Cuba, Race, Revolution, and Revisionism

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When Cuba’s serial and multiple African military interventions began in 1963 with Guinea-Bissau’s war of independence from Portugal, Fidel Castro selected black Cuban soldiers and conscripts to man his liberation regiments. Dead black bodies in Africa were less likely to be identified as Cuban, according to Norberto Fuentes, Castro’s resident writer and — at the time — official biographer, confidant, and a participant in the later Angolan wars.

Cuba’s African — and Latin American — adventures were made possible by agreements reached among the USSR, Cuba, and the United States to end the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. One of those protocols was a promise from the US that it would respect Cuban sovereignty and refrain from invading the island. To Castro, this was a green light to build Cuba’s armed forces for the liberation of the world’s downtrodden instead of having to concentrate his resources for the defense of the island.

Ochoa was the only subordinate who could speak uninhibitedly with, and even kid or tease, the humorless, haughty, and overbearing Fidel Castro.

However, when it came to deploying his black brigades, Castro found himself short of black commanders. Enter Arnaldo (“Negro”) T. Ochoa Sánchez.

Ochoa had been part of Castro's 26th of July Movement ever since its creation, and by March 1957 he had joined Castro's guerrilla army in the Sierra Maestra, fighting against the Batista dictatorship. It was then that Ochoa and Raúl Castro forged a close friendship, one that also led to a certain intimacy with Raúl’s brother, Fidel. According to Fuentes, in his book Dulces Guerreros Cubanos, Ochoa was the only subordinate he knew who could speak uninhibitedly with, and even kid or tease, Fidel Castro — a humorless, haughty, and overbearing caudillo.

Ochoa, of humble Oriente peasant origins, had distinguished himself in the Revolution and during the Bay of Pigs fiasco, subsequently attending the Matanzas War College and Frunze Military Academy in the Soviet Union and rising to the Cuban Communist Party’s Central Committee. But he really distinguished himself in the Ethiopia-Somalia conflict. Cuba aided Ethiopia in this USSR vs. China proxy war, since both boasted Marxist regimes. Ochoa brilliantly defeated the Somalis in the tank battle of the Ogaden. For that he was dubbed “the Cuban Rommel.”

The problem was that Ochoa wasn’t really “black,” a racial classification that could apply to almost anyone in Cuba, especially if one uses the rule of thumb once common in the United States: that anyone with any black ancestry, no matter how distant or dilute, is black. (This author’s DNA test reveals a 1–3% West African ancestry, a detail not noticeable in his phenotype.) Ochoa is very swarthy, in a Mediterranean sort of way; yet his phenotype fails to show any classic “Negroid” features. It was Raúl Castro who nicknamed him Negro (black) by bestowing on him a promotion to “Black” General. The Armed Forces Minister wanted a black commander for the black troops he sent to Africa because he lacked a qualified, real black general who would realize both his political and his military objectives.

Ochoa brilliantly defeated the Somalis in the tank battle of the Ogaden. For that he was dubbed “the Cuban Rommel.”

Now, Cuba’s armed forces actually did include black commanders, among them General Víctor Schueg Colás (see below) and Juan Almeida Bosque. Almeida was a veteran of the assault on the Moncada Army barracks that launched the 26th of July Movement. Along with the Castros, Almeida was caught, imprisoned, amnestied, and exiled to Mexico after that defeat. He was on the Granma yacht as it landed survivors in Cuba, and he fought against Batista in the Sierra Maestra mountains. Later he was promoted to head of the Santiago Column of the Revolutionary Army. Wikipedia, without any sense of irony, says that “he served as a symbol for Afro-Cubans of the rebellion's break with Cuba's discriminatory past.” In his book Como Llegó la Noche, Huber Matos, third in command of the Revolutionary armies after Fidel and Raúl — though later to be purged — describes Almeida as unsuited for military command, a “yes” man. He says that Fidel kept him purely for his loyalty and as a symbol of the Revolution’s inclusiveness of Afro-Cubans. Almeida was the only black commander during the Revolution. He was Fidel Castro’s token black.

Ochoa took the nickname Negro in stride and probably even affectionately, fully understanding the political rationale behind the dubbing. In this author’s opinion, his attitude towards race (and by extension, Fuentes’ attitude) is pretty representative of one general streak of Cuban racial attitudes. Here is my translation of Norberto Fuentes’ description of Ochoa’s reaction to the moniker:

Ochoa, besides being mestizo, was very obstinate. When anyone alluded to Raúl’s reason for the nickname — that the Minister didn’t have any competent, real black generals — Ochoa would begin to vigorously shake his head. And he would continue this stubbornness even when reminded of General Víctor Schueg Colás — el Negro Chué — as he was generally known: a black Cuban general.

Ochoa responded that “el Negro Chué was not a negro who was a general.”

“And what kind of BS is that, Arnaldo?” asked a member of the group.

“He is a general who is black, and that’s not the same thing as a black who is a general.”

For a second I [Fuentes] thought Ochoa was about to write a second volume to Alex Haley’s Roots. My mind reviewed the list of black Cuban generals.

“And what about Kindelán? And Silvano Colás? And Moracén? And Calixto García? And Francis?” I challenged him.

“None of those are either generals or black,” he declared.

“But then what the fuck are they, Arnaldo?”

“Fictions, my friend. Nothing more than nonsense,” he blithely answered.

If you, dear reader, can’t make sense of that, don’t worry. It’s Ochoa’s way of saying that race doesn’t matter, that race is irrelevant, that concerns about race are nonsense. One Cuban-American academic, quoted in Guarione Diaz’ The Cuban American Experience: Issues, Perceptions and Realities, averring that humor is an essential trait of the Cuban personality, describes the archetypal Cuban as “one who jokes about serious matters while taking jokes seriously.” In that vein, there is a deeper intent in Ochoa’s flippancy that Fuentes, in a stream of consciousness rant, then goes on to elaborate.

The Castros were recapitulating the trans-Atlantic slave trade in reverse: shackled by the ideological chains of a monomaniacal dictator and sent back to Africa.

His idea is that Ochoa, in his own irreverent way, was seeking redemption for the tragedy of Cuba’s “stoical, forced, brave, sweet and immense blacks” who had to carry — since 1965 — the full brunt of the Revolutionary Armed Forces’ guerrilla campaigns in Africa, because the Castros believed that dead black bodies in Africa couldn’t really be traced back to Cuba. They didn’t contemplate any POWs.

In Fuentes’ view, the Castros were recapitulating the trans-Atlantic slave trade in reverse: two centuries ago, in physical chains across the Atlantic to the Americas; in the late 20th century, shackled by the ideological chains of a monomaniacal dictator and sent back to Africa.

To Ochoa, race was a trivial issue; to the Castros it was an essential component of their revolutionary tool kit in their struggle for universal social justice. When, according to Diaz, Cubans began leaving the island in droves to escape the repressive regime, “the revolutionary government denied exit visas to Blacks more than to Whites to show the international community that Cuban Blacks supported the revolution and did not flee Cuba.”

Castro himself, coming down to Girón, interrogated the black prisoners — just before their sham execution — accusing them of treason both to their country and to their race.

The Castros’ revisionist racial attitude reared its ugly head again during the Bay of Pigs fiasco when the invading members of Brigade 2506 surrendered or were captured. Black prisoners were singled out for extra abuse. They were perceived as traitors since, in the Castro calculus, the Revolution had been fought — in part — for them. Haynes Johnson, in his book, The Bay of Pigs: The Leaders’ Story, adds that “of all prisoners, Negroes received the worst treatment.” They didn’t fit Castro’s Revolutionary narrative, and their presence on the invasion force infuriated him. He himself, coming down to Girón, interrogated them — just before their sham execution — accusing them of treason both to their country and to their race. Osmany Cienfuegos, a Minister in Castro’s government and brother of Revolutionary Commander Camilo Cienfuegos, second in popularity only to Fidel, lined them up against a wall and told them: “We’re going to shoot you now, niggers, then we’re going to make soap out of you.”

One notable exchange during the prisoners’ trial was with Tomás Cruz, a paratrooper of the 1st Battalion. “You, negro, what are you doing here?” Castro asked, reminding Cruz that the Revolution had been fought for people like him, and of the swimming restrictions at some tourist resort hotels before the Revolution (a pathetic concession to attract American tourists).

Cruz, with all the dignity he could muster, responded, “I don’t have any complex about my color or my race. I have always been among the white people, and I have always been as a brother to them. And I did not come here to go swimming.”

Black is White and White is Black

Broadly speaking, in Cuba, race — in this context meaning skin color — is a relatively unimportant issue, on par with other physical traits such as weight, height, pulchritude, hair color, and even disposition. Unlike in the US, where large proportions of black people distinguish themselves from the broader population with distinctive clothing, hair styles, music, linguistic flourishes, political attitudes, and other traits, all kinds of Cubans share cultural values, patois, styles of dress, music, etc. Even religious affiliation, which in the Unites States often makes a visible difference between the races, tends toward a high degree of syncretism, with ancestral roots and beliefs to the fore instead of any racial overtones — a theme that the Castro regime has falsely exploited by preferential treatment of Santeria over other religions, treating it as compensation to a previously “oppressed” race (in Castro’s revisionist ideology). American hypersensitivity to race is unknown in Cuba.

In Cuba, slaves could marry, own personal property, testify in court, and run businesses.

But how did race virtually disappear as a contentious issue in Cuba, while persisting until modern times in the United States — especially considering that the former eliminated slavery 21 years after the latter?

In spite of the awful conditions of the sugarcane fields, slavery under Spanish colonial rule was nothing like what it had become in the United States by the eve of the Civil War. According to historian Jaime Suchlicki in Cuba: From Columbus to Castro and Beyond, “Spanish law, the Catholic religion, the economic condition of the island, and the Spanish attitude toward the blacks all contributed to aid the blacks’ integration into Cuban society.” After all, the Spanish had lived for centuries under the comparatively tolerant rule of Moors.

In the American south, negritude — to any degree, i.e., the notorious “one drop rule” enacted in several states — equated skin color with a deprivation of rights. In Cuba, slaves could marry, own personal property, testify in court, and run businesses. One 18th-century observer noted that many had become skilled craftsmen, “not only in the lowest [trades] such as shoemakers, tailors, masons and carpenters, but also in those which require more ability and genius, such as silversmith’s craft, sculpture, painting and carving.”

Joining the US became a nonstarter during the US Civil War when Cubans realized how badly Negroes were treated in the South.

Additionally, Spain’s liberal manumission policy “resulted in almost 40% of African-Cubans being free in 1792,” reports Andro Linklater in his book on the evolution of private property, Owning the Earth. The diverging legal and social attitudes toward race in Cuba and in the US presaged future developments in each country. The paradoxical contrasts are striking. Whereas Reconstruction in the US institutionalized policies that had grown more nakedly racist since Independence — equating skin color with the presence or absence of rights and talents — the opposite was true in Cuba. Under the influence of the Catholic Church, the fundamental humanity of Africans was uncontroversially established early on; slavery and skin color were philosophically separated. In the time of Cuba’s Wars of Independence, Antonio Maceo, an Afro-Cuban, became second-in-command of the rebel armies.

At about the time of these wars, a notable segment of Cuban intellectuals favored the Texas model: declare independence from the colonial power and petition the US Congress for admission to the Union. The idea was so popular that the proposed Cuban flag was modeled on the Texas flag: a single star on the left, stripes on the right, and the whole rendered in red, white, and blue. However, joining the US became a nonstarter during the US Civil War when Cubans realized how badly Negroes were treated in the South. It wasn’t just the exploitation of slaves (which also happened in Cuba), but rather the contempt for dark skin color that denied a person’s humanity.

Cuba has always had an amorphous racial climate, one mostly misunderstood or puzzling to Americans. Racism, in the sense of hating or fearing a person for his skin color, is unknown. Skin color was never an impediment to respect. But skin tone snobbery (rarely surpassing trivial tut-tutting or even semi-serious priggishness) was not uncommon. Color gradations, like degrees of body mass index ranging from the skeletal to the morbidly obese, extended into categories of people Americans would consider “white,” with the too-pale also looked at askance, as if they were anemic and rickety.

Fulgencio Batista, while president, was denied membership in the Havana Yacht Club: he was considered too swarthy; although his son, Jorge Luis, was admitted. That he didn’t take the rejection personally and, as a dictator, did not take reprisals, is inconceivable to an American. Instead, the president donated a marina to the Havana Biltmore Yacht & Country Club, as swanky a venue if not more, and, voila! he and his family became members of that club.

Racism, in the sense of hating or fearing a person for his skin color, is unknown in Cuba. Skin color was never an impediment to respect.

This nonchalant — politically-correct Americans might say insensitive — attitude is related to Cubans’ tendency to nickname everyone, even strangers. A person with epicanthic folds will be called Chino, a very black man Negro, a fat person Gordo (my own nickname after immigration), a starkly white-skinned person Bolita de Nieve (Snowball), a skinny woman Flaca, a large-nosed man Ñato, a full-lipped person Bembo (hence, Negro Bembón for a full-lipped black man), a pug-nosed man Chato . . . You get the picture.

But the irreverence also gets manifested post-ironically, in the same vein as Ochoa’s nonchalant whimsy: a very black man might be nicknamed Blanco or Bolita de Nieve, a fat woman Flaca (skinny), and so on.

My favorite example of this is Luis Posada Carriles’ nickname. Posada Carriles, a Cuban exile militant, is considered a terrorist by the FBI. He is generally thought to be responsible for the bombing of Cubana flight 455 in 1976, which killed 73, including 24 members of Cuba’s National Fencing Team. In addition, Posada Carriles is said to have been involved in the planning of six bombings at Havana hotels and restaurants during 1997. His rap sheet is much too long repeat here. Posada Carriles’ nickname? Bambi.

But I digress. Overtones of Americans’ racial (a term I hesitate to use, as you’ll see below) attitudes are making inroads into the Cuban-American experience. One white Cuban-American informant admitted to being fearful of and avoiding groups of black men after dark in the US, a behavior that had never crossed his mind back in Cuba. Would one call his reaction in the US “racism”? I wouldn’t. I’d call it adaptability based on experience, a phenomenon that black economist Thomas Sowell has explicitly addressed in his writings.

The Color of Culture

Americans, both black and white, are quick to cry racism in any untoward exchange between people of different hues when someone is being a boor or a snob or experiencing a misunderstanding or, more often than not, when mild ethnocentricity is at work. Ethnocentricity . . . a big word that simply means the tendency of most people to exercise a preference for congregating with like-minded, like-speaking, like-dressing and like-looking people — people they can easily “relate to.” Expressed hierarchically, people’s instinctive loyalty is first to their family, then to their clan (extended family), town, state, religion, in-group, political party, culture, nation, etc. One can see this in the popular slogans “buy local” and “buy American.”

Imagine you’re a small business owner looking for a sales rep. You interview two applicants, one black and one white. The white applicant is sloppily dressed, needs a shower, doesn’t speak clearly, and seems distracted. The black applicant, on the other hand, is fully engaged, is dressed smartly, and seems keen to join your operation. It’s a no-brainer — the black applicant has more in common with you; skin color is not a factor.

We all share a tendency to look at other cultures solipsistically: we see through the lens of our own values, evaluating people according to preconceptions originating in our own standards and customs.

Now imagine the opposite scenario: The black applicant displays plumber’s crack, reeks, and is unintelligible; while the white wears a coat and tie, speaks in your local accent and displays overwhelming enthusiasm. Again, a no-brainer, with skin color again not a factor; instead of that, it is shared values that determine your choice.

Ethnocentrism does, however, have its extremes, the ones you’ll most often come across in a dictionary, without the nuances of an Anthropology 101 course. The first — and one that we all share to some degree — is a tendency to look at other people and cultures solipsistically: we see through the lens of our own culture and values, evaluating other cultures according to preconceptions originating in the standards and customs of our own milieu. More extreme is the belief in the inherent superiority of one's own ethnic group or culture — an attitude that, taken to an absurd limit, can breed intolerance, chauvinism, and violence.

The Origin of Races

What is race? One doesn’t need to understand race in order to be a racist or accuse someone of racism. Contrary to popular opinion, skin color is not a determining factor of race. H. Bentley Glass and Ching Chun Li were able to calculate from blood group data that North American Negroes have about 31% white ancestry (cited in Stanley M. Garn and Charles C. Thomas, Readings on Race [1968]). For practical or political reasons, biologists and physical anthropologists are divided as to the validity of the concept.

First, the more practical biologists. In biology, race is equivalent to variety, breed, or sub-species. In a nutshell, it is incipient speciation. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, race is “a group of living things connected by common descent or origin” — as uncontroversial and far from the whole-picture definition as one can dream up. But to understand race one first has to understand species.

Contrary to popular opinion, skin color is not a determining factor of race.

A species is a group of living organisms consisting of similar individuals capable of exchanging genes or interbreeding. The species is the principal natural taxonomic unit, just below genus — yet even this is by no means a simple or clear-cut concept. Think of horses, donkeys, mules, Jennies, zebras and zorses (a horse-zebra hybrid); or dogs, wolves and coyotes. These animals can interbreed, with various rates of fertility success, but do not normally interbreed in the wild. To account for this, the classic definition of species was amended by the addition of a qualifier, that the group of organisms in question must not only be able to interbreed but must also do so regularly and not under extraordinary or artificial circumstances.

To further complicate things (or was it to simplify?), Ernst Mayr, one of the 20th century’s leading evolutionary biologists and taxonomists, formulated the theory of ring species (aka formenkreis) in 1942 to explain a natural anomaly in the distribution of closely related populations. According to Wikipedia, “a ring species is a connected series of neighboring populations, each of which can interbreed with closely sited related populations, but for which there exist at least two ‘end’ populations in the series, which are too distantly related to interbreed, though there is a potential gene flow between each ‘linked’ population.”

The term ‘ring species’ is a vestigial remnant of some of the first ring species identified, but the populations need not be in a ring shape. Examples include the circumpolar Larus herring gull complex, Ensatina salamanders, the house mouse, trumpet fish, drosophila flies, deer mice, and many other bird, slugs, butterflies, and others. Most natural populations are bedeviled by such complexities, including our closest relative, Pan troglodytes, among whom the East African subspecies shweinfurthii is separated by the Congo River and half a continent from the West African variant verus.

Gould believed that the concept of "race" had been used to persecute certain human groups to such an extent that it should be eliminated.

So that brings us back to race, or incipient speciation. Charles Darwin, in Origin of Species, identified the speciation process as occurring when a subpopulation of organisms gets separated from the larger group, fails to interbreed with them, and interbreeds strictly with itself. This process increases the smaller group’s genetic complement while reducing — again, within the smaller group — the larger group’s greater genetic diversity. The eventual result may be that the smaller group becomes distinct enough to form a new species. This part of the process is labeled “genetic drift.”

Two other factors usually contribute to speciation: genetic mutation and adaptation (through natural selection) to a new environment or way of life. Here “adaptation” does not carry the sense of individuals “getting accustomed to” a new situation but rather the sense of individuals carrying genes that are detrimental in that situation dying before they procreate — in time deleting those genes from the smaller group. This is called “natural selection.” After a subgroup separates from the main population and before it becomes a new species…this is when the term “race” properly applies.

But Darwin understood the limitations:

Certainly no clear line of demarcations has as yet been drawn between species and sub-species — that is, the forms which in the opinion of some naturalists come very near to, but do not quite arrive at the rank of species; or, again, between sub-species and well-marked varieties, or between lesser varieties and individual differences. These differences blend into each other in an insensible series; and a series impresses the mind with the idea of an actual passage.

Of course, a race may never become a new species; it may well, for any number of reasons, reintegrate back into the main population — which brings us back to human races and the more political anthropological concepts.

Some experts, the late Marxist paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould to the fore, believed that race, as applied to humans, was unhelpful, even invalid. He believed that the concept had been used to persecute certain human groups to such an extent that it should be eliminated. And forget “variety” (humans aren’t flowers) and “breed” (they aren’t dogs) and “subspecies” (the Nazis’ use of unter ruined that prefix).

On the other side stand the Physical Anthropologists (Stanley Garn, Paul T. Baker, Bentley Glass, Joseph S. Weiner, et al.) with the late physical anthropologist Carleton S. Coon, who pioneered the scientific study of human races under the Darwinian paradigm of adaptive and evolutionary processes.

Coon divided Homo sapiens into five races with origins in some distant past, distant enough that genetic and phenotypical differences appeared: the Caucasoid, Congoid, Capoid, Mongoloid and Australoid races. These had diverged not only because of genetic drift, but also as adaptations to their local conditions. The oldest races were the darkest: African Blacks, Australoids and Papuans; while whites, Asians, Pacific Islanders, and American Indians diverged later. Skin color varied according to sun exposure. For example, northern European climates favored fair skin to improve Vitamin D synthesis, while dark skin was a shield from Vitamin D overdose. However, in extremely hot and sunny climes such as the Sahel, too-black a skin would tend to heat a body too much, favoring a more swarthy tone. Along the lands of the upper Nile, tall, lanky bodies helped radiate accumulated heat.

When sickle-cell anemia was discovered in white populations, it clinched the notion that racial adaptations were responses to local environments and independent of adaptations such as skin color

On the other hand, the Inuit were physically well adapted to extreme cold: compact bodies to conserve heat; little facial hair to prevent frozen breath condensation that might freeze the face; lightly protruding noses to protect it from freezing; epicanthic eye folds to reduce the area of the eyes to the elements and yellow or yellow-brown skin. The yellow skin likely evolved as an adaptation to cold temperatures in northern Asia. The yellow color resulted from a thick layer of subcutaneous fat, visible through translucent outer layers of skin.

A more recent adaptation was lactose tolerance, which apparently evolved in whites, permitting adult consumption of milk following the domestication of cattle about 6,000 B.C. But one of the most curious adaptations was sickle cell anemia, a debilitating genetic disease that nonetheless provided partial immunity to malaria to the carrier of one allele. First discovered in black African populations, it was first considered a Negroid feature. However, when it was discovered in white circum-Mediterranean populations, it clinched the notion that racial adaptations were responses to local environments and independent of other adaptations such as skin color — a curious vestigial association from more unenlightened times.

Coon’s classifications — mostly unbeknownst to him because the later fine points post-dated him — were already a mélange built on a vast diversity of prehistoric Homo: neanderthalensis, sapiens, denisovans, floriensis, erectus, habilis, etc. Some scholars define these as separate species, others as separate races. I would argue that it is impossible to define an extinct species within a genus from bone remains alone. (Conversely, albeit ironically, modern skeletal remains often yield their race.) DNA researcher Svante Päävo, one of the founders of paleogenetics and a Neanderthal gene expert, has opined that the ongoing “taxonomic wars” over whether Neanderthals were a separate species or subspecies as the type of debate that cannot be resolved, “since there is no definition of species perfectly describing the case.”

Human evolution, ignoring all the tedious debates, continues to surprise us.

Luckily, some Neanderthal DNA has been sequenced and it was discovered that Sapiens includes some of those brutes’ genetic material — about 2% — in northern European populations. In our history, studies suggest there may have been three episodes of interbreeding. The first would have occurred soon after modern humans left Africa. The second would have occurred after the ancestral Melanesians had branched off — these people seem to have thereafter bred with Denisovans, 90% of whose genetic material is extant in modern Sapiens. The third would have involved Neanderthals and the ancestors of East Asians only, whose percentage of Neanderthal genetic material nears 20%.

One difficulty with Coon was his overly distinct racial categories. To some degree he realized this, even while recognizing many subraces, racial mixtures, and incipient formenkreis (before the phenomenon had a name). The problem was that these incipient races kept interbreeding at their verges (and even farther afield; consider Vikings, Mongols, and Polynesians), and accelerating racial mixture after 1500, when human populations began interbreeding willy-nilly, because of globalization.

And that, dear reader, is why Gould and others eschew human racial classifications.

Meanwhile, human evolution, ignoring all the tedious debates, continues to surprise us. The April 21 issue of The Economist reports the discovery of a new human racial variant in the Malay Archipelago. The Bajau people spend almost all of their lives at sea. “They survive on a diet composed almost entirely of seafood. And . . . spend 60% of their working day underwater . . . They sometimes descend more than 70 meters (240 feet) and can stay submerged for up to five minutes . . . They have lived like this for at least 1,000 years.” The evidence suggests strongly that these astonishing abilities are genetic, the result of mutations and natural selection.

The Bajau spleen, an organ that acts as an emergency reserve of oxygenated red blood cells, is 50% larger than those of neighboring populations — “a difference unconnected with whether an individual was a prolific diver or one who spent most of his time working above the waves on a boat. This suggests that it is the Bajau lineage rather than the actual activity of diving, which is responsible for a larger spleen,” continues The Economist.

There is nothing in any of this to suggest that race should be used for political purposes by governments and demagogues — Hitler, Castro, and others.

DNA analysis tells a similar story: a series of Bajau genetic mutations controls blood flow preferentially to oxygen-starved vital organs; another that slows the build-up of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream and one that controls muscle contractions around the spleen.

What to make of all this? Human racial differences, both behavioral and phenotypic, exist and are worth studying: for medicine, forensic science, DNA studies and just for basic scientific knowledge. Genes are not destiny; they encode broad parameters for modification, in the uterine environment, through nurturing, and now through technology (for better or worse). There is nothing in any of this to suggest that race should be used for political purposes by governments and demagogues — Hitler, Castro, and others.

Will Americans in general ever achieve Arnaldo Ochoa’s insouciance about race? We can only hope. After a Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, Reconstruction, the Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow, segregation, and Civil Rights, we’re now experiencing a heightened sensitivity in the finer details of race relations — probably a good indication of the tremendous progress that has been made in the fundamentals.




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Run for the (Sea)Wall

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Every Memorial Day for the past 30 years a now-grizzled convoy of Viet Nam vets astride choppers swarms the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. Groups of two, ten, twenty and more, hailing from every corner of the continent, converge at minor and major crossroads into a host of hundreds of thousands. This grassroots commemoration is known as the Run for the Wall. It was started in 1989 by two vets on Harleys. By last count the run numbers 350,000.

