Raúl Castro’s Celebration of the 60th Anniversary of the Cuban Revolution’s Triumph

On January 1, 2019, the 60st anniversary of the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, Raúl Castro delivered a lengthy address in Santiago de Cuba celebrating that anniversary as well as the 150th anniversary of the beginning of Cuba’s wars of independence from Spain. [1]

Castro said Cuba “will continue to prioritize defense training tasks, at all levels, in the interests of safeguarding independence, territorial integrity, sovereignty and peace, based on the strategic concept of the War of the Entire People, as is reflected in the recently approved Constitution of the Republic.”[2]

Also mentioned were the challenges facing the Cuan economy in 2019. It was necessary to “reduce all non-essential expenses and save more; increase and diversify exports; raise the efficiency of the investment process and enhance the participation of foreign investment, which, as stated in the guiding Party documents, is not a complement, but a fundamental element for development.”

In addition, the speech was peppered with the  following negative comments about the U.S. involvement in that history:

  • “Cuba’s victory against Spain “was usurped by the U.S. intervention and the military occupation of the country, which gave way to a long period of oppression and corrupt governments, subservient to its hegemonic designs.”
  • “The Revolutionaries attack on the Moncada barracks on July 26, 1953 also was an assault on ‘the crimes and abuses of a bloody tyranny, completely subordinated to the interests of the United States.”
  • “Already on January 8, 1959, upon his arrival in Havana, the Commander of the Revolution [Fidel] expressed: ‘The tyranny has been overthrown, the joy is immense and yet there is still much to be done. We do not fool ourselves into believing that from now on everything will be easy, perhaps from now on everything will be more difficult.'”
  • “On May 14, 1959, Cuba adopted the first Agrarian Reform Law “that upset the powerful economic interests of U.S. monopolies and the Creole bourgeoisie, which redoubled the conspiracies against the revolutionary process.”
  • “The nascent Revolution was subjected to all types of aggressions and threats, such as the actions of armed gangs financed by the U.S. government; assassination plans against Fidel and other leaders; the murder of young literacy teachers, many of them still adolescents; sabotage and terrorism throughout the country with the terrible toll of 3,478 dead and 2,099 disabled; the economic, commercial and financial blockade, and other political and diplomatic measures in order to isolate us; the campaigns of lies to defame the Revolution and its leaders; the mercenary invasion at Playa Girón [Bay of Pigs] in April 1961; the October [Missile] Crisis in 1962, when the military invasion of Cuba was being prepared in the United States; and an endless list of hostile acts against our homeland.”
  • “Over 60 years Cuba has has “seen twelve U.S. administrations that have not ceased in the effort to force a regime change in Cuba, one way or another, with varying degrees of aggressiveness.”
  • “Now once again, the U.S. government seems to be taking the course of confrontation with Cuba, and presenting our peaceful and solidary country as a threat to the region. It resorts to the sinister Monroe Doctrine to try to roll back history to the shameful era in which subjugated governments and military dictatorships joined it in isolating Cuba.”
  • “Increasingly, senior officials of the [U.S.] current administration, with the complicity of certain lackeys, disseminate new falsehoods and again try to blame Cuba for all the ills of the region, as if these were not the result of ruthless neoliberal policies that cause poverty, hunger, inequality, organized crime, drug trafficking, political corruption, abuse and deprivation of workers’ rights, displaced people, the eviction of campesinos, the repression of students, and precarious health, education and housing conditions for the vast majority.”
  • “They are the same who declare the intention to continue forcing the deterioration of bilateral relations, and promote new measures of economic, commercial and financial blockade to restrict the performance of the national economy, cause additional constraints on the consumption and welfare of the people, hinder even further foreign trade, and curb the flow of foreign investment. They say they are willing to challenge International Law, to contravene the rules of international trade and economic relations, and aggressively apply extraterritorial measures and laws against the sovereignty of other states.”
  • “The extreme right in Florida . . . has hijacked [U.S.] policy toward Cuba, to the pleasure of the most reactionary forces of the current U.S. government.”
  • “On July 26, [2018] here in Santiago, I explained that an adverse scenario had formed, and again the euphoria of our enemies had resurfaced, and the haste to materialize their dreams of destroying the example of Cuba. I also pointed out the conviction that the imperialist blockade of Venezuela, Nicaragua and our country was tightening. Events have confirmed that assessment.”
  • “After almost a decade of practicing unconventional warfare to prevent the continuity, or impede the return of progressive governments, Washington power circles sponsored coups – first a military coup to overthrow President Zelaya in Honduras, and later they resorted to parliamentary-judicial coups against Lugo in Paraguay, and Dilma Rousseff in Brazil.”
  • The U.S. “promoted rigged and politically motivated judicial proceedings, as well as campaigns of manipulation and discredit against leftist leaders and organizations, making use of monopoly control over mass media.”
  • “The aggressive actions [of the U.S.] against [Venezuela] . . . must cease. As we warned some time ago, the repeated declaration of Venezuela as a threat to the national security of the United States, the open calls for a military coup against its constitutional government, the military training exercises undertaken in the vicinity of Venezuelan borders, as well as tensions and incidents in the area, can only lead to serious instability and unpredictable consequences.”
  • “It is equally dangerous and unacceptable that the United States government unilaterally sanctions and also proclaims the Republic of Nicaragua a threat to its national security. We reject the attempts of the discredited OAS, Organization of American States, to interfere in the affairs of this sister nation.”
  • “Faced with the [U.S. recent reassertion of the] Monroe Doctrine, the principles of the Proclamation of Latin America and the Caribbean as a Zone of Peace, signed in Havana by Heads of State and Government, which some allies of the United States now seek to disregard, must be applied and defended, for the good of all.”[3]
  • “As expressed by our Minister of Economy and Planning at the last session of the National Assembly, the cost to Cuba of [the U.S. blockade of Cuba is]calculated according to internationally approved methodology, [at] 4.321 billion dollars last year, equivalent to almost 12 million in damages every day, a fact that is overlooked by analysts who tend to question national economic performance.”

Nevertheless, Raúl reiterated Cuba’s “willingness to coexist in a civilized manner, despite the differences, in a relationship of peace, respect and mutual benefit with the United States. We have also clearly indicated that Cubans are prepared to resist a confrontational scenario, which we do not want, and we hope that the levelest heads in the U.S. government can avoid.”

American Journalist’s Assessment of Cuba’s Current Situation[4]

Jon Lee Anderson, an American journalist who has written extensively about Cuba, first stated what he saw as Cuba’s achievements over the last 60 years. It is “stable, having overcome such existential threats as the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 and a half-century of diplomatic isolation and withering economic sanctions imposed by the United States.”

