Reporting Castro’s Sister: Another Case of Historical Omission

News Junkie Post:

Last week, American news sources reported on the recently published book, “My Brothers Fidel and Raul”, written by Juanita Castro, 76. Let us briefly review the content of these reports.

Each article essentially relates the following information:

Juanita Castro—who currently resides in the U.S. and is one of Fidel Castro’s sisters—writes in her book that she initially supported Fidel’s 1959 revolution. Most Cubans shared her sentiments, at that time. And it was not difficult to do so. Cuba had been ruled, for years, by the dictator Fulgencio Batista, and Fidel’s revolutionary movement was seen as the force though which Cuba could emancipate herself from Batista’s oppression. The revolution succeeded. Batista fled the island. Yet after Fidel assumed power, perspectives changed—including Juanita Castro’s.

Fidel proved to be an authoritarian dictator, in fact using many of Batista’s own tactics to secure control over the island. Disillusioned with such a turn, Juanita Castro was persuaded, by the wife of Brazilian ambassador to Cuba, to meet a CIA agent in Mexico. Castro’s house had already become a clandestine sanctuary for anti-communist Cubans. So, she agreed to the meeting.

In her book, Castro says that she told the agent during their meeting: “I want to be very clear that agreeing to collaborate with you does not signify that I will participate in any violent activity against my brother, nor any official in the regime […] This is my most important condition.”

Castro reportedly told this agent—later identified as Tony Sforza—that those who supported Batista’s overthrow, but were not soviet communists, were now being forced out of the new Cuban government. She said she would agree to gather information but refused to accept money for her work. According to the book, her first mission was to smuggle money, messages, and documents from Mexico, back into Cuba.

Castro, herself, remained in Cuba until 1964. Thereafter, she went into exile in Miami, FL, where she worked with several anti-communist exile groups, and continued work with the CIA.

A CIA spokesman in Langley, VA, declined to comment on Castro’s published account.

The American reports on this matter, while all true, say little more of any substance. And this is par for the course. When major American news sources—with some exceptions, notably South Floridian publications, like the “Miami Herald”—speak on Cuban-U.S. relations, rarely is the context of such news given proper treatment. This is largely because going any further could risk voicing some unpleasant truths about the history of American foreign policy. So, from here, let us examine the context of this unreported history, in regards to Cuba.

Afterwards, we will be better able to understand current discussions of Cuban-U.S. relations.

America’s Neocolonialism in Cuba

On the Morning of February 15, 1898, the U.S. battleship “Maine” was floating peacefully off the coast of Cuba. Then suddenly the ship exploded. A fiery wreckage of twisted metal, the Maine sank into the Gulf of Mexico—killing over 250 shipmates.

U.S. officials rushed to blame the sinking on an underwater Spanish mine or torpedo. Forensic experts, later studying the wreckage, would conclude that the explosion had resulted from a mechanical malfunction—in other words, an accident. But that did not matter. The United States had been in an expansionist mood. And labeling the explosion as an act of aggression gave the U.S. sufficient pretext to declare war on Spain, and to take Spain’s colonies. Of those colonies, Cuba was prized. Thus, by convincing newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst to print a series of pro-war articles, the U.S. government sold the Spanish-American War to the American public.

American leaders, since 1776, had discussed taking Cuba as a territory. John Quincy Adams wrote that Cuba, “has become an object of transcendent importance to the commercial and political interests of our Union […] Cuba, forcibly disjointed from its own unnatural connection with Spain, could only gravitate towards the North American Union”. And Thomas Jefferson—always eloquent, even when discussing conquest—wrote to President James Monroe that, “I have ever looked upon Cuba as the most interesting addition to our system of States. The control which, with Florida Point, this island would give us over the Gulf of Mexico, and the countries and isthmus bordering on it—as well as whose waters flow into it—would fill up the measure of our political well-being”.

