In 1959, a rebel, Fidel Castro, overthrew the reign of Fulgencia
Batista in Cuba; a small island 90 miles off the Florida coast. There have
been many coups and changes of government in the world since then. Few if
any have had the effect on Americans and American foreign policy as this
In 1952, Sergeant Fulgencia Batista staged a successful bloodless coup
in Cuba . Batista never really had any cooperation and rarely garnered much
support. His reign was marked by continual dissension.
After waiting to see if Batista would be seriously opposed, Washington
recognized his government. Batista had already broken ties with the Soviet
Union and became an ally to the U.S. throughout the cold war. He was
continually friendly and helpful to American business interest. But he
failed to bring democracy to Cuba or secure the broad popular support that
might have legitimized his rape of the 1940 Constitution.
As the people of Cuba grew increasingly dissatisfied with his gangster
style politics, the tiny rebellions that had sprouted began to grow.
Meanwhile the U.S. government was aware of and shared the distaste for a
regime increasingly nauseating to most public opinion. It became clear that
Batista regime was an odious type of government. It killed its own
citizens, it stifled dissent.
At this time Fidel Castro appeared as leader of the growing rebellion.
Educated in America he was a proponent of the Marxist-Leninist philosophy.
He conducted a brilliant guerilla campaign from the hills of Cuba against
Batista. On January 1959, he prevailed and overthrew the Batista
Castro promised to restore democracy in Cuba, a feat Batista had failed
to accomplish. This promise was looked upon benevolently but watchfully by
Washington. Castro was believed to be too much in the hands of the people
to stretch the rules of politics very far. The U.S. government supported
Castro’s coup. It professed to not know about Castro’s Communist leanings.
Perhaps this was due to the ramifications of Senator Joe McCarty’s
discredited anti-Communist diatribes.
It seemed as if the reciprocal economic interests of the U.S. and Cuba
would exert a stabilizing effect on Cuban politics. Cuba had been
economically bound to find a market for its #1 crop, sugar. The U.S. had
been buying it at prices much higher than market price. For this it
received a guaranteed flow of sugar.
Early on however developments clouded the hope for peaceful relations.
According to American Ambassador to Cuba, Phillip Bonsal, “From the very
beginning of his rule Castro and his sycophants bitterly and sweepingly
attacked the relations of the United States government with Batista and his
regime”. He accused us of supplying arms to Batista to help overthrow
Castro’s revolution and of harboring war criminals for a resurgence effort
against him. For the most part these were not true: the U.S. put a trade
embargo on Batista in 1957 stopping the U.S. shipment of arms to Cuba.
However, his last accusation seems to have been prescient.
With the advent of Castro the history of U.S.- Cuban relations was
subjected to a revision of an intensity and cynicism which left earlier
efforts in the shade. This downfall took two roads in the eyes of
Washington: Castro’s incessant campaign of slander against the U.S. and
Castro’s wholesale nationalization of American properties.
These actions and the U.S. reaction to them set the stage for what was
to become the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the end of U.S.- Cuban relations.
Castro promised the Cuban people that he would bring land reform to Cuba.
When he took power, the bulk of the nations wealth and land was in the
hands of a small minority. The huge plots of land were to be taken from
the monopolistic owners and distributed evenly among the people.
Compensation was to be paid to the former owners. According to Phillip
Bonsal, ” Nothing Castro said, nothing stated in the agrarian reform
statute Castro signed in 1958, and nothing in the law that was promulgated
in the Official Gazzette of June 3, 1959, warranted the belief that in two
years a wholesale conversion of Cuban agricultural land to state ownership
would take place”. Such a notion then would have been inconsistent with
many of the Castro pronouncements, including the theory of a peasant
revolution and the pledges to the landless throughout the nation. Today
most of the people who expected to become independent farmers or members
cooperatives in the operation of which they would have had a voice are now
laborers on the state payroll.
After secretly drawing up his Land Reform Law, Castro used it to form
the National Institute of Agrarian Reform (INRA) with broad and ill
defined powers. Through the INRA Castro methodically seized all American
holdings in Cuba. He promised compensation but frequently never gave it.
