with an atrocious record on human rights violations. American politicians such as Bernie Sanders should be ashamed for painting a rosy picture of that murderous tyranny.

For that reason, the recent protest movement in that Caribbean nation deserves all the support from conservatives — and sensible people as a whole. As expected, many conservative politicians and commentators across the United States­— and even the Biden administration— are voicing strong support for protesters in Havana.

In some of the protests, American flags are being waved. In an era in which American athletes kneel when the Star-Spangled Banner is played at sporting competitions, many conservatives in the United States are thrilled to see Cuban protesters embrace the American flag. For example, US Representative Carlos Gimenez said on Fox News: “Look at the images coming out of Cuba, right. They’ve got people there waving the American flag because that is the symbol of freedom. And that’s why my family brought me here to this country and that’s why I’m in Congress, to fight to make sure that America stays free.”

Yet, a word of caution to conservatives. The American flag certainly stands for freedom, but in Cuba, the story is more complex. Cuba was originally a Spanish colony, and colonial authorities had been savagely repressing independence movements throughout the latter half of the 19th Century. By 1898, Spanish authorities were bent on a new wave of repression. One American ship— the USS Maine— stationed in Havana’s harbor mysteriously blew up. Instigated by the emerging yellow journalism in the United States, the US government blamed the explosion on Spain, with no evidence whatsoever. Spain was quickly defeated in the ensuing Spanish-American war.

During the war, Cuban rebels were promised full independence. But, once Spain was defeated, Cuba effectively became a puppet state. The United States withdrew its military forces from the island, but imposed on Cuba’s constitution the infamous Platt Amendment, in which the United States reserved the right to military intervene and appoint a government at any time. This amendment allowed the United States to militarily reoccupy Cuba from 1906 to 1909. The Platt Amendment was derogated in 1934, but the US government supported the following dictators until Fidel Castro’s rise to power in 1959.

Considering this historical record on the island, it is doubtful that the American flag can be fully seen as a symbol of freedom in Cuban politics. Yes, the Castro brothers cheaply played the anti-imperialist card over and over again to suit their own corrupt agenda, and today, Díaz Canel —the Castro brothers’ successor— is trying to play the same trick, by blaming Cuba’s own Marxist failure on the United States.

But conservatives must be sensible enough to understand how these dictators have managed to play this game to some degree of success. Part of the explanation is that American imperialism in Latin America is not a myth. Whether or not that imperialism has in the long term been beneficial to Latin America is open to discussion, as Puerto Rico­— an American colony­— has a higher standard of living than most Latin American nations. But even if American imperialism in the region can be judged as benign (on balance), it has fallen short by a wide margin of truly standing for freedom. Given the historical record, in Cuba and the wider region, the stars and stripes has often stood far more for paternalistic imperialism and support of dictators.

Protesters in Cuba can of course wave any flag they please. But when it comes to commenting on Cuban affairs, conservatives in the United States ought to be more careful than just trumpeting the American flag as a symbol of freedom. When Fidel Castro emerged from Sierra Maestra and arrived in Havana in 1959, he had substantial support both within Cuba and abroad, because he was perceived as a nationalist freedom fighter that toppled an American puppet. Today, Cubans have had enough of the tired and cheap anti-imperialist rhetoric. But if American conservatives keep on praising the use of American flags in Cuban demonstrations, the anti-imperialist rhetoric may again gain some credence, as it may be a reminder that under the guise of promoting freedom, the American flag has come to represent many of the excesses of imperialism in Latin America, which any sensible person­ — including conservatives — ought to reject.

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