The Continuity of Castro’s Revolution

Shortly after becoming Prime Minister of Cuba, Fidel Castro visits the Lincoln Memorial during a trip to the United States.

The political forces that crashed upon one another in fateful climax in 1959 were thus set in motion long before the triumph of the Cuban revolution. Many Cubans heralded Fidel Castro’s revolution as the completion of the unfinished liberation project of the nineteenth century, which conferred moral authority on the revolution in the twentieth century.

Whatever else the Cuban revolution addressed, whatever other ills the revolution sought to remedy, at the core of its mystique was the idea of the Cuban nation imbued with the properties of national sovereignty and self-determination, the one condition Americans could not abide.

The enactment of national sovereignty began almost immediately with the introduction of far-reaching reforms to the economy and the structures of government. The new leadership took over the Cuban Telephone Company and the Cuban Electric Company, significantly reducing the rates of both. They increased minimum wages in agriculture, industry, and commerce. The Urban Reform Law decreed across-the-board reduction of rents. The Agrarian Reform Law nationalized properties exceeding 3,333 acres.

Reform policies affected U.S. interests directly. American imports declined. International Telephone and Telegraph protested the reduction of its rates. So did the Cuban Electric Company. American sugar companies protested the Agrarian Reform. U.S. employers protested increased minimum wages.

All through 1960, nationalization of U.S. properties, including oil refineries, proceeded apace. Washington protested, both publicly and privately, and responded politically and economically.

The United States cut the Cuban sugar quota, prohibited exports to Cuba except for foodstuffs, medicines, and medical supplies, and in January 1961 the United States suspended diplomatic relations. By the end of 1960, the U.S. government had developed a plan of covert operations to topple the Cuban government, including what would become the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Fidel Castro attending the 1960 United Nations General Assembly.

But the worst was yet to come.

The alarm with which the United States responded to Cuban domestic policies was eclipsed by the abhorrence with which it reacted to Cuban foreign policy, specifically expanding ties with the Soviet Union. Simply put: Americans were aghast. How utterly implausible: of all places—Cuba?

Never before—certainly never before in Latin America—had a duly constituted and recognized government mounted so strident an attack on the policies and practices of the United States.

“We have never in our national history,” a very chagrined Henry Ramsey of the State Department Policy Planning Staff commented in 1960, “experienced anything quite like it in magnitude of anti-US venom.” “Cuba’s move toward communism,” Secretary of State Dean Rusk later wrote, “had been a deep shock to the American people.”

In an interview in the 1990s, news broadcaster Walter Cronkite aptly conveyed something of the cognitive dissonance that jolted the breezy assumptions informing popular knowledge of Cuba.

“The rise of Fidel Castro . . . was a terrible shock to the American people. This brought communism practically to our shores . . . . We kind of considered [Cuba] part of the United States–of course, it is part of America—we considered it part of the United States practically, just a wonderful little country over there that was of no danger to anybody . . . . The country was a little colony. Suddenly, revolution, and it became communist and allied with the Soviet Union. … An ally of the Soviet Union, right off of our shores—it was frightening.”

Indeed, in a Cold-War culture shaped by paradigms of balance of power and spheres of influence, the presence of the Soviet Union at a distance of 90 miles wrought havoc on some of the most fundamental premises of U.S. strategic thinking, “imperiling the very survival of the United States,” despaired Ambassador Spruille Braden.

The rhetoric rang with apocalyptic forebodings. Congressman Mendel Rivers warned of “the agonies of Communist cancer, which most assuredly will engulf the Nation if Cuba is allowed to fester as the cell from which this cancerous growth will spread.” Central Intelligence Agency Director John McCone was somber: “In my opinion, Cuba was the key to all of Latin America; if Cuba succeeds, we can expect most of Latin America to fall.”

Yet, in the midst of this shock and crisis, the United States had responded predictably. Cuba was not the first Latin America country to challenge U.S. interests. Only five years earlier Guatemala had undertaken an agrarian reform project that involved the nationalization of U.S.-owned property—and was promptly overthrown by a CIA covert operation. Indeed, the U.S. covert operations against Cuba were modeled on those used against Guatemala.

But if the U.S. responded in predictable fashion, Cuba did not. History had prepared Cubans for American reactions but there was nothing to prepare the United States for the Cuban response. In this sense, the Cubans had the advantage.

The Cubans replied to U.S. pressure with the previously unthinkable: the expansion of trade and commercial relations with the Soviet Union. Once assured of a market for its exports, the Cuban government moved aggressively to eliminate the U.S. presence on the island—in the name of national sovereignty and self-determination.

All through the years that followed the revolution, the Cuba-U.S. confrontation deepened and widened. The two nations—each in its own way imbued with a powerful sense of exceptionalism— became locked in continual reenactment of their history: the Cubans insisting on the exercise of national sovereignty, the Americans demanding deference to U.S. national interests.

U.S. efforts at political pressure, diplomatic isolation, economic sanctions, and years of covert activities failed to curb Cuban policies. On the contrary, it produced the opposite effect, and served further to deepen the estrangement. Cubans expanded moral and material support of guerrilla movements in Latin America and participated in liberation movements in Africa.

This Cuban propaganda sign features the profile of Fidel Castro and when translated reads "Fight against the impossible and win."

What appeared to U.S. eyes as Cuban intransigence was, in part, a manifestation of the Cuban refusal to submit to the United States, borne by a people fully persuaded that they had a right of national sovereignty. Rather than weakening national resolve in Cuba, sanctions strengthened Cuban determination. U.S. policy served to bring out some of the most stubborn tendencies of the Cuban leadership in the defense of exalted Cuban claims to national sovereignty.