He conducted investigations into company affairs, holding control over them
in the meantime, and then never divulging the results or giving back the
These seizures were protested. On January 11 Ambassador Bonsal
delivered a note to Havana protesting the Cuban government seizure of U.S.
citizens property. The note was rejected the same night as a U.S. attempt
to keep economic control over Cuba.
As this continued Castro was engineering a brilliant propaganda
campaign aimed at accusing the U.S. of “conspiring with the counter
revolutionaries against the Castro regime”. Castro’s ability to whip the
masses into a frenzy with wispy fallacies about American “imperialist”
actions against Cuba was his main asset. He constantly found events which
he could work the “ol Castro magic ” on, as Nixon said , to turn it into
another of the long list of grievances, real or imagined, that Cuba had
Throughout Castro’s rule there had been numerous minor attacks and
disturbances in Cuba. Always without any investigation whatsoever, Castro
would blatantly and publicly blame the U.S.. Castro continually called for
hearings at the Organization of American States and the United Nations to
hear charges against the U.S. of “overt aggression”. These charges were
always denied by the councils. Two events that provided fuel for the
Castro propaganda furnace stand out. These are the “bombing” of Havana on
October 21 and the explosion of the French munitions ship La Coubre on
March 4, 1960.
On the evening of October 21 the former captain of the rebel air force,
Captain Dian-Lanz, flew over Havana and dropped a quantity of virulently
anti-Castro leaflets. This was an American failure to prevent international
flights in violation of American law. Untroubled by any considerations of
truth or good faith, the Cuban authorities distorted the facts of the
matter and accused the U.S. of a responsibility going way beyond
negligence. Castro, not two days later, elaborated a bombing thesis,
complete with “witnesses”, and launched a propaganda campaign against the
U.S. Ambassador Bonsal said, “This incident was so welcome to Castro for
his purposes that I was not surprised when, at a later date, a somewhat
similar flight was actually engineered by Cuban secret agents in
This outburst constituted “the beginning of the end ” in U.S.- Cuban
relations. President Eisenhower stated ,”Castro’s performance on October 26
on the “bombing” of Havana spelled the end of my hope for rational
relations between Cuba and the U.S.”
Up until 1960 the U.S. had followed a policy of non intervention in
Cuba. It had endured the slander and seizure of lands, still hoping to
maintain relations. This ended, when, on March 4, the French munitions
ship La Coubre arrived at Havana laden with arms and munitions for the
Cuban government. It promptly blew up with serious loss of life. (14)
Castro and his authorities wasted no time venomously denouncing the
U.S. for an overt act of sabotage. Some observers concluded that the
disaster was due to the careless way the Cubans unloaded the cargo. (15)
Sabotage was possible but it was preposterous to blame the U.S. without
even a pretense of an investigation.
Castro’s reaction to the La Coubre explosion may have been what tipped
the scales in favor of Washington’s abandonment of the non intervention
policy. This, the continued slander, and the fact that the Embassy had had
no reply from the Cuban government to its representations regarding the
cases of Americans victimized by the continuing abuses of the INRA.
The American posture of moderation was beginning to become, in the face
of Castro’s insulting and aggressive behavior, a political liability. (16)
The new American policy, not announced as such, but implicit in the the
actions of the United States government was one of overthrowing Castro by
all means available to the U.S. short of open employment of American armed
forces in Cuba.
It was at this time that the controversial decision was taken to allow
the CIA to begin recruiting and training of ex-Cuban exiles for anti-Castro
military service. Shortly after this decision, following in quick
steps, aggressive policies both on the side of Cuba and the U.S. led to the
eventual finale in the actual invasion of Cuba by the U.S!
In June 1960 the U.S. started a series of economic aggressions toward
Cuba aimed at accelerating their downfall. The first of these measures was
the advice of the U.S. to the oil refineries in Cuba to refuse to handle
the crude petroleum that the Cubans were receiving from the Soviet Union.
