Cuba: the supreme victim of imperialism and colonialism
‘To change masters is not to be free.’—José Martí.
By Ian Ellis-Jones
February 12, 2021 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — Cuba — perhaps more than most other countries — has been the victim of imperialism and colonisation.
The greatest impact of imperialism and colonisation is on people, in particular, indigenous people. Cuba is no exception.
There are also other lasting impacts. Marxist political economists Paul Baran (The Political Economy of Growth, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1957) and André Gunder Frank (Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Latin America, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1967) wrote of the devastating long-term effects of imperial dominance. Frank described those effects as ‘the development of underdevelopment’.
According to the Baran-Frank thesis, as it is known, an underdeveloped country is not in a state of ‘static equilibrium’ preventing development. On the contrary, underdevelopment is the result of imperial dominance, leading also to a chronic state of dependency. Colonisation can be directly attributed to the structure of external relations in which the country was, and remains, enmeshed. While the Baran-Frank thesis has been much critiqued, Cuba seems to be a classic example of the thesis in operation.
Cuba was the last major Spanish colony to gain independence. However, as soon as Spain left, the United States moved in, turning Cuba into a de facto American protectorate. True independence was not achieved until January 1, 1959. Successive American governments have used almost every means available—even illegal and criminal ones—to subvert the independence of the Cuban nation and its people to determine their own economic, social and political system.
Cuba is the supreme example of the detrimental effects of imperial dominance. The detrimental effects have been greatly exacerbated in the past six decades by the ongoing US economic, commercial and financial embargo against Cuba (el bloqueo, ‘the blockade’). The United Nations has condemned the US embargo of Cuba each year for the past 29 years, rejecting Washington’s criticism of alleged human rights violations in Cuba.
The earliest human settlers
The first human settlers in Cuba appear to have come from the south of the North American continent, as far as Mississippi and Florida. The first wave of migration was around 8000 BCE, with the second wave occurring around 4500 BCE in the form of settlers from the Central America area.
There were three main groups of indigenous inhabitants of Cuba. The first people known to have inhabited Cuba were the Ciboney who were an Amerindian people. Then there were the Taíno, an Arawak people who were the indigenous people of the Caribbean and Florida. In the late 15th century, at the time of European contact, the Taíno, who were agriculturalists, were the principal inhabitants of most of Cuba, Hispaniola (the Dominican Republic and Haiti), Jamaica and Puerto Rico.
The third group of indigenous inhabitants of Cuba were the Guanahatabey who may have been the relict of an earlier cultural group in the Caribbean. They were primarily located in western Cuba at time of European contact and were hunter-gatherers with their own distinct language and culture.
October 7, 1492 marked the arrival of Christopher Columbus. He says, ‘This is the most beautiful land that human eyes have seen.’ Beginning in 1511 with Diego Velázquez, Spain invaded and colonised Cuba throughout the 16th and 17thcenturies. The first slaves arrived in the 16th century. Of African origin, they were introduced by the Spanish mainly to work in the sugar cane plantations. Between 1821 and 1831 over 300 slave ships came to Cuba, bringing some 60,000 slaves to the island. By 1827 the slave population was 287,000.
The impact of Spanish and colonialism on Cuba’s indigenous groups was, to put it mildly, devastating. Most of the indigenous population was soon eliminated. However, the bloodlines, identity and customs of the Taíno people were never completely extinguished after the Spanish conquest in 1511.
Over the centuries Spanish colonial imperialism, like all such imperialism, resulted in a society that was deeply divided according to race and ethnicity. By the 19th century the socio-economic demarcation between the oppressive Spanish colonial masters, on the one hand, and the slaves and the rest of the population, on the other, were very marked.
It wasn’t just the Spanish who were interested in plundering what Cuba had to offer. The island colony was also a frequent target of pirates, buccaneers and French corsairs (privateers).
The British also had their eyes on the ‘gem of the Antilles’ — at least for a short time. From March to August 1762 there was a successful British siege against Havana, which was part of the Seven Years' War (1756-1763). Essentially, this was a struggle for global primacy between Britain and France. Spain, which had been formerly neutral, had signed a family compact with France. This led in January 1762 to the British declaring war on Spain. The so-called ‘Siege of Havana’ involved the British attacking the Spanish fortress and naval base in Havana with the intent of weakening Spain’s presence in the Caribbean as well as improving the security of Britain’s own North American colonies.
