WASHINGTON — It was New Year's Day 1959, that the victorious revolutionary forces of Fidel Castro swept into power in Cuba. That was 45 years ago and today makes Mr. Castro, who was then 31 years old, the world's longest-serving dictator.
During that time, the United States has had 10 presidents: Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II. All of these except Mr. Carter tried everything they and their CIA directors could think of to bring Castro down, but to no avail. Presidents come and go; Castro is still there, and past retirement age for most people.
Carter tried a different approach, again to no avail. In the absence of diplomatic relations, he made an agreement with the Cubans that each country would maintain an interests section in the other. These interests sections would do the work ordinarily done by embassies. Their establishment was supposed to be the prelude to the reestablishment of full diplomatic relations. Alas, Carter's plan was not allowed to run its full course. Sustained by Soviet money, the Cubans sent troops to Angola to help the pro-Soviet side in that civil war. The interests sections remain, but the next step has not been taken.
Castro came to power resolved to transform Cuba and with mixed feelings toward the US. The transformation was based on a series of social reforms and welfare programs. These were startlingly successful and are a major cause of Castro's enduring popularity. They emphasized public health, education, and housing, and were carried out despite difficulties resulting from the US embargo. Public health dramatically improved. Literacy rates soared. Slums disappeared as new apartments sprang up. Huge estates were seized and divided in a land-reform program.
When Americans think about Cuban independence, they think of themselves as liberators through the 1898 war with Spain.
Cubans, on the other hand, think that that war was a way for Americans to steal the Cuban struggle for independence led by their national hero, Jose Marti. They think they would have won their independence without American help. They see their defiance of the US as an assertion of their independence.
In its early days, the Revolution had a puritanical streak. It closed the casinos, which had been a magnet for American tourists but which also brought mafia interests to the island. It suppressed prostitution. In the surviving nightclubs, it put showgirls in more modest costumes. The revolution saw these steps as necessary to end what it saw as morally corrupting influences from the US.
On the other hand, Cuba is an island of baseball fanatics, and Cubans generally yearn for the return of Americans, with Cuban-American relations on a different basis.
From the beginning, there was dispute over Castro's ties to the Soviet Union. Castro denied the existence of such ties, but took a series of steps against US business, property, and other interests in Cuba. In February 1960, President Eisenhower approved CIA training for the Cuban exiles who would eventually invade the Bay of Pigs. In November of that year, the US embargoed exports to Cuba. The embargo endures to this day. Later US efforts to tighten the noose tried to extend US law to third countries, moves that were largely ineffective.
In 1961, Castro affirmed his long-suspected ties to the Soviet Union. From then until the end of the cold war, Soviet aid to Cuba was estimated in the West to be about $3 billion to $4 billion a year. With the end of Soviet aid, Cuba instituted a dual-track economy. One track has been for tourists, mainly from Europe and Canada, spending hard currency, including dollars; the other track was for Cubans without hard currency. The hardships this causes Cubans have been somewhat alleviated by remittances from relatives among the huge Cuban population in the US.
This population is rabidly anti-Castro, and their political muscle is one of the main restraints on a rational US policy toward Cuba. The Bush administration has an ideological commitment to establishing a democratic Cuba, just as it has to establishing democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The fact is that with the single exception of the short-lived emplacement of Soviet missiles on the island, the Castro revolution has been more a nuisance than a threat to the US. As Senator Fulbright wrote to Kennedy in a memo arguing against the Bay of Pigs, Cuba is a thorn in the flesh; it is not a dagger in the heart.
• Pat M. Holt was on the staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for 29 years. He wrote the memo that Senator Fulbright gave to President Kennedy opposing the Bay of Pigs invasion.