The ferocity of the Cuban defense of national independence spanned multiple generations across a century, from the nineteenth-century wars of liberation to the defense of the revolution. Little separated the sentiment of independence leader Manuel Sanguily from Fidel Castro:

Sanguily (1875): “We have one unshakeable purpose: to fight [for independence], to fight without rest, to fight without pause, . . . to fight until there are no more Cubans capable of clutching a rifle or until the last Cuban is buried under the rubble of the fires set by our indignation and ire . . . . We accept everything, we have accepted everything, we will [continue] to accept everything–death in battle, death on the gallows, death due to hunger and disease, exile, prison, assassination, ruin of our wealth, the devastation of our land–all the misery, all the torment.”

Castro (1980): “They threatened us with an economic blockade? Let them maintain it for one hundred years if they wish! We are disposed to resist for one hundred years . . . If we have to disperse across the entire country . . . to cultivate the land with oxen and plows and with hoes and picks in order to live, we will but we would continue to resist. If they believe that we will surrender because we lack electricity, or bus service, or oil, or whatever, they will see than they can never bring us to our knees and that we are capable of resisting for one year, for ten years, for as many years as necessary, even if we have to live like the Indians that Columbus found when he arrived to Cuba 500 years ago.”

A New Era Built on Old Assumptions?

The past weighs heavily on the present diplomatic negotiations between Havana and Washington. Both Cubans and Americans are deeply entangled in the complex logic of their own history. Both countries have indeed been handcuffed by past decisions: the Cubans with a system that has foundered, the Americans with a policy that has failed.

For more than half a century, the United States used punitive sanctions to remove a government that defied the presumption of U.S. power over a country long believed to be “territory that God and nature intended to be a part of the United States.”

The intent was to politicize hunger as a means to foment popular disaffection, in the hope desperate Cubans would rise up and overthrow their government.

President Dwight Eisenhower (right) ordered economic sanctions against Cuba, reasoning that “if [the Cuban people] are hungry, they will throw Castro out.” The President’s approach developed into the basis of the policy rationale for 50 years.

“The only foreseeable means of alienating internal support,” concluded Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Lester Mallory as early as 1960, “is through disenchantment and disaffection based on economic dissatisfaction and hardship.” Mallory recommended that “every possible means should be undertaken promptly to weaken the economic life of Cuba” as a means “to bring about hunger, desperation and [the] overthrow of the government.”

Punitive sanctions were expanded after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1992 (the Cuban Democracy Act, sponsored by U.S. Congressman Robert Torricelli) and 1996 (the Helms-Burton Act), and tightened again during the administration of George W. Bush.

By this time, almost 20 years into the post-Cold War era, the matter of Cuba had become a peculiar American obsession. The Cuban leadership would not be forgiven for having made the United States vulnerable, represented most vividly by the installation of Soviet missiles in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Condoleezza Rice recalled her childhood during the missile crisis, and remembered that it was the first time she experienced “feeling truly vulnerable.” Fidel Castro had “put the U.S. at risk in allowing those missiles to be deployed,” and to the point: “He should pay for it until he dies.”

When asked under what conditions the United States would consider normalization of relations with Cuba, President Ronald Reagan responded: “What it would take is Fidel Castro, recognizing that he made the wrong choice quite a while ago, and that he sincerely and honestly wants to rejoin the family of American nations and become a part of the Western Hemisphere.”

Roz Chast titled her 1995 New Yorker cartoon “What Castro Can Do” to return to the good graces of the United States: “He ought to say how sorry he is for all the pain he’s caused everybody, and beg us to forgive him. Tears wouldn’t hurt either.”

Fifty-five years later, advocates of the much-welcomed policy démarche make a persuasive case for change on the basis that punitive policies of political isolation and economic sanctions have failed to produce the desired outcomes. Obama said the new policy will serve to “end an outdated approach,” that “hasn’t worked” and emphasized the need “to try something different.”

Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy similarly praised the end of “53 years of a policy that has not worked,” a sentiment shared by Republican Senator Jeff Flake: “It’s time to try something new.”

Few would dispute the conclusion that the policy has not “worked.” But it is also true that proponents for a change from “an outdated approach” should tread warily. In Cuba it does not require much of a political imagination to infer ominously the larger meaning of pronouncements that justify a new policy on the basis that the old policy “has not worked.” Not worked at what, regime change? Does the mantra to try “something different” imply a different path to regime change?

The official rationale for policy change is very much informed with instrumental purport, advanced on the grounds that normal diplomatic relations will provide the United States with the opportunity to “to have an impact on the future of Cuba,” as Democratic Senator Richard Durbin phrased it.

This cartoon appeared in Puck in September of 1898, upon the conclusion of the Spanish-American War. The bottom caption on the original read: "Taking Cuba from Spain was easy. Preserving it from over-zealous Cuban patriots is another matter." The question of how the U.S. seeks to insert itself into Cuban affairs still remains. Image provided by author.

Obama was unambiguous about U.S. goals, noting that engagement offers “the opportunity to influence the course of events.” Instead of a punitive policy designed to impoverish the Cuban people, the new policy seeks to empower the Cuban people, to separate them from “dependency” on their government as a means of “transition to democracy.”

The aphorism that the more things change, the more they remain the same seems to be on full display. Old habits are indeed difficult to break.

Americans persist in seeking to insert themselves into Cuban internal affairs, the Cubans insist on defending self-determination, vowing never to “renounce the ideas for which it has struggled for more than a century.” The policy change announced on December 17 appears to be less a change of ends than of means.

The euphoria greeting the joint announcements has subsided. It is now apparent that “normalization” will proceed in small increments, slowly. Normalization takes many forms, of course, and assumes many guises. It could hardly be otherwise.

Fifty-five years of “long-strained relations” do not readily allow easy access to pathways to “normal” relations. Progress will be registered in details, for indeed that is where the devil resides–and where the history lurks.