The companies such as Shell and Standard Oil had been buying crude from
their own plants in Venezuela at a high cost. The Cuban government
demanded that the refineries process the crude they were receiving from
Russia at a much cheaper price. These refineries refused at the U.S. advice
stating that there were no provisions in the law saying that they must
accept the Soviet product and that the low grade Russian crude would
the machinery. The claim about the law may have been true but the charge
that the cheaper Soviet crude damaging the machines seems to be an excuse
to cover up the attempted economic strangulation of Cuba. (The crude
just fine as is soon to be shown)
Upon receiving the refusal Che Gueverra, the newly appointed head of
the National Bank,and known anti-American, seized all three major oil
company refineries and began producing all the Soviet crude,not just the
50% they had earlier bargained for. This was a big victory and a stepping
stone towards increasing the soon to be controversial alliance with Russia.
On July 6, a week after the intervention of the refineries, President
Eisenhower announced that the balance of Cuba’s 1960 sugar quota for the
supply of sugar to the U.S. was to be suspended. . This action was
regarded as a reprisal to the intervention of the refineries. It seems
obvious that it was a major element in the calculated overthrow of Castro.
In addition to being an act of destroying the U.S. record for statesmanship
in Latin America, this forced Cuba into Russia’s arms and vice-versa.
The immediate loss to Cuba was 900,000 tons of sugar unsold. This was
valued at about $100,000,000. Had the Russians not come to the rescue
it would have been a serious blow to Cuba. But come to the rescue they
did, cementing the Soviet-Cuban bond and granting Castro a present he could
have never given himself. As Ernest Hemingway put it,”I just hope to Christ
that the United States doesn’t cut the sugar quota. That will really tear
it. It will make Cuba a gift to the Russians.” And now the gift had
been made. Castro had announced earlier in a speech that action against the
sugar quota would cost Americans in Cuba “down to the nails in their shoes”
Castro did his best to carry that out. In a decree made as the Law of
Nationalization, he authorized expropriation of American property at Che
Gueverra’s discretion. The compensation scheme was such that under current
U.S. – Cuban trade relations it was worthless and therefore confiscation
The Soviet Unions assumption of responsibility of Cuba’s economic
welfare gave the Russians a politico-military stake in Cuba. Increased arms
shipments from the U.S.S.R and Czechoslovakia enabled Castro to rapidly
strengthen and expand his forces. On top of this Cuba now had Russian
military support. On July 9, three days after President Eisenhowers sugar
proclamation, Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev announced, “The U.S.S.R is
raising its voice and extending a helpful hand to the people of
Cuba…..Speaking figuratively in case of necessity Soviet artillerymen can
support the Cuban people with rocket fire. Castro took this to mean
direct commitment made by Russia to protect the Cuban revolution in case of
U.S. attack. The final act of the U.S. in the field of economic aggression
against Cuba came on October 19, 1960, in the form of a trade embargo on
all goods except medicine and medical supplies. Even these were to be
banned within a few months. Other than causing the revolutionaries some
inconvenience, all the embargo accomplished was to give Castro a godsend.
For the past 25 years Castro has blamed the shortages, rationings,
breakdowns and even some of the unfavorable weather conditions on the U.S.
On January 6, 1961, Castro formally broke relations with the United
States and ordered the staff of the U.S. embassy to leave. Immediately
after the break in relations he ordered full scale mobilization of his
armed forces to repel an invasion from the United States, which he
correctly asserted was imminent. For at this time the Washington
administration, under new President-elect Kennedy was gearing up for the
Cuban exile invasion of Cuba. The fact that this secret was ill kept led
to increased arms being shipped to Cuba by Russia in late 1960. President
Kennedy inherited from the Eisenhower-Nixon administration the operation
that became the Bay of Pigs expedition. The plan was ill conceived and a
fiasco. Both Theodore Sorensen and Arthur Schlesinger describe the
President as the victim of a process set in motion before his inauguration
and which he, in the first few weeks of his administration, was unable to
arrest in spite of his misgivings. Mr. Schlesinger writes -“Kennedy saw
the project in the patios of the bureaucracy as a contingency plan. He did
not yet realize how contingency planning could generate its own reality.”
