Fear and Loathing of Fidel Castro: Sources of US Policy Towards Cuba

Hi. I wanted to summarize an article from the Journal of Latin American Studies, Volume 34, Part 2, May 2002: “Fear and Loathing of Fidel Castro: Sources of US Policy Toward Cuba” by Louis A. Perez Jr.

For more than forty years the United States has pursued a policy designed to remove Fidel Castro from power. The policy has passed from one presidential administration to another, through ten successive administrations three generations of presidents – Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives: with minimum public debate – and even less success.

Much can be understood by returning to the beginning, to the point at which the interplay of complex historical circumstances and political conditions acted to give US policy its enduring form and function.

That Castro embraced communism was sin sufficient to guarantee US ire. That it happened in a country where the United States had historically imposed its will and got its way deepened the insult of the injury.

“The Cuban problem,” warned Under Secretary of State Livingston Merchant as early as January 1960, “[is] the most difficult and dangerous in all the history of our relations with Latin America, possibly in all our foreign relations.”

Central to these formulations was the time-honoured notion of the United States insulated by two oceans and hence distant – that is, ‘safe’ – from the potential perils of a hostile world.

Former Assistant Secretary of State Edwin Martin invoked “historical” reason as the source of US indignation: “It was accepted as a fact of life. Americans had always rejoiced in the oceans that separated them from hostile powers … No matter how great our military capacity might be, Cuba could be an enemy base for airplanes, submarines, and missiles which could penetrate our defense.”

Early in the nineteenth century the USA had proclaimed the primacy of US interests in the Western Hemisphere, and in so doing claimed a sphere of influence on a grand scale from which the European presence was proscribed. 

No other formulation occupied a more cherished place in the canons of US foreign policy than the Monroe Doctrine.

“Cuba has been handed over to the Soviet Union as an instrument with which to undermine our position in Latin America and the world,” President Eisenhower feared.

Fidel Castro challenged the plausibility of the Monroe Doctrine.

“The fears were in part military,” presidential advisor Walt Rostow later recalled, “in part ideological, in part an ancestral sense that the Monroe Doctrine had been unacceptably violated.” The Monroe Doctrine, former Under Secretary of State George Ball later reflected, “forbade European powers from intrusion into the Western Hemisphere, which we regarded -though we avoided stating it in those terms – as our exclusive sphere of interest and influence”, and to the point: “Castro took over in Cuba, slowly strengthening his dependence on Moscow and thus confronting America with a patent violation of a revered item of our national credo.”

The Cubans had “unacceptably violated” the Monroe Doctrine, Rostow insisted, adding: “As Cuba emerged under communist control, a visceral reaction developed in the government that this was an outcome with which the United States could not live.” Richard Nixon was categorical, warning that “Castro is a dangerous threat to our peace and security – and we cannot tolerate the presence of a communist regime 90 miles from our shores.” CIA Deputy Director Richard Bissell arrived at the same conclusion: “A Communist government in Cuba, ninety miles from the US mainland, was unacceptable.”

Under Secretary of State Ball articulated the US position clearly and succinctly in 1964: “Castro’s political, economic, and military dependence upon the Soviets [is] not negotiable.”

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) expressed the same thought in much more explicit if classified language three months later: “There are only two courses which would eliminate the Castro regime at an early date: an invasion or a complete blockade. Both of these actions would result in a major crisis between the US and the USSR (in Cuba and/or Berlin) and would produce substantial strains in the fabric of US relations with other countries – allied as well as neutral”

Fidel Castro had “gained great prestige in Latin America”, President Eisenhower understood, which meant that “governments elsewhere cannot oppose him too strongly since they are shaky with respect to the potentials of action by the mobs within their own countries to whom Castro’s brand of demagoguery appeals.”

The imagery was far too dire for many officials to contemplate with equanimity. A small country resisting an invasion by a larger country evoked memories of the Soviet invasion of Hungary. “[T]he result would
help the USSR,” the National Security Council warned, “since American
intervention in Cuba would be considered in many parts of the world as
a counterpart of Soviet intervention in Hungary.” One reason President
John F. Kennedy refused to commit US military forces at the Bay of Pigs was related precisely to the fear of another Hungary
. “Under no circumstances,” presidential advisor Richard Goodwin recalled Kennedy explaining. “The minute I land one marine, we’re into this thing up to our necks. I can’t get the United States into a war, and then lose it, no matter what it takes. I’m not going to risk an American Hungary. And that’s what it could be, a fucking slaughter.”

