The Man Who Shook the World
There’s a certain amount of bitterness and pique oozing from many in the U.S. political establishment in response to the recent death of Cuba’s former leader Fidel Castro. Some with more than a passing knowledge of key world events and history in general, might have been left wondering what all the fuss was about. Castro – a man as reviled as he was revered – led that country’s 1959 revolution, one of the most portentous tipping points in the Cold War, if not in modern history.
The following might serve at the outset to give such people an idea as to why his passing provoked such a bilious response from Washington. As Wayne Smith, a former U.S. diplomat and ambassador to Cuba in the early years of Castro’s reign under president Dwight (Ike) Eisenhower (later President Jimmy Carter’s Cuban representative), once memorably opined, “Cuba seems to have the same effect on U.S. administrations as the full moon has on werewolves.”
Now Smith might’ve said this almost three decades ago, but as the reaction to the Cuban leader’s death indicated, this reality persists despite the recent thaw in official relations initiated by President Obama. To be sure, there’s rarely been a shortage of countries that could lay claim to having this transformative effect on the collective psyche of U.S. political establishment, Iran being a prime example.
But it is Cuba that stands out as an exemplar, and so much of that has to do with Castro himself. Put simply, among the iconic revolutionary’s many talents was an unerring ability to get up Uncle Sam’s nose, and get away with it so often for so long. Suffice to say, since they seem to have inherited the same basic instincts as their forbears, the bulk of present day Washington’s “Werewolves” must’ve been privately ‘howling at the moon’ at the Commandant’s demise.
Castro was the only world leader who resisted U.S. hegemony and lived to tell the tale, surviving by some accounts more than 630 separate assassination attempts over decades. Such is the animus towards all things Cuba and Castro that President George Bush refused his offer to provide teams of doctors to assist the Hurricane Katrina relief effort 2005, one of modern America’s worst natural disasters.
And with folks like Newt Gingrich labeling Castro as “tyrant,” and likewise president-elect Donald Trump dismissing the former Cuban leader as a “brutal dictator” (whilst also placing in doubt the future of the recent rapprochement with Cuba), it’s clear that “animus” is still alive. For many, Castro’s passing is unlikely to change this much. The Werewolves have long memories.
Although Castro came to power at the tail end of the Eisenhower era, he was catapulted to world prominence shortly after the inauguration of President John F Kennedy (JFK) in 1961. It was on JFK’s watch that attempts to assassinate Castro began in earnest, all under cover of the infamous Operation Mongoose; this decidedly dodgy ‘black-op’ involved the CIA working in collaboration with the Mafia no less, and assorted pissed-off Cuban expatriates, exiles, and Batista regime ‘refugees,’ all seeking to take back the ‘farm.’ All this was with the full knowledge of JFK’s brother Attorney-General Robert (Bobby) Kennedy.
Although there is much conjecture as to whether JFK actually did know himself about Mongoose’s key objective, some find it difficult to accept he didn’t, given that the brothers were ‘joined at the hip.’ If indeed JFK did know, then he either ordered those involved – including Bobby – to stop and they were ignored, or JFK acquiesced. In the latter case, while he may not have been happy with doing so, such was the pressure on him over the Cuban ‘situation,’ he may have gone along with it reluctantly. Like so much of the JFK mythology, we may never know the answer.
Either way, Castro reportedly was deeply disturbed by JFK’s 1963 assassination, and the Comandante would’ve had good reason. Apart from having his hopes dashed for a rapprochement with the U.S. (JFK had earlier opened a back channel communication link with the Cuban government, seeking to ease the tensions between them), Fidel knew full well that if the U.S. could plausibly blame him for JFK’s murder – which he instinctively felt they’d try to do, and which almost certainly was the intention of those who did actually engineer the hit – it would be ‘on for young and old.’
The following should further underscore the significant role played by Cuba during the Cold War. When asked in the acclaimed 2003 Errol Morris film Fog of War about the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis (CMC) – specifically, “how close?” did the U.S. and the USSR came to an all-out nuclear exchange – then US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara chillingly revealed that the two powers came “that close” (picture a grim-faced McNamara putting the tips of his thumb and forefinger so close there was little daylight between them).
The CMC was itself precipitated by Castro – who became an ally of the Soviet Union not long after the revolution of 1959, thus attracting said “animus” – ‘inviting’ Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet premier to ‘park’ some spare medium range ballistic missiles (MRBMs, or ‘nukes’) on the island country. As Cuba was located less than ninety miles from Florida, this triggered the scariest, most public, and potentially apocalyptic standoff between the two nuclear superpower archrivals. The stakes for humanity had never been greater!
