When Lenin died, Joseph Stalin took the reins. Now Stalin, despite having a fabulous moustache, was not a nice man. At all. He purged the party of his opponents, filled up the labour camps, shot, terrorised and exiled millions of figures who looked like they may, or might have been thinking about becoming, an enemy of the state. Stalin led the Soviet Union in the post-World War II era and as the world sorted itself out the country emerged, alongside the United States, as a bristly superpower. Relations between the two superpowers, having started off frosty, quickly iced over into a full blown cold war that set the two on a collision course that years later, after Stalin’s death, became so taut they very nearly snapped with near world-ending consequences. The spark to this ideological set-to happened not in Moscow or Washington though, but in Cuba – an island of rum, salsa and more importantly, a location that brought the U.S of A into nuclear missile range. Hence the problem. First, though, came the ill-conceived invasion of the Bay of the Pigs.
Cuba, at the time, was in the grip of Fidel Castro a wilful ex-lawyer turned red-blooded revolutionary. Castro had seized power after overthrowing Fulgencio Batista, himself a lively sort, who had installed himself in power. Batista, however, misjudged the local mood somewhat by introducing a new system of government which he described as “disciplined democracy”. Disciplined democracy turned out to be not too dissimilar to a one-man dictatorship which unsurprisingly didn’t sit well with a country with a taste for revolution. Batista eventually fled Cuba with a $300m nest-egg piffled from state coffers and Castro installed himself as Prime Minister, announcing a new era of “direct democracy” inviting Cubans to gather in public demonstrations and engage with him personally on any gripes they may have. The absence of any elections caused critics to suggest the new regime was decidedly un-democratic, a suggestion which even Fidel’s mother would have to go along with, given it was about as democratic as a turkey farm at Christmas.
Tensions with the US really got going rhough, after Castro’s government lurched left and started rounding up and executing many of the figures who had bloodied their hands on his predecessor’s watch. This was popular with Cubans, less so with the international media – particularly in the US – who reckoned vengeance, rather than justice, was the order of the day. Castro politely suggested that there was no room for legal precepts in revolutionary justice as it was all a bit more touchy-feely; a bit more whimsical. A bit more of what he thought best. With his socialist colours now flying at full mast Castro then told the country’s oil refineries, which were owned by the likes of Esso and Shell, to start buying their oil from Mother Russia. The companies refused. So Castro nationalised them. So the US stopped buying Cuban sugar. So Castro nationalised everything that had anything to do with the US. Relations deteriorated from there, and the US started thinking that Cuba, far from being a nice place to go on holiday, was fast going rogue. Castro hit back saying low-paid Americans were “living in the bowels of an imperialist monster”. Pa-pow. The CIA were, quietly, not impressed.
The CIA – furtive, paranoid and edgy over the creep of international communism – then woke up one morning and reckoned that Castro should go. Enough. What was needed was a leader friendly to the Cuban people, and one more on board with the US view of the world. They suggested to President Eisenhower, that this should all be done in a manner that avoided any sort of appearance of US involvement. Eisenhower thought this an excellent idea. Yet Eisenhower was soon gone, to be replaced by John. F. Kennedy. Fortunately for the CIA, Kennedy also thought the plan was an excellent idea as he didn’t like Castro much either. Having cobbled together a few ex-pat Cubans in Miami, including the former Prime Minister, to create a ready-made US-friendly government, the CIA asked Kennedy for permission to “got get him”. It later turned out that, despite all the secrecy and planning and recruitment of anti-Castro rebels, the Cuban government knew exactly what was coming after loose conversation was picked up in bars in and around Miami and reported in many international newspapers. Days before the attack Radio Moscow – a radio station in, yep, Moscow – reported the CIA was up to no good and was planning to dump a load of armed militia on Castro’s front lawn. Which they did, four days later.
Now the invasion – the Invasion de Bahia de Cochinos – wasn’t a very good one, plagued with operational issues; landing boats stalled, coral reefs got in the way of frogmen and expensive equipment was dropped in swamps. Having warmed up with a few night raids beforehand Cuba had complained bitterly to the UN that the US was taking pot shots at her after lights out. The then US ambassador popped and preened and stood up and said that no US armed forces, nor indeed any US citizens, would have anything to do with taking pot shots at Cuba. Sadly for the ambassador it turned out the CIA hadn’t sent him the memo, making it a bit awkward for him in the loos afterwards. As it happened, the Cuban military were right up for it and after a few days fighting, had forced the rebels back onto the beaches. With no air support and running out of bullets, the options quickly narrowed to swim or surrender. Of those who surrendered, quite a few were executed and the rest were imprisoned for treason for a very long time. As luck would have it, though, all was not lost. About a year later, Castro decided to swap them all for $50m worth of food and medicine, in a deal which saw the prisoners released and welcomed back to the US with a parade during the Orange Bowl, a college football game, in Miami in front of President Kennedy and his wife. Kennedy later told a journalist friend “The first advice I’m going to give my successor is to watch the generals and to avoid feeling that, because they were military men, their opinions on military matters were worth a damn”. A lesson to heed in life more generally, equally applicable to military generals through to estate agents. The failed invasion forced top-table resignations in the CIA and made Castro even more popular at home. All-in-all then, a bit of an air-shot.
Whilst Castro lauded it up at home he was, quite rightly, wary of the US and was keen to avoid any more invasions, so he decided to cosy up to the Soviet Union. This brought a whole new set of problems, specifically in the form of nuclear missiles on Cuban soil. The Cuban missile crisis then followed in 1962, very nearly kicking of a full-blown nuclear war. Mmm, a lively spot Cuba. Despite what Thomas Cook will now have you believe.