Modern Cuba was ’discovered’ by legendary Genovese explorer, Christopher Columbus, in the first of his four voyages to the New World, or as he stubbornly called it, the East Indies. Captaining the voyage onboard of his flagship, La Santa Maria de la Inmaculada Concepcion (The Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception), the Genovese and his 90 men landed somewhere near Baracoa in the eastern tip of Cuba on October 27, 1492, and claimed the island in the name of the king and queen of Spain, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. A tumultuous 400 years of Spanish reign followed, but their sovereignty of Cuba and other territories in the region came to a crashing end by the close of the 19th century.
Cuban nationalists, who had been waging a war of independence against the Spaniards, repeatedly sought the assistance of the United States. The Americans though, were wary of involving themselves in the conflict, but reports of atrocities and massacres, coupled with a growing number of Cuban refugees to Florida and fears over American interests in the island, prompted President William McKinley to send in the USS Maine to Havana for reasons that remains unclear to this day.
The American administration, nevertheless, sought the permission of the Spanish government in Madrid before authorizing the Navy to send the second-class battleship from Key West on January 24, 1898. The Spaniards granted the request, but placed restrictions on the crew members from leaving the ship. 21 days later, the USS Maine mysteriously exploded while anchored in the Havana Harbor, killing approximately 260 American crewmen and locals. Subsequent investigation revealed that the explosion was caused by a mine planted near the ships’ store of gunpowder, although no culprit was identified.
The sinking of the USS Maine caused great outrage in the United States, and served as the primary catalyst for the resulting Spanish-American War (April 25 - August 12, 1898), which extended to Spanish territories in the Caribbean and Pacific. Spain, one of the most powerful nations in the world at the time, was shocked at the strength of the barely hundred year-old American Navy, and was, for all practical purposes, defeated within three months of the war. Hostilities were brought to an official end after both nations signed the Treaty of Paris on December 10, 1898, which saw Spain relinquishing its claim on Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Guam and several islands in the West Indies, in return for a $20 million compensation from the United States.
The United States granted Cubans their independence on May 20, 1902. However, in return, America maintained a constitutionally-approved presence in the island, with rights to intervene on matters involving American security and finance. Additionally, the United States also entered into a 99-year lease of Guantanamo Bay through the 1901 Platt Amendment, which would later be extended for perpetuity under the 1934 Treaty of Relations.
The Cuban Revolution
Five decades later, and the Cuban dream was all but dead. The country, under the direct or otherwise, dictatorial rule of Fulgencio Batista, was a cauldron of corruption and oppression. Government policies were dictated by powerful sugar barons, the American mafia and underworld figures. The army and police were coopted into criminal activities and were used to stifle political and social dissent with brutal and horrifying swiftness. The socioeconomic imbalance left the majority of the populace struggling for survival, even as American companies continue to pour record breaking sums into the Cuban economy.
With hatred for the government simmering at boiling point, the stage was ripe for a revolution, and it came on July 26, 1953. The armed revolution was led by Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz, the 27-year old Marxist-leaning illegitimate son of a Spanish-Cuban sugar baron. Fidel Castro, as he is more widely known, reacted to the military coup organized by former president, Fulgencio Batista, which ousted outgoing President Carlos Prio Socarras, after it became clear that Batista would lose in the upcoming presidential election. The young Castro was further stunned when the United States recognized the Batista administration.
Castro, whose faith in Marxism was sown during his two years of law study in the University of Havana, had received training in guerrilla warfare during his time in the Dominican Republic, helping the rebels there in their futile efforts to overthrow dictator Rafael Trujillo. With the assistance of similarly Marxist-leaning military commanders and the rural peasants, the revolutionaries strangely attacked two heavily armed army installations, the Moncada Barracks and the Bayamo military post. They were easily defeated and Castro, along with the other leaders of the revolution, were captured and put to trial.
The revolutionaries attracted worldwide attention, forcing the Batista regime to conduct public trials instead of the expected closed-door executions. In his trial, Castro gave a highly charged four-hour speech that ended with the memorable words; ’Condemn me, it does not matter. History will absolve me.’ The words struck a chord with ordinary Cubans, and he became their symbol of hope against the oppressive regime. Castro was subsequently sentenced to 15 years in jail. There were wide concerns for his safety, leading to heavy behind-the-scenes efforts for his release. It nonetheless still came as a surprise when two years later, Batista, under pressure from the international community, ordered the release of all political prisoners, including Castro and his lieutenants.
