Saturday, June 22, 2013

Castro Si, Batista No!

Castro enters Havana, 1959

Over the years Latin America has been viewed as an awkward stepchild by those setting U.S. foreign policy.  This was particularly true during the Cold War when president’s made their reputations in foreign affairs dealing with their superpower rival, the Soviet Union.  The attitude toward South America of benign neglect was particularly true during the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower.  While residing in the White House Eisenhower spent most of his time dedicated to preventing hostilities in an era that introduced nuclear armed ballistic missiles and brought visions of thermonuclear destruction to the popular imagination.  He gave little thought to the effect a sugar monopoly had on the economy of Cuba.  What was best for the Cubans should be decided by Cubans so long as the solution didn't involve introducing a pro-communist government into the Western Hemisphere.  In 1954 Jorge Arbenz, the elected president of Guatemala, was overthrown by the CIA because his rhetoric and policies provoked Washington’s fears of communism.

In the early morning hours of New Year’s Day, 1959, Fulgencio Batista fled Cuba with his family, ending his corrupt, tyrannical reign of the island nation.  He was driven from power by a young, charismatic leftist named Fidel Castro.  Castro’s movement gained widespread popularity because it promised to reform the economy, provide education and medicine for all, and establish democratic elections.  Despite the fact that Cuba was among the wealthiest nations in Latin America its largely rural population survived on an average annual income of about $90, lived in homes often with dirt floors, and very few of its peasant inhabitants had running water or electricity.  Nearly half the population was illiterate, a third suffered from intestinal parasites and one person in seven had tuberculosis.  The dominant sugar industry provided low wages and only seasonal employment.  Resentment was widespread that Americans owned 40 percent of the sugar plantations, 80 percent of Cuba’s utilities, 90 percent of its mining and most of its oil refineries.  Cubans generally believed wealthy Americans collaborated with Batista to keep him in power.  It’s little wonder then that Castro’s anti-American rhetoric was widely believed. 

Castro was careful to distance himself from Cuba’s communist party and he initially avoided open relations with the Soviet Union.  This is because he feared a Guatemala-styled intervention by the U.S. into Cuba as well as the fact that Cuba’s population was largely Catholic and anti-communist themselves.  Fidel Castro’s standard response to American accusations of his being communist was that Yankees typically branded all Latin reformists as communist.  While Castro was anti-American it is likely he wasn't a communist when he first took power.  Unlike his more bookish brother Raul, who concerned himself with Marxist ideas, Fidel was the man of action, a born leader with an intense ambition for power and the need to rule.  He was a bearded romantic in army fatigues and he would see to it that his control of government would not be contested.  Once he arrived in Havana it wasn't long before Castro postponed his promised elections.  Why would a man with enormous popularity cancel the vote?  He didn't want to validate elections as an institution.  Times are not always favorable to those running the show.  Circumstance can easily sway people’s opinion.  Castro would not jeopardize his vision of the long term good to the fickle results contained in a ballot box.  It was important that people quickly acclimate themselves to the reality of there being no alternative to that of Castro’s rule. 

By the fall of 1959 Castro has the first of several secret meetings with a Soviet envoy while Eisenhower gives a green light to aid Cuban exiles in their fight with Castro.  Castro views Washington as hostile and aggressive while Eisenhower sees Cuba as falling into the communist bloc.  Mutual suspicions prompt actions that validate the fears each nation has of the other.  Hundreds of Batista’s men are executed.  Exiles launch raids of sabotage against Castro’s Cuba.  Castro nationalizes America’s Cuban possessions.  Washington legislates an economic boycott of Cuba.  Castro orders most American embassy personnel out of Cuba.  Eisenhower breaks off diplomatic relations with Castro’s government.  Castro solicits military aid from the Soviet Union.  The CIA begins training a Cuban army in Guatemala.  Talk between the two nations is limited to public airing of charges against the other.  There is nothing to impede an escalation of events that leads first to an invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs and, later, a nuclear confrontation between the two super powers when Soviet ballistic missiles are discovered on Cuban soil. 

People would like to believe their leaders make rational, informed decisions.  We would like to think mechanisms are in place that would thwart the worst of human catastrophes.  How reassuring these thoughts were they only true.  At the core of our highly evolved, intelligent existence remains a factor we call the roll of the dice.  It’s the ever-present gamble we make in placing devastating power in the hands of human nature.

Related Topics:

Stalin's Caution

Strategic Bombing

Confronting Nuclear War

21st Century Air Force

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