Cuba also has “weathered the collapse of the Soviet Union, its main Cold War benefactor, and a slew of traumatic internal ructions including the Mariel boatlift in 1980 and the Cuban raft exodus in 1994. Last but not least, Cuba has managed its first major political transitions, following the death in 2016 of its defining leader, Fidel Castro; the presidential retirement, last year, of his younger brother, Raúl Castro; and Raúl’s succession in office by Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, a 58-year-old Communist Party loyalist.”

Most importantly, he says, “the Cuban Communist system shows no sign of collapse.” But it is going through significant changes with greater opportunity to disagree with the government as evidenced by recent changes to regulations affecting the private sector and the arts.

Conclusion

Although I hope that there will be increasing opportunities for Cubans to express disagreement with their government’s policies, I am not as sanguine as Anderson about whether and when there will significant changes on such questions. Like any well-established and large system or organization, such changes are difficult and usually take longer than anticipated by some.

It also is interesting to compare this lengthy speech by Raúl with the shorter and less revealing recent statement by President Diaz-Canel that was mentioned in a prior post. Is this difference significant?

According to a U.S. journalist, the latest version of the proposed new Constitution, if as anticipated it is approved in the February referendum, provides that “the National Assembly must approve a new electoral law within six months after the new Constitution is enacted. Then, within another three months, the National Assembly must choose a new president, vice president and Council of State from among its deputies currently in office.” In addition, the new Constitution would create the new office of Prime Minister, requiring the president to share power. Therefore, it is possible that Diaz-Canel will be President for only a short time.[5]

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[1] Castro, After 60 years of struggle, sacrifices, efforts and victories, we see a free, independent country, the master of its own destiny (Jan. 2, 2019).

[2] The final draft of the proposed Constitution that will be submitted to a referendum in February 2019 is now available online.

[3] In February 2018, the Monroe Doctrine was favorably mentioned, in response to a question by an academic observer, by then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, as discussed in an earlier post.

[4]  Anderson,  Cuba’s Next Transformation, N.Y. Times (Jan. 5, 2019).

[5] Gámez Torres, Cuba could have a new government soon if draft Constitution takes effect, Miami Herald (Jan. 5, 2019).

Beschloss Discusses “Presidents of War” at Westminster Town Hall Forum

On November 13, only one week after the U.S. mid-term election, Michael Beschloss appeared before an overflow crowd at Minneapolis’ Westminster Town Hall Forum to discuss his  recent book, Presidents of War: 1807 to Modern Times.[1] Below are photographs of Beschloss and the Westminster Sanctuary before the arrival of the crowd.

 

 

 

 

The Presidents of War

He made the following brief comments about the eight presidents of war who are covered in his book.

President James Madison and the War of 1812. This was the first and the most unpopular war in U.S. history, climaxed by the British burning of the White House and Madison’s  escaping to Virginia in August 1814. (The book covers this in the Prologue and Chapters Two and Three.)

President James Polk and the Mexican-American War (1846 1848). This war was started by the U.S. on the U.S.false assertion that Mexico had ambushed and killed an American soldier in the new state of Texas. The U.S. won the war and acquired more than 500,000 square miles of Mexican territory extending  west of the Rio Grande River to the Pacific Ocean.(This is covered in Chapters Four and Five.)

President Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War (1860-1865). Lincoln was the best president of war. Initially he was not a crusader and instead an enforcer of the  constitutional ban on secession, which was not a popular message. Later with the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address he made it a moral crusade against slavery and the people began to follow Lincoln. (This is covered in Chapters Six and Seven.)

President William McKinley and the Spanish-American War, 1898.  This was another war started on a false assertion: Spain had blown up the USS Maine in the Havana Harbor, when in fact it was caused by an exploding boiler in the ship. This war resulted in the U.S.’ acquiring the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Guam from Spain and de facto control of Cuba. (This is covered in Chapters Eight and Nine of the book.)[2]

President Woodrow Wilson and World War I, 1917-1918. In his re-election campaign of 1916, Wilson’s slogan was “He kept us out of war,” but in April 2017 he had Congress declare war after German attacks on U.S. ships. In his well-meaning campaign for the League of Nations, Wilson made a lot of mistakes. (This is covered in Chapters Ten and Eleven.)

President Franklin D. Roosevelt and World War II, 1941-1945. Before the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, FDR gave very few speeches about the war in Europe, and there was strong U.S. public opinion against entering the war on the belief that World War I had been a mistake. Immediately after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, however, the Congress declared war against Japan, the last time the U.S. declared war under the Constitution. FDR learned from the war with the exception of treatment of Japanese-Americans.  (this is covered in Chapters Twelve and Thirteen.)

President Truman and  the Korean War (Conflict), 1950-1953.  According to Beschloss, Truman had read and written some history and had said one “could not be president without knowing history” and “every leader must be a reader.”(This is covered in Chapters Fourteen and Fifteen.)

President Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War, 1963-1969. This is another war started on a false U.S. assertion: the Vietnamese had attacked a U.S. ship in the Gulf of Tonkin, which lead to a congressional resolution supporting military action. The White House audio tapes of LBJ’s conversations revealed important information: (a) Senator Richard Russell urged LBJ to get out of the war; (b) Secretary of Defense McNamara urged LBJ to get involved, thereby disproving McNamara’s later denials of same; (c) LBJ came to believe that this was a war the U.S. could not win and could not lose; and (d) LBJ rejected the advice of General Westmoreland to use nuclear weapons in the war.  (This was discussed in Chapters Sixteen and Seventeen of the book.)

Commonalities of the Presidents of War

Beschloss identified two common characterizes of these presidents.

First, they all became more religious during their wars. Lincoln before the Civil War was a sceptic or agnostic, but during the war regularly read the Bible and talked about wars being “oceans of blood” that prompted his  seeking biblical guidance for sending young men to their death. Lyndon Johnson before the war was not a regular church-goer, but during the war, his daughter Lucy Baines Johnson Turpin, who had become a Roman Catholic, regularly and confidentially took LBJ to mass , and Lady Bird Johnson was heard to say he might convert to Catholicism.

Second, they all were married to strong women who gave good advice. In 1942 FDR  was considering internment of Japanese-Americans, and Eleanor warned him strongly not to do so. The subsequent internment caused a major rupture in their marriage.

In response to a question about whether any of the war presidents had military experience, he did not state the obvious: they had not except for Truman in World War I. Instead, he said that President Eisenhower, who is not covered in the book even though he presided over the end of the Korean War, had the “perfect” military experience resulting from his military education and training and command responsibility during World War Ii that provided him with the knowledge of the ends and means, the costs and the unpredictability of war.[3]

 The President of Peace

In response to a question, Beschloss identified only one president of peace:. President Thomas Jefferson in 1807 resisted public pressure to go to war with Great Britain over an attack by its ship (The Leopard) against a U.S. frigate (The Chesapeake) in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Virginia that killed three U.S. sailors and wounded eight others. (This is discussed in Chapter One of the book.)

