Peripheries: Central America & the Caribbean D-2 (7 July, 1987) **


Central America and the Caribbean Sea had the potential to turn into a tempest in a teapot for the United States if hostilities with the Soviet Union broke out. Nicaragua and Cuba were both firm Soviet allies, and situated squarely in the geographic backyard of the US. Fidel Castro was still running Cuba despite decades of US efforts to remove him from power. Over in Nicaragua, leftist strongman Daniel Ortega ruled Nicaragua, and kept the nation closely aligned with Moscow. In the event of war, Washington believed both men would take their marching orders directly from Moscow and carry them out without question. If left unchecked, Castro and Ortega could cause major damage to US efforts at a critical time.

Cuba’s close proximity to American shores brought an increased military presence in and around Florida to deter Castro from even considering military action against the US. Guantanamo Bay was another prickly issue for the US to deal with. As tensions rose, the Pentagon wrestled with what to do with the base. There were three realistic choices available to choose from: Reinforce Gitmo with additional US Marines and aircraft, evacuate dependents and non-essential personnel from the base, or undertake a mass evacuation of everyone, civilian and military. The Cuban military, for its part, was behaving quite cordially with regards to the US base. Cuban MiGs and other aircraft gave Gitmo a wide berth. Regular troops stationed in close proximity to the base had been replaced by the local militia to appear as less of a provocation. In the Caribbean, Cuban naval vessels were not straying far from home waters.

This behavior was curious, to say the least. Some voices in the Reagan administration wondered if the low level of activity was a ruse designed to lull Washington into a false sense of security. A much smaller cross section of advisers and aides suspected the drop in activity was due to a rift between Havana and Moscow. Publicly, Fidel Castro had welcomed the Romanov’s rise to power. The General Secretary, though,  had a history of making anti-Castro remarks when he had been a member of the Politburo, and was suspected of considering Cuba a junior ally of the Soviet Union. The State Department was making preparations to reach out quietly to Havana to decipher where the relationship between Cuba and the Soviet Union currently stood.

Until that was clarified, precautionary steps had to be taken. On 7 July, the evacuation of non-essential personnel from Gitmo began. The Florida Air National Guard dispersed fighters to a number of forward operating locations around South Florida. The US Navy couldn’t afford to spare an active duty aircraft carrier to station in the Caribbean at the moment. USS Lexington, a training carrier was available, but of limited value. A handful of reserve frigates and destroyers that were originally expected to head north to take part in convoy duty, instead headed towards Mayport, Florida and potential Caribbean tasking in the near future.

Nicaragua was another matter entirely. Daniel Ortega and his Sandinista National Liberation Front would blindly follow Moscow to hell and beyond. He could cause trouble in a variety of ways if he chose to. The largest US target in Central America was the Panama Canal. Disabling it would severely delay the transfer of US Navy ships from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Instead of using the canal to cut across Central America, warships would be forced to take the long trip south around Cape Horn and then up the eastern coast of South America. Disabling the canal would not require overt military action on the part of Nicaragua. A covert team of operatives could place a bomb at one of the canal locks. Damage or the destruction of a lock would probably close the canal for an indefinite period of time. Just as effective would be to deliberately scutte a merchant ship or another vessel of a similar size somewhere in the waterway.

To prevent either from happening, security at the canal was redoubled. US Southern Command increased the number of troops it currently had guarding the canal and a number of Panamanian workers were laid off for the duration of the crisis. These men and women were soon replaced by US Navy civilian workers from the United States. Ships belonging to Eastern Bloc and Soviet allied nations were denied permission to transit for the time being. On 7 July, less than 48 hours before war broke out, the US military officially took operation of the Panama Canal Zone and would maintain control of it for the duration of the crisis, or hostilities if they came.





2 Replies to “Peripheries: Central America & the Caribbean D-2 (7 July, 1987) **”

    1. Yep, pretty natural instinct to want secure borders and peripheries. That’s why we were so active in Central America in the 80s, and to another extent why the Russians are so active in Ukraine and the Baltics today


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