Cuba and Fidel Castro
By Ed Lane, Published on December 3, 2016
I’m not an apologist for Fidel Castro. He committed many atrocities after he came to power in 1959 having lead the revolution against Fulgencio Batista. One of my major concerns about U.S. foreign policy is that decisions are too often made in the absence of the historical context of issue in question. That is at the heart of the 57-year-relationship between Castro’s Cuba and the U.S. and remains so today in spite of diplomatic recognition and reopening of embassies. (The trade embargo, created by an act of congress is still in effect.)
To get an historical perspective on Cuba we need to go back 83 years to March 1933 when FDR said in his inaugural address: “… I would dedicate this nation to the policy of the good neighbor—the neighbor who resolutely respects himself and, because he does so, respects the rights of others.”
A month later U.S. Ambassador Sumner Welles went to Cuba to mediate differences between political factions there. He met Fulgencio Batista, a recently self-appointed Chief of the Military. “You’re the only individual in Cuba today who represents authority,” he said to Batista. Batista asked what the U.S. “wanted done for recognition,” Welles replied, “… the matter of your government is a Cuban matter and it is for you to decide what you will do about it.” Batista took that as an invitation to take over. Five months later in a coup d’état he overthrew the liberal government of Gerardo Machado and took over the Cuban government.
Four months later in January 1934 he forced the resignation of the president, a liberal on social and economic issues. Five days after that the U.S. recognized Cuba’s new government.
Batista ruled through a series of puppet presidents, but in 1940 was elected to that office, defeating the liberal president he had forced out six years earlier. But in Cuba the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer and in 1944 that same liberal defeated Batista. He went to Florida, lived in luxury, and ran for and won a seat in the Cuban senate, then ran again for president. Polls showed he would suffer a severe loss and on March 10, 1952—three months before the election—he regained power through a second coup. Seventeen days later President Eisenhower again recognized Batista’s new government.
Batista had many close friends in the mafia, and gambling and drugs thrived. He was blatantly corrupt. His political opponents were sometimes assassinated or just mysteriously disappeared. U.S. corporations, in return for “sweetheart” business deals, amply rewarded him. Gangster Meyer Lansky was running the gambling operation and the drug business.
On July 26, 1953 a small group of rebels led by Fidel Castro attacked an army barracks. It failed. Some were killed. Castro and others were jailed. Still the revolution continued. Batista was so convinced of his power that he even released Castro and others who had attacked the army barracks—a move he soon regretted. They fled to Mexico to plan the continued revolution.
In December of 1956 the Castro brothers and Che Guevara returned from Mexico to Cuba and that was the beginning of the real armed conflict. The U.S. dropped its support of Batista but did not support the rebels. Two years later it was over. On January 1, 1959, Batista formally resigned and that night several flights out of Camp Colombia took major figures in his government to Miami, New York, New Orleans and Jacksonville. Batista—taking a fortune of over $300,000,000—his family and closest associates went to the Dominican Republic. He and his family eventually went on to Portugal where he died fourteen years later.
I can vividly remember the mood of the country over the Cuban conflict. Batista was such a corrupt tyrant that there was open discussion about whether we should have not only dropped our support of Batista but also supported the rebels. But they were Communists so we didn’t. This was the era of McCarthyism and the cold war and Communism was monolithic—Soviet Union style.
Instead, on October 1960 President Eisenhower placed an economic embargo on Cuba and diplomatic relations were severed the following year. (Over the years several acts of congress perpetuated the embargo.) We even launched the Bay of Pigs fiasco in an attempt to overthrow the Castro government. We were doing all that we could to make the Castro government fail. With our economic clout in the Western Hemisphere other Latin American nations felt they had to support the embargo lest they lose their trade with the U.S.
There is no question that the economic embargo has hurt Cuba, but some questions need to be raised:
- Did it give the Castros an alibi to cover their own mistakes? They have blamed the U.S. for almost everything that has gone wrong in Cuba—not all of them caused by the embargo.
- Being blocked from much trade in this hemisphere surely forced Cuba to look elsewhere for commercial exchange. Did our embargo and non-recognition push Cuba toward the Soviet Union?
My speculations: What if once it was clear that the Castro government was clearly the de facto government of Cuba, we had (1) diplomatically recognized it? (2) Engaged in commercial trade and helped to rebuild Cuba after it’s disastrous years of the tyrant and corrupt Batista? After all, we were a large factor in putting him in power and keeping him there until almost the end. (3) Had we done that I wonder if the Cuban missile crisis would have happened? (4) Would it have improved our relationships with Latin American countries, as well as the rest of the world? Most of them carried on diplomatic relations and trade with Cuba years ago.