 Advice to U.S. Citizens

All presidents need wisdom, courage and judgment. They need to be moral leaders.

Citizens, Senators and representatives need to evaluate and criticize presidents on important issues, especially those of war and peace.

In his book’s Epilogue, Beschloss says “the framers of the Constitution had dreamt that war would be a last resort under the political system they had invented. Unlike in Great Britain and other monarchies and dictatorships of old, it would be declared by Congress, not the chief of State.” Yet “the notion of presidential war took hold step by step.” We as citizens need to insist on obeying the Constitution and requiring congressional declarations of war.

Beschloss Biography

Beschloss is an award-winning author of nine books on presidential history. He is the presidential historian for NBC News and a contributor to PBS NewsHour. A graduate of Williams College and Harvard Business School, he has served as a historian for the Smithsonian Institution, as a Senior Associate Member at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, and as a Senior Fellow of the Annenberg Foundation. His books on the presidency include, among others, The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1960-1963; The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler’s Germany; and Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America, 1789-1989. His latest book, Presidents of War, was published in October. He is the recipient of the Harry S. Truman Public Service Award, the New York State Archives Award, and the Rutgers University Living History Award. He is a trustee of the White House Historical Association and the National Archives Foundation and a former trustee of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

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[1] Westminster Town Hall Forum, Michael Beschloss, Presidents of War: 1807 to Modern Times (Nov. 13, 2018) (the website also includes a livestream of the lecture and Q & A); Black, ‘Presidents of War’: Historian Michael Beschloss on leaders who’ve taken U.S. into battle, MinnPost (Nov. 14, 2018); Barnes & Noble, Presidents of War (2018).

[2] Before 1898, the U.S. had a desire to own or control Cuba that was promoted by by U.S. slaveholders desiring support of Cuban slaveholders, and after U.S. entry in 1898 into the Second Cuban War of Independence (what we call the Spanish-American War) and the U.S. defeat of the Spanish, the U.S. made Cuba a de facto protectorate that lasted until 1934. Since the 1959 overthrow of Batista by the Cuban Revolution, of course, the two countries have had a contentious relationship, including the U.S. Bay of Pigs invasion of  1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 that nearly erupted into war. (See posts listed in the “ U.S.-Cuba History, 1989-2010” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

[3] Another U.S. president with wartime experience, including injuries, was John F. Kennedy, who during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 helped to steer the U.S. out of a possible nuclear war with the USSR over its missiles in Cuba. (See posts listed in the “ U.S.-Cuba History, 1989-2010” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

Bobby Kennedy’s Obsession with Combatting Communist Cuba  

A new biography of Bobby Kennedy documents his obsession with Communist Cuba while he served as U.S. Attorney General in the administration of his brother, President John F. Kennedy (1961-1963).[1]

Background

Bobby’s obsession was fueled by the anti-communism of his father, Joseph Patrick Kennedy, a successful Boston businessman, Ambassador to Great Britain for President Franklin D. Roosevelt and later financial contributor to the campaign war chests of U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy., the noted anti-communist. This in turn led to Bobby’s working for seven and a half months in 1953 as an aide to McCarthy and to a personal connection between the two men that lasted until McCarthy’s funeral in 1957. According to the biographer, “the early Bobby Kennedy embraced the overheated anticommunism of the 1950s and openly disdained liberals.” (Ch. 1.) [2]

The Bay of Pigs Invasion

Although Bobby “had played little part in planning or executing the [unsuccessful] Bay of Pigs raid” in April 1961, immediately thereafter he sought to do “whatever was needed to protect his brother’s [political] flank.” The President put him second-in-charge of the Cuba Study Group to determine what had gone wrong, and over six weeks Bobby and the three others on the committee focused on flawed tactics and slack bureaucracy, not the goals and ethics, of the invasion. Afterwards the President redoubled his engagement in the Cold War while not fully trusting his generals and spies. (Pp. 240-46.)

“Operation Mongoose”

As a result of that review, Bobby concluded that “that son of a bitch [Fidel] has to go” and became the de facto man in charge of the CIA’s “Operation Mongoose” to conduct a clandestine war against Fidel and Cuba. This Operation had 600 CIA agents and nearly 5,000 contract workers and a Miami station with its own polygraph teams, gas station and warehouse stocked with machine guns, caskets and other things plus a secret flotilla of yachts, fishing craft, speedboats and other vessels. It conducted paramilitary missions on the island, including the demolition of a Cuban railroad bridge. This Operation was based, says the biographer, on the flawed premises that the “Cuban problem [was] the top priority of the [U.S.] Government—all else is secondary—no time, money, effort or manpower is to be spared,” that “the Cuban population would rally to the anti-Castro cause” and that the U.S. secret army of Cuban exiles could “vanquish anybody.” (Pp. 247-52.)

The Operation planned and tried to execute plans to kill Fidel. Afterwards Richard Helms, then the CIA’s director of clandestine operations, observed that Bobby had stated, “Castro’s removal from office and a change in government in Cuba were then the primary foreign policy objectives” of the administration. (Id.)

The Cuban Missile Crisis

Fidel and the Soviet Union were aware of this supposed secret U.S. operation and convinced “Khrushchev he was doing the right thing by installing [Soviet] missiles” in Cuba in the summer of 1962. (P. 251.)

During the start of the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, Bobby doubted whether an air strike on the missiles on the island would be enough and pondered whether it should be followed by an all-out invasion. He also suggested staging an incident at the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay by sinking a U.S. ship akin to the sinking of the Maine that was the excuse for the U.S. entry into the Cuban war of independence in the late 19th century. (Pp. 263-66.)

After the President had decided on a blockade of the island, Bobby rallied support for that effort, but 10 days later he wondered whether it would be better to knock out the missiles with a U.S. air attack. (Pp. 264-66.)

Later the President and Bobby decided to accept Khrushchev’s demand for the U.S. to remove its missiles in Turkey in exchange for the Soviets’ removal of its missiles in Cuba while the U.S. part of this deal was kept secret. (Pp. 267-69.)

