The Spanish Pearl Part Five : Eisenhower and the Push-Pull of Intelligence

We’re spending a good deal of time in the pivotal space of Cuba’s revolution of 1959 and the early days of Castro with good reason : the shallow villainy of Castro in Americana has persisted for the many decades spanning his autocratic rule, and though we shouldn’t condone violence and immorality by anyone, let alone a dictator, it’s crucial to understanding the American role in said history, if one is to divine ethical policy decisions today with respect to Cuba, or any other foreign body.

Previously, we discussed the turmoil in Cuba generated by the corrupt Batista dictatorship and American dominance and negligent nonchalance in Cuban politics and economics.  Despite internal concerns about the red inclinations of Castro, members within the intelligence community, notably Alfred Cox, head of one of the paramilitary divisions of the State Department, suggested

A practical way to protect United
States interests in this matter would
be to make secret contact with Castro,
assure him of the United States sympathy
with some of his objectives, and
to offer him support. The individual
chosen to make the contact should be
of such background that[ ]it is clear
that he speaks with the authority of
the United States Government.
Obviously, the support must be given
covertly so as not to endanger United
States relations with Batista. The most
effective means of help to Castro would
be arms and ammunition. Air dropping of
this equipment might be dangerous from
the security aspect. Allowing a shipload
of equipment manned by a Cuban
crew to evade our Coast Guard would
probably be a better method. The most
secure means of help would be giving
the money to Castro, who could then
purchase his own arms. A combination
of arms and money would probably be

according to official historical record of the Bay of Pigs invasion released in 1998 under the Freedom of Information Act.  That same document details how the Eisenhower administration attempted in December 1958 to curry favor among Cubans opposed to both Castro and Batista, hoping to appease the growing anti-Batista sentiment while curtailing pro-Castro forces.

These same documents indicate Washington monitored Cuba carefully, expecting Castro’s government to collapse quickly.   Four months after the January 1959 overthrow of Batista, Castro visited the United States to meet with press clubs, American citizens, and any willing government officials; intelligence experts expected the trip to differentiate success from failure for Castro, though some experts refused to admit a possible thawing of Castro’s anti-Americanism boosting his popularity in Latin America :

[i]t would be unwise to assume from the
minor indications to date that Fidel has
undergone a serious change of heart as a
result of his visit to the United States.

Aside from the previously discussed misrepresentation by Nixon and snub by Eisenhower, Castro’s visit was a public relations success.  Castro returned to turmoil at home, his anti-communist statements in America (requested by Nixon) fomenting difficulties as communist and anti-communist members of the Cuban government vied for prominence.  Castro’s government instituted early reforms, included

  • mass school construction,
  • laws empowering women and providing greater equality for African Cubans,
  • land reforms providing allotments and coops for poorer Cubans,
  • programs to improve literacy and education availability,

among others.  Far from a perfect picture, Castro organized the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs), agencies of local informants aimed at isolating “counter-revolutionaries,” apparently including homosexuals.

Eisenhower’s administration remained involved in Castro’s government, dispatching diplomats and carefully weighing options, as the internal documents mentioned above demonstrate.  Some elements, notably in a Related Mission Directive (RMD) dated December 1959, admonished temperance, suggesting

[f]or the moment, CIA operations should
be carried out on the assumption that the
revolutionary government is basically non-Communist,
with legitimate reform goals
that deserve US respect and support. Covert
operations should support overt efforts
to arrive at a rapprochement with the present
government and to eliminate the conditions
described above without resorting
to forceful means.

Further, the aforementioned report writes,

[a]s 1959 drew to a close, a final Special National
Intelligence Estimate, "The Situation in the Caribbean
through 1960," indicated that Castro was in to stay,
despite internal difficulties. The SNIE saw no serious
threat to Castro's continued rule, and it pointed out
that if there was direct US intervention, "Most Cubans
including the military, would react violently [emphasis mine]."

Along similar lines, General C.P. Cabell, among others, maintained Castro’s non-communist position, though he conceded that communists could overcome Castro with some effort.

