Cuba and the United States

I have long found the US/Cuba situation fascinating particularly in light of the fact that many nineteenth and early twentieth century U.S. politicians and businessmen had the wish of annexing Cuba, or at least keeping Cuba a friendly U.S. playground. Cuba, so close to the United States, was often a hoped for prize. Many power brokers in the United States felt sure Cuba would eventually choose to join its neighbor to the north. The fact that it never did but instead rejected the United States during the Cold War makes it all the more interesting and begs the question of why it choose such a different path from the one hoped for by men like Theodore Roosevelt, President McKinley, and many others.

In 2002, historian Louis A. Pérez, Jr. wrote an article for the Journal of Latin American Studies titled “Fear and Loathing of Fidel Castro: Sources of US Policy toward Cuba.” The following is a short paper I wrote after reading this and other articles discussing theories as to why the United States persisted with Cold War policies towards Cuba even after the end of the Cold War.

Loathsome Rejection: Cuba and the United States

Masked behind a cloud of Cold War fear, Cuba’s rejection of the United States was the loathsome reality of a failed U.S. attempt at imperial influence and a direct blow at the very heart of the Monroe Doctrine. Fidel Castro was “inalterably held responsible” and according to Louis A. Pérez Jr. in “Fear and Loathing of Fidel Castro: Sources of US Policy Toward Cuba,” Castro became a problem that would blind policy makers for over forty years, even after the end of the Cold War.[1]

“Castro was transformed simultaneously in to an anathema and phantasm, unscrupulous and perhaps unbalanced, possessed by demon and given to evil doings a wicked man with whom honourable men could not treat.”[2]

Pérez stated that the “initial instrumental rationale” for U.S. policy with Cuba, particularly the policy of sanctions, may have become “lost” over time, but that it was initially created under the precepts of containment.[3] However, in the case of Cuba, the practice of utilizing economic pressure through embargoes was undermined by the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 which allowed political asylum to any Cubans who made it to U.S. shores. This act became a release valve for the pressures created by the embargoes. While poor Cubans remained poor, the middle-class Cubans, who were most affected by U.S. sanctions, could attempt to seek refuge elsewhere. “The Logic of the policy required containing Cuban discontent inside Cuba,” but this logic was lost amid the emotional reaction the United States had towards Fidel Castro and his rejection of the United States. This rejection was compounded by the challenge to “the plausibility of the Monroe Doctrine,” and the United States “primacy in the western hemisphere.”[4] If rejection was not enough to engender such resentment, inviting the Soviet Union to become a military as well as an economic ally was more than U.S. policy makers could stand without seeking retribution.

Cold War fear and rhetoric does not sufficiently account for the continued and virulent animosity between the United States and Cuba, and Pérez was not the only scholar to take note. As the Soviet system crumbled and the Cold War came to an end, “the antagonism displayed by the U.S. government toward Cuba and Castro …intensified.”[5] The continued containment of Cuba in the post-Cold War era negated decades of U.S. assertions that the Cuban policy was the direct result of its status as a Soviet satellite. While others would write about the illogical continuation of Cold War policy, Pérez argued that U.S. policy toward Cuba had less to do with Cold War fear and containment, and more to do with loathing and retaliation for the rejection of the United States and the embarrassment such a rejection caused.

Certainly there was a real national threat in having Soviet missiles located so close to U.S. shores, but that threat does not account for U.S. policy before and after the missiles. Wayne S. Smith, who was stationed in Cuba as a vice-consul during the Cuban Revolution, claimed that Castro and his revolutionaries were not communist threats in 1956.

“We found no credible evidence to indicate Castro had links to the Communist party or even had much sympathy for it. Even so, he gave cause for concern, for he seemed to have gargantuan ambitions, authoritarian tendencies, and not much in the way of an ideology of his own. He was also fiercely nationalistic. Given the history of U.S. military occupations, the Platt amendment, and the outsized U.S. economic presence in Cuba, he did not hold the U.S. in high regard.”[6]

Without a doubt, the United States needed to address the threat posed by Castro, but to bypass speaking softly and instead proceeding to the wielding of a big stick was a move that would ensure crisis rather than avoiding crisis, especially when the Soviet Union was more than happy to lend Cuba a hand. The Soviet’s willing assistance, especially after the embarrassment of the Bay of Pigs, was all the justification needed for President Kennedy to pick the moment of crisis rather than giving Nikita Khrushchev the opportunity.[7]

Pérez does not argue against the notion that there was a real threat posed by Cuba, but instead he points out that the United States was handed a “trauma” when the U.S. playground turned into a war zone, and then into a dangerous Cold War threat.[8] This trauma affected the U.S. ability to rationally create and implement a policy that would stabilize relationships and reduce threat. “Dispassionate policy discourse on Cuba … was impossible” [9] as long as Castro remained Cuba’s leader, because he was “a breathing, living reminder of the limits of U.S. power.”[10]


[1] Louis A. Pérez, Jr. “Fear and Loathing of Fidel Castro: Sources of US Policy toward Cuba,” Journal of Latin American Studies 34, no. 2 (May 1, 2002): 227, (accessed February 20, 2013).

[2] Ibid. 250.

[3] Ibid., 228.

[4] Ibid., 233.

[5] David Bernell, “The Curious Case of Cuba in American Foreign Policy,” Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs 36, no. 2 (July 1, 1994): 66, (accessed February 19, 2013).

[6] Wayne S. Smith, The Closest of Enemies: A Personal and Diplomatic Account of U.S.-Cuban Relations Since 1957 (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1987), 15-16.

[7] Philip Zelikow, “American Policy and Cuba, 1961-1963.” Diplomatic History 24, no. 2 (Spring 2000): 325. (accessed February 19, 2013).

[8] Pérez, 231.

[9] Ibid., 250.

[10] Ibid., 251.

Other Readings

Dominguez, Jorge I. “U.S.-Cuban relations: From the Cold War to the colder war.” Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs 39, no. 3 (Fall 1997): 49–75. (accessed January 31, 2013).

Herring, George C. From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Paterson, Thomas G. “U.S. intervention in Cuba, 1898: Interpreting the Spanish-American-Cuban-Filipino war.” Magazine of History 12, no. 3 (Spring 1998): 5. (accessed January 31, 2013).

Williams, William Appleman. The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. 1972 New Edition. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1988.

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