Obama breaks the ice: Viva Fidelismo!

Mohan Guruswamy is Chairman and founder of Centre for Policy Alternatives, New Delhi, India. He has over three decades of experience in government, industry and academia. He can be contacted at mohanguru[at]gmail.com.

Mohan Guruswamy

On January 1st, 1959 the 32-year-old Fidel Castro’s guerilla army entered Havana driving out the US supported dictator Fulgencio Batista.  There was a huge excitement in the USA over Fidel Castro as his campaign to oust Batista was being reported in the New York Times by its correspondent Herbert Mathews who was, to use a term current these days, embedded with the guerilla army.

Under the Batista regime Havana was a favorite holidaying place for American tourists looking for fun on the cheap, Cuba being just 90 miles from Florida. US gangsters like Meyer Lansky and Charles “Lucky” Luciano owned beachfront properties in a Havana glorified in the writings of expatriate American writers like Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway immortalized two of his favorite watering holes with the quote: “”My mojito in the Bodeguita del Medio and my daiquiri in the Floridita.” Tourists poured in for the cheap booze, the nightlife and easy morality.

In Havana

Since 1820 when Thomas Jefferson thought “the most interesting addition which could ever be made to our system of States” and told Secretary of War John C. Calhoun that the United States “ought, at the first possible opportunity, to take Cuba”, the Spanish colony was high on the US agenda.

In 1897 President William McKinley tried to buy Cuba from Spain for $300 million. Spain’s refusal triggered off the Spanish-American War in which Spain was defeated and forced top “free” Cuba. Till the advent of Castro, US backed dictators, for the convenience of US business interests, ruled Cuba. Since 1898 the US militarily intervened in Cuba four times and had a military base in Guantanamo to keep an eye on events on the island, much like a British garrison in one of India’s princely states. US corporations owned 60% of Cuba’s sugar industry and imported almost 95% of its sugar crop.

Thus, the advent of the revolutionary, Fidel Castro, marked the end of US business as usual. One of Castro’s first acts was to drive out the American gangsters and nationalize US businesses. His romantic idealism won him overwhelming popularity of the Cuban masses and fired the excitement among young people in US campuses. The dictionary got a new word- Fidelismo, meaning “belief in, adherence to, or advocacy of the principles of Fidel Castro.”

On April 25, 1959 Fidel Castro was invited by the Harvard Law School’s student law forum to speak to its members at a Cambridge café. But soon over 3000 students registered to attend. The meeting was then shifted the Dillon Field House, where over 35000 wilding cheering and supportive students from the Boston area’s many educational institutions. Watching this an alarmed McGeorge Bundy, the Dean of Harvard College, thought that the US needed a plan to counter Castro’s charisma. The following year he became the recently elected President John F Kennedy’s choice as National Security Advisor. The die was thus cast for the future US-Cuba relations.

Obama shakes hands with Cuba’s Castro at Mandela service

The Kennedy Administration inherited plans made by the CIA to bring down the new Castro regime and restore the days of business as usual. The Eisenhower administration prudently left its plans for the next administration to execute.  The main plan was an invasion of Cuba ostensibly by a émigré Cuban army. This was modeled on the template provided by the CIA orchestrated overthrow of the leftist Jacobo Arbenz regime in Guatemala in 1954. 

The CIA was coming from a run of successes having overthrown the nationalist Shukri al-Quwatli government in Syria in 1949, the nationalist Mohammed Mossadegh government in Iran in 1953, almost pulling off the overthrow of the communist regime in Hungary in 1956, and overthrowing the new post colonial government of Patrice Lumumba in Congo in 1960.

The CIA plan for Cuba called for the seaborne invasion by about 1400 US Army trained fighters organized into one paratroop and five infantry battalions, at a place called the Bahia de Cochinos or Bay of Pigs in Trinidad at the foot of the Escambray Mountains. The invasion of April 17, 1961 was preceded by softening up bombing missions undertaken by eight B-26 aircraft with barely concealed USAF markings flying from Guatemala. The invasion was an unmitigated disaster. Castro’s forces were better prepared, and the invasion force floundered on the rocky shoals, which the US satellite photo analysts opined was sponge. As the rebels tried to wade ashore, Cuban militiamen on the shore moved them down with a relentless machine gun fire. 

President Castro and Vice-President Nixon in Washington on April 15, 1959

This is when the plan came a cropper. President Kennedy refused to sanction the CIA’s disguised plan of for converting the covert plan into the overt support of the invasion with US Navy ships and marines. As America watched in horror, Castro’s forces either killed or took prisoner the entire invasion force. Kennedy quickly took responsibility for the defeat and privately was furious that he was taken in by the CIA’s assurances of a “popular revolt.” He asked his brother Robert Kennedy: “how could we have been so stupid?”

But this obsession with getting rid of Castro persisted.  While the CIA upper echelon was quickly fired, other elements of the CIA’s notebook of plans to liquidate Fidel Castro were put in motion.  Project Mongoose was to take the help of the US mafia chieftain, Sam Giancana, to assassinate Fidel Castro with either gun or knife or poison. Giancana had another Kennedy connection also. He shared the favors of a lady called Judith Exner with the American President.

One of the more exotic plans was to cause depilation and hence loss of the charismatic Fidel’s signature beard. Several attempts were discovered and the would be assassins were promptly executed. These attempts only fuelled more Cuban insecurities and pushed Castro further into the Russian camp.

This led to the events of October 1962 when Soviet nuclear IRB missiles were detected in Cuba. The crisis as a consequence of the US naval quarantine took the world to the precipice of a nuclear Armageddon. Luckily good sense prevailed and Soviet missiles in Cuba were publicly taken back, in exchange for a more discreet withdrawal of US’s nuclear tipped Jupiter missiles in Turkey, and the assurance that the US will not involve itself again in trying to overthrow the Castro government. From October 1962, this situation remained frozen.

The US’s émigré Cuban population concentrated in Florida became a strong and permanent anti-Castro voting bloc in the state and was the bedrock of the Republican Party. This influence over US politics required Cuba’s quarantine continued by other means. Trade and tourism with Cuba was outlawed and Cuba in many ways remained frozen in time. Even today automobiles of the 1950’s vintage predominate Havana on roads, and art deco architecture still dominates its skyline.

But the revolution had its many benefits. It promoted a degree of self reliance and innovation that helped Cuba exist despite the end of the USSR, and the end of communism in China. Cuban medical care and educational achievements is now the model for the developing world. Its sportspersons, particularly its boxing teams won world renown for their excellence. Most of them remained loyal to the Castro regime despite lucrative US blandishments. In a region that was determined to be under the US sphere of dominance, Cuba remained a solitary symbol of defiant independence.

This was so till last week, when US President Barack Obama decided to junk a over half century old shibboleth and break the ice with Cuba. Cuba will now change. But history will record that the USA changed first.

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