Category: Mike Scruggs' Column

Briefing and Personal Notes on Cuba

Cuban National Flag 1478Between 1953 and 1957, when I was attending College Park High School near Atlanta, my father was a Flight Superintendent for Delta Airlines and made regular trips to Havana and Caracas to make sure everything needed for operating flights and supporting flight crews was running smoothly. When in Havana, he usually stayed where the Delta flight crews stayed, at the large and luxurious hotels of Havana. He often brought back postcards and photos. They made a strong impression on me as the ultimate enjoyment of beauty and prosperity. That beauty and prosperity would soon crumble under Communist mismanagement and cruel tyrannies.

Some of my church friends attended nearby Georgia Military Academy (GMA), where many Cuban boys from wealthy families lived on campus. I saw them almost every Saturday, when we rode the bus to Atlanta for movies, lunch, shopping, and sightseeing. It was safe to do back then. I often wonder now how many of them survived Castro’s revolution starting in January 1959.  

A girl friend later told me that she had been on a cruise with family and church friends that stopped for a few days in Havana in the summer of 1959. They probably stayed in the same posh hotels my father did. She told me she was scared to death. Castro’s men were all over the place in their army fatigues and looked very menacing with their sub-machine guns and machetes. When she arrived home, newspapers told of a man shot dead by Castro agents at a baseball game. This was apparently one of Castro’s thousands of extrajudicial executions—somewhere between 4,000 and 20,000 

Many of the newspapers were painting Castro as a romantic freedom fighter and featured a couple of articles about Georgia Tech boys planning to join the heroic rebel forces. It seemed only Senator Kenneth Keating, New York Republican (1959-1965), had the measure of Castro and his militant revolutionaries. Castro quickly announced his alignment with the Soviet Union, and the Eisenhower administration knew this was a serious threat to U.S. national security.

Cuba’s population is estimated to be about 11.2 million. There are nearly 2.4 million Cuban Americans of which 70 percent live in Florida and are concentrated in South Florida.

In March 1960, President Eisenhower authorized the CIA to use $13 million against Castro. The plans came to fruition on April 17, 1961, under President Kennedy when a brigade of 1,400 Cuban exiles supported by eight B-26 bombers attempted to establish an invasion foothold at the Bay of Pigs in southwestern Cuba. President Kennedy, however, withdrew further support under international pressure, and the invasion collapsed on April 20.

I later flew the B-26 in 1966-1967 during the Vietnam War.  

Kennedy’s lack of resolve under international pressure probably encouraged the Soviet Union’s movement of nuclear-capable medium range missiles and anti-aircraft missiles to Cuba. The result was the Cuban Missile Crisis from October 16 to October 28, 1962. This time, Kennedy acted with courageous resolve and established a naval blockade against further Soviet missiles, arms, and troops entering Cuba.  I was personally involved as an Air Force photo-radar intelligence officer at Strategic Air Command headquarters near Omaha, helping to identify missile site construction and missiles and tracking reconnaissance results. The world held its breath in this confrontation that could have resulted in nuclear war.  Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev backed down, and all missiles were removed, but the U.S. had to remove its own missile installations near the Russian border in Turkey.

Cuba was inhabited by Amerindian tribes before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492. Columbus was an Italian explorer under the sponsorship of the Spanish Crown, which placed Cuba under Spanish governors. Cuba was briefly occupied by the British in 1762 and 1763 but traded it back to Spain in exchange for Florida. From 1803 to 1849 various American presidents considered annexing Cuba.

Beginning about 1890, with the encouragement of New York newspapers, Americans began to sympathize with Cuban rebels against alleged tyranny and atrocities by the Spanish government.  By 1895, open warfare was also threatening American sugar and other commercial interests, as well as the safety of Americans living in Havana.  In the last week of January 1898, the U.S. Battleship Maine was sent to Havana to assure economic and political stability and protect American property and lives. At anchor in the Havana harbor, a huge explosion—still unexplained today—sank the USS Maine, killing 268 crewmembers of nearly 400.

