Miami: ‘La Lucha’


Don’t forget that we have a disposal problem” is what Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., tells us that Allen Dulles said on March 11, 1961, by way of warning John F. Kennedy about the possible consequences of aborting the projected Cuban invasion and cutting loose what the CIA knew to be a volatile and potentially vengeful asset, the exile force it had trained for the Bay of Pigs, the 2506 Brigade. What John F. Kennedy was said to have said, four weeks later, to Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., is this: “If we have to get rid of these eight hundred men, it is much better to dump them in Cuba than in the United States, especially if that is where they want to go.” This is dialogue recalled by someone without much ear for it, and the number of men involved in the invasion force was closer to fifteen hundred than to eight hundred, but the core of it, the “dump them in Cuba” construction, has an authentic ring, as does “disposal problem” itself. Over the years since the publication of A Thousand Days I had read the chapter in which these two lines appear several times, but only after I had spent time in Miami did I begin to see them as curtain lines, or as the cannon which the protagonist brings onstage in the first act so that it may be fired against him in the third.

I would say that John F. Kennedy is still the number-two most hated man in Miami,” Raul Masvidal said to me one afternoon, not long after he had announced his 1985 candidacy for mayor of Miami, in a cool and immaculate office on the top floor of one of the Miami banks in which he has an interest. Raul Masvidal, who was born in Havana in 1942, would seem in many ways a model for what not only Anglo Miami but the rest of the United States likes to see as Cuban assimilation. He was named by both Cubans and non-Cubans in a 1983 Miami Herald poll as the most powerful Cuban in Miami. He received the endorsement of the Herald in his campaign to become mayor of Miami, the election he ultimately lost to Xavier Suarez. He was, at the time we spoke, one of two Cuban members (the other being Armando Codina, a Miami entrepreneur and member of the advisory board of the Southeast First National Bank) of The Non-Group, an unofficial and extremely private organization which had been called the shadow government of South Florida and included among its thirty-eight members, who met once a month for dinner at one another’s houses or clubs, the ownership or top management of Knight-Ridder, Eastern Airlines, Arvida Disney, Burdines, the Miami Dolphins, and the major banks and utilities.

Castro is of course the number-one most hated,” Raul Masvidal added. “Then Kennedy. The entire Kennedy family.” He opened and closed a leather folder, the only object on his marble desk, then aligned it with the polished edge of the marble. On the wall behind him hung a framed poster with the legend, in English, YOU HAVE NOT CONVERTED A MAN BECAUSE YOU HAVE SILENCED HIM, a sentiment so outside the thrust of local Cuban thinking that it lent the office an aspect of having been dressed exclusively for visits from what Cubans sometimes call, with a slight ironic edge, the mainstream population.

Something I did which involved Ted Kennedy became very controversial here,” Raul Masvidal said then. “Jorge asked me to contact Senator Kennedy.” He was talking about Jorge Mas Canosa, the Miami engineering contractor (“an advisor to US Senators, a confidant of federal bureaucrats, a lobbyist for anti-Castro US policies, a near unknown in Miami,” as the Herald had described him a few years before) who had been, through the Georgetown office of the Cuban American National Foundation and its companion PAC, the National Coalition for a Free Cuba, instrumental in the lobbying for the establishment of Radio Martí, the Voice of America’s signal to Cuba. “To see if we could get him to reverse his position on Radio Martí. We needed Kennedy to change his vote, to give that bill the famous luster. I did that. And the Cubans here took it as if it had been an attempt to make peace with the Kennedys.”

The man who had been accused of attempting to make peace with the Kennedys arrived in this country in 1960, when he was eighteen. He enrolled at the University of Miami, then took two semesters off to train with the 2506 for the Bay of Pigs. After the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, which was then and is still perceived in Miami as another personal betrayal on the part of John F. Kennedy, Raul Masvidal again dropped out of the University of Miami, this time to join a unit of Cubans recruited by the United States Army for training at Fort Knox, Kentucky, part of what Theodore C. Sorenson, in Kennedy, recalled in rather soft focus as a “special arrangement” under which Bay of Pigs veterans were “quietly entering the American armed forces.”

