This weekend in Havana, Cubans commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs invasion by the United States, choose a new Communist Party leadership, and chart a new direction for the nation’s economy.
This juxtaposition of past and future – a merging of two stories about how Cuba survived and outlasted a military threat in the last century and must now reform its economic model to continue its system in this century – frames the important news we’re reporting.
Cuba’s Communist Party meets in Havana this weekend – with approximately one thousand delegates in attendance – to ratify hundreds of reforms proposed by President Raúl Castro to address Cuba’s economic crisis.
Ratification by the Sixth Party Congress will accelerate changes in benefits, assumptions, and rules that have largely guided Cuba’s economy since 1959. As experts in Cuba and elsewhere debate whether they are far-reaching enough – or will be implemented fast enough – these reforms have unlocked an impassioned debate and unleashed great feelings of apprehension among Cubans across the island.
Three and a half years ago, on July 26, 2007, then Acting-President Raúl Castro made his first major policy speech as head of the Cuban government. In his address, Castro dissected the nation’s inability to efficiently produce and distribute milk, and used this example to expose and acknowledge the shortfalls of Cuba’s economic model. The urgency of these problems increased dramatically after hurricanes battered the island and the global economy convulsed in recession.
The process began with reforms in agriculture, followed by changes in wages, the elimination of caps and the tying of pay to productivity. Fidel Castro’s economic cabinet was sacked. A heightened crackdown on corruption took place. Spaces for entrepreneurship opened, state-run cafeterias were closed, and long-treasured benefits were eliminated.
By the end of 2010, the state announced plans for massive layoffs of state sector employees, the issuance of new licenses for 178 forms of self-employment, and the first meeting of the Communist Party Congress since 1997. The decision to hold the long-delayed Congress was accompanied by the release of a 32-page document broadly outlining proposed changes to the economic system that were debated in meetings across Cuba.
In early March, President Castro, addressing a joint meeting of his cabinet and the Council of State, insisted that the planned economic changes would “leave nobody behind.”
Over the next four days, the Party will adopt these ideas in an effort to move Cuba forward without sacrificing this aspiration, while many Cubans live more independent lives and seek their livelihoods in the emerging private economy.
As a prelude to the Party Congress, a military parade in Havana’s Revolutionary Square will mark Cuba’s victory in the Bay of Pigs, when it defeated a U.S.-backed invasion by exile forces trained and supported by the CIA.
The Bay of Pigs happened because U.S. government officials in the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations decided that the U.S. simply could not coexist with a communist Cuba, and that Fidel Castro’s government had to be overthrown.
On April 15, 1961, after more than a year of planning, eight B-26 planes carried out airstrikes designed to destroy the Cuban Air Force. The mission was not successful. Two days later, an invasion from sea followed and Cuba’s army promptly fought back in battles that killed 118 exiles, four U.S. pilots, and 176 Cuban soldiers, with 1,180 members of Brigade 2506 taken as prisoners on the island. They remained in captivity until secret negotiations undertaken by the Kennedy Administration led to the exchange of the prisoners for millions in cash and medicines.
It was, in the words of the Miami Herald, one the United States’ biggest strategic blunders. As an emblem of U.S. policy toward Cuba, it irreparably harmed our country’s reputation in Latin America. It also froze our country and Cuba into an angry rivalry that has waxed and waned but persisted for more than five decades, along with an untamed thirst among many in Washington for regime change in Havana, no matter the cost.
In fact, Members of the Senate and House paused this week to commemorate the anniversary of the invasion and to commend what they called the bravery of the veterans of Assault Brigade 2506. Senators Rubio, Menendez, Inhofe, Nelson, McCain and Lieberman introduced Senate Resolution 140 which honors the exiles who joined the invasion and calls on the United States to continue to apply the same “change-inducing pressure” against Cuba’s government that has failed in its objective for more than 50 years.
Is keeping up the pressure really the right historical lesson?
We asked several scholars to think about this anniversary, and want to share what Louis A. Pérez, Jr. of the University of North Carolina and Bill LeoGrande of American University said the Bay of Pigs meant for Cuba and means for us.
Lou Perez: The Bay of Pigs must be understood as a watershed occasion. Its political repercussions endured long after military operations ended, and indeed acted to cast the die in which Cuba-U.S. relations subsequently developed. Everything was different afterwards. By the end of April 1961 an estimated 100,000 persons were imprisoned or otherwise detained. Few suspected opponents of the government remained free. On April 16, Fidel Castro proclaimed the socialist character of the Cuban revolution. Weeks later, in “words to the intellectuals,” the Cuban leader was categorical: “Within the revolution, everything; outside the revolution, nothing.” About this time, too, plans for the installation of Soviet missiles in Cuba began to take shape. Only days after the Bay of Pigs, the National Security Council met in the White House and vowed to continue “all kinds of harassment to punish Castro for the humiliation he has brought to our door.” Thus began decades of sabotage, subversion, and sanctions.
To the extent that the United States contributed to the very conditions it professed to abhor, the Bay of Pigs must be understood as a defining moment, the point at which the call to support a government was transformed into a summons to defend the nation. The United States unwittingly challenged Cubans on the grounds that the leadership was best prepared to defend: the ideal of a nation, free and sovereign, the defense of which the Cuban leadership could claim a historic mandate to uphold–at whatever cost, and thereby setting in place the very raison d’être of the revolution. Within the context of Cuban historic sensibilities, U.S. policy not only contributed to Cuban intransigence but, more importantly, it lent credibility to that intransigence; rather than weakening Cuban resolve, it acted to bring out some of the most intransigent tendencies of Cuban leaders in the defense of some of the most exalted notions of Cuban nationality.
Bill LeoGrande: Fifty years after the Bay of Pigs invasion failed to dislodge Cuba’s revolutionary government, the United States has yet to reconcile itself to coexisting with Cuba on anything approaching normal terms. The explicit aim of U.S. policy is still to change the Cuban regime by overt economic sanctions and semi-covert “democracy promotion” programs. No other country in the world supports this policy or thinks it wise. As Cuba undertakes major economic restructuring, the United States stands on the sidelines, disengaged and increasingly irrelevant. In 1960, when U.S. Ambassador Philip Bonsal argued for negotiations with Cuba’s brash young revolutionary leaders, Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Mann rejected the idea, declaring, “Our best bet is to wait for a successor regime.” Fifty years later, Washington is still waiting.
After what happens in Havana this weekend, we will probably be waiting for a good while longer.
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