576 pp., 61/8 x 91/4, 24 illus., 15 maps, append., notes,
Published: Fall 2001
Published: Spring 2003
Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976
(c) 2001, 2003 by the University of North Carolina Press. All
Castro's Cuba, 1959-1964
The United States did not hesitate to recognize the government established by Fidel Castro. On January 7, 1959, just six days after Fulgencio Batista had fled Cuba, the Eisenhower administration extended the hand of friendship to the victorious guerrillas. To signal its goodwill, the State Department replaced the ambassador to Cuba, Earl Smith, a wealthy political appointee who had been close to Batista, with Philip Bonsal, a career diplomat known to work well with left-of-center governments. Within a year, however, Eisenhower had decided that Castro had to go.
It was not Castro's record on human rights and political democracy that bothered Eisenhower. As historian Stephen Rabe has noted, "During much of the decade [1950s], U.S. officials were busy hugging and bestowing medals on sordid, often ruthless [Latin American] tyrants." U.S. presidents--even Woodrow Wilson, his rhetoric notwithstanding--had consistently maintained good relations with the worst dictators of the hemisphere, so long as they accepted U.S. hegemony.
Castro, however, was not willing to bow to the United States. "He is clearly a strong personality and a born leader of great personal courage and conviction," U.S. officials noted in April 1959. "He is inspired by a messianic sense of mission to aid his people," a National Intelligence Estimate reported two months later. Even though he did not have a clear blueprint of the Cuba he wanted to create, Castro dreamed of a sweeping revolution that would uproot his country's oppressive socioeconomic structure. He dreamed of a Cuba that would be free of the United States.
The Burden of the Past
It was President Thomas Jefferson who first cast his gaze toward Cuba, strategically situated and rich in sugar and slaves. In 1809 he counseled his successor, James Madison, to propose a deal to Napoleon, who had occupied Spain: the United States would give France a free hand in Spanish America, if France would give Cuba to the United States. "That would be a price," he wrote, "and I would immediately erect a column on the southernmost limit of Cuba, and inscribe on it a ne plus ultra as to us in that direction."
England, however, had made it clear that it would not tolerate Cuba's annexation to the United States, and the Royal Navy dominated the waves. The United States would have to wait until the fruit was ripe, but time was in America's favor. In John Quincy Adams's words, "there are laws of political as well as of physical gravitation; and if an apple severed by the tempest from its native tree cannot choose but fall to the ground, Cuba, forcibly disjoined from its own unnatural connection with Spain and incapable of self-support, can gravitate only towards the North American Union, which by the same law of nature cannot cast her off from its bosom."
Through the administrations of Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and Adams, U.S. officials opposed the liberation of Cuba because they feared it would create an opportunity for other powers, particularly England, or lead to a successful slave revolt on the island, or, at a minimum, establish a republic that abolished slavery and promoted equal rights for blacks and whites. The fruit would never have ripened, because such a Cuba would have bitterly resisted annexation to Jeffersonian America, where the blacks were slaves or outcasts.
Cuba became the "ever faithful island"--a rich Spanish colony dotted with great landed estates worked by a mass of black slaves. A ten-year war of independence, which erupted in 1868, failed to dislodge the Spanish. But in 1895 José Martí raised again the standard of revolt. He wanted independence and reform, and he was deeply suspicious of the United States. "What I have done, and shall continue to do," he wrote in May 1895, "is to . . . block with our blood . . . the annexation of the peoples of our America to the turbulent and brutal North that despises them. . . . I lived in the monster [the United States], and know its entrails--and my sling is that of David's."
In 1898, as the Cuban revolt entered its fourth year, the United States joined the war, ostensibly to free Cuba. After Spain surrendered, Washington forced the Platt amendment on the Cubans. The amendment granted the United States the right to intervene and to have naval bases on Cuban soil. (Even today, the Platt amendment lives, with the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo.) Cuba became, more than any other Latin American country, in Tad Szulc's words, "an American fiefdom." And when a group of men who were determined to bring about social reform and national independence finally seized power in Cuba in September 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt refused to recognize their new government and urged the Cuban army to seize power. And so it did, and the era of Batista began.
When Fidel Castro began fighting against Batista in 1956, the United States supplied arms to the dictator. Castro took note. In a letter of June 5, 1958, he wrote: "The Americans are going to pay dearly for what they're doing. When this war is over, I'll start a much longer and bigger war of my own: the war I'm going to fight against them. That will be my true destiny."
Many of the opponents of Batista's regime wanted to accommodate the United States, either because they admired its culture or had a fatalistic respect for its power. Castro, on the other hand, represented the views of those anti-Batista youths who were repulsed by Washington's domination and paternalism. This, however, baffled Eisenhower and most Americans, who believed that America had always been the Cubans' truest friend, fighting Spain in 1898 to give them their independence. "Here is a country that you would believe, on the basis of our history, would be one of our real friends," Eisenhower marveled. As American historian Nancy Mitchell has pointed out, "Our selective recall not only serves a purpose; it also has repercussions. It creates a chasm between us and the Cubans: we share a past, but we have no shared memories."
The Eisenhower administration wanted a modus vivendi with Castro, sincerely but on its own terms: Cuba must remain within the U.S. sphere of influence. The U.S. press and the Congress, Republicans and Democrats, agreed.
