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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
The United States thus presented a divided front toward Castro. He, in turn, was able to employ, to good effect, these divisions among both American policymakers and various molders of public opinion. A notable example was his use of the visit to Cuba of Herbert Matthews, a high-minded correspondent of the New York Times , in February, 1957. Castro saw Matthews in a remote part of the mountains and persuaded him that he was a moderate, nationalist reformer and that he had much more of a following than was really the case. Matthews’ reporting was friendly to Castro and helped to create in the United States widespread sympathy for the rebellion. That sympathy, in March, 1958, enabled Rubottom and his friends in the State Department to ensure an embargo on the sale of arms to Cuba, an action as important for its psychological effect upon Batista as for its actual disservice to the Cuban army. Until then, Batista had assumed that the United States automatically would support him even if he used against his internal enemies American arms that had been supplied to him for “hemisphere defense.”
By the end of 1958, Batista’s position had begun to disintegrate, due largely to the corruption and inefficiency of his army rather than to the military skill of Castro—though it would be foolish to underestimate Castro’s ability to make the most of a propaganda advantage in Cuba. The U.S. government made an attempt to get Batista to resign and hand over power to a junta of generals, which, in the words of the CIA’s Kirkpatrick, seemed then to offer the United States “the best possibility of bringing peace” and avoiding “a blood bath.” The task of trying to persuade Batista to agree to this plan was entrusted to William Pawley, an American with long-established business interest in Cuba (he had founded Cubana Airlines and was a personal friend of Batista’s). Pawley’s mission failed, possibly because Rubottom had told him to avoid saying that he was acting in the name of President Eisenhower. A week later, however, Ambassador Earl Smith, with the greatest personal reluctance, told Batista that the United States government judged he had no alternative save to leave, that the State Department thought he could now only be a hindrance to its hastily devised plans for a transition. Batista agreed, partly because he now had a great deal of money outside of Cuba, and partly because his heart was not in the fight, though he complained at the same time that the United States was carrying out still another act of intervention—and one which did, indeed, seem like a repetition of Sumner Welles’s intervention in 1933 against Machado.
Before Batista finally left Cuba, one of his generals, Cantillo, tried to reach an armistice with Castro and even attempted to make himself the leader of a caretaker government. At the same time, the CIA was busy bribing the jailer of another officer, Colonel Ramón Barquín, a nationally respected enemy of Batista, to let him out of prison so he could assist in the formation of a new government. These and other last-minute plans all came to nothing. Batista’s army was crumbling fast, and public enthusiasm for Castro and his allies was growing enormously, as Barquín and Cantillo in the end recognized. Batista left Cuba in the early morning hours of January 1,1959. The U.S. government then realized that it had to choose between allowing Castro to take power and “sending in the Marines.” The latter course was favored by Admiral Burke and probably by Allen Dulles, the Director of the CIA, but nothing was done. In the meantime, men and women from Castro’s organization took over the maintenance of public order in the Cuban cities. Castro himself was in Havana by January 8, 1959. A new, progressive government was formed. In the beginning, Castro did not figure in this. Even when he did take over as prime minister, in February, the majority of the members of his government were well known to be liberals.
American reactions continued to be ambiguous, but in the Eisenhower administration those willing to give Castro the benefit of the doubt were predominant. The new ambassador to Havana, Philip Bonsai, concluded before arriving in Havana in February that “Castro was not a communist” and, at a meeting of the U.S. ambassadors in the Caribbean region on April 11, 1959, commented privately that Castro was a “terrific person, physically and mentally, he was far from crazy [and] he was not living on pills.” Most press comment in the United States early in 1959 thought much the same.
There was, of course, some expressed hostility to the new Cuba in the United States, and Castro exploited it to strengthen his position with the reawakened Cuban public opinion. For example, when Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon and various American newspapers and newsmagazines protested against the public trial of Batista’s police, Castro suggested that their opposition constituted another variation on the theme of intervention. He also made the most of his visit to the United States in April, 1959, as the guest of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, to arouse further support for himself among the American people. Many Americans were even angry that President Eisenhower refused to meet him on that occasion, preferring to leave the task to Vice President Nixon.