At the nation’s capital, Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force; enlistees and draftees; non-coms and warriors; enlisted men and officers, relatives and sympathizers; WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Granada, Afghanistan, Iraq, and, yes, Bay of Pigs vets (everyone is welcome) — all long in the tooth, mostly hirsute, amply girthed and outfitted in Harley Davidson garb — cry like spurned orphans as their fingers graze the black granite of remembrance searching for the names of long lost comrades. The tears are contagious. Onlookers mist up or avert their gaze in respect and abide the circumstance.

The men harbored much resentment and bad blood: against Castro for their inhumane treatment; against Kennedy for condemning the operation to defeat.

This past Christmas Eve, an entirely different group of vets commemorated its 55th anniversary of freedom. On Christmas Eve, 1962, the last of the 1,113 Bay of Pigs POWs of Brigade 2506 were released after nearly two years of incarceration in Fidel Castro’s prisons. My cousins Carlos “Cachorro” León Acosta and Armando “Armandito” Lastra Faget, both 19, were the first to taste liberty that day. For Carlos, that was the night he was born again.

The Brigade had signed up to liberate Cuba from Castro’s communist fist. For a variety of reasons, and in spite of inflicting nearly 5,000 casualties on the Castro troops and suffering only 67 combat deaths, the Brigade was unable to achieve its goal.

Contrary to the narrative Fidel Castro has popularized — that the Bay of Pigs operation was a US CIA invasion manned by mercenaries — the true nature of that debacle has seldom been put into words. This is mainly because the freed prisoners were sworn to press silence, to avoid offending either the Castro or the Kennedy government and imperiling nascent and fragile agreements between the two countries. The men harbored much resentment and bad blood: against Castro for their inhumane treatment; against Kennedy for condemning the operation to defeat.

Fidel knew this was a Cuban vs. Cuban affair, and that if his forces fired on the US, the behemoth would retaliate and taps would sound on his revolution.

In contrast to Castro’s narrative, the true version is that the Bay of Pigs invasion was part of a civil war in which one side was supplied with arms, money, and training by the USSR, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia, while the other side was supplied with the same kit by the US, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. If anyone doubts this version, let him examine the event’s rules of engagement, to which both sides scrupulously adhered: US forces never fired a shot at Castro’s combatants, and Castro’s forces never attacked offshore US support ships. Fidel knew this was a Cuban vs. Cuban affair, and that if his forces fired on the US, the behemoth would retaliate and taps would sound on his revolution.

The Bay of Pigs was the second climax in a Cuban civil war that began on March 10, 1952 when Fulgencio Batista wrested control of Cuba in a coup. Immediately, a variety of disparate groups declared resistance to the new regime, Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement being only one of many. The first climax in these civil wars was Castro’s triumph over Batista on December 31, 1958.

Within four days of Castro’s victory, a nascent resistance — reading the writing on the wall and unrelated to the Batista regime — declared against Castro. The Bay of Pigs invasion two and a half years later was the second climax in the ongoing civil war.

Whenever the next climax occurs and whatever it brings, it will be peaceful.

The Bay of Pigs veterans are dwindling in numbers, many having added their eternal energy toward Cuba’s liberation. Only 550 are left. My cousin Armandito died in 2010. The latest to pass away was Maximo “Ñato” Cruz just a short while ago, on November 26. Cruz was an exceptional hero, the leader of F Company, 2nd Battalion, who distinguished himself in combat during the Battle of the Rotonda to such a degree that he received the only battlefield promotion during the fight.

Whenever the next climax occurs and whatever it brings, it will be peaceful. All of the exile and resident anti-Castro groups have renounced violence in achieving their aim of a free and democratic Cuba.

To commemorate the 55th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs veterans’ release, a small group of vets and vets’ relatives — in sincere flattery and imitation of the Run for the Wall ride — participated in a real (pedal) bike ride from the Bay of Pigs Memorial in Little Havana to Key West — as close to Cuba as possible. We called this our Run for the (Sea)Wall. Here’s my account of the journey.

Forget Little Havana and Calle Ocho — they’re full of gringo and European tourists. All of south Florida has become Cubanized. Ubiquitous are Cuban coffee (espresso brewed with sugar), Cuban sandwiches (roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, and pickles stacked between sliced French bread and ironed in a plancha, a waffle press-like flat grill), and black beans (as a standard side in nearly all restaurants). We heard Spanish more often than English, though everyone, except for the very recent arrivals (mostly Venezuelans), speaks both languages and uses them interchangeably. Unlike immigrant enclaves elsewhere, south Florida is no “enclave” of struggling refugees lacking in skills, knowledge, or financial nous and isolated from its native residents. On the contrary, the mélange is dynamic, inspiring, and surprisingly free of cross-cultural frictions.

My wife Tina and I left Boca Raton on fully loaded bikes in a drizzly dawn, aiming first for Miami. We’d been staying with my Venezuelan cousin, Marta, who’d finally gotten her green card two years ago. Our next destination was Key Biscayne, 72 miles away, where another cousin, MariCris — a Cuban this time — would put us up at her corporate condo.

Forget Little Havana and Calle Ocho — they’re full of gringo and European tourists. All of south Florida has become Cubanized.

We reached Key Biscayne in one day, and on the next met with the president of the Bay of Pigs Veterans Association, Humberto “Chino” Argüelles, and a handful of veterans and family members at the Casa, the museum and headquarters of Brigade 2506. I was presented with a Brigade 2506 emblem and flag. One 82-year-old vet, Emilio “Ernesto Guerra” Martinez Venegas, had not been a member of the invasion force. Instead, he’d been a key participant in the subsequent infiltration programs, had been captured, and had spent 15 years in Castro’s prisons.

After touring the Casa and meeting with some of the veterans, we proceeded to Calle Ocho’s Bay of Pigs Monument, where — over the noise of traffic and tourist passersby — I explained the purpose of our ride: “Today we don’t mourn [the fighters’] defeat; we celebrate their freedom.” Our ride was "in remembrance of the patriots who gave their life, fortunes, and honor for Cuba’s liberty. Today we are all Cubans. Viva Cuba Libre!”

Launch of the ride. L to R: Carlos "Cachorro" León; the author; Humberto "el Chino" Arguelles. At the eternal flame, Bay of Pigs Memorial, Little Havana, Miami.Launch of the ride. L to R: Carlos "Cachorro" León; the author; Humberto "el Chino" Arguelles. At the eternal flame, Bay of Pigs Memorial, Little Havana, Miami.

One passing Danish tourist, captivated by the event, offered to photograph our entire group in front of the monument. Carlos, a veteran paratrooper of the Bay of Pigs (and the cousin earlier mentioned) handed over his camera. Afterward, the Dane asked Carlos if he’d fought “on the Cuban side.” The query was symptomatic of how pervasively the Castro narrative has permeated the public. Carlos, momentarily baffled yet no stranger to such ignorance, just answered “Yes.”

He then offered to take his family members to lunch. I suggested Versailles, the iconic Cuban exile restaurant where the movers and shakers of the Cuban community had met for years to impress one another, argue politics, and concoct financial and insurrectional plans. He gave me the same look he’d given the Danish tourist, saying, “Versailles’ food is no longer what it used to be; Cubans no longer go there; it’s a tourist magnet with long lines. I know a better place.”

He led us to a Spanish restaurant full of old Cubans — all of whom he knew — taking advantage of the $12.95 set lunch, and introduced Tina and me to all of them. He flirted with the waitress — he was a regular — and she reparteed back. After she took our order, Carlos leaned over and said, “She’s Russian.” The fortyish blonde was the daughter of minor Russian functionaries once assigned to Cuba, where she’d grown up and learned Spanish.

The query was symptomatic of how pervasively the Castro narrative has permeated the public.

After a delicious meal of caldo gallego, merluza a la plancha and flan, we went to Books&Books in Coral Gables. It’s the flagship of south Florida’s best book store, and a microcosm of south Florida’s intellectual milieu. Books&Books is old fashioned: huge, rambling, encyclopedic — with books arranged thematically, irrespective of language, on the same dark oak shelves — liberal with easy chairs for tome dipping, and hosting a sophisticated coffee and snack bar. The staff is multilingual, knowledgeable, and very helpful. Apparently, the many customers in the aisles were unaware of the “death of the independent book store.” (And yes, they carried my book, Closing the Circle: A Memoir of Cuba, Exile, the Bay of Pigs and a Trans-Island Bike Journey. Whew!)

The next day we saddled up early and headed for the Florida Keys, along Miami’s M-path, a dedicated bike trail under the city’s elevated tramway. Carlos met us partway on his bike for a photo op along a defile of Royal Palms, the Cuban national tree. Because of injuries acquired at the butt end of a rifle from a sadistic guard in Castro’s Modelo Prison, Carlos has to lay down his bike, step into its triangular frame, lift it up, and step out of the frame to straddle the bike in order to mount it. Afterward we joined him for breakfast at the Rinconcito Cubano, an unassuming breakfast and lunch joint where, again, he knew all the patrons and waitresses and introduced us to them all.

Armandito had been an outsized character at the Battle of the Rotonda in the Bay of Pigs operation, muscling a .30 caliber tripod machine gun continuously during the 48-hour siege of Playa Larga.

By lunchtime we reached Homestead, home of the Air Force base that welcomed the freed Bay of Pigs prisoners back on that Christmas Eve in 1962. Alina Lastra, sister of my late cousin Armandito Lastra, met us along the dedicated, tarmacked bike path. Armandito had been an outsized character at the Battle of the Rotonda in the Bay of Pigs operation, muscling a .30 caliber tripod machine gun continuously during the 48-hour siege of Playa Larga. Again, we took pictures — this time with the Brigade 2506 flag and a rendition of the MAGA hat with “America” replaced by “Cuba.”

But now we faced the Everglades’ aptly named Overseas Highway, a single traffic lane each way, with a divider, over 20 miles long, connecting the tip of Florida to Key Largo over swampland and sea. But that is merely the first key in an improbable island chain that stretches 113 miles to Key West (Cayo Hueso). Luckily, the shoulder was six feet wide — wide enough to shield us from the impatient, albeit 55 MPH controlled, continuous traffic. Boring and stressful!

Key West was first connected to the road grid in 1928, with a couple of intermittent ferries. All the bridges along the way, including the famous seven-mile bridge, were completed and open to traffic in 1938, when FDR toured the finished highway. We did not enjoy the amenities of his tour, but after a 64-mile day, we were relieved to find a motel on Key Largo and indulge in a pricey blackened Yellowtail dinner.

An iguana, on the way. It would be hard to leave him out.

An iguana, on the way. It would be hard to leave him out.

Of course, winter’s cold seldom finds the Florida Keys. New Year’s Eve welcomed us with 70 degree temperatures under bright sunshine in the morning. Hurricane Irma debris lined Highway 1 and sometimes blocked the adjacent bike path, a dedicated trail that often included its own connecting bridges separate from the vehicular bridges. Fishermen, some with tents and BBQs, lined these long bike and pedestrian spans. At times we had to dodge colorful iguanas, which otherwise mostly sunbathe on abandoned abutments and supporting berms, scurrying away when troubled.

Fifty-two miles to Marathon Key. Our tiredness and the isolation of our motel shielded us from the New Year's celebrations — raucous in a population given to no-shirts, no-shoes, and lots of recreational boozing.

* * *

Over the years Key Largo and Marathon Key have played a little-publicized but outsized role in US-Cuba relations. After the serial imposition of progressively stricter US embargos on the island, the Castro nomenclatura found itself in want of both luxuries and specialty technical apparatus. Even when these items could be obtained through convoluted schemes involving passthrough countries or ingenious smuggling, little foreign exchange was available to pay for them. So Fidel — or someone close to him who provided plausible deniability to the Comandante en Jefe — came up with a two-part idea implemented by the De la Guardia twins, Tony and Patricio, heroes of the Angola war, with popular (second only to Fidel) General Arnaldo “Negro” Ochoa, also from the Angola (and Somalia) war playing a supporting role.

Some funds for the operation were generated by charging Colombian drug runners a safe passage fee when traversing Cuban territorial waters. These funds were laundered by Fidel’s criminal asylee, Robert Vesco, the fugitive financier. Another part of the scheme involved stealing luxury yachts from Florida marinas. Since these were heavily insured and were owned, after all, by rich capitalists, the insurance companies reimbursed the owners promptly, and little fuss ensued. As Nobel-nominated author Norberto Fuentes, best friend with Ochoa and Tony De la Guardia, relates in his book, Dulces Guerreros Cubanos, the yachts were then employed in the “Caribbean Express,” smuggling Marlboros, specialty arms, and technology obtained through the services of shady Florida arbitragers and go-betweens. The delivery, loading, payment, and shipping took place on Key Largo and Marathon Key. Everyone involved skimmed and squirreled away thousands of dollars (the principals, hundreds of thousands of dollars) — insurance policies, commissions and brokerage fees being frowned upon in socialist Cuba.

Since these stolen yachts were heavily insured and were owned, after all, by rich capitalists, the insurance companies reimbursed the owners promptly, and little fuss ensued.

In 1989, for reasons that I can’t — yet — quite understand, Ochoa, the De la Guardia twins, and author Fuentes, all intimates of the Castros, were purged in a series of show trials reminiscent of Stalin’s in the 1930s. The charges had to do with drugs; the ostensible reason was the Castros’ desire to improve their image before international opinion. But there were other, murkier reasons, all too complex to elaborate here.

Ochoa and Antonio De la Guardia went to the firing squad. When Raúl Castro announced the verdict to Cuba’s rubberstamp constituent assembly, he was drunk and tearful and wore a bullet-proof vest; Arnaldo Ochoa was one of his best friends. Norberto Fuentes was saved through the special pleading of Fidel’s friend, Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Colombian writer. Fuentes now lives in Miami surrounded by his Castro-era memorabilia, in the same building as my cousin Carlos’ son. Fuentes and Carlos were schoolmates before the Revolution.

And the stolen luxury yachts? These became part of the fleet that takes rich tourists out on exclusive fishing excursions around Cuba.

* * *

The run down to Key West, at 48 miles, was our shortest — and most expensive, with a basic Best Western room costing over $300, not untypical of Key West prices. Carlos tells a story of impetuously driving down to Key West 30 years ago on New Year’s Eve for his honeymoon. At the first likely lodging he encountered, he inquired about a room. The attendant asked if he had a reservation.

“No,” answered the newlyweds. The attendant immediately began laughing. Carlos avers that, to this day, the man is still laughing. He adds that every subsequent motel they tried — even as they then began driving back to Miami — was fully booked. Nevertheless, we had our Best Western room and at 5 p.m. headed for El Siboney, a popular Cuban restaurant only two blocks away, hoping to avoid the crowds that are given to much later, Latin eating habits. Still, Tina and I — by now our small group had been reduced to just the two of us, for a variety of reasons, most having to do with age, health and the holidays — had to wait in line.

End of the ride. Author and his wife unfurling the Brigade 2506 flag, Key West.End of the ride. Author and his wife unfurling the Brigade 2506 flag, Key West.

Then, on January 2, at dawn, we packed up and headed the three blocks to the monument that marks the southernmost point of the US and declares in bold print, “90 Miles to Cuba.” It was a blustery day with tourists already posing before the giant faux buoy for pictures. We waited our turn. Then we posed our bikes before the monument, unfurled the Brigade 2506 flag, and recited José Martí’s La Rosa Blanca:

Cultivo una rosa blanca                            I cultivate a white rose
en junio como en enero                              in June as in January
para el amigo sincero                                 for the sincere friend
que me da su mano franca.                        that proffers his open hand.
Pero para el cruel que me arranca             But for the knave that rips out
el corazón con que vivo,                             the heart that gives me life,
cardo ni ortiga cultivo,                              I cultivate neither thistle nor nettle,
cultivo la rosa blanca.                               I cultivate a white rose.

I then pivoted towards Cuba, saluted the Castros with a single finger, folded our flag, and headed back to Boca.

* * *

After enduring nearly two years in Castro’s prisons, 240 out of approximately 1,400 Bay of Pigs veterans enlisted in the US military. Most fought in Vietnam. Both operations ended in defeat. Both sets of vets were widely spurned upon their return to the United States. But that attitude is finally changing.




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Temporization Fugit

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As speculated in a June 7 feature here, President Trump today (June 16) announced, before a packed Miami crowd, a big change in US-Cuba policy. Though tourism to the island by American-based visitors has been technically banned by the embargo for quite some time, the 2014 Obama thaw fudged the issue in a variety of ways. President Trump has just dumped the fudge.

Pre-Obama’s thaw, regulations allowed Americans to visit Cuba under a variety of categories, including a people-to-people category — once their itinerary had been vetted by the Treasury Department. Under that category, only organized tour groups with a detailed itinerary were allowed to visit, with the intent of American folks and Cuban folks getting to know each other.

Compliance with the travel regulations in all categories will be strictly enforced.

On December 2014, President Obama eliminated the vetting process and allowed visitors to vet themselves on an honor system. At the same time, visitors returning from the island weren’t scrutinized, only questioned perfunctorily or not at all, about their compliance with US government regulations.

According to CNBC, “President Trump's policy restricts this form of travel to Cuba for individuals. Americans pursuing this type of travel would have to go in groups.” And their compliance with the travel regulations in all categories will be strictly enforced.

But the ultimate aim of the new policy is to restrict American tourist dollars going to businesses owned by the Cuban military's holding company, GAESA. "The profits from investment and tourism flow directly to the military. The regime takes the money and owns the industry. The outcome of the last administration's executive action has only been more repression and a move to crush the peaceful, democratic movement," Trump said in Miami on Friday.

The ultimate aim of the new policy is to restrict American tourist dollars going to businesses owned by the Cuban military's holding company.

According to Fox News, The policy calls on Americans traveling to Cuba to use "private businesses and services provided by the Cuban people, rather than businesses and services provided by GAESA." In effect, government hotels and resorts are out. US-based visitors must use private B&Bs and restaurants otherwise known as casas particulares and paladares.

The new policy does not go into effect until the new regulations are issued. We await the Cuban government’s reaction . . .




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Talk Tough but Temporize

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During the 2016 presidential campaign Donald Trump criticized President Obama’s Cuba policy and promised to reverse it. However, after Trump’s win, during the transition, “he and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson privately expressed support for Obama’s Cuba policy,” according to a June 2 ABC News report.

In typical Trump fashion, the candidate talked tough but the president is keeping his options open as he educates himself on the issues. And in typical government fashion, a “policy review” under the auspices of the National Security Council was set up to study the issues. It was supposed to report its recommendations on May 20, the 115th anniversary of Cuban independence, but the issues turned out to be more complex than originally envisioned, and Saudi Arabia — President Trump’s location on that hallowed day — didn’t seem like an appropriate venue to berate Cuba on its human rights record.

Yes, that’s right: in a Wilsonian-Carterian flourish, Trump’s Cuba policy “will have important differences with respect to that of Barack Obama, especially with a ‘major emphasis’ on human rights,” according to Francisco Palmieri, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America.

Saudi Arabia — President Trump’s location on the appointed day — didn’t seem like an appropriate venue to berate Cuba on its human rights record.

It seems — to a cynic who might ignore the president’s ostensible, stated reason — that Trump’s thrust is based on two objectives. One is the aim, originating in a gut reaction, to reverse anything Obama did; the other is more nakedly political: according to the Associated Press, the Trump administration wants to maintain good relations with Marco Rubio, who sits on the Senate committee investigating Trump’s relations with Russia, and Mario Diaz-Balart, a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee — both Cuban-Americans, and the latter a not-too-distant relative of the Castros.

Meanwhile, in a Trumpian flourish just before leaving office, Obama restricted Cuban immigration by rescinding the so-called “Wet foot, Dry foot” policy whereby a Cuban caught on the waters between Cuba and the United States ("wet feet") would summarily be sent home or to a third country. One who makes it to shore ("dry feet") can remain in the United States, and would later qualify for expedited legal permanent resident status in accordance with the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, and eventually US citizenship.

The Trump administration’s ambivalence toward Obama’s Cuba policy proceeds from the fact that its favorable aspects conflict with its unfavorable consequences. While the reduced restrictions on Americans traveling to Cuba that President Obama signed as an executive order in 2014 have tripled leisure travel to nearly 300,000 last year, much of the tourist money is spent at all-inclusive resorts run by Cuban military conglomerates that fuel the state security (repressive) apparatus. Organized tours, especially in the “people-to-people” and “educational” categories are little better, spending all their time under direct government control, visiting such exciting venues as printing workshops, organic farmers’ cooperative markets, and other government-organized venues, while traveling in government tour buses with government guides.

Those dollars strengthen the security organs. According to ABC News, arrests and detentions climbed from 8,899 in 2014 to 9,940 in 2016.

Much of the tourist money is spent at all-inclusive resorts run by Cuban military conglomerates that fuel the repressive state security apparatus.

On the other hand, continues the ABC report, a significant proportion of travelers eschewed organized tours, opting instead to explore Cuba on their own and thereby “injecting hundreds of millions in US spending into privately owned businesses on the island,” businesses made possible by the 201 private enterprises (especially B&Bs and restaurants) legalized by the regime since 2010, and “supercharging the growth of an entrepreneurial middle-class.”

Still, the hype has blinded what ought to be sober players into overreach. President Obama did not change the requirements for US travelers to Cuba; he only put compliance with them on the honor system, a system that still requires registering with the US Treasury Dept. The same ABC News report I quote here incorrectly states that “Obama eliminated that requirement.”

And it’s not just ABC News. Airlines such as JetBlue, American, Silver Airways, and Frontier, anticipating tens of thousands of travelers to book their own, independent trips to Cuba, have had to cut back considerably. Silver and Frontier have both canceled all their flights, citing "costs in Havana to turn an aircraft significantly exceeded our initial assumptions." In other words, the costs involved with unloading bags, cleaning the aircraft, customs procedures, etc. were higher than expected, doubtless because of the Cuban government milking the airlines. Earlier this year, JetBlue announced it would use smaller planes for its Cuba flights, and American Airlines cut its daily flights to Cuba by 25%.

The Obama changes did increase US travel to Cuba, just not as much as some expected. NBC News reports that “according to the state-run site CubaDebate, the number of Americans traveling to Cuba spiked in January of this year at 43,200. CubaDebate said that's a 125% increase from January of last year.” In addition, it reported 31,000 Cuban-Americans traveled to the island in January.

The costs involved with unloading bags, cleaning the aircraft, customs procedures, etc. were higher than expected, doubtless because of the Cuban government milking the airlines.

Those Cuban-Americans recently became a political football for cruise lines, which also dove into the liberalized US-Cuba travel market. The Cuban government does not recognize naturalized US citizenship by any Cuban-born individual: in their eyes such people are still Cuban citizens. Many of these expatriates, although allowed to visit relatives in Cuba under one of the allowed US categories of travelers, refused to set foot on the island for any prolonged length of time, declining to give even one dollar to the regime. But the promise of a cruise with all the amenities provided by a US ship and onshore visits a matter of only hours on terra firma suddenly attracted many.

But it was not to be.

The Cuban government declared that Cuban-born Cuban-Americans would not be allowed on shore from any visiting US cruise ship, referring to an earlier Cuban law that prohibited any Cuban-born person returning from to the island by sea. This was probably meant to place a fig leaf over the prosecution of any foreign-based infiltrators.

So, initially, Carnival Corporation refused to sell tickets to Cuban-born Americans. Two lawsuits put paid to that. They were filed in federal court in Miami: a class-action suit and a civil suit, by Cuban-born Americans who attempted to book and were denied tickets on Fathom Cruise Lines, a subsidiary of Carnival. According to the Miami Herald, “the lawsuits alleged that the cruise line was violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by following a policy that discriminates against a class of Americans on a place of public accommodation for transient guests — a cruise ship.”

Carnival then decided to sell tickets to Cuban-Americans but delayed its cruises until Cuba changed its policy — which it did, effective April 26, 2016. The first cruise sailed on May 1, 2016.

Cuba has not adapted well to the increase in visits. Forget booking a hotel room in Havana during the peak season of November-April on your own; rely instead on a package tour. And good luck finding a B&B, called in Cuba a casa particular. Under the Obama initiatives, both governments have struck agreements to cooperate on issues ranging from human trafficking to oil spills, and even increased internet access — a pledge extracted out of Raul Castro by President Obama. The Cuban government has “opened nearly 400 public Wi-Fi access points across the country,” according to the AP. But that reality is much less than meets expectations. The outlets are mostly in parks and plazas and only provide email connections. Full internet access, while more available than before, is beyond most Cubans’ budgets and remains frustratingly slow.

Cuba owes about $8 billion for confiscations and expropriations to US citizens. At that rate, repayment would take about 400 years.

The challenge for the Trump administration’s policy reset is to keep the good bits — full diplomatic relations, some relative freedom of travel, the benefits to Cuba’s private sector, etc. — while limiting Americans from doing business with the Cuban security organs, “according to a Trump administration official and a person involved in the ongoing policy review” (ABC report). Additionally, what with President Trump’s emphasis on jobs, Engage Cuba, a pro-détente group, released a study this May asserting “that a complete rollback of Obama’s Cuba policy would cost airlines and cruise lines $3.5 billion over the next four years and lead to the loss of 10,154 travel jobs.” (Wow, really? Such incredible specificity!)

One novel proposal that might be included in the Cuba policy reset — to ensure the support of the Cuban-Americans — is to impose a 2% export tax on US agricultural products sent to the island. “It is a politically creative, financially plausible measure and may possibly be a first step toward a comprehensive settlement of compensation to those who hold certified claims,” said Richard Feinberg, a former assistant to President Clinton and author of a Brookings Institution study on Cuban claims published in 2015. Of course, whether that 2%, factored into the price of the exports, would come out of the exporters’ profits or out of the Cuban government’s pockets is up for negotiation — if the proposal is implemented. Cuba owes about $8 billion for confiscations and expropriations to US citizens. At that rate, repayment would take about 400 years, though the majority of small claims could be settled with dispatch.

* * *

Oh, yes . . . and what about those extra 1,041 arrests and detentions in 2016? ABC News reports, “Cuban officials say many of those arrests are deliberately provoked by dissidents who are funded and backed by anti-Castro groups with the deliberate objective of driving up detention statistics.”

No doubt those officials saw the May issue of the Cuban American National Foundation’s Boletín Informativo, displaying a photograph of a protester racing in front of Havana’s May Day parade waving an American flag in the air and wearing a Cuban flag on his chest. Daniel Llorente Miranda’s action took the security organs by surprise. After a few seconds’ chase, they threw him to the tarmac and brutally beat him.




