Remember that ever since the 1898 Cuban War for Independence a.k.a. The Spanish-American War the U.S. has had extreme influence over the Cuban government. Over the next 50 years that influence grew as Havana became a destination for American tourists, businesspeople, and the mob.
Inequality was massive. Sugarcane planters spent half the year unemployed, roaming the countryside for work. They would come in handy when Castro is looking for soldiers. Cuba was also racially segregated, much like the U.S. at the same time. Even their dictator, Batista (a mulatto), was denied entry into one of Havana’s most exclusive clubs. Cuba was essentially two different worlds – the glittering Havana that lives in the memory of many exiles and the beautifully annoying song by Barry Manilow, and rural Cuba that was more like an impoverished Third World country.
The reason the U.S. was able to assert so much influence was because it was supporting a brutal dictatorship that allowed American companies to run rampant in Cuba. 1950s Cuba was run by Fulgencio Batista, an effective leader turned dictator. Backed by the U.S. government, he suspended the constitution, controlled the university, the press, and embezzled tons of money. He aligned himself with wealthy sugar planters. The U.S. slowly took control of more sugar plantations and by the end of his rule, over 70% of arable land in Cuba was owned by Americans.
On top of this, the American Mafia controlled the gambling, drug, and prostitution businesses in Havana. The Hotel Nacional in Havana (where I stayed for one night a few summers ago, no big deal) became a sort of HQ for the American Mafia, even hosting the Havana Conference in 1946. This was a historic meeting between the U.S. Mafia and the Cosa Nostra, or the Sicilian Mafia. American companies were awarded lucrative contracts by the government. Batista and his supporters made tons of money allying with the Americans, all while the inequality between the rich and poor grew exponentially.
All of this is to say, that when Castro and Che come along, there are a lot of people who are more than willing to overthrow the Batista regime. President Kennedy said it best: “I believe that there is no country in the world, including the African regions, including any and all the countries under colonial domination, where economic colonization, humiliation and exploitation were worse than in Cuba, in part owing to my country’s policies during the Batista regime. I believe that we created, built and manufactured the Castro movement out of whole cloth and without realizing it.” (1963)
There are also a lot of people at the top of the Cuban hierarchy who will lose an enormous amount after the Revolution. Many of them are still in Florida and still bitter about what they lost to the communists. They also have a lot of money and have formed a very influential lobby that still to this day pushes the U.S. government to maintain the embargo on Cuba.
So who were Fidel Castro and Che Guevara?
Fidel Castro was the son of a Spanish immigrant and sugarcane farmer in a province mostly controlled by the United Fruit Company. Again with the damned United Fruit Company. Fidel attended Havana Law School where he was radicalized – learn a lesson from Lenin, Mao, and Fidel, parents. Don’t send your child to college or they will become a communist revolutionary. He practiced law and was up for election in the Cuban House of Representatives in the year that Batista suspended the constitution and cancelled the election in 1956.
Castro attempted a rebellion by attacking the Moncada barracks but it failed and he was imprisoned. In this way, his story is pretty similar to Hitler’s – although his ideology is extreme left unlike Hitler’s extreme right philosophy. Like Hitler, Castro was released soon after, partly because he was such a charismatic speaker and he gained influence during his impassioned defense while on trial. It was on trial that he made his famous quote, “Condemn me, it does not matter. History will absolve me.” Fidel left for Mexico, where he and his brother Raul met up with a young Argentine doctor.
Ernesto Che Guevara was a medical student in Buenos Aires but he became radicalized when he traveled around the Americas on his motorcycle. Immortalized by his own Motorcycle Diaries, Che saw hunger, poverty, and disease, and blamed much of the suffering of the Latin Americans on U.S. imperialism. This wasn’t total unfair, especially considering he was in Guatemala when the U.S.-backed coup occurred, overthrowing democratically-elected Arbenz. Che ended up in Mexico City where he met the Castro brothers. They joined together and created the 26th of July Movement – named after the attack on the Moncada barracks – and set off for Cuba on a yacht named the Granma. Probably not quite as badass as they would have hoped.
The Cuban Revolution started out lackluster. There were just 80 people on the ship and soon after they landed they were attacked by Batista’s men. Only 20 people survived and they escaped to the Sierra Maestra mountains in eastern Cuba. Although it’s romantic to tell the story as if there were literally only 20 people at the beginning, that’s not true. There were a lot of members of the movement who hadn’t been exiled to Mexico and they were ready to start the revolution upon Fidel’s return.