In the 18th and 19th centuries there was a wave of French immigration to Cuba, mainly from Haiti, with the majority settling in eastern Cuba. To this day, any visitor to Santiago de Cuba, the nation’s second largest city, will hear French being spoken in many places, especially in and around Parque Céspedes, which is a vibrant plaza in the heart of the city. In more recent years more and more Haitians have arrived in Cuba, mainly escaping unfortunate conditions in Haiti.
An apple ripe for picking
US aggression against Cuba began early. On October 24, 1823 Thomas Jefferson (the third US President) wrote, ‘I have ever looked upon Cuba as the most interesting addition which could ever be made to our system of States.’
It was in 1823 that the so-called ‘ripe fruit doctrine’ was developed in the United States. John Quincy Adams, Secretary of State, and later the sixth US president, wrote:
‘There are laws of political as well as physical gravitation; and if an apple severed by its native tree cannot choose but fall to the ground, Cuba, forcibly disjoined from its own unnatural connection with Spain, and incapable of self-support, can gravitate only towards the North American Union which by the same law of nature, cannot cast her off its bosom.’
The United States made no secret of the fact that it sought to take over Cuba, once colonial subordination to Spain had ended. In his book Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War (1968) Che Guevara wrote:
‘The island [Cuba] was seen as an apple which, cut from Spain’s branches, was fated to fall into Uncle Sam’s hands. These are all links in a long chain of continental aggression which has been directed against others as well as Cuba.’
The struggle for independence
For more than 30 years Cuban patriots fought against Spain for independence.
The first moves toward independence began in the early 19th century. However, the struggle for independence began in earnest in 1868. There were three liberation wars against Spain: first, the Ten Years’ War (La Guerra de los Diez Años), also known as the Great War (Guerra Grande), and the War of ’68; second, the Little War (1879–1880); and third, the Cuban War of Independence (1895–1898), which is sometimes referred to as the Second War of Independence. Almost 40 percent of Cubans who fought against Spain were people of colour (that is, Afro-Cubans).
The United States, acting upon its ‘ripe fruit doctrine’, decided to get involved, ostensibly to support the Cuban independence fighters but in reality to move in as soon as the Spaniards were removed from power. The Spanish-American War, fought in 1898 after the USS Maine sank in Havana Harbour on February 15, 1898, marked US involvement in the liberation wars against Spain. Sadly, the Spanish–American War — the final three months of the Cuban War of Independence — failed to win independence for Cuba. Vladimir Lenin described the Spanish–American War ‘the first imperialist war’, the reason being that the war opened the door to imperial expansion beyond the continent.
José Martí (1853-1895), the Cuban national hero, helped initiate the final push for independence in 1895. Martí, a revolutionary philosopher, political theorist, journalist, educator and writer, became known as El Apóstol de Nuestra Independencia (the ‘Apostle of Cuban Independence’). Martí referred to the United States as ‘the monster’.
The United States emerged victorious in the Spanish-American War with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in December 1898. The treaty marked the end of the Spanish Empire apart from some small holdings in Northern Africa and several islands and territories around the Gulf of Guinea, also in Africa.
Former Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, in his book Cuba Betrayed (New York, Vantage Press, 1962) wrote, ‘The influence of the United States over the destinies of Cuba had its origin in the victorious war with Spain’ (p 187).
In January 1899 the United States established a military government in Cuba, headed by General John Brooke. The military government wasted no time in ordering independence fighters to disarm. (An armed populace is always a worry.) There quickly began a period of US neocolonisation and tutelage over Cuban affairs. In truth, Cuba became a de facto US protectorate.
In 1900 there was a Constitutional Convention. Sadly, the Convention was pressured to accept US dictates.
Cuba was ruled by the US military government until 1902. In the previous year the US Congress had passed the Platt Amendment (1901-34) — a rider appended to the US Army appropriations bill of March 1901 — which was imposed with Theodore Roosevelt’s ‘big stick’ policy and his addition (or so-called ‘corollary’) to the Monroe Doctrine.