The revolutionaries regrouped in Mexico, and prepared for another assault on the Batista regime. They were wiser and more experienced this time around, and had the moral and financial support of sympathizers, freedom fighters, Marxists, socialists and revolutionaries from the world over. But perhaps most importantly, they had the support of the legendary and semi-mythical Argentinian, Che Guevara. Many have speculated that Guevara was the actual mastermind of Castro’s second revolution, and helped shaped the young revolutionary into the man that he will eventually become - along with his hatred of imperialist America.
Castro, alongside his three most important lieutenants - his brother Raul, the anarchist Camilo Cienfuegos and his now good friend, Che - were among the 82 highly trained and highly armed men who sailed from Veracruz on the tiny yacht, Granma, on December 2, 1956. Under the cover of the night, they planned to sneak into Cuba. However, they were greeted by a hail of bullets courtesy of the waiting Army and Air Force. It was a slaughter, and only 12 of them survived. They lost everything - their weapons, ammunitions, money and communication equipment. However, Castro and his men quickly regrouped, and hid in the Sierra Maestra mountain ranges in southeast Cuba.
They had to adapt, and with the help of Che, with his extensive guerrilla experience in South America, began to make inroads with the rural folks. Castro, meanwhile, reconnected with his old network, and they made gains among young urbanites and students. One and a half years of guerrilla warfare inflicted the Cuban military with heavy casualties and strengthened the rebel’s reputation, prompting Batista to mobilize a counter offensive against the rebels on May 24, 1958.
Despite marshaling seventeen mix-forced battalions for the offensive, code named Operation Verano (Summer), it proved to be an unmitigated disaster, as the revolutionaries, familiar with the terrain, armed with far superior tactics, and with intelligence gathered from supportive peasants, repeatedly defeated the Army’s much larger forces. One battle in particular, the Battle of La Plata (so named because it occurred near the village of La Plata located south of the Sierra Maestra), saw the rebels defeating an approximately 600-strong battalion (100 dead, 500 captured) with only THREE casualties. It demoralized the soldiers, and prompted a significant number of desertions, swelling the rebel forces many fold. This was in spite of late support from the United States, who provided Batista with logistical, mechanized and munitions support.
Spurred by the unexpected success, and the growing support of Cubans in general, Castro left the mountains and ordered his forces to engage the army directly. A five-month battle ensued, culminating with the Battle of Santa Clara on December 31, 1958. In what is probably the first large scale head-to-head military engagement of the three-year revolution, a combined force led by Che Guevara defeated the 31st Regiment of the Rural Guard and the Leoncio Vidal Regiment led by Colonel Casillas Lumpuy, in open battle, a result that sent shock waves throughout the island and the United States. President Batista immediately threw in the towel and fled the country, and he was soon followed by Americans, who left the island by the thousands.
Castro declared victory on January 1, 1959, and triumphantly marched towards Havana.
Castro, Cuba and Communism
The victorious revolutionaries immediately set upon forming an interim government, and one of its first tasks was to uncover Batista-loyalists hidden within the ranks of the army and civil service. Hundreds were captured and rushed through a swift military trial before being summarily executed. The international and American press roared with disapproval, but the news was greeted with approval by a majority of the populace, still caught up in the euphoria of the revolution and lingering hatred of the Batista regime. Executions were held in sporting arenas, with thousands of Cubans watching, with a few even broadcasted on television.
Castro announced the appointment of former judge Manuel Urrutia as president and Professor Jose Miro Cardona as Prime Minister, while an election would be held within eighteen months. However, Castro fell out with both men shortly thereafter, and he became the country's Prime Minister as Cardona went into exile on February 16, 1959.