If Castro accepted these parameters, he could stay. Otherwise he would be overthrown. The Eisenhower administration began to plot his ouster six months after he had seized power. At an NSC meeting on January 14, 1960, Under Secretary Livingston Merchant noted that "our present objective was to adjust all our actions in such a way as to accelerate the development of an opposition in Cuba which would bring about . . . a new government favorable to U.S. interests." He then asked the assistant secretary for inter-American affairs, Roy Rubottom, to summarize the evolution of U.S.-Cuban relations since January 1959:
The period from January to March might be characterized as the honeymoon period of the Castro government. In April a downward trend in U.S.-Cuban relations had been evident. . . . In June we had reached the decision that it was not possible to achieve our objectives with Castro in power and had agreed to undertake the program referred to by Mr. Merchant. In July and August we had been busy drawing up a program to replace Castro. However some U.S. companies reported to us during this time that they were making some progress in negotiations, a factor that caused us to slow the implementation of our program. The hope expressed by these companies did not materialize. October was a period of clarification. . . . On October 31, in agreement with CIA, the Department had recommended to the President approval of a program along the lines referred to by Mr. Merchant. The approved program authorized us to support elements in Cuba opposed to the Castro government while making Castro's downfall seem to be the result of his own mistakes.
It was probably as part of this program that Cuban exiles mounted seaborne raids against Cuba from U.S. territory and that unidentified planes attacked economic targets on the island, leading the U.S. embassy to warn Washington that the population was "becoming aroused" against the United States. And in January 1960, when Director of Central Intelligence Allen Dulles "presented an Agency proposal [to Eisenhower] for sabotage of sugar refineries of Cuba," the president replied that "he didn't object to such an undertaking and, indeed, thought something like this was timely. However, he felt that any program should be much more ambitious, and it was probably now the time to move against Castro in a positive and aggressive way which went beyond pure harassment. He asked Mr. Dulles to come back with an enlarged program." This enlarged program, which Dulles presented to the president in March 1960, led to Kennedy's Bay of Pigs, in which some 1,300 CIA-trained Cuban exiles stormed a Cuban beach in April 1961, only to surrender three days later.
Flush with his victory at the Bay of Pigs, Castro tendered an olive branch to the United States. On August 17, 1961, at an inter-American conference at Punta del Este, Che Guevara arranged a meeting with Kennedy's close aide Richard Goodwin. "He [Che] seemed very ill at ease when we began to talk, but soon became relaxed and spoke freely," Goodwin reported to Kennedy. "Although he left no doubt of his personal and intense devotion to Communism, his conversation was free of propaganda and bombast. He spoke calmly, in a straightforward manner, and with the appearance of detachment and objectivity. He left no doubt, at any time, that he felt completely free to speak for his government and rarely distinguished between his personal observations and the official position of the Cuban government. I had the definite impression that he had thought out his remarks very carefully--they were extremely well organized."
The Cubans, Che told Goodwin, "didn't want an understanding with the U.S., because they knew that was impossible. They would like a modus vivendi--at least an interim modus vivendi. . . He said they could discuss no formula that would mean giving up the type of society to which they were dedicated." But they were willing to accept limits on their foreign policy: "they could agree not to make any political alliance with the East--although this would not affect their natural sympathies." And he indicated, "very obliquely and with evident reluctance because of the company in which we were talking [a Brazilian and an Argentine diplomat were acting as interpreters], that they could also discuss the activities of the Cuban revolution in other countries." According to Goodwin, therefore, Guevara was hinting at a tropical Finlandization: complete freedom at home and some limits on foreign policy.
When Che and Goodwin met, Cuba's support for revolutionary movements in Latin America was just beginning to gather momentum. "At present time, there is no hard evidence of an actual supply of arms or armed men going from Cuba to other countries to assist indigenous revolutionary movements," the CIA had noted three months earlier. "There has been some movement of individual armed agents into other countries and some Cuban effort to train the revolutionaries of other countries. The export of physical aid to revolutionary movements, while important, is much less significant than the threat posed by Castro's example and general stimulus of these movements."
This threat haunted Kennedy. "Latin America is ripe for revolution in one form or another," a National Intelligence Estimate noted in 1962. Looking back thirty years later, Kennedy's national security adviser McGeorge Bundy explained, "That was a real fear! People [in Washington] were really nervous that somewhere, somehow they [the Castroites] would pull it off again. The fear in Washington was really intense. There was the idea that the situation was potentially very explosive and could spread."
Castro was hurling a two-pronged assault against the United States. He was leading his island into the Soviet embrace, and he was fomenting revolution throughout the hemisphere. Kennedy was not interested in exploring a modus vivendi. He would defang the threat in Latin America by launching the Alliance for Progress--an unprecedented program of social reform and economic growth--and by strengthening democratic institutions and the military in the region.
As for the rebel island, John Kennedy knew only one answer, the one Eisenhower had given in 1954 to Guatemala's president, Jacobo Arbenz: the upstart must be removed. It was the answer that was consistent with the imperial tradition of the United States in the Caribbean and that was endorsed by the overwhelming majority of Americans. Defeat at the Bay of Pigs added an element of personal venom to Kennedy's crusade.