Aftermath

After the crisis was over, the U.S. eventually discovered that the threat from Cuba was greater than perceived at the time. The Soviets had more missiles with greater capability to take out short-range targets like Guantanamo Bay plus long-range ones like New York City. The Soviets also had 43,000 troops on the island, not the 10,000 the U.S. had thought. The Soviets also had on the island lightweight rocket launchers to repel any attacks with nuclear weapons. And the Soviet submarines in the region had nuclear-tipped torpedoes with authorizations to be used if war broke out. Moreover, Fidel at the time had encouraged Khrushchev to launch a preemptive nuclear strike on the U.S. in the event of an U.S. invasion of the island. (Pp. 272-73.)[3]

In any event, in April 1963 Bobby commissioned three studies: (1) possible U.S. responses to the death of Fidel or the shooting down of a U-2 spy plane; (2) a program to overthrow Fidel in 18 months; and (3) ways to “cause as much trouble as we can for Communist Cuba.” (Pp. 275-76.)[4]

Bobby subsequently wrote a memoir of the crisis that was intended for publication in 1968 as part of his campaign for the presidential nomination, but that did not happen because of his assassination that year. Instead it was posthumously published in 1969.[5] The biographer, Larry Tye, concludes that this memoir was untruthful in many details and was intended, for political purposes, as “a fundamentally self-serving account that casts him as the champion dove . . . rather than the unrelenting hawk he actually was through much of [the crisis].” The “biggest deceit’ of the book, again according to Nye, was “the failure to admit that the Soviet buildup [in Cuba] was a predictable response to [the] American aggression [of the previously mentioned Bay of Pigs invasion and Operation Mongoose].” (P. 239.)

Nevertheless, the biographer concludes that during the missile crisis Bobby “drew on his skills as an interrogator and listener to recognize the best ideas” offered by others and “ensured that the president heard the full spectrum of views” of those officials. In addition, Bobby was effective as an intermediary with the Soviet Ambassador. (P. 270.) Finally, the crisis helped to mature Bobby. He slowly saw “that a leader could be tough without being bellicose, [found] . . . his [own] voice on foreign affairs . . . and [stepped] out of his brother’s long shadow.” (P. 282.)

Conclusion

In the summer of 1960, through an internship from Grinnell College, I was an assistant to the Chair of the Democratic Party of Iowa and, therefore, was thrilled with John F. Kennedy’s election as president.[6]

Cuba, however, at that time was not high on my list of priorities and I was not knowledgeable about U.S.-Cuba issues. Thus, in April 1961 I have no memory of the Bay of Pigs debacle in the last semester of my senior year at Grinnell.

In October 1962 my ignorance of U.S.-Cuba issues continued during the start of my second year at Oxford University as the Cuban missile crisis unfolded. But I do recall listening to radio reports of these events and wondering whether they would lead to my being drafted and forced to return to the U.S. for military service. That, however, never happened.[7]

My interest in Cuba only began in 2001 when I was on the Cuba Task Force at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church to explore whether and how our church could be involved with Cuba. The result was our establishment in 2002 of partnerships with a Presbyterian-Reformed Church of Cuba in the city of Matanzas on the north coast of the island and with its national denomination. Thereafter I went on three mission trips to Cuba and started to learn about the history of U.S.-Cuba relations, to follow the current news on that subject and to become an advocate for normalization and reconciliation of our two peoples.[8]

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[1] Larry Tye, Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon, Ch. 6 (Random House, New York, 2016).

[2] There are seven blog posts about Joseph Welch, the attorney for the U.S. Army in the McCarthy-Army hearings of 1954, that are listed in Posts to dwkcommentarires—Topical: UNITED STATES (HISTORY).

[3] The Cuban missile crisis has been the subject of the following posts to dwkcommetaries.com: Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev’s Messages During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 (Sept. 5, 2016); Conflicting Opinions Regarding the Relative Strength of U.S. and Soviet Missiles, 1960-1962 (Nov. 2, 2016); Fidel Castro’s Disingenuous Criticism of President Obama Over Nuclear Weapons (Aug. 15, 2016).

[4] After Bobby’s 1964 resignation as Attorney General, there apparently also was a 1966 CIA operation to assassinate Fidel. (See Covert CIA 1966 Operation To Assassinate Fidel Castro?, dwkcommentaries.com (May 30, 2016).)

[5] Robert Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis (W.F. Norton & Co., New York, 1969).

[6] See these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: My Grinnell College Years (Aug. Aug. 27, 2011); Encounters with Candidates JFK and LBJ (Apr. 16, 2011).

[7] Another post to dwkcommentaries.com: My Oxford University Years (Aug. 30, 2011).

[8] My many posts about Cuba are collected in List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

 

Fidel Castro—Nikita Khrushchev Messages During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962

A prior post criticized Fidel Castro for an October 26, 1962, letter to Nikita Khrushchev suggesting that the Soviet Union should launch a preemptive nuclear strike against the United States.

Additional insight into that and other communications between the two men during that crisis is provided in a lengthy book about a 1992 conference in Havana regarding that crisis.[1] The participants in the conference included Fidel himself; Robert S. McNamara, who was the U.S. Secretary of Defense at the time; Aleksandr Alekseev, the Soviet ambassador to Cuba at the time; Oleg Troyanovsky, special assistant to Nikita Khrushchev at the time; 12 other participants in the crisis; 14 scholars of the crisis; and 14 other attendees.

For the purpose of this blog post, Fidel provided commentary on nine key events in addition to the previously cited letter (in bold below): (1) the Soviet offer of missiles to Cuba, May 1962; (2) Soviet deployment of the missiles, August 1962; (3) Khrushchev’s letter to Castro, October 23, 1962; (4) Castro’s letter to Khrushchev, October 26, 1962; (5) Khrushchev’s letter to Castro, October 28, 1962; (6) Castro’s letter to Khrushchev, October 28, 1962; (7) Khrushchev’s letter to Castro, October 30, 1962; (8) Castro’s letter to Khrushchev, October 31, 1962; (9) Time Magazine’s publication of extracts from Khrushchev’s Memoirs, October 1, 1990; and (10) Cuba’s publication of five of the October 1962 Khrushchev-Castro letters, November 1990.

Discussion of the Key Events

  1. Soviet Offer of Missiles to Cuba, May 1962

In May 1962 Soviet General Marshall Biryuzov visited Cuba and asked Fidel what would be necessary to prevent U.S. invasion of Cuba. Fidel said there would be no invasion if the U.S. knew “that any aggression against Cuba would entail a war not just with Cuba.” Biryuzov then proposed that the Soviet Union provide missiles to Cuba. Fidel did not like the idea for Cuba’s own defense because the missiles would turn Cuba into a Soviet military base and thereby damage the image of the Cuban Revolution in Latin America. But Fidel accepted the proposal because he thought the missiles would strengthen the entire socialist camp. (Pp. 197-99, 242)

Fidel said that he “never regarded the missiles as something that one day would be used against the U.S. . . . in an unjustified first strike. [Khrushchev] insisted that they would never launch a nuclear first strike. The idea was an obsession with him.” However, at the 1992 conference Fidel said Cuba’s “decision to deploy nuclear weapons . . . entailed the risk of our involvement in a nuclear war. . . . [W]e always thought that in the event of a nuclear war . . . we would have been involved. . . . We’ve always thought that in a nuclear war, the whole world would be included in it, and it would affect everyone. . . . [W]e started from the assumption that if there was an invasion of Cuba, nuclear war would erupt. We were certain of that. If the invasion took place in the situation that had been created, nuclear war would have been the result. Everybody here was resigned to the fate that . . . we would disappear.” (Pp. 200, 251-52)

