Washington’s failure to overthrow communism in Cuba has been a source of extreme irritation for successive American leaders. The inability of the world’s strongest country to bend Cuba to its will has been nothing if not remarkable.
Viewing the rivalry through a historic lens
A closer examination of the United States-Cuba rivalry reveals some glaring reasons why the superpower was unable to destroy the revolution. One must return to the really critical period of the late 1950s and early 1960s. American imperial planners, and other supporters of the Monroe Doctrine of US domination over the Western hemisphere, may lay the blame squarely at the door of Dwight D. Eisenhower.
It was General Eisenhower who held the post of US president for eight years, until January 1961. During this time Fidel Castro’s rebels successfully fought their guerrilla war against the dictator that Eisenhower was propping up, Fulgencio Batista. Castro came seamlessly to power on New Year’s Day 1959, and then managed to establish his government’s control in Cuba.
Eisenhower himself had recent history of intervening in Latin America. During the summer of 1954, he sanctioned the ousting of the democratically elected Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz.
From the late 1950s the Eisenhower administration, now in its waning years, would fortunately be unable to repeat such a move in Cuba. Richard Gott, the English author and scholar of Cuban history, wrote in his book, Cuba: A new history, that “the Eisenhower government, as much from inertia as from conservatism or anti-communism, had contently gone on supporting Batista, although with a growing lack of conviction. While continuing to supply weapons, it never provided enough to allow Batista a military victory”.
Castro’s growing influence
Castro’s influence in Cuba began to increase gradually from early 1957 as his men, from their Sierra Maestra base in south-eastern Cuba, staged skilful coordinated assaults against Batista’s forces. Eisenhower, meanwhile, paid little attention to what was occurring in Cuba at this point. Despite its close proximity on the map, Eisenhower had never visited the Caribbean island before.
Cuba was taken for granted as a US possession, since the Americans replaced Spanish hegemony there in 1898. American landholders owned vast tracts of the country at the expense of landless Cuban peasants. By 1958, almost 75% of Cuba’s agricultural terrain was concentrated in the hands of a minority, with the best land belonging to US monopolies.
Bastita to be replaced
On 14 March 1958, the Eisenhower administration suspended weapons sales to Batista, ostensibly because the latter had been killing his own people with US equipment. Just prior to the arms embargo, Batista’s units received a fresh supply of US weapons anyway. Yet Eisenhower was, in the short-term, seeking to replace the increasingly unpopular Batista with someone more amenable.
On 28 June 1958 Batista attacked Castro’s guerrilla stronghold, the Sierra Maestra mountains, with 12,000 soldiers, many of whom were carrying American-made arms. Batista’s forces for this fateful incursion, including 7,000 poorly trained conscripts, still outnumbered the rebels dozens of times over; but after a six week offensive in which the Batista regime also enjoyed complete air superiority, the attack failed to achieve its objectives.
In repelling this attack, the guerrillas demonstrated their prowess in warfare. The CIA’s “more progressive elements”, as Gott recounted, continued to look “favourably on Castro” well into 1958.
America’s puppet ends up aiding Cuba
By early autumn 1958, it was becoming obvious that the rebels were winning the war. An unknown quantity, patently nationalist in nature, was challenging American supremacy 90 miles from the US mainland. Had Batista been compelled by the US government to leave Cuba, and someone else put in his place, it might have taken some of the wind out of the rebels’ sails; whose focus was concentrated entirely on the despot and his underlings.
Towards the latter stages of 1958, a force of a few thousand US marines could have been dispatched to Cuba, with the aim of thwarting the guerrillas and “restoring order”. Hindsight makes everything easier but the marines’ presence would have boosted Batista’s flagging soldiers, while dealing a psychological blow to the rebels. Eisenhower was surely aware that such a move would provoke further negative responses in Latin America.
In late August 1958 the guerrillas were implementing their decisive moves, with not an American combatant in sight. By November 1958, the US State Department and the CIA were predicting Castro’s victory “unless a mediated solution could be found”.
History won’t repeat itself
On 23 December 1958, CIA director Allen Dulles informed Eisenhower that, “Communists and other extreme radicals appear to have penetrated the Castro movement. If Castro takes over, they will probably participate in the government”. Unsettled by this news, Eisenhower expressed regret having not been told earlier. At this late date, the “Great General” placed hopes on some “third force” emerging to somehow supersede Castro.
Instead, on 1 January 1959 the revolution swiftly came to power amid much fanfare. The next day, in Santiago de Cuba in the country’s south-east, Castro gave his first speech to the Cuban public and said, “This time it will not be like 1898, when the North Americans came and made themselves masters of our country”.
