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Miami: ‘La Lucha’

1.

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.

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