The Spanish Pearl Part Four : Batista, Castro, Eisenhower, and the Laying off of Cuba

We concluded previously with a discussion of mounting economic tensions in Cuba as American protectionism further imperiled an already gluttonous over-production of cane sugar, damaging demand and thus widening the income gap among Cubans.   A fascinating position paper by Jose Alvarez, professor at the department of food and resource economics, describes in greater detail the intricate economic intertwining between Cuba and the United States during the nearly six decades of “tender patriarchal democracy.”  Mostly uniform is the American dominance in the sugar production in Cuba and the restriction to that single export, with a few exceptions of seasonal fruits and vegetables.  The larger theme is that of the following, one any of us working in corporate America can easily understand : imagine forcible restriction by management to a particular subset of your skills, and imagine further that management eventually deems said subset obsolete.  What happens to you?  Generalizing the analogy to a country requires painful recognition of grave immorality and craven avarice : Blue Marble Citizen records Cuba’s population as ranging from five to seven million over the 1950s.  Alvarez’s paper describes a rural landscape containing thousands of farms and a distribution of land types, though as one would expect cane sugar dominated in era of American patriarchy, characterized uniquely by majority consumption of Cuba’s sugar by America and majority imports into Cuba coming from America.

It’s worth understanding this relationship as clearly as possible : imagine if your survival depends crucially on the whim of exactly one mostly irreplaceable person who easily can and does stymie any peaceful or gradual motions toward your own autonomy, and that master/slave relationship persists over decades.  Suppose further that the master, whether for legitimate reasons or not, no longer has any use for you, but in your present form you cannot survive without his relinquishment of domination.  What happens next?  Common sense dictates a process.

Fulgencio Batista protested to President Dwight Eisenhower that a further curtailing of American sugar imports could decimate the Cuban economy, as described in research by Ann Marie Holmes.  According to Robert Freeman Smith in The United States and Cuba: Business and Diplomacy, 1917-1960, the Cooley Bill mentioned earlier and other protectionist policies by 1959 reduced America’s imports of sugar to fifty percent of Cuba’s exports, down from ninety-six percent just three years earlier.  Compounding the problem was the economic outcome of imperialism, nicely summarized by analyst Natasha Geiling of Smithsonian Magazine:

U.S. financial interests included 90 percent of Cuban mines,
80 percent of its public utilities, 50 percent of its railways,
40 percent of its sugar production and
25 percent of its bank deposits—some $1 billion in total[.]

Essentially, Batista’s failure in persuading Washington to lighten the trade restrictions and furnish agriculturists to cultivate a crop diversification program, together with his overwhelming corruption and embedding with organized crime (documented in T.J. English’s How the Mob Owned Cuba — and Then Lost It to the Revolution reviewed in the Washington Post) crippled his support among most Cubans, as they stood nothing to gain from American imperialism and a criminal dictatorship defined by avaricious excesses, nicely symbolized by a golden telephone.

Meanwhile the Castro brothers had regrouped in Mexico with revolutionary Ernesto (Che) Guevara, in exile after the CIA-backed coup in 1954 which overthrew Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, the democratically-elected president of Guatemala.  Arbenz’s only crime was to nationalize farmlands and plantations, infuriating the United Fruit Company, an American corporation unwilling to tolerate Guatemalans taking back their own land and crops.  Not too coincidentally, John Foster Dulles and his brother Allen were the United States Secretary of State and the head of the CIA, respectively, and they happened to be well-compensated board members for United Fruit.  We could investigate that corporation’s highly controversial history in greater detail, though we can leave that to the reader; instructive is Big Fruit, reviewed in the New York Times.

The three enlarged the 26th of July movement into a force capable of overthrowing Batista.  Eisenhower, reportedly obsessive over the spread of Soviet communism, feared that Batista’s ouster, almost a certainty as his popularity in Cuba crumbled, would render the island somehow open to Soviet domination, despite little to no evidence.  Castro initially portrayed himself as no friend to communism, as the Hoy, the official newspaper of the Cuban communist party, described his earlier attack on the Moncada Barracks as

a putschist attempt, a desperate form of
adventurism, typical of petty bourgeois circles lacking in principle
and implicated in gangsterism[.]