The Cuban Chickens Come Home to Roost
At this point it’s instructive to look back at some of the pre-revolution history of the country Cuba and its relationship with its giant neighbor. For our purposes though it is both sufficient and necessary to consider in some detail that there were other seminal historical tipping points of the Cold War involving Cuba and America, the Bay of Pigs invasion, one that both preceded and precipitated the CMC, and later, by numerous, credible accounts, the Kennedy assassination in 1963. (A story for another time.)
For those ‘buffs’ of America’s regime change track record, along with its recidivistic propensity for interfering in the affairs – and ruthlessly exploiting both the resources and people – of other countries, the story of Cuba is one with which most will be well acquainted. From the early-mid 1950s, Castro fomented a popular revolution, and in 1959 after years of vicious, oppressive and corrupt rule by the U.S. client-dictator Fulgencio Batista, he was ousted by the rebels.
As noted, this is not an unfamiliar motif in the U.S. foreign policy narrative whereby the world’s loudest exponent of liberty, human rights, democracy, freedom and the rule of law, consistently ‘relied’ on ‘klepto-brutocracies’ like Batista’s to deliver anything of worth to their people but varying degrees of unerring, bloody and tragic failure.
Batista for his part has long since earned his rightful place in the Client Dictators’ Hall of Fame. For years his rule generated deep-seated discontent, all of which seemed to go unnoticed by the Americans. He, his cronies and the Cuban elites of the era were enthusiastic supporters and beneficiaries of American business involvement in Cuba, and as indicated, in particular, [of] the Mob (Batista was in the pocket of the notorious Mafia capo di tutti capi Meyer Lansky, a man who like many of his Mafiosi mates, is frequently, and one might safely say, not coincidentally, linked to the Kennedy assassination).
All were making squillions from gambling, prostitution, hospitality and tourism mainly and bleeding the country dry, while the general populace was so far below the poverty line they might as well have been living in the Neolithic Age.
To describe the Cuban people as unhappy does not begin to describe the political, economic and social climate at the time. To be sure, the aforementioned Cuban elites and assorted regime cronies turfed out by Castro were not happy either. Many of these folks continued to massage their own (ahem) animus for Castro for decades to come, the celebrations in Little Havana in Miami, Florida at the news of his death is a testament to that.
Eventually the chickens came home to roost for Batista as they do for most of America’s client dictators, although usually too late for those who’ve suffered under their sclerotic rule. Much like the Shah of Iran twenty years later and Mobutu Sese Seko in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1997 to name just two examples, the U.S. left its hapless ‘client’ up that brown creek without a paddle when it became obvious just how restless the natives were and how little they could do about it.
In order to avoid having his corrupt and brutal ‘ass’ tarred and feathered by his ungrateful subjects and run out of town, Batista quit his day-time job and rode off into the sunset, consoling himself by filling his burros’ saddlebags with mucho ‘gringo-green’ and a large swag of looted booty.
It’s uncertain if this ‘self-service’ severance package kept him and his brood more or less comfortable in his retirement, but either way it seemed, it was better ‘fled’ and ‘fed,’ than ‘dead’ and/or ‘red.’ We’ve heard this story before, and we’d hear it time and time again.
Castro, along with his brother Raul (who in 2008 took over the presidency), aided memorably by the already blooded Marxist revolutionary, budding counter-cultural poster-boy, and perennially photogenic Argentinian doctor Chè Guevara – a man who never saw a left-wing revolution he didn’t want to get down and ‘bolshie’ with – assumed control of the country. They quickly kicked out the Americans along with the Mafia, and nationalized most of the industries and businesses from which they were raking in said “squillions.”
As noted, for Lansky and the rest of the Mob in particular their Golden Cuban Goose was cooked. Yet this was seen as an exceedingly bad development not just for them, but everyone in Washington across the defense, security, intelligence and political establishment and in the boardrooms of those U.S. corporations who’d enjoyed massive profits during the crime/corporate-friendly Batista regime.
Thus were created the circumstances that would eventually lead to the Bay of Pigs invasion, one of most ill-advised, ill-fated, ill-conceived, ill-managed “boys’ own adventure” in U.S. history. A defining event of the Cold War to be sure, but also one of the CIA’s biggest cock-ups. And along with his assassination in Dallas, Texas on 22 November 1963 and the aforementioned CMC, the BoP completed a trifecta of defining events of the short, but momentous presidency of the young JFK. It was to be sure, the most fateful, not just for him but his country; although it was not widely recognized at the time, this monumentally misconceived exercise in regime change and hegemonic overreach would set in motion a sequence of events culminating in the CMC in 1962, and as noted, JFK’s murder the year after, one of course of the most significant events in modern history!
