“I spent as much time as I could trying to emphasize that he had the great gift of leadership, but that it was the responsibility of a leader not always to follow public opinion but to help to direct it in proper channels, not to give the people what they think they want at a time of emotional stress but to make them want what they ought to have.”
– Vice President Richard Nixon in a secret memo to President Dwight Eisenhower, April 1959
Under Castro’s autocracy, Cubans have received neither. Basic human rights and dignity were never part of his bid. Economic opportunities were limited to a very few of his inner circle. Lives were wasted and exploited by the government’s ideological and idiotic bullies.
To Ike, Castro was “a madman.” By autumn of 1959, the first plans to overthrow Castro were drawn and the US has tried to undermine his regime ever since. Many of these attempts are well-known. Perhaps the Bay of Pigs is the most familiar. John Kennedy inherited the CIA plot approved by Eisenhower to remove Castro’s government with an invasion of amateurs recruited from former residents who were loyal to the former Cuban President, Fulgencio Batista. The effort ended in a stunning defeat for the volunteers. Within three days, Castro’s military brought the incursion to a dead stop. Some of the anti-Castro forces were killed and most of the others were taken prisoner. Kennedy was skeptical about the plan to begin with and later regretted that he allowed the CIA’s involvement. “How can I have been so stupid?,” he asked his aides. He referred to CIA Director Allen Dulles and his staff as “CIA bastards” and the event represented one of the early lessons in his presidency. He wanted to “splinter the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter it into the winds.”
The US has tried many other methods to remove Castro over the years. One of Castro’s former bodyguards claimed in a movie released in 2006 that he counted a total of 638 attempts. Some of the most outlandish come right out of a James Bond movie. Ideas considered or implemented include:
- Placing a machine gun inside a TV camera that was to be pointed at Castro
- Lacing his drinks with LSD
- Convincing his girlfriend to poison him
- Planting explosives inside of colorful sea shells that Castro would possibly pick up while scuba diving
- Infecting his diver’s suit with toxic materials
- Setting explosives under a podium he was scheduled to use for a speech
- Stabbing him with a pen syringe filled with poison
- Depositing explosives in one of his cigars
And an idea from the “you can’t make this stuff up” list involves a campaign to convince the Cubans that the Second Coming of Jesus Christ was at hand. According to testimony from a former CIA officer reported in a 1975 US Senate report, Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders,
“This plan consisted of spreading the word that the Second Coming of Christ was imminent and that Christ was against Castro (who) was anti-Christ. And you would spread this word around Cuba. and then on whatever date it was, that there would be a manifestation of this thing. And at that time-this Is absolutely true-and at that time just over the horizon there would be an American submarine which would surface off of Cuba and send up some starshells. And this would be the manifestation of the Second Coming and Castro would be overthrown.”
– Colonel Thomas Parrott
Nixon’s advice to Castro to “make them want what they ought to have” of course speaks volumes about him as a politician. But to stay on topic, I say that the Cuba program in the recent news provides the Cubans both with what they want and ought to have. At its lowest level, outcomes would have been social media access and the means to communicate with others seeking freedom from the Cuban government. In the best case, the technology could have been a spark to a new way of life in Cuba.
Just as in 1960, when the CIA planned to create a medium wave radio station from a nearby island to broadcast into Cuba, a few years ago, the US government attempted to help the Cubans organize themselves to affect change. Named ZunZuneo, a social media text service was designed to work around the tight grip the Cuban government maintains on communications and the use of modern technology. The service, which was similar to Twitter, ran from 2009-2012. At its peak, there were 68,000 users. (There are eleven million people on the island.)
I think that it is unfortunate however, that the program and investment was managed by USAID, a federal agency not normally associated with these type of ventures. These clandestine activities are usually in the domain of the security operations. Unable to attract private investment to continue and concern over being discovered, USAID shut down the operation. Publicly, they tell us that they are proud of the project. Perhaps the CIA and NSA have their hands full with keeping an eye and ear on all of us, so were forced to outsource it to USAID. However, it seems that their involvement could compromise their credibility when there are plenty of opportunities to meet their charter and perform their usual task of fighting global poverty and economic disadvantage. I think Kennedy, who led the effort to form USAID, would agree.
“There is no escaping our obligations: our moral obligations as a wise leader and good neighbor in the interdependent community of free nations – our economic obligations as the wealthiest people in a world of largely poor people, as a nation no longer dependent upon the loans from abroad that once helped us develop our own economy – and our political obligations as the single largest counter to the adversaries of freedom.”
– John Kennedy, June 1962
Five decades later, the Cubans continue to suffer. Human Rights Watch tells us that the oppression, arbitrary arrests and cruel punishment continue in Cuba. It is perplexing that the U.S. and others haven’t been able to affect these harsh conditions more substantively, by any means tried.
As Nixon told Eisenhower in April 1959, after his first meeting with Castro, “Whatever we may think of him, he is going to be a great factor in the development of Cuba and very possibly in the development of Latin American affairs generally.” He got that right.
Days before Kennedy was killed, he was making plans for Castro to travel to New York to meet with his designee and sort things out. Castro agreed to find a suitable date and agenda, but none of this was settled before Kennedy’s death. Castro sent a message to Lyndon Johnson in February 1964 that he wanted to pick up where he left off with Kennedy. Eight US Presidents later, not much has changed. A vile and loathsome press and punditry lost their minds over a handshake and seven-second encounter between Barack Obama and Raul Castro at Nelson Mandela’s funeral. I guess those moments and opportunities to temporarily relax hostilities and search for resolution are reserved for presidents of the past (or future).
In 1994, Nixon counseled for a shift in our approach.
“It is time to shift the central focus of our policies from hurting Cuba’s government to helping its people….This means we should drop the economic embargo and open the way to trade, investment, and economic interaction, while insisting that ideas and information be allowed to flow as freely as goods.”
I guess that was the intent of ZunZuneo. But here we are, still trying to figure out Cuba.