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Castro Agonistes

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“You know you’re speaking to a dead man.”
                                                                      —Fidel Castro talking to Cuban artist Kcho

Fidel (Hipólito Casiano) Alejandro Castro Ruz died on November 25. He was born on August 13, 1926 on his father’s sugar plantation in Biran, near Mayari, in what was then Oriente Province, Cuba.

When it came to Latin dictators, he was second to none, ruling autocratically for over 56 years (if you count the time he shadowed Raul after formally retiring); longer than Porfirio Diaz, Alfredo Stroessner, Anastasio Somoza, “Papa Doc” Duvalier, Rafael Trujillo, and Francisco Franco. However, as a murderous dictator, he was definitely second-class. He eliminated nowhere near as many as the 20th century’s truly heavy hitters, Mao Tse-tung (70 million), Joseph Stalin (40 million), Adolf Hitler (depends on how they’re tallied), Pol Pot (2 million) — or a slew of other, lesser killers. He did, however, kill more people than Augusto Pinochet.

Castro’s kill tally has always been a bit uncertain and somewhat controversial. Nonetheless, the late Dr. Armando Lago, a Cuban economist, attempted to document all deaths attributed to Castro in what he called the Cuban Archive Project. In it, Dr. Lago distinguished two major categories: #1, those directly killed by the regime, and #2; those whose deaths were an indirect consequence of Castro’s power. The majority of category #2 cases are mostly collateral damage from Fidel’s foreign adventures in places such as El Salvador, Bolivia, Colombia, Peru, etc.

When it came to Latin dictators, he was second to none, ruling autocratically for over 56 years. However, as a murderous dictator, he was definitely second-class.

To be counted in the first category, as one directly killed by the Castro regime, each candidate victim must have a name and address and have his death corroborated by two independent sources. This category includes people executed with or without a trial, those killed in prison directly or by premeditated neglect, uncooperative campesinos summarily executed during the revolution, counter-revolutionaries killed in battle after the revolution, balseros murdered adrift while attempting to leave Cuba, and a few other unfortunate souls in various other categories.

Notably, the first category also includes Cuban soldiers — both conscripts and volunteers — killed in combat abroad, mostly in Angola and Ethiopia. Dr. Lago’s tally of deaths directly attributed to Castro tops 115,000, with the balseros alone constituting over 60% of the killed, and about 5,000 casualties of the Angolan intervention. With such stringent criteria, there are doubtless more. Bear in mind that as a percentage of Cuba’s modest population, 115,000 is a notable plus or minus 2%. Dr. Lago’s second category tally tops 500,000.

* * *

Like most absolute dictators, Castro lived his life as if the world revolved around him. He kept his own idiosyncratic hours, rising late and pursuing the business of state long after midnight and well into the dawn. He’d summon underlings peremptorily at all hours of the night for orders, consultations, or dressing-downs, and keep journalists and visitors waiting indefinitely for promised interviews.

Castro’s kill tally has always been a bit uncertain and somewhat controversial.

Though loath to admit it, he had much in common with Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. At the time Fidel was born, Cuba had been independent of Spain for only 25 years. In fact, Castro’s father, Angel Castro, had been a young Spanish soldier stationed in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. After Spain’s defeat, he decided to stay and try his hand at growing sugarcane in the newly US-controlled island. Although he was illiterate, it didn’t take long for the ambitious and enterprising Castro père to acquire vast tracts of land through a combination of extreme luck — he won Cuba’s biggest lottery jackpot twice — and thrift.

In Cuba, all families retained strong atavistic links to the Old World regions from which they hailed: European descendants to their home provinces and African descendants to their tribes. These took the form of clubs or associations that met often to promote old regional ties and values. Fidel’s father hailed from Galicia, the old Celtic province on the northwest coast of Spain fronting the Bay of Biscay. Galicians still play their bagpipes. (Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s inscrutable conservative prime minister, is also Galician.)

Franco too was Galician. Both were very gallego: bull-headed and inflexible, with a dedication to idealism, whatever the stripe. Vain, reserved and austere, with strong characters and personality, neither Francisco Franco nor Angel Castro had a well-developed sense of humor.

Jose Ignacio Rasco, a classmate of many years, says, “(He’s) completely lacking in a sense of humor. [He] doesn’t know how to laugh at himself. A solemn gravity is his ordinary conversational tone. [He’s] uncomfortable with small talk during which he’s given to hyperbole and suspense . . . and lying.” What little sense of humor Castro possessed was forced out at the conclusion of the Elian Gonzales saga when Fidel hosted a public conference to reflect on the event and its meaning. On the way to the podium he stumbled and fell. The audience froze. Fortunately, little Elian saved the day. When the boy started giggling, Castro loosened up and the participants thawed. Some almost laughed.

Fidel’s vanity was a strong, albeit eccentric undercurrent of his demeanor. His own best PR man, he was obsessed with his image and, by extension, the Revolution’s. In public he was always meticulously outfitted in handmade black leather boots, impeccable olive green rebel fatigues, or, in recent years, a tailored business suit. After the Revolution, he never shaved his beard — it had become a symbol of everything he stood for. However, he had no interest in finery, jewelry, or elegance — though he ate well — or the acquisition of things; and he forbade any visible signs of a personality cult, such as statues of himself or the naming of streets or plazas after him.

On the other hand, in his private person, he was not just unshaven but usually unwashed and unkempt. Before coming to power he often insisted that close family members cut his nails and attend to his laundry. Fidel’s vanity, when coupled with his humorlessness, would become a contributing factor in his own death (as I will discuss below), and more than his own death: it cost General Arnaldo Ochoa his life.

He had no interest in finery, jewelry, elegance, or the acquisition of things; he forbade any visible signs of a personality cult, such as statues of himself or the naming of streets or plazas after him.

Ochoa was a hero of the Revolution, the African wars, and many of the Latin American interventions. An easygoing and irreverent Afro-Cuban — affectionately known as “el negro” — he rose to prominence from humble origins. Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother, heir apparent, head of the armed forces, and the brains behind Cuba’s economic survival after the loss of Soviet subsidies, depended on Ochoa as an uninhibited sounding board. He was Raul’s best friend and drinking buddy. At the time of his death, Ochoa was arguably the third most popular man in Cuba.

On a fishing trip with el maximo lider, Ochoa crassly joked about Fidel’s unflattering swimming trunks. It was the beginning of Ochoa’s downfall. In a severe test of his brother’s loyalty, Fidel insisted that the popular general be court-martialed on trumped-up drug charges. Convicted, he was subsequently executed before a firing squad. When Raul faced Cuba’s military elite to justify and make sense of the brutal murder, he was visibly distraught. He wore a bulletproof vest and helmet. Halfway through, he broke into tears. Many suspect he was drunk — a not uncommon condition for him.

The opposite of his brother Raul, Fidel seldom drank or socialized in groups. He had a deep-seated drive to control all situations and always be the center of attention. In some ways Fidel was much more gallego than Cuban. The suspicion lingers that he had absolutely no sense of rhythm as no one ever saw him dance, beat time to music, sing, or hum along with a tune. Juan Reynaldo Sanchez, Castro’s personal bodyguard of 17 years, says in his book, The Double Life of Fidel Castro, that Fidel couldn’t dance and had no interest in music.

Castro’s anger was cold and withdrawn. In those 17 years, Sanchez saw him lose his temper only twice. When his daughter Alina defected, “Fidel went mad with rage . . . [H]is gestures resembled those of a capricious child in the middle of a tantrum: standing up, he stamped his feet on the ground while pointing his two index fingers down to his toes and waving them around.” The second time was when his mother-in-law — a dedicated tippler, bon vivant, and accomplice to one of Fidel’s wife’s infidelities — finished off a bottle of his favorite scotch.

Like Franco, Castro was not particularly out for personal gain, nor could he be characterized as a cynic. So when Forbes magazine alleged that his Swiss bank accounts made him one of the world’s richest men, it hit a nerve like nothing else, except being called a caudillo, the Spanish term for Führer — usually reserved only for Franco. On a fairly recent visit that Castro paid to Spain, the Galician premier suggested that Fidel, when he “retired,” should consider living out his last years in Galicia. Fidel studiously ignored the suggestion. But like Franco, he admired autarky. One of his very first edicts, on Christmas of 1959, was to outlaw imported Christmas trees, suggesting that palm trees ought to grace the holiday.

The suspicion lingers that he had absolutely no sense of rhythm as no one ever saw him dance, beat time to music, sing, or hum along with a tune.

Franco, like Fidel, died after a prolonged illness of the gut. Their illnesses and deaths were clouded by much rumor and speculation, because many thought their regimes’ survival depended on their own survival. Contrary to irresponsible rumors, both men are still dead. As to Castro’s regime, it’s on life support.

* * *

Fidel Castro’s ideological journey began at La Salle, the Catholic Christian Brothers’ primary school he attended, with the inculcation of boilerplate catechism, the virtues of sacrifice, and a strong empathy for the poor. Afterward, in high school, the Jesuits added an intellectual dialectic that probably undermined his religious faith — though he still retains a soft spot for liberation theology. As a child growing up in the sugarcane plantations of Oriente, he was struck by the disparities between the US-owned sugar refineries and the kowtowing of the local producers to their sometimes arrogant whims, including arbitrary price fixing and social segregation. When he learned how the American refiners entrenched themselves — during the turmoil of the US occupation after the Cuban War of Independence and the Spanish-American War — about the shabby treatment meted out to Cuba’s independence rebels by the American expeditionary forces during and after that conflict, and about the imposition of the Platt Amendment (whereby the US Congress retained the right to veto Cuba’s foreign policy), he developed a strong anti-US and anti-imperialist streak.

At the university, attaining power for its own sake became his main focus, according to his sister Juanita and many other sources. Initially, ideology was irrelevant as long as it fitted his temperament — radical, action-centered, and decisive — so he shunned the moderate center and gravitated toward political extremes. At the time this meant gun-toting, gangsterish fringe groups — not uncommon in Cuba’s then-claustrophobic political milieu — such as the Revolutionary Insurrectional Union, which he duly joined.

He admired men of action, particularly Alexander the Great, Napoleon, and Lenin. During his first years in law school, he was drawn to Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera’s Spanish Falangism, the ideology behind Francisco Franco’s movement. Padre Llorente, one of Fidel’s teachers at Belen, later recalled breaking into spontaneous, rousing choruses of Cara al Sol, the Falangist anthem, with the young Castro. A bit later, he came to admire Benito Mussolini’s Fascism.

In 1948 General Fulgencio Batista, who had ruled Cuba in one form or another from 1933 to 1944, returned from his self-imposed US exile. Castro finagled an introduction to the strongman from his new brother-in-law, Rafael Diaz-Balart, who had become a prominent member of Batista’s inner circle. Overstepping every boundary of propriety, Fidel insinuated himself into a tête-à-tête with the ex-president and tried to convince the man to launch a coup d’état. His presumption was rebuffed in the iciest of terms.

Ideology was irrelevant as long as it fitted his temperament — radical, action-centered, and decisive — so he shunned the moderate center and gravitated toward political extremes.

So Castro moved to the center, joining the progressive, reformist Orthodox Party later that same year. Unfortunately, he was constitutionally incapable of working as a member of a team and was distrusted by the party’s ruling elite, who thought him an unprincipled gangster. Still, he decided to run for the lower house of Congress in the 1952 elections.

Unwilling to subject himself to the messy business of Cuban political sausage-making, Batista did in fact launch a coup in 1952, seizing power and canceling the elections. Fidel would probably have won his seat in Congress, but by then he’d lost all confidence in the democratic process, particularly as it was practiced in Cuba.

Exactly when Castro became a Communist has been a point of contention ever since the triumph of the Revolution. The fact that he actually never joined the party before seizing power and always kept his ideological cards close to his chest so as not to imperil his chances complicates the issue. During his congressional campaign Fidel used Raul as his intermediary with Communist Party members, who backed him but whose public support would have been detrimental. In a 1975 interview, Raul Castro confirms that it was Fidel who first introduced him to Marxism, back in 1951 when Fidel had given him Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. Raul read it twice and experienced something of a Pauline conversion.

In early 1953 Fidel sent Raul to a Kremlin-sponsored international youth conference in Vienna. Raul made quite an impression, particularly on Nikolai Leonov, a young KGB operative, who befriended the Cuban. Leonov later went on to become the KGB’s top Latin America specialist. After the conference, Raul was invited to spend a month in Romania, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia.

Later on, while in prison after their first botched attempt to seize power, both brothers took advantage of their enforced respite to deepen their understanding of Marxist-Leninist doctrine, reading, among other works, Das Kapital and The Communist Manifesto. In a December 2, 1961 speech Fidel Castro declared that he was already a Marxist when he launched his coup on July 26, 1953 by attacking the Moncada army barracks: "Various people have asked me whether back during the Moncada thing I thought then the way I think now. I've told them: 'I thought then very similarly to the way I think now. On that date, my revolutionary thinking was completely formed.’ What's more, I believed absolutely in Marxism back on January first [of that year]" (emphasis Castro's). Ideologically, if not through actual party membership, Fidel Castro had been a communist for a decade before the triumph of the Revolution.

Exactly when Castro became a Communist has been a point of contention ever since the triumph of the Revolution.

President Dwight Eisenhower was well aware of Castro’s ideology and ordered the CIA to overthrow him — a project bumblingly attempted with hired Mafia hitmen, exploding cigars, and other Rube Goldberg expedients. John F. Kennedy, when he became president, continued the operation, by then codenamed Mongoose. Between 1961 and the time of Kennedy’s assassination, there were eight separate CIA attempts on Castro — if you don’t count the one by the unlikely troika of the exiled Batista, the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo (whom Castro had once tried to overthrow), and Jimmy Hoffa, who may have been helping out mob friends fearful that Castro would close their Cuban operations. Instead of eliminating the problem, the attempts became high-caliber ammunition in the increasingly serious propaganda war developing between Cuba and the US.

* * *

Fidel Castro loved adulation and power and wallowed in their perks. As a leader of men, he was second to none, being able to inspire and cajole nearly anyone into anything. Though he was perceived as having the gift of gab, this was a talent he studiously developed in his years at Belen, one of Cuba’s best Jesuit high schools. There he joined the forensic society and practiced his diction, delivery, and organization of thoughts interminably — in private and before a mirror. He had to. Growing up on a sugarcane plantation in the province of Oriente, he spoke a colorful guajiro vernacular, the Cuban equivalent of the backwoods Arkansas hillbilly dialect. Later, his ability to switch back and forth between the colloquial and the educated became a potent rhetorical device that forged a deep connection with his fellow Cubans.

It is no exaggeration to say that he has spoken more words on the public record than any political leader in history. He could hold audiences rapt for hours, Führer-style. Even those who hated him would tune in for his hours-long harangues. During his first 25 years in power he delivered over 2,500 formal speeches — that’s two per week, every week. The longest on record, in January 1968, was 12 hours long — fortunately, with an intermission. He still holds the record for the longest speech — at four-and-a-half hours — ever delivered at the United Nations. “As you may well know,” he said in November 1993, “my job is to talk.”

Fidel was a “big picture” man. He could size up a man or a situation in seconds, and strategize many moves ahead in nearly any circumstance. As a political strategist and propagandist he was unequalled. But as a tactician and organizer, he was a disaster.

Between 1961 and the time of Kennedy’s assassination, there were eight separate CIA attempts on Castro's life.

When he stepped onto the pages of history on July 26, 1953 with his attack on the Moncada army garrison in Santiago, he tripped. Never mind that Batista had been in power for only one year and that, in Marxist terms, a “revolutionary situation” just did not exist. This first attempt to overthrow President Fulgencio Batista proved suicidal for most of the participants. Not only did they meet stiff resistance (which Castro should have expected), but all his planning had been little more than careless wishful thinking coupled with impromptu expediency (some rebels even had to ride public buses to the assault). One participant remembers Castro running around screaming hysterically, shouting orders that made no sense. Pure luck saved him. Those who weren’t killed in the strike were soon rounded up and shot in cold blood by the soldiers. A few, such as Fidel and his brother, lay low for a few days and then turned themselves in after pleas for clemency from well-connected family members made surrender a possibility.

The survivors were tried in a civil tribunal. At the trial, Castro acted as his own lawyer and summed up his defense with what would later become his most famous speech, “History will absolve me.” A sympathetic judge, Manuel Urrutia Lleo, voted for leniency. (Castro was grateful and later appointed Urrutia Provisional President after the triumph of the Revolution; he lasted only six months.) The Castro brothers were sentenced to life imprisonment on the Isle of Pines.

Fidel described his incarceration as a “necessary and welcome vacation.” In a letter home he wondered “how much longer we’re going to be in this paradise” and compared the accommodations to those of the Hotel Nacional, Cuba’s premier luxury hotel and, later, the residence of El Maximo Lider. Compared to the prison conditions his regime would impose, the Isle of Pines was a Caribbean vacation. Castro was allowed twice-monthly visits, including the conjugal sort. His cell bordered a large patio and remained open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. He was never subject to roll calls or regimentation and could rise or retire at will. The prison had a well-stocked market where Fidel, the gourmand, could buy delicacies and prepare them in his kitchen; alternatively, he could enjoy a fine meal at the small prison restaurant. He wrote home, “I take two baths a day due to the heat . . . [L]ater in the small restaurant available, I dine on calamari and pasta, Italian bonbons, fresh drip coffee and an H. Upmann #4 cigar.”

But prison wasn’t all vacation. Castro read voraciously, contributing many tomes to the Raul Gomez Garcia prison library, and ran classes for fellow inmates at the “Abel Santamaria Ideological Academy,” both of which he founded and maintained.

Two years later, again following pleas for clemency from his sympathizers — but over the strenuous objections of his ex-brother-in-law, Rafael Diaz-Balart, who knew him well and was a member of Congress — President Batista pardoned Fidel Castro. He and a handful of men left for Mexico to regroup and train to return to conquer Cuba.

Eric Shipton, the great British mountaineer, once said that if a man couldn’t organize an expedition on the back of an envelope, he wasn’t up to the task. Fidel seemed to belong to the back-of-the-envelope-expedition-planning school, but he was no Shipton. Though somewhat of a mountaineer, he was decidedly no sailor, and, as the disastrous Moncada attack had shown, he was thoroughly out of his element when faced with detailed and complex planning. When he finally set out to invade Cuba, he nearly trumped his Moncada failure.

On November 24, 1956, Fidel Castro launched from the Mexican port of Tuxpan with 82 men (many again arriving via public bus) aboard the critically overloaded 60-foot yacht Granma. They sailed with barely enough food, water, and fuel to reach Cuba; without medicine, charts, maps, or navigational aids (except for the built-in compass); and in the face of gale-force winds at the tail end of the Caribbean hurricane season. Blown off course, their landfall was a deliverance but also a total mystery — no one knew whether they’d landed in Jamaica or Cuba.

One participant remembers Castro running around screaming hysterically, shouting orders that made no sense. Pure luck saved him.

The men waded through chest-deep water and came ashore in a swamp whose tangled vegetation lacerated them. Solid ground was no reprieve. Batista’s air force and troops had been tipped off. They surrounded the men in a canefield and slaughtered all but a dozen, reporting back that Castro had been killed and his entire band wiped out.

What little equipment Fidel had brought on board was lost in the confusion of the disastrous landing. Miraculously, the surviving dozen were able to make their way deep into Oriente province’s Sierra Maestra Mountains to regroup and heal their wounds — including Guevara’s shot in the neck. In less than a month the Rebel Army was reduced to nine men. Luckily, no one was looking for them.

The disastrous voyage must have precipitated a massive depression in Castro, for it led to the realization that he was an organizational and management failure — no easy thing for Fidel to admit. So he promoted his brother Raul to captain just before landfall. This proved to be the best decision he ever made. Ironically, Fidel’s principal weaknesses as a leader were his brother’s greatest strengths. Raul would later rise to become the tactical mastermind not only of the conquest of the island but also of the remarkably successful Angolan and Ethiopian military interventions and, finally, of Cuba’s economic salvation when the Soviet Union imploded.

During the two-year-long insurrection, Fidel Castro remained in the Sierra Maestra strategizing and propagandizing, while Raul coordinated, organized, and managed the details of the revolution. Field Commanders Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos advanced, fought the battles, and won the victories. But they also had outside help.

At the time, Castro’s 26th of July Movement was not the only armed resistance to Batista, but it was the key one. Alongside it, the Students’ Revolutionary Directory organized urban hits, while the Escambray Front and Second Escambray Front both waged guerrilla war from the Escambray Mountains in Camaguey province near the center of the island.

Blown off course, their landfall was a deliverance but also a total mystery — no one knew whether they’d landed in Jamaica or Cuba.

On New Year’s Day 1959, Santa Clara, the capital of Las Villas province, fell to a rebel pincer movement coordinated with the combined forces of the Escambray Fronts. One thousand demoralized government troops surrendered. The following day, Guevara and Cienfuegos, at the head of their victorious armies, entered Havana. The capital went wild. But Batista had already fled on New Year’s Eve; and Fidel, ever the showman, delayed his triumphant entry until January 8. Then the world went wild.

The two-year war had been relatively bloodless, with only 867 casualties on both sides. But Castro soon made up for it with firing squads. As Grayston Lynch, one of two CIA operatives present in the Bay of Pigs invasion, states, “In the first three months of his regime, Castro topped the 867 figure with room to spare. More than 5,000 Cubans would meet their death at the paredon, the firing wall.”

* * *

Fidel’s family tree is messily complex. He himself was not the son of his father’s wife, Maria Luisa Argota, but rather of his father’s 19-year-old live-in lover, Lina Ruz — Angel Castro and Maria having separated years before and taken up new mates. At the time, both in Cuba and in Spain, illegitimacy was a harsh burden, branded on the offspring with the mother’s surname instead of the father’s. Castro’s father did not marry Lina Ruz until the boy turned 17, at which time he became Fidel Castro instead of Fidel Ruz. He would forevermore hold social conventions in contempt. Fidel had six full brothers and sisters — in order, Angelita, Ramon, Fidel, Raul, Juanita, Enma, and Agustina — and two siblings from his father’s first wife: Lidia and Pedro Emilio.

Initially, Angel Castro spent little time with Fidel, foisting him off on Haitian tutors in far-off Santiago at the age of four to begin his proper education. At the time, he was much too busy managing the family ranch, and he believed, as was common then, in the benefits of a boarding school experience. Fidel hated it, complaining that “these people don’t care for us, they don’t feed us, we’re always hungry, the house is very ugly, the woman is lazy and we’re just wasting time here.” Much later — perhaps out of guilt or regret — Fidel became his father’s favorite son and was spoiled rotten by him. Like many overindulged children, Fidel bullied younger playmates and threw tantrums when he didn’t get his way. He was a bad loser.

On the one hand, Angel Castro wanted, more than anything else, for at least one son — Fidel — to achieve a university education. On the other hand, Fidel lacked his family’s entrepreneurial bent and showed no inclination toward or talent for earning an honest living. The boy was a brilliant dilettante. So, Angel provided money and powerful contacts to his son well into adulthood. Nonetheless, father-son dynamics played out their strange minuet with, at best, Fidel becoming ambivalent about his father and, at worst, deploring him. Juanita Castro, in her memoirs, quotes Fidel as saying, at news of their father’s death, “There’s no time for mourning; we need to prepare for worse things,” while both Ramon and Raul wept unselfconsciously.

Promoting his brother Raul to captain proved to be the best decision Castro ever made. Fidel’s principal weaknesses as a leader were his brother’s greatest strengths.

There were many reasons for the ambivalence. Fidel and his father both shared similar, very gallego personalities, which clashed. Both had an inflexible drive to dominate, untempered by any vestige of wit. And both had a strong sense of social justice, which nonetheless led them to clash ideologically. Angel’s was more noblesse oblige, while Fidel rejected what he perceived as rightful entitlements dependent on the charitable whims of any one man. The Castro compound in Biran just wasn’t big enough for both egos. Finally, Fidel, the ultra-nationalist Cuban chauvinist who would rise to avenge all the injustices — real and imagined — that were ever imposed on the Pearl of the Antilles, couldn’t stomach the fact that his father had fought against Cuban independence, never regretted it, and didn’t become a Cuban citizen until 1941, at the ripe old age of 66.

Playing no favorites and exercising his inflexible streak of dogmatism, Fidel confiscated all the Castro family lands after the Revolution (though he warned his family to sell their herd before the Agrarian Reform edict went into effect).

Castro’s middle names are both revealing and a source of controversy. The first, Hipolito, was given by the Haitian foster family under whose care he lived while attending grammar school in Santiago de Cuba, Oriente. As more-or-less godparents, they had the privilege of conferring a middle name. No one knows the origin of Casiano. The only source for the name is a Cuban government secondary school diploma issued in September 1945. Alejandro, on the other hand, is self-endowed, a tribute to Alexander the Great, one of Fidel’s long-time heroes. It replaced Hipolito and Casiano; and became the given name for three of his sons: Alexis, Alejandro, and Alex.

Castro’s family name speaks volumes. The word comes from the Latin castrum, meaning castle. In Asturias and Galicia whence it originates as a family name, it refers to a pre-Roman fortified hill site — one that has stood its ground interminably. Fidel, of course, is from the Latin for loyal.

Fidel’s love life was even more Byzantine. In 1948 he married his teenage sweetheart, Mirta Diaz-Balart, a woman whose family were intimates of Fulgencio Batista and whose brother would soon become a minister in his government. Flush with a $10,000 gift from his dad, Fidel bought a blue Lincoln, shipped it to Miami and drove to New York for their honeymoon. They had one son, Fidelito. But differences — in aspirations, in politics, in families, and in fidelity (in spite of his name, Fidel was el maximo philanderer, being nicknamed El Caballo — The Stallion — by Benny Moré, the popular entertainer [by contrast, Batista was a dedicated family man]) — soon undermined the marriage. He didn’t marry again until 1980; but the number of his affairs and assignations rivaled the length of his speeches.

In his Sierra Maestra redoubt he took up with Celia Sanchez, the woman who would later become what Juanita Castro described as “the right hand, left hand, both feet and beard of Fidel.” Meanwhile, at the triumph of the Revolution, Castro wallowed in female adoration. Yanez Pelletier, a confidante who’d once saved him in prison from poisoning, became his procurer. He was known as “minister of the bedroom,” a nickname coined by Raul. When Pelletier fell from grace, Celia Sanchez became his intimate executive secretary, moving into Fidel’s quarters with him. Though now severely circumscribed, the assignations still continued. When Celia Sanchez died in 1980, Fidel was bereft.