The Monroe Doctrine, formulated in 1823, opposed European colonialism in the Americas and stated that any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere was ‘dangerous to our peace and safety’. The doctrine ‘considered Latin America — and especially Cuba — to be the US backyard … [and] as part of US patrimony’ (Jesús Arboleya, trans Mary Todd, Havana-Miami (Melbourne: Ocean Press, 1996), p 4). Roosevelt’s corollary to the Monroe Doctrine stated that if a Latin American or Caribbean country threatened or endangered the rights or properties of US citizens or companies, the US government would intervene to restore these rights.
The Platt Amendment enshrined the ‘right’ of the United States to, first, intervene in Cuba’s internal affairs and, second, lease an area for a naval base in Cuba (Guantánamo Bay), denying Cuba true independence.
Although what became known as the Root Interpretation of the Platt Amendment provided that intervention by the US would only take place if and when the Cubans themselves created a situation making it necessary, in the view of the US — for the latter to comply with its Platt obligations — the fact remains that the Platt Amendment was a major blow to Afro-Cubans who had hoped for equality — or at least greater equality — with white planters and commercial elites after fighting so hard and long for Cuba’s independence. In the years that followed the concept and mood of plattista developed in Cuba, meaning that no intervention of interference from Washington equated to its approval of whatever at the time was happening in Cuba.
It wasn’t just Cuba’s political affairs that were controlled by the United States. Most Cuban wealth was also controlled by the ‘monster’ to the north which did little to improve the living conditions of the local population.
Quasi-independence and US military interventions
After almost five years of US military occupation, a neocolonial republic was established in Cuba on May 20, 1902. However, the US retained to itself the right to intervene if and when it deemed it desirable to do so pursuant to the Platt Amendment. From 1903 onwards, US interests had almost complete control over the Caribbean nation’s political and economic affairs. Some three-quarters of the country’s arable land was owned or controlled by US companies. When it came to the provision of telephone and electricity services, US interests exceeded 90 per cent.
Cuba’s first president, Tomás Estrada Palma self-servingly relied on the approval of US authorities as a potential check on the political rise of more radical Cuban military leaders. This practice was adopted by many other Cuban leaders right up to Fulgencio Batista.
The United States established an embassy in Havana and appointed its first ambassador, the soldier and diplomat Herbert G Squiers. The relations of dependency with the US were formalized with the signing of a number of treaties. One such treaty ensured US control over Cuban trade. Another defined the location of US naval stations and provided for a legal framework to the stipulations of the Platt Amendment, including provision for leases of Guantánamo Bay.
Between 1898 to 1958 there were four US military interventions in Cuba (1898-1902, 1906-1909, 1917, and 1921). However, there was in Cuba increasing concern and radicalism among university students and labour about the extent and impact of US interference and interventionism. From time to time this radicalism would manifest in violence. Of greater concern was the development of a climate of corruption and counter-violence by the government, police and the military. Sadly, the country enjoyed only quite short periods of formal democracy. A Constitution (1901) was for all intents and purposes mutilated by an amendment required by the US to accede to the Platt Amendment.
In May 1919 a group of revolutionaries slipped ashore at Guantánamo Bay. Their aim was to spread a ‘workers’ revolution’ against US domination of Cuba in order to abolish neocolonialism. Although they were unsuccessful in their objective, the revolutionaries quickly gained ground throughout the 1920s and there would be regular outbreaks of resistance from Communists and others over the next four decades.
Brutal and corrupt dictatorships
Under US ‘tutelage’ and neocolonialism Cuba suffered two particularly brutal, corrupt and authoritarian dictatorships: those of Gerardo Machado (the ‘Tropical Mussolini’) (from 1925 to 1933), and Fulgencio Batista (from 1934 to 1944, and 1952 to the end of 1958), both of whom were protected by the US for most of their time in power. US economic involvement weakened the growth of Cuba as a nation and only made Cuba more dependent on the US.
Machado, a former general of the Cuban War of Independence, had some partial successes in his early years in power but increasing resistance from students and others led to increasing authoritarianism and ferocious repression of, and violence toward, his political rivals and opposition movements. He effected so-called ‘reform’ of the country’s Constitution purely to stay in power.
The Great Depression only served to cement Cuba’s economic dependence upon the United States, and Spain which also had important commercial interests in Cuba. The ‘Good Neighbor Policy’ (1933), promulgated by US President Franklin D Roosevelt ostensibly to improve US relations with the nations of Central and South America, was in reality a most useful tool for the US to intervene in Latin America. In essence, the policy sought to achieve more-or-less the same objective, albeit with other means, as Teddy Roosevelt’s ‘big stick’ policy.