‘The Whole Bay of Pigs Thing’
Few foreign policy misadventures (those that became public knowledge at least), resulted in a more immediate and vociferous response from the American public and international community, as did the BoP. Even fewer ended in such obvious and enduring ignominy. If JFK had been enjoying the ride in Air Force One up until that point then, the ‘flight’ became very turbulent with the Cuban ‘situation.’ By giving the nod for the BoP, the POTUS, to coin an apt phrase, bought himself and his country a ‘whole mess’ down the mountain.
In the wake of its highly publicized failure (another textbook case study, this time of ‘blowback in real time’), then CIA chief Allen Dulles and two of his senior CIA spook colleagues were eventually forced to hang up their trilbies and trench-coats. Although JFK reportedly had a measure of respect for Dulles – part of the reason he was held over from the previous administration – the president fired him. This was a decision Dulles neither forgot nor forgave, and one, which as hinted, would have fatal consequences for the president, and we might add, fateful consequences for the country and the world. It propelled him further down that “mountain”; all of which is to say, JFK would not live to regret it that so many others would though this is axiomatic.
For his part, Number 35 was so rattled by the experience, he threatened to ‘splinter the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter it to the four winds.’ Whilst the reputation of the CIA was sullied in the wake of the BOP, it was however an American institution that was synonymous with fighting the dreaded, so-called ‘red menace,’ itself personified by Castro. It remained intact and eventually recovered, whether for better or worse though that depends on one’s perspective.
As for the Company itself and the remaining key figures after the purge, they never forgot Kennedy’s threat nor his perceived ‘betrayal’ of the BoP invaders when the mission went pear-shaped. In the end JFK backed off on ‘chopping up’ the agency. To the extent Kennedy might have been able to achieve such a goal even if he was determined, either way it may again still have been another fateful decision by the president.
If it wasn’t before, in hindsight it became very clear to JFK that with respect to the BoP gamble, he’d had a lot of presidential skin in this game. The presidential prints were all over the order to ‘nod’ the ‘regime renovators.’ Even though he privately felt the CIA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCOS, the Pentagon brass) had railroaded him, JFK publicly took one for the team on what president Richard Nixon later referred to as the ‘whole Bay of Pigs thing,’ instead preferring to abide by Harry S Truman’s dictum, ‘the buck stops here.’
So what exactly happened with the BoP? In order to better grasp how it all came together – a phrase not entirely appropriate because when it really counted, it all came spectacularly unglued – some background is needed. While a detailed ‘blow by blow’ is not necessary, it’s still anything but a short story.
The original plot was hatched during the Eisenhower administration under Dulles’s direction and in concert with his big brother John Foster Dulles, Ike’s Secretary of State and the archetypal, old school Cold Warrior, a man for whom leaders like Castro were an anathema. It involved enlisting the support of Cuban exiles, all of whom were mightily chagrinned at the new Cuban leader. If anything the Cuban exiles hated Castro more than the Americans did, and were eager to bed down with anyone who’d help restore them to their former glory.
The truly ironic thing is that the Americans at one point did have opportunities to bring Castro inside the tent before the Soviets did. Despite the fact he’d expropriated the property of some U.S. corporations (including the ubiquitous, notorious United Fruit Company, of Guatemalan coup fame, and the ‘poster-child’ of rapacious, exploitative U.S. corporate fueled neo-colonialism), he denied being a communist.
Nor were there any signs that as yet non-aligned Castro intended to bunk down with the Soviets. On his visit to America in April 1960, Ike refused to even meet with the new leader, despite the fact the U.S. had formally recognized his new government. The sub-text of the Americans’ response might as well have been: ‘If we can’t own, pillage, plunder and exploit your country and bleed it dry, we don’t wanna know about you. Adios Amigo!’
In Like Flynn
Now whether Fidel might’ve responded positively to any American overtures is now somewhat academic. But the truth is that no one will ever know. One thing we do know was that when the Americans ‘passed’ on Cuba, the Soviets didn’t miss a beat and were ‘in like Flynn’! The rest as they say, is history, most of it as we’ll see, not so good! And so the stage was set for the BoP.