Fidel couldn’t stomach the fact that his father had fought against Cuban independence, never regretted it, and didn’t become a Cuban citizen until the ripe old age of 66.

Still, less than a week after her death, he married Dalia Soto del Valle, the mystery woman with whom Fidel had shared his life since 1961. As if reinforcing the myth that the Revolution was his only mistress, Castro imposed such a low profile on her that Brian Lattell, a CIA analyst, says that “[she] and her sons might as well have been consigned to a witness protection program, so elaborate are the security precautions that surround them”. She never attended any of his public appearances (unless in disguise) and did not accompany him on official functions, diplomatic receptions, or foreign trips. During the latter, his mistresses included Juana Vera, “Pili” Pilar — both interpreters — and Gladys, a Cubana airline flight attendant. All told, at least five different liaisons, relationships, and marriages produced nine to twelve children. He was coy about it. Asked in 1993 how many children he had, Castro replied, “Less than a dozen . . . I think.” (Wikipedia and Juan Reynaldo Sanchez, his bodyguard, tally nine and ten, respectively.) Like their mothers and his siblings, some are with him, some are against him, and some have come to terms with the status quo.

* * *

Fidel Castro couldn’t really be characterized as a psycho- or sociopath, though he had a well-developed sense of vengefulness. And he wasn’t all-consumed by the suspicious mistrust and cruelty that absorbed Stalin and Mao. Unlike most of the other 20th-century tyrants, he was tall, athletic, and handsome. His Jesuit education and law degree inspired a thoughtful, intellectual sophistry that made him an absorbing confabulator, gifted with a glib tongue. But the world didn’t see this side during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

Instead it saw an aggrieved adolescent. Fidel Castro had a streak of brinksmanship, an uncontrollable desire to “play chicken,” come what may. Jose Rasco recounts an episode of the young Fidel making a bet with a classmate, Luis Juncadella, that “he [Castro] was capable of crashing, head first, on a bicycle at full speed, against a concrete wall in full view of the entire school. And he did it, at the cost of cracking his head and ending up unconscious in the infirmary.”

Arnaldo Aguila, a recent biographer, gives this analysis:

Right here, from his youngest years, Fidel’s personality all comes together: an illegitimate social origin; an authoritarian father, brusque and of strong character, hard, without affection, indifferent; an excellent physical constitution that permits him to best others easily; a memory so outside the norm that no other student comes even close and an egoistical self-denial that impels him against every type of wall (including social impediments and Yankee Imperialism) coupled with a deep-seated passion to excel, to make bets to demonstrate that he can realize what others won’t even attempt, that he’s better than everyone else, perhaps to impress/defeat his father.

When Nikita Khrushchev provided China with nuclear weapons technology and missiles in the late 1950s, he was unaware of Mao’s absolute disdain for human life. He assumed that Mao’s long relationship with the USSR made him trustworthy. He soon learned otherwise and, by 1960, withdrew all technical nuclear assistance to China.

Two years later, when Castro requested nuclear missiles, Khrushchev jumped at the opportunity. But burned once, he didn’t fully trust Fidel (despite his name). So he complied only on condition that the Soviet Union retain absolute control over them. Though Castro agreed, it infuriated him. That fury was further aggravated when he was left out of the Kennedy-Khrushchev negotiations and subsequent missile removal that defused the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

Castro had a streak of brinksmanship, an uncontrollable desire to “play chicken,” come what may.

The Missile Crisis was precipitated by the discovery of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba in mid-October of that year and by President Kennedy’s ultimatum that they be removed. The crisis consisted of the threat that failure to do so would precipitate armed attack. In anticipation, the US mobilized the navy to blockade the island. On October 26 Castro informed Khrushchev that “the Soviet Union ought never to permit circumstances in which the imperialists could launch a first nuclear strike…and that if they invade Cuba that would be the moment to eliminate forever such a danger — no matter how hard and terrible that solution may seem . . .”

On October 30, Khrushchev responded to Castro: “In your cable . . . you proposed that we be the first to launch a nuclear strike against the enemy. You do understand the consequences of this. This wouldn’t be a single strike, instead . . . the start of a thermonuclear world war . . . Evidently, in such a case the US would suffer great losses, but the USSR and the entire socialist camp would also suffer much. As to Cuba and the Cuban people . . . at the start of the war Cuba would burn . . .”

The next day Castro confirmed to Khrushchev that he well understood the consequences: “I knew . . . Do not presume that I ignored . . . that [the Cubans] would be exterminated . . . in case of a thermonuclear war…”

It’s good that no one was paying attention to him: he had made it quite clear that he would not have backed down whatever the consequences. Perceiving the entire event as an unpardonable breach of Cuba’s sovereignty, he soured on Khrushchev, and relations with the USSR worsened. China and Mao Tse-tung’s more uncompromising brand of communism became his new best friends.

* * *

Fidel Castro’s drive to prove that he’s better than everyone else drove him to eliminate his immediate competition — anyone whose charisma and popularity threatened to overshadow his, as in the case of General Arnaldo Ochoa. After his accession to power, Castro set his sights on Huber Matos, leader of one of the independent Escambray Fronts. By luck or design, he managed to kill two birds with one stone.

Matos had sent a letter to Fidel resigning his position because of ideological differences. Since Fidel brooked no ideological differences, he declared Matos in rebellion and sent Camilo Cienfuegos, second in popularity only to Fidel, to arrest him. After meeting with Matos, Cienfuegos advised Castro that there was really no rebellion; that in fact, Matos was simply resigning. That night, the plane carrying Camilo Cienfuegos back to Havana mysteriously crashed. The second officer dispatched to arrest Matos did not question Castro’s orders. Matos, however, got off easy. Due to his own very public and principled defense, Cienfuegos’ mysterious death, the ensuing publicity over the whole affair, and pleas from foreign governments and NGO’s, Matos kept his life but spent the next 20 years in prison, after which he emigrated to the US. Huber Matos died in 2014.

Castro took it personally (as well he might). So he sent Guevara along with about 100 Cubans into the very heart of darkness — the Congo.

Che Guevara was next. The Argentine had captured the world’s admiration and affection with his idealism and boyish good looks. He appeared as an Argentine selflessly risking his life in a foreign country for a Robin Hood morality; a slight, asthmatic waif, barely able to grow a beard, brandishing a Thompson sub-machine gun and puffing a big cigar, with a refreshing but unpredictable tendency “to call shit, shit.”

Soon after taking power Fidel had to transition his confidants from military duties to civilian appointments. During one brainstorming session, he asked who among them was a dedicated economist. Che Guevara, for some unknown reason, heard “dedicated communist.” His arm shot up and Castro appointed him minister of industries, then finance minister, and finally president of the national bank. In September 1960, Che nationalized the banks. Then, in a quick sleight-of-hand move, he announced a new currency, convertible only in limited amounts. Most Cubans’ life savings suddenly disappeared. Che’s idealism, when coupled with Castro’s unwillingness to share the spotlight, would cost him his life.

When Guevara published an article in 1965 criticizing the disparity between the lives of the Revolution’s elites and those of the common people, Castro took it personally (as well he might). So he sent Guevara along with about 100 Cubans into the very heart of darkness — the Congo, where the remnants of Patrice Lumumba’s forces were mired in the hopeless task of trying to regain power. It wasn’t the beginning of Fidel’s foreign adventurism, a policy of exporting socialist revolution around the world. That had begun back in June 1959, with his disastrous attempt to invade, first, the Dominican Republic to overthrow dictator Rafael Trujillo, and then the following month his attack against Haitian dictator “Papa Doc” Duvalier. Nearly all the men on both attempts perished.

Before leaving, Guevara, in private, wrote his will, renounced his Cuban offices and citizenship and compared Castro to Stalin. In a fit of pique, Castro made the documents public. When Mobutu Sese Seko consolidated power, the Cubans admitted defeat and returned to Cuba — all that is except Guevara. But Congo did not become El Che’s grave. Uncomfortable about returning to Cuba, he bided his time in Dar-es-Salaam and Prague until duty again beckoned.

Castro hit the mark when he then sent Guevara to Bolivia. There he was to organize the peasants and overthrow the government. Daniel Alarcon, Che’s second-in-command, recalled, “Fidel accorded with the USSR and the Bolivian Communist Party sending Che to die in the jungle,” where he was ignominiously executed on October 9, 1967.

Soon thereafter Castro decided to get serious about exporting revolution. At the end of the ’60s he established Punto Cero de Guanabo, a 64-square-kilometer training camp 15 miles east of Havana for Marxist guerillas. The list of recruits trained at Punto Cero is a Who’s Who of ’70s and ’80s radicals: from Colombia — the FARC, the ELN, and M19; from Peru — the Shining Path and MRTA; from Chile — the Patriotic Front of Manuel Rodriguez, from Nicaragua — the FSLN (Sandinistas); from El Salvador — the FMLN; from Spain — ETA (the Basque separatist movement); from Northern Ireland — the IRA; from Palestine — the PLO; from Western Sahara — the Polisario Front; from the US — the Black Panthers and the Puerto Rican Macheteros; from Venezuela — Carlos the Jackal; from Mexico — Sub-Comandante Marcos; and an unnamed group from Guatemala.

Thanks to Fidel Castro, the Cuban people have buried their dead in the most unlikely corners of the earth. Perhaps the most absurd intervention El Maximo Lider ever undertook was in the Ethiopia-Somalia war. Somalia, a Soviet client state ruled by the iron fist of Mohamed Siad Barre, coveted Ethiopia’s Ogaden region under the guise of creating a greater Somalia. Mengistu Haile Mariam, absolute ruler of Ethiopia — also a Soviet client state — would have none of it. Castro, fancying himself an honest broker, decided to mediate. He counseled peace. When Siad Barre ignored his counsel and Somalia attacked Ethiopia, Fidel intervened by sending Cuban troops and materiel to Ethiopia, effectively giving Mengistu the upper hand.

* * *

Fidel Castro’s star shone brightly in the fall of 1979. His lifelong quest for glory and power had achieved its zenith: against all odds, he won his first and only election — and on a global stage, at that — for president of the non-aligned movement, consisting of those countries that professed neutrality in the Cold War. The victory was all the more remarkable because of Cuba’s $6 billion a year Soviet subsidy. There was no denying that he was firmly embedded in the Soviet camp.

The list of recruits trained at Castro's Punto Cero Marxist guerrilla camp is a Who’s Who of ’70s and ’80s radicals.

The Cuban army had been active in Africa as early as 1961, with aid to Ahmed Ben Bella’s liberation movement in Algeria. It later intervened in conflicts in Congo-Brazzaville and Guinea-Bissau. By 1979 Cuban troops were four years into the 16-year Angolan intervention, which later secured the victory of the Marxist regime. Forty thousand were to remain to guarantee it. They had met the South African army on the battlefield and were besting them. The Cuban intervention involved the air and sea transport of 60,000 troops over 6,000 miles despite the obstacle of limited or nonexistent forward international bases. This resulted in long journeys aboard old aircraft with overworked pilots. While Cuban soldiers’ pay averaged only 71 US cents per month, the Angolan government reimbursed the Cuban government 40 US dollars per soldier per day — a nifty profit for Fidel. Castro himself ran strategic and tactical operations from Havana after Soviet advisors in the field proved inept.

Another ten to fifteen thousand troops were stationed in Ethiopia propping up Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Communist government. Now they were contemplating intervention in neighboring Sudan. In his own backyard, Castro had been crucial in boosting to power Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua and Maurice Bishop in Granada. Everywhere, the Cubans had fought with great ferocity, upholding their commander-in-chief’s uncompromising demands. It was a staggering accomplishment for a country of 10.5 million.

In contrast, the US was mired in the throes of “Vietnam syndrome” and had just survived Watergate and Nixon’s resignation. For Fidel, things couldn’t be better. In October 1979, he traveled to New York to address the United Nations demanding: “We want a new world order based on justice, equality and peace to replace the unfair and unequal system that prevails today…” Never again would the stars align so propitiously for Fidel.

And then, on Christmas Eve, 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, precipitating Castro’s long descent into failure and irrelevance. The invasion proved beyond the pale even for the corrupt, authoritarian, and sycophantic left-wing governments that comprised most of the non-aligned movement. Unable to justify the invasion on non-aligned principles, Castro capitulated to the USSR: “We [are] not going to place ourselves on the side of the United States and so we [are] on the side of the Soviet Union.” For the rest of his three-year term as president of the non-aligned movement, he was a lame duck.

While Cuban soldiers’ pay averaged only 71 US cents per month, the Angolan government reimbursed the Cuban government 40 US dollars per soldier per day — a nifty profit for Fidel.

The invasion and reversal of fortune was a devastating blow whose consequences rippled throughout Cuban society and into the very bowels of the Kremlin. Economic problems had worsened considerably while Fidel had been preoccupied with his international feats. On April 1, 1980, a group of Cubans crashed the gates of the Peruvian embassy seeking political asylum. Thinking that there were only a disaffected few, Castro urged any and all who wished, to leave. To his surprise and embarrassment, 10,000 desperate Cubans from all over the island stormed the embassy, occupying every inch of space, perching on tree limbs and roofs. Even policemen deployed to maintain order joined the throngs. Humiliated, Castro decided to shift the problem to the US. He opened Mariel harbor to unlimited emigration for four months. The Dunkirk-style evacuation freed 125,000 refugees; including murderers, rapists, psychopaths, and the criminally insane, whom he’d surreptitiously thrown in for good measure.

For the Soviet Union, the Afghan war proved a burden too heavy for a bankrupt system already on the verge of collapse. In the crisis beginning in 1989, Soviet Communism capitulated to the popular will, the Union dissolved, the ruble became worthless, and Cuba’s subsidies disappeared.

* * *

Motivated by socialist values, Fidel Castro outlawed and stamped out all private economic enterprise — except whenever Cuba’s economy bottomed out. At those points, emulating Lenin’s New Economic Policy, he’d legalize small, tightly regulated — and exorbitantly taxed (sometimes at more than 100% of gross receipts) — entrepreneurial initiatives. Once Cuba’s economy was back on its bound feet, he’d outlaw them again.

When the Soviet Union fell and Cuba’s subsidies were cut, it took more than family restaurants and B&B’s to float the island. So Fidel reached for a new paradigm: he launched what may be called CASTROS (Capitalism, Apartheid, and Socialism To Restore Our Solvency). Here’s how it worked. The Cuban government, employer and investor of first and last resort (Socialism) created joint partnerships with foreign firms to create profits (Capitalism). The profits provided — and still do — the lion’s share of Cuba’s income. The joint partnerships, mostly developed as resorts for foreign tourists, employed a handful of Cubans. No other Cubans were allowed on or near the resorts or their clientele (Apartheid). The resort economy has its own currency, tightly controlled and unavailable to regular Cubans. Following an earlier Chinese model, the authority for the joint partnerships resides in the army, headed by Raul Castro. The joint partnerships are now a bigger source of foreign reserve than sugar, which, ever since nationalization, has underperformed.

Having grown up on a farm, Castro considered himself something of an agricultural expert. His first big program was island-wide agrarian reform. At first, this mostly meant the confiscation and nationalization of all the big sugar plantations and refineries. But later, every cow, pig, and chicken became state property. Not a few campesinos paid the ultimate price for slaughtering their backyard animals for a meaty meal without permission. After Soviet tractors and parts became unavailable, draft oxen replaced 90% of mechanized farm labor.

Inevitably shortages ensued and the government instituted rationing. Even sugar was rationed. Cuban cuisine suffered without olive oil, cooking sherry, capers, ham, chorizo, pimentos, and other essential ingredients. With cattle being retained from the abattoirs and trained as draft animals, beef all but disappeared. But el maximo dietician came to the rescue. Production of comestibles turned organic and “sustainable” — out of necessity, not health concerns. Salads, previously considered nothing more than “grass and water,” became a de rigueur staple, topped with eggless mayonnaise, something considered by Cubans America’s worst invention. And roadside kiosks, once a staple of innumerable meat goodies, now sell previously exotic “pizzas” of dough, tomato sauce, and cheese.

Having grown up on a farm, Castro considered himself something of an agricultural expert.

Fidel raised the intellectual level of the sugar harvest by drafting primary, high school, and university students and faculty members to “voluntarily” wield machetes to bring in each season’s cane crop. No doubt these were welcome physical sabbaticals for overworked brains. Another of his innovations was the expansion of the coffee crop from steep, well-drained mountainsides down to low, water-logged flatlands. Coffee production bottomed. But his real genius lay in tobacco cultivation. A previously dedicated cigar smoker, he left that alone.

Fidel was also, however, a medical innovator. Although back in 1953 Cuba had more doctors per capita than France, Holland, or the UK, Castro perceived a problem. Today, Cuba’s healthcare system of free universal coverage is the envy of every well-intentioned, ill-informed humanitarian. True, it’s absolutely free to the patient; the Cuban government picks up all the costs — in money, anyway. Trouble is, the government’s intentions are bigger than its pocketbook, so extreme shortages and rationing result. For expedited attention, an under-the-table gratuity is expected. In hopes of fat tips, underpaid doctors moonlight as taxi drivers for rich tourists. True also that everyone is covered — about as well as a dishcloth covers a king-size bed; only those in the center get complete coverage.

Fidel’s countless economic failures are due not just to his doctrinaire Marxism but also to a remarkable talent he was born with: a photographic memory. He discovered the trait as a student when faced with exams for which he hadn’t cracked a book and for which he was forced to cram at the last minute. The photographic memory — allowing him to memorize entire books, including the page numbers of particulars — saved him. But he always confused memory with a critical understanding of actual knowledge. This, coupled with his absolute lack of humility, prevented him from realizing that he was incapable of wisdom.

Time after time, after reading a single book on the subject du jour, Fidel would talk expertly about the marvelous economic benefits of some half-baked new scheme: how Cuba would overflow with milk once Pangola grass was planted to feed the dairy herds; how every Cuban would eat steak every day once Holsteins and Zebus were crossed (a project he pursued on the fourth floor of his downtown Havana residence with the help of a construction crane to lift and lower livestock); how the Zapata swamps would feed not only all of Cuba but much of the entire world, once they were drained and planted with a new strain of rice — how whatever new invention of his would cause manna to fall from the sky.

* * *

Fidel’s skills as an advocate were at their postmodern, post-ironic best when confronting the long-running US trade embargo. When the US first declared an embargo on the regime, it was a boilerplate, pro forma response to a worsening diplomatic situation. At the time, not only were embargoes considered rational alternatives to war (as they still are), they were actually considered effective. Today, with globalization and free trade much more in the ascendant, embargoes have become increasingly symbolic.

Castro's real genius lay in tobacco cultivation. A dedicated cigar smoker, he left that crop alone.

No one has exploited the propaganda value of the embargo better than Fidel, to the absolute embarrassment and chagrin of every US administration that prolongs it. But the truly post-ironic aspect of the embargo is the blind brinksmanship of both sides. If a US president, calling Castro’s bluff, had declared free trade with Cuba, it would have been Castro who would have invoked his own embargo against the flood of goods, traders, and tourists. After all, such an invasion would have been much more effective than any military operation. And Castro is well aware of this. Serious overtures to lift the embargo, first by Henry Kissinger during the Nixon administration and later by Jimmy Carter, were peremptorily rebuffed.

Relations with the United States at the end of the Fidel Castro era aren’t bad at all. The embargo, as regards trade in food and medicine has been eased. Fidel, perhaps with a little arm-twisting from his brother Raul, cooperated with the US war on terror by no longer overtly questioning the legitimacy of the Guantanamo military base and by cooperating with the enemy combatant incarceration program there. Escapees were quickly returned. And he finally cooperated with the war on drugs. Though many years ago he presided over narcotics, ivory, and tobacco smuggling operations and turned a blind eye to drug transshipments and money laundering — mostly to irritate the US and gain a tidy profit to finance his Revolution — he later purged his regime of all drug related graft. The anti-drug policy is still strictly enforced.

As an informal quid pro quo, the US refrains from any Bay of Pigs sort of enterprise and keeps close tabs on US based anti-Castro armed activity. Additionally, we’ve modified our unrestricted Cuban refugee policy; we now return any and all refugees who don’t actually make a US landing. These informal understandings, along with a desire to avoid bloodshed and maintain stability, are perceived as the basis for a post-Fidel transition.

* * *

In January of 2004, the mayor of Bogota, Colombia, after meeting with Fidel Castro while vacationing in Cuba, reported that, “he seemed very sick to me.” His condition, later diagnosed as diverticulitis and aggravated by vanity, deteriorated over the course of the following two years. Unwilling to undergo the indignity of a colostomy bag, he insisted on a proper fixing up. The operation led to septicemia, which nearly killed him then, and set the stage for his ultimate demise.

If a US president, calling Castro’s bluff, had declared free trade with Cuba, it would have been Castro who would have invoked his own embargo against the flood of goods, traders, and tourists.

On July 31, 2006 — two weeks before his 80th birthday — Fidel temporarily delegated his duties to his brother Raul while he recuperated. But his close brush with death and his slow recovery finally led him — one and a half years later, in February 2008 — to retire from all his government offices, at which time Raul assumed all official duties.

It wasn’t his first brush with death. In April of 1983 he suffered his first recorded intestinal attack, which hospitalized him for 11 days, after which he convalesced for three months with no public appearances or speeches. The second attack occurred in September 1992 and was graver than the first, precipitating the initiation of transition protocols. During both events, Castro resorted to using a double who would ride the streets of Havana in his limousine, waving to passers-by to dispel any rumors that might have been leaked.

At his retirement, Castro’s fortune was estimated at $900 million, among the world’s top ten, by Forbes magazine — a revelation that irritated him no end and which he vehemently denied, claiming that he owned nothing but his nine-hundred peso monthly salary, equivalent to about $38.

But Cuba did not change, and, contrary to all expectations, Fidel Castro remained the “conscience of the Revolution,” exercising influence through his column in Granma (Cuba’s version of Pravda), hovering and pontificating over all things large and small, exerting a censorious tempering judgment over events, and merely by being alive — a condition guaranteed to put the brakes on any radical reforms. To emphasize his resurgent vigor, he was elected Secretary-General of the Non-Aligned Movement, serving from 2006 to 2008.

Until 2011, Fidel Castro remained Chairman of the Communist Party of Cuba, in effect the guiding light of the Revolution, and a strong tempering influence on any possibility of change by his brother in the island.

He did, however, admit to some mistakes. He’d mishandled the Cuban Missile Crisis; he’d advocated nuking the US; he’d been wrong to persecute gays. Further, the “Cuban model doesn’t even work for us anymore.” He had already given up cigars back in 1985, for health reasons. And, as befits a retired pensioner, he took to wearing colorful tracksuits even during photo opportunities. Fidel’s Granma editorials ruminated on international events, sometimes striking a loud chord, especially when he berated the US policy of subsidizing ethanol, which he correctly perceived as a cause of rising food prices in the Americas; and when he warned the US not to engage in wars with Iran or North Korea after one Afghan and two Iraqi wars.

In 2012, the master of endless words — who had already corralled his thoughts from interminable logorrhea into much shorter newspaper editorials — further truncated his opinions into the severely constrained structure of the haiku, versifying on current affairs and recent history such as bemoaning Deng Xiaoping’s invention of “socialist capitalism” in three short lines. Cubans scratched their heads.

Cuba did not change, and, contrary to all expectations, Fidel Castro remained the “conscience of the Revolution,” exerting a censorious tempering judgment over events merely by being alive.

From March to November Fidel disappeared from public involvement. Since he didn’t congratulate Hugo Chavez on his October 7 reelection victory, rumors proliferated about his demise. The Miami Herald even reported that he’d suffered a debilitating stroke that left him in a vegetative state. To counter the speculation, a very frail Castro was wheeled into the Hotel Nacional to chat with the staff and provide a photo-op for the foreign press. Two days later, in a state media article ironically titled “Fidel Castro is dying,” he wrote that he was fine but that Cubans would hear even less from him in the future (shades of Franco).

When, in December 2014, US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced plans to reestablish diplomatic relations, Fidel remained silent. On the day the US Embassy was reopened, August 14, 2015 — one day after Fidel’s 89th birthday — he finally weighed in, declaring that the US owed Cuba billions of dollars in lost revenue because of the embargo. He still didn’t realize that trade is a two-way street. US Republican responses categorized the deal as a birthday present to Fidel; but judging from Fidel’s silence and petulant response, he perceived it as a slap in the face.

Castro shared one trait with former US President Richard Nixon. According to bodyguard Sanchez, Castro had a mania for recording everything. Perhaps someday the entire oeuvre of the Castro tapes will be released and the world will be able to listen to him in perpetuity.

Fidel, perhaps with a little arm-twisting from his brother Raul, cooperated with the US war on terror by no longer overtly questioning the legitimacy of the Guantanamo military base.

As of this writing, few realize that the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba does not eliminate the embargo originally established by Dwight Eisenhower, strengthened by John F. Kennedy, and further fortified by Bill Clinton though the Helms-Burton Act. Only a congressional amendment or rescission of the Act can reverse the US embargo. Still, there was one dramatic change in Cuban policy: political detentions dropped to 178 in January 2015 from a monthly average of 741 in 2014.

* * *

As to Cuba, the scuttlebutt is that Raul wants to follow the China model by opening up the economy and making the peso convertible. This would allow him to retain power and, as head of the army’s joint venture programs, keep the money flowing into his coffers. Though everyone wants a peaceful transition, these “understandings” completely ignore Cubans’ — domestic and expatriate — democratic aspirations.




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Closing the Circle

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We may be approaching one of the most significant events of our time: the end of the Castro regime in Cuba. So long have Fidel Castro and his friends reigned in Cuba that it is hard to get perspective on the regime and its history. The history of Cuba itself remains little known to Norteamericanos.

Fortunately, there is Robert Miller. A longtime contributor to Liberty, Robert was reared in Cuba as a member of a prominent family. He has spent most of his life in the United States but has followed events in his homeland closely. When Liberty discovered that Robert was writing a memoir of his family’s life in Cuba, their flight to the United States, and their subsequent adventures, we asked him if we could publish parts of his work. Robert agreed. We are featuring it in several segments, of which this is the third. The first was published in Liberty on February 5, the second on April 9.

