The Triumph of the Cuban Revolution
On January 1, 1959 Cuban revolutionaries, led by Fidel Castro, swept into power and established a provisional revolutionary government across the length of the island, overthrowing the exceedingly venal, military regime of Fulgencio Batista. The revolutionaries (including such remarkable figures as Juan Almeida, Raul Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos, Ernesto Che Guevara, Armando Hart, Celia Sanchez, and, Haydee Santamaria) marched into Havana culminating a three-year campaign that combined rural guerrilla war with a vast urban revolutionary underground. The revolutionary struggle was led by a highly disciplined, politically centralized combat organization, the July 26th Movement. Drawing behind it the support and sympathy of the vast majority of the Cuban population, and with a dedicated, self-sacrificing young cadre of men and women at its core, the Cuban revolutionaries wore down, demoralized, and defeated the neocolonial Cuban army, which vastly outnumbered them – at least on paper – in troops, military equipment, and firepower, courtesy of the United States government.
The military dictator Batista, backed by Washington almost to the bitter end, fled to the Dominican Republic while many of the personnel in his vast machinery of repression and pillage escaped to Miami with their loot. It was an astonishing turn of events that captured the imagination of the world. (The great US film, The Godfather Part II, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, portrays the fall of Batista and the triumph of the July 26th Movement with an uncanny verisimilitude via the prism of Batista’s alliance with US Mafia families.)
Upon arriving in Havana and consolidating revolutionary power, the provisional government quickly moved to dissolve what remained, after the revolutionary war, of the police, army, and courts of the neo-colonial Cuban state. With enthusiastic mass participation, armed bodies of workers, peasants, and youth were established. These became the nucleus of a new National Revolutionary Police Force, and, alongside the veteran guerrilla commanders and troops, the new Revolutionary Armed Forces. Tribunals were established in response to mass demands for justice for the killers, torturers, and thugs of the Batista dictatorship (over 20,000 Cubans were murdered by Batista’s cops, goons, and death squads during the revolutionary struggle), and also to counter the unchecked, spontaneous retributions carried out in the streets. The tribunals prepared the foundations of a new judicial system.
(In my 2007 essay “Our Che”, I wrote:
Che [Guevara] was assigned the task of establishing a just and fair, but also transparent and certain, [system] to bring the process under revolutionary control, ensuring due process, defense lawyers, and fair proceedings. This was done in an exemplary way. Popular, public tribunals were organized. Volumes of public testimony were given, with horrific testimony of the most vile tortures and bestial murder recorded and made public. Some 200 of the worst torturers and murderers of the US-backed Batista tyranny were shot by firing squads. No one has ever offered a shred of evidence that anyone innocent was executed. Whatever one’s opinion of the death sentences that were implemented, backed by the great majority of the population, no one can say, or has ever shown, that the guilt of those executed was not established beyond the shadow of a doubt. Batista’s cops and thugs were, after all, known to all. In their glory days, prior to the revolutionary victory, those brought to justice strutted their power and brutality over what they thought would be forever helpless victims; they never dreamed they would face their victims and their victim’s families in a legal proceeding.
This process of bringing to justice the worst criminals of the hated Batista regime led to an orgy of hypocrisy and phony moral outrage in the big-business press and among Democratic and Republican politicians in the United States. The highly orchestrated propaganda campaign was the pretext for turning public opinion, which had been very sympathetic to Fidel Castro and the rebel cause, against the Cuban Revolution as radical social reforms began to be implemented which affected US business interests and US economic and financial domination of the island…Washington and the big-business media’s crocodile tears for Batista’s torturers and murderers stands in sharp contrast to their approval or silence towards the mountains of corpses piled up by US-backed military regimes and death squads in Latin America and the Caribbean before and especially after the Cuban Revolution from Trujillo and Somoza to Pinochet and the Argentine generals.)
All of these developments planted the seeds of a new state, with a distinct working class character. The new personnel staffing governmental and state bodies registered the social ascendancy of the formerly oppressed classes: the working people of the city and countryside, as well as Afro-Cubans, women, and youth. Gone was the old social order where the cops, army, courts, and prisons of the old, neo-colonial Cuban state manifested the class rule of landlords, capitalists, gangsters, racists, and the super-exploiters of women.
Despite warnings, pressures, and threats from Washington, the Cuban revolutionaries began to implement economic and social measures that came up against, and impacted adversely on, the economic domination of US monopoly capital on the island. These measures included rent and utility cost reductions and the closing and expropriation of Havana’s vast organized-crime enterprises from casinos to brothels.
