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The Americas: Split on Castro

5 minute read

Words, bombs and bullets were the way Fidel Castro’s Communist Cuba’s presence in Latin America echoed through the hemisphere last week. The words ranged from mildly disapproving to outraged at the OAS gathering of 21 nations at Punta del Este, Uruguay. Many of the assembled diplomats were forcibly reminded of Castro’s disorganizing power back in their home territories. In Venezuela, pro-Castro violence left 32 dead, and for a time made things warm for the government of militantly anti-Castro President Rómulo Betancourt. Riots or demonstrations erupted in Brazil. Peru, Chile. Mexico and El Salvador. In La Paz. Bolivia, 33 were injured, one fatally. Said a Bolivian delegate: “If I vote for sanctions, I had better not return to La Paz, or I’ll be hung from a lamppost on arrival.”

Laughter on the Left. Heading the U.S. delegation to Punta del Este, Secretary of State Dean Rusk tried to avoid appearing the Yankee colossus by recalling his own Georgia boyhood in “what people would now call underdeveloped circumstances . . . typhoid, pellagra, hookworm and malaria were a part of the environment in which Providence had placed us.” But within a framework of democratic consent, said Rusk, an “alliance for progress” had been carried out within the U.S. And he eloquently pleaded: “Let us take action now to guard our own continent and our programs of democratic reforms against those who seek to replace democracy by dictatorship—those who would transform our fellowship of free states into the bondage of satellites.” The Cubans, led by Castro’s puppet President Osvaldo Dorticós, laughed out loud. The other 19 delegations gave Rusk a standing ovation. But though the delegates stood together to applaud in the resort’s converted gambling hall where Rusk spoke, they split into widely divergent groups in the negotiations that followed.

The U.S. had gone to Punta del Este hoping to form a solid front with the twelve other nations* that had voted to hold the conference in the first place, and that were presumably prepared to vote for the same sort of judgment handed down against the Dominican Republic of Dictator Rafael Trujillo: joint diplomatic and economic sanctions. Only one vote was necessary for the two-thirds majority of 14 needed for approval. Six† were opposed to sanctions but apparently agreeable to less drastic action. Uruguay decided to wait and see.

Violence & Votes. All faced a difficult decision. Castro no longer cuts a wide swath through Latin America, but local discontents can oft be fanned by Fidelism. Ten nations (Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Peru, Uruguay, Bolivia, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic) hold national elections this year, and this weighed in their deliberations.

The U.S. put what pressure it could on some of its reluctant allies. Among the U.S. delegates were two Senators and two Representatives, who spread the word that the U.S. Congress could hardly be expected to look favorably on Alliance aid for countries that refused to face up squarely to Castro. At times, the point was driven home too sharply for the State Department negotiators. Snapped Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Richard Goodwin to Alabama’s Democratic Representative Armistead Selden Jr.: “Have you been talking to the Argentines again?”

The presence or absence of U.S. aid plainly mattered. Chatting at a party with Dean Rusk, Uruguay’s Chief of State Victor Haedo bluntly asked: “Tell me, that aid you promised, when is it coming in?” Replied Rusk: “Very soon, Mr. President, just as soon as Congress approves it.” Haedo’s comeback was biting: “Well, then, it will be received by our grandsons.” And then there was Haiti. Shortly before the conference, Dictator François Duvalier declared that the U.S. was neglecting Haiti, had not provided enough aid. Thereupon Haiti deserted the hard-line 13 favoring sanctions, joined the six in favor of lesser chastisement—thus forming a bloc nicknamed the “outer seven.”

The Cubans moved about blaming their troubles on the U.S. One night. Castro’s President Dorticós consumed four hours (until 2 a.m.) with bitter attacks against the U.S. for using the conference “to prepare for a new military invasion of our nation,” and protestations that Cuba’s Marxist-Leninist government desires only to coexist peacefully.

Finding Words. After six days of nonstop negotiations, the go-slow “outer seven” still wanted nothing more than a condemnation of Castro’s Communism, the removal of Cuba from the Inter-American Defense Board and a ban on arms shipments. The U.S. wanted Cuba ousted from all agencies of the OAS, plus economic sanctions. The five Central American nations, represented most vociferously by Guatemala, and backed by Colombia, wanted full diplomatic and economic sanctions. As the conference went into extra hours to try to find the right words to say, Castro’s men crowed as if they had been let off lightly. Yet in the conference’s speeches and meetings, every single Latin nation joined in the condemnation of Castro’s Communist course.

* Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Venezuela.

† The big ABC of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, along with Bolivia, Ecuador, Mexico.

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