  1. Soviet Deployment of Missiles, August 1962

In August 1962 after the deployment of the missiles in Cuba, Fidel said he urged Khrushchev to make a public announcement of the deployment so that the U.S. could not argue that there was Soviet and Cuban deception over the missiles. This suggestion was not accepted by the Soviets. (P. 205)

  1. Khrushchev’s Letter to Castro, October 23, 1962

In reaction to President’s October 22nd public announcement of the presence of missiles in Cuba, Khrushchev sent a letter the next day (October 23) to Fidel stating that the U.S. announcement was “an exceptional interference in the affairs of the Republic of Cuba, a violation of the norms of international law and of the fundamental rules that govern relations among States, and as a blatant act of provocation against the Soviet Union.” The Soviet Union has sent a “protest against the piratical actions of the U.S. Government, denouncing them as perfidious and aggressive . . . and [declaring] its determination to fight actively against such nations.” As a result, “we have issued instructions to our military personnel in Cuba on the need to adopt the necessary measures to be completely ready for combat.” (Pp. 211-13)

Fidel, at the 1992 conference, said he saw this Khrushchev letter as “a clear and firm determination to fight.” Fidel thought that this Khrushchev letter clearly meant war as Fidel “could not conceive of any retreat.”   (P. 213)

  1. Castro’s Letter to Khrushchev, October 26, 1962

With this in mind, Fidel wrote an October 26th letter to Khrushchev saying he thought U.S. “aggression” against Cuba is “almost imminent within the next 24 or 72 hours” as either an air attack to destroy certain targets or a large-scale invasion of the island. If the latter, “the Soviet Union must never allow the circumstances in which the imperialists could launch the first nuclear strike against it . . . . that would be the moment to eliminate such danger forever through an act of clear legitimate defense, however harsh and terrible the solution would be, for there is no other.” (Pp. 213, 481-82) (Emphasis added.)

In his October 31, 1962, letter to Khrushchev (discussed below), Fidel said he realized the words of his 10/26/62 letter “could be misinterpreted by you and that is what happened, perhaps because you did not read them carefully, perhaps because of the translation, perhaps because I meant to say so much in too few lines.” Fidel also said in this later letter that at the time of the 10/26/62 letter, “We knew, and do not presume that we ignored it, that we would have been annihilated, as you insinuate in your letter, in the event of a nuclear war. However, that didn’t prompt us to ask you to withdraw the missiles, that didn’t prompt us to ask you to yield.” Fidel added, “I understand that once aggression is unleashed, one shouldn’t concede to the aggressor the privilege of deciding . . . when to use nuclear weapons. The destructive power of this weaponry is so great and the speed of its delivery so great that that the aggressor would have a considerable initial advantage.” In this later letter, Fidel said he did not suggest in the 10/26/62 letter that the Soviets should be the aggressor, but if “the imperialists attack Cuba [and Soviet forces here, the imperialists], . . . would become the aggressors, “and we would respond with a strike that would annihilate them.”

At the 1992 conference, Fidel said the 10/26/62 letter was a “very sensitive message, and I reviewed it very carefully.” He did not want his letter to hurt Khrushchev, nor did he want to indicate that the Cubans “were worried or afraid.” Therefore, the letter commended him for being a “tireless defender of peace” and expressed “hope that peace will be safeguarded.” Fidel also wanted to encourage Khrushchev and to avoid mistakes. Fidel, therefore, “proposed some ideas as to what should be done in the event of, not an air strike, but of an invasion of Cuba in an attempt to occupy it.” (Pp. 251, 361) (Emphasis added.)

As mentioned in the prior post, Fidel’s October 26 letter was written in the late evening/early morning in the underground bunker of the Soviet embassy in Havana with the Soviet ambassador, Aleksandr Alekseev. At the 1992 conference Fidel asserted that on this date in 1962, he expected an imminent U.S. air strike or invasion and, therefore, needed to write to Khrushchev to explain the situation. (Pp. 116-18)

As Fidel was writing this letter in Spanish, Alekseev at the 1992 conference said he and another Soviet official were translating the letter into Russian. But the Soviet officials “did not have a perfect mastery of the [Spanish] language, and if we had, I think Khrushchev would not have been so concerned about the possibility that the letter containing a request for a preemptive strike.” In any event, Alekseev did not understand why Khrushchev “understood that Fidel was calling for a [Soviet] preemptive strike.”(Pp. 117-18)

While the writing and translating the letter was going on in 1962, Alekseev sent a brief telegram to the Kremlin stating that Fidel was meeting with us and drafting a letter and that there was the danger of an imminent U.S. air strike or invasion. (P. 118)

In the 1990 publication in the West of suppressed sections of his memoirs, Khrushchev claimed that this Fidel letter “suggested that in order to prevent our nuclear missiles from being destroyed, we should launch a preemptive strike against the [U.S.]. [Fidel] concluded that an attack was unavoidable, and that this [U.S.] attack had to be preempted. . . . [We] needed to immediately deliver a nuclear missile strike against the [U.S.]. When I read this I, and all the others . . .[concluded] that Fidel totally failed to understand our purpose.” In short, according to Khrushchev, Fidel had asked for an order that would have blown up the world. (P. 29)

Immediately after the 1990 publication of this portion of the Khrushchev memoirs, Fidel in a public speech in Cuba said, “Perhaps Khrushchev even interpreted it this way, but in reality it did not happen like that.” (P. 29)

The authors of the book about the 1992 conference opined that Castro crafted the 10/26/62 letter to address what he feared most at that moment: Khrushchev’s weakness and irresolution. Khrushchev saw in Castro’s letter what he feared most: warning of an imminent American attack, and confirmation of Castro’s recklessness. The letter intended to buttress Khrushchev’s resolve helped to push [him] . . . in the other direction.” (P. 362)

  1. Khrushchev’s Letter to Castro, October 28, 1962

On October 28 there was international news that the U.S. and the Soviet Union had agreed to resolve the crisis with Soviet withdrawal of the missiles and the U.S. agreeing not to invade Cuba.