Nonetheless the Eisenhower administration feverishly sought a suitable replacement for Batista, despite his willingness to renege on his earlier flirtation with communism, discussed in Julia E. Sweig’s Inside the Cuban Revolution, to gain favor from Washington; Castro was not a viable alternative from the perspective of agency heads, as Eisenhower recalls in his memoirs that Allen Dulles believed communists had already infiltrated the 26th of July movement as early as 1958, despite communist disdain for Castro described above.  Unhelpful in teasing out the history is that Richard Nixon, then Vice President to Eisenhower, later lied persistently about circulating an internal memorandum condemnatory of Castro, likely in chest-thumping anti-soviet fury, to which we’ll return.

Castro led a successful overthrow of Batista on New Years’ Day 1959, the day after Batista fled to the Dominican Republic.  For a brief time, Washington was somewhat ambivalent about Castro’s new government, described in Luxenberg’s analysis.  Castro installed a temporary president, Manuel Urrutia Lleó, and in a goodwill meeting with the American Society of Newspaper Editors in the United States, Castro said in April 1959 :

I know the world thinks of us, we are Communists, and of course
I have said very clear that we are not Communists; very clear.

Nixon hosted Castro for a three hour meeting after Eisenhower apparently snubbed him to play golf.  The memorandum detailing the meeting, described by Alex Luxenberg in an investigation of Eisenhower’s possible contributions to Castro’s eventual pact with Moscow, was actually rather sympathetic :

[m]y own appraisal of him as a man is quite mixed. The one
fact we can be sure of is that he has those indefinable qualities
which make him a leader of men. Whatever we may think of
him he is going to be a great factor in the development of
Cuba and very possibly in Latin American affairs generally.
He seems to be sincere; he is either incredibly naive about
Communism or under Communist discipline - my guess is
the former.... But because he has the power to lead...we have
no choice but at least to try to orient him in the right

Castro returned to Cuba with plans of agrarian reform aimed for moving the economy away from near exclusive sugar production (a population can’t survive on just sugar).  Expropriating farmlands obviously would require U.S. corporations to relinquish sugar plantations : American business leaders protested to Washington, heralding another refrain of a tired tragedy of American hegemony in Latin America briefly mentioned above.  Specifically, despite virtually zero evidence of Soviet influence in the 1959 coup, Washington once again cried “communism,” the public relations bogeyman served to justify crushing the genuine threat Castro represented : nationalism and independence in satellite states.  This “threat”, evidenced in Castro’s staunch anti-Americanism, along with Eisenhower’s tepid response to Castro’s outreach, chilled relations in 1959.  Anti-communist and communist forces in the July 26 movement sparred, compelling Urrutia to resign; Castro, seeking unity, more warmly received communists in his midst.

In the remaining parts of this series, we’ll discuss Castro’s alliance with Moscow and the near unremitting hostility to follow, but first a few words on Luxenberg’s analysis.   He argues ultimately that Eisenhower bears minimal responsibility for Cuba’s enmeshment with the Soviets, suggesting Castro pursued this relationship himself for his own reasons, perhaps in galvanizing his power; his thinking is that Latin America suffers some neglect in U.S. foreign policy, tacitly suggesting that a firmer hand in Cuba was justified, resigned to the obvious ineffectiveness of sanctions, something we’ll discuss more in depth later.  Still, Luxenberg writes,

[n]evertheless, it is not enough to
suggest that just because an individual is not a member of the
Communist Party that such a person cannot be an enemy of the United
States. If Castro's ties to the Communists are a matter of debate,
those of the Ayatollah Khomeini are not. Yet no one would question
the virulent anti-Americanism of the latter[,]

and he quotes Allen Dulles as having written,

thousands of the ablest Cubans, including leaders,
businessmen and the military, who worked hard to put Castro in
and were risking their lives and futures to do so, did not suspect
that they were installing a Communist regime[,]

taken together to indicate an amnestic conclusion that Castro pursued Soviet relations and communism perhaps out of mere anti-Americanism and cartoonish villainy, again overlooking the substantial role even a little American effort in reversing the damage six decades of economic and political imperialism could have played in better relations, to say nothing of the indiscussible topics of economic, political, and democratic empowerment of Cuba for Cubans.

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