Aptly described by Peter Kornbluh as the ‘perfect failure,’ the BoP was a disastrous mix of own goals, ‘mission myopia,’ cock-ups and unalloyed hubris. The plan was so ill conceived that even the normally gung-ho Chiefs knew it was bound to fail, or had serious doubts. There are varying accounts as to whether they properly conveyed this to JFK, or there was some genuine misunderstanding. The reality was that the Chiefs had their own agenda – then as now, a not unfamiliar phenomenon in the annals of interagency rivalry within the US military, foreign policy and the national security establishment. They wanted a full-scale invasion with all the ‘fruit’ and knew JFK was not up for that under any circumstances.
Yet in effectively giving the ‘nod’ to a mission they knew had little or no chance of success, they calculated that Kennedy’s hand would be forced politically when that failure became obvious to America and the ROW; the JCOS brass would then get their Big Day Out after all. From there they could claim bragging rights as the guys who came in and cleaned up the CIA’s mess, and Kennedy would take the flak for approving this. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
It’s uncertain how the Chiefs were going to explain to Kennedy after the fact why they did not actively discourage the mission, or whether indeed they even gave this much consideration. It’s possible they short-changed JFK’s ability to ‘smell the rat’ (that effectively he was set up by the CIA and the Chiefs), or figured that he would be so grateful to them later on when they had in fact cleaned up said mess that he’d forgive and forget their treachery.
As it turned out, the ‘newbie’ POTUS did in fact detect the ‘odor of a rodent’ and the mission was finally aborted. In order to minimize the by now certain blowback, he refused to agree to the necessary extra air cover that everyone was clamoring for, and that they insisted would snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Kennedy didn’t buy this, and, once the penny dropped, he seemingly preferred to cut his losses there and then.
But from there on, collectively the brass was persona non grata with JFK, as he simply deduced he could no longer trust them. Much to their chagrin, they didn’t get their ‘boots-on-the-ground’ gig as hoped. To underscore how unsettled the JCOS were about this, around eighteen months later at the height of the CMC, the then Chief Flyboy of the US Air Force Curtis (“Bombs Away”) LeMay along with his JCOS colleagues began foaming at the mouth and literally wanted to nuke the Soviets and the Cubans, where, as noted, most of the latter still lived. That Kennedy prevailed then over this enormous pressure is a matter of history of course; the fact we’re all still here talking about it is some testament to that.
Lock ‘n Load Time
As for the invasion however, with some modification to the original plan, in early April 1961, JFK gave the CIA and the exiled ‘Cubanistas’ the go-ahead. Presumably this was partly because he had, as mentioned, a measure of respect for Dulles and his judgment. Whilst this was Dulles’s baby though, JFK had to ‘give the green.’ It was ‘lock ‘n load time’ and what many might now say has long since become the de facto operating principle of the formulation and implementation of U.S. foreign policy!
In preparation for the invasion, equipment, supplies and materiel were parachuted into the designated invasion location earlier with planes piloted by Cuban exiles accompanied by CIA mercenaries. However as luck would have it, much of this logistical support was lost in the swamp.
Moreover, a pre-invasion air support strike was supposed to soften up the Cubans, break their morale, and destroy or render inactive most of the Cuban Air Force. As it turned out, they destroyed only a handful of planes, with a number of civilians ending up as collateral damage. There would be more ‘collateral damage,’ but not on the Cuban side.
The decision not to follow-up with additional air support left the invaders with their ‘paramilitary peckers swinging in the Bay of Pigs’ sea breeze. They quickly ran out of – or were unable to locate – the aforementioned supplies, a mission critical consideration that seems to have escaped consideration in the planning. Over the next three days, there was intense fighting between the two forces; but before it even started, it was all over for the counter-revolutionary wannabes bar the shouting of ‘Viva la (Counter) Revolucion!’
Amazingly, the CIA was apparently tipped off by the Soviets – presumably because they wanted to give the Americans pause about any aggressive military ambitions that Castro was aware of a possible attack and/or invasion. For his part Castro apparently expected that any such operation would be a full-scale military campaign, not the piddling bunch of deluded, gung-ho, right-wing, rag-tag, rabble-rousing soldiers of misfortune that eventually did participate. The implications of this intelligence for the success or otherwise of the mission were to say the least, considerable.
Even more incredibly, the CIA folk adopted a ‘need to know’ response to this critical piece of information and omitted to tell JFK when there was still ample opportunity, possibly explaining why the normally unflappable president went ballistic later. It’s difficult to see how Kennedy would’ve green-lighted the operation had he been informed. In anticipation of such an invasion, the preternaturally charismatic Fidel mobilized all his armed forces and rallied the moral support of any and all Cuban nationals who could hold a pitchfork or machete and see over the steering wheels of their Ford convertibles and Chevy pickups.
