This post, which is based on an extensive research project that I worked on under the supervision of Dr. Kanet for my ‘Historical Roots of American Imperialism’ course as a third-year undergrad at the University of Miami, represents a slight deviation from my usual emphases on animals and socio-ecological interactions towards a more historical-political discussion, precipitated by the passing of the great Cuban revolutionary leader and president, Fidel Castro. Although at first glance it may not seem like this piece has anything to do with issues surrounding our relations with animals and the natural world, there are important continuities, for the harmonious and egalitarian society that Castro sought to create, one free from the ravages of capitalist exploitation, is an essential precondition for the creation of a harmonious man-nature relationship.
Among the litany of American imperialist ventures that occurred throughout the 20th century, there is but one case that stands out among the rest: the case of Cuba and its intrepid leader, Fidel Castro. Cuba represents an oddity in the history of American Imperialism because Castro effectively challenged, ousted, and kept at bay U.S supremacy over the island throughout his reign. Crucially, his actions before and after the revolution were in direct response to the United States’ near constant efforts at establishing control over Cuban affairs and turning the small but resource-rich island nation into merely another geographic appendage of US hegemony. Indeed, the United States played a critical role in setting the foundations for the growing intensity of opposition to its involvement in Cuban economic, social and political affairs. For many years before Castro rose to power, Cuba had been transformed into a playground for U.S business interests, primarily under the puppet-like complacency of the Batista regime during the 1950s, wherein American companies took advantage of the rampant, systemic corruption and reaped enormous profits while Cuba’s working classes became increasingly impoverished. Castro was in many ways merely a product of his environment; his revolution emerged out of necessity and in response to particular socio-historical conditions, and was driven by the dream of establishing a more independent and egalitarian nation, a nation free from the asphyxiating and debilitating constraints of capitalist exploitation and socioeconomic stratification.
President Fulgencio Batista ruled Cuba from 1952 up until 1958, when appalling socioeconomic conditions present during the final years of his regime had created fertile ground for the seeds for revolutionary change. Corruption, repression and instability were widespread due to factors such as chronic unemployment and the extreme concentration of wealth in the hands of a few powerful land owners. Eisenhower’s administration did virtually all it could to maintain amicable relations with the Batista regime, despite its obvious failures, all for one main reason: to protect American business interests on the island. According to Morley in Imperial State and Revolution: The United States and Cuba (1987), “The Batista government accorded foreign investment a pivotal role in Cuba’s development, sustained Cuba’s position as a major regional market for U.S manufactured goods, and continued to provide the American economy ‘full access to Cuban materials essential to the national security’ (pg. 47).” If Batista represented prosperity, it was prosperity for American business interests, not for the overall wellbeing of the Cuban people. Indeed, prior to Castro’s revolution, U.S economic control over the island was substantial: “North American-owned mills produced 40% of the island’s sugar, and the largest sugar company, Atlántica del Golfo, was North American-owned. U.S companies controlled 90 percent of telephone and electrical services and dominated the railway and petroleum industries” (Paterson, 1994, pg. 35). Batista’s regime assured that this control remained unhindered through, for instance, via a pact made with the United States in 1957 which “insured investors against intervention and nationalization (Morley, 1987, pg.50).”
Not only did American investors amass great wealth from their operations in Cuba but they also enjoyed the privileges of tax exemptions, allowing them to reap enormous profits regardless of the social consequences. Funds flowed to American subsidiaries in large quantities between the Batista years from 1952 to 1958. Large companies such as International Telephone & Telegraph and Texaco Oil expanded their activities on the island, further tightening their death grip on the country’s economy. By the end of 1958, “the total book value of U.S enterprise in Cuba was, with the exception of Venezuela, the highest in Latin America (Morley, 1987, pg.51).” However, by 1958, Washington had begun to reconsider its support for the Batista regime amidst growing indications of corruption and instability, including human rights abuses by Batista’s military, his inability to reconcile with the national labor movement, and a growing balance-of-payments deficit. Disparities between the wealthy elite and the working class were becoming ever more pronounced, yet another factor that had begun to engender widespread anti-Batista sentiment, particularly in urban and rural areas where socioeconomic conditions were most grievous. Thus emerged a strengthening guerrilla movement led by Fidel Castro himself.