Kennedy rejected Castro's overture and instead "'chewed out'" CIA deputy director Richard Bissell for "'sitting on his ass and not doing anything about getting rid of Castro and the Castro regime.'" He asked his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, to lead the top-level interagency group that oversaw Operation Mongoose, a program of paramilitary operations, economic warfare, and sabotage he launched in late 1961 to visit the "terrors of the earth" on Fidel Castro and, more prosaically, to topple him. "Robert Kennedy's involvement in organizing and directing Mongoose became so intense that he might as well have been deputy director for plans for the operation," Bissell recalled. "Because of the failure of the Bay of Pigs," Bissell's successor, Richard Helms, observed, "Jack Kennedy and Bob Kennedy were absolutely like demons--to get rid of Castro. Jack Kennedy wanted it done. He didn't want any arguments against it. If you went to Robert Kennedy and told him: 'This can't be done,' he'd tell you: 'Hell, then we'll get someone who can do it.'" Bypassing the CIA, discredited in the president's eyes by the Bay of Pigs, the Kennedy brothers placed a man they trusted, General Edward Lansdale, in charge of Mongoose. "There will be no acceptable alibi [for failure]," Lansdale told his senior aides in January 1962. "It is our job to put the American genius to work on this project, quickly and effectively." Lansdale's plan was to provoke a popular revolt by early October 1962 through a combination of paramilitary operations, sabotage, and economic strangulation. His robust optimism contrasted with the more sober assessment of a November 1961 National Intelligence Estimate, which noted that "The Castro regime has sufficient popular support and repressive capabilities to cope with any internal threat likely to develop within the foreseeable future."
While the United States succeeded in forcing third countries to curtail trade with Cuba, the paramilitary effort failed. Successful operations were "few and far between . . . and none of the big ones really succeeded." A National Intelligence Estimate noted in March 1962 that "Fidel Castro and the Revolution retain the positive support of a substantial proportion of the Cuban people. There are substantial numbers of Cubans who care nothing for ideology, but are still under the spell of Fidel Castro's magnetic personal leadership . . . who feel a surge of nationalistic pride in revolutionary Cuba, and who attribute all present short-comings to the implacable malevolence of Yankee imperialism." At an October 4 meeting of the Mongoose interagency group, Robert Kennedy complained forcefully about "the meager results, especially in the sabotage field," and warned that "higher authority" was concerned about the lack of progress and felt that "more priority should be given to trying to mount sabotage operations." Duly chastened, Lansdale promised that "another attempt will be made against the major target [the Matahambre copper mine] which has been the object of three unsuccessful missions, and that approximately six new ones are in the planning stage." On October 16, Robert Kennedy again expressed the "'general dissatisfaction of the president'" with Mongoose. "He spoke of the weekly meetings of top officials on this problem and again noted the small accomplishments despite the fact that Secretaries Rusk and McNamara, General Taylor, McGeorge Bundy, and he personally had all been charged by the President to find a solution. . . . The Attorney General stated that in view of this lack of progress, he was going to give Operation Mongoose more personal attention." He would hold a meeting every morning with Mongoose's senior staff.
That same day, October 16, President Kennedy was informed that there were Soviet missiles in Cuba.
The Cuban-Soviet Minuet
The Cubans were the suitors. Some, like Raúl Castro and Che Guevara, were motivated by ideology. As a young man in Batista's Cuba, Raúl had been a member of the Cuban Communist Party (PSP) youth group and Che, who had never belonged to any political party, considered himself a Marxist-Leninist by the time he joined Castro. "I belong to those who believe that the solution of the world's problems lies behind the so-called iron curtain," he wrote in December 1957.
Fidel Castro was different. He was not a Marxist-Leninist when he came to power. "I always thought of Fidel as an authentic leader of the leftist bourgeoisie," Che wrote in the same December 1957 letter. It was in self-defense that Fidel sought the Soviet embrace. Only strong Soviet support could protect his regime from the United States. The fate of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala was a bitter reminder of what befell errant presidents in the U.S. sphere of influence.
When he came to power, Castro did not have a clear idea of the kind of relationship he would seek with the Kremlin. There were too many uncertainties--how far relations with the United States would deteriorate, how the Soviets would respond to his overtures, how the situation in Cuba would evolve. The Soviet leaders were equally uncertain. They knew very little about Castro, except that he was not a Communist and his country was in the heart of the American empire.
For several months, Havana's only contacts with Moscow were through PSP leaders who visited Moscow and vouched for the revolutionary credentials of the new government. It was as if the Cubans and Soviets were eyeing each other from a distance before deciding on the first move. This was, on both sides, an incremental process that can only be imperfectly retraced--because of its own tentative nature, and because of the lack of documentation.
In October 1959 a KGB official, Aleksandr Alekseev, arrived in Havana, establishing the first direct link between the Kremlin and the new Cuban leadership. At Castro's request, transmitted through Alekseev, Soviet deputy premier Anastas Mikoyan, who was touring Latin America as the head of a Soviet technical and cultural exhibition, arrived in Havana in February 1960. He was authorized to offer the Cubans a limited package of economic aid. The visit went well. Castro impressed Mikoyan as "'a genuine revolutionary, completely like us. I felt as though I had returned to my childhood.'" Suddenly, the tempo accelerated. The following month, Castro asked Alekseev for Soviet bloc weapons. He was convinced, he explained, that the United States was preparing to attack Cuba. Within a few days, Moscow approved the request. The arms would be provided free of charge. That same month, March 1960, a handful of Spanish officers, members of the Spanish Communist Party who had emigrated to the Soviet Union after Franco's victory, arrived in the island to help organize the Cuban armed forces. Diplomatic relations between Cuba and the Soviet Union were established on May 8. Over the next year the relationship grew close and ebullient as Soviet bloc arms and economic aid began to arrive. Castro was charismatic, he seemed steadfast, he worked well with the Communist Party, and he humbled the United States at the Bay of Pigs. The Soviet Union would transform the island into a socialist showcase in Latin America. The Soviets' enthusiasm was all the greater because they greatly underestimated the economic cost. It was the Missile Crisis that brought this honeymoon to an abrupt end.
