Saturday, May 2, 2009

Cuba & the U.S. (3 of 11): Fidel Castro's Rule, 1959-2008

If you prefer, you can read the whole Cuba report as a PDF by clicking here.

Summary: Fidel Castro ruled as a totalitarian dictator for almost 50 years, and during the Cold War had close ties with the Soviet Union.

On January 1, 1959, Fidel Castro took power in Cuba, after ousting Fulgencio Batista, the American-supported dictator of Cuba. (There isn’t much good to say about Batista, except that he was somewhat less destructive of individual liberties and the economy than Fidel.) Fidel set out to nationalize all businesses, including those owned by Americans. Furthermore, at a time when the Cold War was heating up and the Soviets were developing ever more sophisticated weapons, Fidel became a devoted comrade of the Soviets. Many other nations worldwide did the same, but Cuba was a mere 90 miles off the coast of Florida: the perfect launch site for a naval invasion or for missile bases, and hence an immediate and dire threat to American security.

In October 1960, the U.S. imposed an embargo on exports to Cuba. It also imposed severe restrictions on travel to the island and on the amount of money (“remittances”) that could be sent by the many Cubans who had settled in the U.S. to their families in Cuba. The U.S. broke diplomatic relations with Cuba in early January 1961. President Eisenhower contemplated sending a CIA-trained force of Cuban exiles to overthrow Castro, but by the time he left office in mid-January 1961, he thought that the exiles were not well-prepared enough to be successful.

President Kennedy thought otherwise. In April 1961 he was just finishing his first 100 days in office, the darling of the media and much of the American public. He authorized an expedition of 1,400 exiles to the island, but tried to conceal U.S. involvement with it. The latest-model American fighter jets stayed in neutral air space while the exiles were strafed by Soviet-made jets and run down by Soviet-made tanks. The Cuban people did not rise up to support the exiles. Within three days, the expedition ran out of ammunition and its members were captured or killed near the Bay of Pigs, where they had first landed.

Eighteen months later, in October 1962, JFK confronted Castro and Soviet Premier Khruschev. Soviet troops were helping Cubans construct missile silos capable of launching nuclear warheads that could easily reach Washington, D.C., or anywhere in the American South and Midwest. The president demanded that the missiles (which were in transit) not be landed and installed.  After many tense days, Soviet Premier Khruschev backed down. This confrontation is perhaps the closest the Cold War ever came to a Hot War.

From the 1960s through the 1980s, Cuban soldiers and advisors were the heavily subsidized fighting arm of Soviet-style Communism as it expanded in Africa, Asia and Latin America. As the Soviet Union collapsed in the late 1980s, Cuba lost billions of dollars in subsidies and fell into what was euphemistically called the “Special Period.” In an attempt to revive the economy, Fidel instituted some economic reforms regarding private ownership of farms and small businesses. These reforms were quickly phased out after 2000, when he gained the economic support of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.

This action is worth noting because it’s a reminder that time has not mellowed Fidel: he has no inclination to allow capitalism a toehold in Cuba.

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