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The U.S. And Castro, 1959–1962
Was the Cuban leader always a Marxist or did the United States impel him in that direction? A distinguished historian of Cuban affairs examines the critical years when the Castro revolution became a communist dictatorship.
October/November 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 6
One of the perplexing mysteries of the mid-twentieth century is why Cuba, a rich island with long and close ties to the United States, became a communist state. It did so in an unprecedented and unexpected way—without Soviet military help, without enduring a destructive civil war (deaths during Castro’s revolution against Batista probably did not reach two thousand), and without the leadership of Cuba’s Communist party, which played at best a minor role in such fighting as there was. By Latin American standards, Cuba, furthermore, was not economically backward. Indeed, in terms of per capita income, she was as wealthy as any country in Latin America except Venezuela and Argentina, and in some ways—as in her communications network—was more advanced and technologically sophisticated than Venezuela. She was, finally, as closely connected with the United States as it was possible to be without actually being part of the Union—the Cuban peso and the U.S. dollar, for instance, having been for many years interchangeable at par.
There was, to be sure, a dark side to life in Cuba before Castro. The political history of the island during the generations that followed the gaining of independence from Spain in 1898 had been characterized by electoral fraud, corruption, and bouts of tyranny. Political gangsterism had been rife. The economy had depended largely on the trade in sugar, which, while enriching many, left a large minority of the population chronically underemployed, unemployed, or destitute. Health and educational facilities were inadequate in Havana, the capital, and often nonexistent in the countryside. Neither the judiciary nor the civil service was free from political manipulation and intimidation. Relations between the whites and the black and mulatto minority were uneasy and became worse in the 1950’s. The dictator of those latter years, Fulgencio Batista, indulged police brutality and military corruption and inefficiency. A typical story of Batista’s last days concerns one of his communiqués, which announced that he was spending twelve hours a day with his generals, conducting the war against Castro. In fact, he and his commanders were whiling away the time playing canasta.
Partly because of adverse changes in the world sugar market and partly because of the growth, since the world depression, of strong, venal, and restrictionist trade unions, the country’s economy had become stagnant. The unions frequently were charged with holding back the modernization of the sugar industry: Julio Lobo, the last great sugar merchant of old Cuba, for example, had a cane-cutting machine delayed at customs for two years and finally had to send it back to the United States. Though Cuba’s previous history had been one of ready acceptance of technical innovations soon after their invention (Cuba had had a steam engine in 1798 and railways in 1833), the country, during the several years prior to Castro’s accession to power, had become one of Latin America’s least inviting prospects for foreign investment.
Still, such weaknesses do not necessarily make a country easy prey to communism. Venezuela had similar extremes of wealth and poverty in 1959. She relied more on oil for her stability than Cuba did on sugar, and she had less experience with democracy than Cuba had had. Yet when Pérez Jiménez, her last dictator, fell in 1958, the Venezuelan people were able to establish what became the most effective democracy in Latin America. A stagnant economy usually does not cause a revolution. Furthermore, the Communist party in Cuba was neither strong nor adventurous. Its middle-aged leaders did not seem unhappy about what appeared to be their remoteness from power. Communism in 1959, particularly after Khrushchev had explained the crimes of Stalin three years before, seemed a spent force.
Was it, perhaps, the United States that was responsible for what happened in Cuba in 1959 and subsequently? Since this view is widely held, it needs to be considered under two heads: first, the impact of the United States on Cuba during the sixty years between the Spanish-American War and Castro’s revolution; and second, the interrelationship of the two countries during the second dictatorship of Batista (1952–1958) and the first two years of Castro’s rule (1959–1960).