10 Presidents, One Dictator: U.S.-Cuba Policy Fidel Castro took power in Cuba in 1959, at the height of the Cold War and the peak of U.S. concern over communism. Follow Washington's policy toward Cuba through 10 U.S. presidencies.

10 Presidents, One Dictator: U.S.-Cuba Policy

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

The people of Cuba are waiting for more news on the condition of Fidel Castro, who, after surgery this week, delegated governing authority to his brother, Raul. President Bush yesterday addressed the prospect of a transfer of power in Cuba, urging people on the island to, quote, work for democratic change. Mr. Bush is the tenth U.S. president to deal with Fidel Castro, and the Cuban leader has been a headache for them all.

NPR's Tom Gjelten has this look back.

TOM GJELTEN reporting:

Fidel Castro took power in 1959, at the height of the Cold War. Though he insisted he was not a Communist, Castro moved sharply to the left once he was in power. By the fall of 1960, thousands of Cubans had fled to the United States, fearful, they said, that Castro was in fact establishing a Communist dictatorship in Cuba. They asked the United States to help them overthrow Castro. John Kennedy, running for president against Vice President Richard Nixon, said the United States should support the exiles. That brought this response from Nixon during a candidate's debate.

President RICHARD NIXON: I don't know what Senator Kennedy suggests when he says that we should help those who oppose the Castro regime. But I do know this, that if we were to follow that recommendation, that we would lose all of our friends in Latin America, we would probably be condemned in the United Nations, and we would not accomplish our objective. I know something else. It would be an open invitation for Mr. Khrushchev to come in.

GJELTEN: In fact, Nixon was already working with the CIA on a Cuba invasion plan. He just didn't want to make it known. Kennedy won the election, and three months after taking office he authorized the Bay of Pigs operation. Nixon, however, had gotten it right. The invasion failed, it was condemned by governments around the world, and Fidel Castro cited the threat of another invasion in convincing Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to put nuclear missiles in Cuba aimed at the United States. Kennedy broke the news to Americans in a televised speech in October, 1962.

President JOHN F. KENNEDY: Good evening, my fellow citizens. This government, as promised, has maintained the closest surveillance of the Soviet military build-up on the island of Cuba. Within the past week, unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive missile sites is now in preparation on that imprisoned island.

GJELTEN: Two global adversaries, each capable of blowing the other off the map, faced off in what was arguably the most dangerous moment in history. Khrushchev backed down, in part because Kennedy promised there would be no more U.S. attempts to invade Cuba. But in the months that followed, Kennedy ordered the CIA to support those exiles who were ready to go back to Cuba themselves and fight the Castro regime.

Mr. ALFREDO DURAN (Bay of Pigs Operative): In Miami at that time there was a CIA person recruiting people in every corner of Miami.

GJELTEN: Alfredo Duran fought in the Bay of Pigs and observed other CIA-led efforts against Castro. John Kennedy was assassinated in November, 1963, but covert anti-Castro operations continued under Lyndon Johnson.

Mr. DURAN: President Johnson kept open the camps in Guatemala and Nicaragua up until the end. They were doing raids in Cuba, they sank a couple of oil ships, they attacked the refinery in Santiago de Cuba. And it was a huge operation. It was called Operation Mongoose.

GJELTEN: It was Richard Nixon who finally abandoned all such efforts. He turned his attention to the war in Vietnam. Cuba was largely forgotten.

Gerald Ford made a tentative move toward improving relations with Cuba, but that effort ended after Castro sent Cuban troops to Angola.

Jimmy Carter had a similar experience when he made a move towards rapprochement with Cuba. Robert Pastor was the Latin America specialist on Jimmy Carter's White House staff.

Mr. ROBERT PASTOR (Advisor to Jimmy Carter): We had warned Fidel, indeed, I personally had met with him to communicate the warning that any further military intervention on Cuba's part in Africa would make it impossible for us to move forward on normalization of relations. And that's, of course, exactly what happened.

GJELTEN: This time, Castro dispatched 20,000 Cuban troops to Ethiopia. In the spring of 1980, Fidel Castro sprung another surprise on Carter, suddenly telling Cubans they were free to leave for the United States if they wanted to. Cuban exiles in Florida immediately chartered boats to pick up relatives and friends in Cuba, mostly at the Port of Mariel.

After more than 100,000 Cubans were brought to Florida, Carter said enough was enough.

President JIMMY CARTER: The Coast Guard is now communicating with all boats who are en route to Cuba and those in Mariel Harbor in Cuba, to urge them to return to the United States without accepting additional passengers.

GJELTEN: But the exodus continued, and soon the United States was overwhelmed. Again, Robert Pastor of Carter's White House staff.

Mr. PASTOR: At one point we were even considering intervening in Cuba. And that's where relations ended up, with the end of the Mariel crisis in late September of 1980, and of course the election of Ronald Reagan, which threw the relationship even into a deeper cellar.

GJELTEN: Ronald Reagan took office determined to oppose the Soviet Union and its global empire. In his view, Cuba was supporting pro-Communist groups in Central America. It may have been too late to get rid of Castro, but Reagan wanted to be sure Castro would not establish any more Cubas in the U.S. backyard.

President RONALD REAGAN: Sadly we must acknowledge that Cuba is no longer independent. But let me assure you, we will not let this same fate befall others in the hemisphere. We will not permit the Soviets and their henchmen in Havana to deprive others of their freedom.

GJELTEN: Cuba's role as a Soviet proxy would end, however. The collapse of Communism brought an end to the $6 billion a year Soviet subsidy to Cuba. Peace, meanwhile, came to Central America.

By the early 1990s, Fidel Castro was struggling just to survive, his island nation going through a deep economic crisis. With unrest rising on the island, Castro again gave a green light to Cubans to leave the island, this time on whatever rickety boats they could find. Once more, a U.S. president faced the prospect of a destabilizing in-flow of Cuban refugees. This time, it was Bill Clinton.

President BILL CLINTON: Let me be clear. The Cuban government will not succeed in any attempt to dictate American immigration policy.

GJELTEN: Clinton ordered the U.S. Coast Guard to stop Cuban refugees at sea before they reached U.S. shores. Fidel Castro's Cuba now represented a different kind of security threat. The U.S. military, having once trained exiles to take up arms against Fidel Castro, now feared a violent revolution in Cuba, thinking it would provoke mass unrest and prompt another refugee outflow.

The new U.S. goal was to promote peaceful change on the island. Clinton, like Presidents Carter and Ford 20 years earlier, took steps to improve relations with Cuba, but again a provocative act by Fidel Castro derailed the effort. This time he ordered Cuban fighters to shoot down two small aircraft flown by Cuban-Americans off the Cuban coast. In retaliation, Clinton tightened the Cuba trade embargo.

Next came George W. Bush, owing his election in 2000 to a contested vote in Florida. There, an influential Cuban-American community would support whoever took the toughest stand against Fidel Castro. For the most part, George Bush complied, tightening the embargo yet again.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Without political reform, without economic reform, trade with Cuba will merely enrich Fidel Castro and his cronies.

(Soundbite of applause)

GJELTEN: The Bush administration has made it official U.S. policy to promote a regime change in Cuba, but after 47 years, the U.S. government had long since given up on removing Fidel Castro from power by force of arms. The only option was to wait for what U.S. officials euphemistically called the biological solution to their long-standing problem with Fidel Castro. They would just wait for him to die.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.


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