The fact is that Kennedy had promised to pursue a more successful
policy towards Cuba. I fail to see how the proposed invasion could be
looked upon as successful. The plan he inherited called for 1500 patriots
to seize control over their seven million fellow citizens from over 100,000
well trained, well armed Castroite militia! As if the plan wasn’t doomed
from the start, the information the CIA had gathered about the strength of
the uprising in Cuba was outrageously misleading. If we had won, it still
would have taken prolonged U.S. intervention to make it work. This along
with Kennedys decision to rule out American forces or even American
officers or experts, whose participation was planned, doomed the whole
Additionally these impromptu ground rules were not relayed to the
exiles by the CIA, who were expecting massive U.S. military backing! The
exiles had their own problems; guns didn’t work, ships sank, codes for
communication were wrong, the ammunition was the wrong kind – everything
that could go wrong, did. As could be imagined the anti-Castro opposition
achieved not one of its permanent goals. Upon landing at the Bay of Pigs
on April 17, 1961, the mission marked a landmark failure in U.S. foreign
politics. By April 20, only three days later, Castro’s forces had
completely destroyed any semblance of the mission: they killed 300 and
captured the remaining 1,200!
Many people since then have chastised Kennedy for his decision to pull
U.S. military forces. I feel that his only mistake was in going ahead in
the first place, although, as stated earlier, it seems as if he may not
have had much choice. I feel Kennedy showed surer instincts in this matter
than his advisors who pleaded with him not to pull U.S. forces. For if the
expedition had succeeded due to American armed forces rather than the
strength of the exile forces and the anti- Castro movement within Cuba, the
post Castro government would have been totally unviable: it would have
taken constant American help to shore it up. In this matter I share the
opinion of ‘ambassador Ellis O. Briggs, who has written “The Bay of Pigs
operation was a tragic experience for the Cubans who took part, but its
failure was a fortunate (if mortifying) experience for the U.S., which
otherwise might have been saddled with indefinite occupation of the island.
Beyond its immediately damaging effects, the Bay of Pigs fiasco has
shown itself to have far reaching consequences. Washington’s failure to
achieve its goal in Cuba provided the catalyst for Russia to seek an
advantage and install nuclear missiles in Cuba. The resulting “missile
crisis” in 1962 was the closest we have been to thermonuclear war.
America’s gain may have been America’s loss. A successful Bay of Pigs may
have brought the United States one advantage. The strain on American
political and military assets resulting from the need to keep the lid on in
Cuba might have lid on Cuba might have led the President of the United
States to resist, rather than to enthusiastically embrace, the advice he
received in 1964 and 1965 to make a massive commitment of American air
power, ground forces, and prestige in Vietnam.
Cuban troops have been a major presence as Soviet surrogates all over
the world, notably in Angola. The threat of exportation of Castro’s
revolution permeates U.S.-Central and South American policy. (Witness the
invasion of Grenada.) This fear still dominates todays headlines. For years
the U.S. has urged support for government of El Salvador and the right wing
Contras in Nicaragua. The major concern underlying American policy in the
area is Castro’s influence. The fear of a Castro influenced regime in
South and Central America had such control of American foreign policy as to
almost topple the Presidency in the recent Iran – Contra affair. As a
result the U.S. government has once again faced a crisis which threatens to
destroy its credibility in foreign affairs. All because of one man with a
In concluding I would like to state my own feelings on the whole affair
as they formed in researching the topic. To start, all the information I
could gather was one-sided. All the sources were American written, and
encompassed an American point of view. In light of this knowledge, and
with the advantage of hindsight, I have formulated my own opinion of this
affair and how it might have been more productively handled. American
intervention should have been held to a minimum. In an atmosphere of
concentration on purely Cuban issues, opposition to Castro’s personal
dictatorship could be expected to grow. Admittedly, even justified
American retaliation would have led to Cuban counterretaliation and so on
with the prospect that step by step the same end result would have been
attained as was in fact achieved. But the process would have lasted far
longer; measured American responses might have appeared well deserved to
increasing number of Cubans, thus strengthening Cuban opposition to the
regime instead of, as was the case, greatly stimulating revolutionary
fervor, leaving the Russians no choice but to give massive support to the
Revolution and fortifying the belief among anti-Castro Cubans that the
United States was rapidly moving to liberate them. The economic pressures
available to the United States were not apt to bring Castro to his knees,
since the Soviets were capable of meeting Cuban requirements in such
matters as oil and sugar. I believe the Cuban government would have been
doomed by its own disorganization and incompetence and by the growing
disaffection of an increasing number of the Cuban people. Left to its own
devices, the Castro regime would have withered on the vine.