But front and center was the radical land reform and distribution that both greatly expanded small, private holdings for family farming, and liberated the large, seasonally employed, and particularly oppressed agricultural workforce that was permanently in debt to Cuba’s latifundia. (The Rebel Army had implemented rudimentary land reforms and social policies such as organizing schools and clinics in the territories liberated during the armed struggle.) The “Law on Agrarian Reform” broke the social domination and political power of Cuba’s landlord class and included vast US holdings. The law stipulated that sugar plantations could not be under foreign ownership.
The agrarian reform was at the center of the social and economic transformations heralded by the Revolution. Deliberations to codify in law, and implement in practice, a comprehensive agrarian reform began within the central July 26th Movement leadership almost immediately after the military victory and the establishment of the provisional government. The most profound direction and input came from contributions and collaboration between Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. The agrarian reform was seen as the necessary foundation and catalyst for Cuba’s industrial development.
Che Guevara gave a major speech less than a month after the January 1, 1959 seizure of power in Havana indicating the centrality of land reform to the program of the revolutionary government:
[S]ince the revolution’s triumph, [the peasants] have earned the right to freedom. They can use that freedom to…move forward, backed by law, to a true and broad agrarian reform.
We have begun to put the Rebel Army’s social aims into effect; we have an armed democracy. When we plan out the agrarian reform and observe the new revolutionary laws to complement it and make it viable and immediate, we are aiming at social justice. This means the redistribution of land and also the creation of a vast internal market and crop diversification, two cardinal objectives of the revolutionary government that are inseparable and that cannot be postponed since they involve the people’s interest.
All economic activities are connected. We must increase the country’s industrialization, without overlooking the many problems accompanying such a process. But a policy of encouraging industry demands certain tariff measures to protect nascent industry, as well as an internal market capable of absorbing the new commodities. We cannot increase this market except by giving the great peasant masses broader access to it. Although the guajiros have no purchasing power, they do have necessities to meet, things they cannot purchase today.
We are well aware that the ends we are committed to demand an enormous responsibility on our part, and we know that these are not the only goals. We must expect a reaction against us by those who control over 75 percent of our commercial trade and our market.”
To implement the Agrarian Reform Law, that is, the lever for the entire economic and social transformation of Cuba, the National Institute of Agrarian Reform was organized, with Fidel Castro as its President. Che Guevara was appointed head of the Department of Industrialization, with the central political and administrative responsibility within INRA, on October 8, 1959.
Che organized and trained an INRA militia of 100,000 which seized control of expropriated land, supervised distribution, and helped set up farm cooperatives. Nearly 500,000 acres of confiscated land was owned by US corporations. INRA, under Guevara’s direction, financed highway construction, built housing for peasants and farming cooperatives, and other industrial projects, including resorts for tourists.
Complementing these economic measures were a series of implemented radical policies and laws that fundamentally altered and transformed social relations on the island to the benefit of the oppressed and exploited overwhelming majority. These included the abolition of racist Jim Crow-style segregation and discrimination policies; huge blows against the oppression of women including the right to abortion, the establishment of day-care facilities, equality in pay, greater access to education and professional training, and the eradication of organized prostitution with job training for ex-prostitutes (it is estimated that one out of three women in Havana were super-exploited in the gangster-run “sex industry.”); a massive, successful campaign to wipe out illiteracy; and, particularly annoying to foreign and domestic big-business owners, progressive labor laws that greatly expanded labor union membership and facilitated struggles for higher wages and better working conditions.
These measures were not yet explicitly socialist; banking, manufacturing, and large-scale wholesale and retail distribution remained in private hands. However, the anti-capitalist tendency was clear and the encroachments on the prerogatives of domestic and foreign capital were intolerable to the ruling classes. Moreover, the evaporation of the old neo-colonial state and its repressive apparatus left a vacuum in political and social relations, into which stepped the highly radicalized, organized, and mobilized Cuban working people and youth led by the team around Fidel Castro. This was a leadership team of exceptional political and personal audacity and courage, who knew where they wanted to go and were not afraid of the dangers and consequences.
Washington Fights Back
The implementation of the land reform and the other measures described above set off alarms in Washington and could never be tolerated by the US ruling class. The US government as a whole was, above all, anxious that the victorious Cuban example would resonate in a Latin American soil fertile for revolutionary struggle and change.
