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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).
During the first third of the twentieth century, the United States dominated Cuba so thoroughly that the island was a U.S. protectorate in all but name. Prior to 1898, while the island was still a Spanish colony, the United States had become Cuba’s most important trading partner and had invested some thirty million dollars in her economy. American intervention in the Cuban rebellion against Spain, from 1895 to 1898, led inexorably to the Spanish-American War, but in voting for that war, the U.S. Senate stipulated that it did not wish American occupation of Cuba after hostilities. Nevertheless, minds changed, and after the peace that secured Cuba’s freedom from Spain, the United States insisted on three years of military occupation. Cuba became a nominally independent republic only in 1902. Even then, the Platt Amendment to the U.S. acceptance of Cuban independence, introduced by Republican Senator Orville Platt of Connecticut, gave the United States the right to intervene militarily in the island under certain circumstances: if civil war erupted on the island and if Cuba were not kept clean and free from dangerous disease. The Platt Amendment also placed restrictions on the Cuban government’s capacity to incur debts and to embark on treaties with a third power, and enabled the United States to establish naval bases on the island—which it did at Guantânamo, to help secure the Panama Canal. These terms were as severe on Cuba as were those that the treaties of Versailles and St. Germain imposed on defeated Germany and Austria in 1919—and were as strongly resented.
A Cuban constituent assembly was prevailed upon to accept the Platt Amendment as part of the first constitution of “independent” Cuba. In 1906 the United States took advantage of its rights under the amendment, and another three years of occupation followed. The United States threatened to intervene again in both 1912 and 1917, each time with direct consequences to Cuba’s internal political affairs. In the 1920’s, General Enoch Crowder, the U.S. envoy to Havana, was given full powers to reorganize Cuba’s finances, and in the same decade the United States recognized and supported General Gerardo Machado, even when he made himself a dictator. This support ended in 1933, when Sumner Welles, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s new ambassador to Cuba, helped inspire Machado’s fall. The following year Welles assisted in the overthrow of a progressive Cuban government under Dr. Grau San Martin, which prepared the way for a new, only partially veiled tyranny under General Batista.
The Platt Amendment was abolished in 1934, but even so, the United States would not have hesitated to impose its own candidate on Cuba during World War II, had it been deemed necessary. It was not required: General Batista (who in 1940 was elected president—reasonably honestly) might have been a “son-of-a-bitch,” but he was “our son-of-a-bitch,” in FDR’s words. Threats of U.S. intervention lasted longer. Probably the FBI knew of, and possibly may have encouraged, a plot to overthrow Dr. Grau San Martin in his second presidency in 1947.
The United States, meanwhile, had built up an economic position on the island as important as its political one. Investments in sugar mills gave U.S. companies control of 60 per cent of Cuban sugar production by the 1920’s. American companies also had large landholdings. Cuban tobacco was marketed through U.S. merchants. U.S. companies, or their Cuban subsidiaries, controlled electricity, telephones, and other public utilities. Cuba was even sometimes represented in diplomacy affecting sugar by American citizens with Cuban interests. U.S. dominance over Cuban cultural life was almost equally strong.
Some benefits for Cuba naturally followed from this close relationship. Had it not been for American intervention in 1898, Cuba would not so soon have become free from Spain. The U.S. interest in Cuba raised the Cuban standard of living to half that of the United States by 1925. U.S. military doctors with the occupying forces made possible the conquest of yellow fever, for many generations the scourge of Havana (though it had been a Cuban of Scottish ancestry, Dr. Carlos Finlay, who first discovered that yellow fever is carried by mosquitoes). The building by a U.S. company of a railway along the length of the island was an achievement from which Cuba will always benefit. American investments in sugar mills were carried out with an iron determination to make profits and to ensure a supply of sugar for the United States in time of war, but those investments transformed the Cuban economy and gave it the shape that it now has. The close contacts established in North America by upper-class Cubans also meant that their children could easily be educated in the United States.
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.
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.
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.