1933 revolution and its aftermath
Machado’s government was faltering amid increasing violence. FDR appointed Sumner Welles as his special envoy to Cuba. Ambassador Welles was instructed to negotiate a settlement to avoid US intervention pursuant to the Platt Amendment. Welles arrived in Havana in May 1933. He was quite upfront about his country’s stance on Cuba, stating that the prima qualification for any Cuban president must be ‘his thorough acquaintance with the desires of the US Government [and] his amenability to suggestion or advice which might be made to him by the American legation’.
Welles immediately initiated negotiation with opposition groups and brokered a provisional government, in the process weakening Machado's government as the balance of power ended up being in favour of the opposition groups. However, the provisional government was doomed to failure; it was harassed by both the US and opposition forces and was beset with internal contradictions. It lasted only a few months.
In September 1933 Machado’s government collapsed and Cuba underwent a revolution consequent upon a general strike and a provisional government was formed. This was followed by the ‘Sergeants’ Revolt’, a coup organised by former sergeant and self-proclaimed colonel Fulgencio Batista, in January 1934. Machado fled Cuba, finally settling and dying in Miami in 1939.
Under Batista, who ruled for the next 10 years, the existing culture of gangsterism, cronyism and corruption was further cemented and consolidated. Although the Platt Amendment had been repealed by the US in 1933, the next year a Treaty of Relations between Cuba and the US continued the 1903 agreements leasing Guantánamo Bay Naval Base to US.
Another general strike followed in 1935. Five years later, a progressive Constitution (1940) was promulgated, providing for human rights and duties, land reform, public education, a minimum wage and other social programs.
Batista was elected president in 1940 and ruled until 1944 when he was constitutionally obligated to step down. He then went to live in Miami. Sadly, he would return to power in Cuba a few years later.
Between 1944 and 1952 there was a quasi-democratic government which showed some respect for human rights. There was some economic accelerated prosperity, if not for the masses, despite the usual problems of cronyism, maladministration, corruption, gangsterism and, of course, submission to US interests. In 1948 Batista returned from Miami and won election as a senator. Supported by the army, he orchestrated a coup d’état on March 10, 1952, some three months before scheduled presidential elections. A brutal right-wing dictatorship ensued. Corruption was widespread as were poverty, illiteracy and limited healthcare and social services.
Batista rose to power, and stayed there, with the help and support of the United States, only losing that help and support in the final couple of years of his regime. He aligned himself with US business interests and used secret police and terror to control the country. The US Mafia, otherwise in cahoots with US intelligence agencies, controlled Havana’s leading hotels and casinos. The country was a playpen for drug barons, the Mafia, and ordinary Americans. Prostitution was rife and uncontrolled. It was, in the somewhat facetious words of the famed Cuban writer and essayist Enrique Cirules, ‘a delirious paradise of casinos, brothels and drugs’ (The Unknown Hemingway (Ediciones Cubanas, Artex: 2015), p 243).
The Eisenhower administration even went as far as providing a sanctuary in the United States for Batista’s henchmen, torturers and murderers in the aftermath of the 1959 revolution.
The man known as ‘America’s last Ambassador to Cuba’, Philip W Bonsal, wrote in his book Cuba, Castro, and the United States (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1971, p 8), ‘In pre-Castro Cuba, the pervasive American presence in geopolitical terms was a constant reminder of the imperfect nature of Cuban sovereignty.’
The Cuban Revolution (1952-59)
Fidel Castro's rise to power had been closely watched by the CIA from 1948.
The beginnings of what is now known as the Cuban Revolution — notwithstanding that there had been others — lay in Batista’s March 1952 military coup. On April 5 of that same year the National Revolutionary Movement (MNR) attempted to take Camp Columbia, being Batista’s military headquarters in Havana. On June 2, 1952 various moderate opposition leaders, led by Carlos Prío and Emilia Ochoa, met in Canada to unite their forces against Batista.
On July 26, 1953, a group of 135 revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro attacked the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba. Although the attack failed, July 26, 1953 is generally accepted as the beginning of the Cuban Revolution, with the revolutionary movement becoming known as the 26th of July Movement (Movimiento 26 Julio, or ‘M 26-7’). On that very day another group of 25 revolutionaries led by Raúl Martínez Ararás attacked the Bayamo Barracks, again unsuccessfully.