Castro solidified his status as the hero for the oppressed with the establishment of the Ministerio de Recuperacion de Bienes Malversados (Ministry for the Recovery of Misappropriated Assets). Armed with the newly passed 1959 Agrarian Reform Law, the government nationalized private land, businesses and properties, including those belonging to foreigners. The confiscated lands were redistributed to farmers. Private American interests totaling almost a billion dollar were confiscated, and reimbursed with nominal sums. More damagingly, Castro ordered the nationalization of American banks in Cuba, including Chase Manhattan Bank and the First National Bank of Boston.
The actions of the new government outraged the Eisenhower administration, which responded by severing diplomatic ties with the Cubans and freezing all their assets in American banks. Eisenhower also ordered an immediate halt to sugar and cigar imports from the island. Castro, who had kept his political persuasion under wraps prior to this in the hope of gaining the recognition of the Americans, immediately set his sights on wooing the Soviet Union. The Soviets responded warmly to the Cuban approach, and provided extensive support (manpower, technical expertise and equipment) towards their rebuilding efforts. They also found a new market for Cuban sugar exports, in the form of their satellite states in Eastern Europe. A credit line for oil purchases was also extended to the Cubans. On April 19, 1961, Castro announced that the Cuban revolution was socialistic in nature. Twelve days later, Castro officially announced that Cuba was a socialist nation.
American President Dwight D. Eisenhower, fearing a new Soviet satellite state so close to the border, gave the green light to a CIA assassination proposal - using mafia hit men. The CIA's Head of the Directorate for Plans, Richard Bissels, his deputy Richard Helms, and Sidney Gottlieb, Head of the Technical ServicesStaff (the trio behind the infamous Executive Plan), organized several unsuccessful assassination attempts on Castro with the help of the mafia (involving some of the biggest mob figures of the day, including Johnny Roselli, Sam Giancana, Carlos Marcello, Santos Trafficante and Meyer Lansky). The CIA, concurrent to these attempts, also initiated Operation Mongoose, a plan to train Cuban exiles to invade, destabilize and overthrow the Castro regime through direct engagement, sabotage and psychological warfare.
(Note: Castro would later claim that there were over twenty failed CIA-organized assassination attempts on his life)
Amidst all of this, Castro continued with his brutal crackdown on suspected dissidents, and the promised election was shelved indefinitely under the pretext of national unity. Over a quarter of a million Cubans fled the country, with a majority of them sneaking into the United States illegally. A common refrain heard among them at the time was Cuba has traded one dictator for another. Additionally, Castro, ironically, views homosexuality, gambling and alcohol as detrimental vices, and came down hard on people involved in these activities.
CIA's director, Allen W. Dulles, briefed the new Kennedy administration on Operation Mongoose, and after some tinkering, it was approved by President John F. Kennedy, based on the recommendation of his brother Bobby, despite protests from his senior advisors. The Bay of Pigs Invasion, using CIA-trained Cuban exiles backed by limited American air cover, proved to be a major disaster.
On April 14, 1961, eight American B-26 bombers obliterated the Cuban air force. A planned rapid deployment of soldiers on the Bahia de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs) was delayed, and when they finally arrived two days later, the Cuban army was lying in wait. Two of the five commercial freights carrying 1,400 counterrevolutionaries were sunk a few miles from the coast, and the majority of the rest were captured or killed. The two-year operation went down in flames in the space of three days. It was a humiliating defeat for the Americans.
Castro, now fearful not only for his life but of an American invasion, approached Moscow for help. Marshal Sergey Biryuzov, the Soviet's Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces, secretly met with Castro in Havana on May 29, 1962, to discuss the deployment of Soviet nuclear warheads in Cuba. Ten weeks later, the first batch of the nuclear warheads arrived. Almost a month later, on October 14, 1962, a US Air Force U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance craft spotted the construction of seven missile sites in San Cristobal. A second flight three days later confirmed the existence of Soviet-made SS-5 intermediate-range ballistic missiles equipped with nuclear warheads. These missiles were fully capable of reaching Washington and most of mainland America within a couple of hours, a strategic checkmate for the Soviets.
Kennedy briefed Congressional leaders on the situation on October 22, and shortly thereafter, instructed the military to go to DEFCON 3. He also announced the news to a frightened nation through a televised speech the same day. Kennedy instructed a naval blockade of Cuba to prevent the rest of the equipment from being delivered and publicly demanded the removal of the missiles.
