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10-08-2015, 22:35


An authoritarian regime, headed by Fulgencio Batista (1901–1973) and closely tied economically to U.S. investors, had ruled Cuba since 1934. A strong opposition movement to Batista’s government developed, led by Fidel Castro (b. 1926) and assisted by Ernesto “Ché” Guevara (1928–1967), an Argentinian who believed that revolutionary upheaval was necessary for change to occur. Castro maintained that only armed force could overthrow Batista, but when their initial assaults on Batista’s regime brought little success, Castro’s forces, based in the Sierra Maestra mountains, turned to guerrilla warfare. As the rebels gained more support, Batista responded with such brutality that he alienated his own supporters. The dictator fled in December 1958, and Castro’s revolutionaries seized Havana on January 1, 1959. Relations between Cuba and the United States quickly deteriorated. An agrarian reform law in May 1959 nationalized all landholdings over 1,000 acres. A new level of antagonism arose early in 1960 when the Soviet Union agreed to buy Cuban sugar and provide $100 million in credits. On March 17, 1960, President Eisenhower directed the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to “organize the training of Cuban exiles, mainly in Guatemala, against a possible future day when they might return to their homeland.” 1 Arms from Eastern Europe began to arrive in Cuba, the United States cut its purchases of Cuban sugar, and the Cuban government nationalized U.S. companies and banks. In October 1960, the United States declared a trade embargo of Cuba, driving Castro closer to the Soviet Union. On January 3, 1961, the United States broke diplomatic relations with Cuba. The new U.S. president, John F. Kennedy, approved a plan originally drafted by the previous administration to launch an invasion to overthrow Castro’s government, but the landing of fourteen hundred CIA-assisted Cubans in Cuba on April 17, 1961, known as the Bay of Pigs, turned into a total military disaster. This fiasco encouraged the Soviets to make an even greater commitment to Cuban independence by attempting to place nuclear missiles in the country, an act that led to a showdown with the United States (see Chapter 7). As its part of the bargain to defuse the missile crisis, the United States agreed not to invade Cuba. But the missile crisis affected Cuba in another way as well. Castro, who had urged Khrushchev to stand firm even at the risk of nuclear war with the United States, now realized that the Soviet Union was unreliable. If revolutionary Cuba was to be secure and no longer encircled by hostile states tied to U.S. interests, the Cubans would have to instigate social revolution in the rest of Latin America. He believed that once guerrilla wars were launched, peasants would flock to the movement and overthrow the old regimes. Guevara attempted to instigate a guerrilla war in Bolivia but was caught and killed by the Bolivian army in the fall of 1967. The Cuban strategy had failed. In Cuba, however, Castro’s socialist revolution proceeded, with mixed results. The Cuban Revolution did secure some social gains for its people, especially in health care and education. The regime provided free medical services for all citizens, and a new law code expanded the rights of women. Illiteracy was wiped out by creating new schools and establishing teacher-training institutes that tripled the number of teachers within ten years. Eschewing the path of rapid industrialization, Castro encouraged agricultural diversification. But the Cuban economy continued to rely on the production and sale of sugar. Economic problems forced the Castro regime to depend on Soviet subsidies and the purchase of Cuban sugar by Soviet bloc countries. The disintegration of the Soviet Union was a major blow to Cuba, as the new government in Moscow no longer had a reason to continue to subsidize the onetime Soviet ally. During the 1990s, Castro began to introduce limited market reforms and to allow the circulation of U.S. dollars. But although most Cubans remained locked in poverty, the regime refused to liberalize the political system, and although limited Cuban contacts with the United States were permitted by the Clinton administration, the U.S. embargo remained in place as the new century dawned.