10 The Cold War in the Tropics

“President answering the red phone during cold war” by Marco Verch, licenced under a creative commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence.
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“No Known Restrictions: Fidel Castro Arrives in Washington, D.C. by Warren K. Leffler, 1959 (LOC)” by pingnews.com, licensed under a Creative Commons Public Domain Mark 1.0 license.

A revolution would be gaining momentum in the Sierra Maestra mountains of Cuba as independence celebrations broke out across Latin America and parts of the Caribbean. This one would draw international viewers and enrage those opponents of communism.

A militant lawyer, Fidel Castro, would wage war against the Batista’s, US backed, regime, over Cuba…

The First Engagement 

Castro launched the revolution’s first attack on the Moncada Barracks. The first engagement of a decades-long battle for Cuban liberation from a US backed dictatorship would begin in the early hours of July 26th, 1953. Castro and 150 compatriots would storm the barracks which housed one of Batista’s military centers. While far from successful, Castro had sent Batista a message that the people would take no more.

It was time for Batista to leave and for the US to cease its involvement in Cuban affairs.

“BatistaDC1938” by Harris & Ewing, “No known restrictions on publication.

Rubén Fulgencio Batista Zaldívar

At the time of Castro’s attack Batista had been in power for a very long time. Ruling at first through a series of puppet presidents after his 1933 coup and later in his own right from 1940-1944. The US had forced his hand and he ensured the elections being held were won by those he favored. After his four year term, Batista, would once more take power by force in 1952; when it became obvious he was losing the election. It was from this point on, until his ousting nearly a decade later, that Cuba garnered its Vegas like reputation. The 1950s was the Cuban equivalent of the roaring 20’s.

This is not to say, Cuba, wasn’t a tourist attraction in previous decades. Quite the contrary, Cuba, like the Bahamas, became a floating speakeasy at the height of the Prohibition Era. Yet, all of the money, both legal and illegal, flowing into the country never reached the locals and soon gaping disparities of wealth were glaringly evident. The locals were so enraged that students held a wake and burial ceremony for the country’s 1940 constitution. Cuba had become a safe haven for criminals and gangsters as well as an exotic vacation spot for the ultra rich and the locals starved.

“Che Guevara During UN General Debate” by United Nations Photo, licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

Fidel Castro

After the attack on the barracks Castro turned himself, with the promise of a fair trial, and was sentenced, along with his brother and about 20 other, to 15 years in prison. During this time the July 26th movement flourished and the planning continued for a movement far from dead. Batista, in 1955, pardoned all those imprisoned for political reasons, Castro took the opportunity and left for Mexico; accompanied by his brother Raúl and their followers. It was during this time that they met with Ernesto “Che” Guevara and amassed an army from Cubans exiled in Mexico as well as the US. Together they set off for Cuba on November 25th 1956. Due to inclement weather they missed their scheduled attack date and by December 2nd began making their way to the notoriously revolutionary Sierra Maestra mountains.

Their time in the mountains were fraught with problems as they had few supplies or resources. With plans in the making and a mounting stockpile of weapons, Castro realized he needed to speak to the press. With the people believing he had died at sea, they would not be prepared when he and his men made their attack. He needed to tell the people he was not only alive but the revolution was as well. With this in mind, Castro, agreed to an interview with New York Times journalist Herbert Matthews. It was this interview that breath renewed life into the revolution as well as establish the revolutions signature look.

What was the US reaction to Castro?

Fidel Castro & Students

Fidel Castro is the son of an impressed peasant Spanish soldier, Ángel Castro y Argiz, and a woman who would be his father’s 2nd wife; Lina Ruz González. One out of 12 children, Castro would later move to Havana and attend university. It was during this time that he became involved with politics.

