March 4, 1960: The Explosion that Ended US-Cuban Relations for 55 Years


Then a ship blew up in Havana harbor, destroying the last chance for an accommodation between Fidel Castro and the Americans. -- Tad Szulc, Fidel: A Critical Portrait, 1986

When people think about beginning of the Cold War between the United States and Cuba, the first events that usually come to mind are the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis. But the critical moment came a year before the Bay of Pigs and more than two years prior to the discovery of Soviet warheads in Cuba.

A cloud of smoke rises over Havana Harbor as the La Coubre freighter explodes on March 4, 1960.

On March 4 1960, the French freighter La Coubre arrived in Havana Harbor to deliver a load of Belgian arms to Cuba’s revolutionary government. Only fifteen months earlier, Fidel Castro and his rebel army had chased the dictator Fulgencio Batista out of the country and into exile.

Increasingly concerned by Castro’s ever-more radical policies, the US government exhausted diplomatic channels in Europe, trying – and failing – to prevent the ship and its cargo from leaving Europe. Meanwhile, Castro rallied the Cuban people, warning them that the arms were essential to protect the island’s sovereignty from threats originating from the United States.

Then, just hours after it docked in Havana, the ship blew up, destroying its controversial cargo, scattering the limbs of ship's crew and Cuban stevedores over the docks, killing as many as a hundred people, and injuring three times that number. The casualty numbers were enormous, especially considering that Cuba’s population barely made six million.

News of the explosion ripped through the divided Cold War world. Fidel Castro accused the American government of committing a terrorist act. Soviet and Chinese officials broadcast news of US sponsored “sabotage”. US State Department officials publicly recoiled at the accusation. If Castro, who had yet to declare his Marxist intentions, had intended to walk a fine line of neutrality, allying himself with neither the US nor the Communist powers, it now appeared that choosing sides would be inevitable.

Two weeks after the tragedy, on March 17, 1960, President Dwight Eisenhower responded to Castro’s La Coubre accusations by secretly and definitively approving plans to overthrow Cuba’s leader. 

Cuba increased the pace at which it was nationalizing US and Cuban businesses. The US ended its commitment to buy Cuban sugar. By October, the last US ambassador to Cuba, Philip Bonsal, left the country on a ferry, never to return. In January of 1961, diplomatic ties were severed officially. And in April, a CIA-directed brigade of (mostly) exiled-Cubans were quickly overcome and captured by Fidel Castro's forces in what became known as the Bay of Pigs, an event that would ripple through American history and politics for generations. 

So was La Coubre an accident? Or sabotage? And if it was sabotage, who was responsible?  The CIA? Cuban counterrevolutionaries attempting to topple Castro? Agents of J. Edgar Hoover or the Dominican Republic's dictator, Rafael Trujillo? Some combination of the above forces and interests? There were many possibilities.

Of course, this explosion echoes the USS Maine disaster in 1898, which became the justification -- "Remember the Maine!" --  for the Spanish-American war and what many scholars  the dawn of US international imperialism. (It wasn't long ago, that the US Navy decided (admitted?) that the USS Maine explosion was probably an accident.)

Stay tuned for more posts! I have been researching the La Coubre disaster for more than a year and will start sharing some of what I have found.