- Historic Sites
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 transition in Cuba from an open to a closed society, after that visit, came fast. In early 1959 Castro was still talking of the desirability of an “entirely democratic revolution.” The Cuban revolution would be as “autochthonous as Cuban music,” with no place for extremists or communists. In May, 1959, however, a classical agrarian reform, taking over large estates and giving land to squatters and peasants, was promulgated. This inspired a curt but polite U.S. note of protest, demanding compensation for all dispossessed landowners, Cuban and American alike. The reform caused a political upheaval in the countryside, though accounts of what happened are hard to find. Certainly it was then that the first resistance to Castro began to be organized by Cubans of the Right. Some politicians began to criticize Castro for failing to call elections. But Castro himself was busy directing abortive expeditions against the dictatorships in the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and Haiti.
In May, also, Castro dismissed several liberal ministers from his cabinet and had his first clash with the Cuban judiciary over a habeas corpus case. A month later the chief of the Cuban air force fled to the United States and told the Internal Security Subcommittee of the Senate that communism was beginning to take over in Cuba. A few weeks after that, in mid-July, Castro hounded out of office his own nominee as President of Cuba, Judge Manuel Urrutia, accusing him of treason and anticommunist expressions. Others who, like Hubert Matos, the military chief of the province of Camagüey, continued to criticize communism in public were shortly afterward arrested. Most of the other liberal cabinet members were then dismissed or were cowed into humiliating betrayals of their old faiths. The attitude of those who remained in office, like that of many liberals caught up in other revolutionary circumstances, is easy to condemn but important to judge objectively. The Cuban liberals who stayed with Castro in 1959 (like Raúl Roa, the Foreign Minister; Osvaldo Dorticós, President of Cuba for many years; Armando Hart, the Minister of Education; and Regino Boti, the Minister of Economics) were clearly men whose dedication to liberal ideology was not as firm as was their previously submerged desire for a strong nationalist state, which would break absolutely with a past in which none of them personally had been very successful.
Next, the truant former chief of Cuba’s air force flew over Havana in a U.S. B-25 bomber converted to a cargo carrier, dropping pamphlets on the city. Antiaircraft guns fired at his plane, and some of their shell fragments fell to the ground and killed a few Cubans—an event that heralded a several months exchange of insults between Cuba and the United States. In February, 1960, only a year after Castro had taken power, Anastas Mikoyan, Deputy Premier of the Soviet Union, arrived in Havana to conclude the first commercial arrangement between Russia and Cuba, and in March, President Eisenhower gave his approval to the training of Cuban exiles by the CIA for a possible invasion of the island. In the course of the first half of 1960, xthe independence of the judiciary, press, trade unions, and university was destroyed, and the flight of middle-class Cubans and liberals began in earnest. By then, a clash with the United States was inevitable.
In June, 1960, the Cubans asked U.S. oil refiners to process Russian, and not Venezuelan, oil. They refused. Castro retaliated by nationalizing the refineries. Eisenhower then cut off the U.S. sugar quota, an arrangement by which the United States bought a substantial portion of Cuba’s sugar at a price higher than that of the world market. In return, Castro expropriated the U.S. sugar mills and all public utilities owned by the United States in Cuba. Eisenhower responded with a ban on all U.S. exports to Cuba, save medicines and some foodstuffs. The Cubans immediately took over all the remaining large private enterprises. In January, 1961, the U.S. embassy was withdrawn. Something like a new civil war had broken out by this time in the hills of Escambray in southern Cuba. In April the CIA’s force of exiles landed at the Bay of Pigs. Immediately after the failure of that ill-starred invasion, Castro, on May 1, 1961, proclaimed Cuba a “socialist state” and decreed that there would be no more elections. The revolution, he announced, had given every Cuban a rifle, not a vote.
From this summary of events, despite the unfolding drama of 1960 and 1961, it will be seen that the real decisions concerning the direction the revolution would take were made in 1959, between May and October, and probably in June or July. Castro and Guevara on separate occasions mentioned that time as crucial, and it was then, also, that leading figures were first ousted or arrested for anticommunism. When the mere expression of anticommunism becomes a crime, it is a sure sign of what line a government wishes to pursue. By that time, the possibilities of achieving a humane or open regime in Cuba were over.
A proper interpretation of what happened, and why, must consider Castro’s personality, first and foremost. Castro had a strong hold over Cuban opinion in 1959, and his position as “maximum leader” of the revolution was unquestioned. Marxism belittles the role of individuals in history. But in the establishment of regimes based on Marx’s philosophy, individuals, from Lenin to Castro, have played decisive parts. Castro’s motives, therefore, need to be investigated, so far as it is possible, in examining why the revolution in Cuba took the course it did.