“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.
Castro, who by one recent count has survived more than 600 assassination attempts, never allowed a free vote in Cuba; “The revolution,” he once reportedly remarked, “has no time for elections.” But he made time for those held in the United States. In 1964, the Havana daily Revolución condemned both President Lyndon Johnson and his Republican challenger Barry Goldwater, writing that the two candidates reflected the “structural degeneration” of American democracy. But in the weeks leading to the election, Castro, fearing Goldwater’s “extremism” and convinced that Johnson would pursue a “policy of moderation,” stepped up his anti-imperialist, anti-US rhetoric, hoping to spark a backlash in the President’s favor. Johnson won in a landslide, without the need for a (back)hand from Fidel.
Decades before Willie Horton, there was Fidel Castro–and France’s president, Charles de Gaulle, whose criticism of US policies in Western Europe and its war in Vietnam had earned him the enmity of many Washington opinion-makers. Richard Nixon, this time running as the challenger against Johnson’s Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, sponsored a TV ad flashing images of those two tribunes of “anti-Americanism,” the odd-coupled “axis of evil” of that American moment, while promising that he would restore US authority at home and abroad.
The Vietnam War, and the demonstrations it provoked, dominated popular debate and Cuba played only a small role in the campaign. Still, Nixon and his running mate Spiro Agnew knew who to blame for the protests that dogged them. Agnew regularly condemned student antiwar protestors as an “effete corps of impudent snobs” who “have never done a productive thing in their lives.” He continued, “They take their tactics from Fidel Castro and their money from Daddy.” Agnew used that Castro line whenever he could as part of his pitch for the blue-collar vote. After invoking Castro to silence protesters at a Florida university event, he even suggested that student dissent was a “disease,” assuring the audience: “When Dick Nixon becomes President of these United States we are going to find that that disease comes under some kind of treatment pretty quickly.”
Impending defeat in Vietnam made talk of cooperation and compromise–not confrontation–the order of the day, as President Nixon ran for re-election on his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger’s dramatic diplomatic openings to Moscow and China. Perhaps afraid that the Kremlin leaders would cut a deal and abandon him, Castro made a number of overtures in the middle of the presidential campaign that caught the White House off guard. There was even talk of Kissinger making a “secret visit to Havana,” as he had earlier that year to Beijing. But Nixon’s powerful right wing, unable to stop the advance of Kissinger-style “appeasers” when it came to the Soviet Union, China or even Hanoi, was not about to roll over on Cuba. By now, three elections after Kennedy had first outflanked Nixon on Cuba, anti-Castroism had become a veritable obsession on the carnivalesque right where an alliance of Cuban exiles, John Birchers, Young Americans for Freedom, law-and-order anticommunists, soldier-of-fortune mercenaries and CIA spooks held sway.
So even though Nixon studiously ignored Cuba during the campaign, the far right, including National Review‘s William Buckley, began to whisper that the Democratic nominee George McGovern had actually cut a secret deal with Castro. McGovern dismissed the rumors as the work of a “bitter,” “paranoid,” and “despicable” conservative movement that wouldn’t be happy with any candidate who wasn’t to the “right of Genghis Khan.”
There was, at the time, about as much intelligence establishing a covert relationship between McGovern and Castro as there would be linking Al Qaeda to Saddam Hussein–or Barack Obama to an Islamic madrassa. Yet Nixon did try to oblige. His “plumbers”–the secret team that broke into the Democratic National Headquarters at the infamous Watergate Hotel complex–were largely made up of anti-Castro Cuban exiles. It had been organized by Bay of Pigs veteran CIA agent E. Howard Hunt, who said that one of the reasons for the burglary was to look for evidence establishing a connection between Castro and McGovern. Nixon won in a landslide, but Watergate eventually took him down.
Castro played an important role in the Republican primaries in this election. Challenged by Ronald Reagan from the right, Gerald Ford, the House majority leader who had gained the presidency when Nixon resigned, tried to act tough. He flew to Puerto Rico and told Castro to keep his hands off the American colony, but that bizarre demand had nothing on the Gipper. Before he began to criticize Ford on Cuba, Reagan was trailing by double digits in the Florida polls. But by making Castro an issue, the challenger turned the primary into a horse race, losing the state to an incumbent President by just a few points. Reagan swept Dade County and its Cuban-American vote, prompting a Ford campaign advisor to comment sardonically that his boss might as well “recognize Cuba immediately.”
“The Cuban threat is a geopolitical version of the miracle of the loaves and fishes,” noted the Washington Post–the gift that keeps giving. Reagan lost his challenge, but would be back as Ford went down to Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter.
Reagan played his Dade-County strategy large: in the Republican primaries, he called for a blockade of Cuba in retaliation for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which made about as much sense as attacking Iraq in response to 9/11. His main opponent, ex-CIA director George H.W. Bush, called Reagan’s proposal a “macho thing,” pointing out that “Cuba didn’t invade Afghanistan.” But such a fact-based campaign position was a nonstarter. After Reagan beat Bush 2 to 1 in the Florida primary on his march to the nomination, Bush, signing on to the ticket as Vice President, made his peace with Reagan’s voodoo diplomacy. In the election campaign, Castro–perhaps forgetting the reverse psychology he had applied in 1964–praised President Carter for supplying financial aid to Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinistas and called Reagan a “threat to world peace.” Reagan, of course, took Florida in the general election and trounced Carter. As his cabinet was getting settled in the White House, Secretary of State Alexander Haig told his boss, “You just give me the word and I’ll turn that fucking island into a parking lot.” Reagan demurred, choosing to take the far smaller, more defenseless Caribbean island of Grenada instead–and sparing Cuba for his next and last presidential campaign.