In a December 1963 analysis, Tom Hughes, director of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), assessed why the Cubans and Soviets had placed missiles in Cuba. "We have no doubt that Castro, and probably the Soviets too, were increasingly worried in the late winter and spring of 1962 about the possibility of a new US invasion attempt," he wrote. "Castro, as the more directly involved party, may well have placed an ominous interpretation on President Kennedy's remarks to [Khrushchev's son-in-law Alexei] Adzhubei (January 30, 1962) regarding the parallelism between the Soviet attitude toward Hungary and ours toward Cuba." Kennedy had "pointed out that the USSR would have the same reaction if a hostile group arose in the vicinity of its borders. In this connection, the president referred to the Soviet reaction to the  Hungarian uprising." Kennedy's words were made particularly ominous by the background chorus: influential Americans demanding military action against Cuba, the administration's paramilitary operations and acts of sabotage, its efforts to cripple Cuban trade, its successful drive to expel Cuba from the Organization of American States, and U.S. military maneuvers in the Caribbean. In Hughes's words, the spring of 1962, when the decision to install the missiles was made, "was a time of heightened Cuban concern about invasion." Looking back, thirty years later, Kennedy's defense secretary Robert McNamara concluded, "I want to state quite frankly with hindsight, if I had been a Cuban leader [in the summer of 1962], I think I might have expected a U.S. invasion. . . . And I should say, as well, if I had been a Soviet leader at the time, I might have come to the same conclusion." As Hughes and McNamara suggested, and recent scholarship confirms, Castro was motivated by a legitimate concern for his country's security. The Soviets added to this concern the desire to close the "missile gap"--America's well-publicized overwhelming superiority in strategic weapons.
The Cubans and Soviets would have been even more alarmed had they been privy to the secrets of Operation Mongoose. Lansdale's plan was based on two assumptions: "(1) The United States will make maximum use of Cuban resources, but recognizes that final success will require decisive U.S. military intervention; and (2) the development of Cuban resources will be for the purpose of facilitating and supporting this intervention and to provide a preparation and justification for it." The president was not asked to "make a policy decision at this time, but simply to note the assumption." A U.S. invasion of Cuba was the heart of Mongoose, and Kennedy knew it.
Kennedy learned that there were Soviet missiles in Cuba on October 16. On October 24 the U.S. Navy quarantined the island. Four days later, Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles. He did not consult Castro. "We realized that we had become some type of game token," Castro later said. He had expressed his feelings equally bluntly at the time: "I do not see how you can say that we were consulted in the decision you took," he wrote Khrushchev. Crowds in Havana chanted: "Nikita you fairy, what you give you can't take back."
Arguably, however, Castro gained something from the crisis: in his October 27 letter to Khrushchev, Kennedy pledged that if the Soviet Union removed the missiles from the island "under appropriate United Nations observation and supervision" and provided "suitable safeguards" against the introduction of offensive weapons in the future, the United States would "give assurances against an invasion of Cuba." In a stimulating essay, John Lewis Gaddis writes, "whatever the prospect of an American attack on Cuba before the missile crisis, there was never a serious one after it." While the point is true, it must be qualified. Kennedy had hedged his pledge with conditions that the Cubans rejected. Castro had refused to allow on-site UN supervision of the missiles' removal or any future on-ground verification that no missiles had been installed, and Kennedy had consequently rebuffed Khrushchev's repeated requests to sign a document formalizing the noninvasion pledge. At his November 20 press conference Kennedy gave himself more wiggling room. After noting that his conditions for a U.S. noninvasion guarantee had not been met, he said, "If all offensive weapons are removed from Cuba and kept out of the hemisphere in the future . . . and if Cuba is not used for the export of aggressive Communist purposes, there will be peace in the Caribbean." This new condition was elastic. If Kennedy or Johnson had wanted to invade, he could have argued that Castro's support for armed struggle in Latin America had rendered the noninvasion pledge invalid.
The fact that the United States did not invade Cuba has given Kennedy's pledge more weight than it deserves. The documents that have been declassified suggest that the prospect of an invasion was "shunned" because of its potential cost--the toll in American lives, the risk of a confrontation with the Soviet Union spiraling into global war, the negative impact on the allies and on public opinion worldwide--rather than scruples pursuant to the purported noninvasion pledge. Furthermore, Cuba would soon be overshadowed by Vietnam.
Not surprisingly, the noninvasion pledge offered no comfort to the Cubans. They had lost a real guarantee--the presence of the missiles--for a hollow promise. They had no reason to believe an American president's assurances, particularly when qualified with conditions they would not meet. Castro put it plainly, "We don't believe in Kennedy's words. Moreover Kennedy has given no pledge and, if he did give it, he has already taken it back." The Missile Crisis did not affect Castro's prestige at home. ("On the contrary," the CIA remarked, "the way in which Castro stood up to the Soviets and the US and got away with it probably bolstered his position at home.") But it increased the Cubans' insecurity by making clear, as historian Nicola Miller put it, "that at any critical juncture the USSR would subordinate its ties with Cuba to its relationship with the United States." For the Cubans, this was chilling.
