Peter Foster | Financial Post
If Fidel Castro was miffed at not making the “Axis of Evil,” he must have been apoplectic this week at being relegated by President George W. Bush to a mere “outpost of oppression,” shoved in the corner of the Dictators’ Waxwork Museum alongside Mr. Mugabe.
Compared with Iran, Iraq and North Korea, Cuba doesn’t cut it as a global threat any more, but it is important to remember that it once did. El Maximum Lider certainly remains a thorn in the side of the U.S. administration, but primarily because of pressures from the powerful Cuban-American community to continue turning the screws on his tropical Gulag.
President Bush recently announced a tightening of restrictions on travel by Americans to Cuba. Significantly, however, the funds for this measure have been withheld by Congress. There appears to be a growing belief, even among Cuban Americans, that the time may have come to end the 40-year embargo, whose main function has been to provide Mr. Castro with an excuse for his country’s abysmal condition.
Insofar as he has been able to survive for so long, Mr. Castro has to thank a group of countries that—not entirely coincidentally—are opposed to the U.S. presence in Iraq. These consist primarily of Russia (at least until 1989), Canada and the countries of the European Community.
But Cuba remains more than a reminder of the ugly bedfellows made by anti-Americanism. It is an historical object lesson in the problems of intervention and the dangers of irresolution.
Significantly, the United States was drawn into invading Cuba 105 years ago by a combination of terrorist atrocity and the desire to rescue a people from oppression. The explosion of USS Maine in Havana Harbour provided the casus belli for a “splendid little war,” as William Randolph Hearst put it, against the remnants of the imploding Spanish empire.
The Americans swept into Cuba with typical can-do technical know-how and set about cleaning the place up. Their reward was bitter resentment. The Americans found themselves embroiled in Cuban politics for the following 50 years, inevitably blamed as a succession of presidents looted the treasury, but condemned even more roundly when it intervened directly.
Cuba’s last-but-one dictator, Fulgencio Batista, fell when the United States withdrew its support. Into the vacuum came Fidel Castro, claiming to stand for freedom and democracy. He made his predecessors look like pikers. He imprisoned and/or killed opponents, expropriated business, stole private property and installed a communist dictatorship.
President Kennedy’s unwillingness to take on Mr. Castro led not merely to the failure of the Bay of Pigs, but also to the Cuban Missile Crisis. That was when Mr. Castro—seeking to install Soviet nuclear weapons—really did represent the biggest imaginable threat to U.S. security. As part of his deal with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, Mr. Kennedy promised to keep American hands off Cuba, thus condemning 10 million people to 40 years of repression. So far.
But what if President Kennedy hadn’t chickened out at the Bay of Pigs? One can imagine that “world opinion,” the “international community” and the UN would have had a field day condemning U.S. “aggression,” “imperialism” and “high-handedness.” How, they would have asked, could President Kennedy believe that Fidel Castro was planning to harbour weapons of mass destruction? Where were they? Had the president been reading Our Man in Havana, Graham Greene’s comic novel, in which a down-at-heel expatriate manufactures missile plans out of vacuum cleaner specifications in order to justify a stipend from the British Secret Service? Concrete silos? Nonsense, they were the foundations for new orphanages.
We may be sure that any U.S. “occupation force” would have been subject to attack. Perhaps idealistic young people would have made their way to the island, seeing a new Spanish Civil War in the making. Perhaps the Americans would have suffered significant casualties. The New York Times, which had pretty much been Fidel Castro’s PR organ in the years before he came to power, would undoubtedly have found fault with the United State’s every move (Its Cuban correspondent, Herbert Matthews, deserves a spot on the journalistic wall of shame right alongside Stalin’s lickspittle Walter Duranty). Perhaps the Americans would have withdrawn. Perhaps Mr. Castro might have regained power. Perhaps the Russians might have managed to get their missiles on the island after all. And perhaps world history might have turned out very differently.
Failure to act can have as profound consequences as acting. Certainly, president Kennedy’s desertion of Cuban exiles on the beach at the Bay of Pigs had consequences. It led to nuclear standoff; it allowed Fidel Castro to strut his stuff and extend communist infiltration to Angola and elsewhere. It left a nation under a communist dictator.
As it was, the United States was damned when it didn’t. So perhaps it should have been prepared to be damned when it did, just as it is being damned in Iraq by Fidel Castro’s investors and trading partners