I celebrated Passover with two seders at my apartment this past weekend. My family and friends gathered to tell the story of the Jews escaping bondage in Egypt. We recited the ten plagues that God sent to compel the Pharoah to let his people go, dipping our fingers into the wine glass and putting a drop on the dinner plate as testimony.

Over the weekend, I finished a new book, Cuba: An American History by New York University professor Ada Ferrer. The Passover story has deep relevance to the story of Cuba. Unfortunately, Americans play the role of Pharoah. Here is the shocking truth about America’s role in the Cuban slave trade.

  1. Americans Accounted for 63 percent of Slaves Introduced to Cuba—Despite a ban on importation of slaves to the U.S. as of 1807, American ship captains continued to travel to Africa. Ferrer writes, “Many of the vessels were Baltimore clippers insured by New York companies. They set out from New York City, Boston, and New Bedford. 
  2. American Government Leaders Were Involved—James DeWolf, U.S. Senator from Rhode Island, carried human cargo on his ships and had three plantations in Cuba, with family members owning another three. The American consul in Havana charged a fee to help investors flout the law implemented by the Spanish that ended the slave trade to Cuba as of 1820, then bought his own sugar plantation with his earnings. The U.S. was implicated in the bedrock of the Cuban economy, which was slavery. Wealthy cotton planter William Rufus King, from Alabama, was elected Vice President in 1852. Taking a rest cure at a friend’s plantation, he was sworn in from Cuba.
  3. The Monroe Doctrine Protected Americans’ Stake in Cuba—Britain outlawed the slave trade in 1807. British navy ships captured and returned slave ships to home port from that date. The Monroe Doctrine put forward in 1823 by President James Monroe sought to keep European powers out of the Western Hemisphere. But it also put the U.S. Government squarely on the side of protecting slaveowners’ interest in Cuba. 
  4. Money From Sugar Built American Business—Moses Taylor, a New York sugar broker, made a fortune in selling sugar and advancing credit to the Cuban sugar barons, who then used the money to buy African slaves and machinery for sugar mills. Taylor invested his gains in banking, then became president of what is now Citibank, leaving a fortune of $1.3 billion in today’s money.
  5. Americans Dominated the Cuban Sugar Industry—After the Spanish-American War, there was a reduction in import tariffs, so demand for sugar exploded in the U.S. By 1907, foreigners owned 60 percent of all rural property in Cuba, resident Spaniards 15 percent, leaving Cubans with only 25 percent of the land. In the newer growing areas, Americans owned 7/8ths of the land. Americans also dominated sugar processing. In 1905, U.S.-owned mills produced 21 percent of the crop; by 1926, American-owned mills accounted for 63 percent of the sugar harvests. As a result, “the profit of Cuba’s principal export accrued overwhelmingly to U.S. companies.”
  6. The Mafia Had Its Moment—Cuba was the site of an infamous 1946 meeting of the Cosa Nostra, with “two dozen leaders descending on the Hotel Nacional” to agree on a joint strategy. They bought casinos such as the Tropicana, Sans Souci and Montmartre. They ran prostitution and drug rings. “There was institutionalized corruption paying regular kickbacks to Cuban government officials.

I grew up with a morbid fear of Fidel Castro and Communism. I remember the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when the U.S. and USSR came to the brink of nuclear war over the installation of missiles in Cuba. Though I disagree fundamentally with Castro’s ideology, I have a much better understanding of the origins of dysfunction between the U.S. and Cuba. The book ends with a vignette on Cuban sculptor Teodoro Ramos Blanco, best known for monuments to heroes, whose work in the Havana National Museum of Art is titled “Interior Life.” A black woman’s head and face are sculpted in white marble. The author speculates that the woman is “remembering the sharp coral as she walked onto Cuban shores arriving on the shores in chains or wondering at the glowworms lighting the interior of her slave hut or the sugar worker feeling the pain of the harvest in her bones.” We have a lot to atone for in our shameful history with Cuba; we also have the chance for a new relationship that befits neighbors.

Richard Edelman in CEO.