The same day Khrushchev sent a letter to Castro announcing the resolution and urging Fidel “not to be carried away by sentiment and to show firmness. . . . I understand your feelings of indignation toward the aggressive actions and violations of elementary norms of international law . . . of the [U.S.].” Please “show patience, firmness, and even more firmness. . . . [W]e will do everything possible to stabilize the situation in Cuba, defend Cuba against invasion and assure you the possibilities for peacefully building a socialist society.” (Pp. 482-83)

For Fidel, other Cuban leaders and the Cuban people, this resolution was a “great indignation” and “humiliation . . . . because we felt we had become some kind of bargaining chip. Not only was this a decision taken without consulting us, several steps were taken without informing us.” (Emphasis in original.) At the time Khrushchev was “arguably the most hated man in Cuba.” (Pp. 190, 214)

Even at the time of this conference in 1992, Fidel could not forgive Khrushchev for refusing to listen to Cuban requests in August to go public with the missile deployment, for backing down in the face of U.S. demands, for terminating the crisis without any concern for Cuban fears over their security and for betraying and insulting Cuba by treating the missiles in Cuba as a bargaining chip. In short, for Cuba the crisis was a profoundly bitter experience: U.S. aggression and Soviet abandonment. (Pp. 28-29, 189-90)

  1. Castro’s Letter to Khrushchev, October 28, 1962

The same day (October 28), Fidel responded to Khrushchev with a defense of Cuba’s shooting down a U.S. airplane over Cuban airspace. “There was danger of a [U.S.] surprise attack on certain military installations. We decided not to sit back and wait for a surprise attack. . . . We cannot accept [further U.S.] violating our airspace. . . . However, we agree we must avoid an incident at this precise moment that could seriously harm the negotiations, so we will instruct the Cuban batteries not to open fire, but only so far as long as the negotiations last . . . . (Pp. 483-84)

Fidel’s letter also stated, “we are in principle opposed to an inspection of our territory.” (Ibid.)

Finally Fidel “appreciate[s] extraordinarily the efforts you have made to keep the peace and we are absolutely in agreement with the need for struggling for that goal.” (Ibid.)

  1. Khrushchev’s Letter to Castro, October 30, 1962

 On October 30, 1962, Khrushchev sent a lengthy letter to Fidel. “We understand your situation and take into account the difficulties you now have . . . after the liquidation of maximum tension that arose due to the threat of attack . . . [by the U.S.], which you expected would occur at any moment.” (Pp. 485-88)

“We understand that certain difficulties have been created for you as a result of our [promised withdrawal of missiles from Cuba] in exchange for the U.S. commitment to abandon plans for an invasion of Cuba . . . [and ending] the blockade of Cuba. . . . This lead to the liquidation of the conflict . . . which, as you realize, was characterized by the clash of two superpowers and the possibility of it being transformed into a thermonuclear world war using missiles.” (Ibid.)

We also understand that some Cubans are upset with this resolution of the conflict. “But we, political and government figures, are leaders of a people who doesn’t know everything and can’t readily comprehend all that we leaders must deal with. Therefore, we should march at the head of the people and then the people will follow us and respect us.” (Ibid.)

The letter also rejected charges that the Soviets had not consulted with Cuba in this crisis. Fidel’s October 27th letter “proposed that we be the first to launch a nuclear strike against the territory of the enemy. You, of course, realize where that would have led. Rather than a simple strike, it would have been the start of a thermonuclear world war.” Your proposal was “incorrect.” (Ibid.)

This letter really angered Fidel. It pushed all the wrong buttons. He thought he was one with the Cuban people. He fumed that the Soviets had not informed or consulted with him. He denied he had suggested a preemptive strike. He believed the Soviets had abandoned Cuba. He did not trust U.S. promises. (Pp. 362-64)

  1. Castro’s Letter to Khrushchev, October 31, 1962

Fidel was furious over the last Khrushchev letter and exploded in his response. (Pp. 364-65, 489-91)

Khrushchev erroneously said Cuba was consulted about the promised withdrawal of missiles. Fidel’s October 26th letter advised and alerted the Soviets about “the possibility of an attack which we could not prevent but could resist” and would do so “heroically” and “calmly.” Fidel realized the words of his letter “could be misinterpreted by you and that is what happened, perhaps because you did not read them carefully, perhaps because of the translation, perhaps because I meant to say so much in too few lines.” (Ibid.)

“We knew, and do not presume that we ignored it, that we would have been annihilated, as you insinuate in your letter, in the event of a nuclear war. However, that didn’t prompt us to ask you to withdraw the missiles, that didn’t prompt us to ask you to yield.” (Ibid.)

“I understand that once aggression is unleashed, one shouldn’t concede to the aggressor the privilege of deciding . . . when to use nuclear weapons. The destructive power of this weaponry is so great and the speed of its delivery so great that that the aggressor would have a considerable initial advantage.” I did not suggest that the Soviets should be the aggressor, but if “the imperialists attack Cuba [and Soviet forces here], they would become the aggressors, “and we would respond with a strike that would annihilate them.” (Ibid.)

There are “many Cubans who are experiencing at this moment unspeakable bitterness and sadness.” (Ibid.)

  1. Time Magazine’s Publication of Extracts from Khrushchev’s Memoirs, October 1, 1990

 On October 1, 1990, Time Magazine published excerpts from Nikita Khrushchev’s secret tapes that he had made while under virtual arrest near Moscow between 1964 and 1971.[2] The tapes had the following three key passages regarding Soviet missiles in Cuba:

  • Khrushchev said before 1962 he had been troubled by the question: “How were we supposed to strengthen and reinforce Cuba? . . . We concluded that we could send 42 missiles, each with a warhead of one megaton. We picked targets in the U.S. to inflict the maximum damage. We saw that our weapons could inspire terror. The two nuclear weapons the U.S. used against Japan at the end of the war were toys by comparison. . . . Castro gave his approval. . . . It was our intention after installing the missiles to announce their presence in a loud voice. They were not meant for attack but as a means of deterring those who would attack Cuba.”
  • [In the October 26th letter] “Castro suggested that to prevent our nuclear missiles from being destroyed, we should launch a preemptive strike against the U.S. My comrades in the leadership and I realized that our friend Fidel totally failed to understand our purpose. We had installed the missiles not for the purpose of attacking the U.S. but to keep the U.S. from attacking Cuba.”
  • After the U.S. and the Soviet Union had reached an agreement for the removal of the missiles in Cuba, “Castro was hotheaded. He thought we were retreating—worse, capitulating. He did not understand that our action was necessary to prevent a military confrontation. He also thought that America would not keep its word and that once we removed the missiles, the U.S. would invade Cuba. He was very angry with us. . . . We believed this came from his being young and inexperienced as a statesman.”

In the entire book published later that month, Khrushchev claimed that this Fidel letter “suggested that in order to prevent our nuclear missiles from being destroyed, we should launch a preemptive strike against the [U.S.]. [Fidel] concluded that an attack was unavoidable, and that this [U.S.] attack had to be preempted. . . . [We] needed to immediately deliver a nuclear missile strike against the [U.S.]. When we read this, . . . it became clear to us that Fidel totally failed to understand our purpose.” (P. 29) The book (p. 173) also contains a full-page map of the western hemisphere showing the ranges of the medium-range and intermediate-range Soviet missiles based in Cuba to include virtually all of the continental U.S.