Students would play a crucial role in the revolution’s success. While Castro and his men waged a guerrilla war against Batista’s forces, the students would simultaneously protest and set off bombs in the streets. Batista would respond to the unrest by arresting and imprisoning those speaking out; which only served to further enrage the students. Adding to the turmoil, Castro and his forces would maintain their siege on Batista supply lines and effectively cutting off Oriente from the rest of the island by 1958. On January 1st, 1959, Batista understood he had lost and fled the island.

The country spent a short time in limbo until, Castro associate, Manuel Urrutia Lleó became president. However, this did not mean Castro was not in power behind the scenes. Politics aside, the celebration and standing ovation Castro received as he marched into Havana, on January 8th, was awe inspiring. Receiving a similar welcome upon an unofficial visit to the US, in New York, Castro would work at reassuring the government that he had no communist tendencies. However, by 1960 Cuban and American relations would become frosty.

Fidel Castro & Communism

In 1960 Cuban and American relations took a turn for the worst. Cuba had made a deal with the USSR to exchange 5 million tons of sugar for funds, oil, and other supplies. This deal would be the first of many such deals tying the two nations together; much to the chagrin of Americans. The US subsequently issued trade embargoes that did not begin to lift until Obama’s and Raúl Castro’s presidencies.

Castro continued to anger its American neighbor by nationalizing US held industries and following this by doing the same to all other foreign owned corporations. While this nationalization was going on, “Che” was presiding over the trials of Batista’s remaining officials. The piles of bodies left in the wake of this, metaphorically, cased a mass exodus of Cubans to make their way to the US. As those once exiled in the US, during the Batista regime, returned with the revolution, those pro-Batista were making their way to the US. First doing so by sending minors alone to await the visas processing of their parents; once cleared they would be reunited and given asylum within the US.

As Cuba became increasingly communist, the US saw it as their duty to restore “democracy” and thereby restoring their capitalist interest. With this in mind a series of attacks on the government and Castro himself would take place over the years.

Cuba & the US

The first of many attempts to restore “democracy” in Cuba took place during John F. Kennedy’s presidency. What became known as the Bay of Pigs. Similar to the Contras in Nicaragua, CIA trained men were to be dropped off on the southern shore of the island and begin a revolutionary movement. Plans, however, did not go according to plan and Castro captured over 1,000 men; the estimated combined death toll was 300. Those capture were given public and mortifying trials after which they were traded for $50 million worth of food and medicine.

Following the trials and exchange, Cuba was declared a socialist nation and brought the Cold War to the Caribbean sea. Kennedy would later launch a program, “Operation Mongoose”, whose sole purpose was to destabilize and destroy the Castro government as well as the man himself. The USSR, for its part did not remain silent throughout it all. At the height of the cold war it would send soldiers to island; in blatant disregard for the Monroe Doctrine.

“Little Havana McDonalds Calle Ocho Miami” by Phillip Pessar, licenced under a creative commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Cuba & the World

As Castro had received a standing ovation, as he marched through Havana on January 8th 1959, so too would he and his government be received by the world. Those who had suffered at the hands of the US loved Cuba for standing up to them. Other loved Castro and Cuba for their strong communist stance in the face of US “democracy”. Rather than fight the embargoes placed on them by the US, Cuba made great strides in the nation’s housing as well as education. Cuba’s educational reforms are the reason for Cuba’s literacy rate being at 96% today whereas the US literacy rate is at 80.3%.

Despite these improvements, many fled for the US and they did so because:

  1. Were rich and held key positions during the Batista regime.
  2. Were afraid to die.
  3. Disagreed with the new government.

No matter the reason, they all left the island with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Their wealth, houses and assets were left to the government for redistributions. Upon arrival to the states most would settle in Miami, hence the neighborhood in Miami known as “Little Havana”.

“Michael Manley, c1970s” by LSE Library, No known copyright restrictions.