Indeed, the war with Spain proved to be the big break America needed, in terms of Cuba. After Spain’s defeat, the U.S. military quickly occupied the island. American ambassadors flooded Cuba, to discuss terms of the island’s new government with Cuban political leaders, who had been fighting an independence war against Spain for decades. In 1900, the Cuban constituent assembly gathered to draft a new constitution. But the Americans pressured the assembly to incorporate the “Platt Amendment” into the constitution, which the Cubans were supposed to design autonomously.

The Platt Amendment functioned to permanently cripple the Cuban government. As Richard Gott explains in Cuba: A New History: the Amendment’s first provision enforced “that Cuba could make no treaty with foreign powers, or permit foreign military bases on its soil, without the permission of the United States.” The second required that “Cuba’s public finances would be overseen by the United States. The third gave the Americans the right to intervene in Cuba whenever it felt the need. The fourth forbade any retroactive attempt to question what had occurred during the years of American occupation.” The fifth provision required the Cuban government to improve the island’s control of disease. This mandate was provided to ensure the health of American investors, businessmen, and politicians, while they were on the island. Equally important, better sanitation meant the
Cuban workforce, that was to be exploited by the influx of foreign business, would remain healthy enough to maintain a constant level of labor and production.

The final provision of the Platt Amendment created the—now infamous—military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Amendment, itself, reads: “Cuba will sell or lease to the United States lands necessary for coaling or naval stations at certain specified points, to be agreed upon with the President of the United States.” Thus, the neocolonialism of Cuba began.

The Platt Amendment was incorporated into U.S. law on March 2, 1901. Meanwhile, General Juan Gualberto Gomez, one of the key leaders in Cuba’s independence war against Spain, declared the Amendment “had reduced the independence and sovereignty of Cuba to a myth”.

Gualberto’s insight proved correct. The United States intervened in Cuban affairs, through military occupations of Cuba, from 1906 to 1909, in 1912, and also from 1917 to 1923. In 1933, U.S. warships circled the island, intimidating an abortive nationalist revolution into submission. By employing such methods, the Americans maintained a series of corrupt puppet governments in Cuba, which allowed the U.S. to operate as it pleased on the island, in any political or economic matter. President William Howard Taft, speaking after the American military withdrew from Cuba in 1909, was unequivocal about the U. S.’s stance on Cuba. Taft stated it was “absolutely out of the question that the island should continue to be independent”. The U.S. felt compelled to govern Cuba from afar. Such Machiavellian policies would eventually result in an explosive revolution in Cuba, in 1959—led by a radical young lawyer, named Fidel Castro.

The “Grand Area” and the Cuban Revolution

At the end of the WWII, the United States found itself in an advantageous situation, which meant new consequences for Cuba and Latin America. The U.S owned 50% of the world’s wealth and controlled both sides of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. These conditions positioned America to become history’s first global imperial power. The priority, then, was to maintain and solidify this global dominance. The U.S. State Department’s—now declassified— document, Policy Planning Study 23, outlines this agenda. PPS 23, drafted in 1948 by
George Kennan, reads as follows:

we have about 50% of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3% of its population … In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity … To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives … We should cease to talk about vague and … unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal with straight power concepts.

Kennan, who then oversaw the State Department’s planning staff, also asserted that Latin America was to be reaped for “raw materials”, in order to construct the U.S empire. Doing so meant combating nationalist movements in Latin America, which upheld the “idea that government has a direct responsibility for the welfare of the people”. This could be done in any foreign country by promoting “police repression by the local government”. Kennan declared that “It is better to have a strong regime in power than a liberal government”, so that Latin American populations could be easily controlled by force.

Accordingly, State Department planners devised the concept of a “Grand Area”, which covered most of the postwar world. The sites under the Grand Area included the entire Western Hemisphere, the Middle East, Western Europe, the “Third World”—and the entire globe, if possible. These regions were to be used to strategically and economically support American global dominance. As Noam Chomsky explains in his book, Deterring Democracy, “corporate and state managers hoped to use this power to design a world order that would serve the interests they represented”. Of course, this “world order” would be created through the aforementioned “police repression” of strong regimes—and in Cuba, the “strong regime” was fostered through the dictator, Fulgencio Batista.

