Let the Reforms Begin!
On March 6, 1959, all rents in Cuba were reduced by 50 percent. Two months later, Cuba enacted an Agrarian Reform Law acclaimed, at the time, by the U.N. as “an example to follow.” Large sugar estates and cattle ranches were seized without compensation by Castor’s National Institute of Agrarian Reform, or INRA, headed by the Rebel Army. The agrarian reform significantly upped the ante in the tensions between Cuba and Washington and established a still unresolved grievance: nonpayment for illegally seized land (over time, all claims by Spanish, British, French, Canadian, and Dutch owners were settled).
Understandably, Miami received a flood of unhappy exiles. At first, these were composed of corrupt elements, from pimps to political hacks escaping prosecution. As the reforms extended to affect the upper and middle classes, they, too, began to make the 90-mile journey to Florida. The trickle turned into a flood, including about 14,000 children sent to Miami by their parents in the Operation Peter Pan airlift (1960–1962). About 250,000 Cubans left by 1963, most of them white, urban professionals—doctors, teachers, engineers, technicians, businesspeople, and others with entrepreneurial skills. As Castro’s Revolution turned blatantly Communist and authoritarian, many of his revolutionary cohorts also began to desert him. Later, intellectuals and homosexuals joined the flood. (Those who were forced to leave Cuba had to leave their possessions behind. Their houses were confiscated (“donated to the Revolution” is the official verbiage) and divvied up to loyal fidelistas and citizens in need of housing, while others became schools, medical facilities, and social centers.
On July 13, 1959, President Urrutia denounced the growing Communist trend. Castro resigned as prime minister, then played a brilliant gambit. Castro had arranged for peasants to be brought to Havana from all over Cuba to celebrate the anniversary of the attack on Moncada. Castro appeared on television and denounced Urrutia. The streets of Havana erupted in calls for the president’s resignation and pleas for Castro’s return. Urrutia was forced to resign. Castro had carried out the world’s first coup d’état by TV!
Into Soviet Orbit
Castro had decided on a profound new relationship. He knew, wrote Lee Anderson, “if he was ever to govern as he saw fit and achieve a genuine national liberation for Cuba, he was going to have to sever [U.S. relations] completely.” To the Kremlin, Cuba seemed like a perfect strategic asset, so Castro and Khrushchev signed a pact.
Ever fearful of a U.S. invasion and unsure as yet of the depth of Soviet assistance, Castro initiated a massive militia-training program, while emissaries began to purchase arms overseas. The first shipment arrived from Belgium on March 4, 1960, aboard the French ship Le Coubre. One week later, the steamship exploded in Havana Harbor, killing 80 Cubans. One school supports Castro’s contention that the CIA was responsible; another school believes Castro may have arranged the bombing. Whatever the truth, the event managed to rally the Cuban people around Castro at a time when he was facing increasing opposition at home.
During the funeral ceremony for the victims, Castro uttered the rallying cry that would later become the Revolution’s supreme motto: ¡Patria o muerte! (Patriotism or death!). Recalls Nobel Laureate Gabriel García Márquez: “The level of social saturation was so great that there was not a place or a moment when you did not come across that rallying cry of anger…. And it was repeated endlessly for days and months on radio and television stations until it was incorporated into the very essence of Cuban life.”
When Soviet oil began to arrive in May 1960, U.S.-owned refineries refused to refine it. In July, President Eisenhower refused to honor a purchase agreement for Cuban sugar. Cuba’s biggest market for virtually its entire source of income had slammed the door. Washington couldn’t have played more perfectly into the hands of Castro and the Soviet Union, which happily announced that it would purchase the entire Cuban sugar stock.
Hit with Eisenhower’s right cross, Castro replied with a left hook: he nationalized all Yankee property. In October the Eisenhower administration banned exports to Cuba. In January 1961 the Kennedy administration broke diplomatic ties with Cuba; in March Kennedy extended the embargo to include Cuban imports—the beginning of a trade embargo that is still in effect. Kennedy pressured Latin American governments to follow suit. Every Latin American country except Mexico fell in line.
By slamming the door, the United States had severed Cuba’s umbilical cord. The island faced economic collapse. During that period of intense Cold War, there were only two routes for underdeveloped nations. One way led West, the other East. Lock one door and there ceases to be a choice.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Cuba, 5th Edition