Fifty-five years ago, in February 1962, President John F. Kennedy further extended the U.S. blockade against Cuba initiated on Oct. 19, 1960, by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
In that aggressive action by Eisenhower, the U.S. prohibited exports to Cuba, except for food and medicine. However, the new Kennedy initiative went even further by prohibiting Cuban exports to the U.S., except for food and medicine. The reason given was that the “Government of Cuba is incompatible with the principles and objectives of the Inter-American system; and, in light of the subversive offensive of Sino-Soviet Communism with which the Government of Cuba is publicly aligned.”
Of the two pretexts, the first “incompatibility” one was of overriding importance. It was franker than the “foreign communist” pretext and indeed closer to the truth. There was indeed an “incompatibility” between the Cuban Revolution and U.S. capitalism and imperialism, even though Fidel Castro tried everything for Cuba to have good relations with its neighbor despite these differences.
To provide context to the “communist” scare, consider the following. On Feb. 13, 1960, the Cuba-USSR trade agreement took effect, yet the Kennedy expansion of the blockade took place only two years later when it was clear that the revolution was carrying out its pledge to revolutionize the Cuban economy, which had no link to the USSR.
Furthermore, U.S. hostility to the soon-to-be-victorious Cuban Revolution started well before the initiation of 1960 Cuba-Soviet cooperation. For example, in late 1958, once it became clear to the U.S. that the revolution led by Fidel was inevitably going to sweep across Cuba and arrive in Havana, Washington changed its tactics. It went from exclusively bombing and ground military attacks against the revolutionary army to combining this open aggression with in an attempt to recruit a “moderate opposition” to Batista, whom the U.S. was ready to abandon.
Another example that illustrates that the principal concern was not the USSR but the homegrown uprising consists in a notorious April 6, 1960, statement by Lester Mallory, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Inter-American Affairs. He wrote a memorandum in favor of “denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government.”
Mallory’s fear was not so much the USSR, but, as he himself said to support his genocidal method, that “the majority of Cubans support Castro (the lowest estimate I have seen is 50 percent).” Thus, above all, the U.S. feared internal support. There was no mention of the USSR in his memorandum. His statement was correct in the sense that he at least realized that the issue was domestic — and not foreign — “communist” interference in Cuba. This is not to deny that the Feb. 13, 1960, USSR-Cuba agreement did not concern the U.S. Of course it did, but they knew in their heart of hearts that it was above all, domestic.
What was — and is today — the real issue in Cuba from the U.S. perspective? The triumph on Jan. 1, 1959, of the Fidel-led revolutionary forces that immediately from day one, started to dismantle the old state and what was left of its army and repressive apparatus. It was a revolution in the real sense of the word. A new government replaced the old one, and the revolutionary army and militias replaced the former U.S.-backed Batista structure.
Moreover, a revolution took place in the economic sphere. Merely five months after the victory, on May 17, 1959, Cuba’s Agrarian Reform Law was adopted, to the detriment of Cuban and foreign landholders alike. This land reform law established compensation payment with government-issued Agrarian Reform Bonds that paid an annual interest rate of 4.5 percent and were to be refunded in 20 years. Therefore, it was not discriminatory and recognized the right to compensation. It was an even more generous offer than the bonds issued by General Douglas MacArthur’s Land Reform in occupied Japan, which limited annual interest to 2.5 percent and complete refunding to 24 years.
However, the Agrarian Reform — destined to restore land property to its rightful owners, those who tilled the soil, and to eradicate huge estates — resulted in threats by Washington to reduce Cuba’s sugar quota and other reprisals. This happened before the Feb. 13, 1960, USSR–Cuba trade agreement. The revolution in the Cuban countryside shook the U.S. to its very foundations on the island since the exploitation of sugar was one of the pillars of American interests.
Cuban small farmers and their families still speak today of that historic moment right after the revolution when they finally got their due. The spreading of this revolutionary fervor obviously had nothing to do with any “foreign communist” factor. Therefore, Mallory was paradoxically justified in his claim that the issue was “the majority of Cubans support Castro.”
A revolution also took place in the urban areas, especially in Havana. On Oct. 13, 1960, Laws 890 and 891 were legislated by the Council of Ministers. The nationalization through expropriation of all industrial and commercial companies and private banking was decisive to the country’s development and control over its own destiny.
Law 890 established Cuba’s nationalization of companies dealing with sugar, spirits, beverages, soap, perfume, milk products, chemicals, maritime transportation, railway communications, coffee, drugs, etc., irrespective of the owners’ nationality. Law 891 declared banking a public function and established the right of reparation for property partners and stockholders of the dissolved and extinct banks. Reparation was to be made effective on Dec. 31, 1960, with a later payment after the National Bank of Cuba closed banking operations.
The domination of the local and foreign bourgeoisie was broken. Havana was the scene of a revolutionary festival against the bourgeoisie. For example, bank employees and citizens assisted their new revolutionary government in pointing out the hidden treasures of the bankers and industrialists. No stone was left unturned in order to convert the open and concealed wealth of the bourgeoisie, extracted through the exploitation of the Cuban workers and other sections of society, into the commonwealth of the people.
When one talks or writes about revolutions in the world, it is not necessary to either go very far in space or dig that deep into history. While all revolutions are valuable as lessons and examples, the Cuban one is recent and is still happening at this time. This is what irked Kennedy 55 years ago and what is still a challenge to the U.S. today.
And just as Fidel right after Jan. 1, 1959, strove to maintain relations with its neighbor, today the Cuban government is following in his footsteps, but not renouncing its revolutionary principles. History has shown through the incredible economic, social and political achievements of Cuba since 1959 that the only way forward was to quash the foundations of U.S. domination in those early years. Not even the U.S. blockade — still almost fully in effect — could or can, turn back the hands of time.
Arnold August, a Canadian journalist and lecturer, is the author of “Democracy in Cuba,” the “1997-98 Elections” and, more recently, “Cuba and Its Neighbours: Democracy in Motion.” August can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.