  1. Cuba’s publication of Certain Khrushchev-Castro letters, November 23, 1990.

On November 23, 1990, Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba, published five of the above Khrushchev-Castro letters from October 1962 (in Spanish) [Numbers 4 through 8 above] along with a lengthy introduction obviously written by Fidel. (English translations also were published by Granma in early December 1990.) (Pp. 474-81)

The introduction justified the publication of these letters as a response to the Time Magazine article just mentioned and asserted an “objective and calm reading of” Fidel’s letters of October 26, 28 and 31 “shows precisely the real context in which a possible nuclear strike against the [U.S.] was discussed.” (P. 476)

At the time “Cuba and the USSR were both convinced . . . that the [U.S.] was preparing to attack Cuba directly. Under these circumstances, [the USSR and Cuba] . . . signed a military agreement which strengthened the defenses of both [parties].” This included the “deployment in Cuba of medium- and intermediate-range missiles equipped with nuclear warheads and the presence of more than 40,000 Soviet soldiers.” (P. 477)

“Fidel and the Cuban leadership realized . . . that the presence of Soviet missiles [in Cuba could] . . . increase the dangers of confrontation of another sort with the [U.S.].” Moreover, “at the time we expected the USSR to struggle to defend Cuba in case of an attack by the [U.S.].” At the time Cuba proposed that [the Cuba-USSR] military agreement, including the deployment of the missiles, be made public, but Khrushchev refused while stressing “that the USSR was willing to go as far as necessary, even if the agreement and missiles were discovered before they were made public.” (Pp. 477-78)

This introduction wondered if there had been an erroneous translation of his October 26 letter from Spanish into Russian. (P. 479)

Fidel believed that a U.S. invasion of Cuba at the time would have constituted an act of aggression against both Cuba and the USSR due to the latter’s missiles and 43,000 soldiers on the island and thus a war against the two countries plus a simultaneous or subsequent U.S. nuclear strike on Soviet territory. Therefore, in his October 26 letter Fidel warned Khrushchev that the USSR should never allow “’circumstances in which the imperialists [the U.S.] could strike the first nuclear blow against it,’ eliminating such a danger then and forever in an act of rightful defense.” (P. 478)

In addition, Fidel says his October 31 letter provided an “impeccable” explanation of the earlier letter as not calling for a preemptive nuclear strike by the Soviet Union. (P. 480)

Conclusion

 It seems clear to this blogger that Fidel in his October 26th letter was urging Khrushchev to launch a nuclear strike against the U.S. if the U.S. invaded Cuba. Fidel, however, did not suggest a preemptive nuclear strike by the Soviet Union if there were no U.S. invasion of the island. Nevertheless, Fidel was proposing what could have been a thermonuclear world war with millions of deaths.

This sequence of messages, now translated into English in this book, were in the first instance written in Spanish by Castro and in Russian by Khrushchev. To what extent were there miscommunications in 1962 because of errors in translation as former ambassador Alekseev suggested at the 1992 conference and as the November 1990 Granma article wondered? The cited book does not seek to answer that question.

It also is easy to forget that in 1962 there were no instantaneous electronic communications between Havana and Moscow via fax machines and email. To what extent were there miscommunications between these two leaders because of the lack of instantaneous communications? This is another unresolved question.

Another issue posed by these events and communications is whether the different countries at the time had different opinions on the relative nuclear and missile strengths of the U.S. and the USSR and whether such differing opinions affected the actions of the three countries. This issue will be explored in a future post.

Finally this blogger has not attempted to find and examine what must be an extensive body of original and secondary sources on the Cuban missile crisis to see what light they may shed on the issue of possible nuclear war in 1962. Comments by others who have greater knowledge on these issues would be greatly appreciated.

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[1] James G. Blight, Bruce J. Allyn and David A. Welch, Cuba on the Brink: Castro, The Missile Crisis, and the Soviet Collapse (Pantheon Books; New York; 1993). A second edition of the book was published in 2002.

[2] Khrushchev’s Secret Tapes, Time (Oct. 1, 1990); Khrushchev (Schecter & Luchkov, editors & translators), Khrushchev Remembers: the Glasnost Tapes, pp. 170-83 (Boston; Little Brown & Co., 1990); Ulam, Castro Was a Hothead, N.Y. Times (Oct. 24, 1990)  Pear, Khrushchev Memoir Tells of Castro Plea For Attack on U.S., N.Y. Times (Sept. 24, 1990).

Does Cuba Have a Right To Terminate the U.S. Lease of Guantanamo Bay?

Whether Cuba has a legal right to terminate its lease of Guantanamo Bay to the U.S. is an important issue that has been addressed by Michael J. Strauss, an expert in international relations with a specialty in territorial leases by states. [1] A prior post referred to his 2013 article that touched on this topic, and this post is based upon his more extensive discussion of the issue in his 2009 book and a 2014 article. His book also helps clarify the history regarding the amount of the rent charged to the U.S. under the lease. [2]

Does Cuba have a legal right to terminate the lease?

As the lease does not grant Cuba an express right of termination and as there has been no decision by a court or arbitrator on the validity of any other purported termination right, no definitive answer can be given as to whether Cuba has a legal right to terminate the lease. At least the following four theories have been suggested for such a result.

First, after the Revolution, Cuba asserted that the lease was perpetual and, therefore, invalid. For example, a 1970 book by the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs asserted, “The contract for the lease in perpetuity . . . lacks existence and juridical validity because it is faulty in its essential elements: a) radical incapacity of the government of Cuba to cede a piece of national territory in perpetuity; b) for the same reason, the object and the reason are illegal; c) consent was wrested through irresistible and unjust moral violence.” (Book at 104, 171.)

Strauss, however, rejects the notion that the lease is perpetual. As noted in the prior post, the lease does not have a set termination date, unlike most U.S. leases (commercial and residential) and most leases “at the state level” (or “are otherwise open to termination by various means”). (Book at 106.) The absence of a termination date, however, does not mean that the lease is perpetual as most perpetual “leases [at the state level] . . . tend to explicitly [so] specify.” (Book at 107.)

Moreover, “the lease has had clearly stated conditions by which it can be ended.” The original 1903 lease was for “the time required for the purposes of [U.S.] coaling and naval stations.” And the 1934 treaty, reconfirming the lease, provided that it could be terminated by U.S. abandonment of Guantanamo Bay or by mutual agreement. (Book at 108, 215, 233.)

In addition, on two occasions after the Cuban Revolution, the U.S. has considered terminating the lease. One was in U.S. internal discussions about ways to resolve the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, but that idea was rejected internally and not publicly disclosed. (Book at 109-12.) The second was the idea’s incorporation in section 201 of the Helms-Burton (Libertad) Act of 1996 requiring the U.S. in order to provide assistance to a hoped-for free and independent Cuba to “be prepared to enter into negotiations . . . to return the [U.S.] Naval Base at Guantanamo to Cuba or to renegotiate the present agreement under mutually agreeable terms.” (Book at 112-14, 249-50.)

