Why the US government failed to topple the Cuban revolution
Washington's failure to overthrow communism in Cuba has been a source of extreme irritation for successive American leaders. The inability of the world's strongest country to bend Cuba to its will has been nothing if not remarkable.
Even so, a closer examination of the United States-Cuba rivalry reveals some glaring reasons why the superpower was unable to destroy the revolution. One must return to the really critical period of the late 1950s and early 1960s. American imperial planners, and other supporters of the Monroe Doctrine of US domination over the Western hemisphere, may lay the blame squarely at the door of Dwight D. Eisenhower.
It was General Eisenhower who held the post of US president for eight years, until January 1961. During this time Fidel Castro's rebels successfully fought their guerrilla war against the dictator that Eisenhower was propping up, Fulgencio Batista. Castro came seamlessly to power on New Year's Day 1959, and then managed to establish his government's control in Cuba.
Eisenhower himself had recent history of intervening in Latin America. During the summer of 1954, he sanctioned the ousting of the democratically elected Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz.
From the late 1950s the Eisenhower administration, now in its waning years, would fortunately be unable to repeat such a move in Cuba. Richard Gott, the English author and scholar of Cuban history, wrote in his book, Cuba: A new history, that “the Eisenhower government, as much from inertia as from conservatism or anti-communism, had contently gone on supporting Batista, although with a growing lack of conviction. While continuing to supply weapons, it never provided enough to allow Batista a military victory”.
Castro's influence in Cuba began to increase gradually from early 1957 as his men, from their Sierra Maestra base in south-eastern Cuba, staged skilful coordinated assaults against Batista's forces. Eisenhower, meanwhile, paid little attention to what was occurring in Cuba at this point. Despite its close proximity on the map, Eisenhower had never visited the Caribbean island before.
Cuba was taken for granted as a US possession, since the Americans replaced Spanish hegemony there in 1898. American landholders owned vast tracts of the country at the expense of landless Cuban peasants. By 1958, almost 75% of Cuba's agricultural terrain was concentrated in the hands of a minority, with the best land belonging to US monopolies.
On 14 March 1958, the Eisenhower administration suspended weapons sales to Batista, ostensibly because the latter had been killing his own people with US equipment. Just prior to the arms embargo, Batista's units received a fresh supply of US weapons anyway. Yet Eisenhower was, in the short-term, seeking to replace the increasingly unpopular Batista with someone more amenable.
On 28 June 1958 Batista attacked Castro's guerrilla stronghold, the Sierra Maestra mountains, with 12,000 soldiers, many of whom were carrying American-made arms. Batista's forces for this fateful incursion, including 7,000 poorly trained conscripts, still outnumbered the rebels dozens of times over; but after a six week offensive in which the Batista regime also enjoyed complete air superiority, the attack failed to achieve its objectives.
In repelling this attack, the guerrillas demonstrated their prowess in warfare. The CIA's “more progressive elements”, as Gott recounted, continued to look “favourably on Castro” well into 1958.
By early autumn 1958, it was becoming obvious that the rebels were winning the war. An unknown quantity, patently nationalist in nature, was challenging American supremacy 90 miles from the US mainland. Had Batista been compelled by the US government to leave Cuba, and someone else put in his place, it might have taken some of the wind out of the rebels' sails; whose focus was concentrated entirely on the despot and his underlings.
Towards the latter stages of 1958, a force of a few thousand US marines could have been dispatched to Cuba, with the aim of thwarting the guerrillas and “restoring order”. Hindsight makes everything easier but the marines' presence would have boosted Batista's flagging soldiers, while dealing a psychological blow to the rebels. Eisenhower was surely aware that such a move would provoke further negative responses in Latin America.
In late August 1958 the guerrillas were implementing their decisive moves, with not an American combatant in sight. By November 1958, the US State Department and the CIA were predicting Castro's victory “unless a mediated solution could be found”.
Statements like this should have left Eisenhower and Nixon no doubt as to which path Cuba would now take. On 3 March 1959, Castro nationalised the Cuban Telephone Company owned by the US conglomerate, ITT (International Telephone & Telegraph); and he also lowered the rates to affordable standards, impacting on US profits. American corporations had dominated Cuba's telephone and electric services. By 1956 American businesses controlled 90% of these industries in Cuba, as a US Department of Commerce report highlighted.
On 7 March 1959 Castro asked that Washington hand over Guantanamo Bay, a request which was quickly rejected. In the early summer of 1959, the Cuban government began instituting a land reform act, prompting an official note of protest from the US capital. Gott noted how, “The law struck at foreign landowners, of whom the majority were American”. In June 1959 Eisenhower and the National Security Council (NSC) decided unequivocally that Castro would have to go.
As any government assumes control by way of revolution or coup d'etat, a crucially important Consolidation Phase ensues. Throughout 1959 Castro's position was very vulnerable. He had still to establish his authority in Cuba, and there was no financial or military support yet forthcoming from the USSR. The foundation of a Cuban army did not begin until mid-October 1959, to be commanded by Raul Castro, and called the Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces. It would number 40,000 troops by early 1961.
In April 1961 it was too late for a US-run invasion of Cuba to succeed, certainly one involving Cuban exile soldiers. Even with strong American air cover, it would be difficult indeed for 1,500 exiles to defeat a Cuban army numbering at least 40,000 men – under the highly motivated leadership of the new defence minister, Raul Castro.
In early August and late September 1961, the Soviet Union signed two arms assistance agreements with Cuba, as a military aid program was adopted between Moscow and Havana. Noam Chomsky, the American historian and analyst, outlined that in February 1962 the US Joint Chiefs of Staff approved a plan “to lure or provoke” Cuba's government “into an overt hostile reaction against the United States”. The Joint Chiefs would then launch a frontal attack to “destroy Castro with speed, force and determination”.
At the revolution's outset the Kremlin initially showed little interest in Cuba, and knew nothing of Castro's political leanings. Soviet-Cuban economic ties did not gain a head of steam until mid-February 1960, when a commercial agreement was signed. Diplomatic relations were formally established between Cuba and the USSR on 8 May 1960, one year and four months into the revolution.
Lieutenant-Colonel Donald J. Goodspeed, an experienced Canadian military historian who analysed revolutions and coup d'etats, wrote in his book The Conspirators that “what the rebels most need is time” after taking power when they are at their “period of greatest weakness”.
In late March 1959, Eisenhower decided upon neither a coup d'etat nor an invasion of Cuba. A coup would most likely have failed. Castro had the loyalty of his advisers and the guerrilla forces, not to mention the Cuban people. An invasion was, once more, the sole means of toppling the revolution.
Lieutenant-Colonel Goodspeed wrote that in order to oust a foreign administration, particularly a centralised one like Castro's, "the important members of the existing government must be neutralised so that their writ can no longer run throughout the nation".