The casting of Castro as an “affront”, of having “offended the United States”, but most of all the proposition of Castro as a source of humiliation, insinuated itself deeply into US sensibilities and early served to transform Castro into something of an enduring national obsession. The very presence of Castro seemed to diminish the prestige of the United States at home and abroad. He was an embarrassment. Communism in Cuba appeared to make a mockery of the US claim to leadership of the Free World, for if the United States could not contain the expansion of communism 90 miles from its own shores, how could it be expected to resist communism in Europe, Asia, and Africa?

“We have become the laughing stock of the world”, Representative Steven B. Derounian decried in Congress.

Unable to topple Fidel Castro from without, the United States resorted to
sanctions as a means to induce collapse from within.

Sanctions were designed to bestir the Cuban people to political action by subjecting the population to hardship as a way to erode popular support of the Castro government. The intent was to politicise hunger as a means of promoting popular disaffection, in the hope that driven by want and motivated by despair Cubans would rise up and oust Fidel Castro. President Eisenhower approved economic sanctions in the expectation that “if [the Cuban people] are hungry, they will throw Castro out“. Eisenhower embarked on well-defined policy driven by the “primary objective … to establish conditions which will bring home to the Cuban people the cost of Castro’s policies and of his Soviet orientation.”

President Kennedy was also confident that the embargo would hasten Fidel Castro’s departure as a result of the “rising discomfort among hungry Cubans.”

“The only foreseeable means of alienating internal support,” concluded Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Lester Mallory, “is through disenchantment and disaffection based on economic dissatisfaction and hardship.” Mallory recommended that “every possible means should be undertaken promptly to weaken the economic life of Cuba’ as a means “to bring about hunger, desperation and [the] overthrow of the government“.

Central to US objectives was the need to maintain the appearance that the collapse of Fidel Castro was the result of conditions from within, by Cubans themselves, the product of government economic mismanagement, and thereby avoiding appearances of US involvement. The United States sought to produce disarray in the Cuban economy but in such a fashion as to lay responsibility directly on Fidel Castro. The goal of the United States, Rubottom affirmed, was to make “Castro’s downfall seem to be the result of his own mistakes“. Ambassador Bonsal in Havana early stressed the importance of appearance: “It is important that the inevitable downfall of the present Government not be attributed to any important extent to economic sanctions from the United States as major factor.” The United States, Bonsal wrote in 1970, sought “to make it clear that when Castro fell, his overthrow would be due to inside and not outside causes”. This was the purport of a lengthy 1963 memorandum by George Denney, Director of State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research. The idea was to eliminate Castro “without resort to invasion or attributable acts of violence and violations of international law”, specifically by “creating the necessary preconditions for nationalist upheaval inside Cuba … as a result of internal stresses and in response to forces largely, if not wholly, unattributable to the US.”

Denney continued:

This Castro/Communist experiment constitutes a genuine social revolution, albeit a perverted one. If it is interrupted by the force of the world’s foremost ‘ imperialist’ and ‘capitalist’ power in the absence of a major provocation, such action will discredit the US and tend to validate the uncompleted experiment … Excessive US or even foreign assistance or involvement will become known and thus tend to sap nationalist initiative, lessen revolutionary motivation and appeal, and allow Castro convincingly to blame the US.

For more than a decade, the United States engaged in acts that today would be understood as state-sponsored terrorism, including scores of assassination attempts against Fidel Castro, the infiltration of sabotage teams, and the disruption of Cuban agricultural and industrial production capacities.

Four key sectors of the Cuban economy were targeted: electric power facilities, including the destruction of electric generating plants; petroleum refineries, storage facilities, and tankers; railroad and transportation infrastructure, including bridges, railroad tracks, and rolling stock as well as port, shipping, and maritime facilities; and production and manufacturing sectors, including the industrial facilities, sugar cane fields and mills, and communication systems. The assault against the Cuban economy involved arson of cane fields, sabotage of machinery, and acts of chemical warfare, including the spreading of chemicals in sugar cane fields to sicken Cuban cane cutters.

One operation was designed “to initiate and conduct aggressive psychological warfare operations including calling for work stoppages, slow-downs, sabotage, and other forms of military mass action and widespread overt resistance … conduct major sabotage operations targets against Cuban industry and public utilities, i.e., refineries, power plants, transportation, and communications”. Another project undertook a “subtle sabotage program” that included “the contamination of fuels and lubricants [and] the introduction of foreign material into moving parts of machinery.” Alexander Haig recalled the organisation of three or four “major operations” against Cuba every month during the 1960s, noting: “The targets were always economic.”

The purpose of covert operations, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric explained years later, was to “so undermine, so disrupt the Cuban system under Castro that it could not be effective.”