A lower-level military clerk, Batista rose to power by politically jockeying through the power vacuum, created by the aborted 1933 revolution. The U.S. favored Batista, for allowing foreign businesses to operate unmolested, and for Batista’s cooperation with the CIA. Morris Morley, in his article, The U.S. Imperial State in Cuba, 1952-1958, explains:

The CIA was a constant presence Batista’s Cuba, developing “assets” and “liaisons” throughout the political, social, coercive, and administrative fabric of Cuban society and its state structure. [The Agency] penetrated all institutions during the Batista period, including the security forces and the labor movement, to build up ‘plumbing’ or propaganda outlets … For the duration of Batista’s rule, the CIA performed basically as an instrument of executive branch policy makers.”

In this way, the U.S. controlled Cuba within the “Grand Area”. But this control became tenuous. Since the 1930’s, all Latin American countries had been “swept by the winds of nationalism and anti-Yankee sentiment”, as Stephen Kinzer phrased it in his book, Overthrow. And those anti-imperialist winds “blew especially strongly in Cuba”. The Cuban Communist Party—which pushed the anti-Yankee agenda—had been banned by Batista’s predecessor, dictator Gerardo Machado. And the Party used its banned status to cultivate an “underdog” persona, which appealed to many Cubans, especially university students and industrial laborers. By severing diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, Batista strengthened the sense of communist persecution in Cuba.

As the Cold War grew to fruition, Batista felt compelled to become more forceful. He suspended the Cuban constitution and, with the assistance of his secret police force, instated strict authoritarian control over the island. In 1957, after a radical student group stormed Batista’s presidential palace and attempted to assassinate him, Batista shut down Havana’s university. His police force harassed Cuban store owners, merchants, and average pedestrians on a daily basis. Torture, kidnapping, political assassinations, and illegal search and seizures became the norm of government policy. (It should be noted, here, that these same policies would later be adopted by Castro’s government.)

Meanwhile, a number of Cubans were leaving their homes and hiking into the Sierra Maestra Mountains, on the eastern side of the island. A growing number of revolutionaries, led by Fidel Castro, had established a makeshift base in the mountainous region. They had amassed a cache of armaments and plotted to overthrow Batista. But this phenomenon was nothing new to Cuban culture. Richard Gott notes that:

The glorified yet baneful tradition established during the wars of independence, of taking up arms and departing with a handful of men to the [countryside], was constantly revived when elections, correct or corrupt, produced a contested result. After Batista’s coup d’état … young men (and women) considered it perfectly normal to take up arms and head for the hills, wreaking havoc in the countryside, while their accomplices in the cities stockpiled weapons from abroad, deployed explosives and engaged in what a later age would describe as ‘terrorism’.

Indeed, Castro saw himself as completing Cuba’s war for independence, which may be dated back to 1511, when the Spanish first arrived. And he followed in historical footsteps. By coordinating with underground cells in the cities, the “26th of July Movement”—as Castro’s rebels called themselves— conducted simultaneous acts of sabotage and terrorism in the cities, while fighting Batista’s army in the countryside.

Batista eventually cut his losses with the rebels. He fled the island on a private plane the night of New Years Eve, 1959—taking along with him a small fortune for retirement. Of his ill-fated career as Cuban solder-cum-dictator, Batista is quoted as saying, “I came in through the guardhouse, exited from the tarmac, and left the plague behind.”
In his first speech as Cuba’s new leader, Fidel Castro would declare to the Cuban public: “This time, fortunately for Cuba, the revolution will achieve its true objective. It will not be like 1898, when the Americans came and made themselves masters of the country.” But today, many Cubans have doubted whether Castro has been any more “fortunate” for the island’s people.