The memoir is not a work of political science; it is something much more: an introduction to ways of life, parallel to those of North Americans, and connected at many points, but always pungently different. We think our readers will find this view of Cuba, before and after the Castro Revolution, strange, unpredictable, charming, funny, tragic, and always very interesting.

Part III begins one of the most exciting and politically interesting stories in the Memoir: the failed 1961 attempt by the United States government and Cuban exiles to remove the Castro regime, now known as the Bay of Pigs. If you’re like me, this account of the true inwardness of the affair will show you things about history, and human nature, that you never understood before. — Stephen Cox

Part III
Into the Maelstrom

My mother’s cousin — and best friend — Tita, is still a contender for outliving Fidel. Both shared the dream of witnessing Castro’s demise — a tiny but immensely satisfying symbolic victory for two old women over the 20th-century’s deadliest ideology. A flirtatious ball of energy and Bette Midler lookalike, she can reduce you to stomach-cramping laughter within minutes of meeting her. Everyone is her instant friend. Though three years older than Castro, she can still run circles around his hospital bed — even in her wheelchair. For Tita, outliving Castro is an intensely personal goal.

Tita’s paternal side of the family hailed from Camagüey, where her father had managed a sugar cane refinery for an American company. A deeply patriotic Cuban, he lied about his daughter’s birthday: Tita was born on January 24, but her birth certificate is dated January 28, the birthday of Jose Marti, Cuba’s greatest independence hero. Her great-grandfather emigrated from Catalunya in Spain — exactly when and why are memories that remain unreachable.

She and her brother Alfredo attended the University of Havana with Fidel in the late 1940s. Alfredo studied law with Fidel. While Alfredo joined the basketball team and later represented Cuba — twice — in the Olympics, Fidel chose a more dangerous sport. Both remember him as a pistol-wielding political gangster-type (a common phenomenon of the times) with an emphasis on action rather than ideology. What little there was of the latter came from Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of Spanish Falangism with a dollop of Benito Mussolini thrown in for broader appeal. While Tita got her doctorate in Filosofia y Letras (roughly, philosophy and liberal arts), Alfredo and Castro became lawyers.

For Tita, outliving Castro is an intensely personal goal. Though three years older than Fidel, she can still run circles around his hospital bed — even in her wheelchair.

In Cuba everyone is connected by only four degrees of separation. While he was at the University, Castro married into the Batista political family and, unknowingly, into what would later become the George W. Bush administration. Mirta Diaz Balart, Castro’s first wife, was the daughter of Rafael Diaz Balart, a prominent Batista cabinet minister, and the sister of Rafael Diaz Balart (junior), another cabinet minister in the Batista administration. It was Castro’s in-laws who saved his butt after the abortive Moncada Army Barracks attack, pleading for his young life. The latter Rafael Diaz Balart was the father of Lincoln and Mario Diaz Balart, at one time long-serving Florida Republican Representatives for the 21st and 25th congressional districts, respectively. But that was way in the future.

Tita’s uncle, Mariano, also worked in the Batista administration. A law enforcement professional — and a martinet of the first degree — he was in charge of the important-sounding Foreign Counter-Espionage Activities Department. Not that Cuba had any foreign enemies. Having been a loyal albeit minor member of the Allied contingent in WWII, Cuba became a dutiful cold warrior in the 1950s, refusing diplomatic relations with the USSR and establishing the Departamento de Actividades Enemigas to exercise solidarity with the free world. Mariano was a conscientious bureaucrat but, like the Maytag repairman, had little to do.

When Castro triumphed, Mariano, reading the writing on the wall, hitchhiked out of Cuba on the plane that flew Batista into exile. His secretary, a man by the name of Castaño and a strictly career civil servant, wasn’t so lucky. Castaño landed in La Caba>ña, the jail adjacent to Morro Castle. Pulling every long distance string available, Mariano got the US ambassador to intervene. The ambassador personally extracted a promise from Ernesto “Che” Guevara to release the hapless secretary for immediate flight out of the country. When, the following morning, the ambassador showed up to take charge of his charge — in a scene straight out of Andy Garcia’s Lost City — Guevara declared that an enemy of the people had been liquidated. According to Tita, Guevara bragged that he himself had pulled the trigger.

* * *

Tita married Armando, a larger-than-life character, in 1943, and had two kids, Armandito and Alina. After only a decade of marriage, Armando died of a heart attack, leaving everyone disconsolate — especially 10-year-old Armandito. Tita’s family lived next to the Aisa family compound near the center of Havana in Santos Suarez. Little “Chuchu” Aisa, was two years younger than Armandito, but seven years older than Alina. Chuchu was their best friend and confidante. Alina was later to marry Chuchu. Armandito made Chuchu his co-conspirator, concocting daring escapades no adult countenanced.

Armandito was impetuous, curious, and singleminded to a fault; he was impervious to adult admonitions. He was a boy with no boundaries. It wasn’t that he couldn’t “color within the lines”; he contemptuously ignored the lines as arbitrary nuisances. He wasn’t disobedient or rebellious for the sake of being so; rather, he needed to find things out for himself. When, as a little child, Tita told him that Habanero chilies were dangerous, he looked her straight in the eyes and proceeded to investigate them for himself, suffering a burning tongue and a torrent of tears in payment. A troublesome student who incurred a stint in military school, he nonetheless became a voracious reader, absorbing as much as possible on his own.

While he was at the University, Castro married into the Batista political family and, unknowingly, into what would later become the George W. Bush administration.

Tita, an auburn redhead, had a dark-haired, near-twin younger sister, Cuca, with whom she was very close. Cuca was small and, on first impression, not one to make waves. But behind Cuca’s impassive smile hid a steely determination and a gyroscopic character that kept her family on a steady course through the storms of revolution, prison, and death that lay waiting in ambush.

Cuca married Pillo, a serious and quiet man of boundless tolerance, with a silly and whimsical sense of humor. He was not a typical Cuban. Pillo thought religion was a scam. He didn’t dance, drink, gamble, or womanize; he hated motorboats and loved salads — a dish as rare as peanut butter in 1950s Cuba. His in-laws thought he was a Martian. Pillo’s command of English was excellent, but his precise pronunciation, as if it were Spanish, was laughably incomprehensible to the untrained ear. When I heard him say “beaRd,” with an exaggerated rolling R for the English word “bird,” I had to ask him what it meant. Like my own dad, Pillo became an accountant with a creative streak: he managed the Central Toledo, Cuba’s largest sugar refinery, and later the Topper factory, where Tappan ranges and ovens were manufactured.

Pillo and Cuca sired two kids, MariCris and Pedrito, both of whom recognized few constraints and were little rascals no one would ever describe as team players. They lived in the Reparto Nautico (Nautico Neighborhood) of Marianao, a swank Havana area right on the waterfront, where Batista owned property. Close by lived the prominent Leon family, whose patriarch had been mayor of Marianao. It was a close-knit community. The Leons’ son, Cachorro (“cub,” hence “lion cub,” but with overtones of “spiteful pistol”) became close to Armandito, who was his same age, albeit considerably smaller. They went to the same parties and hung out with the same group of girls.

Cachorro wasn’t the loose cannon that Armandito was becoming; and, unlike MariCris and Pedrito, who saw a world without rules or fences, Cachorro approached life more cautiously, with the thoughtfulness of a novice chess player. His comparative reticence was the ideal complement for Armandito’s and MariCris’ lack of inhibitions, and they soon formed bonds that only death would sever. A young Tony Curtis lookalike, Cachorro took a shine to little MariCris, an irresistible copper-toned princess (and closer cousin to me than was appropriate), initiating a very long and tempestuous relationship. Cachorro and MariCris were later to marry, an ill-conceived venture that would last only ten months — plus another couple of years in limbo because of his obstinacy about signing the divorce papers.

Once, in a fit of frustration and anger at his car’s refusal to start, retrieved his pistol, opened the hood, and with legs apart — like a firing squad — emptied his chamber at the recalcitrant V-8 motor.

After their travails following the Revolution, Cuca, Pillo, MariCris, and Pedrito emigrated to Guatemala, where Pillo revived Tappan’s dilapidated, shuttered, and leaking facility in Amatitlan. He turned a place full of rusted and dismantled machines into a working, productive enterprise with nothing but his resourcefulness and a laughable budget. After Pillo’s death, Tita and Cuca became inseparable. While Tita was all hustle and bustle — a redheaded tornado, cooking, entertaining, and raconteuring — Cuca made sure that food got stirred, the table got set, and Tita didn’t exaggerate too much. Many years later, when they were living together in Miami’s Little Havana, Tita liked to recount their doctor’s nickname for them: “Teta y Caca” — tit and shit — and when she did, she beamed with glee at his over-the-line naughtiness and her own lack of inhibition. Cuca quietly went along, wanly smiling — it was an anecdote she’d never recount, a nickname she’d never accept, but a situation she gladly accepted because Tita infused such delight in the retelling.

* * *

By the end of 1960 my immediate family had left, and our extended family had become a bit more caught up in events inside Cuba. Cousin Eddy, an old-line Commie, stayed, as did Tita’s and Cuca’s families, hoping for better times — a prospect that 15-year-old Armandito didn’t see. With his great-uncle Mariano’s exit, the execution of Casta>ño (Mariano’s secretary) and of hundreds of others who had also been peremptorily liquidated, the violation of his friends’ and family’s property rights, the increasing radicalization of the regime, and his strong Catholic faith, Armandito was nearing critical mass.

Cuba was falling apart, morally and politically, and he had to do something about it. Armandito had become a gasoline-drenched tinder pile awaiting a spark. He was a hotheaded, idealistic naïf, and it didn’t help that he lacked a father to temper his macho teenage excesses or turn thoughtful reflection into effective action. Not that his father Armando was a paragon of restraint. Armando père had once, in a fit of frustration and anger at his car’s refusal to start, retrieved his pistol, opened the hood, and with legs apart — like a firing squad — emptied his chamber at the recalcitrant V-8 motor.

Sometime in late 1959, while Armandito was attending Catholic services at the Jesus de Miramar church, a group of newly installed Castro policemen approached the church. Feeling their oats, testing their newfound anti-clerical indoctrination-turned-idealism — and perhaps following orders — they entered the church and disrupted the service with ridicule. The congregants resisted, with Armandito, a very strong and large 15-year-old, in the vanguard. A fight involving over 200 participants broke out. Armandito’s tinder was lit and, Armandito being Armandito, his bonfire was soon out of control.

He developed pretensions of joining the counter-revolutionary movements already inchoate in the Escambray Mountains, but in fact he used his wits and guile right at home in Havana. Counter-revolutionaries had been landing armaments on isolated beaches outside the city. Armandito volunteered to locate the caches and transfer them to secure locations. For a 15-year-old kid this was heady stuff, and very dangerous. But he wasn’t alone. Cachorro, although a month older, followed his lead. Both were inspired by Bebo, Cachorro’s uncle, who had been a professional revolutionary since both boys could remember; first against Batista and then, since January 4, 1959, only four days after Castro’s triumph, against him.

To save him from himself, Tita shipped him off to the US, while she remained to care for her mother who was too sick to travel; as did her sister Cuca whose husband Pillo still held hope that things might not turn out to be as bad as they seemed.

Unbeknownst to Tita, Armandito was already deeper in the resistance than she realized. The boy didn’t want to leave Cuba. Once in Miami, he tried to join the resistance-in-exile but was rebuffed because of his age. In New York he worked odd jobs, learned English, acquired a Social Security number, and networked with whatever counter-revolutionaries he met.

* * *

And there were plenty. One old saw states that wherever there are two Cubans, there are four political factions. In The Brilliant Disaster, Jim Rasenberger reports that there were 184 different anti-Castro groups in the US in 1960. By 1961, Jay Gleichauf, the CIA’s intelligence man in Miami, reported almost 700 counter-revolutionary groups in Miami alone. They filled a spectrum from old-line Batista supporters to Constitution of 1940 advocates to disillusioned Castro revolutionaries to Escambray revolutionaries sidelined by Castro to free-market liberals to Christian Democrats to democratic socialists, with every finely parsed philosophical and political distinction one could imagine slicing and dicing into ever finer subsets of conviction.

Armandito volunteered to locate the weapons caches and transfer them to secure locations. For a 15-year-old kid this was heady stuff, and very dangerous.

One of them, the Movimiento de Recuperacion Revolucionaria (Movement to Recover the Revolution), or MRR, grew to become the principal counter-revolutionary movement, with supporting members in Miami, Mexico, Venezuela, and other places. It organized infiltration by guerrilla groups into Cuba, arms drops, communications, sabotage missions, dissident extrications, etc., with assistance from the CIA after 1959.

The irony is that the MRR was created in Cuba, in late 1959, by Dr. Manuel Artime, a professor at the Havana Military Academy and a psychologist and medical doctor. He had volunteered to implement the Castro regime’s Agrarian Reform law for the National Institute of Agrarian Reform (INRA) in Manzanillo, Oriente province. But Artime’s idealism took a dive following the Huber Matos affair on October 19 and the wave of arrests that followed.

What finally turned him 180 degrees against the regime was a secret meeting of the INRA a few days later in which he heard Fidel Castro personally outline a plan to Communize Cuba within three years. Artime’s tentative suspicions were confirmed, and he decided to take action. He resigned his position at the Academy and at the INRA to organize his coworkers into a resistance movement that would ultimately become the MRR. With the help of students and peasants, he marshaled the core of an underground movement in every province, in a scant three weeks.

By late November his life was in danger, so he sought asylum. In December, with the aid of the CIA, he escaped Cuba on a Honduran freighter. Artime would become the political leader of Brigade 2506, the name adopted by the Bay of Pigs resistance fighters.

The idea for the Bay of Pigs was conceived on January 18, 1960 by Jacob Esterline (also called Jake Engler), CIA Caracas Station Chief, and J.C. King, chief of the CIA’s Western Hemisphere Division, as a “relaxed guerrilla venture” in case the situation in Cuba worsened and the US government decided to take action. Initial training of 30 Cubans would begin in the Panama Canal Zone.

Four months later, in March of 1960, President Eisenhower made the project official. He ordered the CIA to produce a covert action plan that included the organization of a paramilitary force of Cuban exiles to be used against Castro. The Escambray Mountains already nurtured counter-revolutionary guerrillas, many of whom had been part of Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo’s Directorio Revolucionario, the revolutionary movement — independent of Castro’s M26 group — that Castro had sidelined when he took power. Eisenhower’s paramilitary unit would join forces with the existing guerrillas.

By April the “covert action” was in full swing. The CIA approached a group of prominent Cuban exile leaders — including a former Prime Minister, a former Minister of Foreign Relations, and Manuel Artime, leader of the MRR, the largest resistance group — to offer assistance in organizing military action, letting them know that the US was fully committed to the success of the operation, providing money, training, planning, ships, airplanes, logistics, and arms, but that the operation would be manned strictly by Cubans.

The Cubans thought they’d won the anti-Castro lottery. Still, they were skeptical. And they needed a professional Cuban military leader. Artime suggested “Pepe” San Roman, a 29-year-old graduate of Cuba’s military academy who had also trained at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, and Fort Benning, Georgia. San Roman was already planning a campaign against Fidel from Mexico with a group of ten ex-army officers, among them Hugo Sueiro who would become Armandito’s 2nd Battalion commander.

Tall, slender, dark-haired, quiet, and reserved, San Roman had served under Batista, then revolted, was imprisoned, was released, served Castro, was again imprisoned and again released, and finally escaped to the United States. Artime’s men and San Roman’s officers had been enemies in Cuba. They still distrusted one another. After many lengthy meetings and a reconnaissance of the CIA training camp on Useppa Island, a CIA golf course in the Gulf of Mexico off central Florida, San Roman and his officers agreed to join the effort. They could sense the depth of commitment from the personnel they met, and the money that was being spent.

Second off the starting line was David Atlee Phillips, my family’s old Alturas del Vedado tenant, who was put in charge of organizing, equipping, and programming Radio Swan, an anti-Castro radio station transmitting from Swan Island, a tiny islet 90 miles off the coast of Honduras. The CIA station went on-air on May 17.

In the makeshift Guatemalan training camp, rain was constant. Homegrown pot was popular. One man developed a relationship with a mule.

Next up was the recruitment of a nucleus of resistance fighters. There was no shortage of volunteers. Most were students from the Agrupacion Catolica Universitaria, with a few ex-Batista and ex-Castro soldiers thrown in for diversity. These few dozen early recruits began training in late May on the Useppa Island golf course. But that wouldn’t last.

Useppa was US territory, and the training of foreign nationals on US soil for a military action against a foreign power was illegal. So the CIA moved the training to the Panama Canal Zone — in spite of its being legally under US jurisdiction. The recruits trained there for two months. The CIA then approached Guatemala, seeking a training base on foreign soil. The Guatemalans agreed. Construction of a training facility, the 5,000-acre Camp Trax, and an airport at Retalhuleu, both in the western sierra, was well underway by late May. The first 50 trainees, who soon grew to 150, built seat-of-the-pants facilities: a 4-hole privy, 12-man tents, leaky barracks without foundations, and separate quarters for the American trainers. Showers weren’t built until October. It wasn’t until November that the force grew to 300. One single, tattered issue of Playboy constituted the library. Homegrown pot was popular. One man developed a relationship with a mule. Rain was constant.

With the US government now joining and coordinating the struggle against Castro, ensuring that success might be possible, the five major anti-Castro groups in Miami — including the MRR — joined forces in June. The coalition became known as the Frente Nacional Democratico, or simply the Frente.

Restless, frustrated, feeling isolated from the place where the action was happening, and privy to the exile rumor mills, 16-year-old Armandito was soon back in Miami pulling every possible scam to get into the Frente, whose offices now located in a big house at Twenty-seventh Avenue and Tenth Street Southwest.

Cachorro was right there with him. His dad had left Cuba first, in 1960, to test US waters. Mom and sister soon followed. Unlike Armandito, whose revolutionary spark was lit by a rumble in a church, Cachorro’s revolutionary trajectory was evolutionary, a slow and deliberate process inspired by the idealism and example of his uncle Bebo, who was already in Miami, deep in the Frente.

Neither boy, at 16, with their birthdays only one month apart, could join up. The Frente accepted18-year-olds and older — 17 with parental permission. In September 1960 Cachorro turned 17, followed by Armandito in October. Immediately, Cachorro asked his dad for permission. “No way,” his father answered. “If you died or came back maimed, your mother and I would never be able to live with ourselves and would regret the decision for the rest of our lives.”

Unable to get parental permission, they turned to Uncle Bebo, who immediately forged “parental” permission for both. Subjected to a thorough interview followed by a lie-detector test, the boys — the third and fourth youngest combatants in the entire Bay of Pigs effort — were in.

Chuchu, Armandito’s other childhood co-conspirator and future brother-in-law, didn’t stand a chance of joining: at 14, he was just too young. His contribution to the anti-Castro cause would come later, after the Bay of Pigs prisoners had been repatriated.

* * *

In December 1960, my cousins Cachorro and Armandito landed at the CIA airstrip at Retalhuleu, deep in the western sierras of Guatemala, after a six-hour flight with a secret destination. At least they could smoke.

The boys were part of a 430-man cohort of Cuban exiles headed for boot camp to train for an invasion of Cuba. Most were students from the Agrupacion Catolica Universitaria (Catholic University Group), or ex-Cuban military.

At the Retalhuleu airstrip, little was disclosed. A select few were given the opportunity to volunteer for paratrooper training. Cachorro signed up. The remaining cadets were convoyed to distant Base Trax for infantry and artillery training. For some reason that Cachorro can’t recall, Armandito didn’t join the paratroops; he and Armandito — against their instincts — found themselves separated.

The Guatemala training bases were scattered along the length of the Pacific coast Sierra Madre Mountains, with the Retalhuleu Air Base more or less centrally located among the other bases at an altitude of 650 feet. Guatemala was well disposed to help the operation, even volunteering its military personnel for security. It helped that the 1954 US-aided coup against authoritarian President Jacobo Arbenz had been spectacularly successful. Retalhuleu was the central access point for the other bases and the main Guatemalan entry and exit point for the CIA operation. It is where the Brigade’s Cuban pilots underwent flight training from Alabama Air National Guard volunteers.

The trainees crawled on elbows and knees with rifles (or much heavier machine guns) cradled on biceps, under live rounds fired three feet above ground, toward the bullets.

Only a few miles away, under the shadow of Santiaguito volcano, but 7,000 feet — and 3 to 4 hours — up in the mountains, camp Base Trax became the main infantry and artillery training center. Close by, the paratroopers trained at Halcon Base. Farther south, almost at sea level, camp Garrapatenango (literally, tick-town), was also used for paratrooper training. Flights left from nearby San Jose airport on the coast, a location that would also be used for amphibious landing and joint operations training.

Apprehensive and lonely, Armandito and Cachorro soon found older classmates and acquaintances from Cuba who made the rigors of training by US military personnel on loan to the CIA more bearable. Armandito hooked up with El Chino, a slightly older boy he’d known since he was 14. They were fortunate. Having endured nearly four months of hardships, and being young and athletic, they were better prepared for the upcoming operation than most of the other volunteers.

Armandito ended up in the 2nd Infantry Battalion (numbering 183 men under the command of Hugo Sueiro Rios), Company E (led by Oscar Luis Acevedo), 6th squad. Each recruit was assigned a number beginning with 2500 to make the force seem larger than it really was. The Cubans honored soldier number 2506, who fell to his death in a mountain training accident, by using his number to name the brigade: Brigade 2506. Armandito’s number was 3386.

Cachorro was assigned to what Eli Cesar, author of San Blas: Ultima Batalla en Bahia de Cochinos, called “the most elite unit of Brigade 2506”: the 1st Battalion of paratroopers under the command of Alejandro del Valle, a seasoned jump instructor in the Cuban army. Cachorro was part of Company A, Squad: Escuadra de Armas, a unit composed of nine paratroopers. Three were riflemen, with at least one operating a .30 caliber machine gun and another either a bazooka or a recoilless rifle. As Cachorro recounts, “I was the cargador of the .30 caliber on my squad. I would carry the bullets for the shooters of the machine guns and pinpoint with my M1 tracers where they should aim. There was absolutely no one lower than me.”

Full-on, intense physical fitness and military discipline training began at 5 AM the day after their arrival at the camp. Forced marches interspersed with two-mile, double-time runs lugging full packs were only the beginning. To this was added basic small arms handling, along with training on the 4.2 mortar, the 57mm recoilless rifle, the 3.5 bazooka rocket launcher, and the .30 and .50 caliber machine guns. Because of >his size and strength, Armandito was trained to operate a .30 caliber machine gun. Close quarters combat exercises with and without bayonets added a personal touch. The trainees crawled on elbows and knees with rifles (or much heavier machine guns) cradled on biceps, under live rounds fired three feet above ground, toward the bullets. Their consciousness was seared by the approaching challenge to their life and honor.

After some sense of esprit de corps had welded the men together and their physical fitness permitted more efforts, the training regimen became mobile. It took place at night and at times in torrential weather. Finally, at Garrapatenango, where the entire Brigade assembled for comprehensive exercises, water training was added: amphibious landings in heavy surf, swimming in shark-infested waters, underwater distance swimming — all under fire. One unfortunate recruit, a man called El Cabito, became shark chum.

With so few toilets, and all in full view, personal habits were disrupted, and even became group theatre — more comedic than dramatic (except when pit vipers, scorpions and poisonous spiders were involved). Plagued by piles, Armandito underwent a hemorrhoidectomy at boot camp.

Cachorro’s training included parachute jumps, er . . . jump. He successfully completed preliminary parachute training, but for some reason he can’t explain why he performed only one practice jump, without carrying the hundred pounds of .30 caliber bullet cans it was his job as a cargador to carry. “If I didn't release it properly, it would have crushed me at landing. Never trained for it,” he told me.

One unfortunate recruit, a man called El Cabito, became shark chum.

Perhaps the reason was that the one jump was a near disaster. Cachorro landed in a ceiba tree and ripped his uniform. Tony Zardon, another paratrooper, wasn’t so lucky. The hapless jumper was swept by a violent gust of wind and smashed against a giant tree trunk that broke his back.

The paratroopers had some of the typical flyboy’s disregard for rules and protocol. Two of them, J.J. and Maqueira, had secretly purchased a piglet from a local farmer. They set out to fatten the animal for a Noche Buena (Christmas Eve) feast in case they were still in Guatemala for Christmas. Maqueira warned J.J. that the piglet needed to be watched closely. He’d heard from a credible source that a group of chuters were conspiring to steal the shoat.

One afternoon the Garrapatenango camp was disrupted by a big commotion. El Negrito William was found hanging from a tree, apparently a suicide. His body was lowered and taken to a tent where medics attempted resuscitation. Right away, one medic emerged to announce that he was dead.

It suddenly hit Maqueira. He turned to J.J. and said, “This is a trick! Everything is faked. They’re stealing our piglet!” Maqueira, with a lightning-quick response, ran and caught the thieves red-handed with the piglet. But with their secpret out, Maqueira and J.J., reconsidered. A few days later, they put on a big feast, roasting the pig for all the paratroopers — and nominating El Negrito William for an Oscar.

* * *

Not all disruptions ended in a party. Over the course of the Brigade’s training period, 66 recruits were sentenced to the stockade. They included a wide assortment of miscreants; AWOLs, deserters, Castro agents who had infiltrated the camps, the leaders of a leadership mutiny led by 26-year-old attorney Rodolfo Nodal. Nodal, a member of a distinguished family (his father had once been Cuba’s defense minister), had become the 2nd Battalion’s communications officer. For him, as well as the other men of the Brigade, the nuances of a covert operation left the question of who was in charge — the US or the Cuban exiles — a bit fuzzy. Nodal and his friends set out to clarify the issue, not by challenging orders from the US officers, but by questioning who should have the right to issue orders in the first place.

To the Cubans of Armandito’s 2nd Battalion, Brigade commanders should be appointed only by the Miami-based Frente and its general staff, not by the US camp commander, “Colonel Frank,” and his 38 advisers. Urged on by Nodal, the 2nd Battalion drew a red line in the Guatemalan highlands.