Reagan accused Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale of neither rejecting nor denouncing Jessie Jackson for–as a candidate for the Democratic nomination–having visited Havana and, according to Reagan, having “stood with Fidel Castro and cried: ‘Long Live Cuba.’ ‘Long Live Castro.’ ‘Long Live Che Guevara.’ ” (What Reagan didn’t say was that Jackson had used the visit to negotiate the release of several political prisoners and that he had also shouted Vivas to the United States, as well as to Martin Luther King Jr.) “I don’t admire Fidel Castro at all,” Mondale responded, “but Jesse Jackson is an independent person. I don’t control him.” In November, Reagan won every state except Minnesota.
Vice President George H.W. Bush invoked the possibility of a nuclear attack from Cuba to justify his support for Reagan’s much ridiculed Star Wars anti-missile defense system, but he didn’t need Castro to take out the inept Democratic Candidate Michael Dukakis and win the presidency. Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s astrologer, Jeane Dixon, did predict that a crisis in Cuba during Bush’s first summer in office would give the new President a chance to move out of Reagan’s shadow and “consolidate his nation’s confidence.”
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, many observers thought the time was finally opportune to normalize relations with Havana. But Florida has more than twenty votes in the Electoral College, and Miami’s Cuban exiles–about 600,000 (out of a state population of just over 800,000) live in crucial Dade County–remained a powerful domestic lobby. Touched by the spirit of JFK, challenger Bill Clinton headed for Miami in April 1992 to excoriate George H.W. Bush for not “dropping the hammer down on Castro and Cuba.” Clinton even endorsed the punitive Cuban Democracy Act, which Bush (finding himself outflanked to his vulnerable right) signed shortly thereafter. Along with subsequent legislation that Clinton as President would back, the Act tightened Washington’s long-standing embargo on Cuban trade. This only served to cut Washington out of what would be the island’s post-cold war political and economic opening to the rest of the world. Clinton took 20 percent of Florida’s Cuban-Americans, lost the state to George H.W. Bush, but won the White House.
Clinton, as President, stayed on point against Republican challenger Robert Dole, running to his right on Cuba, though he did admit in a TV debate that “nobody in the world agrees with our policy on Cuba now.” During his first term, Clinton had drawn close to Miami’s anti-Castro Cuban lobby, taking political advice from Hillary Clinton’s Cuban-immigrant sister-in-law, María Victoria Arias. This time, Florida was his and he doubled his percentage of Cuban-American votes.
In October, by a vote of 86 to 8, the Senate passed legislation easing the embargo, allowing food to be sold to Cuba. Castro criticized the legislation for being paternalistic and not going far enough in normalizing commercial relations. George W. Bush condemned it. Al Gore refused to comment. Angry at Janet Reno’s return of Elián González, the young Cuban refugee rescued by fishermen after most of his companions including his mother drowned trying to make it to the United States, Florida’s Cuban-Americans abandoned the Democratic Party en masse in November. Along with Naderites and Palm Beach Jews-for-Buchanan, Bush got just enough votes to deadlock the election. Castro offered to send observers to oversee a recount.
During a visit to Brazil in October, Secretary of State Colin Powell made an offhand remark that Cuba was no longer a major threat to Latin America. “We don’t see everything through the lens of Fidel Castro,” he said. John Kerry thought he saw an opening and pounced. He claimed he found it “shocking that the Bush Administration is telling the world that Fidel Castro no longer poses a problem for this hemisphere.” Perhaps after a mere forty-four years and twelve presidential elections, the Castro bounce was wearing off. Bush won Florida with a million more votes than he had received four years earlier.
This, his thirteenth, will most likely be Castro’s last presidential election. After a photo surfaced indicating that one of Barack Obama’s Texas volunteers (who is Cuban-American) had hung a Cuban flag superimposed with an image of Che on a wall behind her desk, the conservative blogosphere right-clicked a collective ah hah! Considering the temptation of Democratic candidates to call for a hard line against Cuba as a low-cost, high-return way of establishing their national-security creds, the Obama campaign responded with remarkable restraint, simply terming the flag “inappropriate.” Hillary Clinton, looking more like the hapless Kerry than the wily Bill, promptly attacked Obama for saying that he would meet with the ailing revolutionary. “We’re not going to just have our President meet with Fidel Castro,” she said, “I don’t want to be used for propaganda purposes.”
It’s been nearly fifty years since Richard Nixon said that the United States could get rid of Fidel Castro whenever it wanted. Castro, of course, is still around, though not for lack of effort on Washington’s part. The Cuban government calculates that some 3,500 Cubans have died over the past five decades as a result of US-supported paramilitary operations against the island. In recent years, Castro’s continued survival, not to mention the disaster in Iraq, may have forced on our policymakers a somewhat more modest appreciation of Washington’s ability to bring about regime change.
Still, the Castro factor has yet to disappear. John McCain recently called on his supporters to sign an online petition to “stop the dictators of Latin America,” though he didn’t say exactly whom such a petition should be delivered to. It has since been removed from his campaign’s webpage. The dictators in question apparently include Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia as well as Castro. “They inspire each other,” McCain told a gathering of Bay of Pigs veterans in Miami’s Little Havana. “They assist each other. They get ideas from each other. It’s very disturbing.”
Last month, Castro announced that he would not seek reelection as Cuba’s president. But that hasn’t stopped him from weighing in on the contest in the United States, predicting that a Clinton-Obama ticket would be “unbeatable.” “Will Castro’s nod to Hillary and Obama,” ran a Fox News header reporting the endorsement, “help or hurt?” Why won’t the Democrats, asked one of the show’s guests, “call him a dictator?” And so the beat, however faint, goes on.