Some would say that this question presents no real problems. Earl Smith, Arthur Gardner, and some others thought that Castro had been a communist for years. William Pawley claimed to have heard Castro, during riots in Bogotá in 1948, proclaim on the Colombian radio: “This is Fidel Castro from Cuba. This is a communist revolution.…” This interpretation of Castro’s early loyalties has had corroboration from Castro himself. In a speech in Havana in December, 1961, he said that he had been an apprentice Marxist-Leninist for many years: “I absolutely believe in Marxism! Did I believe on 1 January ? I believed on 1 January.…” More recently in a taped interview in Cuba with American television reporter Barbara Walters, in mid-1977, Castro said (though the section was excised from what was shown the U.S. viewing audience): “I became a communist before reading a single book by Marx, Engels, Lenin, or anyone. I became a communist by studying capitalist political economy.…When I was a law student in the third year at the University of Havana.…I became what could be called a Utopian communist. Then I was introduced to Marxist literature.…” In another U.S. television interview, shown by CBS on June 10, 1977, he recalled his meeting with Vice President Nixon in April, 1959, and said that at the time, “I was a communist. I personally was a communist.” In 1961, moreover, he had explained that if he had admitted in the Sierra Maestra how extreme his opinions really were, he would have been killed then and there.
Castro, therefore, had lent the support of his own authority to what may be described as a “conspiracy theory” in explanation of the Cuban revolution. Some other points can be added. For example, Fidel Castro’s brother and intimate adviser, Raúl, had been an overt member of the Cuban Communist Youth Movement since 1953. Fidel Castro had influential communist friends at Havana University between 1945 and 1948, most of whom did well in the communist regime after 1961 (for instance, Lionel Soto, in 1976 Ambassador to London and an adviser on Cuba’s African policy; Flavio Bravo, Deputy Prime Minister in 1977; and Alfredo Guevara, for years head of the Cuban Film Institute). Though perhaps not actually a member of the Communist party, much less a Soviet agent (as some members of the FBI suggested), Castro—so the conspiracy theory runs—must always have been in touch with the party.
When the communist leaders in Cuba realized that Castro was likely to win the war against Batista, they began to help him and accordingly were welcomed into the large alliance over which he presided, and which they attempted to take over from the moment that he and they arrived in Havana. Naturally (again, according to the conspiracy theory), Castro welcomed communist support, and this was why, save for making a few liberal gestures in early 1959, he failed to create an organized movement, with membership and branches, or to name a day for elections, or even to clarify the attitude of his revolution toward the democratic Constitution of 1940.
Such a conspiracy theory, however, does not really explain Castro satisfactorily. In 1961 he had good reason to want to assure the communists that he had been a Marxist for many years, since at that time he was being challenged by old-time Cuban communists like Anibal Escalante. In 1977 he may have found it convenient to tell the world, and particularly the Third World, that he was a “utopian communist” in his university days, but at the same time, it is probable that he is not now averse to obscuring memories of exactly what he was doing at the university. Marxist or not, he was mixed up in the political gangsterism that stained the University of Havana at the time, and on a number of occasions between 1947 and 1949 he was implicated in murder charges. The Cuban Communist party in the 1940’s and 1950’s, moreover, was not an organization very attractive to a young man interested in power, and Castro was obviously that. Castro always believed in direct action, and the party’s leaders were something of an early version of the sober, cautious Eurocommunists of the 1970’s. In the mid1950’s, the public arguments between the Castroists and the communists over the desirability of an “armed struggle” did not sound like shadowboxing. The Communist party, it has been noted, did not play much of a part in the fight against Batista. Its leaders, indeed, were friendly with Batista’s ministers, some of them having collaborated with Batista during World War II, even serving as ministers in his government. The head of the Cuban party dedicated a book to Batista’s Minister of the Interior as late as 1956. The CIA thought that the Communist party numbered about seventeen thousand in 1958, which would have made it the largest organized party in Cuba, but its electoral showing always had been dismal.