This seems to have been, even through the filter offered by diarists of the Kennedy administration, a gray area. Like other such ad hoc attempts to neutralize the 2506, the recruitment program involved, if not outright deception, a certain encouragement of self-deception, an apparent willingness to allow those Cubans who “were quietly entering the American armed forces” to do so under the misapprehension that the United States was in fact preparing to invade Cuba. Sentences appear to have been left unfinished, and hints dropped. Possibilities appear to have been floated, and not exclusively, as it has become the convention in this kind of situation to suggest, by some uncontrollable element in the field, some rogue agent. “President Kennedy came to the Orange Bowl and made us a promise,” Jorge Mas Canosa, who is also a veteran of the 2506, repeated insistently to me one morning, his voice rising in the retelling of what has become for Miami a primal story. “December. 1962. What he said turned out to be another—I won’t say deception, let us call it a misconception—another misconception on the part of President Kennedy.”

Jorge Mas Canosa had drawn the words “President” and “Kennedy” out, inflecting all syllables with equal emphasis. This was the same Jorge Mas Canosa who had enlisted Raul Masvidal in the effort to secure the luster of the Kennedy name for Radio Martí, the Jorge Mas Canosa who had founded the Cuban American National Foundation and was one of those funding its slick offices overlooking the Potomac in Georgetown; the Jorge Mas Canosa who had become so much a figure in Washington that it was sometimes hard to catch up with him in Miami.

I had driven down the South Dixie Highway that morning to meet him at his main construction yard, the cramped office of which was decorated with a LONG LIVE FREE GRENADA poster and framed photographs of Jorge Mas Canosa with Ronald Reagan and Jorge Mas Canosa with Jeane Kirkpatrick and Jorge Mas Canosa with Paula Hawkins. “And at the Orange Bowl he was given the flag,” Jorge Mas Canosa continued. “The flag the invasion forces had taken to Playa Girón. And he took this flag in his hands and he promised that he would return it to us in a free Havana. And he called on us to join the United States armed forces. To get training. And try again.”

This particular effort to get the cannon offstage foundered, as many such efforts foundered, on the familiar shoal of Washington hubris. In this instance the hubris took the form of simultaneously underestimating the exiles’ distrust of the United States and overestimating their capacity for self-deception, which, although considerable, was tempered always by a rather more extensive experience in the politics of conspiracy than the Kennedy administration’s own. The exiles had not, once they put it together that the point of the exercise was to keep them occupied, served easily. Jorge Mas Canosa, who had been sent to Fort Benning, had stayed only long enough to finish OCS, then resigned his commission and returned to Miami. At Fort Knox, according to Raul Masvidal, there had been, “once it became evident that the United States and Russia had reached an agreement and the United States had no intention of invading Cuba,” open rebellion.

A lot of things happened,” Raul Masvidal said. “For example we had a strike, which was unheard of for soldiers. One day we just decided we were going to remain in our barracks for a few days. They threatened us with all kinds of things. But at that point we didn’t care much for the threats.” A representative of the Kennedy White House had finally been dispatched to Fort Knox to try to resolve the situation, and a deal had been struck, a renegotiated “special arrangement,” under which the exiles agreed to end their strike in return for an immediate transfer to Fort Jackson, South Carolina (they had found Kentucky, they said, too cold), and an almost immediate discharge. At this point Raul Masvidal went back to the University of Miami, to parking cars at the Everglades Hotel, and to the more fluid strategies of CIA/Miami, which was then running, through a front operation on the south campus of the University of Miami called Zenith Technological Services and code-named JM/WAVE, a kind of action about which everybody in Miami and nobody in Washington seemed to know.

I guess during that period I was kind of a full-time student and part-time warrior,” Raul Masvidal had recalled the afternoon we spoke. “In those days the CIA had these infiltration teams in the Florida Keys, and they ran sporadic missions to Cuba.” These training camps in the keys, which appear to have been simultaneously run by the CIA and, in what was after the Cuban missile crisis a further convolution of the disposal problem, periodically raided by the FBI, do not much figure in the literature of the Kennedy administration. Theodore C. Sorensen, in Kennedy, mentioned “a crackdown by Federal authorities on the publicity-seeking Cuban refugee groups who conducted hit-and-run raids on Cuban ports and shipping,” further distancing the “publicity-seeking Cuban refugee groups” from the possessive plural of the White House by adding that they damaged “little other than our efforts to persuade the Soviets to leave.”