The United States presented their case to the United Nations, complete with photographic proofs, and received a near unanimous support from the Security Council and the general assembly. Castro reportedly wrote to Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet Premier, urging them to stand their ground, assuring the support of Cuba even if war breaks out. But as the specter of a nuclear war became a very real possibility, the Soviets eventually backed down, and announced on October 29, 1962, the removal of their nuclear missiles and equipment from Cuba. In return, the United States pledged that Cuba will not be invaded.
The incident drove a deep wedge in Cuban-American ties, and set the tone of their relationship for the next 53 years, under nine consecutive American presidents. Many have argued that the time has come for the two nations to repair their relationship, especially since Castro has resigned from all of his government and party position. However, others point out that communist Cuba, under the leadership of Fidel's younger brother Raul Castro, remains a dangerous wildcard, as attested by their status as one of the four State Sponsors of Terrorism.
In September 2010, Obama extended the presidential authority to order the continuation of the
existing economic embargo on Cuba by another year, as per the 1917 Trading with the Enemy
Presidential Memorandum-Continuation of Authorities Under the Trading With the Enemy Act
SUBJECT: Continuation of the Exercise of Certain Authorities Under the Trading With the Enemy
Under section 101(b) of Public Law 95-223 (91 Stat. 1625; 50 U.S.C. App. 5(b) note), and a previous
determination on September 11, 2009 (74 FR 47431, September 16, 2009), the exercise of certain
authorities under the Trading With the Enemy Act is scheduled to terminate on September 14, 2010.
I hereby determine that the continuation for 1 year of the exercise of those authorities with
respect to Cuba is in the national interest of the United States.
Therefore, consistent with the authority vested in me by section 101(b) of Public Law 95-223, I
continue for 1 year, until September 14, 2011, the exercise of those authorities with respect to
Cuba, as implemented by the Cuban Assets Control Regulations, 31 C.F.R. Part 515.
The Secretary of the Treasury is authorized and directed to publish this determination in the
September 2, 2010: Presidential Memorandum-Continuation of Authorities Under
the Trading With the Enemy Act
… the Cuban people now have not enjoyed freedom for 50 years, and everywhere else in the world
you've been seeing a democratization movement that has been pressing forward. Throughout Latin
America, democracies have emerged from previously authoritarian regimes. The time has come for the
same thing to happen in Cuba.
Now, what we've tried to do is to send a signal that we are open to a new relationship with Cuba if
the Cuban government starts taking the proper steps to open up its own country and its own -- and
provide the space and the respect for human rights that would allow the Cuban people to determine
their own destiny.
I changed the remittance laws so that family members could more easily send money back to Cuba,
because that would give them more power and it would create a economic space for them to prosper.
Within Cuba we have changed the family travel laws so that they can travel more frequently, as well
as laws that relate to educational travel.
And so we've made these modifications that send a signal that we're prepared to show flexibility and
not be stuck in a Cold War mentality dating back to when I was born. On the other hand, we have to
see a signal back from the Cuban government that it is following through on releasing political
prisoners, on providing people their basic human rights, in order for us to be fully engaged with
them. And so far, at least, what we haven't seen is the kind of genuine spirit of transformation
inside of Cuba that would justify us eliminating the embargo.
I don't know what will happen over the next year, but we are prepared to see what happens in Cuba.
If we see positive movement we will respond in a positive way. Hopefully, over the next five years,
we will see Cuba looking around the world and saying, we need to catch up with history.
September 28, 2011: Obama, in a question and answer session with U.S. Hispanic media.
President Obama believes that recent changes in Cuba have not been "aggressive enough" to
open its economy or reform its political system. “And they certainly have not been aggressive
enough when it comes to liberating political prisoners and giving people the opportunity to speak
their minds… You are seeing enormous changes taking place in the Middle East just in the span of
six months, you are seeing there are almost no authoritarian communist countries left in the world,
and here you have this small island that is a throwback to the 60s.”September 13, 2011:
Obama, speaking to Spanish-language correspondents in Washington (via BBC: Barack Obama says Cuba's
reforms not aggressive enough