Esto es muerte o vida, y no cabe errar.
This is life or death, and we cannot err.
– José Martí, Letter to Manuel Mercado, May 18, 1895 [one day before Marti’s death]
President Obama’s announcement Dec. 17 that the United States would resume diplomatic relations with Cuba, did not include an explanation of what went wrong half a century ago….
The Cuban revolutionaries took power Jan. 1, 1959, overthrowing Fulgencio Batista, a close ally of the U.S. government. The Republican administration of President Dwight Eisenhower made numerous efforts to stop the revolutionists even before they seized power. A conservative administration confronted with a growing civil rights movement at home and an anti-colonial struggle throughout the Third World certainly did not feel comfortable with Fidel Castro and his “barbudos.”
As soon as the revolution took power, the U.S. government gave refuge and support to Cuban counterrevolutionaries. Hit and run attacks by sea and air were almost a daily problem confronting the Cuban authorities as their counterrevolutionary enemies used American territory at will. Moreover, the redistribution of property and other social and economic reforms as well as Cuba’s nationalist stance was considered in Washington a highly dangerous and destabilizing threat to traditional U.S. dominance in the hemisphere.
From December 1959, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) worked on numerous projects to assassinate Fidel Castro, even before Eisenhower approved a military invasion. By early February 1960, the United States government had given the CIA the green light to organize an invasion force to be trained in Guatemala and Nicaragua, then ruled by two brutal right-wing dictatorships. Meanwhile, counterrevolutionaries inside the island received training and resources such as incendiary bombs from the CIA to stage terrorist attacks in Havana and other urban areas while fast boats and airplanes engaged in constant sabotage of economic and coastal facilities from bases in south Florida. The Cuban authorities continuously denounced the incursions, the plots and the policy of violence and harassment.
In early March 1960, Eisenhower cut the sugar quota that had been a fixture in bilateral relations between the two countries since 1934. The intention was clear: to deliver a major economic blow to the most important sector of the Cuban economy, with multiplier effects on commerce, banking, employment and trade. The very livelihood of Cuban labor and a significant portion of American and Cuban corporations were catastrophically affected.
The U.S. government was sending a dramatic and forceful message to foreign and Cuban capitalists in the island: if you want to survive, you must play the hand we are dealing. In a matter of days [March 17, 1960] the CIA was given official permission for what it was already doing earlier that year — organizing an expeditionary force of Cuban exiles.
Two and a half months later all the oil supplied to the island from the United States, Venezuela and Britain was cut off at the behest of the U.S. government. Even U.S. oil companies that wanted to do business with Havana were told to toe the line.
These were massive economic blows to the very survival of the nation. These political and economic measures were intensified with right-wing terrorism and sabotage, which increased to such an extent that it became a daily routine throughout the island. The CIA provided the artifacts that fostered anxiety and concern in the Cuban population.
As the U.S. government engaged in economic warfare, the Cuban government and people responded. Revolutionary militia recruitment and training gained in speed. By mid-August 1960, Cuba nationalized/confiscated the majority of U.S properties in the island. And on Oct. 19, the U.S. government established a trade “embargo” on the island. Yet Washington did not break relations with Cuba just yet.
It was an election year and in November, John Kennedy won the presidency. In the last televised debate the main issue discussed by the candidates was U.S. policy toward the island. Oddly enough, the Republican candidate, Vice President Richard Nixon, “defended” the principle of nonintervention on the internal affairs of other nation states even though he and Eisenhower had already approved an invasion of the island. The Democratic candidate, on the other hand, sounded like a war monger and an extreme anticommunist in that presidential debate. Both, of course, both candidates supported the overthrow of the revolutionary regime.
Kennedy won that November, while formal diplomatic relations continued between the two countries. The invasion plans were in high gear. The CIA continued its recruitment and training of Cuban exiles in Central America, the Florida Everglades and Louisiana.
Meanwhile, inside the island the number of counterrevolutionary urban and rural bands increased. Coordination was handled via shortwave. Some Cuban citizens, including U.S. embassy personnel, were arrested for conspiring with right wing Cubans, providing them with training and resources to carry out sabotage.
Confronted with such outright violation of Cuban sovereignty, on, Jan. 3, 1961, Fidel Castro said in a public speech that the number of U.S. embassy personnel in Havana had to be reduced to the same number of Cuban diplomatic personnel at Havana’s embassy in Washington, D.C., He said:
“The Revolution had had a lot of patience. The revolutionary government has allowed that a plague of agents serving the intelligence services, passing as diplomats and functionaries of the American embassy have been involved in conspiracies and promoting terrorism. But the Revolutionary Government has decided that within 48 hours the Embassy of the United States should not have here even one official more than the number we have in Washington, DC we do not mean all the functionaries but not one person more than the number of people we have in our [embassy] in the United States. We have 11. And these gentlemen have here over 300 functionaries, of which 80% are spies…If they all want to leave, then, they all should leave … through their diplomatic representation they have introduced a real army of conspirator agents and promoters of terrorism… Consequently, the revolutionary government has adopted this position. We are not breaking [relations] with them, but if they want to go then ¡Farewell!”
Castro also noted that, while Washington, D.C. kept a diplomatic representation in Cuba, the Eisenhower administration urged Latin American governments to break relations with the island.
Within 24 hours, the Eisenhower administration broke relations with Cuba. The island’s reaction was to mobilize the population against a possible military intervention. This was just three weeks before Kennedy was inaugurated. In a sense, the Republicans had already put Kennedy in a corner even before he took office. The decision to break relations was intended to limit Kennedy’s options on Cuba policy. He could not restore relations and inherited the Republican/CIA plans.
In his farewell address two weeks later, President Eisenhower made his now famous “military industrial complex” speech. He said, “…in the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
Breaking relations with Cuba may have been one such example of “unwarranted influence.”
On Jan. 20, the first day of the Kennedy administration, Cuba ended its military mobilization. This was a significant political message. The Cuban government assumed that the Democrats might be more conciliatory. And Fidel offered an olive branch; he said,
“What can we say about the possibility that there will be peace for our country and the world? We welcome that opportunity and that peace. We hope that within the Us government triumph those who understand the huge responsibility they have to the world; we hope they have the commitment and the courage to speak honestly and courageously to the people of the United States; we hope they understand that such is the duty they have before them. And we hope they succeed if they have such goals in their hearts. We would be delighted if they rectify. We understand the reality that the new President has before him. If he chooses the honest path of rectifying for the well-being of the world and of his own country; we wish him success. We await the deeds which are always more eloquent than words.”
In its first two years, the Kennedy administration escalated the confrontation.
Fifty-three years and nine presidents later the U.S. government responded. Now, we have to see the actual deeds and how constructive they may or may not be.
Nelson P Valdés is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of New Mexico and director of Cuba-L Direct.
Robert Sandels is a writer for Cuba-L and CounterPunch.
NOTE: A Spanish version of nthe article has been published by the magazine TEMAS in Havana.