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'Castro Is Not a Communist or a Dupe'

How The Atlantic processed the Cuban Revolution in 1959


New Year’s resolutions are common. New Year’s revolutions, less so. More than five and a half decades ago, on January 1, 1959, Cuban President Fulgencio Batista resigned, fled the country, and left Fidel Castro and his revolutionary forces in charge. At the end of the year, The Atlantic published a report on the Cuban Revolution—a reminder of how different events can look in the moment compared with five, 10, or 50 years later.

When Cuba and the United States announced plans to normalize relations earlier this month, most Americans looked favorably on the deal as the death knell to a self-defeating policy; others saw it as a capitulation to communism and a victory for one-party government. But in December 1959, The Atlantic’s report was more concerned with Batista’s abuses than Castro’s.

“The Cubans never have had workable self-government,” it notes. “They record as benefactors tyrants who build roads and steal about half the public funds. … Batista’s bullies tortured, mutilated, and murdered in a regime imposed on Cuba by the army.”

Castro, on the other hand, appears as a scrappy underdog who succeeded with a group of “ridiculous forces” in a victory that was “difficult to comprehend.” The description of Batista’s defeat brings to mind more recent U.S. foreign-policy setbacks:

Cuba’s military forces were armed and trained by an expert United States military mission suffering from only one professional ailment—the inability or unwillingness to see that your army can be licked by their militia.

This was written before the new Cuban government signed a trade treaty with the Soviet Union, and well before the United States broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba. Although the authors recognize growing anti-Americanism on the island, pointing to Castro’s mistreatment of American officials, executions of political opponents, and susceptibility to communist influences as reasons for tension between the nations, Cuba’s future is still cast as unclear:

There is abundant evidence, however, that Fidel Castro never has been and is not a Communist or a dupe, although his brother, Raul, and his Argentine associate, Ernesto Guevara, may be secret members of the party.

The report ends with a recommendation for U.S.-Cuban relations:

For sixty years our association has been close; in the jet age, it is connubial. We have ruled out armed intervention in Cuba, a right we once reserved exclusively for ourselves. Only cooperation can replace the marines. If the Communists are tricking Fidel Castro, he must be made to see it.

Plenty of predictions for 2015 will seem brilliant in the future. Plenty won’t. You can read the full report below.