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., elided this Miami action altogether in A Thousand Days, an essentially antihistorical work in which the entire matter of the Cuban exiles is seen to have resolved itself on an inspirational note in December of 1962, when Jacqueline Kennedy stood at the Orange Bowl before the Bay of Pigs veterans, 1,113 of whom had just returned from imprisonment in Cuba, and said, in Spanish, that she wanted her son to be “a man at least half as brave as the members of Brigade 2506.” In his more complex reconsideration of the period, Robert Kennedy and His Times, Schlesinger did deal with the Miami action, but with so profound a queasiness as to suggest that the question of whether the United States government had or had not been involved with it (“But had CIA been up to its old tricks?”) remained obscure, as if unknowable.

Such accounts seem, in Miami, where an impressive amount of the daily business of the city is carried on by men who speak casually of having run missions for the CIA, remote to the point of the delusional. According to reports published in 1975 and 1976 and prompted by hearings before the Church committee, the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Operations, the CIA’s JM/WAVE station on the University of Miami campus was by 1962 the largest CIA installation, outside Langley, in the world, and one of the largest employers in the state of Florida. There were said to have been at JM/WAVE headquarters between three and four hundred case officers from the CIA’s clandestine services branch. Each case officer was said to have run between four and ten Cuban “principal agents,” who were referred to in code as “amots.” Each principal agent was said to have run in turn between ten and thirty “regular agents,” again mainly exiles.

The arithmetic here is impressive. Even the minimum figures, three hundred case officers each running four principal agents who in turn ran ten regular agents, yield twelve thousand regular agents. The maximum figures yield one hundred and twenty thousand regular agents, each of whom might be presumed to have contacts of his own. There were, all operating under the JM/WAVE umbrella, flotillas of small boats. There were mother ships, disguised as merchant vessels, what an unidentified CIA source described to the Herald as “the third largest navy in the western hemisphere.” There was the CIA’s Miami airline, Southern Air Transport, acquired in 1960 and subsequently financed through its holding company, Actus Technology Inc., and through another CIA holding company, the Pacific Corporation, with more than $16,700,000 in loans from the CIA’s Air America and an additional $6,600,000 from the Manufacturers Hanover Trust Company. There were hundreds of pieces of Miami real estate, residential bungalows maintained as safe houses, waterfront properties maintained as safe harbors. There were, besides the phantom “Zenith Technological Services” that was JM/WAVE headquarters itself, fifty-four other front businesses, providing employment and cover and various services required by JM/WAVE operations. 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. Among Cubans of his generation in Miami, Raul Masvidal was perhaps most unusual in that he did not actually run the missions himself. “I was more an assistant to the person who was running the program,” he had said the day we talked. “Helping with the logistics. Making sure the people got fed and had the necessary weapons. It was a frustrating time, because you could see the pattern right away. The pattern was for a decline in activity toward Castro. We were just being kept busy. For two reasons. One reason was that it provided a certain amount of intelligence in which the CIA was interested.”

Raul Masvidal is wary, almost impassive. He speaks carefully, in the even cadences of American management, the cadences of someone who received a degree from the American Graduate School of International Management in Arizona and had been by the time he was thirty a vice-president of Citibank in New York and Madrid, and this was one of the few occasions during our conversation when he allowed emotion to enter his voice. “The other reason,” he said, “was that it was supposed to keep people in Miami thinking that something was being done. The fact that there were a few Cubans running around Miami saying that they were being trained, that they were running missions—well, it kept up a few hopes.” Raul Masvidal paused. “So I guess that was important to the CIA,” he said then. “To try to keep people here from facing the very hard and very frustrating fact that they were not going home because their strongest and best ally had made a deal. Behind their backs.”