Within months, and with an intensity that mounted exponentially, Washington, in the last two years of the Dwight Eisenhower Administration, set in motion bipartisan plans and programs to discredit, undermine, subvert, and destroy the Cuban Revolution. These included cutting off US markets for sugar and other Cuban products and refusing to refine Cuban oil, the first steps towards the generalized, sweeping economic sanctions that remain in force today.
Attempts at economic strangulation were complemented by more directly violent methods. Widespread terrorist violence and economic sabotage was directed by the CIA of the Eisenhower and (elected in 1960) John Kennedy Administrations, with their legions of recruited counter-revolutionary Cuban exiles. Facing the US assault head on, the Cuban workers and peasants government sought and received military and economic assistance from the Soviet Union, Soviet-allied governments in Eastern Europe, and China. The Soviet government agreed, crucially, to buy Cuban sugar and refine Cuban oil.
Washington’s assault culminated in the April 1961 mercenary invasion defeated at the Bay of Pigs (Playa Giron to the Cubans). The Cuban revolutionaries did not retreat under the withering violent assault, but instead directed and led a mobilized and armed citizenry in a conscious socialist revolution that was openly declared after Washington’s Bay of Pigs debacle. Capitalist property relations were overturned and private property in the means of production, finance, and large-scale wholesale distribution were abolished. By 1962, Cuba had become what Marxists call a “workers state.” That is, the old ruling landowning and capitalist classes were expropriated. Major industries and banking became nationalized state property, where conscious economic planning began to gain predominance over “market forces.” Concurrently, a state monopoly over foreign trade was established. Decisively, this process would never have been possible without the prior dissolution of the old neo-colonial state and its repressive apparatus, that is, its army, police, and judiciary.
Private enterprises directly tied to the officials and cronies of the Batista dictatorship, most of whom had fled Cuba, were expropriated without compensation. Others, including foreign capitalists, were compensated, in negotiations with them and their governments. The US capitalist monopolies, on the same page as the US government, rejected, with contempt, negotiations and compensation, fully expecting that “Castro” and Cuban sovereignty could not survive long facing Washington’s full-throated hostility.
None of this could have been driven through without the political class-consciousness and mass participation of the Cuban working class and its allies, who had to learn how to operate and manage the industry and finance that was now “public.” This radicalization and transformation developed under both the blows of the intensifying Washington-driven counter-revolutionary drive and the collective organization and consolidation of the revolutionary vanguard. This latter factor was inevitably accompanied by a class-political polarization and differentiation inside the July 26th Movement, as a more right-wing layer formed and organized in opposition to the radical measures outlined above.
The most prominent figure in this layer was the former Camaguey province guerrilla comandante Huber Matos. (Matos was in late-1959 convicted of treason and sedition for establishing links with counter-revolutionary armed groups connected to the CIA, sentenced to twenty years imprisonment, released in 1979, and lives in Miami today.) In actual fact the divisions and splits within the July 26th Movement, the forces that went over to the US-led counter-revolution, were relatively small in numbers and political significance, due to the great popularity and political authority of the Castro leadership. Nevertheless, the voices of those “democrats” and “freedom fighters” who left the July 26th Movement were highly amplified with Washington’s giant megaphone at their disposal.
Not Aiming for a Third World “Welfare State”
What occurred in Cuba from 1959 to the beginning of 1962 was a dynamic process that went far beyond the most progressive and radical reforms and constitutional restructuring of existing state structures and juridical forms by progressive, populist, anti-imperialist, or left-wing governments in other national political upheavals. There have been many examples, up to the present day, of such governments coming into power in Latin America (and other so-called Third World countries) through coups, mass struggles, or elections taking place under the institutions of the existing capitalist state which remain essentially in place and intact. In Cuba, on the contrary, the revolutionary government, which came to power in an armed struggle, pulverized the old state structures, starting with its repressive machinery of police, army, prisons, and courts, establishing entirely new institutions in social composition and political content.