Pepe San Roman, the American-appointed Brigade commander, was in Nodal’s crosshairs. San Roman was a professional soldier, a graduate of Cuba’s military academy and a US Army-trained officer who knew how to follow orders. But, as Peter Wyden explains in his book on the Bay of Pigs, “To Nodal and the other dissidents, Pepe symbolized total submission to the Americans, not only for the present but for the future in Cuba when Castro would be deposed.”

It suddenly hit Maqueira. He turned to J.J. and said, “This is a trick! Everything is faked. They’re stealing our piglet!”

At Camp Trax, debates heated up. Cliques formed, strategy meetings assembled, conspired, broke up, and reformed, and fistfights erupted. Training all but stopped. When two officers from the Miami general staff were sent home by “Colonel Frank” for “playing politics,” tensions reached a crisis point. The Americans ordered all trainees to turn in their weapons. “Nodal and his friends,” Wyden says, “hid eight .45-caliber pistols” to “shoot it out, if necessary. Instead, there was a mutiny.”

Some 230 men “resigned,” including all of Armandito’s 2nd battalion, the entire 3rd battalion — and Pepe San Roman. However, Pepe, wise beyond his 30 years, and having been imprisoned by both the Batista and Castro regimes, was fixed on success. He immediately signed up as an ordinary soldier, saying that the Brigade belonged to no one but “to Cuba, our beloved country.”

The American training officer would have none of these shenanigans. He retorted, “I am boss here, and the commander of the Brigade is still Pepe San Roman.” He ordered San Roman to resume command.

But the astute San Roman took the high road. Wyden reports that he “asked that those men willing to fight with him and to ‘forget about political things’ step to the right.” After a bit more dickering, all but 20 of the men joined San Roman. The Cuban grunts had chosen their leader.

When asked about being an extension of the US military, Dr. Mario Abril, a Brigade 2506 veteran and professor of music at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga responded, “No, we thought of ourselves as independent.”

* * *

After New Year’s 1961, nearly 900 more men swelled the Brigade. But these weren’t students, who would, in the end, constitute the largest proportion of Brigade members (about 20%). Most of the new recruits were older people (the oldest was 61) who had careers and families; or farmers, peasants, and unskilled laborers who’d had their modest landholdings or businesses confiscated, or whose Catholic faith was strong. Ex-soldiers rounded out the final tally at nearly 17% of Brigade members. By the time of the invasion in April, 2,681 men had joined.

Whatever their history, few were crucially motivated by a desire to recover their stolen property, a concern Cachorro dismisses contemptuously. Instead, strong and deep philosophical, moral, religious, and ideological ideals drove them. Abril, a student volunteer in Armandito’s cohort who felt alienated by socialist rhetoric, explained his motivation:

In those days, 1950s, and at that age, 23–24, young men . . . vented their hormonal excesses, social excesses not in the way folks do up here [the United States]. We didn’t get drunk, we didn’t do drugs, what we did was . . . attempted to become activists in politics. There is a long tradition of Latin American youth who took charge and participated in momentous events in the political lives of their countries. Cuba was no exception . . .

In terms of race — a noncontentious category in Cuba but one that Castro tried to join with class warfare to recruit support — the Brigade was pretty mixed, but predominantly lighter than darker. Only about 4% would be called “black” in the Cuban sense, with the rest mulatto, café au lait, swarthy, or white.

Erneido Oliva, the Brigade’s second in command and Armandito’s commanding officer in the Battle of the Rotunda, was a strikingly handsome black Cuban with a huge forehead who had served first under Batista and then later under Castro. An honors graduate of the Cuban Military Academy and an instructor for the US Army’s Caribbean School, Oliva was a professional through and through. When Oliva was captured, Fidel Castro interrogated him separately. He berated him for betraying the Revolution, which, Castro said, “had been fought for black people.” Castro reminded Oliva of the Varadero beach resorts that excluded blacks (an exclusion that was instituted by hotels that catered to American tourists of the 1940s and ’50s but that was otherwise unknown in Cuba). Oliva retorted that he “hadn’t come to Cuba to swim.”

But perhaps this story isn’t true (in that version). Though Haynes Johnson in The Bay of Pigs: The Leaders’ Story of Brigade 2506, attributes it to Oliva, both El Chino and Cachorro, who was sitting two seats away from Cruz, attribute it to Tomas Cruz, Cachorro’s company commander and also black. But in this other version, the interrogation took place on Cuban national TV while Fidel was trying to milk the capture of the invaders for all the propaganda it was worth.

* * *

January 1961 upped the ante and sealed the deal. On the 2nd of the month, Cuba charged at the UN Security Council that the US was preparing an invasion of the island. In a show of defiance, Castro paraded down the streets of Havana his newly acquired Soviet arsenal, consisting of 50 heavy artillery pieces, 125 heavy tanks, 920 anti-aircraft guns, 170 anti-tank batteries, and many rocket launchers (along with the promise of MIG fighters yet to come). The Soviet contribution to Castro’s defenses also included 7,250 machine guns and 167,000 rifles and handguns. The post-invasion Soviet military analysis of the conflict concluded that without those contributions, the invasion at the Bay of Pigs would have succeeded.

The following day, January 3, the US cut diplomatic relations with Cuba. By the end of the month, just a few days after his inauguration, President Kennedy authorized the CIA to proceed with President Eisenhower’s Cuba plan, now officially upgraded to consist of 1,200 men with a planned landing at Trinidad on Cuba’s south coast.

By March, Kennedy was still grappling with transition issues, concentrating on getting his domestic programs and agenda rolling, and dealing with the Laotian crisis and the soon-to-be Berlin crisis. The Cuba project just wasn’t a priority. In fact, not only wasn’t he familiar with its details — such as they were — but he hadn’t given much thought to its implementation and its potential consequences, either domestically or on foreign policy. It was a sideshow without a date, something simmering on a backburner for possible use in a vague future, something the Republican administration had dreamed up, which he figured had a life of its own that its planners and tenders would manage.

The Soviet contribution to Castro’s defenses also included 7,250 machine guns and 167,000 rifles and handguns. Without those contributions, the invasion at the Bay of Pigs would have succeeded.

One crucial piece of intelligence forced minds to focus. The MIG fighters the Soviets had promised Castro were due to arrive in Cuba sometime in April. Cuban pilots were already training in Czechoslovakia to fly them. This addition to the Cuban air force, whose combat readiness at the time consisted of only six jet and six prop fighters, easily destroyed on the tarmac by a surprise attack, would doom the Cuba project to failure. If the Cuban exile invasion was to succeed, it had to be scheduled before the arrival of the MIGs.

Kennedy was irritated by the sudden haste, but gave the order to proceed with final preparations and the setting of a date. Still, he retained the option of cancelling the whole project at the last minute, a detail he adamantly insisted on but which, for a president, usually goes without saying. His vocal insistence on retaining a standard prerogative revealed his inexperience and insecurity.

Though military training in the Guatemala camps was proceeding apace, the political umbrella under which the military campaign would be fought was still lost in negotiations among the many Cuban exile factions. Without a Cuban government-in-exile that would lend credence to the operation and take charge once a successful beachhead occupation was established, the project might fail and its secrecy be blown.

It’s not that the exile leaders hadn’t given their imprimatur to the military operation; it’s that their tendency to cavil over minutiae and stand on finely parsed principle prevented any sort of consensus. So the CIA invited the exile leaders to the Skyways Motel near the Miami International Airport for a meeting designed to impress on them the urgency of unity that the new situation required. On Saturday, March 18, 22 Cubans representing the main anti-Castro organizations met with James Noel, former Havana CIA station chief, in the Skyways’ banquet room. As Jim Rasenberger, author of The Brilliant Disaster, recounts, “The meeting began with a scolding from Noel. There would be no more sweet talk, he told them; while they were squabbling over petty differences in Miami, they were losing Cuba. ‘If you don’t come out of this meeting with a committee, you just forget the whole fuckin’ business, because we’re through.’ The threat worked.”

By Monday morning, left, right, center, and fringes united under one umbrella organization with a blueprint for economic and social policies and a timetable for elections in a free Cuba. Thus was the successor to the Frente formed. The new name was the Consejo Revolucionario Cubano, with Jose Miro Cardona as president of the “Revolutionary Council.”

Miro Cardona’s legitimacy rested on the fact that he had been the last prime minister of Cuba after Fidel Castro’s victory but before Castro personally took over the post. Prior then, he’d been a law professor at the University of Havana. He was chosen to be prime minister immediately after the success of the Revolution, by Manuel Urrutia, Castro’s first, handpicked president (who also later resigned). After only five weeks in office, Miro Cardona quit the position in disgust over Communist influence in the new government.

* * *

How President Eisenhower’s “covert action plan against Castro” became the Bay of Pigs is a diagram resembling options on a wildly branching logic tree planted in an overlooked policy corner almost as an afterthought, then fed growth hormones by several separate ambitious committees, pruned by a myopic Edward Scissorhands, and given more hormones by more self-important committees, none of which was aware of what the other committees were up to; a tree finally trimmed beyond saving by a neurotic gardener with a chainsaw who couldn’t see the tree for the branches. At different times, the plan ranged from a Fidel Castro-style, just-a-few-men guerrilla infiltration near the Escambray Mountains to a WWII Normandy-type invasion. In the end it was neither. The operation became an unwieldy mix of the two approaches, lacking the strength of either.

Originally, the plan was a guerrilla infiltration of a few hundred men near the city of Trinidad at the base of the Escambray Mountains. Those mountains already harbored anti-Castro guerrillas, and the city wasn’t known for its love of Fidel.

Four days before the scheduled invasion and air attack, the 16 B-26s were halved to eight by a nervous President Kennedy. The decision doomed the operation to failure.

In November 1960, as the recruits multiplied and the Pentagon, the CIA, and other expert advisors offered their opinions, the infiltration was upgraded to an invasion. But the invasion next to a big city scared Secretary of State Dean Rusk and newly-elected President Kennedy. It seemed too high-profile for a covert action. So the landing location was shifted 100 miles west to the Bay of Pigs, a lightly inhabited swamp completely unsuited to guerrilla activity. The infiltration-turned-invasion then became a much bigger invasion supported by US air and sea power whose rules of engagement precluded any combat — unless first fired upon.

Along with the main invasion, two smaller ones were planned. One hundred sixty-eight men were scheduled to land near Baracoa, in Oriente province at the far eastern end of Cuba, not far from where Castro had first landed in 1956. As in the original plans for the main force, these men were to hie to the mountains and ensconce themselves as guerrillas. They would also constitute a diversionary tactic that would give Castro the impression that the invasion was island-wide.

Ditto for an “invasion” in Pinar Del Rio province, at the far western end of Cuba. Dreamed up by the CIA, and executed so flawlessly that Fidel interrupted his command at the Bay of Pigs to rush to Pinar del Rio, this invasion was a complete ruse carried out with smoke and mirrors, loudspeakers, pyrotechnics, projectors, offshore hubbub, and not one single invader. While this invasion achieved its goal, the one in Oriente failed when the invaders discovered that a substantial force of Castro militia was awaiting them. They played it safe, tried landing again, but called it quits after a second attempt.

Back to the planning stage. Once the “action plan” had been upgraded to an invasion, the exile force required a “navy” for transport. Enter Eduardo Garcia and his five sons, owners of the Garcia Line, a Havana-based Cuban bulk shipping company with offices in New York. Garcia, a Jabba the Hutt lookalike, wasn’t interested in profit, just in getting rid of Castro. He donated six old and slow but serviceable ships, at cost. But he didn’t want to lose them. After being reassured that the exile “air force” (see below) would annihilate Castro’s air force, and that a US Navy escort (to be used only as a deterrent, but authorized to return fire if fired upon) would accompany his ships to the three-mile territorial limit, Garcia agreed. As an added defense, the ships were retrofitted with .50 caliber, deck-mounted machine guns. For the actual landing, 36 18 and 1/2 foot aluminum boats were purchased to supplement the three LCUs (landing craft, utility) and four LCVPs (landing craft, vehicle and personnel) already available.

Castro’s air force consisted of only 20 planes — six Lockheed T-33 jet fighters, six ex-RAF prop-driven Hawker Sea Fury fighters, six Douglas B-26 Invaders, a C-47 transport, and a PBY Catalina flying boat.

The Cuban exile air force consisted of 16 Douglas B-26 Invaders kitted up for offensive operations with rockets and bombs (out of 32 B-26s available), and a half-dozen C-46 and C-54 transports, but no fighters. The B-26s were to destroy Castro’s air force on the tarmac in a surprise attack in conjunction with the seaborne landings.

Four days before the scheduled invasion and air attack, the 16 B-26s were halved to eight by a nervous President Kennedy, worried that the attack was too high-profile. The decision doomed the operation to failure — not all of Castro’s air force was destroyed, and those that remained sank exile supply ships and killed many men in the attacking force. After the fiasco was over, JFK averred that he hadn’t realized how important the original air strike plan was, and that he hadn’t been adequately briefed.

Intelligence reports estimated that discontent in the Cuban population was widespread and that internal resistance groups were present and well organized in every province, often with the help of exile infiltrators assisted by the CIA. By February 1961, CIA-trained infiltration teams doubled their efforts in preparation for the coming “covert action plan,” so as to be able to coordinate with the invaders, carrying out widespread sabotage and recruitment. The Brigade battalions, companies, and squads were purposely undersized, in the expectation that locals would join the effort and bring them to full force. Armandito’s 2nd Battalion, for example, only had 183 men.

The invasion force was labeled a brigade because, in military parlance, a force of 1,400 to 4,000 men is a brigade. For the invasion, the Brigade numbered 1,447 men.

The popular uprisings never materialized. Some sources attribute this to popular support for the Revolution. The truth is more revealing. As early as the summer of 1960, Castro knew about the coming invasion. All of Cuba talked about it; he just didn’t know when it would come. In early January 1961 the New York Times disclosed the location of the training camps in Guatemala.

Castro took preemptive action. The Escambray Mountains, a perennial refuge of anti-government guerrillas, needed to be cleared out — once and for all. On January 1, 1961, he dispatched 70,000 troops in 80 battalions to clear the mountains of the no more than 600 men and a few women who constituted the guerrillas.

As early as the summer of 1960, Castro knew about the coming invasion. All of Cuba talked about it; he just didn’t know when it would come.

His first move was to relocate the 10,000–20,000 peasants who lived in the area — by force. On January 11, he visited the area to take stock of the situation. He sent Osvaldo Ramirez, captain of the rebellion, an ultimatum: “I know that you’re an idealist. I propose that you come down and talk with me so I can convince you that this isn’t Communism; and I guarantee that if I don’t convince you, I’ll give you plenty of guarantees that you can return up to your mountains.”

Ramirez instantly replied, “Tell Fidel that I accept the discussion with him, but with one variant: THAT HE COME UP TO THE ESCAMBRAY AND THAT I GUARANTEE THAT IF HE DOESN’T CONVINCE US, WE’LL GUARANTEE HIS RETURN."

Castro launched the attack.

The fighting was fierce. By February 10, only 100 guerrillas remained alive. Still, it took until mid-March for Castro to declare that the Escambray was rid of vermin. Only a handful remained to carry on the resistance.

After he’d gotten rid of the vanguard, Castro went after anyone and everyone whom his Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (neighborhood busybodies) fingered as malcontents. According to Grayston Lynch, author of Decision for Disaster: Betrayal at the Bay of Pigs — as quoted in the Cuban Information Archives — before the invasion there were 50,000 political prisoners in Cuba. Another 250,000 people (or about 4% of Cuba’s population) were arrested by the day of the landing, some summarily executed (200,000 in Havana alone). Of that quarter million, 100,000 were arrested because of an American SNAFU.

Originally, the Bay of Pigs plan had called for Brigade air strikes against Castro’s air force at dawn on the day of the invasion. At the last minute, someone moved the air strikes up two days, giving Castro advance notice. The element of surprise was lost. Those 100,000 people were arrested during those two days.

The quarter-million detainees were herded into sports stadia, movie theatres, and any large place that could accommodate them. None of these places had adequate sanitation, shelter, or food. In a speech on April 24, five days after the defeat of the invasion, Castro explained his reasoning in terms reminiscent of the omelet remark attributed to many revolutionaries:

In conjunction with the actions of our military forces, the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution acted. It became necessary to arrest all suspicious people, it became necessary to arrest all those persons that for some reason might become active in or help the counterrevolution. In this type of operation, naturally, some injustices will always be committed, but it is inevitable.

I repeat that there might have been cases of injustice . . . [but] no one can be so egotistical as to waste any time on such unimportant questions that it detracts from today’s and future generations’ jubilation.

Fatherland or death!

Cuba’s population in 1961 was about seven million. Nearly one million Cubans had exiled themselves to the US, Spain, Italy, Mexico, and other countries. Counting prisoners and exiles, that’s nearly 17% of Cubans actively opposed to Fidel Castro.

In spite of all the regime’s precautions, a few quite notable uprisings still occurred. On April 14, three days prior to the invasion, a spectacular act of sabotage totally destroyed El Encanto, Cuba’s largest and most popular department store, which had been nationalized the previous year. The destruction was caused by introducing white phosphorous into the air conditioning vents — and then lighting it. The damage totaled $6 million. On the same day in Santiago de Cuba, at the other end of the island, El Ancla and La Comercial, two big nationalized department stores were firebombed with the loss of their entire inventory. Additionally, on April 16, 14 armed counter-revolutionaries led an uprising in Las Villas Province.

During the invasion itself, 50 to 60 civilians would join it, helping to carry supplies, caring for the wounded, providing food and water and even taking up arms to fight Castro, with an equal number of Castro’s militia switching sides and volunteering to fight with the Brigade.

But the propaganda preparation for the invasion did not go well. Radio Swan, located on a tiny, rocky islet claimed by Nicaragua, had a threefold purpose. Modeled on a propaganda radio station run by David Atlee Phillips during the CIA-aided Jacobo Arbenz overthrow in 1954 in Guatemala, it was meant to provide unbiased news reports to a country with state-controlled, heavily censored media. It also spun news toward its own ends and even disseminated plenty of disinformation — whatever aided the “covert action plan.” Finally, it was meant to incite the Cuban population to open revolt, both with an artillery barrage of disaffection before the invasion and an outright call to arms during the attack, augmented by the dropping of propaganda leaflets over Havana at the moment of truth.

The CIA had no experience with assassination. The idea to kill Castro originally came from Rafael Trujillo, the Dominican Republic’s long-serving dictator.

Unfortunately, its cryptic broadcasts — with nonsense non-sequitur phrases such as “The fish is red; Chico is in the house; Visit him” — caused it to lose relevance and reliability, especially during the unexpected failures of the original plan when scripts were lacking.

Probably the best-publicized part of the “covert action plan against Cuba” was the CIA’s Rube Goldberg machinations to assassinate Fidel Castro. Again, it wasn’t quite that simple.

For one, the CIA had no experience with assassination. The idea originally came from Rafael Trujillo, the Dominican Republic’s long-serving dictator who had a long-running feud with Castro. Attempting to overthrow the Cuban dictator (in retribution for Castro’s attempt to overthrow Trujillo in June 1959), he teamed up with the Mafia. Castro had rescinded the Santo Traficante, Meyer Lansky, and Momo Giancana casino franchises in Cuba. But it’s not safe to fool with mother Mafia. She wanted revenge. In August 1959, Trujillo attempted an invasion of Cuba coupled with a Mafia-planned execution of Castro. It failed; but as far as the Mafia was concerned, it was unfinished business

Enter the CIA with Eisenhower’s plan. Many ideas were launched — eight according to the Congressional (Church) Committee, 638 according to Castro’s chief of counterintelligence — including the famous exploding cigar scenario. Only a few floated. None succeeded. The entire scheme was subbed out to the Mafia, with no CIA oversight or professional advice (other than the poison-laced cold cream type of ideas). Just money. At that time, anyway you looked at it, no amount of money could persuade anyone to commit suicide to kill a foreign head of state: the assassins surely would be caught (with no virgins awaiting in the afterlife). The rationale for the attempt was that cutting off the head of the serpent, even if you yourself couldn’t wield the sword, would atrophy the body. It all came to naught.




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The Green, Green Cane of Cuba

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Cuba has garnered a reputation for, and has been touted as, a model of green, organic, non-GMO sustainable production and consumption. According to the Organic Consumers Association (quoting Cultivating Havana: Urban Agriculture and Food Security in the Years of Crisis, a study), many of the foods that people eat every day in Cuba are grown without synthetic fertilizers and toxic pesticides.

Some of this is true, but because the regimen has been adopted out of necessity and not out of ideology (unless you count the Communist ideology that brought this on in the first place), it is not rigorously adhered to in the way in which, for instance, an organic farmer in the US might adhere to it. It is expediency, with ideology added after the fact to capitalize on necessity.

At one time, killing what heretofore had been your own chicken but was now state property could land a campesino in jail.

As USA Today reported in March, “Cuba once focused on capital-intensive, industrialized agriculture on large state-run farms, but was forced to change after economic support from the Soviet Union evaporated. Beginning in 1990, Cuban food production fell precipitously. The country shifted to a low-input agricultural cooperative model. Even so, it suffered serious food shortages in 1994, which prompted further changes.” It might be added that, changes or not, sugar production has fallen by 60% over the past 30 years.

Unable to import industrial fertilizers and pesticides, Cuba resorted to using horse, cow, pig, chicken, and even human waste for soil nutrition. And it tried to become self-sufficient in food production. At one time, killing what heretofore had been your own chicken but was now state property could land a campesino in jail. And woe betide the gardener who broke a shovel — sabotage!

Into the breach stepped Uncle Sam, easing the embargo restrictions on exporting food and medicine to Cuba.

On my recent bike trip across Cuba, I was accompanied by a bourgeois socialist couple — retired on government pensions, upbeat about Castro’s “reforms,” berning-for-Bernie — who wanted to see the island before it was “ruined” by McDonalds, Walmarts, discount dollar stores, and other popular tendrils of free choice that might invade once the embargo is lifted. Fair-weather vegetarians (don’t mention bacon around them!), free-range egg fans, supplement-swallowing, sugar-hating, GMO-abjuring, organic-food faddists, they were also looking forward to eating “healthy” food in Cuba.

Well, Cubans don’t do vegetarianism. Castro pushed salads — mostly cabbage — on them during the “Special Period” in the ’90s; and, at least for tourists, greens remain a dependable staple, composed mostly of cabbage, tomatoes, beets, and cukes topped with canola oil and vinegar. But Cubans much prefer meat, beans, rice, and starchy veggies — yuca, malanga, and plantains, preferably fried — plus anything with sugar: rum (and any other alcoholic drink, such as the mojito, with an added dollop of sugar), guarapo (pure sugar cane juice), raw sugar cane, churros, cucurucho (a mixture of honey, nuts, coconut, and sugar), coffee brewed with sugar (traditional), malta (a thick, extremely sweet version of non-alcoholic malt stout), coke mixed with sweetened condensed milk, ice cream, and extra sweet pastries.

Our diet-conscious couple brought boxes of “natural” granola bars so as to avoid the pork. My wife and I brought a jar of peanut butter and a bottle of sriracha sauce to spice it up.

On our visit to Cuba, my wife and I saw chickens everywhere, scrawny but free range. Every evening when arriving at our lodging, our host would offer us dinner, an always preferable alternative to eating in a government restaurant. I’d ask what was available and, knowing Cuban cuisine, would decide for the group. Initially I’d lean toward chicken out of respect for my “vegetarian” companions. Invariably, the chicken portions would consist of a giant thigh and leg with meat so white one could have mistaken it for a breast.

Aside: contrary to popular US perception, Cuba does have a fast-food restaurant chain — El Rapido, a state-run enterprise. Guidebooks and trip accounts tout it as dependable, with food quality varying from passable to good, especially the chicken — again, a thigh and leg combo. We never ate at a Rapido — but not for lack of trying. The ones we stopped at were either out of meat or not serving food because something had malfunctioned, or something else had gone wrong — but still open, with full staff just sitting around.

Riding with me in a taxi one day, Melinda, one of my progressive companions, wondered how the chickens we were served were so big when the ones we saw roaming about were so rickety. So I asked our driver. He said Cubans don’t kill their chickens, they’re for eggs. Eatin’ chickens are stamped with madinusa. Not familiar with the term, I asked him what it meant. He looked wryly at me, sideways, and then I got it: Made in USA.

When I told Melinda she gulped and said, “You mean we’ve been eating Purdue chickens? From now on let’s ask for pork; at least it’s organic.”

Pork is the ubiquitous Cuban meat. The only available roadside lunch snacks were in-season fruit stands and roast pork sandwiches consisting solely of pork and bread. (Cuba grows no wheat; it’s all imported, some of it possibly GMO.) Our diet-conscious couple brought boxes of “natural” granola bars so as to avoid the pork. My wife and I brought a jar of peanut butter and a bottle of sriracha sauce to spice up the pork sandwiches (yes, it’s a strange combination, but delicious).

Beef was the least available meat, even though we saw lots of cattle in the central provinces. Apparently it’s reserved for the nomenclatura and tourists. Though not available in government ration stores, it can be obtained by anyone at convertible currency stores — if you have the money. At one B&B where the owner was tickled pink that I was a Cuban-American, it brought out her impish side. I requested ropa vieja, a traditional brisket or flank steak dish. She thought about it for a minute and said, “We can do that. And it’ll be the best ropa vieja you’ve ever had.”

I responded, “Remember, I had a Cuban mother.”

Without skipping a beat she retorted, “It’ll be the second-best ropa vieja you’ve ever had.” We both laughed.

Fish is widely available but of varying quality. Whenever it was offered as fresh and a good species, especially pargo, Cuban Red Snapper (nothing like it!), I opted for it. Yes, Cuba hasn’t overfished its stocks. But not for eco-ideological reasons; rather for “sugar cane-curtain” reasons: to limit small boat traffic along its shores, minimizing escape and infiltration attempts. Additionally, small-enterprise fishing businesses haven’t been allowed: the state will provide the fish. However, lobster is often available, and it is to die for — huge, cheap, and delicious.