The Missile Crisis was followed by an improvement in relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. On June 10, 1963, in a commencement address at American University, Kennedy urged, "Let us reexamine our attitude toward the Soviet Union" and work together toward peace. "As Americans, we find communism profoundly repugnant. . . . But we can still hail the Russian people for their many achievements--in science and space, in economic and industrial growth, in culture and acts of courage." It was, Khrushchev said, "the best speech by any President since Roosevelt." Six weeks later, in Moscow, American, British, and Soviet officials initialed the test ban treaty, "the most important arms-control accord since the start of the Cold War."
This incipient détente did not extend to Cuba. A senior CIA official noted that during the first months of 1963 Castro had made "tentative overtures for normalizing relations" and had been rebuffed. The paramilitary raids, the sabotage operations, and the efforts "to tighten the noose around the Cuban economy" continued. So did the attempts to assassinate Castro.
On June 19, nine days after his speech at American University, Kennedy approved an "Integrated Covert Action Program" that aimed "at maintaining all feasible pressures on Cuba and at creating and exploiting situations in Cuba calculated to stimulate dissident elements within the regime, particularly in the armed forces, to carry out a coup." The program contemplated sabotage operations against "four major segments of the Cuban economy: (a) electric power; (b) petroleum refineries and storage facilities; (c) railroad and highway transportation; and (d) production and manufacturing." Paramilitary operations and efforts to cripple Cuban trade with third countries would be intensified. This program was more realistic than Mongoose in that it no longer set a deadline for Castro's fall or even proclaimed it as inevitable. Hope had replaced certitude. Cuba was still a burning issue in the United States, and Kennedy's mind was on the 1964 presidential elections. "You'd pay a political price if you didn't do all you could to overthrow Castro; you wouldn't pay a political price if you did everything you could to overthrow him," McGeorge Bundy recalled. Furthermore, American pressure might keep Castro on the defensive and make it more difficult for him to support subversion in the hemisphere. Above all, the CIA was confident that its program would undermine the Cuban economy and offer the Latin American people a salutary object lesson. "Cuba was the key to all of Latin America," DCI John McCone had told President Kennedy and his top aides in an August 1962 meeting. "If Cuba succeeds, we can expect most of Latin America to fall."
Castro's Guerrilla Offensive, 1961-1964
While Kennedy was promoting subversion in Cuba, Castro was promoting revolution in Latin America. Self-defense and idealism motivated the Cubans. "His [Castro's] desire to promote other Cubas," a senior U.S. intelligence official remarked, "was probably . . . related to his quest for internal consolidation--had another country gone the way of Cuba, Castro's situation might have been easier--and perhaps to his fear that the US might move against him. The US might threaten or create difficulty for one Cuba standing alone, but--Castro may have thought--the presence of two or more revolutionary regimes would force an American accommodation to the new reality." The United States "will not be able to hurt us," Castro explained, "if all of Latin America is in flames." Revolution in Latin America, however, was not only in Cuba's interest. It was also, Cubans believed, in the interest of the people. Only through armed struggle could the Latin Americans attain social justice and national sovereignty.
The Cuban leaders and U.S. officials agreed on one key point: the objective conditions that gave rise to revolution--misery, ignorance, and exploitation--were in Latin America. As INR director Hughes pointed out, the Cubans viewed Latin America "as a tinder box to which one merely had to apply a spark . . . to set off the revolutionary explosion." This spark would be provided by what the Castroites termed "the foco," the small guerrilla vanguard that would launch armed struggle in the countryside.
Castro wanted the armed struggle to start immediately. "The struggle must come first," he explained. "In the course of the struggle the revolutionary conscience [the people's awareness that they could and should fight back] will surge forth." The war against Batista had shown that the foco could create this awareness and set the forest ablaze. One of Che Guevara's close aides recalled: "We were absolutely convinced that we had discovered an infallible method to free the people." Because the objective conditions were present, a handful of dedicated revolutionaries could triumph against impossible odds. "We have demonstrated," Che wrote, "that a small group of men who are determined, supported by the people, and not afraid of death . . . can overcome a regular army." This was the lesson of the Cuban revolution.
It echoed throughout Latin America. "The Cuban revolution . . . was like a continental detonator," a member of the Central Committee of the Venezuelan Communist Party remarked. "It justified revolutionary impatience, and it ended the old discussion about geographic fatalism--the belief that no revolution in Latin America could ever succeed because it was in the backyard of the U.S. empire. In one fell swoop, the Cuban revolution swept away that old ghost." Fired by the Cubans' example, and by Castro's call to the true revolutionaries to fight, guerrillas became active in Venezuela, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Peru, and Argentina.
Castro argued that "the virus of revolution is not carried in submarines or in ships. It is wafted instead on the ethereal waves of ideas. . . The power of Cuba is the power of its revolutionary ideas, the power of its example." The CIA agreed: "The extensive influence of 'Castroism' is not a function of Cuban power," it noted in mid-1961. "Castro's shadow looms large because social and economic conditions throughout Latin America invite opposition to ruling authority and encourage agitation for radical change." Cuba, however, did not just rely on the power of its example. "By 1961-1962, Cuban support began taking many forms," a CIA study noted, "ranging from inspiration and training to such tangibles as financing and communications support as well as some military assistance."
Under Castro's overall direction, Che Guevara orchestrated Cuban assistance to insurgencies in Latin America. He was assisted by the General Directorate of Intelligence (DGI), which was established in 1961 within the Ministry of the Interior and was headed by Manuel Piñeiro.
