Cuba – preparing for change
Cuba – preparing for change
Friday, 11 May 2007 09:03
Cuban president Fidel Castro's recent no-show at the International
Workers' Day festivities, one of the highlights of the socialist
calendar, has again sparked furious debate about the island's future.
Precious little has been seen of the larger-than-life figurehead since
July 2006, when he temporarily ceded power to brother Raul for "several
weeks" after undergoing surgery for intestinal bleeding.
InTheNews.co.uk's Richard Frost reviews Castro's colourful presidency
and the history of antagonism between the US and the West's first
Castro's rise to power
Castro took control of Cuba in 1959 following a lengthy militia
campaign. After being released from prison for his role in a 1953 rebel
attack, he promptly formed a new band of insurgents in Mexico and
returned to the Caribbean island in 1956 to fight the military
dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. Batista's cruel repression fuelled
Cuban resentment and gradually swelled the ranks of Castro's rebels. A
steady stream of victories in 1958 prompted Batista to flee to Portugal
in February 1959, leaving the path clear for Castro.
A thorn in the side
Despite supporting Castro by imposing a Cuban arms embargo in 1958, the
US soon grew to distrust its neighbour. A wide-ranging set of political
reforms implemented by the new government included the nationalisation
of Cuban assets, meaning the US lost millions of dollars worth of
investment almost overnight. The ejection of US-based Mafiosi and the
violent suppression of political dissenters soured relationships
further, while an aid agreement struck in 1960 between the Soviet Union
and Cuba terrified the US as the Cold War loomed large.
The Bay of Pigs Invasion
Responding to the perceived threat, the CIA began secretly training up
Cuban exiles in Florida to help them overthrow Castro. However, the Bay
of Pigs invasion was a disaster as US president John F. Kennedy denied
aerial support in a bid to appear impartial and Cuba repelled the
attack. This prompted the US to adopt more covert methods of regime
change. In 1999, the then head of the Cuban secret services estimated
there had been 638 plots to assassinate Castro down the years, with the
CIA was believed to have tried explosives-laden conch shells, poisoned
diving suits and even exploding cigars.
The Cuban Missile Crisis
However, the Cuba-US neighbourly dispute assumed a global significance
in 1962 at the height of the Cold War. The Soviet Union, keen to gain a
strategic foothold on its rival's doorstep, struck a deal with Castro to
install nuclear weapons on the island. The resulting crisis was the
closest the world has come to nuclear war.
The crisis started when the Soviets launched a convoy of ships across
the Atlantic to deliver nuclear missiles to Cuba. However, the US
learned of the plans and immediately surrounded Castro's island,
threatening to destroy any ship found running the blockade. As the
convoy neared, both superpowers prepared their respective nuclear
arsenals for launch. However, a war was narrowly averted when the Soviet
ships withdrew and the world breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Modern-day Cuba is a puzzle. On the one hand, the island has a legendary
healthcare system and an education-for-all programme that is almost as
famous. On the other hand, hundreds of thousands of Cubans have fled to
Florida and beyond following Castro's crackdowns against free speech,
freedom of association and anything "contrary to the decision of the
Cuban people to build socialism and communism".
Last year, as Castro ceded power, US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice
called upon the Cuban population to rise up in support of a full and
open democracy. The methods may have changed somewhat, but almost half a
century later, it appears the US is still preoccupied with its
diminutive communist neighbour