Arguably, our best meal was at a paladar (private restaurant) in Playa Giron (aka Bay of Pigs). We were the only ones there. The menu, recited, not read, included a special trio of fresh fish, shrimp, and lobster, all for $15 each, including cheap imported Chilean wine and all the trimmings. When the waiter was through I asked him about caiman (the Cuban croc), which I’d heard was available for eating in the Zapata swamp area. He answered that yes, they served it but couldn’t announce it, as it was a protected species. Though I desperately wanted to try it and cock a snook at the Castro regime, we all opted for the special.

One of the worst personal and environmental assaults in Cuba is the air pollution. It’s not the brown clouds that bedevil Beijing — the source is nostril level and in-your-face.

One B&B owner, who’d been in the tourism business all through the Special Period, both legally and illegally (and had spent time in jail), elaborated on what food was like back then. He cooked us a typical dinner (as a side dish to the marlin and lobster he was serving us): boiled cabbage. I don’t know what he did to it, but it was surprisingly tasty. He added that breakfasts in the special period consisted of sugar water followed by labor in the cane fields — a dish he didn’t serve us.

You see a lot when you ride a bike through the countryside. At least once we saw someone spraying pesticides on crops. When I mentioned it to Melinda she despondently admitted that she too had seen it. But one of the worst personal and environmental assaults in Cuba is the air pollution. It’s not the brown clouds that bedevil Beijing — Cuba’s breezes dissipate that possibility, and there’s little heavy industry. The source is nostril level and in-your-face. All those old cars that look so charming have been retrofitted with diesel engines that have zero emission controls. Clouds of black smoke spew out of nearly every vehicle, to such a degree that one of our companions got sick. Riding for any length in one of those classic cars will make you sick. Floor holes funnel the poison into the cabs, which means that all windows must be open all the time. Our B&B in Havana closed all the windows facing the street, to keep the exhaust out. Though the problem is acute in cities and towns where traffic can be dense, even out on the highways we’d hold our breath and avoid in any way we could the passage of a bus or truck, the most common vehicles on highways.

Garbage, like many things in Cuba, is full of contradictions. Cubans are a very clean people. One informant told me that trash collectors are particularly well paid. In general, the streets are quite clean. But . . . every once in a while mounds of garbage dot cities, towns, and the countryside, almost as if they’ve been warehoused in discreet piles and then forgotten, only to make a sudden reappearance.

On the way to find my grandmother’s grave, I struck up a conversation with a street sweeper, about my age. He was pushing a two-binned pushcart and sweeping with a handmade broom. He had a very photogenic face and was smoking a cigar. Intermittently picking up trash — there wasn’t much — and sitting in the shade, he caught my eye. I asked if I could photograph him. He was proud to be so noticed. After some introductory remarks and typical Cuban give-and-take, he declared, “We want capitalism to come back.” I asked him to elaborate. He said things were much better before the Revolution; there was more opportunity, more dynamism, and more wealth.

According to one person I talked to, the only municipal potable tap water in Cuba is in Baracoa, in the Sierra Maestra mountains at the far east end of the island. And it is delicious. Cool, free-flowing rivers fill Baracoa’s reservoir. Elsewhere, municipal water is a mess. In Guantanamo and in Havana, where I actually watched the process of getting tap water (and likely in other places too), it runs like this: Early in the evening, the water mains fill up. In a couple of hours the water level in the pipes gets high enough to reach the house branches. At this point, my two B&B owners turned on an electric or gasoline pump to get water from the mains into a cistern. Another couple of hours goes by; then, around 11 pm, another pump moves the water from the cistern up to a rooftop tank. Voila! Domestic water! — though not provided in the greenest way. Rural areas depend on trucked water and cisterned rainwater. Potable, government bottled water is also widely available. It is definitely not delicious. Though it has no actual repellent taste or smell, I have never tasted worse purified water. The consumer cost of both water and electricity is trivial — again, hardly an efficient or green approach to conserving resources.

Cuba’s organic farm production and the Obama administration’s trade overtures have caused concern among Florida’s organic farm growers. The March 18 issue of USA Today reports that

Florida farmers say the Obama administration’s plan to allow Cuban imports threatens their $8 billion-a-year business. Florida’s larger organic growers, already struggling to remain profitable, may be particularly hard-hit because Cuba has developed a strong organic farming sector.

Initially, Cuba most likely would export many of the same products grown by Florida organic farms, and the communist nation would enjoy the advantage of lower wages, state subsidies, cheap transportation and the novelty appeal of Cuban products.

It’s not just the subsidized competition that is worrisome. One American farmer asks, “When you buy Cuban products, are you helping the Cuban farmer — or the Cuban government?” He goes on to note that he worries about diseases, pests, and invasive species. Two-thirds of Florida farmers are against any deal. Bell peppers, tomatoes, and cucumbers are the primary products of Cuban state farms, but avocados and more exotic produce such as guanabana (soursop) are in the running.

The street sweeper declared, “We want capitalism to come back.” Things were much better, he said, before the Revolution; there was more opportunity, more dynamism, and more wealth.

USA Today adds, “Eva Worden, a Cuban-American organic grower in Punta Gorda, Fla., supports a resumption of trade between the U.S. and Cuba but wants to be sure the fruit and vegetable needs of the Cuban people are met before encouraging exports.”

Natural, organic, and even “genetically modified” terms have always been a minefield of imprecision and ideology. When politics is added to the mix, it’s anyone’s guess what government policy might turn out to be. Best to let the consumer decide . . .




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The Long Goodbye

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On April 19, on the eve of his 90th birthday, Fidel Castro delivered his “farewell” address to the Cuban Communist Party Congress in Havana. Fidel’s farewells now rival Francisco Franco’s farewells — or notices of his departure from this world — in both length and credibility. Though he first temporarily stepped down as president of Cuba in 2006, and then retired permanently in 2008, Fidel Castro’s influence as his successor’s elder brother, his continuing physical presence, and his moral standing as the “conscience of the Revolution,” preclude any serious change in Cuba’s political system.

The good news is that something inside is whispering to him that his time on earth is done. As a consequence, he’s urging his successors to keep the faith. No one expects the country’s first vice president, Miguel Mario Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, 56, to succeed in any meaningful way. Though Raul Castro has said that he’d step down in 2018 when his term is up, his second-in-command, José Ramón Machado Ventura, 85, is expected to continue wielding power by leading the Party. So, Fidel: rest assured — for now.

Word on the street is more nuanced. Raul was head of the armed forces and security organs before becoming president. His G2 security apparatus is second only to the CIA and Mossad (forget the KGB according to Juan Reynaldo Sanchez, Fidel’s personal bodyguard of 17 years). As head of the Armed Forces, Raul designed and engineered the very first tourism joint ventures with foreign governments and firms, loosely following the model of the People’s Liberation Army in China, whose commercial interests are widespread. The effort helped Cuba overcome the difficulties of the Special Period imposed by the implosion of the Soviet Union.

The good news is that something inside is whispering to Fidel that his time on earth is done.

Raul and his late wife, Vilma Espin, have three daughters. One is married to a general whose public persona is so behind-the-scenes that my informant couldn’t recall his name. The general is not a politician and doesn’t wish to draw attention to himself. However, he is the architect of most of Cuba’s successful mid-to-large state enterprises. His military, family and commercial positions endow him with unrivaled power; power that in my informed informant’s opinion he will not easily give up, but will continue to wield behind the scenes.

In spite of the government’s efforts to encourage self-employment in its own passive-aggressive way, again — according to this informant — the state is terrified of mid-level independent enterprises gaining a foothold on the island. Disincentives, from limits on the number of employees to accelerated taxation schemes, abound.

On March 28, as a response to President Obama’s visit to Cuba, Fidel opined in an editorial in the official organ of Cuba’s Communist Party, Granma, that “we do not need the empire to give us anything.” This time, Fidel, rest unassured: one of the primary sources of foreign exchange in Cuba is family remittances, to the tune of $2.5 billion annually (2014 figures; probably more now). But rest even more unassuredly, Fidel, because some of the money indirectly comes from US taxpayers, i.e., the government.

Though my group knew my objective and knew that I wrote for Liberty, I warned them to stick to our formal purpose if asked, and mention nothing of my other intentions.

Here’s how it works: Cuban refugees are automatically granted asylum in the US and are provided with food stamps, heath care, and a stipend, i.e., welfare. Some of this is sent back to family in Cuba. With Cuban hustle, many refugees get jobs but continue to collect benefits. The remittances give a whole new definition to Cuba’s being a “welfare” state — in this case, one that’s dependent on the US dole. Cuban refugees who came to the US in times past recognize the problem and are urging the US government to change the automatic acceptance rule for Cubans and apply normal asylum procedures to present-day Cuban immigrants.

This past February, I contributed to the remittances motherlode.

On my recent trip to Cuba I was bringing a small laptop computer to a relative — allowed, but ordinarily subject to declaration and a 100% tariff, something that would make the laptop unaffordable. At Jose Marti airport, and before I crossed passport control, a clipboard-wielding functionary spotted my group of five and targeted us as an irregular group. We were coming legally from Miami, as opposed to illegally through Mexico or Canada, venues from which American tourists aren’t the subjects of much concern. Our US State Dept. category was “Educational.” We were in Cuba to assess the opportunities for running bicycle-based adventure education courses covering history, environment, anthropology, etc. However, my personal objective was research for a proposed book, a purpose that would raise much concern with the Cuban government, and a travel category that would have required a Cuban government minder to accompany and “help” me at my expense. Though my group knew my objective and knew that I wrote for Liberty (a quasi-journalistic position — another category the government is wary of and upon which they impose many requirements), I warned them to stick to our formal purpose if asked, and mention nothing of my other intentions.

The functionary walked up to one of our group and asked our purpose in coming to Cuba. My partner blithely and absent-mindedly said he was a writer. My wife, ever alert, rushed to the scene and corrected the impression, saying we were there for educational purposes. By now our whole group surrounded the man. He asked for our itinerary and formal proposal. I dazzled him with paperwork which I’d painstakingly composed with every computer tool available: detailed schedule, educational purpose of the trip, lengthy resumes of each participant along with their professional positions, and letters of support and intent from three universities.

The man (his English being only passable) glanced at the professionally printed matter and, satisfied, returned it to me. He then asked if we were carrying any electronic devices, cameras, computers, etc. reassuring us that these were permissible for personal use. Going round the circle, each participant pulled out camera, laptop, phone, whatever. By the time he got to me and I’d pulled out my camera and was about to declare the laptop for my relative, the man lost interest and dismissed us, figuring we were what we appeared to be.

I’d successfully taken a laptop into Cuba — one small ruse for a man; one satisfying step for liberty in Cuba.




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Closing the Circle

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We may be approaching one of the most significant events of our time: the end of the Castro regime in Cuba. So long have Fidel Castro and his friends reigned in Cuba that it is hard to get perspective on the regime and its history. The history of Cuba itself remains little known to Norteamericanos.

Fortunately, there is Robert Miller. A longtime contributor to Liberty, Robert was reared in Cuba as a member of a prominent family. He has spent most of his life in the United States but has followed events in his homeland closely. When Liberty discovered that Robert was writing a memoir of his family’s life in Cuba, their flight to the United States, and their adventures here, we asked him if we could print parts of his work. Robert agreed. We are featuring it in several segments, of which this is the second. The first was published in Liberty in February.

The memoir is not a work of political science; it is something much more: an introduction to ways of life, parallel to those of North Americans, and connected at many points, but always pungently different. We think our readers will find this view of Cuba, before and after the Castro Revolution, strange, unpredictable, charming, funny, tragic, and always very interesting.

Part II begins with the reactions of Robert’s father (Pop) and mother (Mina) to Castro’s war against the Batista regime, which he eventually overthrew. — Stephen Cox

Part II

Mina was a skeptic; Pop was a fan. Optimistic about Castro, he was later to contribute money and property to the Revolution both before and immediately after its victory. But revolutions, no matter how well-intentioned, are inherently disruptive and unpredictable. This didn’t stop Pop. The urgency of his ambitions was fueled by the specter of the grim reaper. With the addition of rheumatoid arthritis, a crippling and disfiguring disease, his chronic malaria and angina pectoris became a threesome.

After the Bug took root, he partnered up with a German colleague from Volkswagen and launched a brand new enterprise in early 1958. Though he’d been Controller of the Oxford Paper Company for only a short time, back in 1940, he must have felt confident in opening Cuba’s first big paper products factories, Envases Modernos S.A. and Industrias Cello-Pak S.A. He wanted to give Dixie’s or Lilly’s (I don’t remember which) de facto monopoly a run for its money. When the paper cup assembly line became operative, he proudly took the family out to the factory to watch the process and presented us each with a waxed paper cup as if it were a votive offering.

Less than one month after Castro’s victory, when euphoria and grandiose schemes still permeated the Cuban atmosphere, Fidel proposed planting a thousand trees along the avenues that had hosted the rebels’ triumphant procession. Pop immediately offered to donate 1,000 paper cups to hold the seedlings. He not only did not receive an answer, but no trees were ever planted.

Pop proudly took the family out to the factory to watch the process and presented us each with a waxed paper cup as if it were a votive offering.

Nineteen fifty-eight also brought television to our home. Instantly it became hypnotic. Rin Tin Tin, Annie Oakley, Sea Hunt, Bat Masterson, Gunsmoke, all dubbed in Spanish, became staples, keeping us kids indoors in the evening, sitting cross-legged on the floor.

After Castro’s victory, however, all broadcasting became live news, 24/7, way before CNN. Though initially spellbinding, Fidel’s speeches soon tired us: the endless narration; the panoramic shots of crowds supporting this or that, or protesting this or that; the mass televised trials; and the endless coverage and speculation over the explosion of La Coubre in Havana Harbor in March 1960, a ship bearing an arms shipment — with Fidel’s endless rhetorical question, “Armas, para que?” “Arms, for what?” The arms were intended for the new revolutionary government, but Castro spun the sabotage to his advantage.

But to return to the events that put Castro in power: in May 1958, with three active guerrilla fronts operating on the island, Batista finally decided to get serious. He dispatched 10,000 troops to destroy Castro’s 300 guerrillas in Oriente Province, and the Directorio Revolucionario’s Escambray front, now also numbering in the hundreds. But it was not to be.

Throughout June, July, and August government troops suffered defeat after defeat, surrendered en masse, or switched sides. Huge amounts of equipment, including tanks, fell into the hands of the rebels. By September 1, the two Oriente fronts, one under Che Guevara, the other under Camilo Cienfuegos, had begun a two-pronged advance westward, toward the center of the island. It would be only a matter of time before they reached the capital.

With the steamroller now nearly unstoppable, Cubans began letting down their guard. No longer was Radio Rebelde listened to clandestinely; it was openly monitored and discussed. Young men — and some women — from all over the island rushed to join the advancing rebels, jumping on the bandwagon as it picked up momentum.

Headed over to the Castellanos’, in search of distraction, I ran into one of the young guys — related somehow to the ex-mayor — who were often there. He was a guy who had actually paid attention to me, shown friendship and kindness even — behavior that, to a young boy, instantly made him a role model. Now he was dressed in full olive green army fatigues, with backpack and sidearm, and was walking down the street nonchalantly. Since the regular army wore khakis, either this guy was foolish or fearless, or the risk was minimal.

Fidel's physical seclusion in the mountains but unquestioned leadership and tenacity gave him an Olympian air, abetted by his curly Greek beard — one he would never again shave.

I stopped dead on the sidewalk in front of him, speechless, eyes bugging out. The only soldiers I‘d ever been this close to were my little toy soldiers. He said he was off to join the rebels. I asked if I could go with him, even though I knew that was impossible. He smiled, metaphorically (or perhaps actually) patted my head, and kindly said no, that I was too young. When I told my parents about the encounter, they shuddered, grimacing that his behavior was beyond foolish.

In September, Guevara’s and Cienfuegos’ troops, advancing separately, met up in Camagüey province and continued their westward march as one large force. Government resistance to the advance was mostly limited to aerial bombardment, intermittent at best because of the heavy rains of the fall hurricane season.

On October 7, the now-combined Castro forces crossed into Las Villas province and encountered the forces of the Directorio Revolucionario in the Escambray Mountains under the field command of Faure Chaumont. Though Castro’s 26 of July Movement and the Directorio Revolucionario had heretofore been completely independent enterprises, Chaumont agreed to a coordinated offensive. The news ignited Cubans; hundreds of men volunteered to join the rebels.

In November, government forces concentrated behind defensive positions in the cities of Las Villas province. Rebel forces, meanwhile, worked out operational plans for the new joint command, planned the next offensives, trained new recruits, and awaited drier weather.

Fidel himself remained ensconced in his headquarters in the Sierra Maestra, coordinating military and political strategy. His physical seclusion in the mountains but unquestioned leadership and tenacity gave him an Olympian air, abetted by his curly Greek beard — one he would never again shave.

Nearly all the rebel forces sported beards and long hair, starting a sartorial trend, with philosophical implications, that would take the world by storm in the 1960s. Raul Castro, with his skimpy fuzz of a beard, gave rise to rumors that he was either homosexual or illegitimate — or both. Camilo Cienfuegos, on the other hand, hirsute as a Tolkien character in Lord of the Rings, with a beard that made one wonder whether it housed legions of unidentified critters, was beginning to upstage Fidel. Handsome, with a seductive and ready smile, and a twinkle in his eye under his black cowboy hat, he would later die in a suspicious plane crash in 1959 on a fool’s errand for Fidel.

On December 20, the final rebel offensive began. In quick succession, the cities of Cabaiguan, Placetas, Remedios, Cruces, and Sancti Spiritus fell to the onslaught. Two days later, Camilo Cienfuegos began an assault on the army garrison at Yaguajay; while Guevara’s and Chaumont’s combined forces attacked Santa Clara, capital of Las Villas province.

After nearly two weeks of intense combat and aerial bombardment, 250 government soldiers surrendered Yaguajay to Cienfuegos on New Year’s Eve, and 1,000 more surrendered to Guevara and Chaumont on New Year’s Day, 1959.

* * *

New Year’s Eve 1959 was a memorable one and not soon to be forgotten! Word passed around like wildfire that Batista and his cronies had fled, throwing in the sponge at last. The island had been cut in half at the now famous Bay of Pigs and the Escambray rebel troops were headed for Havana. On New Year’s day it became a reality and while many mobs roamed the streets seeking revenge against the hated dictator’s cronies who had not as yet left, we were not molested. I personally did not leave the house, carefully following the advice given over the local radio.

So begins my father’s account of those fateful days between Batista’s exit and the rebels’ arrival, an account he wrote for Time magazine but that was never published.

When Batista fled the country at 2 AM on New Year’s Day, 1959, Havana erupted into an orgy of celebration. The metropolitan police, technically members of the old regime, kept a low profile. We children weren’t allowed to get near the windows, much less leave the house. All the prisons were thrown open, and riotous mobs roamed the streets wreaking havoc on anything associated with the old regime, especially casinos. Another favorite target was parking meters, a hated source of government income. My sister Nani remembers one passing car peppering our living room with bullets. My mother, ever cautious, concocted a Molotov cocktail “just in case.”

Days later, when Castro’s tanks rolled into the city, mobs lionized the long-haired, bearded rebels. Contingents of the olive-clad, Thompson-submachine-gun-wielding soldiers ringed all the embassies to prevent “enemies of the people” from escaping. With the Mexican ambassador’s residence only a block from our house, I couldn’t keep away. Armed with my pellet gun — for solidarity and fun — I’d hang out for hours with the militiamen, target shooting at birds and passing the time. For a 9-year-old kid, it just didn’t get any better. As I’d later say when I learned English in Mississippi, “I was shitting in tall cotton.”

My mother, ever cautious, concocted a Molotov cocktail “just in case.”

CMQ, Channel 6, went to round-the-clock programming. Though I preferred outdoor activity, the novel, continuous TV coverage of events mesmerized us. Abuela, we kids, and the household staff — whenever they managed time between chores — gathered in the TV room to watch the Revolution unfold.

On January 2 Manuel Urrutia, the judge who had tried Castro sympathetically after his July 26, 1953 uprising, became President of Cuba. He was appointed to the post behind the scenes by Castro, no doubt because his reputation for probity and his spotless record wouldn’t cause any ructions domestically or internationally. Jose Miro Cardona became Prime Minister. Days later the US recognized the new government and appointed a new ambassador, Phillip Bonsal.

I asked Abuela how Urrutia became president without an election. She shrugged her shoulders and mumbled something I can’t remember. She’d seen so much. It would have taken too much effort and too long a time to try to explain it all to a 9-year-old kid.

Then on January 8, Fidel Castro, with his now-mechanized No. 1 Jose Marti Column slowly rolled into Havana amidst a stately procession of troops and army vehicles. It was beautifully scripted to appear spontaneous — which, to some degree, it was. Not riding atop a tank — as has often been reported — along Havana Harbor’s Malecon seawall and waving to the ecstatic crowds, Castro seemed to have turned out all of Havana — along with busloads of provincials — to line the streets.

Castro stopped in front of the Columbia Army Barracks and ceremoniously approached the podium and microphones that awaited him. It was the biggest crowd ever along the streets of Havana. After he’d begun talking, three white doves alighted on his podium, one landing on his shoulder. The crowds went absolutely wild. Most thought it was a sign from Providence: Fidel was “untouchable.” We were glued to the TV, in spite of just being little kids listening to a politician.

Mina’s cousin Eddy, a mostly unemployed bon vivant, was there also. Afterward he set out to regale the extended family about the event, to little response. He’d make the rounds of relatives ingratiating himself and cadging what he could. Mina didn’t care for him and called him a Communist. Chuchu, just a kid at the time but later to marry into our family, got to watch the procession from the balcony of his nearby home.

After Castro had begun talking, three white doves alighted on his podium, one landing on his shoulder. The crowds went absolutely wild.

In three days the TV spectacle switched to military tribunals set up to deal with members of the old regime, followed by executions before firing squads with screams of “Al paredon!” (To the firing wall!) This prime-time TV tableau vivant continued through January and into February, and trickled into March, with a break during Easter Week, by which time 483 “war criminals” had been executed — a little over half the total number of war dead on both sides during the two-year revolutionary war. Near the end of January, 100 “women in black” demonstrated against the executions. As many as 500 Batistianos — Batista partisans — were executed, with the US calling it a “bloodbath.” Had we not lost interest in the repetitive, propagandaish, and predictable drama, I sensed that Abuela might have tried to distract us with a game of cards.

In spite of this — after all, the nuances of the rule of law and due process were slippery to nonexistent in 9-year olds, and excused by most adults in the excitement of a well-intentioned revolution — all my family were middling-to-sympathetic Castro supporters. But one detail nagged me: Castro held no formal role in government. How did he wield so much influence? Perhaps it was a naïve question for a child, but it was prescient.

On February 16, Fidel replaced Miro Cardona as Prime Minister with himself. With Castro now holding a formal government post, things started to make sense to me. Kids just don’t understand power without position and titles. Twelve days after his appointment, Castro announced that “elections could not be held now because they would not be fair. We have an overwhelming majority at present and it is in the interest of the nation that the political parties become fully developed and their programs defined before elections are held.”

Revolutions, no matter how radical, always provide opportunities for profit. Sometime that winter or spring, the Felices Company, a sweets and canned guava producer, decided to sponsor a new idea — a set of 268 “baseball” cards that commemorated the Revolution and its leaders. The events depicted on the cards were rendered in colored line drawings, while photographs — like real baseball cards — depicted the Revolution’s leaders. Fidel was number 126; Raul, 127. The full collection, pasted into a bespoke album, traced the Revolution from 1952 to 1959. Production of the individual cards was dribbled out, both in time and quantity, to create a sense of drama and expectation. A flat slab of bubble gum accompanied each little packet of cards, the exact content of which was always somewhat indeterminate.

In three days the TV spectacle switched to military tribunals set up to deal with members of the old regime, followed by executions before firing squads with screams of “Al paredon!” (To the firing wall!)

This indeterminacy was a stroke of genius for the Felices Company. Kids might end up with many duplicates of the same card or a few hot-off-the-presses new cards. The resulting oversupply and scarcity created a hot trading market among kids, who were all racing to be the first to fill their albums and complete their set.

“I’ll give you two Almedias for one Che Guevara!”

“No way! Che is worth much more. One Almedia, one Chibas, and one Cubelas, and you can have Che.”

“OK, deal.”

Kids who had absolutely no interest in baseball — me included — became avid collectors of the Revolution cards. Recess at St. Thomas became a swap meet for cards. Fights and impromptu games ceased. I don’t remember anyone not participating. Even my nerdy, chubby, reclusive, almost-albino friend, Urzurrun — nicknamed bola de nieve for his glaringly white complexion — started collecting the cards and pasting them in his album.

But it was the educational (some might say propaganda) benefit that these cards provided that was most overlooked. Little kids don’t read much; and what they overhear adults saying about current events is discrete, discontinuous, out of context, usually boring, and often misunderstood. These cards made history and current events come alive. Some of us memorized the names of all 16 Rebel Comandantes. We’d argue about the cause and effects of the events depicted on the cards, marvel at the deeds and atrocities, and elaborate speculatively about the events given short shrift.

Some of us even went so far as to read Castro’s “History Will Absolve Me” speech — his summing-up at the end of his trial in 1952 — that was printed in full on the inside back cover of the album. Had the speech been assigned reading for an eighth-grader, eyes would have glazed and rolled, homework would have been put off, and stern admonitions from teachers would have poured forth. But the Felices Company managed not only to make fourth-graders read and reread the speech, but to do it voluntarily and with enthusiasm.

I have no idea how much the Felices Company profited from this venture or even if they ever got to keep their profits, as money and property were confiscated bit by bit. But a recent Google search for Album de la Revolucion Cubana revealed that one leather-bound, mint condition, completed album sold for $100,000 at Sotheby’s. An old, ratty one like mine goes for about $1,500 on Ebay.

In mid-April Castro visited the US on a ten-day trip, where he was greeted everywhere by exuberant crowds. TV had more or less returned to normal broadcasting, but special events always received full coverage. Because the month before Castro had expropriated the properties of ITT (International Telephone and Telegraph Company) in Cuba and had taken over control of its affiliate, the Cuban Telephone Company (CTC), some of the reporters of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, his hosts, asked him outright whether he was a Communist. Castro publicly denied the allegations.

As the future would later reveal, Castro’s grudges would rival his speeches in endlessness.