On the whole, it seems likely that Castro—whose speeches even today do not read as if they were being delivered by one who thinks much of Marx (there is scarcely a word of Marxist jargon in them)—wanted to found a radical, nationalist, populist movement which would embark on action, rather than join the passive and ineffective Communist party. Thus, the 26 July Movement (which was named for Castro’s first blow against Batista, a raid on the Moncada barracks at Santiago de Cuba on July 26, 1958) grew quickly from its original few dozen, attracting idealists, fighters and opportunists, ex-political gangsters, as well as philanthropists. It no doubt always had the sympathy of some communists, but not of the party’s leadership until 1958.
By the time Castro reached Havana, the 26 July Movement had grown to tens of thousands. No one will ever know how many there actually were in the movement, since no membership cards were ever issued: anyone could grow a beard and call himself a fidelista in early 1959. There was no congress of the movement, few officers, and no agreement on policy. Castro must have kept his eyes open toward the communists from the start, since Russia, the headquarters of the communist world, would be an alternative to the United States as a buyer of sugar and a supplier of arms. No doubt Raúl Castro, as a real communist, and Che Guevara, a long-time communist sympathizer, had been quick to point this out to Fidel. Even so, the thrust of the movement that Castro headed was in the beginning primarily nationalist and not communist, nor even particularly socialist. Castro told Rómulo Betancourt, the democratic President of Venezuela, in early 1959 that he was determined above all to have a row with the United States in order to purge Cuba of many past humiliations at the hands of the “monster of the north,” as the United States had been termed by José Marti, the Cuban nationalist hero of the 1890’s who was one of the chief inspirational figures of Castro’s revolution.
In slightly different circumstances, in a different generation, with a different international posture by the world communist movement, Castro perhaps could have lurched as easily toward the Right, as toward the Left—say, toward Peronism or fascism. Fascist techniques were used so much during the early days of the Cuban revolution in 1959 and 1960 that, indeed, that useful term “fascist left” might have been coined to apply to it. Castro’s cult of heroic leadership, of endless struggle, of exalted nationalism had characterized all fascist movements in Europe. The emotional oratory, the carefully staged mass meetings, the deliberate exacerbation of tension before the “leader” spoke, the banners, and the mob intimidation—all these Castroist techniques recalled the days of Nazism. Castro’s movement gained its initial support less from the organized workers than from the same rootless petty bourgeois classes that supported fascism in Europe in the 1920’s. As in Hitler’s Germany, the workers joined the movement late, only after they saw that it was beginning to be successful and would be in power for a long time.
The temptation, however, for Castro to turn the movement toward communism must have been strong in 1959, since he knew that would be the course which would most infuriate the United States. It was risky to be sure, but he was, above all, the man for risks. As for the old communists, they had in their ranks, as Castro later put it to the New York Times ’s Herbert Matthews, “men who were truly revolutionary, loyal, honest and trained. I needed them.” Castro, no doubt, was surprised by the ease with which the old institutions collapsed before him. They did so because they had been compromised by their support of, or association with, the discredited Batista. Castro could not have known how feeble the liberal response would be, since his own movement had been built partly on liberal enthusiasm. But he did know that if he lost the liberals, he would require a disciplined bureaucracy in their place—“I need them.” That was a true comment on Castro’s association with the communists in 1959.
There is also another simple, but essential point to make: everything in Castro’s past life suggested that if he were faced with having to choose between fidelismo (which would, in the end, imply adopting the rule of law and a risk of losing an election) and communism (which could give him an opportunity to remain in power for a long time), he would choose the latter. The brutality of communist regimes in practice never seemed to trouble him. In February, 1959, he made it perfectly clear that air force officers who had fought for Batista had to be found guilty of war crimes; a verdict of innocence, first returned, was rejected. Whatever hesitation Castro did display in 1959 was caused, surely, by anxiety lest an alliance with the communists might give power to them and their secretary-general, and not to himself. He needed to make certain that he could ride the tiger personally before he let it out of its cage. In this, he was showing himself primarily not the communist, but the Latin American caudillo that he really always has been.