Bottom soundings are hard to come by here. We are talking about 1963, the year which ended in the death of John F. Kennedy. It was a year described by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., as one in which “the notion of invading Cuba had been dead for years” (since the notion of invading Cuba had demonstrably not been dead as recently as April of 1961, the “for years” is interesting on its face, and suggestive of the way in which Washington’s perception of time expands and contracts with its agenda); a year in which, in the wake of the missile crisis and John F. Kennedy’s 1962 agreement not to invade Cuba, the administration’s anti-Castro policy had been “drastically modified” and in which the White House was in fact, as Schlesinger put it, “drifting toward accommodation.” It was a year in which the official and well-publicized Washington policy toward Miami exile operations was one of unequivocal discouragement and even prosecution; a year of repeated exile arrests and weapons seizures; a year that was later described by the chief of station for JM/WAVE, in testimony before the Church committee, as one in which “the whole apparatus of government, Coast Guard, Customs, Immigration and Naturalization, FBI, CIA, were working together to try to keep these operations from going to Cuba.” (The chief of station for JM/WAVE in 1963 happened to be Theodore Shackley, who left Miami in 1965, spent from 1966 until 1972 as political officer and chief of station in Vientiane and Saigon, and turned up more recently in the Tower Commission report, meeting on page B-3 in Hamburg with Manucher Ghorbanifar and with the former head of SAVAK counterespionage; discussing on page B-11 the hostage problem over lunch with Michael Ledeen.)

On the one hand “the whole apparatus of government” did seem to be “working together to try to keep these operations from going to Cuba,” and on the other hand the whole apparatus of government seemed not to be doing this. There was still, it turned out, authorized CIA funding for such “autonomous operations” (a concept devised by Walt Whitman Rostow and the State Department) as the exile action group JURE, or Junta Revolucionaria Cubana, an “autonomous operation” being an operation, according to guidelines summarized in a CIA memorandum, with which the United States, “if ever charged with complicity,” would deny having anything to do. “Autonomous operations” were, it turned out, part of the “track two” approach, which, whatever it meant in theory, meant for example in practice that JURE could, on “track two” request and receive explosives and grenades from the CIA even as, on track one, JURE was being investigated for possession of illegal firearms by the FBI and the INS.

Track two” and “autonomous operations” were of course Washington phrases, phrases from the special vocabulary of Special Groups and Standing Groups and “guidelines” and “approaches,” words from a language in which deniability was built into the grammar, and as such may or may not have had a different meaning, or any meaning, in 1963 in Miami, where deniability had become in many ways the very opposite of the point. In a CIA review of various attempts between 1960 and 1963 to assassinate Fidel Castro (which were “merely one aspect of the overall active effort to overthrow the regime,” in other words not exactly a third track), an internal report prepared in 1967 by the Inspector General of the CIA and declassified in 1978 for release to the House Select Committee on Assassinations, there appears, on the matter of Washington language, this instructive reflection:

There is a third point, which was not directly made by any of those we interviewed, but which emerges clearly from the interviews and from reviews of files. The point is that of frequent resort to synecdoche—the mention of a part when the whole is to be understood, or vice versa. Thus, we encounter repeated references to phrases such as “disposing of Castro,” which may be read in the narrow, literal sense of assassinating him, when it is intended that it be read in the broader, figurative sense of dislodging the Castro regime. Reversing the coin, we find people speaking vaguely of “doing something about Castro” when it is clear that what they have specifically in mind is killing him. In a situation wherein those speaking may not have actually meant what they seemed to say or may not have said what they actually meant, they should not be surprised if their oral shorthand is interpreted differently than was intended.

In the superimposition of the Washington dreamwork on that of Miami there has always been room, in other words, for everyone to believe what they need to believe. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., in Robert Kennedy and His Times, finally went so far as to conclude that the CIA had during 1963 in Miami continued to wage what he still preferred to call “its private war against Castro,” or had “evidently” done so, “despite,” as he put it, in a clause that suggests the particular angle of deflection in the superimposition, “the lack of Special Group authorization.”