Cuba’s socialist revolution did not aim for a better “welfare state” under a capitalist “mixed economy,” with benefits for the working people dependent on the vicissitudes of world capitalist markets dominated by the richest imperialist powers (Washington, London, Paris) under conditions of unequal exchange (that is, cheap prices for “Third World” export commodities and raw materials, high prices for “First World” finished products, machinery and technology). The Revolution fought rather to elevate the oppressed classes to political power and social predominance in the new state and forge entirely new social relations and new human beings. (Of course, the policies and practice of the Cuban Revolution in “social welfare” categories of medical-care access, education, pensions, maternity benefits, and so on are unsurpassed in any capitalist Third World country and even in many rich, advanced capitalist powers, who are all, in any case, working today to gut such conquests of past working-class struggles. But in Cuba such measures are not seen as “welfare,” but as the inherent rights and prerogatives of the working class.)
Internationalists in Power
Cuban revolutionary theory and practice was animated by a strong anti-bureaucratism articulated in the speeches and writings of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, that was bound together by a profound internationalist spirit of solidarity. This entire perspective and outlook was a return to – and spurred the revival of in a new generation of revolutionary-minded youth – a creative, and human-being centered, Marxism after decades of stultification and dogma in theory, as well as horrible crimes and betrayals in its name in practice, by the government led by Joseph Stalin and his acolytes in the Soviet Union and the so-called “socialist camp.” (See especially Socialism and Man in Cuba by Che Guevara, Pathfinder Press edition and Fidel Castro’s 1962 speech on sectarianism and bureaucracy.)
The consolidation of the Cuban Revolution as a workers’ state meant that for the first time since the opening years of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, revolutionary internationalists were in the leadership of a workers’ state. They not only held domestic power but, in their foreign policy, had the political perspective of extending the Revolution and using the political authority and material resources of the workers’ state – within the limits of the possible – to collaborate with and aid fellow revolutionists. In the case of the Cuban revolutionaries this primarily meant in the arena of Latin America, which was in a state of permanent political turmoil and intensifying class struggle under conditions of massive poverty, social inequality, and foreign, mainly US, economic and political domination. Since the 1898 Spanish-American War, which marked the origins of the modern American Empire, Washington engaged in frequent overt and covert violent invasions, interventions, and subversion across the Americas, over the subsequent decades.
(US interventionist policy has continued into the 21st Century, albeit with more political limitations and counter-pressures …and less success. The US-backed April 11, 2002 military coup against Hugo Chavez’s anti-imperialist government in Venezuela was reversed and defeated following massive demonstrations in support of Chavez. In September 2008 ultra-right forces in Bolivia, backed covertly by Washington, attempted to split the country on regional lines and bring down the government of President Evo Morales. The big-business and large landowning-led forces were centered in oil and gas producing regions and furiously opposed Morales’s progressive policies of nationalizing Bolivian vast mineral, oil, and gas resources, promoting the interests of Bolivia’s indigenous Indian majority, and his close alliances with Cuba and Venezuela. This all failed ignominiously.)
On February 4, 1962, Fidel Castro read the “Second Declaration of Havana” to a crowd of one million in Havana’s Revolution Square. The manifesto, drawn up by the Cuban leadership, was essentially a call for revolutionary struggle against US imperialism and the dependent capitalist-oligarchic order extant across the Americas. World politics had seen nothing like this language, backed up with action, since the Bolshevik team around V.I. Lenin and the Communist International they founded, in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and the end of the inter-imperialist bloodletting of World War I:
What is Cuba’s history but that of Latin America? What is the history of Latin America but the history of Asia, Africa, and Oceania? And what is the history of all these peoples but the history of the cruelest exploitation of the world by imperialism?
At the end of the last century and the beginning of the present, a handful of economically developed nations had divided the world among themselves subjecting two thirds of humanity to their economic and political domination Humanity was forced to work for the dominating classes of the group of nations which had a developed capitalist economy.
The historic circumstances which permitted certain European countries and the United States of North America to attain a high industrial development level put them in a position which enabled them to subject and exploit the rest of the world. What motives lay behind this expansion of the industrial powers? Were they moral, “civilizing” reasons, as they claimed? No. Their motives were economic…
Wherever roads are closed to the peoples, where repression of workers and peasants is fierce, where the domination of Yankee monopolies is strongest, the first and most important lesson is to understand that it is neither just nor correct to divert the peoples with the vain and fanciful illusion that the dominant classes can be uprooted by legal means which do not and will not exist. The ruling classes are entrenched in all positions of state power. They monopolize the teaching field. They dominate all means of mass communication. They have infinite financial resources. Theirs is a power which the monopolies and the ruling few will defend by blood and fire with the strength of their police and their armies.