The U.S. Retaliates

President Eisenhower’s reaction to the entire Cuban revolution, after Castro’s victory, is notable. During a Press conference, he said of Cuba: “Here is a country that, you would believe on the basis of our history, would be one of our real friends. The whole history … would seem to make it a puzzling matter to figure out just exactly why the Cubans and the Cuban government would be so unhappy… I don’t know exactly what the difficulty is.” If we take Eisenhower’s statement at face value, we must conclude he was a man ignorant of history. But we know that is not true. So, we are left with the more probable explanation—Eisenhower was pandering to the manufactured perception that the U.S. always strives for democracy and freedom, both inside and outside of its borders. After all, it would not sit well with the public if a president admitted to things like neocolonialism and “The Grand Area.”

But despite Eisenhower’s posturing, some in the CIA suspected Castro’s government would soon become a threat to U.S. interests. And, indeed, Castro soon did.

By February, Castro had fostered an atmosphere of revenge and blood-letting against former Batista supporters. He televised public executions of former Batista officials. Soviet-style show trials and executions numbered in the hundreds, and were performed in sports stadiums, to packed audiences. Enrique Encinosa , in Unvanquished, says, “The firing-squad death of police cornel Cornelio Rojas was repeatedly played on national television. The gruesome black-and-white film showed the executed man’s hat flying off his head as bullets slammed into his skull, scattering brain matter on the execution wall. The last image was a close-up of the dead man’s face, eyes staring open”. And of the sports stadium show trials, Cuban novelist Reinaldo Arenas writes in his memoir, Before Night Falls: “Those trials in which someone was condemned to death were really theatrical spectacles. We had returned to the times of Nero, the times when the masses rejoiced in watching how a human being was condemned to death or murdered right before their eyes.”

But these events did not prompt the U.S. to intervene. Only when Castro began nationalizing foreign banks and businesses, and seizing American investments, did the U.S. decide to respond.

In a secret meeting in May 1959—which historian Fabian Escalante discusses in his book, The Cuba Project—Vice President Richard Nixon and Ambassador William Pawley, who was personal advisor to Eisenhower, convened with senior executives of the United Fruit Company, Standard Oil, Esso, Pepsi Cola International, and heads of the Mafia, who had been running casinos in Havana with the CIA’s blessing. By the meeting’s end, Nixon made pact with the others, in which Nixon promised to overthrow Castro’s government in exchange for their support in the upcoming presidential election. The strategy they designed was to support numerous counterrevolutionary groups that had sprouted in Cuba, and were already plotting against Castro. By the time Castro implemented Agrarian Reform laws in June, and normalized diplomatic and trade relations with the Soviet Union, the U.S. had decided overthrowing Castro was the only option.

The U.S. strategy was implemented swiftly. CIA agents covertly flooded Miami, Florida. Store fronts became covers for recruitment facilities, where agents conscripted recent Cuban exiles for espionage missions in Cuba. Of this period, Joan Didion writes in her nonfiction book, Miami, that:

There were CIA boat shops. There were CIA gun shops. There were CIA travel agencies and there were CIA real-estate agencies and there were CIA detective agencies. Anyone who spent any time at all on the street in Miami during the early 1960s, then, was likely to have had dealings with the CIA, to have known what actions were being run, to have known who was running them, and for whom.

Though Castro’s intelligence agency had already uncovered the existence of counterrevolutionary groups, American plans continued. (This, of course, is approximately the time when Juanita Castro began her collaborations with the CIA, as well.) Despite Nixon’s secret pact, he lost the 1960 presidential election to John F. Kennedy. Now Kennedy was presented with a broadened scope of the initial strategy for Cuba. The plan to stage a conventional invasion was being suggested.