Asked at a press conference in May of 1963 whether either the CIA or the White House was supporting exile paramilitary operations, John F. Kennedy said this: “We may well be…well, none that I am familiar with…I don’t think as of today that we are.” What James Angleton, who was then chief of counterintelligence for the CIA, was later quoted* as having said about the year 1963 in Miami, and about what the CIA was or was not doing, with or without Special Group authorization, was this:

The concept of Miami was correct. In a Latino area, it made sense to have a base in Miami for Latin American problems, as an extension of the desk. If it had been self-contained, then it would have had the quality of being a foreign base of sorts. It was a novel idea. But it got out of hand, it became a power unto itself. And when the target diminishes, it’s very difficult for a bureaucracy to adjust. What do you do with your personnel? We owed a deep obligation to the men in Miami.

In Washington in 1962, according to a footnote in Robert Kennedy and His Times,

the regular Special Group—[Maxwell] Taylor, McGeorge Bundy, Alexis Johnson, [Roswell] Gilpatric, [Lyman] Lemnitzer and [John] McCone—would meet at two o’clock every Thursday afternoon. When its business was finished, Robert Kennedy would arrive, and it would expand into the Special Group (CI). At the end of the day, Cuba would become the subject, and the group, with most of the same people, would metamorphose into Special Group (Augmented).

That was the setting in which those people with the most immediate interest in the policy of the United States toward Cuba appear, during the years of the Kennedy administration, to have been talking in Washington. This was the setting in which those people with the same interest during the same years appear, according to testimony later given before the Church committee by the 1963 chief of station for JM/WAVE, to have been talking in Miami:

Assassination” was part of the ambience of that time…nobody could be involved in Cuban operations without having had some sort of discussion at some time with some Cuban who said…the way to create a revolution is to shoot Fidel and Raul…so the fact that somebody would talk about assassination just wasn’t anything really out of the ordinary at that time.

What John F. Kennedy actually said when he held the 2506 flag in his hands at the Orange Bowl on December 29, 1962, was this: “I can assure you that this flag will be returned to this brigade in a free Havana.” How Theodore C. Sorensen described this was as “a supposed Kennedy promise for a second invasion.” How Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., described it was as “a promise,” but one “not in the script,” a promise made “in the emotion of the day.” What Jorge Mas Canosa said about it, that morning in the office with the LONG LIVE FREE GRENADA poster and the framed photographs of figures from yet another administration, the office in the construction yard forty minutes down the South Dixie Highway, a forty-minute drive down a flat swamp of motor home rentals and discount water bed sales and boat repairs and bird and reptile sales and Midas Mufflers and Radio Shacks, was this: “I remember that later some people here made a joke about President Kennedy and that promise.” Jorge Mas Canosa had again drawn out the syllables, Pres-ee-dent Ken-ned-ee, and I listened closely, because, during a considerable amount of time spent listening to exiles in Miami talk about the promise John F. Kennedy made at the Orange Bowl, I had not before heard anything approaching a joke. “The joke,” Jorge Mas Canosa said, “was that the ‘Free Havana’ he meant was a bar by that name here in Miami.”


In many ways Miami remains our most graphic lesson in consequences. The supposed promise made by John F. Kennedy at the Orange Bowl in 1962 was meant as an abstraction, as the rhetorical expression of a collective wish; a kind of poetry, which of course makes nothing happen. “We will not permit the Soviets and their henchmen in Havana to deprive others of their freedom,” Ronald Reagan promised at the Dade County Auditorium in 1983 (twenty-five hundred people inside, sixty thousand outside, twelve standing ovations, and a pollo asado lunch at La Esquina de Tejas with Jorge Mas Canosa and two hundred and three other provisional loyalists), and then Ronald Reagan, the first American president since John F. Kennedy to visit Miami in search of Cuban support, added this: “Someday, Cuba itself will be free.”

This was of course just more poetry, another rhetorical expression of the same collective wish, but Ronald Reagan, like John F. Kennedy before him, was speaking here to people whose historical experience has not been that poetry makes nothing happen. On one of the first evenings I spent in Miami I sat at midnight over carne con papas in an art-filled condominium in one of the Arquitectonica buildings on Brickell Avenue and listened to several exiles talk about the relationship of what was said in Washington to what was done in Miami. These exiles were all well-educated. They were well-read, well-traveled, comfortable citizens of a larger world than that of either Miami or Washington, with well-cut blazers and French dresses and interests in New York and Madrid and Mexico. Yet what was said that evening in the expensive condominium overlooking Biscayne Bay proceeded from an almost primitive helplessness, a regressive fury at having been, as these exiles saw it, repeatedly used and repeatedly betrayed by the government of the United States. “Let me tell you something,” one of them said. “They talk about ‘Cuban terrorists.’ The guys they call ‘Cuban terrorists’ are the guys they trained.”