Fidel Castro, Raúl Castro and other revolutionaries were imprisoned for almost two years for their unsuccessful attack on Batista’s armed forces.
In his famous speech ‘History Will Absolve Me’ (1953) Fidel Castro said:
‘Cuba is suffering from a cruel and base despotism. You are well aware that resistance to despots is legitimate. This is a universally recognized principle and our 1940 Constitution expressly makes it a sacred right, in the second paragraph of Article 40:
‘It is legitimate to use adequate resistance to protect previously granted individual rights.”
‘And even if this prerogative had not been provided by the Supreme Law of the Land, it is a consideration without which one cannot conceive of the existence of a democratic collectivity. …’
The revolutionaries were later pardoned and released. On November 25, 1956 Fidel Castro, with some 80 insurgents including Raúl Castro, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, set sail from Mexico for Cuba. On November 30, 1956 underground combatants of M 26-7 under the command of Frank País carried out an uprising in Santiago de Cuba to support the imminent landing of the revolutionaries’ yacht Granma. On December 2, 1956 the yacht landed in Las Coloradas, Oriente (now part of Granma) province. This was the start of a guerrilla war in the mountains.
Elsewhere, there were strikes in 1957-58 including an insurrectional general strike in early 1958. In May of that year Batista sent some 10,000 troops into the Sierra Maestra to destroy Castro’s 300 armed guerrillas. Thousands more were sent to the Escambray to take on guerrillas led by Eloy Gutiérrez Menoyo. By August 1958 the rebel groups had defeated the Cuban Army’s advance and captured a huge amount of arms. In December of that year Castro and the other rebels captured several towns in eastern and central Cuba.
On January 1, 1959 Fidel Castro seized power. Batista immediately fled the country.
Revolutionary changes … and problems with Washington
Most historians and political commentators have acknowledged the historical and political inevitably of the 1959 Cuban Revolution, given the prolonged state of affairs that preceded it.
Castro’s successful revolt against the Batista government was swift and effective. The first to leave Cuba for the United States were the croupiers, casino workers, drug pushers and pimps, not to mention Batista’s henchmen, torturers and murderers. This rogues’ gallery was quickly followed by bourgeois business owners and landowners, the majority of whom were aligned with US interests and oligarchic circles. Cuba’s relations with the US deteriorated rapidly.
In March 1959 Castro confronted racism in a speech in Havana and made racial prejudice a punishable offense. Two months later, the Cuban government enacted the agrarian reform law which limited land ownership to 404.69 hectares (1,000 acres) and expropriated all other land.
Also, in May 1959, the US Ambassador to Cuba Philip Bonsal testified before a closed session of the US Congress House Committee on Foreign Relations and explained why the Cuban Revolution has such widespread popular support. Bonsal spoke of ‘the corruption and the sadism of many Batista henchmen united most Cubans against the regime.’ After describing how Batista's security forces had killed many Cubans, Bonsal noted that ‘many, many more were arrested on no charges and kept in jail for indefinite periods.’ Bonsal protested to the US Secretary of State that Cuban-US relations were being poisoned because the US was allowing several hundred Batista allies to live in the US. He rightly said that the Cuban government saw this as harbouring counter-revolutionaries. In Bonsal’s view, the Batista allies should be forced to ‘move on to some other country.’ It should be noted that by this time the training and arming of anti-Castro Cubans in the US was well underway, with a view to the overthrow of the Castro government.
Ambassador Bonsal’s advice wasn’t followed. The more conservative and reactionary members of the US Congress regarded his attempts at adopting a conciliatory approach to the Castro regime as appeasement of Communism. That, of course, was not the case. He was simply advocating a policy of non-intervention in Cuban affairs. That approach was rejected by Washington. Bonsal was recalled several times and eventually US diplomatic relations with Cuba were broken off on January 3, 1961.
US ‘dirty war’
A ‘dirty war’ by the US against Cuba — the largest-ever covert action program conducted by one nation against another — commenced in October 1959 and lasted for years. Since 1959 there have been over 680 acts of terrorism and warfare including chemical and bioterrorism, assassination attempts, and terrorist attacks against tourist facilities carried out by US agencies or paid hitmen under their protection including air attacks on Cuba and sabotage activities carried out by thousands of right-wing exiles in Cuba. More than 3,000 Cubans are said to have died since 1959 as a result of these acts of terrorism.
