Commentary Magazine


After the Cuban Crisis

From the very beginning of the crisis over the Soviet missiles in Cuba, the Kennedy administration drew a sharp line between its attitude toward the Castro regime on the one hand, and Khrushchev’s effort to extend the military front lines of the cold war into the Western Hemisphere on the other. If this distinction had been made some time ago, we might have been spared the enormous amount of nonsense uttered on the subject of Cuba in the past few years. The nonsense had consequences which were more than verbal, the major one being the Bay of Pigs invasion—a venture that looks even more irrational today in the aftermath of the missiles crisis than when it was undertaken.

Informed as well as popular opinion both in the United States and, to a surprising degree, abroad supported the President’s stand last October. The only two groups with an interest in blurring the sharpness and specificity of his position have been the pro-Castro left and the frenetic anti-Communist crusaders of the right. The former wish to keep alive the belief that the United States continues to be committed to destroying the Castro regime—because it is Communist, or “socialist,” or even because it liquidated American business interests in Cuba. The Soviet arms shipments can therefore be represented as a legitimate defense of “the revolution,” and the crucial difference their presence in Cuba made to cold war politics can be minimized. The right-wingers, by contrast, identify Castro with the “international Communist conspiracy” and are anxious to strike a blow against him by overthrowing Cuban Communism whether or not there are Soviet missiles on the island.

Yet the Soviet Union’s installation of missile bases in Cuba was too obvious a challenge to the United States to lend itself to the familiar apologetics of those left-wing circles that see American policy as eternally provocative while remaining primly “objective” about Soviet actions. Ironically, right-wing agitators almost from the time Castro came to power regularly pictured Cuba as a potential, if not actual, Russian missile base—“a dagger only ninety miles away pointed at the heart of America.” That this claim amounted to irresponsible rhetoric rather than a reasoned anticipation of what later came to pass is indicated by the distress of the right now that the United States position on the bases has been sharply distinguished from the lower-priority problems presented by the Castro regime itself. Even if Castro should provoke further intervention by the United States, the missile crisis has reduced the possibilities of exploiting the Cuban situation in American politics.

The United States may yet attempt to overthrow Castro by economic blockade or even by invasion. But if such further action is taken after the removal of Soviet weapons, the President’s pledge to Khrushchev and his statements during the crisis week will necessitate an unambiguous specification of the hostile acts by the Castro regime justifying intervention. The Bay of Pigs invasion was politically disastrous because it suggested that the United States was not prepared to tolerate any regime in Cuba that was domestically revolutionary, neutralist in foreign policy, and antagonistic to private American business interests. Moreover, the invasion also revealed the American government to be sluggish and divided to the extent of allowing one of its agencies, the CIA, to dictate policy. And this agency was manifestly more sensitive to pressures from the American right and the more conservative Cuban exiles than to the Latin American scene in general and the opposition to Castro within Cuba in particular. The ignominious outcome of the invasion plan and the obvious confusion within the administration undoubtedly helped embolden Khrushchev to undertake the transformation of Cuba into a Soviet military outpost. The United States appeared to be too intransigent toward a troublesome neighboring regime it could well afford to tolerate, and at the same time confused and uncertain about where its own genuine interests lay. The precise limits to what the United States is prepared to tolerate from Castro remain vague, but there can no longer be any question that those limits will be carefully determined by the top councils of the government.

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Whether the United States moves directly against him or not, Castro’s days in power may indeed be numbered. He has indisputably lost prestige at home by increasing his country’s dependence on Russia and then finding himself with no alternative but to stand aside while the Russians abandoned under American pressure the military guarantees they had made to him. Even extreme left-wing nationalist opinion in Latin America appears to have been shocked by the evident Russian use of Castro as a cold war pawn. The exportability of Castro’s revolution may also have been severely reduced as a result.

The question of the kind of regime that might replace Castro is therefore likely to become an acute one. Many Cubans whose loyalty to their present rulers is uncertain would undoubtedly defend the regime if faced with an American invasion and the prospect of a new government composed of the kind of Miami exiles favored in the past by the CIA. This would apply especially to the new bureaucrats, the militiamen, and the members of youth groups who are the chief organizational props of the regime. Whether rightly or wrongly, they would expect to be killed or forced into exile by an American-installed government. Support for Castro has probably diminished even among these official partisans of his revolution, but should an invasion seem imminent, self-interest would undoubtedly replace ideological conviction in binding them to him.

