US-Cuban Relations: How It All Got Started

Although Fidel Castro would eventually become a Soviet allied communist, and although the US ultimatum to Cuba would eventually take the form of the often repeated mantra that there were only two non-negotiable demands, that Cuba cut ties with the Soviet Union, and that they stop supporting leftist movements in the hemisphere, that’s not how it started. The "virus" that could "spread contagion" was not communism.

Castro Was Not a Communist

In the beginning of the Cuban revolution, as Noam Chomsky has said, the US obsession with Castro was not a fear of communism. CIA expert John Prados says that it is important to note that in 1959 – when the US had already decided that Castro was incompatible with US goals – "Fidel Castro had not become a communist." Chomsky says that US plans for regime change in Cuba "were drawn up and implemented before there was any significant Russian connection." "When Fidel Castro’s guerilla forces overthrew the Batista dictatorship in January 1959," Vincent Bevins says in The Jakarta Method, "his movement was neither openly communist nor aligned with the Soviet Union." And so it stayed for an important period of time. "Castro showed no special affinity for the Soviet Union during his first years in office," according to William LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh in Back Channel to Cuba.

That was also the view of the State Department. In an April 1959 assessment, the State Department reported that "With regard to his position on communism and the cold war struggle, Castro cautiously indicated that Cuba would remain in the western camp."

When the US literally set its sights on Castro, it was not because he was a Soviet satellite in the western hemisphere because he was not. It was also not because he was a communist in America’s backyard. LeoGrande and Kornbluh say that "U.S. officials suspected that Castro was dangerously radical even if he was not a communist." The US ambassador to Cuba, Philip W. Bonsal, categorized Castro’s policies as "reformist, nationalistic, and somewhat socialistic and neutralist." The CIA agreed. Prados reports that in November 1959, the CIA told the senate judiciary subcommittee that "Neither the Cuban communists nor the CIA consider Castro a communist."

The CIA would go even further in its assessment. At the first actual CIA meeting with Castro, the CIA’s Gerry Droller, who operated under the pseudonym Frank Bender, expressed concern about the Cuban Communist Party. Castro assured him that the communists were a minority and that he could handle them. LeoGrande and Kornbluh report that after a three hour conversation, Droller reported that "Castro is not only not a communist, but he is a strong anti-communist fighter."

Castro Was a Nationalist

If communism wasn’t the virus whose contagion America feared, then what was? Ambassador Bonsal’s assessment answers that question: Castro was "nationalistic." When Chomsky said the US obsession with Castro was not a fear of communism, he went on to say that it was a fear of independent nationalism.

At the end of 1959 and the beginning of 1960, Castro began a policy of nationalization and land reform. Fidel Castro, LeoGrande and Kornbluh say, "was a fervent nationalist." Nationalists want the people of their land to benefit from their land, not the people of the US. And that does not suit US interests. LeoGrande and Kornbluh say that, though Castro was not communist, "his nationalism and commitment to social change were bound to conflict with US interests on the island."

Arthur Schlesinger put it to Kennedy this way: the danger of "the Castro idea" occurs when "the distribution of land and other forms of national wealth greatly favor the propertied classes" and "the poor and underprivileged, stimulated by the example of the Cuban revolution, are now demanding opportunities for a decent living." Nationalism, and not communism, was the contagious virus. In 1964, the State Department said that "the primary danger we face in Castro is…that Castro represents a successful defiance of the US, a negation of our whole hemispheric policy…."

On May 17, 1959, Castro introduced his first agrarian land reforms. That was the moment in history, the "critical turning point" in LeoGrande and Kornbluh’s words, when the US decided that Cuba needed a new government and US policy toward Cuba became irreparably hostile. In a matter of weeks, the removal of Castro became US policy.

Looking back, Raúl Castro would say, "The 1959 land reform was the Rubicon of our revolution. A death sentence for our US relations…. At that moment, there was no discussion about socialism, or Cuba dealing with Russia. But the die was cast."

A Consistent History

Nationalism has always been the Cuban virus that America fears. It did not begin in 1960. The Castro policy was a continuation of consistent US policy in Cuba.

In 1898, the US would send troops to Cuba to help the Cubans win their liberation from Spain. The US dispatched of Spain and then stole Cuba. According to Stephen Kinzer, the latently independent Cubans wanted to limit foreign ownership of land and redistribute large plantations to peasants. That’s exactly how Castro crossed the Rubicon: he nationalized the small number of farms that were bigger than 1000 acres and made up 40% of Cuba’s farmable land. That was Cuba’s first revolution’s Rubicon too. The Platt Amendment would put an end to that, pressing Cuba down under US control, and allowing Cuba’s US military governors to enact legislation conducive to US domination of the Cuban market.

In 1933, the Cuban people would rebel against that repression and exploitation, overthrow the US backed dictator, Gerardo Machado, and set out on a program of social reform. Once again worried that the social reforms would threaten US investments, the US cooperated in a coup against the Cuban people and installed the murderous dictator Fulgencio Batista who, like Machado, could prevent nationalism and protect US interests.

Though always presented as a cold war battle against communism in America’s backyard, it was not communism that was the virus whose contagion America feared. US maltreatment of Cuba was not motivated by ideological ideals. US maltreatment was motivated by selfishness, greed and a drive to keep Cuban land and resources from the Cuban people.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.