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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
But this close association meant, too, that the United States was an all-too-useful scapegoat in Cuba when things went wrong. The United States habitually was blamed for the corruption of the elections, for the establishment of Machado’s and Batista’s dictatorships, for unemployment, and for poverty. From the Cuban point of view, U.S. behavior there was often characterized by a patronizing superiority toward local politicians, culture, and traditions, which was irritating even (or particularly) when it was justified. While many Americans went to Cuba believing that they were bringing prosperity, others took with them ideas of tax evasion, philistinism, and money grubbing. A substantial part of the quite large Cuban middle class became dépaysé : not only were people from that class educated in the United States, but they spent their years of exile, during the eras of dictatorship, in the United States, and even when preaching nationalism, Cuban politicians were often preparing their people to ask for a loan from the American government.
Cuban nationalism therefore, naturally, took an antiAmerican turn. The benefits which the Americans brought were easily forgotten. Cubans in 1898 argued that the United States had cheated them of victory over Spain; they attacked the Platt Amendment; and each new incident of intervention or threatened intervention created new waves of resentment. Historians at the University of Havana told students that each opportunity for national regeneration had been thwarted by “dollar diplomacy.” It was into this tradition that Castro and the intellectuals of his generation were born.
The anti-Americanism of Cuban nationalist intellectuals burned strongly in the 1950’s, though, by then, the Platt Amendment was long dead and U.S. economic domination of the country was much less notable than it had been twenty years before. But nationalists often dwell on past wrongs, and Sumner Welles’s treatment of Dr. Grau San Martin was remembered as if it had happened only yesterday. (Grau San Martin, when he ultimately reached office, had abused his position scandalously to enrich himself and his friends, but he still represented in Cuba the memory of a revolution that the United States seemed to have betrayed in 1934.)
Thus, if one considers the sweep of Cuban history since the beginning of the century, the United States in a sense can be regarded as the unwitting author of the communist revolution in Cuba. The revolution was like a child’s rage at a disliked guardian who had taken over in 1898 from the real parents, the Spaniards, after a war of ambiguous implications. But in the short term, during the years leading up to Castro’s revolution, the United States played a much less obvious part.
The United States, as far as is known, was not involved in Batista’s second coup d’état in 1952, but U.S. intelligence was active thereafter in Cuba. The CIA, for example, helped Batista set up an anticommunist agency in the Cuban government, the BRAC ( Bóro Para Represión de las Actividades Comunistas ). “I was the father of the BRAC,” Arthur Gardner, the U.S. Ambassador to Cuba from 1953 to 1957, told me in 1962. Also in the 1950’s, Latin American radicals took notice of the CIA’s involvement in a coup d’état that toppled Colonel Jacobo Arbenz’s nationalist, but communistsupported, government in Guatemala. Che Guevara, the Argentinian who was subsequently one of Castro’s most devoted followers, was in Guatemala at that time, and he obviously drew his own clear, harsh conclusions as to what the U.S. reaction might be to a new nationalist revolution elsewhere in Latin America or the Caribbean. Meanwhile Batista remained, till 1958, a favorite client of American businessmen and of many policymakers in Washington.
The attitude of the U.S. government toward Castro’s movement against Batista was ambiguous at first. On the one hand, there were those officials who believed that Castro always had been a communist and should therefore be destroyed as soon as possible. This group included Ambassador Gardner; his successor, Earl T. Smith, who was ambassador from 1957 to 1959; and Admiral Arleigh Burke, the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations. Gardner suggested to Batista in 1957 that he should try to have Castro secretly murdered in the hills, where the civil war already had begun. Though Batista replied, “No, no, we couldn’t do that, we’re Cubans,” there was at least one attempt on Castro in the Sierra Maestra, and presumably it was Batista’s doing.
But many members of the American government took a different line: Roy Rubottom, Assistant Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs, had high hopes for Castro, as did the State Department’s Director of the Office of Caribbean and Mexican Affairs, William Wieland. These friendly attitudes were shared by some officials within the CIA. Indeed, the second-ranking representative of the CIA in Havana had an open row with Ambassador Smith on the subject of whether Castro was, or was not, a communist, in 1957, and both J. C. King (Chief of Western Hemisphere Affairs of the CIA) and Lyman B. Kirkpatrick (Inspector General of the CIA) were, for a time, hopeful that Castro might turn out to be a liberal.