A larger group of Cubans, whose fortunes are not directly linked to the institutions created by the revolution, would almost certainly welcome an American invasion that would get rid of Castro. Their number is probably increasing. The American marines have landed in Cuba “to restore order” several times in this century, usually at the invitation of the Cuban government then in office. Their arrival was greeted with enthusiasm by much of the urban population, painful though this fact has been to nationalist leaders. Yet then as now, the desire for American intervention reflected disgust with conditions in Cuba rather than sympathy with discredited politicians in exile and local oligarchs who hoped to profit from their American connections. It should be remembered, however, that Castro’s intensive anti-American campaign was necessary, given his objectives, in part because the Cuban people have been less inclined on the whole to extreme Yanqui-hatred than several other Latin American peoples.

But if a significant proportion of the Cuban people would welcome an American invasion to release them from the economic hardships and political rigors of Fidelista Communism, the conservative exile groups have more positive reasons to wish for an invasion. For it is only through invasion that they can hope to regain their lost power and privileges. Though the Cuban people may hope for American deliverance from Castro, they certainly have no taste for a restoration of the divided and faltering democratic order which twice collapsed to produce first Machado and then Batista. The revolution against Batista and its original structural reforms remain immensely popular. Any restoration government, even one carefully selected to include only honest democrats and moderates, would inevitably find itself dependent on American support, committed at least to the partial undoing of the revolution’s popular achievements, and vulnerable to renewed left-wing nationalist attack. A deposed and martyred Fidel Castro might soon become more cherished, if only as a memory and a symbol, than the Castro in power who “betrayed” the revolution, lowered the standard of living, and brought the Russians to Havana—just as Per6nism continues to be the major force in Argentinian politics nearly a decade after Perón’s waning popularity made possible his overthrow.

In short, an American invasion would be the easy way out both for the United States and for the Cuban people. It would restore the old instability; the old frustrated nationalism feeding on each sign of Cuba’s dependence on the United States; the old cynicism that equated political democracy with weak, corrupt governments incapable of carrying out promised reforms opposed by the privileged classes; and the old readiness to submit to a strong man prepared to assume personal responsibility for government—an outcome to which Castro has now added the new possibility of a totalitarian dictatorship of the left.

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An American-imposed successor government to Castro would no doubt be popular at the outset and could with substantial American aid initiate a period of prosperity. But could many Cubans really identify themselves proudly with a government of such origins? Even if the government laid claim to the heritage of Castro’s original revolution, is it conceivable that its title to this claim would be honored by the Cuban people? When the prospect of an American overthrow of Castro was first discussed during the last years of the Eisenhower administration, there was talk in Washington of a lavish program of economic aid to transform a post-Castro Cuba into a Garden of Eden in the Caribbean which would serve as a lodestar and beacon to other Latin American nations. One had heard similar talk about Guatemala at the time of the 1954 CIA coup in that country; but in spite of extensive American economic aid, none of the anticipated benefits have resulted there—nor, for that matter, in Taiwan, South Korea, or South Vietnam. Fortunately, the Kennedy administration has been less inclined to simple-minded economic determinist views of this kind and, hopefully, has not contemplated such a solution for Cuba.

If an American invasion is undesirable because—among other reasons—it is likely to lead back to the old vicious circle of immobiliste democracy, civil disorder, and military dictatorship, can it be plausibly hoped that Castro will in time reverse the course of his revolution, eject the old-line Cuban Communists, break his ties with the Soviet Union, and restore friendly relations with the United States? Some of the Cuban dictator’s more temperate American sympathizers have been suggesting this eventuality for several years, and it has been widely discussed in the months since the Russians rebuffed him by unilaterally withdrawing their hardware. If Castro decided on the reversal, he could very probably count on strong backing from the remnants of his July 26th Movement and other early supporters of the revolution now isolated by the Communists in second-level posts within the government. Yet it is hard to believe that Castro has not burned too many bridges behind him for such a maneuver to remain still within the realm of possibility. Cubans now in exile who have known him well, argue that it would be utterly out of character for the man who aspired to become the Lenin of Latin America, and the fulcrum on which the world balance of power shifted, to beat so modest a retreat from his messianic goals. And surely a turn by Castro away from the Soviet Union and toward the United States would be more unacceptable to the Russians, let alone the Cuban Communists, than anything else—even an American invasion or an assassination that would plunge Cuba into chaos.