The fighting grew in the rural countryside. Like Mao, Fidel gained a following amongst the peasants before he eventually took on the cities, where Batista had the advantage. Their guerrilla warfare was successful in the countryside. During one battle, the Battle of La Plata, Castro’s forces defeated a battalion of 500 men while losing only 3 of their own.
Castro organized his rebel fighters into various columns led by himself, Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos, and the student-led Revolutionary Directorate. From various positions across Cuba, they advanced on Havana and won a series of battles. News of these victories caused Batista to flee to the Dominican Republic on January 1, 1959. Fidel Castro and his army marched into Havana on January 8, the new rulers of Cuba.
With the establishment of the new government, punishment of those linked to Batista’s government began almost immediately. Arrests, torture, plus the execution of around 600 people found guilty by revolutionary courts all occurred within the first months of Castro’s rule. Elections promised by Castro were continuously postponed. However, it was not clear at the beginning that Castro was a communist.
This is hard for us to understand now because we so associate communism with Castro’s Cuba but he had not openly declared himself as anything more than a revolutionary who wanted to get rid of the Batista government. In fact, the U.S. was one of the first governments to recognize the legitimacy of the new Castro government, hoping to keep Cuba as an ally (especially since there were so many American corporate interests on the island). But, the U.S. would not go so far as to send financial help to the new government and so Castro began new taxation, forced lending to the government, and land reform. Uh oh.
All landholdings that exceeded 1,000 acres were taken by the government. Landowners were paid in government bonds that could not be cashed in for 20 years. Cuba’s economy was in a nose dive as investment dropped, unemployment rose, and people defected and left the island left and right. In 1960, Cuba signed a trade pact with the Soviet Union. A year later, President Eisenhower severed all ties with Cuba, one of his last acts as president.
Also in 1961, 1,500 Cuban exiles, under the direction and training of the U.S. government, were sent back to the island to start a counterrevolution. The Bay of Pigs invasion failed miserably and was the last direct effort by the U.S. to overthrow the Castro regime, although assassination attempts are in the hundreds. It wasn’t until the end of this year, in 1961, the Castro officially declared himself a Marxist. The Cold War was on in Cuba.
Side note: the U.S. tried to assassinate Castro so many times that historians have to separate the attempts into five phases. The CIA met with the heads of the Chicago and Miami mafia, both of whom were on the FBI’s “Most Wanted List”, and paid them $150,000 to help them get access to Cuban officials who could poison Castro’s food. The CIA tried poisoned cigars, exploding cigars, an infected scuba-diving suit along with a booby trapped conch shell at the bottom of the sea floor where Castro liked to dive.
The CIA also tried to assassinate his character. They tried to give him thallium salts to destroy his famous beard. The CIA laced his radio studio with LSD to disorient him during his regular broadcasts and damage his credibility. As recently as 2000, the government placed 90 kg of explosives under a podium in Panama where he was scheduled to talk. All of these failed. Castro once said, “If surviving assassination attempts were an Olympic event, I would win a gold medal.”
The height of the Cold War occurred on the island of Cuba in 1962. It was the closest the U.S. and USSR ever came to actual nuclear conflict. After the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, the Soviets secretly agreed to start placing nuclear missiles into Cuba to protect them from future US intervention. President Kennedy knew that the Soviets were arming the Cubans with defensive weapons and he was OK with this. But in October 1962 U2 spy planes took photos of sites for ballistic nuclear missiles, proving that Khrushchev had lied to Kennedy about only arming them with defensive weapons.
JFK assembled a collection of his military and diplomatic advisers who mostly pushed for a bombing of Cuba. It’s an interesting conundrum if you’ll remember that Kennedy as a student at Harvard had written a book all about Britain’s appeasement of Hitler during the 1930s. Now he was faced with a similar issue: take a hardline stance and risk nuclear war or go too soft and let the Soviets gain an aggressive foothold just 90 miles from your coastline.
Kennedy took a middle path. He ordered a naval quarantine of Cuba – he didn’t use the term “blockade” because that is associated with a current state of war. He also sent Khrushchev a letter saying that he would end the quarantine only once the Soviets agreed to remove all offensive weapons from the island. He also did what JFK does best and went on television to announce all of this to the public, stating that any attack with missiles from Cuba anywhere in the western hemisphere would be regarded by the U.S. as a Soviet attack on the United States requiring a full retaliatory response. Bringing out that old Monroe Doctrine, brushing it off, and giving it a new nuclear sheen.
