*Author’s Note: I forgot to add this post in the Pre-War section over the summer. Better late than never*
Central America and the Caribbean was a potential tempest in a teapot for the United States with Nicaragua and Cuba, two firm Soviet allies, 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, while in Nicaragua, leftist strongman Daniel Ortega ran the nation. It was believed in Washington that both of these men would take their marching orders directly from Moscow if war broke out. If left unchecked, Castro and Ortega could cause major damage to United States at a critical time.
Cuba’s close proximity to US shores called for an increased military presence in and around Florida to deter Castro from possibly launching military action against the US. Guantanamo Bay was another prickly issue for the US to contend with. As tensions rose, the Pentagon wrestled with what to do with the base. There were three realistic choices available to select 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 Cubans, for their part, were behaving very cordially with regards to the US base on their soil. Cuban MiGs and other aircraft gave Gitmo a wide berth. Regular troops stationed in close proximity to the base were replaced by the local militia. In the Caribbean, Cuban naval vessels were not straying far from home waters.
The behavior by the Cuban military was curious, to say the least. Some voices in the Reagan administration wondered if the low activity was part of a ruse. A much smaller group of advisers and aides suspected the drop in activity was due to a rift between Havana and Moscow. Publicly, Fidel Castro had welcomed the coming of Romanov to power. The General Secretary had a history of making anti-Castro remarks when he had been a member of the Politburo. The US State Department was making preparations to reach out quietly to Havana and attempt to decipher where the relationship between Cuba and the Soviet Union stood at the moment.
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 began dispersing fighters to a number of locations around South Florida. The US Navy could not afford to spare an aircraft carrier to station in the Caribbean at the moment, though it did part with a handful of reserve frigates and destroyers which were originally expected to head north to take part in convoy duty.
Nicaragua was another matter altogether. Daniel Ortega and his Sandinistas would blindly follow Moscow to hell and beyond. He could cause trouble in a variety of ways if he chose to and Washington was fully aware of this. The fattest target for Nicaragua 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 transiting the canal, they would be forced to take the long trip south around Cape Horn and up the eastern coast of South America. The methods available to disable the Panama Canal were varied. A bomb exploding at one of the locks would put the canal out of commission indefinitely. A Sandinista attack on the canal could cause equal amounts of damage. Just as effective would be scuttling a merchant ship or other vessel of a similar size somewhere in the waterway.
To prevent either from happening, security at the canal was redoubled. US Southern Command doubled the number of troops it currently had guarding the canal and a number of Panamanian workers were sent home 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 control of the Panama Canal Zone and would maintain that control until the end of fighting in Europe.