theguardian | Two Caribbean islands are at a crossroads in their relationship with the US. One is plagued by corruption and debt, and dotted with crumbling homes, abandoned by families for the imperial power nearby. The other is Cuba.
Who won the cold war again?
Within 24 hours on Sunday, Puerto Rico’s governor, Alejandro García Padilla, announced that the American territory would default on nearly $370m of debt, after years of failure to put the island’s finances – or its relationship with the US – in order. The next morning a cruise ship full of tourists set sail for Havana, bringing American dreams, dollars and capitalist sense into Cuba’s future. Once seen as parallel case studies in cold war politics, the islands have seemingly switched roles.
For half a century, the US dominated Puerto Rico and Cuba after wrenching them away from Spain, but by the 1950s the islands parted ways. Cubans threw off a US-backed dictator, found new patrons in the Soviet Union and embraced communism. What nationalist fervor Puerto Rico had was quashed, and the colony stayed bound to US-controlled capitalism as a “free associated state”.
“When the cold war was going on they were like showcases for the world to see which system actually works,” said Harry Franqui-Rivera, a researcher at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College. “A successful Cuba made the United States look bad and if Puerto Rico failed it would make the United States look worse.”
Twenty-five years after the fall of the Soviet Union, US textbooks usually say capitalism won and communism lost, and on a historic mission to Cuba last month Barack Obama said as much: “I have come here to bury the last remnant of the cold war in the Americas.”
But experts and activists say the cold war had a murky end, at least in the Caribbean, and that the future for Puerto Rico and Cuba remains far from certain. The day of Obama’s keynote speech in Havana, the mayor of San Juan tweeted: “Obama spoke of opening bonds of collaboration with the neighboring island of Cuba while he makes bonds of repression and control in Puerto Rico.”