Another program underway in Eisenhower’s administration was overthrow : J.C. King, chief of the western hemisphere (WH) division of the CIA, wrote in a December 11, 1959 memorandum :

[t]he overthrow of Castro within
one year, and his replacement by a junta friendly to
the United States which will call for elections 6
months after assumption of office,

an obvious reversal of course.  Determining where Washington’s passivity ended and sudden hysteria began naively can be a challenge, as public statements of the day spoke of communist containment and democratic empowerment.  Perhaps instructive is a diplomatic missive to Washington from Havana dated May 26, 1959 in which American officials bared the ugly truth :

These demonstrations obviously welcome,
but possibly most significant aspect is
demonstration once again, enormous power
Castro, who with few words made anti-Communism
popular position. By same
token he could reverse trend at any time,
and skeptics speculating that current
stand is sop intended to make it more
difficult for u.s. interests to protest
effectively against stringent agrarian
reform law [emphasis mine].

That is to say, Castro very well could intend genuine reform, not be a communist, and represent a boon for Cubans, but his charisma and capacity to shift public opinion represented a perhaps intolerable threat to American foreign policy : the unabated, free access to plunder resources at the expense of those living there.

King continues with a strategy of propaganda no doubt capable of winning even Nazi strategists over :

1. Clandestine radio attacks on Cuba,
from liberal Caribbean countries.
2. Intrusion operations against Castro's
TV and radio, to be mounted from within Cuba.
3. Formation of pro-US opposition groups
to establish by force a controlled area
within Cuba.

Finally, he suggests outright assassination, tempered by a hand-written edit by CIA director Allen Dulles :

Thorough consideration be given to the
elimination [removal from Cuba] of Fidel Castro. None of those
close to Fidel, such as his brother Raul
or his companion Che Guevarra [sic] \ have
the same mesmeric appeal to the masses.
Many informed people believe that the
disappearance of Fidel would greatly accelerate
the fall of the present government.

Most noteworthy in all of this is a clear lack of desire to work with a popular figure capable of smoothing relations : why not give peace a chance?  Batista was despised by his own people, and so unpopular globally that John F. Kennedy pegged Eisenhower’s support of him as complicity in war crimes during his 1960 bid for the presidency against Vice President Nixon :

Fulgencio Batista murdered 20,000 Cubans in seven years...
and he turned Democratic Cuba into a complete police
state—destroying every individual liberty. Yet our aid to
his regime, and the ineptness of our policies, enabled
Batista to invoke the name of the United States in support
of his reign of terror. Administration spokesmen publicly
praised Batista—hailed him as a staunch ally and a good
friend—at a time when Batista was murdering thousands,
destroying the last vestiges of freedom, and stealing
hundreds of millions of dollars from the Cuban people,
and we failed to press for free elections.

Even suggesting a “working with” exposes the faulty framework from which we often discuss foreign policy : why should Cubans work with us to support mostly American companies?  What threat did Castro really represent in 1959? Even if one is imbecilic enough to believe Soviets represented a threat here, by our own intelligence, there was no connection.  Yet within a year, Eisenhower’s intelligence wonks were steeling for a fight.  The rub is simple : Castro represented defiance demonstrated in various other Latin American countries against American business interests, just as the memo described above suggests.  We’ll examine Kennedy’s take next time.


The Spanish Pearl Part Four : Batista, Castro, Eisenhower, and the Laying off of Cuba

We concluded previously with a discussion of mounting economic tensions in Cuba as American protectionism further imperiled an already gluttonous over-production of cane sugar, damaging demand and thus widening the income gap among Cubans.   A fascinating position paper by Jose Alvarez, professor at the department of food and resource economics, describes in greater detail the intricate economic intertwining between Cuba and the United States during the nearly six decades of “tender patriarchal democracy.”  Mostly uniform is the American dominance in the sugar production in Cuba and the restriction to that single export, with a few exceptions of seasonal fruits and vegetables.  The larger theme is that of the following, one any of us working in corporate America can easily understand : imagine forcible restriction by management to a particular subset of your skills, and imagine further that management eventually deems said subset obsolete.  What happens to you?  Generalizing the analogy to a country requires painful recognition of grave immorality and craven avarice : Blue Marble Citizen records Cuba’s population as ranging from five to seven million over the 1950s.  Alvarez’s paper describes a rural landscape containing thousands of farms and a distribution of land types, though as one would expect cane sugar dominated in era of American patriarchy, characterized uniquely by majority consumption of Cuba’s sugar by America and majority imports into Cuba coming from America.