Eliminating, then, an American invasion as unlikely to serve the long-run interests of the Cuban people, and a change in Castro as unlikely to come about, the one desirable alternative would seem to be an armed revolt of the Cuban people with limited—though essential—assistance from the outside. The frequently expressed view that this is now impossible because the regime has made itself impregnable echoes a belief in the invincibility of totalitarianism which should have been shaken by the experience of the past decade in the Soviet Union’s Eastern European satellites. Whatever military equipment the Soviet Union may ship to the Cuban government, it is hardly in a position to play the role in Cuba that it played in Hungary, even if it should wish to do so after its recent defeat at the hands of the United States. Furthermore, the conviction that the Castro regime is immune to overthrow from within ignores the evidence of Cuban history. Since 1868 the island has witnessed more than half a dozen successful or near-successful uprisings, first against Spanish rule and later against domestic tyrants. Castro’s triumph over Batista was by no means the first victorious guerrilla-based insurrection against a far more heavily armed government in power, and it need not be the last. If this is the century of the world-destroying bomb, it is also the century of the revolutionary guerrilla, armed with cast-off and home-made weapons, living off the country and receiving aid from a sympathetic local population.

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The pattern of insurrection has been a fairly standard one in Cuban history. Bands of guerrillas establish themselves in the rural provinces of the eastern half of the island, usually in the mountains of Oriente, the easternmost province of Cuba. They descend from the hills to burn the fields of sugar cane and raid neighboring army garrisons, striving to establish effective control of the rural areas adjacent to their mountain base and win the cooperation of the local peasantry. Efforts are made to coordinate their activities with strikes and sabotage carried out by an urban underground of trade unionists and students, chiefly in the cities of Havana and Santiago de Cuba. Exile colonies in Miami and New York and in the Latin American nations surrounding the Caribbean supply the rebels with funds and clandestine shipments of arms and supplies. But all revolts that have amounted to more than military coups d’état have been based primarily in the Cuban countryside and have depended at the outset on rural support. Great efforts were made by sympathizers to endow Castro’s movement with the mystique of a peasant revolution, but it scarcely differed in this respect from previous insurrections which could with equal justice have claimed the title. Most striking about Castro’s victory was the speed and completeness with which it was achieved; in its general pattern, nevertheless, it conformed closely to the overthrow of Machado in the early 1930’s.

The prime ingredients for success in all guerrilla operations are the active support of a sizable portion of the local population, at least the passive acquiescence of the majority, and the unreliability and low morale of the ruling regime’s regular military forces. Thus the political objectives of the guerrilla movement and the response these objectives evoke from the population are as vital a consideration as the movement’s strictly military capabilities.

It was the insistence of the former Fidelista exiles on the importance of the political character of the opposition to Castro that led to friction between them and the CIA in the months before the Bay of Pigs invasion. The left-wing exiles, headed by Manuel Ray, former Minister of Public Works in Castro’s first revolutionary government, favored giving priority to the underground movement in Cuba rather than to the external invading force. More recently arrived from Cuba than the exiles already working with the CIA, and in close touch with the Cuban underground they had helped organize, Ray and his followers were not willing to bow to the CIA’s judgment and direction. Ray’s group, called at that time the Revolutionary Movement of the People (MRP—Movimiento Revolucionario del Pueblo), doubted the wisdom of a single invasion, preferring a number of small-scale landings on the Cuban coast to be synchronized with revolt and sabotage by the underground.