Cuba & the Caribbean

While no other country wanted to take the risk and defy the US, many Caribbean countries did when it came to diplomatically recognizing Castro’s government. Specifically, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, Jamaica, and Guyana. Yet, Castro’s influence soon reached into other Caribbean countries as “democratic socialism” began to rise. For example, in Jamaica, Michael Manley became the head of the People’s National Party (PNP) in 1969 and was elected prime minister 3 years later preaching the benefits of a “democratic socialist” government. While, he was elected prime minister there were many who disliked the increasing association with Cuba and by extension the USSR. Yet, his government would soon be disabled by a high interest loan given by the IMF or International Monetary Fund.

“Cristal with President of Dominican Republic Joaquin Balaguer” by Cristal Montanez, licenced under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.

DR & The Cold War

The Dominican Republic also found itself in the Cold War, with the assassination of Trujillo on May 30th, 1961. Joaquín Balaguer became president and Trujillo’s son Ramfis took over as head of the military. The US, having decided that the Trujillo’s no longer needed to be in power, ordered Ramfis to step down and even sent a warship to ensure it happened. Elections held in 1962, after a 30 year dictatorship, led to the election of Juan Bosch; leader of the Dominican Revolutionary Party or PRD. It was, however, not long before the US regretted their interference as Bosch proved to be a communist with his reforms.

“Juan Bosch (1963)”, by Hugo van Gelderen / Anefo, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Netherlands license..

The US, in response, sent 20,000 soldiers and only left as Balaguer returned in 1966, until 1978, although his time did not mean an end to the killings. Bosch would return and found a new political party but the next elections would be won by PRD and Antonio Guzmán in 1978. Guzmán, however, committed suicide in July 1982 leaving the country to go to election once again and eventually in the hands of Salvador Jorge Blanco. Yet, once again Balaguer would take power as the country descended into poverty under Blanco in 1986 and retained it until 1996.

François Duvalier “Papa Doc”

While DR had Trujillo, Balaguer, Bosch and later Balaguer again, Haiti had the Duvalier’s. François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, despite his humble beginnings, became a tyrannical dictator of the country in 1957 until 1971. Trained as a physician and later the minister of health, Papa Doc began to involve himself in politics in the 1950s while advocating for better health programs for the country. Popularly elected, Papa Doc would gain the love of the people by replacing those in power with black citizens as opposed to the mulattoes who once held the auspicious offices. So popular, would he be that the US would back him and the multiple coups d’état’s against him would fail. Yet, by 1959 people were getting a look at the real Papa Doc.

After several rigged elections, Papa Doc would finally declare himself “president for life” in 1964 and back this declaration with an army; the Tonton Macoute’s. With his army, Papa Doc ruled with an iron fist and the country descended into poverty. The Duvalier would enrich themselves by robbing the countries coffers as the people went hungry. It was also believed that Papa Doc retained power due to being a voodoo practitioner and his being protected by a voodoo god or lwa. Any who opposed him paid with their life or if they were lucky, they would be tortured into submission.

“PikiWiki Israel 136 papa doc haiti שליט האיטי פאפא דוק”” Released by Unknown Author into the public domain.
“Baby Doc (centrée)” licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

Jean-Claude Duvalier “Baby Doc”

When Papa Doc breathed his last breath in 1971, he had already installed his son as president for life. Being his father’s son, Baby Doc would rule with the backing of the Macoute’s and rob the treasury blind. The country under his rule, fell deeper into poverty to the point that discrimination and racism did not stop Haitians from crossing the border looking for work. Unknowingly, enriching the Duvalier bank accounts as they received kickbacks from the Dominican government for every laborer sent their way.

“Mother Teresa & Michèle Duvalier“ This work was first published in Haiti and is now in the public domain because its copyright protection has expired by virtue of the Decree on Copyrights of October 12, 2005

This arrangement would come to light when DR officials crossed into Haiti with $2 million cash; looking for 19,000 laborers to harvest their crops. When word leaked of this, the country took to the street enraged and uncontrollable. The angry mob created the conditions that the army had been looking for and Baby Doc went into exile on February 7th, 1986. Accompanying him was his loathed mulatto wife and his suitcase jam packed with the Dominican $2 million.