The duty of every revolutionary is to make revolution. (From The Second Declaration of Havana, Pathfinder Press edition)
The Cuban revolutionaries also supported revolutionary armed struggle in Algeria against French colonialism and in the Congo against the pro-imperialist neo-colonial regime there that had come to power after the assassination of the Congolese freedom fighter and first President of an independent Congo, Patrice Lumumba.
These incredible events on a small Spanish-speaking Caribbean island shook up world politics. Not only did Cuba establish relations of economic and military alliance with the Soviet Union and the “Warsaw Pact” governments and states, but, much more significantly, revolutionary Cuba in the 1960s became the political and organizing center across the Americas for revolutionary struggle against US domination and the rule of the oligarchies – two things that were hand in glove.
This was an obvious challenge to US policymakers. If Havana became the Mecca for revolutionaries across Latin America, Miami became the counter-Mecca for those tied to the existing oligarchic order that was becoming unglued, a process accelerated by the presence and impact of the Cuban Revolution. In the early years after the triumph of the Revolution, the CIA set up in Miami the largest base operation in its history. Daily operations were spun and run into Cuba involving plans for sabotage, terrorism, assassination, and so on. Organized, trained, funded, and directed from Washington, the operatives – by and large – were Cuban exiles. Thousands of Cuban citizens lost their lives as result of such actions over the years.
Many millions of dollars, and no doubt hundreds of personnel hired, were spent on so-called “psychological-warfare operations” (psy-ops) to spread “disinformation” and “misinformation” – that is, LIES – in the form of gossip, innuendo, and rumors made up out of whole cloth, on the theory that if you throw enough bullshit against a wall, some is bound to stick.
The modus operandi in the CIA’s factories of falsification were the spreading of conspiracy theories fabricated to cause confusion and, hopefully, cause divisions and splits in the revolutionary leadership. Among the most notorious lies spread far and wide:
Revolutionary hero Camilo Cienfuegos didn’t really die in a plane crash after a mission to counter anti-revolutionary activity centered around Huber Matos in Camaguey, but was actually killed by Fidel Castro. Che Guevara did not really go out of public view to organize anti-imperialist struggles in Africa and Latin America, but was actually imprisoned and even killed by Fidel Castro. (When that Big Lie was no longer operative, the new mendacity was that Fidel refused to “rescue” Che in Bolivia and “allowed” him to die, still peddled to this day.)
(Former CIA operatives like the ubiquitous Brian Latell, a top figure for decades on the CIA’s “Cuba desk,” has recently resurfaced to peddle the lie that Fidel Castro knew beforehand that President John Kennedy was going to be assassinated. As they say, old habits are hard to break and you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. In the end, however, the ability to find a platform to spew lies and half-truths, is, for the Latells of the world, a small consolation prize that hardly makes up for the fact that their life’s work of destroying the Cuban Revolution, despite all their ingenious, inventive, creative lying has been a shameful, spectacular bust.)
The role of the defeated Cuban businessmen, landowners, branch managers of US corporations, and gangsters was strictly to help “Uncle Sam” and do what they were told. It is laughable to think that these defeated bumblers would be calling the shots politically or in any other way. But that is not to say that, like most clients and lackeys, the defeated remnants of the old Cuban ruling class did not chafe at their dependent position and the limits placed on their freedom of action. In fact, they were very resentful and sought to leverage their position and knowledge to maneuver within the framework of internal, tactical Washington divisions, to take relatively independent initiatives. For example, over the years, CIA-trained operatives like Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada Carriles have “independently” carried out terrorist activities that were not under the concrete direction of the CIA and the US government, such as the blowing up of Cuban Flight 455 in October 1976 that departed from Barbados, killing all 73 people on board. Bosch died in 2011 having been allowed to live unencumbered in the US since 1990 by decisions of the George Bush, Senior (the director of the CIA during Bosch’s most “productive” terrorist period) White House. Posada Carriles remains a free man in Miami today. And the US State Department has the temerity to put Cuba on a list of “nations supporting terrorism!”