Fidel Castro had been quite active in law and politics throughout much of his life. He received a law degree from the University of Havana in 1950, and then began working for a law firm which helped the economically and politically disadvantaged. According to Look magazine, he was “a towering 31-year-old lawyer and intellectual who in his knapsack carries cigars, vitamin pills, a photo of Franklin D. Roosevelt and a volume of the political essays of French philosopher Montesquieu” (Tierney, 1977, pg.10). He was driven by passion and a determination to ameliorate the deteriorating socioeconomic conditions in Cuba, and to liberate the people from foreign exploitation. Illustrating some of the core principles of the revolution in his famous work, History Will Absolve Me (1984), Castro spoke of the “struggles” of the thousands of Cubans who were out of work, and the “hundred thousand farm workers who live in miserable huts.” Castro also alluded to the quandary of the “one hundred thousand small farmers who live and die working land that is not theirs…”. Such conditions of stark inequality and destitution reinforced Castro’s growing desire to bring an end to Batista’s “bourgeois dictatorship.” On January 1st, 1959, Fidel Castro announced the triumph of the Cuban revolution (Prevost, Gary; 2007), and a new era in Cuba’s history dawned, one promising an end to the rampant corruption and social decay that were characteristic of Batista’s regime. Additionally, the triumph of the revolution signified the demise of American imperial control over the island, and thus a new promise of independence and opportunities for self-realization for Cuba.
The primary goal of the new regime was to fundamentally reconstruct Cuba’s economic, social, and political structure. This included the redistribution of wealth to the country’s peasantry and working class. Salaries and wages were increased, mortgage and electric power rates were reduced, costs of medical supplies decreased, and the U.S-owned Cuban Telephone Company’s proposed rate increases were cancelled (Morley, 1987pg.76). Batista’s former military camps were converted into schools, and previously private areas such as beaches were opened to the public. The new government also introduced the Vacant Lot Law, which required the sale of vacant properties that weren’t being used, and thus converted for uses that would benefit Cuban society as a whole. This groundbreaking mandate “eliminated speculative profits on unimproved land and eroded the economic base of the local bourgeoisie, whose combined personal income from urban and rural rents in 1956 was $173 million” (Morley, 1987, pg. 76). The agrarian reform law initiated in June of 1959 was aimed at increasing agricultural productivity by leveling the playing field and limiting individual ownership to a maximum of 995 acres (Morley, 1987). Such measures were part of one of the basic aims of the revolution: to reduce the massive levels of social and economic inequality in Cuba that had been the result of predatory laissez faire U.S economic activities, and to give all of the Cuban people, regardless of class, color, or creed, access to what is rightfully theirs by virtue of the fact that they are people. Although these measures didn’t necessarily affect U.S-owned properties at the outset, they nonetheless inspired fear of possible nationalization and state takeover. Considering the historical context of the late 50s, wherein elements of the Cold War and McCarthy-era hysteria still exerted a powerful influence on the psyche of the American public, the series of private-property appropriations implemented by the Agrarian Reform Law and similar measures appeared as a direct ideological attack. The seizure of foreign property and its redistribution to the island’s peasantry was an act that completely contradicted the capitalist creeds of private appropriation, wealth concentration, hyper-individualism, and fierce competitiveness that Americans held most dear.
Not surprisingly, the U.S interpreted such measures as a threat to its economic interests, and Washington thus shifted its stance towards a far more aggressive approach intent on destabilizing Castro’s government under a cloak of secrecy. In the fall of 1959, Secretary of State Herter recommended to President Eisenhower that “U.S policy be directed toward achieving the revolution’s demise ‘by no later than the end of 1960’” (Morley, 1987, pg.85). The aim was to quietly yet decisively undermine the new government, while ensuring that any disasters or failures that transpired were viewed by the general public as the result of Castro and the Cuban government rather than of external pressures and forces. The U.S was determined to convince the world that Castro’s socialist system couldn’t possibly work, and it was willing to employ a variety of hostile tactics, particularly with the help of the CIA and other elusive organizations, in order to accomplish this sinister objective. Thus the U.S State Department began blocking loans and credits from Western Europe to Cuba. In these times of urgent need, the only nations willing to provide assistance were the Soviet Union, China, East Germany and Poland- the communist bloc. Ironically, Washington’s retaliatory policies resulted in the very thing it fought so rigorously to prevent: Cuba’s further drift towards an explicitly non-capitalist mode of development, further widening the political and ideological rift between the two nations. Washington officially severed diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961, thus marking the commencement of a litany of covert CIA operations bolstered by ‘powerful transnational networks of individuals and organizations long associated with rabid anti-communism’ (Marshall et al, 1987), such as anti-Castro exiles, designed to oust Castro’s unfavorable regime as well as any other progressive movements that sprung up in Third World Countries.