It’s worth understanding this relationship as clearly as possible : imagine if your survival depends crucially on the whim of exactly one mostly irreplaceable person who easily can and does stymie any peaceful or gradual motions toward your own autonomy, and that master/slave relationship persists over decades.  Suppose further that the master, whether for legitimate reasons or not, no longer has any use for you, but in your present form you cannot survive without his relinquishment of domination.  What happens next?  Common sense dictates a process.

Fulgencio Batista protested to President Dwight Eisenhower that a further curtailing of American sugar imports could decimate the Cuban economy, as described in research by Ann Marie Holmes.  According to Robert Freeman Smith in The United States and Cuba: Business and Diplomacy, 1917-1960, the Cooley Bill mentioned earlier and other protectionist policies by 1959 reduced America’s imports of sugar to fifty percent of Cuba’s exports, down from ninety-six percent just three years earlier.  Compounding the problem was the economic outcome of imperialism, nicely summarized by analyst Natasha Geiling of Smithsonian Magazine:

U.S. financial interests included 90 percent of Cuban mines,
80 percent of its public utilities, 50 percent of its railways,
40 percent of its sugar production and
25 percent of its bank deposits—some $1 billion in total[.]

Essentially, Batista’s failure in persuading Washington to lighten the trade restrictions and furnish agriculturists to cultivate a crop diversification program, together with his overwhelming corruption and embedding with organized crime (documented in T.J. English’s How the Mob Owned Cuba — and Then Lost It to the Revolution reviewed in the Washington Post) crippled his support among most Cubans, as they stood nothing to gain from American imperialism and a criminal dictatorship defined by avaricious excesses, nicely symbolized by a golden telephone.

Meanwhile the Castro brothers had regrouped in Mexico with revolutionary Ernesto (Che) Guevara, in exile after the CIA-backed coup in 1954 which overthrew Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, the democratically-elected president of Guatemala.  Arbenz’s only crime was to nationalize farmlands and plantations, infuriating the United Fruit Company, an American corporation unwilling to tolerate Guatemalans taking back their own land and crops.  Not too coincidentally, John Foster Dulles and his brother Allen were the United States Secretary of State and the head of the CIA, respectively, and they happened to be well-compensated board members for United Fruit.  We could investigate that corporation’s highly controversial history in greater detail, though we can leave that to the reader; instructive is Big Fruit, reviewed in the New York Times.

The three enlarged the 26th of July movement into a force capable of overthrowing Batista.  Eisenhower, reportedly obsessive over the spread of Soviet communism, feared that Batista’s ouster, almost a certainty as his popularity in Cuba crumbled, would render the island somehow open to Soviet domination, despite little to no evidence.  Castro initially portrayed himself as no friend to communism, as the Hoy, the official newspaper of the Cuban communist party, described his earlier attack on the Moncada Barracks as

a putschist attempt, a desperate form of
adventurism, typical of petty bourgeois circles lacking in principle
and implicated in gangsterism[.]

Nonetheless the Eisenhower administration feverishly sought a suitable replacement for Batista, despite his willingness to renege on his earlier flirtation with communism, discussed in Julia E. Sweig’s Inside the Cuban Revolution, to gain favor from Washington; Castro was not a viable alternative from the perspective of agency heads, as Eisenhower recalls in his memoirs that Allen Dulles believed communists had already infiltrated the 26th of July movement as early as 1958, despite communist disdain for Castro described above.  Unhelpful in teasing out the history is that Richard Nixon, then Vice President to Eisenhower, later lied persistently about circulating an internal memorandum condemnatory of Castro, likely in chest-thumping anti-soviet fury, to which we’ll return.

Castro led a successful overthrow of Batista on New Years’ Day 1959, the day after Batista fled to the Dominican Republic.  For a brief time, Washington was somewhat ambivalent about Castro’s new government, described in Luxenberg’s analysis.  Castro installed a temporary president, Manuel Urrutia Lleó, and in a goodwill meeting with the American Society of Newspaper Editors in the United States, Castro said in April 1959 :

I know the world thinks of us, we are Communists, and of course
I have said very clear that we are not Communists; very clear.

