The Cuban Revolution in the 1950s was one of the most significant socio-political events of the century in the Western Hemisphere. It had profound impacts not just on Cuba but on the global stage as an inherent shift in the balance of power and ideology occurred. The Cuban Revolution resulted in deterioration of relations with the United States and its allies due to political ideological differences and pushed Cuba to align its foreign policy and establish close ties with the Soviet Union.
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Background of the Cuban Revolution
Cuba was formed as an independent Republic in 1902 and remained a relatively prosperous country for the initial part of the 20th century. However, by 1933, Fulgencio Batista came into power with a military junta after political and social unrest caused by economic depression. Several puppet Presidents were established who continued to see social disorder until Batista overthrew the government and closed Congress, eventually becoming President in 1955. By this time, social unrest and rebellion had begun in various parts of the country as support for Batista declined amid collapse of the highly important agricultural industry in Cuba. Many denied the legitimacy of Batista’s presidency, among which was the 26th of July Movement led by charismatic guerilla leader Fidel Castro (Sweig 57).
Castro was an educated lawyer who participated in anti-government movements starting in early 1950s. He faced persecuting and exile, but eventually returned to Cuba in 1956 and formed the 26th of July Movement with his brothers and the infamous revolutionary symbol Ernesto “Che” Guevara. By this time, Cuba was in a virtual state of civil war. Castro used sabotage, guerrilla warfare, kidnappings (including American citizens), and violence against political candidates to drive his agenda. In 1958, when violence had increased to significant levels, it was also an election year. Despite legitimately an opposition candidate winning, ballot falsification by the Batista government to support his chosen successor led to a different outcome, which essentially led to the collapse of the Batista government.
Batista’s power began to fade and despite much of the army remaining loyal to him, they lacked the resources to combat the growing rebellion. By 1959, Batista fled the country, and Castro declared victory in the revolution, beginning a period of indiscriminate arrest, torture, and killings of opposition or remnants of Batista’s government. Castro began consolidation of power as well as numerous social and economic reforms as Cuba’s economy and infrastructure was in tatters. Castro also faced significant opposition within Cuba itself as it became evident that he was not going to call for a general election as promised. On the global stage, Castro initially claimed neutrality highlighting the devastation in the Cuban state, but eventually he had to make a choice.
Relations with the United States
The tense relationship between the United States and Cuba in the latter part of the 20th century is well-known. However, it was a progressive deterioration based on ideological concepts as well as poorly executed geopolitical decisions from both sides that fueled mistrust and understanding. It is a complex foreign policy that must be examined in the context of the Cuban Revolution.
Prior to the Revolution
Before the 1959 Revolution, Cuba maintained a close relationship with the United States. Cuba was once part of the United States, inherited from Spain, and was given independence under the Platt Amendment. However, the United States reserved the right to lease U.S. naval bases and stage troops, intervening to preserve independence. The United States continuously supported Cuba, its economy and government in charge.
Despite ideological clashes, the United States supported the Batista military junta. The U.S. provided numerous loans to support the Cuban economy and has taken in Cuban exiles. There were some tensions, as the U.S. first curbed sugar imports in favor of domestic producers, and then imposed an arms embargo on Cuba in 1958 among rebel activity (“Cuban Revolution”). Despite kidnappings of U.S. citizens and soldiers at the Guantanamo Bay naval base, the U.S. did not attempt to impose its will upon Cuba.
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Aftermath and Ideological Differences
In the immediate aftermath of the revolution, the United States recognized Castro as a legitimate leader. Castro toured the U.S. and met with high level officials such as vice president at the time Richard Nixon. Castro announced neutrality in the Cold War tensions between Soviet Union and the United States. However, no financial help could be elicited from the U.S. at the time. When Cuba began its domestic agrarian reforms, the U.S. filed formal protests, resulting in cabinet resignations. Castro initially stepped down as well, but popular proletarian support provided him with a popular mandate to resist the U.S. actions, viewed by the Cuban people as foreign imperialism. From this point, the relationship with the United States began to deteriorate, as Castro seized foreign assets for the centralized Cuban economy (LeoGrande 106).