Pop must have been somewhat reassured, in spite of owning 50 shares of CTC valued at $5,000 (about $50,000 in 2010 dollars). The Cuban Telephone Company was, after all, a public utility with a de facto monopoly — to many, an excusable target for government takeover. Telephone rates dropped.

But then, in mid-May, Castro signed the Agrarian Reform Act, which in a little over one year, expropriated nearly half the land in the country, forbade foreign land ownership, and nationalized cattle ranches. Farms were restricted to 13 km2 with other real estate holdings limited to 993 acres. The majority of expropriated property was retained by the government for state-run communes, while the remainder was redistributed to peasants in 67-acre parcels.

To implement the new law, Castro established the National Agrarian Reform Institute and named Che Guevara as its head. Expecting some resistance, Guevara created a special militia to enforce the reforms. Though he supported agrarian reform, Pop began to worry about the foreign ownership bit.

We owned a small 13.75 acre piece of rural land, Finca Leon, valued at $7,000. It was well below the maximum allotment and was not a farm, but it was definitely “foreign” owned.

By this time, Pop was hedging his bets — probably a strategy he would have used no matter how confident of the future he was. As a good businessman, he tended to minimize risk by not putting all his eggs in one basket. This took the form of creating diverse partnerships, limiting capital outlay, never becoming the official CEO of any enterprise, etc.

Meanwhile, President Urrutia, to allay growing fears of Communist infiltration of the government, declared himself a strong anti-Communist and began attacking the ideology. In response, Fidel Castro theatrically resigned as prime minister, demanding Urrutia’s resignation. In mid-July, Urrutia and his entire cabinet, pressured by Castro, newspapers, and a 500,000-strong protest march, resigned the presidency. A week after his own resignation, and in the presence of great public consternation, Castro resumed his post as prime minister, giving long speeches both when he resigned and again when he resumed the office. He replaced Urrutia with Osvaldo Dorticos Torrado, an obscure Cuban Communist Party lawyer, again without a vote.

Six months after gaining power, Castro made his first foreign revolutionary foray, in part to distract public opinion from the Urrutia cock-up: he attempted an invasion of the Dominican Republic. But it was an ill-planned, pathetically executed affair. Rafael Trujillo, the Dominican dictator — and a truly sadistic butcher — was perceived in Cuba as the twin of the much more benign Batista. Castro proudly declared that it was his duty to extend his revolution to the sister republic. It was a wildly popular move, because Trujillo had helped Batista. But the real reason was revenge. Trujillo had done everything he could to derail Castro’s revolution and, as the future would later reveal, Castro’s grudges would rival his speeches in endlessness.

Castro’s expeditionary force of 200 men was wiped out by Trujillo’s army, which had been tipped off and was awaiting them. (The ancillary irony is that when Batista fled, he sought refuge in Santo Domingo from Trujillo; but Trujillo held him hostage for months until Batista paid him a ransom of many millions of dollars from his ill-gotten gains. Then the Dominican President allowed him to fly into permanent exile in Portugal.) Undeterred, a month later Castro launched an identical operation against Haiti’s dictator, Papa Doc Duvalier. There were practically no survivors.

More troubling than the Agrarian Reform Act was the establishment of the ironically titled Ministerio de Recuperacion de Bienes Malversados (MRBM), or Ministry for the Recuperation of Ill-Gotten Gains. Established in January 1959, it at first focused on the recovery of the previous regime’s illicit proceeds. But it didn’t hit full stride until later that year, when it began going after exiles’ property. Its remit extended over every type of private property, owned by just about anybody, down to personal jewelry and silverware. Historian Herminio Portell-Vila says that it “functioned capriciously, without the rule of law, anarchically, settling cases hastily . . . and without the protection of [the courts].” It even ransacked banks’ safe-deposit boxes — without warrants — for loot. By the end of 1959, the MRBM had confiscated $58 million worth of property, a figure that would, by 1961, rise to over $400 million.

Pop hadn’t quite become like the proverbial slowly boiled frog, but he decided to take a break from the increasingly bad omens in Cuba with an old-fashioned car trip in the US with the family, visiting the recently opened Disneyland in California before the start of the 1959–60 school year.

The most absurd stretch of military rank protocol was Mexican President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna’s conferral of a state funeral with full military honors to his amputated leg.

Next to Fidel, 27-year-old Camilo Cienfuegos was the most popular Comandante in the Revolution — and he was probably more trusted, because of his unassuming, transparent demeanor. Che Guevara wasn’t even in the same league. Though popular, not only was he a foreigner, he was also an idealistic ideologue who wasn’t affected by the limelight. Not far down that line stood Comandante Huber Matos, who had been made military commander of Camagüey province.

Cuban military ranks had been subjected to curious political manipulations ever since 1933, Sergeant Fulgencio Batista led his non-commissioned officers’ coup against both the higher echelons and, by later, behind-the-scenes machinations, the government. He’d then promoted himself incrementally to colonel, then general.

Throughout Latin America, rank inflation since the wars for independence had gotten out of control, like incontinent old men engaging in a pissing contest. Titles such as field marshal, emperor, dictator-for-life, and most serene highness, all self-conferred and bandied about to a degree that relegated the rank of general to dogcatcher. Probably the most absurd stretch of military rank protocol was Mexican President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna’s conferral of a state funeral with full military honors to his amputated leg.

Fidel Castro took a different approach, even though his rank of Comandante, Commander, was also self-conferred. Comandante was the highest rank in the rebel army. There were only 16 Comandantes including Fidel. It was a stratagem that implied humility and equality, a fiction that the primus inter pares didn’t take long to dispel.

In late October 1959, Comandante Huber Matos, along with 14 of his officers, resigned, citing the appointment of Communists to key positions of power in the government. Suspecting that Matos was organizing counterrevolution, Fidel dispatched Camilo Cienfuegos to arrest him. But after talking to Matos, Camilo didn’t want to arrest him. He argued with Castro that Matos was an honorable man and should be allowed to resign for reasons of conscience, that Matos was no danger to the Revolution, that he was not planning an uprising, and that he was a man who kept his word. But Castro wasn’t moved. So Camilo arrested the 15 men and had them incarcerated. Afterward, he boarded a plane for Havana.

The plane never made it back.

Some believe Castro ordered it shot down, perhaps because Camilo was becoming too popular or because he questioned Castro’s orders after talking with Matos. Others think it simply disappeared over the ocean during the night flight. A few days’ search yielded nothing but speculation; speculation that, to this day, has only caused both sides to reach for more tenuous extremes of supporting evidence.

Though others were questioning Castro’s intentions, it was the Cienfuegos-Matos affair that put the first doubts about the Revolution in my 10-year-old mind. Matos was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment in the Carcel Modelo on the Isla de la Juventud (Isle of Pines). He served his full sentence, 16 years of it in solitary confinement, subjected to multiple beatings and torture. Afterward, he joined the Miami-based anti-Castro CID (Cuba Independiente y Democrática).

I wasn’t the only doubter. Matos’ conviction marked the end of the “revolutionary coalition” between moderates and radicals, and put the great Cuban exodus that continues to this day into high gear.

By mid-December, only nine of the original 21 ministers of the revolutionary government remained. With Raul Castro as Minister of Defense, Dorticos in the presidency, Guevara in charge of the Central Bank, and himself as Prime Minister, Castro had concentrated all the reins of power in his hands.

Money, instead of being the root of all evil, is the tangible, distilled essence of a person’s best efforts, a repository that allows him to store his labor and talents in tiny bits of otherwise useless paper and metal for later conversion to food, housing, clothing, transportation, dreams, and even love. For safekeeping, once the reservoir exceeds, say, a month’s earnings, people resort to the safety of a bank, where funds are guarded and insured. It is a sacred trust.

How Che Guevara, an Argentine doctor, became head of the Cuban National Bank owes more to ideology than to expertise. Soon after taking power, Fidel had to transition his confidants from military duties to civilian appointments. During one brainstorming session — according to a story Guevara told David Atlee Phillips (Pop’s CIA tenant) at a popular Cuban coffee house — Fidel asked who among them was a dedicated economist. Che Guevara, for some unknown reason, heard “dedicated communist.” His arm shot up, so Castro appointed him first, minister of industries, then Finance Minister, and finally, in November 1959, president of the National Bank.

The Argentine immediately began a series of draconian currency controls that, in effect, stole depositors’ money. But he did it incrementally, so that depositors wouldn’t withdraw all their money and run. Much later, between June and October 1960, these controls culminated in the nationalization of all the banks, and then, in a quick sleight-of-hand move, the introduction of a new currency, convertible only in limited amounts. Most Cubans’ life savings suddenly shrank or even disappeared.

Fidel asked who among them was a dedicated economist. Che Guevara, for some unknown reason, heard “dedicated communist.” His arm shot up, so Castro appointed him head of the Cuban National Bank.

I cannot begin to imagine the stress Pop and Mina were undergoing towards the end of 1959, but I’m certain they were no longer at all sanguine about the direction the Revolution was taking. I seldom saw either one — not that they’d confide their worries and troubles to us kids. In his action against the Cuban government, filed under the International Claims Settlement Act of 1949, Foreign Claims Settlement Commission of the United States, Pop would file a subclaim of $24,219 for “Impairment to health & loss of ability to work.”

It wasn’t just his immediate family that Howard was worrying himself sick about; it was also his employees, their families, their livelihoods. These were the people who depended on him and his businesses for a living. He was concerned about all of them equally. Pop came from a family who took in stray cats; who, upon encountering an upside-down beetle would stop to right it; who shooed away flies instead of killing them; who wrote poetry to pass the time — a family so shy, sensitive, quiet, and self-effacing that few of his siblings ever married, preferring to continue living together for the rest of their lives.

Christmas of 1959 revealed little of the brewing storm. The big public controversy was Castro’s suggestion that true Cuban patriots should decorate a palm tree for Christmas instead of an imported pine tree and should relegate Santiclos to the dustbin of history. We stuck to a locally grown pine tree.

Pop and Mina went all out. When we kids awoke at 5 AM and tiptoed down the stairs to see what Santiclos had brought, there were more presents under that tree than I had ever seen. But the pièce de résistance was the elaborate, full-scale Lionel train set with my name on it; one which, when it came time to leave the island, I was forced to leave behind.

I well remember New Year’s 1960. Alone, at the end of one of the streets that butted up to the Almendares Barranca, I reflected on my life thus far, and on the new decade and the changes that might come. As I sat on the inner barricade, when midnight struck I said goodbye to the ’50s, realizing in amazement that they were forever gone and would never return — their events now part of the past. And I wondered what the new decade, the ’60s, would bring. It was so curious, so concretely surreal, to stand at the exact threshold between my first and second decade. At the moment the clock struck 12 (not that I had a watch; the instant was marked by distant bells, bangs, and fireworks) I felt the pang of the irreversible passage of time, forever irretrievable.

A few minutes after midnight, I wandered home. No one questioned my whereabouts.

* * *

Not everyone welcomed the New Year as reflectively as I had.

Now that Che Guevara held the three most important economic portfolios in Cuba — president of the National Bank, minister of industry, and head of Agrarian Reform — he began rapidly extricating the Cuban economy from world markets and bringing it into dependence on the Soviet Bloc. His first moves, to sever Cuba’s ties with the Inter-American Development Bank and from the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (aka the World Bank), were coupled with a sweetheart trade agreement with the USSR.

On February 6, Soviet Deputy Prime Minister Anastas Mikoyan visited Cuba and signed a preferential Trade and Payments Agreement worth $100 million in oil, petroleum products, wheat, iron, fertilizers, and machinery for . . . sugar. With the exits from the IADB and the World Bank, the Castro regime destroyed the traditional geopolitical ties between Cuba and the Western world. Full diplomatic relations with the USSR were established in May after having been severed by Batista seven years previously, after his coup in 1952. Ironically, it had been Batista who first established diplomatic relations with the USSR, back in 1943, and who had brought a number of Communists into his government, albeit without voting rights.

United States responses to these moves began as early as October 1959 with preliminary studies, and took actual form in January 1960. Concerned about the possibility of another attempted Soviet military base in the Western Hemisphere only five years after the overthrow of the Marxist Arbenz regime in Guatemala, President Eisenhower ordered the CIA to create a Cuba Task Force to draft overt and covert response scenarios to the deteriorating diplomatic and human rights situation.

There are many misconceptions surrounding the US Central Intelligence Agency. Its basic remit is to gather information about foreign governments in order for the US to design an effective and appropriate foreign policy. Since the US cannot depend on CNN and Fox News for its information, it must depend on on-the-ground, on-the-spot sources abroad, along with satellite and electronic surveillance. This is called “spying” — an essential operation for a practical and engaged foreign policy. It is not a “government onto itself,” is not a military organization, does not have any law enforcement capabilities, took no part in Watergate, and is very limited in its domestic intelligence gathering. Its operatives have a GS 1-15 government employee rating and are subject to normal federal regulations.

The CIA, under specific executive branch orders, also promotes democracy in its wider sense: not just electoral democracy, but also individual rights and free markets. As to “overt” and “covert” actions, the first refers to US military operations; the second to aiding and organizing homegrown resistance against despotic regimes. Covert operations are impossible without credible and widespread domestic opposition within the target country. Since 1960, counterterrorism and nonproliferation of nuclear weapons have been added to the CIA’s priorities.

We kids had no inkling of the gravity of the impending changes until Nana, after playing at a neighbor’s house, came home one evening with trivial gossip. Marcia, her friend, had sat her down conspiratorially on the bed to confide something her mom had told her: that “everyone will soon be leaving Cuba by boat because of the Communists.”

Nana’s talk with Mina produced more of a shotgun shell of hidden queries than a comment: What did Marcia’s mom mean? How could everyone leave Cuba by boat? Were we going to leave Cuba in a boat?

Mamá approached her response slowly and thoughtfully, first saying that talking politics was impolite, but then, after a long pause, adding that it was “dangerous to talk politics.”

Whether 9-year-old Nana could make the connection between politics — as in elections and voting on the one hand — and leaving Cuba by boat on the other hand (this also being a kind of “politics“) is questionable, though she already had a healthy fear of Communism, not just from her catechism classes but from watching movies of the Spanish Civil War. At that age Nana was too slow and shy for followup questions. Nonetheless, Mamá’s response and the way she delivered it made a deep and lasting impression on Nana.

An even more blatant incident went completely over my own head. I had been assigned a poem to memorize and recite at an upcoming public forum at St. Thomas, celebrating something I can’t recall. When the day arrived, Mina was present, sitting with all the proud parents and attendees on movable bleachers. In between presentations, the St. Thomas Military Academy brass band played martial music. For a short while, I took center stage.

My father arrived at his Envases Modernos paper factory to be welcomed by big red graffiti on the yellow walls urging “Miller al paredon!”

I don’t remember being nervous or even the gist of the poem, but there was only perfunctory applause afterward, even though my recitation had been flawless. At the close of the ceremonies, Mina was nowhere to be found. I waited patiently by the car for her appearance. After a while I spotted her marching around the corner, headed for me, all four horsemen of the Apocalypse in one big bundle of angry woman. Steam was coming out of her head, but she said nothing during the drive home. I retreated into inconspicuousness, unwilling to experience any collateral damage from that critical mass.

Later, I overheard her and Pop discussing the incident. Mina thought the poem was un-American. But not just “un-American” — it was a load of scurrilous lies made to be delivered by a 10-year-old American kid to a Cuban audience. Mina took it personally. But she also didn’t take it as an isolated incident. She was connecting dots that led all the way up from a poem at St. Thomas through the new public policy ukases now filtering into education at even private schools, to Fidel Castro himself.

I was later to glean that it was this incident that, for Mina, sealed our exit. Trivial as it seemed, compared to the conflicts Pop must have been struggling with, forthcoming events were to indicate that he doggedly insisted on reconciling irreconcilable views. His concern for the family butted up against his optimism that everything would not turn out as bad as the Cassandras perceived. Mina’s insistence convinced him to leave, yet he remained frustratingly diffident. He took no concrete steps to divest himself of Cuban assets, thinking that his businesses and expertise would be beneficial to the new order — or, since I’m trying to delve into a mind long gone — he did not want to raise any red flags with the regime by appearing to think about leaving the sinking ship.

But a sinking ship it was. By March 1960 the New York Times had reported five serious anti-Castro groups operating out of Miami. Soon after, President Eisenhower initiated the by-now 55-year-old embargo. The embargo terminated US Cuban sugar purchases, ended US oil deliveries to the island, continued the arms embargo of 1958, begun so as not to take sides in the Revolution, and authorized a “Covert Action Plan Against Cuba,” which included the organization of a paramilitary force of Cuban exiles to overthrow Castro — what was to become the Bay of Pigs invasion.

One week after Eisenhower’s authorization, David Atlee Phillips, our old tenant, was appointed Director of Propaganda for the Cuba Operation. He immediately began the project to set up and run Radio Swan, the disinformation arm of the operation. This powerful CIA anti-Castro radio campaign was based on Swan Island, an uninhabited tiny dot in the Caribbean halfway between Nicaragua and Cuba, but claimed by Honduras. Starting out with 40 CIA operatives, nearly 600 noncombatants were to be involved in the Bay of Pigs operation — as trainers, organizers, technical experts, and all-round fixers.

Just before the Easter holidays of 1960, Castro ordered an island-wide strike against foreign-owned businesses. My father arrived at his Envases Modernos paper factory to be welcomed by big red graffiti on the yellow walls urging “Miller al paredon!” (Miller to the firing squad wall). He realized that it hadn’t been painted by his workers; he knew them all too well and shared a mutual trust and affection with them. To him, it looked more like Fidel’s handwriting on the wall — a much more troubling scenario. His diffidence disappeared.

Pop drove to the AIC offices downtown and told Hilda Navarro, his secretary, “I’ve got to leave.”

Hilda, a large, fun-loving, twinkle-in-her-eye woman, was incredulous. She responded, “Nonsense, I can live under any government,” and agreed to hold down the fort for what they both believed would only be a temporary interlude. Later, after the “temporary” became wishful thinking, she wrote to Pop asking for help in seeking exile. She successfully escaped from Cuba.

Two days later, under the guise of going on vacation, my father and mother and we three kids left for Merida, Yucatan, carrying a suitcase apiece and $25 each. My grandmother, Ana Maria Diaz y Otazo, stayed. She was too old and too Cuban to leave, and too parsimonious to abandon our grand mayoral residence to the clutches of Castro, as the new revolutionary law was very soon to require.

Over the course of the spring and summer, Cuba nationalized all US companies and properties, singling out oil companies and banks. Meanwhile, Eisenhower’s Covert Action Plan Against Cuba went into full swing. Work began on a 5,000-foot runway at an airfield at Retalhuleu in Guatemala to supply the Cuban exile force that was training in the nearby mountains on the Pacific coast of Guatemala.

Pop didn’t even leave the airport. An associate who met him there warned him to leave immediately, as there was a warrant out for his arrest.

Although the entire operation was meant to be top secret, almost from the start it became an open secret, with Castro’s secret police and even journalists discovering and reporting on the operation. But I doubt that Pop was aware of it.

In a vain attempt to salvage some of his business interests, he flew back to Havana in the fall. He carried 5-year-old Patsy with him. Why, I can’t fathom. Either Pop was still in a state of partial denial as to the danger he was in, or it was a temptation to draw Abuela into exile with us. Either way, it was foolhardy.

On October 13 — virtually coinciding with his visit — the Urban Reform Act took effect. This legislation effectively outlawed the sale or rental of residential property. Existing rents that were not covered by the act were cut in half. Additional protocols stipulated ratios of inhabitants to floor space. To hang on to our big house — and to avoid eviction — Abuela invited the remaining servants’ relatives to move in with her. Most of Carmen’s immediate family took up the offer. Other, separate legislation nationalized nearly 400 Cuban companies.

Pop didn’t even leave the airport. An associate who met him there warned him to leave immediately, as there was a warrant out for his arrest. Later, my father was to successfully lobby the Kennedy administration to pass legislation to allow the deduction of Cuban property losses through the federal income tax.

* * *

Uncle John was more bullheaded — in spite of Aunt Marta’s persistent nagging about the fact that Howard and Mina had left, that Howard was smart, that Mina wouldn’t do something stupid, that he didn’t want his sons to come to any harm, and that blah, blah, blah . . . But Uncle John was a tough operator and took pride in obstinately resisting Marta. In October he finally relented and sent Marta and his sons Johnny and Richard off to the US. He, however, stayed behind, hoping to salvage something of his rapidly disappearing life’s work.

Even worse was the shipping of 1,000 kids to the Soviet Union in January of 1961 for schooling.

What he thought of Operation Pedro Pan, I’ll never know. Over the course of the summer and fall, the Castro regime had closed all parochial schools and expelled the nuns and priests who ran them, taking over the operation of all primary and secondary schools. Cuban parents were aghast. They feared the indoctrination of their children by the government; they feared that the Castro regime would take away their parental authority. Remembering the airlift of Spanish children to the USSR during the Spanish Civil War for “safety and education,” and paying heed to the alarming rumors going about, over 10,000 worried parents, led by James Baker, the headmaster of our kindergarten alma mater, Ruston Academy, and with the help of the Catholic Church and the US government — to the tune of a million dollars and visa waivers — organized an airlift of 14,000 children to Miami the day after Christmas.

Their fears turned out to have been altogether too true. Under the guise of the Literacy Campaign of 1960 and School Goes to the Countryside, thousands of kids were removed from their homes for 45-day periods to camp with their teachers in farming cooperatives, combining education with productive work. According to Flor Fernandez Barrios in her book, Blessed by Thunder, the abuse and punishment for nonconformity at the camps was nearly as bad as having to eat your own vomit.

Even worse was the shipping of 1,000 kids to the Soviet Union in January of 1961 for schooling.

When, on January 3 of 1961, the US severed diplomatic relations with Cuba, Uncle John finally left, in the vanguard of what was to become an exodus of over one million Cubans during the next two decades.




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Cuba, Obama, and Change

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Although Republicans and, no doubt, the Castro brothers perceive President Obama’s visit to Cuba on March 20 as American kowtowing, the perception on the Cuban street is entirely different.

To Cubans, the visit is an honor ranking right up there with the Pope’s visit, and one not vouchsafed to the island since President Coolidge’s visit in 1928. El mulato, as he’s informally referred to in the Cuban fashion of conferring nicknames on everyone, and his historic visit, bring the promise of hope and change to the island more concretely than any pronouncement ever made by the Castros.

I know. Three days ago I returned from a 30-day bike journey across the island, from Baracoa in the east to Havana. American flags were everywhere — in cars, taxis, horse- and pedal-drawn taxis, even clothing — even before the visit was announced. Warned by guidebooks and savants to minimize exchanges with uniformed personnel, and never to photograph any, I found the admonition accurate. These were all serious, unfriendly, incorruptible, suspicious, and averse to any sign of curiosity. But once the visit was announced, I decided to test the premises. Passing soldiers, policemen and God-knows-what functionaries, I’d yell, “We’re not enemies anymore!” and I’d add some typical Cuban sassy wordplay non-sequitur as a true native would. I managed to get a few smiles and even some playful responses. Things are changing.

The hustle, bustle, entrepreneurship, and raw energy that permeated every person was a far cry from the typical listless socialist citizen.

Back in March 2012, in a Liberty article entitled “The Metamorphosis,” I outlined the changes to the Cuban economy legislated by the Castro government (see also “Cuba: Change We Can Count On?”, Liberty, December 2010). The changes attempted to drop one-fifth of the workers from government jobs and make them self-employed — this in a country where everyone is employed by the government at pay scales of $1–2 per day. But the fine print indicated internal ideological conflicts. While dozens of job categories were authorized — from transportation to food, to lodging, to construction, to personal grooming (and many more) — permits, taxes, limits on employees and much red tape don’t make the goal easy to achieve.

Nonetheless, the hustle, bustle, entrepreneurship, and raw energy that permeated every person pursuing his hopes and dreams along miles of city streets and rural roads was a far cry from the typical listless socialist citizen. Ironically, even the poorest — those whom socialism is touted to help the most — were selling homemade sweets, cucuruchos, in the Sierra Maestra Mountains without permits! One told me he’d be fined $3,000 if caught. To a poor guajiro unable to pay such a fine, jail would await.

Seemingly everyone is trying to become independent of the government and develop self-employed income. One university economics grad student whose psychologist wife still works for the state now runs a B&B in Las Tunas, where I overnighted between Bayamo and Camagüey. Next year he plans on studying Milton Friedman and Frederick Hayek. I asked whether that was possible; he said definitely, in advanced academia. His study plan had already been approved.

Three blocks from the capitolio in Havana, along the Prado, I spotted a sandwich board advertising real estate. A university economics professor tended the spot. He had no office other than his board, his clipboard, and the built-in bench on the promenade. Though we’d seen many “For Sale” signs on many buildings, including the humblest of abodes, we saw no real estate offices. I excitedly elbowed my wife Tina, a realtor in Arizona, to engage her interest.

Bad move.

A middleman agent of finance — the epitome of freewheeling capitalism — just didn’t fit into her perception of a socialist economy. Either the man was deluded or he was a scammer (an unlikely scenario: the police are ruthless with physical and financial crimes). I insisted on us engaging the man. Immediately she blurted out, “How can you own property in Cuba when there are no property rights and the state can confiscate your property at any time for any reason?”

Seemingly everyone is trying to become independent of the government and develop self-employed income.

The poor man, without a vestige of the ingeniousness of an American used-car-salesman, took on a pained and thoughtful look. He didn’t know where to start, but he understood that Tina had zeroed in on the heart of the matter. Translating his response was an exercise in empathy. He told us of a building across the street from the capitolio whose residents had just been told by the government to move out: the government needed the space. He didn’t know whether compensation, alternative housing, or even a grace period had been granted. He was the first to admit that Cuba has no property rights and no judicial system to enforce them. Nonetheless, what was he to do? New laws, albeit extremely constricted, allowed for the buying and selling of cars and property. No mortgages are available; only cash transactions. Interest is still illegal. But someone was paying him four times the salary he’d made at the university. He had nothing but hope and an optimistic outlook: “This time the people will not let the changes be reversed.”

I reminded him of the roadside billboards that read, “The changes in progress are for MORE SOCIALISM” — a sure sign, he counterintuitively agreed, along with Obama’s visit, that the changes now have a better chance of sticking than any previous promises. Or as one informant put it, “Castro educated us; now we know what he’s up to.”




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