Our Man in Havana: Castro

The kill-proof man died yesterday. Age did what a Cuban dictator, Cuban exiles, and CIA ploys never could. Loved and reviled by many, Castro was one of the giants of modern history. A true Cold Warrior, he rubbed shoulders with superpowers. Any Cold War historiography would be incomplete without the thick haze of his cigar smoke permeating the discussion.

Having long languished under the Spanish, at the turn of the 20th century the Cuban Revolution was more or less hijacked by the global Spanish-American War. America played an integral role in the Spanish defeat (somewhere in the chaos the immortal Cuba Libre libation was born) but the American victory precluded a Cuban one. The Monroe Doctrine, manifesting as the Platt Agreement, reared its head and left the young Cuban state hamstrung. Cuban still had some self-determination and there were some elections, but the shadow of the hegemon hung over the island. The United States had become an imperial power, and its economic and political influence could not be understated. Corruption and cronyism pervaded the Cuban state. Power was eventually seized by Fulgencio Batista, one time elected president, who brutally suppressed the Cuban peoples and unabashedly cozied up to the Americans.

Cubans were understandably tired of foreign meddling and dominance, and the time was ripe for revolution. Fidel Castro became their champion. A tall, dark, and handsome lawyer, Castro pushed for a Batista-free Cuba. Waging a difficult guerrilla war, often against impossible odds, Castro somehow managed to pull it off. At first America didn’t know how to treat Castro. Pictures of a trip Castro took to the United States seem to show joy and good will. Eventually though Castro chose to adopt the standard nationalist leader package that Mosadeq had previously subscribed to: land reform. Suddenly American interests, legal or otherwise, were challenged in Cuba. America gradually began to posture itself against Castro; concurrently Castro began to more closely align himself with Communist interests.

I don’t think that it is fair to just view Castro as a Communist. First and foremost he was a nationalist motivated by the cause of Cuban independence, not unlike Ho and Vietnam. Communism was a matter of expedience and security. In a world where Cold War us-them mentalities were becoming entrenched it was dangerous to be in favor of land reform, especially in the U.S. economic and political sphere of influence. Castro was always left leaning; mutual suspicions born of ideology, action, history, and geopolitics meant that relations could only sour. Thus was born the Soviet-Cuban alliance.

Khrushchev dedicates a chapter of his memoirs to the “Caribbsky Crisis.” He writes that at first Fidel was ambivalent towards the USSR, not even bothering with diplomatic relations, perhaps out of fear of attracting US attention too early. Fidel’s brother, Raul, and right-hand man, Che, were committed Communists but Fidel himself was not there yet. Gradually Fidel shifted more and more to the left, increasingly nationalizing industries and promoting socialism, leading many Cubans to leave for Miami. Gradually America got more and more concerned, and the CIA made getting rid of Castro their number 1 priority. The newly impaneled Kennedy was told of an invasion that was originally planned under the Eisenhower administration. Cuban exiles were to invade Cuba with American air support. JFK gave his blessings to this project; meanwhile Cuba was beginning to receive USSR arms. Eventually the Bay of Pigs invasion took place. For Castro and the Soviets it was a tremendous victory. Kennedy did not authorize the use of air power given bad weather, so the invasion was a humiliating and huge US defeat that cast doubt on Kennedy’s presidency.

JFK won in part because he was tough on Communism, and he could not politically afford to let this defeat go by without responding. Castro and Khrushchev became increasingly paranoid; the Soviet Premier was worried that Cuba would have trouble defending from a true invasion since it was sausage-shaped. He was also firmly committed to defend Cuba. A Communist country on the doorstep of the USA was too good to pass up. Castro was a bright spark in the Communist world. Dynamic, handsome, tall, regal, and outspoken, he was a perfect idol for the Communist movement. He was an example of success against Western intervention, and gave hope to third world countries in Latin America and beyond. Khrushchev needed him. Cuba broadcast Soviet power and supremacy. Here was the proof in the pudding that the USSR could outstrip the US. Khrushchev was also looking to cement the USSR’s position in the Communist movement ever since Mao left the Soviet camp. A confrontation with a Cuban setting was inevitable at this point.

