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CUBA: The End of Patience

5 minute read

Twelve hours after Vice President Richard Nixon promised the American Legion convention in Miami a “quarantine” of Cuba, Washington last week slapped Havana with the most severe trade embargo imposed on any nation except Red China. Under penalty of a $10,000 fine and ten years’ imprisonment, the U.S. barred from Cuba, which traditionally buys 70% of its foreign goods in the U.S., two-thirds of all American imports. Only medicines and nonsubsidized foods, such as canned goods, may still be shipped. Prohibited were machinery and parts, including autos and trucks (worth $27 million in 1959), industrial machinery ($18 million), electrical machinery ($27.3 million), in effect all the cogs and -wheels essential to keep Cuba’s U.S.-oriented machinery running.

Though the embargo would undoubtedly evoke more Cuban cries of “economic aggression,” the U.S. explained that it was acting in self-defense “against the discriminatory, aggressive and injurious economic policies of the Castro regime” and cited a painful history of examples: outrageous taxes and surcharges on U.S. goods, seizure of U.S.-owned property, nonpayment of overdue bills for previous imports. To those who argued that the move would drive Cuba even deeper into the Soviet camp, Commerce Secretary Frederick H. Mueller had a crisp reply: “Too bad. After all, we’ve been the ones who’ve been pushed around lately.”

Private Support. As Washington admitted, the embargo would only “harass” Castro, it would not topple him. Tipped off by repeated leaks, the Cubans had anticipated the move, had rushed in shiploads of spark plugs, carburetors, fuel pumps and other auto parts, quantities of tin plate, newsprint and chemicals, oil refining and agricultural machinery. While Washington planned to police U.S. shippers to see that they did not transship to Cuba via neutral nations, it had no plans to pressure neutral governments to prohibit such transshipments. Major Latin American governments privately accepted the U.S. move, but, as the U.S. knew, the hemisphere chiefs of state would be wary to do so publicly, fearing Castro’s popularity among their own people.

Western European nations were fully prepared to fill the Cuban trade gap—and reap the rewards. As overall U.S. trade with Cuba fell 20% to $435 million in 1959, British exports to that country rose 68% to $42 million, with most of the increase in machinery. And Canada’s Prime Minister John Diefenbaker made his nation’s position crystal clear: business as usual (see below).

Cash Before Carry. What will hurt Cubans more than the embargo is their lack of ready cash. Britain, Canada and other prospective suppliers would expect prompt payment. Last week Economic Czar Ernesto (“Che”) Guevara admitted that there was little cash left.

Before he left for Moscow to sign further deals with the Reds (Castro already has barter agreements with seven Soviet-bloc nations), Guevara went on TV and rendered a treasurer’s report written in double red ink. He acknowledged that foreign exchange reserves had fallen from $214 million to $170 million and would probably fall to $100 million by year’s end. He warned that “we shall have to look for substitutes” but promised Cubans that the Communist bloc’s “perfect planning” would see them through. “Che” might well bring back more big machinery from the East, but he could not deliver the washing machines, refrigerators and air conditioners that Cubans have learned to regard as necessities. Last week Castro propagandists put on a show of defiance, crying: “War to the death against the Yankee imperialists!” But it would take more than propaganda to erase Cuban memories of the good life.

The week produced other thrusts between the U.S. and Cuba. In Washington, Cuba withdrew from the null Bank. At the U.N., Foreign Minister Raúl Roa asked for immediate consideration of an alleged plot by the “Pentagon and U.S. monopolies” to launch a “large-scale invasion” of Cuba “within the next few days.” Roa cited an alleged arms drop on Sept. 29 at 2 a.m. on the slopes of the guerrilla-speckled Escambray hills “by a four-motored aircraft of U.S. registry coming from the U.S. and piloted by U.S. airmen.”

Painted Incident. Amidst the break down, U.S. Ambassador Philip W. Bonsal, who for 21 months tried unsuccessfully to practice his expert brand of patient, quiet diplomacy, was recalled to Washington for “an extended period of consultation,” leaving U.S. affairs in the hands of Chargé Daniel Braddock. Chances are that Bonsai will not return. With Cuba’s Washington embassy also headed by a charge, diplomacy between the two nations will become as difficult as commerce.

What would be Castro’s next move? He could 1) make a formal demand, perhaps through the World Court, that the U.S. evacuate the Guantanamo Naval Base (which last week beefed up its Marine contingent); 2) confiscate the remaining $250 million in U.S. businesses, including branches of Sears, Roebuck and Woolworth, Westinghouse and General Electric; 3) break off diplomatic relations entirely; 4) stage an “incident” to prove U.S. aggression. At week’s end the U.S. sent a curt note to Havana protesting that five Castro airforce planes were being painted over with U.S. insignia at San Antonio de los Banos airbase near Havana. With the blue-and-white U.S. star on wings and fuselage, the planes could easily create the incident Castro wants.


Arrested last week on charges of secretly sending arms to the anti-Castro rebels in the Sierra Escambray: Major William A. Morgan, 32, the Cuban Army’s highest-ranking American. Adventurer Morgan, a onetime U.S. paratrooper who drifted into Cuba to avenge a friend killed by Batista cops, fought in the second front of Escambray, but clashed with “Che” Guevara and was eventually retired to a frog farm outside Havana. Back in favor briefly last year for enticing Dominican invaders into a trap, Morgan, though now a Cuban citizen, could never overcome his twin handicaps: being an American and an avowed antiCommunist.

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