The policy of overturning and destroying the “Castro revolution” was a unanimous one across the board in Washington, uniting Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. This was true despite the tactical divergences which naturally emerged. These differences actually led to recriminations among top US politicians and policymakers – and their media and academic clones – which became quite vicious at times, especially in the period after the CIA-trained mercenary army was crushed at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961. “Who Lost Cuba?” cried the US right wing. President Kennedy was blamed for the Bay of Pigs humiliation because he held back as the debacle unfolded from unleashing direct US bombing of the island. (Legions of conspiracy theorists, on the basis of these recriminations, concocted a plausible factoid asserting that “rouge” elements of the CIA using “embittered” Cuban exiles were behind Kennedy’s November 1963 assassination. This is backed up by the false assertion that Kennedy was seeking a “rapprochement” with the Cuban government, and, with even flimsier evidence, that he was planning to abort US intervention in Vietnam. Not a few novels and films, some even brilliantly done, have come out of these fantastic conspiracies. See James Ellroy’s American Tabloid, Don DeLillo’s Libra, and Oliver Stone’s film JFK.)
Kennedy chose – no doubt wisely and prudently given the overall situation at hand – to cut US losses rather than double down on what was a real-time Washington political and military disaster. In making the choice to retreat and concede the defeat of the mercenary forces, Kennedy understood fully that the Cuban people had become armed to the teeth and were full of revolutionary enthusiasm and fighting will. The political consequences of dropping bombs on Cuban territory, after the defeat of an operation the US government had been claiming publicly it had nothing to do with, would certainly have been politically and militarily catastrophic for Washington. Who knows how many tens of thousands of US troops would have been necessary to gain control of the island? What would have been the reaction in Latin American and world capitals to any sustained bombing of Cuban territory and cities? In the Soviet Union and China? Indeed, what would have been the reaction inside the United States, where a significant degree of sympathy with Cuba existed and where the mass Civil Rights Movement that was exploding across the South and North had many Black leaders and activists attracted to revolutionary Cuba and its sweeping anti-racist policies?
From the Bay of Pigs to the Missile Crisis
In any case, the Kennedy Administration chose to bow to a difficult reality, lick its wounds, emphasize that the origins of the scheme were with the previous Eisenhower Administration, and prepare for another round. It quickly established, under the direct leadership of Attorney General Robert Kennedy, the infamous Operation Mongoose program of stepped-up anti-Castro propaganda and “psychological warfare,” economic sabotage, assassinations (literally hundreds of plots were hatched to murder Fidel Castro, which included collaborating with US Mafia families) and terrorism. All in preparation, and to lay the foundation for, the next round of a direct US invasion, without, this time, the “leading” wedge of the Cuban exile mercenaries.
It was these plans, and this dynamic, barely hidden and, in any case, fully known by the Cuban and Soviet governments, that led to the so-called “Cuban Missile Crisis” of October 1962.
Earlier that year Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev talked a reluctant Fidel Castro into allowing the installation of nuclear-tipped Soviet missiles on Cuban territory. Castro has said publicly that Khrushchev’s appeal was two-fold: first, as a defense against the US invasion of Cuba everyone knew was coming, and, second, as an act of “socialist solidarity” with the Soviet Union, since US missiles were in Turkey, an equivalent distance from Soviet territory. Castro felt that he was not in a position to refuse, especially given the indispensable role of Soviet economic and military aid at that point in Cuba’s defense from Washington’s multi-front assault.
Nevertheless Castro strongly objected to the secret installation of the missiles. He felt this would inevitably be exposed – as, of course, it was – and would likely give Washington the moral high ground. Better to be upfront and declare the policy openly on the grounds of defense of Cuba and create political pressure for a mutual draw-down of missile deployments near each power’s land mass. But Castro’s advice and warnings were rejected, if not ignored altogether, by the Soviet leadership. When US spy planes revealed the missile sites, and with more missiles en route on Soviet ships, Kennedy effectively took the political offensive.
Kennedy organized a naval quarantine of Cuba and threatened to confront Soviet naval vessels approaching Cuban waters. This sequence of events nearly led to direct US-Soviet military engagement and an invasion of Cuba by the United States, not to speak of devastating nuclear exchanges between the United States and the Soviet Union and untold millions of deaths. The crisis was resolved when the Soviet leadership removed the nuclear weapons from Cuba and turned their ships back. In return, the Kennedy Administration agreed, in a secret protocol, to remove the US nuclear missiles from Turkey. The deal supposedly included an informal (that is, not written down and signed in a formal document) pledge that the United States would not directly invade Cuba.
US government documents declassified since the “Missile Crisis” reveal that Washington policymakers fully understood that a US invasion of Cuba would have met truly massive, popular resistance – the entire population was armed to the teeth and in a state of full territorial mobilization. The secret documents projected that the first days and weeks of an invasion would lead to 10,000 or more US casualties (in nearly ten years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, US combat deaths are under 7,000). It was this reality – as much as any supposed “statesman-like cool” – that restrained President Kennedy from ordering an invasion and negotiating, without the participation of the Cuban government, a mutually agreeable settlement with an equally anxious, and politically and diplomatically outmaneuvered, Soviet government which had overplayed its hand.