By 1960, Castro began to align with the Soviet Union and its premier Nikita Khrushchev, as well as delivering a long speech at the United Nations, publicly embracing the alliance and denouncing the United States. The U.S. government saw Castro as a threat and the political ideology could not justify continuing the relationship. President Eisenhower as one of his last acts in office, cut off the diplomatic relations with Havana in 1961. Later that year, the CIA with the approval of President Kennedy’s administration launched the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuban exiles and operatives who were trained and financed by the U.S. government to begin the process of a coup in Cuba and overthrow Castro.
The Bay of Pigs invasion failed as the Cuban military overwhelmed the operatives, and it was made public due to Cuba’s information campaign, becoming an embarrassment to the CIA and the presidential administration (LeoGrande 109). The relationship between the U.S. and Cuba hit its lowest point at this time and became worse as Cuba began to be used as a geopolitical tool, discussed in later sections.
Relations with the Soviet Union
As a Communist state, Cuba has continuously been associated with the Soviet Union. However, this was not always the case, and it was a relationship that gradually developed, and one that the Soviet Union took advantage of in the context of the Cold War. As Cuba was diplomatically and economically cut off from the United States, it became an opportunity for Soviet Union to align politically, economically, and eventually militarily with a country on the near doorstep of its opponent.
Prior to the Revolution
The Soviet state which itself formed in early 20th century did not maintain close relations with Cuba prior to the revolution. Diplomatic connections were established with Havana in 1943, and Soviet upkept contact with Batista’s government, particularly some of its elements which supported Communist ideals. However, Cuba’s Communist Party was continuously isolated during its numerous presidential changes and coups in the post-war period, eventually leading to the closure of the Soviet embassy in 1952. When Castro came into power, the Soviet leadership did not demonstrate eagerness, believing Castro being potentially a puppet leader of the CIA as well as accepting that the U.S. maintained geopolitical dominance in the Western hemisphere.
Alliance After Revolution
After Castro’s trip to Washington failed to secure economic assistance for Cuba, the Soviet premier Khrushchev sent his deputy Mikoyan to the island to meet with Castro and determine his motivations. Upon returning, Mikoyan vouched for Castro and suggested to begin talks of economic and political assistance to Cuba. As the United States implemented various embargos targeting Cuba, the country sought new markets and economic opportunities. Eventually Castro directly contacted Khrushchev and economic trade began. After the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, Castro announced Cuba to be a socialist republic, closely aligning the country with Soviet ideology and an alliance was formed (Chomsky 36).
The relationship quickly grew, becoming one of the closest international alliances that the Soviet Union had. Considering the proximity of Cuba to the U.S., Khrushchev feared that the American military will be used in full force to overthrow Castro.
Therefore, protecting Cuba was not only strategically important for the Soviet Union but a matter of international respect. A military alliance formed as Soviets began weapon shipments to the island in the midst the U.S. arms embargo, and eventually setting up military bases there. A Soviet radar intelligence facility was established near Havana, and eventually the Soviet Union attempted to use the island as a base for its nuclear missile positions (Cuban Missile Crisis discussed later).
Castro eventually visited Moscow himself, expressing solidarity and creating greater economic ties. Castro supported most Soviet geopolitical moves including suppressing rebellions in Czechoslovakia, and publicly voicing his political opposition to the U.S. “imperialism” and the bravado of the socialist states. Cuba also maintained relations with China after its Communist revolution which troubled the Soviet Union among the Sino-Soviet split, but Castro maintained that he wanted to be neutral among socialist states and have good relations with everyone for the common ideology.
The Cuban-Soviet close relationship and alliance continued throughout the 20th century and the Cold War, and even after with the modern Russian state. The two countries shared deep economic and political ties with up to 70% of Cuba’s trade being with the Soviet Union by the 1980’s (Valenta 48). The two states continuously had state visits for each other’s leaders and collaborated on numerous projects in science, technology, medicine, education, and agriculture.
Role of Cuba on the Global Stage
In its strained relations with the United States and close alliance with the Soviet Union, Cuba quickly became an important regional strategic partner in the Cold War. This became most prominent during the well-known Cuban Missile Crisis which also solidified the status quo of relations of Cuba with both the U.S. and the Soviet Union for the next decades. The Cuban Missile Crisis began as the military alliance between Cuba and the Soviet Union grew. A U.S. reconnaissance mission found a series of surface to air missiles on Cuban bases in 1962. Further investigation found that the Soviets have begun constructing bases and delivering warheads to the island via ship which can be used to deliver nuclear strikes.