So Khrushchev bought oceangoing tankers from Italy, much to NATO’s chagrin, and began to ship arms and troops to Cuba. Wanting to make a statement, and wary of American missiles on his own doorstep in Turkey, Khrushchev decided to install nuclear missiles in Cuba. He sold his idea to Castro and then plans were underway. Cuba had no direct control over the missiles, the Soviets provided all the supplies and manpower. The Americans finally caught wind of it late in 1962 and decided to take action. Some pressured Kennedy to pursue peace, others wanted blood; fortunately JFK decided to impose a “quarantine” (calling it a blockade would have made it an act of war) and wait to see what the Soviets were going to do. Khrushchev tried to continue installation and run the blockade, but ultimately gave up and negotiated to publicly withdraw the missiles in exchange for secret promises from Kennedy that missiles in Turkey would be disposed of and that Cuban safety was guaranteed.

Khrushchev may have taken a tremendous loss of prestige but he achieved what he set out to do and ultimately considered the Crisis a strategic victory. Unfortunately his colleagues in the Politburo did not agree. Castro was not exactly pleased with the result: he likely did not feel safe without nuclear missiles guarding his country. Ultimately the Soviet commitment to protect Cuba and keep the US out held firm, but Castro could not have foreseen such a result.

People love to look at Khrushchev and Kennedy during the Crisis, but Castro was not a passive party. He was the head of a fledgling nation with his own agenda to take care of. Imagine being in Castro’s position. The superpower 90 miles north wants you dead and the other superpower wants to install nukes in your country to protect you. You accept the nukes but now armageddon is apparently at your doorstep. Regardless of ideology, the Cuban people you love and protect are at ground zero for World War III. Castro walked an interesting middle road. He resisted Che’s radical calls to initiate nuclear conflict to ensure the destruction of capitalism at all costs. He likewise resisted backing down or surrendering, taking the initiative to shoot down a US spy plane, risking WWIII in the process. The conflict was made all the more dangerous by the fact that the Soviet missiles on Cuba were already operational, which Kennedy did not know at the time. Castro may not have gotten his desired outcome of retaining nuclear weapons, but Cuban security was nonetheless somewhat assured.

After the feelings of betrayal subsided (and once Khrushchev was out), Cuba would resume normal relations again with the Soviet Union, receiving support and aid. Castro embodied defiance, sending fighters abroad to bolster the cause of Communism and urging on Latin American nationalism. He became a symbol for nationalists and Communists the world over. Cuba has the distinction of being the only Communist country to achieve some 1st World standards: its education and health care systems are incredible. However, Cuba struggles economically, in part because of a continued US embargo and a loss of Soviet support following the 91′ collapse. Russia continues to remain a friend of Cuba and Obama has tried to reset relations with Cuba, although Trump’s victory leave everything in the air. Cuba does have a difficult human rights record and an apparently corrupt regime continually comes under withering criticism from Cuban exiles.

Watching how Trump approaches Cuba will be interesting. Without Fidel a thaw is possible; Fidel remained firmly anti-US even during the 2015 Obama visit.  Personally I advocate a total thaw on Cuban relations: tourism, economic co-development, and free exchange of ideas will be the surest way to democratize Cuba at this critical point in time. However, America must be wary to approach Cuba on its own terms: forcing Cuba to change or make concessions, as Trump would do, will only continue a legacy of bitterness and resentment. We may have forgotten about Cuba, but they have not forgotten about us. Human rights are the central issue here, for both sides. Will Cuba be willing to improve their standards? Will we be willing to improve ours by disavowing Guantanamo? Seems unlikely, but stranger things have happened. If rapprochement with Russia is possible then thawing with Cuba is not off the table.

Regardless of how you judge Castro, he was one of history’s giants. Fidel was a smart, capable man with a clear vision, the firm willpower to make it reality, and the charisma to bend a nation and captivate imaginations worldwide. He spread hope. He spread fear. With cigar in hand, he changed the world in his own way. Being the father of a nation is a messy business.