Eisenhower fails as Castro gains power
Statements like this should have left Eisenhower and Nixon no doubt as to which path Cuba would now take. On 3 March 1959, Castro nationalised the Cuban Telephone Company owned by the US conglomerate, ITT (International Telephone & Telegraph); and he also lowered the rates to affordable standards, impacting on US profits. American corporations had dominated Cuba’s telephone and electric services. By 1956 American businesses controlled 90% of these industries in Cuba, as a US Department of Commerce report highlighted.
On 7 March 1959 Castro asked that Washington hand over Guantanamo Bay, a request which was quickly rejected. In the early summer of 1959, the Cuban government began instituting a land reform act, prompting an official note of protest from the US capital. Gott noted how, “The law struck at foreign landowners, of whom the majority were American”. In June 1959 Eisenhower and the National Security Council (NSC) decided unequivocally that Castro would have to go.
As any government assumes control by way of revolution or coup d’etat, a crucially important Consolidation Phase ensues. Throughout 1959 Castro’s position was very vulnerable. He had still to establish his authority in Cuba, and there was no financial or military support yet forthcoming from the USSR. The foundation of a Cuban army did not begin until mid-October 1959, to be commanded by Raul Castro, and called the Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces. It would number 40,000 troops by early 1961.
Plan to overthrow Castro fails
President Eisenhower, with CIA input, started planning an invasion of Cuba more than a year after Castro had taken power, in the spring of 1960. By then the sands of time were already moving fast against the US government. After further delays it would be another year before the attack occurred, three months following Eisenhower’s departure from office.
In April 1961 it was too late for a US-run invasion of Cuba to succeed, certainly one involving Cuban exile soldiers. Even with strong American air cover, it would be difficult indeed for 1,500 exiles to defeat a Cuban army numbering at least 40,000 men – under the highly motivated leadership of the new defense minister, Raul Castro.
USSR provides a safety net
In early August and late September 1961, the Soviet Union signed two arms assistance agreements with Cuba, as a military aid program was adopted between Moscow and Havana. Noam Chomsky, the American historian and analyst, outlined that in February 1962 the US Joint Chiefs of Staff approved a plan “to lure or provoke” Cuba’s government “into an overt hostile reaction against the United States”. The Joint Chiefs would then launch a frontal attack to “destroy Castro with speed, force and determination”.
US military planers helpless
The Attorney General Robert Kennedy warned that a large-scale invasion of Cuba, in the early 1960s, would “kill an awful lot of people” but his main concern was “we’re going to take an awful lot of heat on it”. By 1962, US military planners were outlining a desire not to “directly involve the Soviet Union”. This was no longer possible, as the Cuban Missile Crisis later that year reveals.
At the revolution’s outset the Kremlin initially showed little interest in Cuba, and knew nothing of Castro’s political leanings. Soviet-Cuban economic ties did not gain a head of steam until mid-February 1960, when a commercial agreement was signed. Diplomatic relations were formally established between Cuba and the USSR on 8 May 1960, one year and four months into the revolution.
Lieutenant-Colonel Donald J. Goodspeed, an experienced Canadian military historian who analysed revolutions and coup d’etats, wrote in his book The Conspirators, “what the rebels most need is time” after taking power when they are at their “period of greatest weakness”.
Only an invasion can break Castro’s writ
Castro’s new government was granted ample time by Eisenhower. After Castro’s takeover of the Cuban Telephone Company, Eisenhower chaired an NSC meeting on 26 March 1959, in part to discuss what was taking place in Cuba. Eisenhower asked openly whether the Organisation of American States (OAS) could act against Castro. The president was informed that scenario was impossible, as the OAS could not intervene militarily in other countries, and Cuba had at that point not been suspended from the organisation.
In late March 1959, Eisenhower decided upon neither a coup d’etat nor an invasion of Cuba. A coup would most likely have failed. Castro had the loyalty of his advisers and the guerrilla forces, not to mention the Cuban people. An invasion was, once more, the sole means of toppling the revolution.
Lieutenant-Colonel Goodspeed wrote that in order to oust a foreign administration, particularly a centralised one like Castro’s, “the important members of the existing government must be neutralised so that their writ can no longer run throughout the nation”.
Shane Quinn has contributed on a regular basis to Global Research for almost two years and has had articles published with American news outlets People’s World and MintPress News, Morning Star in Britain and Venezuela’s Orinoco Tribune. The opinion in this article is the author’s own and does not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.