Paterson, Thomas. Contesting Castro. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
How did a superpower such as the United States allow a communist revolution to succeed within one of its own client countries, ninety miles from its own border, in the middle of the Cold War? Thomas Paterson, in his work Contesting Castro, attempts to answer this question by combining a narrative of revolutionary events with an analysis of the United States’ Cuban policy during the tumultuous years of 1958-59. Paterson cites three crucial factors that led to the toppling of Batista’s dictatorial regime: Batista himself lacked public support in his own country; Fidel Castro expertly swayed public opinion at home and abroad in his favor; and the United States’ Cuban ambassadors and members of the Eisenhower administration proved too stubborn, inept and preoccupied to expend the necessary energy and resources to neutralize Castro’s rebel movement.
The military dictator Fulgencio Batista took power in Cuba through a United States’ supported coup in 1934. In return for allowing rampant American foreign investment in the Cuban economy—including many Mafia-owned casinos, American monopolies on public utilities, and the American-owned United Fruit Company, to name but a few—the United States supplied Batista with a steady stream of arms with which to combat domestic dissidents. Batista pursued this task with gusto, often censoring the press, kidnapping and executing political oppositionists, and running an overall brutal and oppressive regime. In addition, Batista amassed substantial wealth from his corrupt dealings with U.S. executives and Mafiosos, cash which he failed to invest back into the domestic economy. Because of these close ties between Batista and the United States, many Cubans came to associate Batista’s corruption and violence with the United States’ growing influence in the country.
Despite this political alliance, the United States ceased their weapons shipments soon after the revolutionary guerillas landed in Cuba. Although the U.S. government maintained their support for Batista’s government, many Cuban exiles living in the United States turned the prevailing public opinion—in both Cuba and in the U.S.—against Batista’s violent regime. For its part, the U.S. government still believed Batista to be capable of easily defeating the rebels without further weapons imports. Batista’s increasingly brutal methods of dealing with the revolutionaries, however, soon undermined U.S. support for his regime. The United States began to see Castro as a possible improvement over Batista, not least of which because Castro repeatedly denied that he was in any way a communist. Castro also assured the U.S. government that he would maintain the countries’ diplomatic relations once he succeeded. All of these events led the United States to adopt a more detached position regarding revolutionary events; though to be sure it continued to offer Batista behind-the-scenes support.
It became increasingly evident to U.S. politicians, however, that Batista lacked the necessary support and the military power to defeat the insurgents, and that Castro was not as pro-American as many observers had assumed. As Castro’s forces won battle after battle, his army gained more converts daily. Once the United States realized that Batista would surely fall, it began to concoct a scheme of putting a third party in power. The U.S. government wanted to install a leader who was moderately reformist, yet still guaranteed protection of American investments in Cuba. By this time, however, Castro’s propaganda and Batista’s cruelties had inextricably linked political corruption to United States influence in the minds of the people. As a result, the U.S. failed to find any third party which both stayed loyal to U.S. interests and enjoyed widespread—or even partial—public support. While U.S. officials wasted their time searching for this ideal candidate, Castro seized the opportunity of a weakened Batista to make his march across and Cuba into Havana, ending the revolution. It was only after Castro spent a considerable amount of time in power that he finally declared his communist intentions. By this time, however, the United States had missed its chance to intervene militarily. Castro soon allied himself with the Soviet Union, thus rendering direct U.S. military intervention too dangerous to world stability.
Interwoven throughout Paterson’s analysis is the gripping narrative of the revolutionary drama itself. He provides background information for all the major actors in the story, as well as fascinating vignettes about mafia dealings in Havana (apparently the corrupt executives of the United Telephone & Telegraph company really did reward Batista by presenting him with a solid gold telephone). Paterson also challenges the prevailing historiographical argument that the United States was only a passive observer throughout the revolution. Although the U.S. did cease military shipments to Batista, Paterson claims that it simply downplayed its support by shifting to more subtle methods—such as sending CIA operatives into Cuba to boost public opinion of the United States. Overall, Paterson’s argument is as clear and convincing as his prose are elegant. Contesting Castro provides the general reader with an overall account of the unfolding of the revolution and a lucid analysis of America’s response to it.