Politically, the Ray group remained committed to the original goals and initial achievements of the July 26th Movement. They mistrusted the attitude toward the revolution’s reforms of the other exile organizations, which ranged in political outlook from eminent anti-Batista middle-class leaders who had supported Castro for a short period after his triumph, through the old anti-Batista party leaders domiciled in Miami since Batista’s 1952 coup, to men tainted in varying degrees by their past connections with the Batista regime itself. To the MRP, political and military considerations were inseparable if the true aim of action against Castro was, as generally professed, to enlist the Cuban people in the struggle against the dictatorship. Convinced of the continuing popularity in Cuba of Castro’s early reforms, aware of the degree to which disillusioned Fidelistas still in office and in the militia could be won over, and conscious as former active revolutionaries themselves of the necessity of winning the dedicated support of the civilian population in order to carry out a successful uprising, Ray and his followers were suspicious from the beginning of the CIA’s inclination to view the entire operation as a technical military undertaking—an inclination revealed most starkly by the latter’s eventual selection, in violation of earlier agreements, of a number of former officers in Batista’s army to command the invasion force.

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When the invasion was finally attempted, no effort was made to synchronize it with action by the underground inside Cuba. In fact, Castro, forewarned by his Miami agents of the plan, was able to round up all suspected underground leaders the day before the invasion. Thus, the first casualty was the MRP’s carefully developed network inside Cuba. There is evidence that the CIA confidently expected far greater direct American support for the invasion than they received, and presumably this disinclined them to attach great importance to the anti-Castro opposition in Cuba. Some members of the MRP even believe that the CIA refused to “trust the Cuban people” on ideological grounds and actually wanted the underground to be wiped out so that the right-wing exiles, heavily dependent on American support, would have no organized opposition to deal with in restoring the old order after toppling Castro. Whether this is so or not, the MRP’s understanding of the prerequisites for a successful revolt against Castro was disregarded only to be vindicated by the disastrous outcome of the alternative plan.

All this is now past history. The “escalation” of the Cuban situation into a cold war crisis of major proportions has eliminated the Cuban exiles and their political differences from public attention. Most discussions of the “to invade or not to invade” dilemma neglect even to refer to them. Yet the MRP diagnosis of the situation in 1961 still bears consideration. After the Bay of Pigs debacle, the MRP withdrew from the CIA-imposed coalition of exile groups in whose name the invasion was launched and later disbanded to reconstitute itself as the Junta Revolucionaria (known as JURE) based in Puerto Rico rather than Miami. It is still led by Manuel Ray and his group of energetic and committed lieutenants who fought with Castro in the underground against Batista and then organized the MRP to fight Castro when he ousted his former comrades and brought the Communists into the seats of power.

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Badly burned by their experience with the CIA, the Ray group is more convinced than ever that an effective resistance movement must remain entirely free of American interference. They hope that the United States will not decide that it is in its interests directly to invade Cuba. They concede that the Cuban underground needs substantial support from the outside in the form of arms and supplies, and that such support is most readily available from American sources. But they want it with no strings attached that would in any way limit complete Cuban direction of the war against Castro. JURE has, therefore, moved its headquarters to Puerto Rico and broken all ties with the other Miami exile groups, which remain heavily dependent on American financing and CIA direction.

Since JURE’s program for overthrowing Castro places chief reliance on direct action by Cubans still living in Cuba, Ray and his associates anticipate that any government formed after a successful revolt would be a coalition of the leaders of the internal and the external opposition rather than one in which they themselves exercised sole control. But they are convinced that such a government would be left-wing in the sense of desiring to preserve and extend the economic reforms of Castro’s early months in power. They are not prepared to promise the restoration of nationalized enterprises to their former American owners in exchange for American support. JURE wishes, however, for close and friendly relations between Cuba and the United States. An assurance that the United States would quickly and warmly support a post-Castro government committed to JURE’s essentially social democratic program would, they believe, be of inestimable value to the Cuban resistance at the present time.

Today Castro’s—and Khrushchev’s—chances of using Cuba as an effective base for propaganda and subversion in the whole of Latin America appear to be diminishing rapidly. Those figures on the American right who are still itching for an invasion are reluctant to admit this, for even they have made much of the threat Castro presents to neighboring nations as the main justification for American intervention. But the relative silence and disorientation of Castro’s once vocal supporters in Latin America are unmistakable. Only further punitive action by the United States against Cuba will enable them to regain the offensive under the banners of Fidelismo. Thus it is becoming possible to consider the fate of the Cuban people in its own terms. This fate would not be served by an American invasion which could only, in the long-run, have demoralizing consequences. Hopefully, those Cubans who remain committed both to democracy and to the original egalitarian spirit of the Cuban revolution will now receive a hearing.

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