(COLD WAR: 1953-60 – continued)

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COLD WAR: 1953-60 (10 of 11)

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Castro and Eisenhower

On 1 January 1959, the President of Cuba, Fulgencio Batista, gave up his office and fled Cuba, first to the Dominican Republic and then to Spain. Fidel Castro and his revolution took power in Batista's place. Castro named a judge, Manuel Urrutia, president. Urrutia's cabinet consisted of other anti-Batista liberals, but it was Castro's opinion that Urrutia would wait before making a decision.

The immediate agenda for Castro was Cuba's economy, which had been declining – 1958 having been a year of recession also in the United States. In March, 1959, the telephone industry in Cuba was nationalized, a reaction at least in part to a special hostility that had risen against the International Telephone and Telegraph company in Cuba.

Also on Castro's agenda was his version of war-crime trials. Around 700 of Batista's enforcers were executed, the firing squads creating discomfort in the United States where they were shown on television – a discomfort Castro attributed to people in the US not knowing Batista-like repression and torture except through novels and movies. Castro compared his shootings of Batista murderers favorably against the US bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where innocent women and children had been killed. And there was other rhetoric from Cuba that displeased people in Washington.

Fidel Castro at the UN

Fidel Castro addresses the UN General Assembly, September 1960.

In April, 1959, Castro went to the United States, invited by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Castro and his entourage went determined to avoid appearing to be begging for help from the Yankees. Some in the Eisenhower administration recognized that Cuba could use loans to restore its economy, and they hoped that help and good relations might tame Castro. Others in the administration were uninterested in helping Castro. They disliked Castro's talk of neutralism in the Cold War as much as they did the neutralism of Nasser of Egypt and Nehru of India. Some saw Castro's rhetoric as a danger to the standing of the United States in various nations across Latin America. The new Secretary of State, Christian Herter, did not like Castro's emotionalism and his waving his arms around while he spoke. And suspicions existed that his brother Raul Castro and his companion Che Guevara had communist sympathies.

Eisenhower snubbed Castro, leaving town to play golf. Instead, Vice President Nixon invited Castro to his office, and they talked for three hours. Nixon asked about elections, and Castro told him that the Cuban people did not want elections, that they were suspicious of elections and believed that elections produced bad government. Castro spoke of carrying out the will of the people, and Nixon was left with the impression that Castro was too inclined to follow the passions of the mob rather than leading a nation in a rule of law. Nixon asked Castro about communism, and, after Castro left, Nixon complained that Castro was "either incredibly naive about communism or under Communist discipline." His guess, he said, was the former.

Castro laid a wreath at the Lincoln Memorial. He was invited to meet the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and he told them that he would not expropriate the property of Americans and that he was against dictatorships and for a free press.

The Eisenhower administration chose to wait and see how Castro behaved rather than to offer him any assistance. The director of the CIA, Allen Dulles (brother of the Secretary of State, who died of cancer on May 24) spoke of the possibility of using punishment politics. He spoke of Congress reducing the purchasing of Cuban sugar if Castro did not prove cooperative.

Castro returned to Cuba having said to a Social Democrat friend that he was not a Communist because Communism was the dictatorship of a single class and meant hatred and class struggle. On television he told the Cuban people that extremists had no place in the Cuban revolution. By now, however, Cuba's Communist Party had joined Castro's revolution – not unlike the Bolsheviks in early 1917 who had joined the revolution that overthrew Tsar Nicholas of Russia. And the Communist Party complained that Castro was endangering Cuba's revolution.

Castro instituted agrarian reform. Estates larger than 1,000 acres were subject to expropriation, with compensation paid to the owners in 20-year bonds at 4.5 percent annual interest – higher interest than MacArthur's land reform in Japan, and repayment faster than the land reform in Taiwan. In the future, land could be bought only by Cubans, and after the harvest of 1960 sugar plantations would have to be owned by Cubans. Sugar company stocks fell on the New York Stock Exchange. US executives protested to the US government. More talk erupted in the US about Communism in Cuba, and the Eisenhower administration argued with Cuban officials about their agrarian reform.

Meanwhile, anti-Communist members of Castro's revolution (the 26 of July Movement) were showing hostility to the movement's communist members. The anti-Communists were calling the communists melons – green on the outside, as in green fatigues, and red on the inside. The Communists denounced the red-baiting and spoke of the need for unity. Bombs exploded in Havana, believed to be the work of counter-revolutionaries, and Castro veered to the side of those supporting unity.

In increasing numbers anti-Communists began abandoning Castro. President Urrutia objected to the heightened radicalization of Castro's movement and resigned. So too did his prime minister, José Cardona. Osvaldo Dorticós was now Cuba's new president and Castro was the prime minister. One of Castro's old anti-Communist compañeros, Hubert Matos, was soon to be arrested for treason and for having disrupted agrarian reform. He was to be tried and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

1959 had been a year of cultural exchange exhibits between the US and the Soviet Union, with Khrushchev's visit to the US in September. In February, 1960, the Soviet Union's Anastas Mikoyan visited Cuba to inaugurate a Soviet trade exhibition. He signed a five-year trade agreement with Cuba, promising the purchase of one million tons of sugar annually. Cuba was to receive petroleum products in exchange.

The Eisenhower administration was in its final year, and it disliked the increase in ties between Cuba and the Soviet Union and decided to work with anti-Castro groups inside Cuba in hope of overthrowing Castro. In March, 1960, a French ship carrying a shipment of Belgian small arms exploded in Havana harbor, killing dozens of workers and soldiers. Castro publicly accused the CIA of sabotage, and the US protested against the accusation. Also in March, Eisenhower ordered the CIA to train Cuban exiles for an invasion of Cuba – with Batistianos forbidden to join the force. Eisenhower approved $13 million for the project.

Soviet tankers arrived in Cuba with crude oil. The three oil refineries in Cuba – the Esso and Texaco refineries and a refinery owned by the British – refused to refine the oil. Castro nationalized the refineries. Castro saw the US as having declared economic war on Cuba. And the following month – July – the Cuban government passed a nationalization law providing for the expropriation of foreign holdings in Cuba. Two days later, President Eisenhower reduced the purchase of Cuban sugar by 95 percent. Then the Soviet Union announced that it was willing to buy the sugar that had been destined for the United States.

Anti-Castro Cubans in the Sierra Maestras, trying to replicate Castro's success, were caught and shot. Neighborhood watch groups had arisen, watching for people bent on sabotage, treason and violence against the revolution. Castro was now more strongly on the side of those advocating unity, He was speaking against "red-baiting," and his old friend Che Guevara was describing himself openly as a Communist.

Seeing a threat of US intervention, Khrushchev announced that Cuba could be defended with rockets. He declared the Monroe Doctrine an anachronism. On August 16, 1960, members of the CIA launched their first assassination attempt against Castro, with poisoned cigars.

A leading journalist in the US, Walter Lippmann, criticized the Eisenhower administration for having "pushed the Cubans behind the iron curtain." The right thing to do, he wrote, "is keep the way open for their return."


Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.