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Cuba Under Castro, Break with the United States

Cuban leaders, spy planes, trade embargo, Bay of Pigs, missile sites

The United States had a great deal to lose as a result of Castro’s reforms. At the end of 1958, U.S. businesses owned 75 percent of Cuba’s fertile land, 90 percent of its public services, and 40 percent of the sugar industry. Castro’s policy of seizing businesses and confiscating the property of the wealthy raised concerns in the United States about Communist influence. Castro had no record of Communist affiliation, and he had made a point of emphasizing that his revolution was not based on Communism. Nonetheless, U.S. officials were wary of his programs and decided that Castro had to be removed from power.

The U.S. State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), an intelligence-gathering organization under the command of the president of the United States, plotted two approaches to overturning Castro’s government: economic pressure and military intervention. The U.S. government tried economic pressure first. On July 3, 1960, the Congress of the United States decreased the Cuban sugar quota. This action reduced the amount of sugar that Cuba could legally import into the United States and caused a serious reduction in Cuba’s income from foreign trade. The United States cut the quota after Cuba seized installations belonging to U.S. oil companies that had refused to refine crude oil imported from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the world’s leading Communist nation. At the time, the USSR was involved in an ongoing struggle with the United States known as the Cold War. In retaliation, the Cuban government appropriated U.S. sugar property. On October 19 the U.S. Treasury Department declared a trade embargo, which stopped all commerce with Cuba except for food and medicine. On October 24 Castro struck back by nationalizing all U.S. holdings. The attempt to bring Castro to heel through economic pressure only widened the gap between the United States and Cuba. The two countries formally severed diplomatic relations in January 1961.

Next the United States tried military action. In March 1960 the CIA had begun training Cuban exiles for an invasion. The newly inaugurated U.S. president, John F. Kennedy, approved the invasion plans. The plans called for an air strike by anti-Castro Cuban pilots based in the United States. Following this attack, amphibious forces would land at the Bay of Pigs on the southern coast of Cuba and start a guerrilla campaign. Launched on April 17, 1961, the attack was a complete failure. Castro, who knew about the plan, scattered his air force to save it from destruction, and Cuba’s military overwhelmed the invading land forces within 48 hours.

The Bay of Pigs consolidated Castro’s power. Throngs of Cubans rejoiced in defeating the strongest military power in the world. Castro’s popularity soared at home and abroad. Those who had disagreed with Castro’s government kept silent, as approximately 100,000 people suspected of subversive activities were imprisoned or detained. In May the government canceled promised elections and declared the 1940 constitution outdated. Social and political associations were absorbed into official government organizations. On December 2 Castro announced that he was a Communist and would implement socialist policies in Cuba.

To deter further U.S. plans to invade or destabilize Cuba, Castro sought economic and military assistance from the USSR. Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev agreed to secretly send missiles armed with nuclear weapons that were capable of hitting targets within the United States. In September 1962 U.S. spy planes identified the missile sites. On October 22 Kennedy announced a naval blockade of the island and informed Khrushchev that any Soviet ship crossing the blockade line risked starting a nuclear war. At the last minute, the two leaders resolved the Cuban Missile Crisis before it erupted in hostilities. Khrushchev recalled the ships and agreed to dismantle the missile sites. In return the United States agreed not to invade Cuba and to remove U.S. missiles from sites in Turkey. Cuban leaders were left out of the negotiations, which infuriated Castro and briefly chilled relations between the USSR and Cuba.

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