The most significant aid was military training in Cuba. U.S. intelligence estimated that between 1961 and 1964 "at least" 1,500 to 2,000 Latin Americans received "either guerrilla warfare training or political indoctrination in Cuba." Very few Cubans, however, joined the guerrillas in Latin America. Havana's revolutionary fervor was tempered by self-preservation. While a conflagration would stay Washington's hand, igniting the blaze was dangerous. Cuba did not want to hand the United States a pretext for intervention, and the export of Cuban guerrillas would be far more provocative than the import of hundreds of Latin Americans to train on the island. As a result, between 1961 and 1964 only two Cubans fought in Latin America (both in Argentina).
The same caution governed the dispatch of weapons. Cuba, the CIA noted in 1964, "generally has avoided sending arms directly to other Latin American countries." In November 1963, however, a three-ton cache of arms and ammunition was discovered on a Venezuelan beach, and some could be directly traced to Cuba. Furthermore, the motor on a small boat found nearby had been shipped from Canada to Cuba one month earlier. This was, the CIA pointed out, "The first certain instance of major Cuban involvement in the supply of arms to subversive elements in Latin American countries." The Cubans had thrown caution to the wind in this case because the stakes appeared high and the need urgent: the weapons were an indispensable part of the "Caracas Plan," a series of major military attacks that the Venezuelan guerrillas intended to launch in the capital to disrupt the December 1963 presidential elections and trigger a popular insurrection.
From 1961 to 1964, the degree of Cuban involvement in the guerrilla wars of Latin America varied. At one extreme was Argentina, where the Cubans prepared the 1963-64 insurgency and selected its leader; at the other, the 1963 guerrilla uprising in the Dominican Republic, where Cuban involvement was virtually nonexistent. In every case, however, Cuba helped those who were willing to fight, even if they did not belong to the local Communist Party. For Castro, the foco was the nucleus of the authentic revolutionary party.
Tilting at a Modus Vivendi
While supporting the guerrillas in Latin America, Castro also explored the possibility of some form of accommodation with the United States.
A new chapter began on September 18, 1963, when William Attwood, a Kennedy political appointee who was attached to the U.S. mission to the United Nations after serving as ambassador to Guinea, wrote a memorandum on Cuba. "This memorandum proposes a course of action which, if successful, could remove the Cuban issue from the 1964 [U.S. presidential] campaign," was the catchy beginning.
It does not propose offering Castro a "deal"--which could be more dangerous politically than doing nothing. It does propose a discreet inquiry into the possibility of neutralizing Cuba on our terms. . .
Since we do not intend to overthrow the Castro regime by military force, is there anything else we can do which might advance U.S. interests without risking charges of appeasement?
According to neutral diplomats and others I have talked to at the U.N. and in Guinea, there is reason to believe that Castro is unhappy about his present dependence on the Soviet bloc; that he does not enjoy being in effect a satellite; that the trade embargo is hurting him--though not enough to endanger his position; and that he would like to establish some official contact with the U.S. and go to some length to obtain normalization of relations with us--even though this would not be welcomed by most of his hard-core Communist entourage, such as Che Guevara.
All of this may or may not be true. But it would seem that we have something to gain and nothing to lose by finding out whether in fact Castro does want to talk and what concessions he would be prepared to make. . .
For the moment, all I would like is the authority to make contact with [Carlos] Lechuga [Cuba's chief delegate at the UN]. We'll see what happens then.
Attwood's proposal went to Robert Kennedy and McGeorge Bundy and then to the president. Attwood "obtained the president's approval . . . to make discreet contact with Dr. Lechuga," and Lechuga "hinted that Castro was indeed in a mood to talk."
After several weeks of discreet and intermittent contacts, on October 31 René Vallejo, Castro's personal physician and confidant, informed Attwood that Castro wanted to see him or any other U.S. envoy, "anytime and appreciated the importance of discretion to all concerned. . . . he wanted to do the talking himself." On November 11, Vallejo sent a second message. "He emphasized that only Castro and himself would be present at the talks and that no one else--he specifically mentioned Guevara--would be involved," Attwood told Gordon Chase, an NSC aide who was Bundy's point man on Cuba. "Vallejo also reiterated Castro's desire for this talk and hoped to hear our answer soon."
The next day Bundy told Attwood that the White House had decided to first hold preliminary talks with Cuban officials at the United Nations to find out what concessions the Cubans were willing to offer, "stressing the fact that, since we are responding to their invitation and are not soliciting a meeting, we would like to know more about what is on Castro's mind before committing ourselves to further talks in Cuba." On November 18, Attwood reported, "Vallejo informed me by telephone that instructions were being sent to the Cuban representative, Dr. Lechuga, to discuss an agenda with me." Three days later, in Havana, a prominent French journalist, Jean Daniel, had a lengthy conversation with Castro. "Jean Daniel is regarded by INR analysts as a reliable journalist who reports accurately what he hears," INR director Hughes wrote. According to Daniel, Castro had told him that "'Kennedy . . . has the possibility of becoming . . . the leader who may at last understand that there can be coexistence between capitalists and socialists, even in the Americas.'"
Perhaps, but the emphasis must be placed on "the possibility of becoming." What had taken place was only, as Bundy said, a "very tenuous, sensitive, and marginal" beginning, and at the same time, the paramilitary program against Castro was continuing. On November 12, Kennedy approved a CIA plan for "autonomous anti-Castro groups" to operate against Cuba from Nicaragua and Costa Rica, and "destruction operations . . . against a large oil refinery and storage facilities, a large electric plant, sugar refineries, railroad bridges, harbor facilities, and underwater demolition of docks and ships."