One of the more notable initial operations was the Bahía de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs) invasion, organized by the CIA and executed by CIA-trained Cuban exiles (my step-father’s cousin was one of such men). Following President Kennedy’s approval, the attack was set to be carried in April of 1961. However, upon arrival they met Castro’s well-prepared forces and the invasion resulted in utter failure, further intensifying American hostilities towards Cuba and a foreign policy bolstered by a fierce determination to eliminate Castro. In his edifying work, American Foreign Relations (2010), Thomas Patterson includes a quote from Kennedy that accurately sums up the tenacious nature of American policy towards Cuba after the Bay of Pigs invasion, wherein Cuba became a “top priority…no time, money, effort, or manpower is to be spared (pg.338).” This poisonous vendetta soon materialized into the longstanding, crippling, and utterly criminal trade embargo against Cuba, implemented by President Kennedy in 1962 through the 1917 Trading with the Enemy Act. The full initiation of the embargo originally involved the prohibition of all unlicensed financial transactions, forbidding direct or indirect imports from Cuba, and a freeze on Cuban government assets held in the U.S (Erikson, Daniel; The New Cuba Divide). Conditions in Cuba under the embargo would soon deteriorate precipitously with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, which catapulted Cuba’s economy towards the brink of collapse during the ‘Special Period’. Taking full advantage of Cuba’s misfortune, U.S officials passed the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992 which, in addition to requiring that Cuba hold democratic elections before the embargo could be lifted, “extended the embargo to foreign subsidiaries of U.S companies operating abroad, affecting approximately $700 million a year of trade with Cuba (The New Cuba Divide).” Even more detrimental to Cuba’s economy was the Helms-Burton Act of 1996, which further amplified the strangulating effects of the trade embargo by adding provisions that would penalize any foreign companies that did business in Cuba.
However, even before Kennedy’s implementation of the embargo, the early 60’s had spawned a lengthy and convoluted series of terror operations that would torment and harass Castro and the Cuban people over the subsequent decades, formulated for the sole purpose of ousting Castro’s regime and installing one conducive to American business interests. One of the earliest US-backed terrorist operations occurred on March 4th, 1960 when La Coubre, a Belgian ship transporting arms to Cuba, was blown up in Havana Harbour, killing 100 people and injuring around 200 others. Operation Mongoose of 1961 is another prominent example, a sinister multi-step plan that included virtually everything from economic sabotage to biological warfare. In order to incite revolt, Operation Mongoose sought to generate political turmoil that would be “assisted by economic warfare to induce failure of the communist regime to supply Cuba’s economic needs” and “psychological operations to turn the people’s resentment increasingly against the regime…(pg.100).” Included in the elaborate plan were other deplorable tactics, such as the dissemination of chemicals in sugar cane fields in order to infect and sicken farmers, thus creating further devastation and chaos. Radio stations were also used to promote anti-Castro propaganda and to assist in communicating information essential for organizing terrorist activities. Despite Mongoose Force efforts to organize insurrections with counterrevolutionary forces in Cuba’s mountainous regions, their attempts were ultimately unsuccessful.
Next in the series of terror plots was Operation Northwoods in 1962. In a 2001 ABC News article by David Ruppe titled “U.S Military Wanted to Provoke War With Cuba”, it was reported that Operation Northwoods sought the “possible assassination of Cuban émigrés, sinking boats of Cuban refugees on the high seas, high-jacking planes, blowing up a U.S ship, and even orchestrating violent terrorism in U.S cities”, acts which would undoubtedly create enough outrage amongst Americans in order to legitimize and generate support for a military invasion. The ABC article quotes Joint Chief officials of the time as saying: “We could blow up a U.S ship in Guantanamo Bay and blame Cuba”…”casualty lists in U.S newspapers would cause a helpful wave of national indignation.” Such despicable objectives are the epitome of terrorism, and they bring to light the not uncommon U.S foreign policy tactic of orchestrating incidents of violence in order to provoke war and justify invasion (Galeano, 1997; Perkins, 2004; Paterson et al, 2010). Thankfully, Operation Northwoods never came to fruition. Tragically, however, other terror operations did succeed, such as the infamous exploits of ex-CIA agent and Cuban national Posada Carriles, who in 1976 bombed a Cuban airliner and killed 73 people. This same man later admitted to the New York Times to having organized a series of hotel bombings in Cuba during the mid 90s which resulted in further injuries and claimed the life of Italian tourist, Fabio DiCelmo. Far from being convicted and tried for these egregious crimes, he remains a free man under the protection of US authorities. As if efforts at political, social and economic sabotage weren’t enough, Castro’s own life was under near constant threat by numerous assassination attempts on behalf of the CIA, of which there are estimated to have been over 600 throughout his life. The disturbing extent to which U.S officials were willing to go in order to eliminate Castro, and the sheer hypocrisy of claims of threats purportedly posed by Castro when the US government was itself directly responsible for orchestrating so many deplorable acts of terror, is worth serious reflection. As Belén Fernandez of commondreams.org notes, “The campaign to demonise Castro by associating him with apocalyptic scenarios, however, fails to account for the fact that the US undoubtedly takes the cake when it comes to existential threats – i.e. threats to existence as we know it.” Perhaps the greatest threat to the established world order, as with Haiti in the early 2000s, is that Cuba might have served as a dangerous example to other countries had it been allowed to succeed.