Castro began to make use of the communists in the armed forces from the moment he arrived in Havana. Guevara made sure that the files of the BRAC, Batista’s anticommunist police section, were seized immediately after victory. The BRAC’s director was shot without a trial as soon as Castro’s men reached the capital. A prominent communist, Armando Acosta, was made commander of the old fortress of La Punta in Havana as early as January 5,1959—before Castro himself was in the city. Communist “instructors” moved into the army at once. Other communists were utilized from the start in the Institute of Agrarian Reform, which was established in May, 1959. By the end of that year, communists also were being appointed to ministries that were being abandoned by regular civil servants and fidelistas .
A careful study of available memoirs (those of Eisenhower, Lyman Kirkpatrick of the CIA, Ambassador Bonsai, and others), as well as testimony given to the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee in 1960–61 and to the Church Committee in 1975, provides no suggestion of any CIA or other U.S. action against Cuba during 1959. Of course, there was right-wing Cuban opposition to the Revolution, but the evidence is that the American government, the only serious enemy Castro had to face from then on, did not know how to deal with the apparently unique nationalist movement founded by Castro, and so did nothing the first year. The earliest material unearthed by the Church Committee concerning a U.S. interest in overthrowing Castro was a recommendation in December, 1959, by J. C. King, still the head of the Western Hemisphere Division of the CIA, to his chief, Allen Dulles, that, since a “far left” dictatorship existed in Cuba, “thorough consideration [should] be given to the elimination of Fidel Castro.” The committe went on to report that the first discussion in the White House (among a so-called special group of advisers) of any idea of a “covert program” to topple Castro occurred on January 13, 1960. There was some sabotage carried out in western Cuba by Cuban exiles in 1959, but the neglect in controlling such actions by Castro’s enemies does not prove that there was a concerted effort by the U.S. government to overthrow Castro.
The dictator of the Dominican Republic, General Leonidas Trujillo, did launch an unsuccessful invasion of Cuba in the summer of 1959, but again there is no proof of any American involvement in that hopeless venture. When the excommander of the Cuban air force flew over Havana to drop pamphlets in October, 1959, Castro must have known perfectly well that the Cubans killed during the episode died from fragments of shells fired from the ground at the plane. But Castro described the flight as an attempt to “bomb” Cuba into submission, speaking, as Ambassador Bonsai accurately put it, “in a manner reminiscent of Hitler at his most hysterical.…There was the same blatant disregard for truth, the same pathological extremes of expression, gesticulation and movement.” (Ambassador Bonsai’s judgment of Castro thus had changed, as had the revolution itself, during 1959.) Evidence may yet be produced to prove that the CIA, the FBI, or some other agency of the U.S. government was active against Castro in 1959. But if it was, it is inconceivable that the activity was on a scale, or of a subtlety, adequate to divert a resourceful leader, such as Castro has since shown himself to be, from a chosen democratic course—from one, say, of re-establishing the Constitution of 1940. Cuba, or rather Castro, surely chose a path deliberately in 1959, and however much that path may have been determined by memory of old historical vendettas, it was certainly not affected one way or the other by current American policy.
The stability of the system that has continued since 1961 in Cuba is a contrast to the volatile days before 1959. Yet there have been curious developments. A revolution which once had as one of its chief aims the end of complete reliance on a sugar economy has laid emphasis on that crop more than ever before. The failure of the Cuban revolution to export its example to Latin America in the 1960’s was, in the 1970’s, compensated for by the dispatch of an expeditionary force to Africa. From providing the world before 1959 with sugar, cigars, and popular dances, Cuba, since the revolution, has provided it with guerrilleros . Cuba, at one remove, also gave President Nixon the hard core of disciplined “plumbers” who made Watergate. The Cuban connection with the stories associated with the murder of President Kennedy cannot quite be shaken off. Neither the far Left nor the far Right of U.S. politics would be what they are were it not for Cuba. This is a modern expression of an old U.S. tradition. Many will have forgotten that Cuba was an obsessive question in American politics in the decade before the Civil War. The Southern states’ desire to increase the number of slave states by purchasing Cuba from Spain was indeed one of the causes of that struggle. During Cuba’s two wars of independence, in the 1870’s and 1890’s, the island was a major problem in U.S. politics. It has been so once or twice in the twentieth century, too, never more so than between 1959 and 1962. Geography, as well as history, strongly suggests that she will one day play that part again.