Ten days later, Kennedy was assassinated. ("It is likely," the CIA inspector general wrote, "that at the very moment President Kennedy was shot a CIA officer was meeting with a Cuban agent in Paris and giving him an assassination device for use against Castro.") "Basically, the events of November 22 would appear to make accommodation with Castro an even more doubtful issue than it was," Gordon Chase, the White House point man on Cuba, noted. "While I think that President Kennedy could have accommodated with Castro and gotten away with it with a minimum of domestic heat, I'm not sure about President Johnson. For one thing, a new president who has no background of being successfully nasty to Castro and the Communists (e.g. President Kennedy in October, 1962) would probably run a greater risk of being accused, by the American people, of 'going soft.'" On December 2, Lechuga told Attwood that "he had received a letter from Castro authorizing him to talk with me about certain problems 'in a general way,'" and inquired whether, in view of Kennedy's death, "we still wished to have such a talk. I told him I would let him know."
The new administration was not interested. "We never picked up . . . the message which Castro sent to Lechuga for us in November 1963," Chase remarked the following April. President Johnson was more interested in figuring out how, as he said, "to pinch their nuts more than we're doing." Reflecting the consensus of U.S. intelligence, McGeorge Bundy pointed out at a February 1964 White House meeting that "the chances are very good that we will still be living with Castro some time from now and that we might just as well get used to the idea. At the same time, we should probably continue our present nasty course; among other things, it makes life a little tougher for Castro and raises slightly the poor odds that he will come apart and be overthrown." Johnson stayed the course, continuing the paramilitary operations and the efforts to cripple the Cuban economy. "We want to make the industrial situation in Cuba grind to a halt," Dean Rusk told the British prime minister. Washington rejected renewed Cuban feelers in mid-1964.
An analysis written in early 1964 by the State Department's Policy Planning Council offers insight into the administration's state of mind. If Castro were to promise to desist from exporting revolution in the hemisphere, the document asked, "where would this leave us?" Assume, for example, that he went as far as to
abandon identifiable activities such as the training of nationals of other countries, the dissemination of insurrection propaganda, and insurrection inciting broadcasts. But could we have any assurance that once he had formally complied with our wishes and we had eased the pressures mounted against him, he would not quickly resume his previous course? . . . The problem is not alone that Communists in a situation like this literally and as a matter of principle on their part cannot be trusted. There is the added difficulty of the peculiar character of Castro and certain of his closest associates. Evidently revolution is their raison d'etre as political beings. We have every reason to believe that they no more could give up their revolutionary agitations and activities than they could stop breathing.
And this was not even the greatest threat, the document warned. "Perhaps of even greater moment is that the primary danger we face in Castro is not what he does in the way of distributing arms, disseminating propaganda, training subversives, and dispatching agents, but in the impact the very existence of his regime has upon the leftist movement in many Latin American countries." Presume, for example, that Castro did abandon all his efforts to export revolution, "would this lead to an improvement of the situation in Venezuela? The simple fact is that Castro represents a successful defiance of the US, a negation of our whole hemispheric policy of almost a century and a half. Until Castro did it, no Latin American could be sure of getting away with a communist-type revolution and a tie-in with the Soviet Union. As long as Castro endures, Communists in other Latin American countries can, to use Stalin's words, 'struggle with good heart.'"[ 66]
Would Castro have been willing to abandon support for armed struggle in Latin America? In early February 1964 he told Lisa Howard, an ABC correspondent who had played a significant role in the Attwood conversations: "Tell the President [Johnson] (and I cannot stress this too strongly) that I seriously hope that Cuba and the United States can eventually sit down in an atmosphere of goodwill and of mutual respect and negotiate our differences. I believe that there are no areas of contention between us that cannot be discussed and settled within a climate of mutual understanding. But first, of course, it is necessary to discuss our differences. I now believe that this hostility between Cuba and the United States is both unnatural and unnecessary--and it can be eliminated."
The next month a CIA report quoted a high-ranking Cuban official close to Foreign Minister Raúl Roa, a member of Castro's inner circle, saying that Roa had said, "Castro sincerely desires to enter negotiations with the United States with the aim of reducing tensions between the two countries" and that the Soviets were urging him in that direction. Furthermore, Castro "and leading Fidelistas" had concluded that "despite Soviet good will, Cuba cannot again achieve a state of prosperity with Soviet economic aid alone.'"
In August 1964 the British ambassador in Havana told the Foreign Office that he believed that Castro was "ready to give up subversion and lessen appreciably his dependence on the Communist world," provided that the United States would "in return call off the subversive measures taken against him" and cease its efforts to cripple Cuba's trade with third countries. Castro was not thinking "of cordial ties" with the United States and U.S. aid. "Even diplomatic relations may not be possible at the first stage." He would "pay the price of giving up subversion, in return for an attitude by the United States administration which he would call 'cold but correct.'"
