“Long ere the second centennial arrives,” Walt Whitman predicted in 1871, “there will be some forty to fifty great States,” among them Cuba. It was a common enough belief. From Thomas Jefferson onward, many Americans thought that, as Secretary of State James Blaine said in 1881, “Cuba must necessarily become American.”
Based on its current population, if the island had become a US state, it would hold about the same weight in deciding American presidential elections as does Ohio. History, of course, took a different turn; yet, over the last five decades, Cuba could still count one superdelegate.
Fidel Castro hasn’t been seen in public since July 2006, when a near-fatal stomach illness forced him into semi-retirement. In the United States, however, he remains a contender, at least in terms of the hold he has on the imagination of candidates running for the White House. Here’s a short history of Castro’s long run in US presidential politics:
John F. Kennedy, flanking his Republican opponent Vice President Richard Nixon on the right on matters of foreign policy, was the first presidential candidate to brand Fidel Castro an “enemy.” In August 1960, having just accepted the Democratic nomination, JFK told a Miami gathering of American veterans that, for the “first time in our history, an enemy stands at the throat of the United States.” The Cubans, he declared, are our “enemies and will do everything in their power to bring about our downfall.” During the campaign, he repeatedly hammered Nixon on Cuba, demanding that the Eisenhower White House cut off trade to the island and provide aid to “fighters for freedom” to overthrow Castro.
In fact, months before Kennedy’s August speech, President Dwight D. Eisenhower had already authorized the funding of a campaign of paramilitary sabotage in Cuba, as well as the training of a small army of Cuban exiles to overthrow Castro. Republicans had no problem with what today goes by the name “regime change,” having already orchestrated two successful coups–in Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954–against governments they perceived as hostile to US interests. They just preferred to do it quietly.
As Eisenhower’s vice president, Nixon was obligated not to reveal his Administration’s secret foreign policy plans, so he could only lamely respond to Kennedy’s taunts. Cuba, he insisted, was not “lost.” Nixon knew that the White House had started training Cuban exiles, and he was probably aware that the CIA was working on a plan to poison Castro’s cigars, but the Vice President could only barely allude to such knowledge, which just made him sound complacent. “The United States,” Nixon said, “has the power, and Mr. Castro knows it, to throw him out of office any day that we would choose to.”
Kennedy, of course, won the election. As president, he carried out the Republican invasion plan, the botched Bay of Pigs operation. When that failed, Kennedy authorized “Operation Mongoose,” a broad-spectrum covert operation that used sabotage, assassinations and psychological warfare in hopes of sparking an uprising against Castro. He also imposed a trade embargo on Cuba. A stickler for legality, JFK held off signing the decree cutting off trade with the island until his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, could purchase him a cache of 1,200 Petit Upmann Cuban cigars.