Nixon hosted Castro for a three hour meeting after Eisenhower apparently snubbed him to play golf.  The memorandum detailing the meeting, described by Alex Luxenberg in an investigation of Eisenhower’s possible contributions to Castro’s eventual pact with Moscow, was actually rather sympathetic :

[m]y own appraisal of him as a man is quite mixed. The one
fact we can be sure of is that he has those indefinable qualities
which make him a leader of men. Whatever we may think of
him he is going to be a great factor in the development of
Cuba and very possibly in Latin American affairs generally.
He seems to be sincere; he is either incredibly naive about
Communism or under Communist discipline - my guess is
the former.... But because he has the power to lead...we have
no choice but at least to try to orient him in the right

Castro returned to Cuba with plans of agrarian reform aimed for moving the economy away from near exclusive sugar production (a population can’t survive on just sugar).  Expropriating farmlands obviously would require U.S. corporations to relinquish sugar plantations : American business leaders protested to Washington, heralding another refrain of a tired tragedy of American hegemony in Latin America briefly mentioned above.  Specifically, despite virtually zero evidence of Soviet influence in the 1959 coup, Washington once again cried “communism,” the public relations bogeyman served to justify crushing the genuine threat Castro represented : nationalism and independence in satellite states.  This “threat”, evidenced in Castro’s staunch anti-Americanism, along with Eisenhower’s tepid response to Castro’s outreach, chilled relations in 1959.  Anti-communist and communist forces in the July 26 movement sparred, compelling Urrutia to resign; Castro, seeking unity, more warmly received communists in his midst.

In the remaining parts of this series, we’ll discuss Castro’s alliance with Moscow and the near unremitting hostility to follow, but first a few words on Luxenberg’s analysis.   He argues ultimately that Eisenhower bears minimal responsibility for Cuba’s enmeshment with the Soviets, suggesting Castro pursued this relationship himself for his own reasons, perhaps in galvanizing his power; his thinking is that Latin America suffers some neglect in U.S. foreign policy, tacitly suggesting that a firmer hand in Cuba was justified, resigned to the obvious ineffectiveness of sanctions, something we’ll discuss more in depth later.  Still, Luxenberg writes,

[n]evertheless, it is not enough to
suggest that just because an individual is not a member of the
Communist Party that such a person cannot be an enemy of the United
States. If Castro's ties to the Communists are a matter of debate,
those of the Ayatollah Khomeini are not. Yet no one would question
the virulent anti-Americanism of the latter[,]

and he quotes Allen Dulles as having written,

thousands of the ablest Cubans, including leaders,
businessmen and the military, who worked hard to put Castro in
and were risking their lives and futures to do so, did not suspect
that they were installing a Communist regime[,]

taken together to indicate an amnestic conclusion that Castro pursued Soviet relations and communism perhaps out of mere anti-Americanism and cartoonish villainy, again overlooking the substantial role even a little American effort in reversing the damage six decades of economic and political imperialism could have played in better relations, to say nothing of the indiscussible topics of economic, political, and democratic empowerment of Cuba for Cubans.

The Spanish Pearl Part Three : Sugary Sweet Good Neighbor Policy But Hardly ‘Golden Years’

Continuing with our discussion of Cuba, American dominance throughout the island was palpable through the 1920s.  Nonetheless, trade deficits and the stock market crash of 1929 left the United States grasping for protectionism in the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, ending economic reciprocity as America’s business elites struggled to tread water amidst a wrecked, failed pseudo-laissez faire economic policy.   The Cuban military leaders, along with Sumner Welles, American diplomat dispatched to Havana to negotiate a settlement, ultimately convinced Machado to resign and flee.  Within days, a militant student group, led by Fulgencio Batista, a son of a laborer and an army official, overthrew Carlos Manuel de Céspedes y Quesada, Welles’ official replacement for Machado, placing in power a university professor by the name of Ramón Grau San Martín.  San Martín publicly opposed the Platt amendment and supported reforms enacted during sporadic rule in the early 1930s.  Though Welles in certain respects attempted outreach to both San Martín and Batista, Washington’s reluctance to recognize San Martín because of the risks of reforms (a common dilemma America faces when choosing between human rights and market control), pressure to protect American property and interests, Batista’s commitment to resisting communism, and a power struggle with Batista led Welles’ replacement, Jefferson Caffery, to side with Batista.  San Martín resigned, replaced by more militant elements in the government sympathetic to Batista.

In 1934, President Franklin Roosevelt and Cuba formally dissolved said amendment in the Treaty of Relations as part of the Good Neighbor Policy, an ideological and diplomatic campaign aimed at unifying the western hemisphere and diminishing violent American hegemony.  Prominent in the policy were public relations designed to acquaint Americans with a flavor of Latin life through the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (OCIAA).  The U.S. vowed not to interfere with Cuba’s sovereignty nor favor any political force, though the letter and the spirit differ, as is generally the case.  Nonetheless, the Good Neighbor Policy was successful partly in softening relations in the western hemisphere; course reversal coincided with the conclusion of the second world war.

