Cuban Revolution

The origins of the antagonism are not difficult to discern. The endurance of the antagonism, however, well–that is a bit more complicated.

The Cuban revolution came out of the very history that it was determined to redress, a history profoundly shaped by the United States and into which the Americans had deeply inscribed themselves with pretensions to preponderant power. For vast numbers of Cubans, the revolution was about a people determined to reintegrate themselves into their history as subjects and enact historical narratives as protagonists, to make good on a historic claim to national sovereignty–a claim possessed of a proper history, advanced first in the nineteenth century against Spain, and subsequently in the twentieth against the United States.

Fidel Castro transformed Cuban historical aspirations into a means of political mobilization, given to the proposition that the sources of Cuban discontent–social, economic, political–could be addressed only through the realization of sovereign nationhood: sovereignty not as an end but as a means, to establish the primacy of Cuban interests as the principal purpose to which public policy would be given.

But the affirmation of the primacy of Cuban interests could not but challenge the privileged American presence, for the structural responses around which the purpose of Cuban self-government had been conditioned since the founding of the republic in 1902 had incorporated as a matter of default deference the prerogative of US interests. Former ambassador Earl E. T. Smith was unabashed in his assertion that the United States “was so overwhelmingly influential in Cuba that […] the American Ambassador was the second most important man in Cuba; sometimes even more important than the President.”

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The most visible exponent of Cuban historic aspirations was Fidel: defiant, strident, at times virulent denunciations, hours at a time, day after day, stretching into weeks and then months, with an unambiguous message, and an unequivocal moral: Cuba for Cubans. The genius of Fidel Castro was his ability to inscribe himself into the past and reemerge as its proponent, to propound a version of the history of Cuba-US relations familiar in Cuba but wholly unknown– indeed, incomprehensible–in the United States.

The incoherence with which the United States initially responded to the Cuban Revolution must be understood as a condition of cognitive dissonance: the inability of the Americans to order into coherent narrative form developments so profoundly counter-intuitive and utterly inconceivable as a Cuban challenge to US power. As the United States worked to fashion a usable narrative to make sense of Cuban developments, the Cubans proceeded with the nationalization of US property, beginning with the sugar corporations and cattle ranches, and expanding to oil refineries, utilities, mines, railroads, and banks. And when it was all over, everything–absolutely everything–previously owned by the Americans, all $1.5 billion of US property, had been nationalized.

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But the worst was yet to come. If it is difficult to underestimate the incomprehension with which Americans viewed Cuban domestic policies, it is nearly impossible to overstate the horror with which they reacted to Cuban foreign policy, specifically the expanding ties with the Soviet Union.

And yes: the missiles…

Former Secretary of State Dean Rusk later wrote of the missiles as having “a devastating psychological impact on the American people.” That Cuba had provided the Soviet Union with entree into the “backyard” of the United States simultaneously stunned and sickened US officials. Fidel Castro had made the Americans feel vulnerable. “Castro’s Cuba formed an overhanging cloud of public shame and obsession,” former Under-Secretary of State George Ball bristled as late as 1992. “Many Americans felt outraged and vulnerable that a Communist outpost should exist so close to their country. Castro’s Soviet ties seemed an affront to our history.”

The United States directed its ire to the person of Fidel Castro, to attribute to the Cuban leader mischievous intent and malevolent purpose, to whom all evil doings would henceforth be attributed. Thus began the American obsession with Fidel Castro, whereupon the personal did indeed become the political. Fidel Castro traumatized the United States. He deeply offended American sensibilities. Castro would not be forgiven–ever. Fidel and the Cubans had to be punished and taught a lesson for the trauma to which they had subjected the United States. New York Times foreign affairs editor Thomas Friedman was entirely correct to suggest in 1999 that the US position on Cuba was “not really a policy. It’s an attitude–a blind hunger for revenge against Mr. Castro.” It was to this punitive purpose to which scores of assassination plots, years of covert operations, and decades of withering economic sanctions have been given. Not a few commentaries in the days following Castro’s death hinted at disappointment that Fidel died in his sleep, unrepentant and unpunished .

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Featured Image Credit: Soviet poster depicting friendship between Cuba’s Fidel Castro and USSR’s Nikita Khrushchev. Photo by Keizers. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.


Louis A. Pérez, Jr. is the J. Carlyle Sitterson Professor of History and the Director of the Institute for the Study of the Americas at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His most recent book is The Structure of Cuban History: Meaning and Purpose of the Past (2013).