Invasion plans incorporated another Latin American country, under U.S. control—Guatemala. In 1954, the U.S. had overthrown democratically elected president Jacobo Arbenz Guzman. Arbenz had instated reforms to make Guatemala a liberal capitalist state, independent from U.S. coercion. Reacting to avoid the loss of investments, American leadership promoted a CIA-backed coup. The coup replaced Arbenz with a Batista-like dictator, who cooperated with U.S. planners. Now the Americans were using Guatemalan lands to train a Cuban exile force, to overthrow Castro and repeat the Guatemalan strategy.

It should be noted that the exile force was kept in the dark, regarding the U.S. government’s real motives for invasion. Historian Enrique Encinosa quotes a university student, who joined the invasion force, Jose Basulto:

The options for anyone fighting Castro were very limited, and the one that offered the best weaponry and resources was the CIA. We did not feel like mercenaries or employees of the Americans. We did what we did because we were Cubans and loved our country. We did not realize the United States visualized the Cuban process as a chess game between the Soviets and themselves.

Nevertheless, Castro had planned for American retaliation. Castro’s second-hand, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, had lived and worked in Guatemala, during the violent 1954 coup. Guevara’s accounts of this event led Castro to expect a similar offense against Cuba. Thus, Castro ordered the arrest of anyone suspected counterrevolutionary activity, and 35,000 people were detained in Havana alone. Cuban authorities were put on alert, too, as well as the military. The American plans were already thwarted. The exile force was headed for a death trap.

President Kennedy had agreed to use Guatemala as a launch site for invasion for a key reason: plausible deniability. Kennedy wished to give the international impression that the U.S. played no role in the invasion—which would come to be known as the “Bay of Pigs Invasion”. But the president’s desire for deniability crippled the operation and resulted in the capture and slaughter of the exile force. After four days of fighting against Castro’s forces—April 17th through the 20th, 1961—the ground invasion had lost the battle. Offering American air support would have lent the invasion a chance of success. But allowing U.S. jets to dominate the air would destroy the covert status of the operation. Kennedy would lose his plausible deniability. This factor, combined with poor logistics and the absence of an expected popular uprising against Castro, doomed the “Bay of Pigs” operation.

Of the 1,500 exiles who took part in the invasion, over 100 were dead. 1,200 were captured. Those captured were paraded through a packed Havana Sports Palace stadium and interviewed on Cuban television for several nights. Castro, himself, attended the spectacle one evening. When he asked the crowd what should be done with the prisoners, the audience shouted, “To the Wall!” Castro then backtracked and said executing everyone would “belittle our victory.”

To say the least, Kennedy was embarrassed by the operation’s failure and shamed by the subsequent exposure.

The Present State of Affairs

We should now have a better context for the recent reports, regarding Juanita Castro’s new book. And in a broader sense, we should better understand the historically strained relations between Cuba and the Unites States.

Historically speaking, while the Cold War waged onward, the American government would attempt to assassinate Castro over 600 times, according to Fabian Escalante’s book, Executive Action: 634 Ways of Killing Fidel Castro. These plots often ranged the gamut of absurdity—from using exploding cigars to offering Castro a diving suit laced with poison powder. And none of them, obviously, worked.

But the Cold War is over now. With the collapse of the Soviet Empire, the U.S. has largely solidified its “Grand Area”, with the exception of a few states, here and there, that refuse to cooperate. But those matters are being worked on.

In terms of Cuba, current U.S. president Barak Obama has recently called for a “new beginning”. And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has claimed that “We are continuing to look for productive ways forward because we view the present policy as having failed.” These two statements may be read as having a double meaning. The “new beginning” may simply be to devise different “productive ways” of bringing Cuba back under the orbit of the Grand Area—only time will tell.

Meanwhile, the American public has yet to learn the most important lesson of the Cold War: all states—capitalist or communist—are inherently violent institutions. The only difference between them is who is chosen as the target of violence, and which ideology is used to justify the unjustifiable policy of state-sanctioned mass-murder, more commonly called “war”.

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