Regarding criticisms surrounding the Cuban government’s crackdowns on certain liberties such speech and assembly, Fernandez reminds us that context is crucial in this respect: “it’s important to recall that curtailments to Cuban freedom do not occur in a vacuum. Instead, they occur on an exposed island that has, for the duration of its contemporary history, resided in imperial crosshairs. Given the sustained US effort to overthrow the Castro regime, and the system itself, with the help of fanatical Cuban exiles prone to terrorism and sabotage, state paranoia has perhaps not been unfounded. Repressive security measures stemming therefrom qualify as reactive in nature, and a result of vindictive US policy”. In light of the multiple acts of aggression towards Cuba, including attempts at creating political, social and economic turmoil, as well as multiple assassination attempts, military interventions, and biological warfare, the question as to who was or who has been the true assailant becomes all the more poignant. In the words of the prominent linguist, Noam Chomsky, “For forty years, Cuba has been under constant U.S attack: military attack, economic warfare, efforts at strangulation, trying to induce maximal suffering on the population- straight out terror, lots of it- so who’s the ‘rogue state’?” Indeed, there is a glaring inconsistency between claims such as Kennedy’s assertion of Cuba as an “enemy poised at the throat of the United States”, and the extensive history of incessant U.S terror campaigns against the tiny island nation of Cuba. As Castro himself illustrated, “The enemy is there, 90 miles away, harassing us, blockading us, threatening us, trying to destroy us. Our life is the life of struggle against that enemy that is our life.”
Castro’s critics have proven remarkably adept at completely overlooking the incredible strides in human wellbeing that his regime has helped to bring about. His regime has miraculously, despite the material shortages and enormous socioeconomic pressures generated by the embargo, managed to secure key human freedoms such as the right to food, shelter, education, and healthcare regardless of financial status, something that the US has failed at miserably for a great number of its citizens. Instead of exporting death and destruction through a litany of devastating global wars, Castro’s Cuba has instead exported over 185,000 of its world-class doctors on medical missions to over 100 countries, and played a pivotal role in helping to end Apartheid in South Africa. Cuba has managed to score exceptionally high on a number of social health indicators, boasting lower infant morality and higher literacy rates than its belligerent neighbor to the North. In contrast, the US, the supposed beacon of progress and ‘freedom’, is home to an inhuman for-profit healthcare system, is pervaded by rampant homelessness, crippling levels of socioeconomic inequality, “a wildly disproportionate detention and incarceration rate for black people, a higher education system that harnesses learners with debilitating debt, and elementary schools that confiscate and throw out children’s lunches when their parents are behind on meal payments” (Hernandez, 2015). These are not freedoms, they’re social pathologies; this is what Castro and the Cuban Revolution fought so desperately to overcome.
Fidel Castro has made history in his valiant refusal to yield to U.S antagonisms. Despite numerous and sustained assassination attempts, terror campaigns, economic strangulation, biological and psychological warfare, Castro’s Cuba not only persisted but remained a shining example of what a society freed from the debilitating effects of capitalist exploitation, hyper-competitiveness, and private expropriation of a nation’s wealth could accomplish. These facts alone are cause for admiration and reverence. Situated in a point in time when other leaders were falling at the hands of U.S expansionist ventures, including prime minister Mossadegh of Iran and Salvador Allende of Chile, Castro outlasted and outmaneuvered every covert operation, every murder attempt, and every false propaganda campaign. One of the planet’s most powerful nations simply couldn’t manage to depose the leader of a comparatively tiny island located 90 miles from its shores. Yesterday, on the 25th of November in 2016, this extraordinary spirit passed from this earth. Despite whatever shortcomings of his time in power, shortcomings that are undoubtedly difficult to disentangle from the turbulent social, political, and historical circumstances that shaped his leadership, one cannot deny that this was an intelligent man of unparalleled foresight and an inspiring passion for justice and equality, one who faced unimaginably formidable obstacles throughout his entire tenure as president. Indeed, perhaps the greatest tragedy is the recognition of a dream extinguished prematurely, of a Cuba that might have been had it been allowed to flourish in its own light. Still, in Castro’s convictions and the Cuban revolution we’ve had a glimmer of hope, and a vision of what could be when human solidarity and the maxim of ‘all for all’ (Kropotkin, 1982) are the guiding principles of a society. The revolution will live on. Hasta la victoria, siempre!
“Despite sensational braying over the decades about the Cuban menace, Castro never posed a physical threat to the US. Rather, the danger always lay in the example he set, which exposed the possibility of challenging the pernicious self-declared US monopoly over human existence – and for which he merits remembrance as a hero.”- Belén Fernandez, commondreams.org