President William McKinley could not stop Congress from declaring war on Spain to liberate Cuba.  On April 11, McKinley asked Congress to authorize funds and troops to end the civil war in Cuba. The next day, the House voted 311 to 6 and the Senate 42 to 35 to support Cuban independence and disclaimed any future intention to annex Cuba and to use as much force as necessary to assure that the island of Cuba is by right free and independent. They also passed a resolution unanimously confirming that U.S. troops should be removed as soon as the war was over. After an ultimatum was forwarded to Spain, war was officially declared on April 21, 1898. The war ended on August 12, and U.S occupation ended on May 20, 1902, when Cuba became an independent Republic. But Guantanamo Bay at the southeast end of Cuba was leased to the United States for a Naval Base and prison. The present Cuban government does not recognize the lease.

U.S. military forces, however, have occupied key areas of Cuba on three occasions from 1906 to 1922. From 1906 to 1909, U.S. military forces were in Cuba to support the government after a disputed election, in 1912 to support the Cuban government against an African-Cuban rebellion in eastern Cuba, and in 1917 to 1922, the so-called sugar intervention, supporting Cuba as an ally against Germany in World War I and to protect U.S. and Allied sugar interests.  

Although Cuba was prosperous, its democratic institutions were not stable, and many men elected as democratic reform presidents became corrupt and then dictatorial.

In September 1933, Fulgencio Batista was a sergeant in the Cuban Army, when a group of Army NCOs were able to overthrow the corrupt and dictatorial regime of President Gerardo Machado and his provisional successor Carlos Manuel de Céspedes. Batista became the de factor leader of Cuba and was elected President of Cuba from 1940 to 1944. He established a progressive Constitution and governed effectively but built his power base by patronage.  Batista ran for President again in 1952 against incumbent President Carlos Prio. Prio appeared cordial and moderate on the surface, but his regime was marked by political violence and suspected corruption. Three months before the election, Batista used the army and police to take over key government installations and radio and television stations.  Prio fled the country, and Batista declared himself President and suspended the Constitution.  The Batista government was immediately recognized by the Eisenhower administration,

Batista continued with efficient and relatively stable government but characterized by enormous patronage deals, which included many U.S. businesses corporations. Batista also brought in huge gambling interests, which further expanded corruption and opportunities for political self-enrichment. He also began to use harsh state police tactics against his political enemies.

 Cuba, however, had well educated people, many natural and agricultural resources, abundant natural beauty, and easy access to the largest economic and tourist market in the world. The economy was relatively free, and Cuba prospered enormously.   

Before the 1959 Communist revolution and dictatorship of Fidel Castro, Cuba was one of the richest countries in Latin America. In fact, it was the eighth most developed country in the world with a GDP the size of Italy, which is over five times larger in population.  In 1958, Cuban per capita income was double that of Spain and Japan. It had over 6,000 doctors, one of the highest per capita rates in the world, but half of those doctors fled Cuba after the revolution. Ten percent of Cuba’s population fled to the U.S. and other countries in the next three decades. About 33 percent of the Cuban economy was being subsidized by the Soviet Union until it collapsed in 1991.

Fidel Castro died in 2016 at the age of 90. The personal wealth of this revolutionary Communist has been estimated at $900 million. Guy Milliere, writing for the Gatestone Institute on July 25, summed up the impact of Castro’s 1959 Communist revolution on ordinary Cubans:

“The Cuban economy was rapidly destroyed. All businesses, until recently, have been state-owned. Wages in Cuba are abysmal; the population is effectively destitute. The average monthly salary in 2015 was $18.66. Persecution, imprisonment, and torture of anyone who dares to criticize the regime are routine. Hundreds of thousands of Cubans have passed through Cuba's reeducation camps since 1959. More than 15,000 Cubans have been executed by firing squad. The health system is good for members of the regime and for medical tourists who pay in American dollars, but in a sordid state for ordinary Cubans.

The official economic statistics released by Cuba’s Marxist government indicate everything is just fine. But the people are destitute and in revolt. The Cuban medical paradise is also the hardest hit by Covid of any Latin American country. Another Gatestone article by Con Coughlin on July 22 sums up the situation.

“The autocratic regime of Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel may be totally incapable of meeting even the basic needs of its citizens but, as the ruthless crackdown against the protesters has shown, it still understands how to intimidate its restless population.”

Cuba’s active military forces number about 61,000, but it has nearly 1.2 million paramilitary and police forces to enforce the will of the regime. The fellow-Marxist Obama/Biden regime are giving only lip service support to the destitute and oppressed Cuban people, discouraging them from fleeing Cuba—Past Cuban refugees tend to vote Republican.

But Cuba should be free.

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