It is impossible to know what Castro's intentions were because the United States consistently rebuffed his overtures. A modus vivendi with the United States would have lowered his international profile and curtailed his activism. It would have run counter to his sense of mission and his deep hostility to the United States. It would have, however, satisfied a deep longing. Tad Szulc, Castro's foremost biographer, stresses "the obsession of Fidel Castro to do away with human, social and economic underdevelopment in Cuba. . . . To eradicate underdevelopment . . . was, indeed, Castro's magnificent obsession from the beginning." INR's director Hughes wrote insightfully in the spring of 1964:
The combined weight of economic troubles, revolutionary failures, and Soviet pressures has created a difficult problem for Cuba's leaders. On the one hand, they are still dedicated revolutionaries, utterly convinced that they can and must bring radical change to Latin America some day. Many would rather be remembered as revolutionary martyrs than economic planners. Yet on the other hand these same men are aware that the current pressing problems demand amelioration that can only be brought by muting the call to revolution, by attempting to reach live and let live arrangements with the US, and by widening trade and diplomatic contacts with the free world.
Tension between the two paths, between peaceful coexistence and the call for violent revolution, will continue to exist within the Cuban hierarchy, both within and between individuals, for the foreseeable future.[a,71]
It would be fascinating to have Cuban sources to help assess whether this was, indeed, a missed opportunity, but, unfortunately, the Cubans have said nothing about their attempts to develop a modus vivendi with the United States in the 1960s, except for a very shallow and inaccurate account by Lechuga, and they have not declassified any of the relevant documents.
The 1964 Havana Conference
Spurned by the United States, Castro continued to support armed struggle in Latin America. But by 1964 he faced a string of setbacks. The most notable was the spectacular failure of the guerrillas in Venezuela to disrupt the country's December 1963 presidential elections. Guerrilla uprisings in Peru, Argentina, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic had been swiftly crushed. Castro's belief that a small guerrilla nucleus could set the forest ablaze had been wrong.[b] The security forces of the various Latin American countries were strong enough to annihilate the handful of guerrillas, and the modest aid Cuba could afford--a few weapons, a little money, some training--paled in comparison with the massive aid Kennedy gave to Latin American military and security forces. Bent on crushing the Castroite challenge, the Kennedy administration paid unprecedented attention to Latin America. It rewarded those Latin leaders it judged reliable allies in the anti-Communist crusade, be they democrats or autocrats, with economic aid and political support; and it undermined constitutional government whenever necessary to uphold pro-American stability--in Argentina, in Brazil, in British Guyana, in Guatemala. "The Kennedy administration . . . did not readily distinguish between political radicals loyal to Moscow and Havana and nationalist reformers," writes Stephen Rabe, author of the best study of Kennedy's Latin American policy. "Like Dwight Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles, the president and his advisers opted for the short-term security that anti-Communist elites, especially military officers, could provide over the benefits of long-term political and social democracy."
The Soviets understood the power of the army in Latin America. For a moment, they had been intrigued by the prospect of revolution in Latin America. In 1961-62 "Moscow was ambivalent about the merits of Castro's regional offensive," write two scholars who had access to the Soviet archives, but by 1964 this ambivalence was gone. As reciprocal disappointment set in, relations between Cuba and the Soviet Union grew strained. The Cubans found the industrial equipment and raw materials provided by the Soviets to be of poor quality, and Soviet technicians and bureaucrats arrogant; they resented Moscow's growing antipathy for armed struggle in Latin America and its interest in courting better relations with Washington even though the Americans were continuing their assault against Cuba.
The Soviets were also disappointed. Cuba was proving to be a far greater economic burden than they had anticipated, and Castro's foolhardy support for guerrilla warfare in Latin America complicated their relations with the United States. Furthermore, most Latin American Communist parties, Moscow's loyal followers, had come to resent Havana's encouragement of armed struggle in the hemisphere, irrespective of their wishes. Several of these parties, the CIA wrote, "made strong demarches to Moscow protesting Cuba's interference in revolutionary affairs of their own countries." With Soviet encouragement, Castro approved the convocation of "a highly secret extraordinary conference" of Latin American Communist parties in Havana in November 1964. The CIA reported that at the conference "the Soviets helped to work out a secret compromise agreement which called for support to insurgency efforts in a few Latin American countries, but specified that in all cases the local Communist party should determine whether violent or nonviolent means were to be pursued." A report from the GDR embassy in Havana confirms the CIA's assessment:
We have learned from reliable sources that Comrade Fidel Castro initially accused several Latin American parties of not being sufficiently aggressive: They should make the revolution, not wait for it. . .
The East German assessment was right: Castro's focus had shifted to Africa.
Several representatives of the Latin American parties answered vehemently that Cuba's harsh criticism was unjustified and that Cuban interference in their internal affairs, and the aid given by the Cuban leadership to radical, sectarian groups, had led, at times, to tragic consequences. . . Revolutions could not be generated according to one's wishes, but had to be prepared with the greatest care and attention to all the circumstances. Each respective party should determine, without outside interference, the form the struggle should take at any given time.
Comrade Fidel Castro listened to all this in silence and accepted all the criticism. By stressing the areas of agreement, the well-known and certainly positive results of the conference were achieved.
Even a hasty analysis of Fidel Castro's speech of January 2, 1965, shows that the Cubans have adopted a new stance toward Latin America. Except for a brief reference to the liberation wars in Venezuela and Guatemala, [Castro] referred to the underdeveloped countries only in generalities, stressing instead the liberation struggle in Asia and Africa. This is the first time that in a speech of this importance Latin American problems were not accorded special treatment. . . .
Since the Latin American party conference, Cuba has kept some distance from the Latin American liberation struggle. . . . For now it seems as if Cuba will try to compensate for this through a strong focus on Africa (including Asia).
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