In March 1960 US president Dwight D Eisenhower approved plans for overthrowing the Cuban government and, to that end, ordered CIA Director Allen Dulles to train Cuban exiles for a covert invasion of Cuba. ‘Regime change’ was the goal. The CIA — a body later described by US Senator Frank Church as a ‘rogue elephant’ — ran amuck. ‘Operation Mongoose’, also known as the Cuban Project’, was authorised by US president John F Kennedy in November 1961, the goal being to remove the Communists from power in Cuba — one way or another. It is now well-known that the CIA recruited not only right-wing Cuban exiles but also ‘Mob’ bosses Sam Giancana, Santo Trafficante and other mobsters to assassinate Fidel Castro. The services of both the US State Department and the Department of Defense were also co-opted by the Special Activities Division of the CIA.
On March 4, 1960 La Coubre, a Belgian ship carrying French arms purchased by Cuba, exploded in Havana Harbour killing more than 100 and injuring another 200 people. Even though the cause of the actual explosion was never fully established, the explosion may well have been the first in a long line of US-backed terrorist attacks against Cuba, its government and its people.
On May 8, 1960 Cuba and the USSR established diplomatic relations. In the middle of the year Cuba reached an agreement to sell some 635,029 tonnes (700,000 tons) of sugar to the USSR. In the words of Philip Bonsal, ‘The economic arrangements between Cuba and the Soviet Union seemed intolerable to people long accustomed to a dominant American position in Cuba’ (Bonsal, Cuba, Castro, and the United States, p 134).
This led to a series of escalating actions by the US and Cuba. Cuba ordered its refineries controlled by Shell and Esso to process Soviet oil. They refused in light of pressure from the US. In July of that year Cuba nationalized the oil refineries. In response to the nationalisation of the refineries and Cuba’s sale of sugar to USSR, the US then cancelled Cuba's sugar import quota (some 2.72 million tonnes [3 million tons]), banned commercial ships from docking in Cuban ports, and suspended US financial credits to Cuban banks.
Ambassador Bonsal opposed US retaliatory action and other economic sanctions against the Castro government that were soon to be imposed by Washington. Bonsal knew that all that his government was doing would simply drive Cuba further into the Soviet orbit, which of course happened.
The Castro government then proceeded to nationalise other US-owned assets in Cuba including banks and sugar mills. On August 28, 1960 Washington responded by imposing a US economic embargo (el bloqueo, ‘the blockade’) against trade with Cuba. In February 1962 President John F Kennedy expanded the trade embargo to cover all US imports from Cuba and made the embargo permanent.
That was not the end of the matter. Over the past six decades the embargo has been progressively widened and now embraces almost all economic, financial and commercial relationships with Cuba including the imposition of restrictions on third parties (that is, other nations and persons trading with, or investing in, Cuba) and allowing Americans to sue companies and private individuals purportedly ‘trafficking’ in property seized after the Cuban Revolution, pursuant to the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992 (the ‘Torricelli Law’) and the recently activated Title III of the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (LIBERTAD) Act of 1996 (the ‘Helms-Burton Law’).
Then there’s the Cuban Adjustment Act (1966) the aim of which, put simply, is political destabilisation by encouraging Cuban citizens to leave illegally in order to obtain permanent residence and US citizenship.
The total cost of the embargo to Cuba, from 1960 to 2020, at current prices is in the order of USD 144,413,400,000. Taking into account the depreciation of the dollar against the value of gold on the international market, the blockade has caused quantifiable damages to Cuba of over USD 1,098,008,000,000. (Source: Report by Cuba on resolution 74/7 of the United Nations General Assembly (Necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial blockade imposed by the United States of America against Cuba’.)
The Bay of Pigs
Kennedy Administration officials continued to exert heavy pressure on the CIA to get rid of Fidel Castro. In that regard, there were over 600 assassination plots and conspiracies against Castro — from exploding cigars to femmes fatales.