The U.S. was faced with a series of options. When President Kennedy confronted the Soviet leadership with this knowledge publicly on October 22nd, 1962, Khrushchev stated the defensive deterrent nature of the missiles. However, the U.S. could not afford to have Soviet nuclear missiles in such proximity, but to avoid beginning a direct military confrontation, chose to refrain from bombing the bases. Instead, the decision was made to fully blockade and embargo Cuba while negotiations took place. No ship carrying weapons or that refused to be searched could not pass through the U.S. blockade (Cohn 219).
By October 26, 1962, the Soviet Union made an agreement with the U.S. to withdraw missiles in exchange for similar moves in Europe and a guarantee that Cuba will not be invaded. While this ultimately benefited Cuba’s recognition on the global stage post-revolution, it also led to a strain in the relations with both the U.S. and the Soviets. Cuba was not involved in any negotiations, essentially making it a pawn to the Soviet Union rather than an ally.
Cuba also felt exposed and unprotected in the midst of Soviets withdrawing nuclear missiles and bombers, leaving only a barebones garrison behind. Meanwhile, threats of U.S. invasion or bombing intensified during the crisis, as well as a blockade which Cuba viewed as a violation of its sovereignty and international rights solidified its view of the United States as an antagonist to Castro’s regime (Blight and Lang 84).
The Cuban Revolution had a profound impact on regional politics as well. With its growth and superiority with Soviet support, and the audacity to resist U.S. pressure, Cuba became a regional power of sort in Latin America, with Castro having significant influence over cultural, political, and social elements of nearby countries. Castro and his regime became an embodiment of resistance and empowered revolutionary idealists throughout Latin and South America to adopt Marxist ideals. There was no concrete success anywhere until Nicaragua in 1979 but the United States sought to prevent Communist-based governments from establishing themselves in the hemisphere, fearing a repeat of Cuba.
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The United States intervened militarily or politically, helping bloody dictatorships come into power in places such as Nicaragua and Guatemala, as long as they did not support Communism (Hennigan). However, Cuba maintained its resolve and even participated in supporting Marxist regimes in international conflicts such as Nicaragua and Angolan independence. The Cuban Revolution served as a regional shift of power in contrast to the United States and drawing Cuba and other Latin American nations away from the U.S. and into the Soviet sphere of influence.
It is evident that the Cuban Revolution had far reaching impacts not only on Cuban society but its external foreign relations and role in the region. After decades of a prosperous relationship with the U.S., the diplomatic connection deteriorated as Cuba drew closer to Soviet Union. This occurred due to attempts by the U.S. to overthrow the Castro regime as well as the ideological and economic support that the U.S.S.R. provided for Cuba. As a result, Cuba became a central point of confrontation in the Cold War during the Cuban Missile Crisis alongside the ideological political influence it had on other Latin American countries to incite their own revolutions and adopt Communist governments.
Blight, James G., and Janet M. Lang. Dark Beyond Darkness: The Cuban Missile Crisis as History, Warning, and Catalyst. Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.
Chomsky, Aviva. A History of the Cuban Revolution. John Wiley and Sons, 2015.
Cohn, Elizabeth. “President Kennedy’s Decision to Impose a Blocade in the Cuban Missile Crisis.” The Cuban Missile Crisis Revisited, edited by James R. Nathan, Springer, 2016, pp. 219-236.
“Cuban Revolution.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2019. Web.
Hennigan, Tom. “Castro Exercised Unparalleled Influence Over Latin America.” The Irish Times. 2016. Web.
LeoGrande, William M. “Anger, Anti-Americanism, and the Break in U.S.-Cuban Relations.” Diplomatic History, vol. 41, no. 1, 2016, pp. 104-127.
Sweig, Julia. Inside the Cuban Revolution. Harvard University Press, 2009.
Valenta, Jiri. “Soviet Policy and the Crisis in the Caribbean.” Colossus Challenged: The Struggle For Caribbean Influence, edited by H. Michael Erisman, Springer, 2016, pp. 47-83.