This was not, then, the general exile complaint about a government which might have taken up their struggle but had not. This was something more specific, a complaint that the government in question had in fact taken up la lucha, but for its own purposes, and, in what these exiles saw as a pattern of deceit stretching back through six administrations, to its own ends. The pattern, as they saw it, was one in which the government of the United States had repeatedly encouraged or supported exile action and then, when policy shifted and such action became an embarrassment, a discordant note in whatever message Washington was sending that month or that year, had discarded the exiles involved, had sometimes not only discarded them but, since the nature of la lucha was essentially illegal, turned them in, set them up for prosecution; positioned them, as it were, for the fall.

They mentioned, as many exiles did, the federal prosecution of exiles accused of those bombings and assassinations credited to Omega 7, the action group which during the 1970s and early 1980s had made considerable use in both Miami and New York of the military plastic explosive C-4. They mentioned, as many exiles did, the prosecution of the Cuban burglars at the Watergate, who were told, because so many exiles had come by that time to distrust the CIA, that the assignment at hand was not just CIA, but straight from the White House. They mentioned the case of José Elias de la Torriente, a respected exile leader who had been, in the late 1960s, recruited by the CIA to lend his name and his prestige to what was set forth as a new plan to overthrow Fidel Castro, the “Work Plan for Liberation,” or the Torriente Plan.

Money had once again been raised, and expectations. The entire attention of el exilio had for a time been focused on the Torriente Plan, a diversion of energy which, as years passed and nothing happened, suggested to many that what the plan may have been from its inception was just another ad hoc solution to the disposal problem. José Elias de la Torriente had been called, by a frustrated community once again left with nowhere to go, a traitor. José Elias de la Torriente had been called a CIA stooge. José Elias de la Torriente had finally been, at age seventy, as he sat in his house in Coral Gables watching The Robe on television about nine o’clock on the evening of Good Friday, 1974, assassinated, shot through the Venetian blind on a window by someone, presumably an exile, who claimed the kill in the name “Zero.”

This had, in the telling at the dinner table, the sense of a situation played out to its Aristotelian end, of that inexorable Caribbean progress from cause to effect which I later came to see as central to the way Miami thought about itself. Miami stories tended to have endings. The cannon onstage tended to be fired. One of those who spoke most ardently that evening was a quite beautiful young woman in a white jersey dress, a lawyer, active in Democratic politics in Miami. This dinner in the condominium overlooking Biscayne Bay took place in March of 1985, and the woman in the white jersey dress was Maria Elena Prío Duran, the daughter of Cuban President Carlos Prío Socarrás, the child who flew into exile in March of 1952 with her father’s foreign minister, her father’s minister of the interior, her father, and her mother, an equally beautiful woman in a hat with black fishnet veiling.

I recall watching Maria Elena Prío Duran that night as she pushed back her hair and reached across the table for a cigarette. This was a long time before the C-123 carrying Eugene Hasenfus fell from the sky inside Nicaragua. This was a long time before Eugene Hasenfus began talking about those Cuban exiles who called themselves “Max Gomez” and “Ramon Medina,” veterans of the 2506 Brigade fighting in another war, this one out of Ilopango. NICARAGUA HOY, CUBA MAÑANA, the signs in storefronts around Miami were then saying. Let me tell you about Cuban terrorists, another of the exiles at dinner that night, a prominent Miami architect named Raul Rodriguez, was saying at the end of the table. Cuba never grew plastique. Cuba grew tobacco. Cuba grew sugar cane. Cuba never grew C-4. Maria Elena Prío Duran lit the cigarette and immediately crushed it out. C-4, Raul Rodriguez said, and he slammed his palm down on the white tablecloth as he said it, grew here.

This is the second in a series of articles on Miami.

  1. *

    In New Times of October 29, 1976, by Dick Russell, after an interview that took place in the dining room of the Army-Navy Club in Washington.