Relative US Failure
Washington failed in its intense efforts in this period to overturn the revolutionary Cuban government, destroy the Cuban workers’ state, and restore capitalist property relations and the neo-colonial order on the island. That failure continues to this day and is often cited by Establishment dissenters as a reason to dump what is called an “ineffective” anti-Cuba policy. They fantasize that “engagement,” normalization, and the subsequent “exposure” to “American ideas” will actually undermine and do more to eventually defeat the Cuban Revolution than the US embargo, travel restrictions, and threats. This argument is usually accompanied by the assertion that “Castro” and the Cuban government actually want and need US hostility as an “excuse” to avoid “democracy,” “human rights,” blah-blah-blah, so as to divert and manipulate mass discontent. (Of course this is all complete and utter nonsense. The dominant consensus among US policymakers, and in this they are completely correct, is that any unilateral dropping of US sanctions without a Cuban surrender and capitulation would not only be a historic political victory for Cuba and humiliation for Washington. It would also be a tremendous boost to Cuba’s economic development and prosperity to have the legal ability to buy, sell, and trade in the US market. It would also create the conditions for rapid internal political relaxation and the further institutionalization of democratic rights and civil liberties. All of which would strengthen Cuban socialism and make it all the more attractive and resonant across the Americas and internationally.)
But Washington’s failure to defeat the Cuban Revolution is not the end, but more like the beginning of the question. The failure is relative and must be qualified, aside from the obvious price Cuba has paid, in blood and economic development, from US sanctions and hostility. That is, it must also be said that the US government and its allies in the Latin American oligarchies have been successful, for many decades, in the larger question of preventing the extension of the Cuban socialist revolution in the Americas. That “success”, of course, set up the nightmare decades in Latin America of brutal and murderous military-oligarchy rule.
The Nightmare Decades
In 1964 in Brazil, the progressive government of Joao Goulart, which favored friendly relations with Cuba, was overthrown and replaced with a military dictatorship backed by the US which lasted nearly 20 years; in September 1963 the Kennedy Administration’s CIA overthrew the elected left-wing government of Juan Bosch in the Dominican Republic, establishing a military junta. After a Constitucionalista uprising led by Colonel Francisco Caamano seized and held the capital of Santo Domingo, the Lyndon Johnson Administration ordered a US invasion in April 1965 which smashed the revolutionary process on the island in the name of preventing a “second Cuba”; in 1967 the revolutionary guerrillas led by Ernesto Che Guevara were defeated in Bolivia. Subsequent guerrilla movements inspired by the Cuban Revolution were also everywhere defeated; in June 1973 a military coup replaced a civilian dictatorship in Uruguay aimed at crushing the revolutionary Tupamaros movement and militant trade union and student organizations. Military dictatorship lasted twelve years until 1985 in Uruguay; in September 1973 the elected left-wing government of Salvador Allende in Chile was overthrown in a US-backed coup consolidating a murderous military regime that lasted 17 years; in 1976 the weak, elected Peronist government in Argentina was overthrown in a US-backed coup, ushering in vicious repression, killing some 30,000, until the military regime collapsed after the Malvinas Islands war fiasco in 1982-83.
(For a number of years all of these military regimes established in the 1970s worked together, and, directly and indirectly, with US government intelligence agencies, in an international program of kidnapping, murder, and assassination called “Operation Condor.” (See The Condor Years by John Dinges, The New Press, 2004)
Washington succeeded in preventing the extension of the Cuban Revolution, and by the late-1970s Latin America was dominated by US-backed brutal military regimes upholding the naked rule of the oligarchies. But this rule was fragile and already beginning to unravel. A political earthquake shook Central America with the triumph of the Nicaraguan Revolution in July 1979 and the intertwined rise in revolutionary armed struggles in neighboring El Salvador and Guatemala. A new reality and template for Washington’s policies in the Americas, and its confrontation with the Cuban Revolution, was set. (Part III of this essay will take up Washington’s Central America bloodbath, the demise of the Nicaraguan Revolution, the rise and fall of the “Neo-liberal” decade in Latin America, and the Cuban Revolution’s remarkable resistance and survival.)