The United States also encouraged Cuban immigration as a means of propaganda against Castro. “We should speak of difficulties in Cuba as though they were a natural catastrophe warranting the sympathy of all free countries for the Cuban people,” Assistant Secretary of State Gerard Smith explained US immigration strategies. ‘Our propaganda line should be in favor of the “poor Cubans”. Smith continued:

We should organize to receive refugees from Cuba as the Americans did in the case of Hungary. If necessary, we should arrange to house and feed Cubans in special camps in Florida. As the Austrians did, we should revise our immigration Jaws to favor refugees and urge other members of the OAS to do the same. We should use such a program to demonstrate the rule that when given a chance people generally flee toward freedom and away from communism. Our case would be improved if Castro took military steps to block the flow of refugees. A few pictures of Castro’s men shooting refugees attempting to escape would do more to hurt Castro than a host of economic sanctions.

The concept of sanctions, from the early 1960s up to the 1990s, was deeply flawed. The pressures created by four decades of sanctions – and these pressures were at times real and substantial – were in large part relieved by Cuban emigration. Even as the United States tightened economic pressure on Cuba, it also and at the same time loosened immigration restrictions for Cubans, thereby providing relief from the very distress it succeeded in creating.

The opportunity for the United States to settle old scores presented itself during the 1990s. At the precise moment that Cuba faced new and perhaps the most serious round of difficulties at home and reversals abroad, Washington acted to expand the scope and increase the severity of economic sanctions. The passage of the Torricelli Law (1991) and the Helms-Burton Law (1996) signalled the renewal of US determination to oust Fidel Castro.

The Torricelli and Helms-Burton laws were particularly harsh, both in timing and in kind, for they sought to visit upon the Cuban people unrelieved punishment, to make daily life in Cuba as difficult and grim as possible, to increase Cuban suffering in measured but sustained increments, at every turn, at every opportunity at a time when Cubans were already reeling from scarcities in goods and the disruptions of services in the wake of the Soviet collapse. Cubans faced a new round of shortages, increased rationing, declining services, and growing scarcities, where the needs of everyday life in their most ordinary and commonplace form were met often only by Herculean efforts. Representative Torricelli proclaimed his intention succinctly:

My objective is to wreak havoc in Cuba

Measures designed to produce economic distress thus resulted less in organised opposition than in sustained emigration.

Immigration policies, and especially the Cuban Adjustment Act (1966), whereby all Cubans who reached US shores were guaranteed political asylum in the United States, served to facilitate the departure of the very Cubans whose discontent was the goal of sanctions, and actually contributed to the consolidation of the Castro government. Confronting daily increasing hardships and deteriorating living conditions, vast numbers of Cubans sought relief through emigration rather than risk even greater difficulties by engaging in political opposition – a wholly reasonable and eminently rational decision, made all the more compelling by the presence in Florida of a community of friends and families and the promise of public assistance.

That more than one million Cubans were in the end sufficiently discontented with conditions on the island to abandon their homes, friends and family, often under difficult and hazardous circumstances, provides powerful testimony to the depth of popular discontent and, in fact, in some measure corroborates the effectiveness of US policy.

When asked in 1981 under what conditions the United States would consider normalisation of relations with Cuba, Reagan responded : “What it would take is Fidel Castro, recognising that he made the wrong choice quite a while ago, and that he sincerely and honestly wants to rejoin the family of American nations and become a part of the Western Hemisphere.” President George Bush similarly encouraged Castro “to lighten up”, vowing: “Unless Fidel Castro is willing to change his policies and behaviour, we will maintain our present policy toward Cuba”.

More than forty years after the triumph of the Cuban revolution, the United States shows no disposition to arrive at an understanding with Fidel Castro: a time longer than the US refusal to recognise the Soviet Union, longer than the refusal to normalise relations with China, longer than it took to reconcile with post-war Vietnam. To put it another way, Cuba has been under US economic sanctions for almost half its existence as an independent republic.

What may appear to US eyes as Cuban intransigence is, in part, a manifestation of Cuban refusal to submit to the United States, borne by a people still convinced that they have a right of self-determination and national sovereignty.

It is the height of cynicism for the United States to condemn Cuba for the absence of civil liberties and political freedoms, on one hand, and, on the other, to have pursued policies variously employing assassination, subversion, sabotage and threatened invasions as means to topple the government of Fidel Castro. US policy does nothing to contribute to an environment in which civil liberties and political freedoms can flourish.

Thanks for reading,


Journal of Latin American Studies, Volume 34, Part 2, May 2002: “Fear and Loathing of Fidel Castro: Sources of US Policy Toward Cuba” by Louis A. Perez Jr.

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