Batista became president of Cuba in 1936, and though he supported some worker reforms and extended outreach to communists, American leaders generally considered him reliable.  Under the Lend-Lease Act of 1941, the U.S. provided arms to Cuba in exchange for military alliance in anticipation of joining the war in Europe and opened training grounds in Cuba.

Relations with the U.S. became increasingly difficult during San Martín’s resurgence in the late 1940s and early 1950s; as early as December 1945, San Martín was negotiating with America to relinquish control Cuba’s military bases, according to the American diplomatic papers.  Though the U.S. returned a few bases and airfields to Cuba, it continued a military presence in the island with ships, manpower, and other equipment, to say nothing of the base Guantanamo Bay.  Colonel Camilo Gonzalez Chavez of the Cuban Air Corps proposed to American officials for the U.S. to open airspace to Cuban training exercises and ease travel requirements for Cuban soldiers, according to Ann Katie Holmes.   That is, Cuba naturally assumed that mutual trust between the two nations should permit Cuban military games over Kansas corn fields if the U.S. Air Force could play in Cuba airspace; it turns out that American friendship is often one-sided.

American leadership certainly noticed that our economic intervention in Cuba concentrated wealth among the American investors and their upper-crust Cuban surrogates while sandbagging cost-of-living increases essential to supporting the population at large.  With the beginning of the Cold War, American propaganda found a new, post-war enemy in Stalinism, and though Cuba’s proximity to the United States seemed an insurmountable obstacle to Soviet influence in the hemisphere, Cuban workers parties and human rights movements were receptive to anti-Americanism.  From their perspective, the U.S. continued to occupy, ferret away resources, and control the Cuban sugar economy through many means, including restriction of diversification.  That is to say, if Cuba’s crop output is highly diversified, the country can better negotiate with buyers internationally.  Constraining crop output to just a handful of varieties ensures better deals for the buyers, principally the United States.  It’s easier to imagine that if a store sells only lightbulbs, it likely can’t get your attention if you’re buying dish rags that day.  Further, many alive remembered the Platt amendment, American support of Machado, and American failure to recognize the San Martín government.  Moreover, Cuba had a communist party since at least the 1920s, with an ideology increasingly attractive to Cuban peasants either underpaid or superfluous in the hemisphere’s economy.

Carlos Prío Socarrás became president of Cuba in 1948; a friend to American interests, he soon proffered a new treaty promoting American businesses in exchange for technology sharing.  Cuban resistance, as mentioned earlier, stymied his first iteration, compelling him to reduce scope to sugar and currency stability.  Prío, like San Martín before him, joined the effete as Cuban opinion diminished around their inability to reduce violence or corruption, setting the stage for a coup.  Nonetheless, though these were hardly “golden years,” to conjure historian Charles Ameringer,  the years marked by their leadership were an improvement over two decades preceding enactment of FDR’s Good Neighbor Policy, to say nothing of the days of Spanish imperialism.

In 1952, Batista seized power in an American-backed coup supported by wealthy Cubans after a seemingly unsuccessful run for president.  Resistance movements appeared here and there, one lead by Prío, another by a nationalist by the name of Fidel Castro.  Prío operated a resistance inside the U.S. while Castro plotted to overthrow Batista from within.  A failed coup in 1953 at Moncada Barracks left several rebels dead with Castro and his brother Raul imprisoned.

In 1955, Chairman Harold Cooley of the Agricultural Committee in the House of Representatives presented his eponymous protectionist bill tightening the noose around Cuba’s economic throat : if passed, it would guarantee that once annual imports of sugar reached 8.3 million tons, Cuba could supply no more than 25.6% of it.  That is, despite American restrictions against crop diversification in Cuba as discussed above, Congressional leadership intended to protect American domestic sugar mills at the heavy expense to Cuban mills.  The sugar market was already grappling with excess supply, so Batista expressed deep concern to President Eisenhower about America’s seeming willingness to betray decades of economic interdependence.

Meanwhile, Castro and his brother received pardons, and fleeing to Mexico, sought to establish a 26th of July movement, named for the day of their attempted coup.  The years leading to their success will be the topic of discussion in a following article.