Emperor Haile Selassie I & the Rastafari

CC0 for Public Domain Dedication

Ethiopia had long been a symbol of black pride and to whom it was believed black should look too for an identity. A nation of the motherland, similar to Haiti in its fight against colonialism and oppression. Its ruler, Emperor Haile Selassie I, understood the role of not only the country but himself played in the black diaspora. Yet, it may have shocked him to see the warm welcome he received when he touched down in the Palisadoes Airport of Jamaica in 1966.

Prestige aside, Selassie was believed to be a living god to Rastafarians. Birthed in the 1930’s, Rastafarianism would become another one of the many religious born and practiced in the Caribbean. To the Rastafari, Selassie was a god and Ethiopia was the “promised land”. Though small in their following and discredited by elite classes Rastafarianism has a strong presence in Jamaica with variations of the faith cropping up across the world today.

As opposed to other religions, Rastafarianism does not have a core book, such as a bible, or a set place of worship, like a mosque, and they follow the edicts of the Old Testament in that nothing should be used to cut their hair; hence the long dreadlocks practitioners wear. However, their hair has long been a point of contention as it made them easily identifiable to those seeking to eradicate them. A governmental push that would not ease until Robert Nesta Marley reached international stardom.

Image by jackdoylelfc from Pixabay. Pixabay License. Free for commercial use. No attribution required.

Robert Nesta “Bob” Marley

Rising to fame, Bob Marley and the Wailers would take the world by storm. Through music Marley sought to bring awareness to the life of blacks, to bring peace, and upliftment. In doing so, during a politically tense time, Marley would hold his notorious One Love Peace Concert on April 22nd, 1978. With this concert he sought to stem the bloodshed throughout the country as the 1980 election neared; by this time over 800 had died. This was a world in which police and government officials lived at the whim of the local “Don’s” who controlled territories within the country. During the concert, Marley brought JLP’s Edward Seaga and PNP’s Michael Manley to the stage and held their shaking hands up in the air to a roaring crowd.

However, violence and death have woven its threads into the very fabric of everyday life. When drug deals cropped up in the 1970s and 80s, the country was more than receptive. Adding to the situation was the interference of the CIA with gun shipments as well as their involvement in ousting Manley’s government in 1976. Drugs, guns and the US had struck once again.

“Stokely Carmichael in Alabama 1966” available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

Trinidad & Black Power

Trinidad experienced unrest once more and the time period was garnished with the name ‘February Revolution’. The revolution was the outcome of: Trinidadian students who protested in their Canadian university against perceived unequal treatment in 1969, their consequent expulsion, the US Black Power movement, and Trinidad’s refusal to allow Stokely Carmichael (a native) into the country. The people’s disgruntled anger was clearly on display for the government to see on the February 1970 carnival. The celebration was attended by many dressed in politically themed costumes, which represented enslavement, Black Power, among others.

Yet, long after carnival the unrest and marching protesters still remain on the street. Having enough, prime minister Eric Williams was forced to declare a state of emergency in April 1970 and he also arrested the leadership of the countries Black Power movement. Eventually put down, the protested ended as the country’s economy took a turn for the better with oil purchasing, from Trinidad, increased. Through it all, Jamaica supported the Trinidadian protestors and were quite critical of the government.

Image by Ace Spencer from Pixabay, Pixabay License. Free for commercial use. No attribution required.

Black Power & the Caribbean

The British colony of St. Lucia hosted a Black Power meeting in 1970. Of all of the islands, the December meeting, took place in St. Lucia because it had not banned the entry of of any key Black Power figures. On the day of, only representatives from Grenada, Trinidad, Guyana, St. Vincent, and Jamaica were in attendance. While similar in its struggles for Black Power, the Caribbean was still different than the US, in that these were black nations in which they were being harassed and persecuted. There was constant fear of the movement causing unrest, such as in Trinidad, and that it had Soviet or communist tendencies.