A second legal theory for Cuba’s termination of the lease is a fundamental change in circumstances (rebus sic stantibus) from the lease’s negotiation and signing in 1903 to today. This theory is covered by Article 62 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties and was discussed in the prior post. Strauss discusses the views on this issue by international legal scholars and notes the reluctance of international tribunals to invoke this ground. Another difficulty with this theory is the passage of time (over 112 years). As a result, Strauss does not see it as a winning approach for Cuba. (Book at 114-19.) Related to this theory is the 1970 argument by Cuba that the purpose of the lease had ceased to exist: the purpose of the 1903 lease (enable the U.S. to maintain Cuba’s independence and protect its people) was negated by the 1934 treaty’s emphasis on friendly relations between the two countries and that treaty’s purpose was negated by the hostile relations after the Cuban Revolution. (Book at 171.)

A third legal theory, also discussed in the prior post, would be the argument that the lease was procured by “the threat of force or use of force in violation of the principles of international law embodied in the [U.N.] Charter” under Article 52 of said Vienna Convention. That Convention, however, provides in Article 4 that it can be used only by states that are parties to the Convention and only after they became parties, and Cuba became such a party on September 9, 1998. Moreover, the U.N. was not in existence when the lease was signed in 1903. Nor, says Strauss, has “a new peremptory norm of general international law emerged” on this issue that could be a basis for a Cuban claim of a right to terminate the lease. (Book at 119-21.) This theory was put forward in 1970 as part of an argument advanced in a book by Cuba’s Foreign Ministry. (Book at 171.)

The fourth legal theory for a Cuban claim to a right to terminate would be based on alleged U.S. breach of the lease. This is covered by Article 60 of said Vienna Convention and is limited to a “material breach,” which for present purposes is “the violation of a provision essential to the accomplishment of the object or purpose of the treaty.” Strauss discussed two possible grounds for this theory:

  • The lease restricts U.S. use of Guantanamo Bay to a “coaling station” or a “naval station,” and Cuba would have to argue and prove that the U.S. has exceeded those uses. Strauss is skeptical of such a general argument because the U.S. consistently has opted for a broad interpretation of these limitations with Cuba’s tacit agreement and because it should be difficult to satisfy the definition of “material” breach. However, the U.S. use of Guantanamo as a facility for detention of alleged terrorists after 9/11 and the U.S.’ alleged violations of the human rights of such detainees would be a stronger claim reinforced by consistent Cuban objections to such uses and by the remote possibility that Cuba could be subject to liability for any human rights violations at the Base. (Book at 121-23, 144-55, 174; Cuba Responsibility.)
  • In Article III of the second part of the 1903 lease the U.S. “agrees that no person, partnership, or corporation shall be permitted to establish or maintain a commercial, industrial or other enterprise within [Guantanamo].” The U.S. has clearly breached this provision by having a McDonald’s Restaurant and a bowling alley on the site, but it is difficult to see such ventures as a “material breach” of the lease. A stronger argument for such a claim could be built on the U.S.’ more recently having private-contractor employees participate in the interrogation and alleged abuse of detainees. Such an argument also ties in with the assertion that the U.S.’ use of Guantanamo as a detention facility and its alleged abuse of detainees constitutes a material breach of the lease. But do such breaches affect the object and purpose of the lease and thus constitute a material breech? (Book at 123; Private Sector; Cuba Responsibility.)

The Amount of the Rent

The original 1903 lease called for annual rent of $2,000 in gold coin for Guantanamo Bay and Bahía Honda without a breakdown for the two territories. Because the Guantanamo Bay territory constituted 94.5% of the total territory, the rent hypothetically could be divided on that basis, resulting in annual rent for Guantanamo of $1,890. This amount, argues Strauss, was “considerably higher than what any other party would have paid in 1903 for renting the same territory.” In other words, the rent was a material element, not a token or trivial amount. (Book at 126.)

In 1916, however, the U.S. presumably abandoned Bahía Honda, and the rent remained at $2,000 in gold coin, which in Strauss’ judgment was still in excess of the fair market value of the Guantanamo territory. (Book at 127.)

In 1933, at the start of the Great Depression, the U.S. left the gold standard, and the next year (1934), the U.S. Dollar was devalued with “the value of old U.S. gold dollars being fixed at $1.693125 in legal U.S. currency. The annual rent of $2,000 in gold for Guantanamo Bay, when converted at this rate, became $3,386.25. This was the amount the [U.S.] began paying annually to Cuba, by U.S. government check, starting in 1934.” This change was made unilaterally by the U.S. without a signed agreement with Cuba, which acquiesced in the change. (Book at 127-30.)

Similar changes were made unilaterally by the U.S. in 1973 with an increase of the annual rental check to $3,676.50 (based upon a 1972 revision in the value of the old U.S. gold dollar) and in 1974 to $4,085 (based upon a 1973 revision in the value of the old U.S. gold dollar). (Book at 130-31.) [3]

As mentioned in a prior post, since 1974 the $4,085 figure has continued to be used by the U.S. for the annual rental checks that have not been cashed by Cuba since the Cuban Revolution take-over of the government in 1959 (except for the first one in 1959). (Book at 136-37).

As Strauss recognizes, the rental amount has never been adjusted to reflect ever changing fair market values of the territory. As a result, the annual rental for at least the half-century after the Cuban Revolution has become a token payment. (Book at 131-32.)

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[1] Strauss is Lecturer in International Relations at the Centre d’Etudes Diplomatiques et Stratégiques, Paris, specializing in territorial leases as phenomena of international relations and international law for resolving sovereignty disputes. Prior to entering academia, he was an international journalist and served as bureau chief for Agence France-Presse’s AFX News in Paris, Knight-Ridder Financial News in Madrid, and Dow Jones News Service in Geneva. He took his Ph.D. in International Relations and Diplomacy from the above Centre and his M.Sc. in Journalism from Columbia University, where he was an International Fellow in the School of International Affairs. He is the author of The Viability of International Leases in Resolving International Sovereignty Disputes: A Comparative Study.

[2] The Strauss article that was cited in the prior post is Cuba and State Responsibility for Human Rights at Guantanamo, 37 So. Ill. Univ. L.J. 533, 533-36 (2013) [hereafter “Cuba Responsibility”].  This post is based upon Strauss’ The Leasing of Guantanamo Bay (Praeger International 2009) [hereafter “the Book”] and U.S. Socialism in Cuba: Implications of Prohibiting the Private Sector at Guantanamo Bay, 24 Am. Soc’y for Study of Cuban Economy 129 (2014) [hereafter “Private Sector”]

[3] The earlier post erroneously asserted the $4,085 rental fee started in the mid-1930’s.