The BoP invaders then were unable to achieve their mission’s critical objectives and eventually were outgunned, outnumbered, out-maneuvered and out-smarted every which way from Sunday (still three days away). Having nowhere else to go, the counter-revolutionary minded ‘paramilitarias’ high-tailed back to the beaches of the Bay of Pigs with a large ‘Cuban cult’ following. On this occasion they were out of luck; the “cult” eventually caught up with them and presented them with some very limited options, one of which was not going back to the U.S. in a hurry unless it was in a military-issue body bag. Those that weren’t killed, either surrendered or were captured, with some later executed.
There are some further observations about the BoP “fiasco” (as JFK aptly defined it) to note. Before the invasion, the Cuban revolution was, by some accounts, running out of steam. Either way, after the botched invasion and the resulting worldwide publicity, it was unstoppable. The location of the Soviet missiles in Cuba in October the next year – the decision taken as a direct consequence of the fallout from the BoP to discourage the U.S. of further thoughts of regime change – was the most provocative, potentially consequential act in history.
As for JFK, he was both devastated by the outcome, and humiliated by the fallout from the mission. Given this was a man unaccustomed to failure, it must have been a heavy cross to bear. He’d however get an opportunity to redeem himself with the CMC, but his legacy was forever stained. As for the CIA, well if they didn’t come to fully appreciate the essence of ‘blowback’ with the BoP, it was likely they never would.
Forever Howling at the Havana Moon
Here is one of the ‘best’ bits about the Cuba-U.S. narrative. For years after, the CIA expended more time, money, ingenuity and energy in trying to ‘off’ Fidel than they have in trying to ‘off’ all the other heads of state together that they’ve ever had their sights on for over 60 years. They cooked up all manner of outrageous, cockamamie Spy v Spy schemes such as placing small exploding devices in his ‘fave’ stogies; administering exotic bacteria, viruses or toxic poisons by a multitude of means and methods; and giving him LSD so he’d flip out and lose face in public.
They even considered using, wait for it, a non-discernible microbionoculators (lethal darts with undetectable poison, fired from high powered gun), to all manner of bizarre plots and schemes such as administering chemicals to make the Comandante’s facial furniture fall out, said “furniture” apparently considered to be ‘sacred’ in a Cuban kind of way.
That they tried so hard for so long is the main game here.
The fact then that Castro still survived 10 US presidents and hundreds of attempts to ‘cut his water off’ is a remarkable feat unto itself. And while they may be still grinning from ear to ear and jumping for joy in Little Havana, it seems safe to say ‘Fiddy’ had the last laugh anyway.
Interestingly, one of the reasons why the BoP coup plot was unsuccessful was for much the same reason that the Iraq invasion in 2003 was an unmitigated disaster: like those involved in, and who supported, that monumental foreign policy miscalculation by the U.S., they believed the Cuban people would be grateful for being liberated from Fidel’s tyranny and rise up in arms against their oppressors. Of course history tells a different story.
Assumptions, as they say, are the ”sum’ bitch-mother’ of all cock-ups, one that makes an all too recurring appearance in the U.S. foreign policy narrative.
From the firmly established facts, to the most outlandish, ‘loony-toon’ conspiracy theories on the other regarding the events and circumstances surrounding – and people involved in – Kennedy’s assassination, few if any foreign countries come remotely close to having any more connections to that momentous event in U.S. history than does Cuba.
For this reason alone, the country – and by extension Fidel Castro himself – will be prominently featured in any future historical narrative. The very fact that so many of the BoP ‘alumni’ – Cubans, mafiosi and former CIA officers and/or contractors – reportedly went on to play significant roles in two other infamous, much written about events in U.S. history – the Kennedy assassination and the Watergate Scandal – underscores the myriad, byzantine links between all three of these key events, and Cuba’s role in the larger narrative.
Love him or hate him, admire him or despise him then – the Commandant’s place in history is guaranteed, much more so I suspect than most of his critics and enemies, past and present, most of whom are likely to end up as mere footnotes by comparison.
That none of them fared as well as Castro is a matter of history. Indeed, to reiterate, we might say this was Castro’s most singular achievement. Even now, in the post-Castro era, Cuba and Castro in particular will always remain an historically ineradicable symbol of fervent resistance to – and overt defiance of – Uncle Sam’s unerring, recidivistic predisposition for pillage, plunder and immoral reward in other people’s backyards.
Put simply, it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that that’s what really gets them howling at the Havana moon. What say you comrades?
Does anyone still wonder why all things Cuba and Castro occupy so much ‘real estate’ in the collective political consciousness of the Washington Werewolves?