In addition to violent repression being carried out against the proponents of Black Power, many sought to violently end Rastafarianism. In Dominica, for example, the premier, Patrick John, waged a war on the “dreads” and made it illegal for them to keep their hair long in 1974. By November of that year, he had the Black Power movement and Rastafarians labeled as communist. The local law enforcements were given a license to kill any they came across and employers could pay laborers less if they could be associated with either of the two.

Grenada & Maurice Bishop

When the British took control of Grenada, they changed the name of an existing fort to that of Fort George. It was at this fort that a plaque was placed in memoriam of the October 19th, 1983 execution of then prime minister Maurice Bishop and 15 others. Said execution shocked the Caribbean and world as all were aware of Bishop’s return to the island in 1970 and meteoric rise to power.

Bishop’s socialist beliefs were inspired by Cuba, and much to the US’s chagrin, later seeking aid from Cuba as well as the USSR. Bishop’s aligning of the countries affairs to that of the USSR and Cuba along with receiving their support of caused many to grow increasingly uneasy. However, it would not be long before infighting and strife would cause the disintegration of his party New Jewel. Fort George, having been renamed Fort Rupert, for Bishop’s dad, was taken over by the army; General Hudson Austin in particular. Yet, Bishop was freed from house arrest and along with supporters marched to take back the fort. IT was there that they were met by strong opposition and gunfire. Bishop and 15 others were taken and summarily executed. Bringing the US Marines to the island on October 25th along with soldiers from neighboring islands. The excuse given for US intervention was laughable at best and ending with 81 dead. Grenada’s unrest would finally end and with the holding of an election, the restoration of democracy would come.

“Maurice Bishop”, by David Stanley, licenced under CC BY 2.0

Unrest in Trinidad… Again

Trinidad’s prime minister, Eric Williams, had succeeded in quelling the Black Power movement in the country. Yet, his 1981 death and the subsequent governing of his party, PNM, would see the, National Alliance for Reconstruction, NAR’s Arthur Robinson win the 1986 election. However, when Robinson took power he found himself at the helm of a nation drowning in high foreign debt payments and high unemployment levels, among other issues.

Trinidad soon found itself, once again, fighting former Black Power movement members who had converted to Islam; followers of the US Nation of Islam. One such member was Lennox Phillip or Yasin Abu Bakr. He would attack radio stations and even parliament, in July 1990, making demands that would not be met as Bakr found himself with little to no support from the people. His coup would end with the freeing of hostages in August 1990. One of the participants of Bakr’s attack would later give a statement in which he clarified the point of the coup not being to loot or kill. Yet, many took this statement to mean the opposite as death and looting began throughout the country shortly thereafter.

The PNM would be restored to power in 1991, yet, not before Bakr, and his followers, was released from prison and later arrested once again as he was caught buying weapons in Miami.

“The ‘Black Power’ Salute at the 1968 Olympic Games — The National Museum of African American History and Culture (DC) 2017”, by Ron Cogswell, licenced under CC BY 2.0

Politics and Identity in the Caribbean

The 1900s were a difficult time for the Caribbean region with communism, Black Power, and British colonies being granted independence. Some Caribbean islands had to deal with embargos, assassinations, and the ramifications of their socialist or “communist” tendencies. A few dealt with the shaping of their identities following the exist of their colonial fathers. Others, were forced to deal with the imposition of an identity given to them by the US. The Caribbean had found themselves caught and embroiled in the Cold War.

“USSR Grunge Flag” by Nicolas Raymond, licenced under CC BY 2.0

Perhaps the most affected being Cuba, as the US and several Caribbean nations turned against the island nation. Then there’s the multiple failed assassinations of Fidel Castro and the transitioning of power to Raúl Castro who currently sits as the nation’s First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba.

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