Khrushchev responded that the quarantine was an act of war by the United States and he ordered Soviet ships to break through the U.S. navy and continue supplying Cuba with weapons. The U.S. military was placed on DEFCON 2, the second highest level of military alert. Behind the scenes, Kennedy and Khrushchev were communicating and hammering out a deal. The Soviets agreed to remove the weapons from Cuba if the U.S. promised a few things in return:
- His first letter stated that the U.S. should never again invade the island of Cuba.
- Then, he sent a second letter that also required that the U.S. would remove its missiles from Turkey, near the Soviet border.
The same day the Soviets sent their demands, a U2 reconnaissance plane was shot down over Cuba. While Kennedy prepared for war he also searched for any diplomatic resolution. He decided to ignore the second letter and responded as if he had only seen the first. He agreed to not invade the island if the Soviets would dismantle the weapons under the supervision of the United Nations.
Kennedy sent his brother Bobby to secretly talk with the Soviet ambassador. Kennedy told the ambassador something that had to remain top secret: the missiles in Turkey were growing outdated and they had already planned on removing them in the next 6 months. Basically, he was agreeing to the second demand but in private. The U.S. would dismantle those weapons later on so that it wouldn’t be associated with the Cuban Missile Crisis and make Kennedy look like he had given up too much in the eyes of the American public. Sneaky sneaky.
Before we move on, I want to introduce you to Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov. He was a Russian submarine officer and he is probably the most important person of the 20th century that you’ve never heard of.
At the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, there was a Soviet submarine hiding out in the Caribbean, past the quarantine line. The U.S. begins dropping depth charges, exploding all around the sub. What the U.S. doesn’t know is that this submarine is armed with a tactical nuclear torpedo that would explode with the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The captain has been empowered to launch it at will. Uh oh.
Without communication with Moscow for days, the AC is broken and temperatures are climbing above 100 degrees. They can’t surface without exposing themselves and there are 11 American ships all within firing range. Hearing the explosions of the depth charges around them, the captain shouts, “Maybe the war has already started up there … We’re gonna blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all—we will not become the shame of the fleet.” It’s like a real-life Dr. Strangelove and its terrifying.
Remember – the men on this sub had no idea what was happening above the water. They just knew they had been told to go straight to Cuba but then had been ordered to sit and wait in the Caribbean. After that they had no more communication until explosions began rocking their sub.
There was a 34-year-old on board who was the third senior officer on the sub. Launching a nuclear attack required approval from all three men – two had agreed but this man said no. He reasoned with the captain that if the Americans had wanted to hit the submarine, they would have. By dropping explosions all around them they were sending them a signal to surface – this was not an act of war.
The young man won out, convincing the other officers on board not to fire the torpedo. They surfaced, were seen by a US ship but not boarded, and they turned around and headed back toward Russia. No one would know that the sub had an armed nuclear weapon on board for another 50 years when the documents were declassified by the Russians in 2012. Whoa.
After the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Castro regime was basically left alone. They traded with the Soviets and attempted to spread their communist ideology across the Third World. Che Guevara became a sort-of communist ambassador, traveling to countries that were attempting revolution or deep in the middle of civil war to bring Cuban support. He traveled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo with other Cuban fighters to help their ill-fated communist revolution. Che also spent time in Angola during their civil war to help the MPLA, or People’s Movement to Support the Liberation of Angola.
Surprisingly, Che was also allowed to travel to New York City in 1964 where he made a speech to the United Nations General Assembly. He spoke out against western imperialism and urged the UN to help promote “peaceful coexistence.” He also railed against the United States, criticizing them for discriminating against their own people of color while it claimed to be the champion of freedom abroad. Regardless of your thoughts on Che or communism, it’s a pretty badass speech from a social justice perspective.
In 1966, Che traveled to Bolivia to try to foment communist rebellion. He was captured by the Bolivian army, aided by CIA advisers, and executed. After his death, just seven years after the Cuban Revolution, Che became a martyr for the communist cause. Today, he is seen as an icon of the far left although his image and legacy is often misunderstood. For one, Che committed some terrible acts when he served the Cuban government. He oversaw death squads that executed traitors to the revolution after very short and flimsy trials. But also, for someone who hated capitalism with every fiber of his being, it’s pretty insane how much crap his face is on. It kills me when I travel to Latin American countries and see his face all over shirts, magnets, and mugs. He is rolling over in his grave every time an ignorant college student plasters a Che poster in their college dorm room, right next to Abbey Road and Jimi Hendrix. Does that seem specific? Yeah. It’s because I totally hung all of those up in my dorm room. I was so basic.