On April 15, 1961 there was a bombing raid on Cuban airfields. From April 17-20, 1961 there occurred what is known as the Bay of Pigs invasion. It was a failed landing operation on Cuba’s southwestern coast by a CIA-sponsored paramilitary group known as Brigade 2506 and comprising right-wing Cuban exiles opposed to the 1959 Revolution. The invasion was covertly financed and directed by CIA officer E Howard Hunt, who years later achieved notoriety as one of the Nixon administration ‘plumbers’, forged Cuban exile leaders in the US into a suitably representative government-in-exile, with the aim being the establishment of a pro-American puppet state.
The Bay of Pigs fiasco was a real embarrassment to the US. In November 1961 President Kennedy dismissed CIA Director Allen Dulles, saying, ‘Your successes are unheralded and your failures are trumpeted.’ (As a sidelight, three years later, after Kennedy was assassinated, Dulles was appointed a member of the President's Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy, the ‘Warren Commission’.)
The Cuban missile crisis
After the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev reached a secret agreement with Cuban president Fidel Castro in July 1962 to place Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba to deter any future US invasion attempt. However, US intelligence became aware of the Soviet arms build-up on the Caribbean island. From October 16-28, 1962 there was a 13-day confrontation between the US and the USSR.
On October 22, 1962 President Kennedy wrote to Khrushchev making it clear that the US would not permit offensive weapons to be delivered to, or stationed in, Cuba, and demanded that the Soviets dismantle the missile bases already under construction or completed and return all offensive weapons to the USSR. There were several subsequent communications and, more importantly, a US naval blockade of Cuba. Kennedy invoked the Monroe Doctrine with these words:
‘It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.’
Khrushchev responded, stating that the US blockade was an ‘act of aggression’ and that Soviet ships bound for Cuba would be ordered to proceed. However, some Soviet ships turned back from the quarantine line while others were stopped by US naval forces. The US prepared for an attack on Cuba should that be deemed necessary. On October 28, 1962 Khrushchev finally issued a public statement that Soviet missiles would be dismantled and removed from Cuba. The incident was the closest the Cold War came to escalating into a full-scale nuclear war.
While many hail Kennedy’s decision-making as respects the crisis as masterful, there is another view, namely, that the naval blockade was an ‘irresponsible action’ and that the peaceful outcome ‘was due to Soviet moderation and the United States’ good luck’ (Carlos Lechuga, Cuba and the Missile Crisis (Melbourne: Ocean Press, 2001), p 54). Lechuga makes the valid point that the US used coercion ‘while turning a blind eye to its international obligations, opening ignoring the sovereign right of Cuba … forced to defend itself’ (ibid).
The CIA keeps at it
On October 9, 1967 the Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara, a major figure of the Cuban Revolution, was assassinated in La Higuera, Bolivia, with the assistance of Félix Rodríguez, a Cuban exile turned CIA Special Activities Division operative, and others opposed to the aims of the Revolution. Although no further evidence was needed, Che’s death showed the lengths to which the US was prepared to go to impede the revolutionary movement.
In 1971 the African swine fever virus was introduced into Cuba by operatives linked to anti-Castro terrorists, with at least the tacit backing of the CIA. This was the first and only attack of African swine flu in the western hemisphere.
Luis Posada Carriles (‘Luis Posada’), CIA agent and Cuban national who had helped organize the Bay of Pigs invasion, and after it failed, became an agent for the CIA, was responsible for the bombing of a Cubana airliner in 1976, killing 73 people. Some 22 years later he gave a newspaper interview in which he also admitted to organising a series of hotel bombings in Cuba which resulted in 11 injuries and the death of an Italian tourist. In 2000 Posada was arrested and jailed in Panama for planning to bomb a university where Fidel Castro was due to speak. Posada was accused of lying to US authorities about his entry into the US and about his alleged involvement in the bomb attacks in Havana but he was never tried for mass murder or terrorism. Not surprisingly, he received enormous support from right-wing Cuban exiles in the US and was acquitted on all charges against him in 2011. He died in Miami on May 23, 2018, aged 90.
The ‘Cuban Five’
The Cuban Five, also known as the Miami Five, were five Cuban intelligence officers who went to the United States to monitor the activities of anti-Cuban terrorist organisations. They were falsely accused by the US government of committing espionage conspiracy against the United States and other related charges. They were arrested in September 1998 and later convicted in Miami of conspiracy to commit espionage, conspiracy to commit murder, acting as an agent of a foreign government, and other illegal activities in the US.
