Castro's Weight

President Obama's visit to Cuba revives memories that go back 60 years, and carry the weight of time and geopolitics. I was born and grew to young adulthood during the height of the Cold War. As the eldest child of a large family, I did what eldest children did – I kept many thoughts to myself. In my case, I privately worried about the possibility of atomic war.

Such thoughts were like a walking, waking nightmare. They circled my conscious mind like predators circling prey.

As an adult, I shared those memories with my parents. From their response I came to believe that I had more fear of nuclear conflict more than they did. After all, they had a farm to run and had lived through World War II. Strangely, it was during the most perilous of times that I rid myself of this closeted burden.

In October of 1962 the Cuban missile crisis was on everyone's mind. The adults that I knew at the time were generally taciturn and specifically tight-lipped when it came to political discussions outside of families. There was no combative social media then; statements spoken about civic and foreign affairs tended to be accepted politely and rarely commented on. Arguments could threaten the fragile thread of mutual support that held rural northern communities together in that era.

My family farmed in central North Dakota. The surrounding community was about fifty miles south of the Strategic Air Command Air Force base at Minot. The Minuteman Missile Project was underway. As a result the area was becoming the largest concentration of nuclear warheads in the Free World. It was believed this part of the country would be a prime target if Russian Bombers came over the North Pole for a nuclear strike.

At that time I listened in on a meeting where adults were unusually verbal, understandably upset and casting about for blame.

One person said, “It's that son of a bitch Castro that's at the bottom of this.”

Another said, “Eisenhower could have stopped him but he really screwed up with the Bay of Pigs.”[1]

A third snapped, “If it weren't for Batista, there would have been no Castro.”

I realized at that moment adults really did carry the burden of geopolitics and because they did, I no longer needed to bear it myself.

Most would agree that Batista Cuba was a corrupt dictatorship and a moral cesspool. As a result of a coup in 1933 that deposed a previous dictator, Fulgencio Batista and his cronies controlled Cuba for over 25 years. Batista fled the country in early 1959, one step ahead of Fidel Castro and his troops.

Assertions that U.S. business interests were a significant force behind our government's support of the Batista regime are well substantiated. However, research of documents from that time period also indicate there was support for Castro in the United States. Castro initially promised to maintain political and commercial ties to the U.S.

As with many politicians, Castro's promises were more opportunistic than contractual. Relations between Cuba and the U.S. soured quickly. The botched Bay of Pigs invasion brought matters to an all-time low and accelerated Soviet arms build-up in the region.

That contributed to the Missile Crisis, which was probably as close as the U.S. has ever come to being involved in a nuclear interchange with the Soviet Union.[2]

As the saying goes, one thing leads to another. It is likely that a truly democratic Cuba would have been less vulnerable to a communist takeover. It is probably just as true that the dictatorial rule by Spain prior to the Spanish-American War might have predisposed the country to strongman rule.

My second set of memories are of a president's actions in the mid 1980's. I was at breakfast at a local hotel and overheard a group of men at the table next to me. They were furious with Ronald Reagan's rapprochement strategy, which placed our president in face to face meetings with Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev.[3]

I knew some of these gentlemen who are still around and I believe that they now regard Reagan as a godlike figure. Presumably they have forgotten their original anger over Reagan being a “liberal sell-out”, or they have buried the animosity. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)

It is reasonable to call our current president's trip to Cuba a form of détente. However, I do not recall Gorbachev being as spit-flying angry with Reagan as Raúl Castro was with Obama when he publicly chastised Cuba's human rights abuses. (Arguably worse than occurred during the time of Batista).

Raúl will get over it or die first. I hope many of Barak Obama's critics will get over his visit as others got over Reagan's “betrayal”. Geopolitics is a chain of cause, effect and consequence. Other such chains will weigh down other children long before their adulthood.




[1] The Bay of Pigs was a failed military invasion of Cuba undertaken by a CIA-sponsored paramilitary group on April 17, 1961. Planned during the Eisenhower administration, executed just after J.F.K. was sworn in.


[2] This writer has a number of friends and in-laws who were born in the Soviet Union and are now citizens of the U.S. They all remind me of two things: Very few Russian citizens were members of the Communist Party, and most Russian citizens were terrified of the U.S. After all, the U.S. is the only country to have actually used nuclear weapons in war. And targeted civilians.


[3] Nancy Reagan, who at the time of this writing was recently laid to rest, is said to have been a major influence on her husband's policy moderation with respect to the Soviet Union.