Last spring, I spent a most fascinating week in one of the world’s last bastions of communism – Cuba. I had applied for a license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the U.S. Department of the Treasury to travel to Cuba to conduct an informal study of the country’s socialist economic system. (The Supreme Court has held that American citizens have a fundamental right to travel, but under the U.S. embargo, it is illegal for Americans to spend money in Cuba, which effectively trumps the so-called fundamental right to travel.) Once the license was issued, I contacted the Cuban Interest Section in Washington, D.C., and requested a special “fact-finding” visa, explaining that I wanted to study the effects of the U.S. embargo on Cuban life. The Cuban authorities granted me the visa, authorized me to speak to people on the street and, on my request, arranged interviews with various “research centers” at the University of Havana.
I flew to Havana on a charter flight from Miami. Most of the people on the plane were Cuban Americans who were going to visit relatives. Explaining to me how economically desperate Cubans are, most of the people on my flight were “layered” in clothing, which enabled them to take extra clothes to their relatives without having to pay excess baggage fees.
During the short flight to Havana (45 minutes), I reflected on Cuban history. In the late 1800s, the Cuban people revolted against Spanish rule and for many years were engaged in a brutal war for independence. In 1898, the U.S. government intervened in the conflict, purportedly to help the Cubans win their independence. The father of Cuban independence, Jos Mart, who was killed in the war, had warned the Cubans to beware of U.S. government “assistance” because such assistance was likely to be used as a vehicle for U.S. governmental control and domination of Cuba.
Mart’s admonitions turned out to be right. At the end of the Spanish-American War, U.S. troops remained in Cuba (until 1902), and the American authorities required the Cubans to include a provision in their constitution that gave the U.S. government carte blanche to intervene in Cuban affairs whenever it deemed necessary. It was during that period that the United States acquired its base at Guantanamo Bay. (The Cubans were perhaps fortunate not to have resisted the new American imperialism more forcefully. The Philippine Islands had also rebelled against Spain, and after Spain’s surrender, Filipinos had to fight a new, brutal war for independence against their U.S. government “saviors” – a war that resulted in tens of thousands of Filipino deaths and more American casualties than the original war against Spain.)
In 1940, army general Fulgencio Batista had won the presidential election and when his term expired in 1944, he retired to Florida, a multi-millionaire. Eight years later, Batista returned to Cuba and again sought the presidency. Realizing that he was going to lose the election, however, he took power in a coup d’tat, dissolved the Congress, and canceled the election. One of the people who had intended to run for Congress as a reformer was a 25-year-old man named Fidel Castro. Castro had risen in popularity as an incorruptible critic of government corruption.
Among Batista’s favorite cronies were Mafia bosses, who moved their operations to Havana when their casinos in Florida were shut down. With Batista’s full blessing and assistance, the Mafia made Cuba its base of operations, not only for gambling, but for heroin and cocaine distribution into the United States as well. Of course, the Mafia bosses, in turn, kicked back nice sums of money to Batista.
Batista was the U.S. government’s “man in Havana,” even though U.S. officials knew that he was a brutal, antidemocratic, corrupt tyrant in full partnership with Mafia murderers and drug dealers. None of this mattered to Washington policymakers. What mattered was that as Washington’s puppet, when Batista received orders from U.S. officials, he obeyed.
In July 1953, Castro began the Cuban revolution with an attack on the Moncada barracks in Santiago de Cuba, but he was captured and put on trial. Castro used the trial, which was broadcast over national radio, to expose the corruption and brutality of the Batista regime. At the end of the trial, Castro issued what has become his most famous declaration: “Condemn me, it does not matter. History will absolve me.”
Castro was sentenced to 15 years in prison, but in 1955, after Batista had won the presidency in a rigged election, he was released. He moved to Mexico, where he began the next stage of his revolution. In 1956, he and 81 fellow revolutionaries departed Mexico in a 38-foot-long boat called the Granma to take on Batista’s 40,000-man army. After they landed in Cuba, they were attacked by Batista’s forces and lost more than 50 men. Castro and 28 others, including fellow revolutionary Che Guevara, barely survived.
With the U.S. government’s full support, including arms, bombers, and fighter planes, Batista’s forces fought to suppress the revolution and, during the course of the war, killed almost 20,000 Cubans. But the Cuban people had had enough of Batista, the Mafia, political corruption, tortures, and murders – as well as the U.S. government’s support of it all. The Cuban poor joined up with Castro’s forces. Later, Batista’s army began to desert to the revolutionaries. On January 1, 1959, Batista fled the country, retiring in splendor in Spain with the money he had earned from his Mafia cohorts. On January 3, 1959, Castro rode triumphantly into Havana to the cheers of thousands of Cubans.
U.S. government officials, of course, realized that Fidel Castro was not “their man in Havana” and quite unlikely to take orders from them, especially since the U.S. had implicitly supported political corruption, drug dealing, kickbacks, torture, and murder, not to mention their having helped to kill thousands of Cuban revolutionaries. President Eisenhower ordered the CIA to oust Castro from office and install a new puppet president whose strings could be pulled by Washington. (Eisenhower and the CIA were still overly confident from what they had accomplished a few years before. In 1954, the CIA had succeeded in overthrowing Jacobo Arbenz, the duly elected president of Guatemala, an action that plunged Guatemala into a violent civil war that lasted decades and which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans.)
In 1960, John F. Kennedy won the presidency, and the following year authorized the CIA and Cuban exiles to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, with the aim of ousting Fidel Castro from office. The attack failed for three primary reasons: the CIA double-crossed the Cuban invaders by advising Kennedy to deny them air support; Castro’s forces were ready for the invasion; and the Cuban people were in little mood for another U.S. government-installed corrupt and brutal tyrant who depended on Mafia activities for his income.
Castro, in turn, had begun betraying the principles for which he had fought. Ultimately making himself dictator for life, he refused to permit open and honest presidential elections in Cuba. He executed opponents of his regime. Nationalizing the media, he brutally suppressed dissent and even made criticism of both the Cuban revolution and socialism a grave criminal offense. Through it all, Castro used the threat of U.S. intervention as a justification for expanding his control over the Cuban people.