The Cuban Five’s actions were not directed at the US government and they never engaged in nor planned any conspiracy against the US government. They possessed no weapons and used none. They caused no harm to others. On the contrary, they made it unambiguously clear in their defense in court that the purpose of their mission in Miami, which had begun in 1990, was simply to monitor the actions of Miami-based terrorist groups in order to prevent those groups from carrying out attacks on Cuba. In other words, they sought to protect people in Cuba from terrorism and aggression.
Despite initial conviction before the trial court, the convictions were subsequently overturned by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, Georgia, with the Circuit Court of Appeals citing the ‘prejudices’ of Miami’s anti-Castro Cubans. Regrettably, the matter didn’t end there. The Full Court later denied the Cuban Five's bid for a new trial and reinstated the original convictions, and in June 2009 the US Supreme Court declined to review the case.
The Cuban Five were unjustly imprisoned and ended up serving long prison sentences in the United States. There was much international criticism from eminent jurists, human rights activists and Amnesty International of the Cuban Five’s convictions and imprisonment.
George W Bush, Obama and Trump
In 2002 US President George W Bush set up the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba (CAFC), an interagency initiative chaired by a series of cabinet officials. The commission made a number of recommendations, the most disturbing one of which was to keep the blockade in place. The commission also recommended that every attempt be made to interrupt any moves by a successor regime to replace Fidel Castro, that the Helms-Burton Law be implemented, and that a US ‘transition coordinator’ (a position created soon after at the State Department) be appointed to judge when conditions in post-Castro Cuba would make the Caribbean nation eligible for aid and other accoutrements that accompany the usual American seal of approval.
In 2004, an election year, the Bush administration massively scaled back Cuban American family travel and remittances. That same year, the Bush administration decided to stop Cuba using the US dollar as a means of payment inside Cuba. In May of that year the US Federal Reserve fined UBS AG, Switzerland’s largest bank, $100 million for allegedly sending US dollars to Cuba. This move created serious problems for Havana in depositing dollars abroad and renewing bills in circulation, and potentially frightened foreign banks into dropping commercial relations. Washington also set up a special task force to chase down Cuban assets internationally — an act of unprecedented aggression in the history of international financial relations.
Despite all of the above, Cuba stuck to the high moral ground. Hurricane Katrina was a large Category 5 hurricane which caused over 1,800 deaths and $125 billion in damage in August 2005, particularly in New Orleans and surrounding areas. Cuban president Fidel Castro offered to send hundreds of medical professionals and disaster relief workers to New Orleans in the aftermath of the hurricane. Perversely, and quite inhumanely, the US refused the offer claiming that it was a publicity stunt on the part of Cuba.
In January 2011 President Barack Obama relaxed restrictions on travel from the United States to Cuba and full restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries occurred in December 2014. However, the embargo remained, entrenched in several US acts of Congress.
The brief warming of Cuba–US relations came to an end with the election of Donald Trump as US president. Trump was determined to pander to right-wing Cubans in Florida. He wreaked havoc from 2017 onwards, right up to the end of his presidency. Cuba was forced to endure increased persecution of its financial and commercial transactions, a ban on flights from the US to all Cuban airports except Havana, a ban on US cruise ships visiting Cuba, a ban on sending remittances to Cuban citizens, persecution and intimidation of companies that send fuel supplies to Cuba, the forced closure of the one US-run hotel in Havana — managed by Marriott International, which just happens to be a Trump Hotels competitor — and a concerted campaign to discredit Cuban medical cooperation programs including the country’s well-respected Henry Reeve International Medical Contingent, including pressuring other countries not to hire Cuban doctors and nurses to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.
To top things off, on January 11, 2021, in the dying days of his presidency, Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo perversely redesignated Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism. It was the ultimate irony that a country that for so long has been the victim of sustained acts of state terrorism should itself be accused, quite unjustifiably, of the same crime.
All of these US decisions and actions have hurt ordinary Cubans immeasurably.
Prior to his election as US president Joe Biden promised to reverse Trump's policies that have inflicted harm on the Cuban people. It remains to be seen whether that happens. However, one thing is perfectly clear. Unless and until the United States respects Cuba’s right to self-determination, ends its cruel blockade of Cuba, and follows the advice of the late Ambassador Philip Bonsal and starts to act in a mature and conciliatory fashion toward Cuba, there will be no real improvement in relations.
Dr Ian Ellis-Jones is a member of the Socialist Alliance.