Cuba chugged along until the fall of the Soviet Union. After its collapse their economy spiralled downward. The US embargo had always had a huge impact, but when they still had the support of the USSR they were OK. But the 1990s were rough in Cuba. And Cuba today is still a relatively impoverished country.
I was lucky enough to visit a few years ago with students and here are three quick things that I learned:
- The embargo is way more intense than I realized. I thought it just meant that Americans can’t do business with Cubans but it’s more than that. The U.S. won’t do business with anyone in the world who does business with Cuba. We met a few engineers who were just trying to get a loan for their company but no major international bank would do it because then they couldn’t do business anywhere in the U.S. Whoa.
- Cuba is probably the closest any country has gotten to truly trying to implement communist ideology. The government oversees everyone’s paycheck, housing, healthcare, and education. And even though everyone is guaranteed all of those things they aren’t all completely equal. The engineers we met get paid more than the bus drivers. And they get nicer government-assigned housing. So everyone has a place to live, but some of those places are really rough. But, they are incredibly proud of what they have accomplished. They have made enormous efforts to protect and regenerate their environment that was destroyed by industrial farming before the revolution. Our tour guide marveled at the fact that her son would go to the same school and have the same educational opportunities as sons of the elites. They offer free college tuition to any student in the country who qualifies through their intense exam system. So, truly, anyone can become a doctor or engineer if they are the most intelligent and the hardest working. And they have universal healthcare that works pretty damn well. When Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez was diagnosed with cancer he traveled to Cuba for his treatment. Cuban doctors even visited the U.S. earlier this year to help teach doctors in the southside of Chicago about decreasing the infant mortality rate. Hell, one of my students got food poisoning and we went to a doctor, she checked out my student, gave her medication to help settle her stomach and sent us on our way. No annoying paperwork or cash exchange. But I did have to communicate entirely in Spanish, forcing me to pull out some deep cuts from my middle school Spanish lessons. I remember thinking in 7th grade, “Why will I ever need to know the word for lobster in Spanish?” Well, young Emily, how about when a student in your care has food poisoning and the doctor asks you to list out everything she ate in the last 24 hours? Sadly, I couldn’t remember langosta so I was forced to act out a lobster in the middle of the doctor’s office. But she knew what I was trying to say…
- But the last thing I learned – and this is really important – is that the Cubans who live on the island do not want to be like us. When I visited, I totally expected them to be desperate for iPhones (some of them already had them) and Starbucks, but everyone we met was very emphatic that they did not want to be like the U.S. They see us as a place with rampant inequality, gun violence, and corrupt politics. And I gotta say, I had a hard time arguing with them. They were realistic about the issues in Cuba, mostly the economy. But they blamed most of that on the embargo. By continuing to close off trade to Cuba, we are continuing to provide the Cuban government an easy enemy to unite the country against. I also realized that in the United States we have only had one perspective on Cuba for the last 60 years: the voice of Cubans who are no longer in Cuba. There are tons of exiles living in the U.S., especially in Miami, who have pretty good reason to hate Castro. They were forced out of their homes, some of their family members were executed, or they chose to leave because they disagreed with the direction their country was going. And their perspective is not wrong. But it’s just one side. I was able to meet with dozens of Cubans – with no government supervision, we didn’t have “minders” and these people weren’t giving us scripted answers – who showed me another side of the story that is also correct. I realized that the U.S. has its own value system upon which we judge success. For Americans, success is based in wealth, privilege, and career advancement. But in Cuba, they just are working off of a different value system. To them, success is based in community, equality, and long-term investment in the environment and the education and health of your citizens. From their perspective, the U.S. is the country that’s failing.
Anyway, I’m sure that rant, and this entire episode, has gotten me on a government list somewhere and probably lost me a few listeners who don’t like to hear that the U.S. isn’t always the good guy in history. Sorry not sorry. But it’s important to learn as many different perspectives as possible and to understand that our policies have an enormous impact on the entire world. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that as we get wrapped up in domestic issues and arguing within Congress. For example, I traveled to Cuba in the summer before the 2016 election and I can tell you, they were following the campaign more closely than most Americans. Their entire lives hinged upon November 2016. They know that if Clinton was elected she would continue the relaxation of the embargo that was starting to allow them to grow their businesses and live their lives. And when Trump was elected instead, the Cubans I met were some of the first people that I thought of.