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Four Days with Fidel: A Havana Diary

With his authority consolidated after the October crisis, Kennedy could have been the president who would have rectified US policy toward Cuba. He wanted to do this. I had proof of that the day he died.” Here Castro tells the story of the visit from the French journalist Jean Daniel, who carried a message from Kennedy raising the possibility of normalizing relations. He does not mention that Kennedy had, at the same time, asked Ambassador William Attwood to hold exploratory talks with Cubans at the UN.

I don’t blame Kennedy for the Bay of Pigs. He inherited that project. I believe he was not at all pleased with it. He had the constitutional authority to stop it, but not the moral and political authority. I don’t blame him for letting it go ahead. We must recognize that he acted quite calmly during that event. Other presidents would have acted very differently.

But he was embittered by that defeat. Cuba had a special connotation for him. I won’t talk about sabotage, assassination [apparently referring to American plots against himself]; but he wanted to end the Cuban Revolution. He knew that objective conditions in Latin America were favorable to revolution, so he set out to change those conditions—hence the Alliance for Progress.”

We expected invasion, Castro continues, we had to defend Cuba. “But we were not too pleased with the missiles. If it had been just a matter of our own defense, we would not have accepted the missiles. The presence of Soviet missiles would damage our image in Latin America by turning Cuba into a Soviet military base. But, if it would strengthen the entire socialist camp and improve the global balance of power, we felt we had to go along. We considered it our moral duty.

Had we known then what we know now about the balance of power, we would have realized that the emplacement changed intermediate range missiles into strategic weapons. In the light of what we know today, this must have been the real Soviet motive—not the defense of Cuba. We did not know how few missiles the Soviets had. We imagined thousands. If I had known the real ratio, I would have advised Nikita to be prudent. ‘Don’t bring these missiles in,’ I would have said. ‘Under these conditions, don’t do it.’ But we had unlimited trust.”

His tone is reflective. “When I went to the Soviet Union in 1963, I tried to find out how the decision was made. I never got a clear answer. Missiles were not essential. A Soviet military pact would have sufficed—a declaration that aggression against Cuba would be aggression against the Soviet Union. We could have assured the defense of Cuba without missiles. I am absolutely convinced of this.

The secrecy of the operation was both a political and a practical disadvantage for us. The misinformation Khrushchev gave Kennedy made everything worse. Kennedy had a lot at stake. Elections were impending. One reason why Khrushchev wanted secrecy was that he did not wish to affect the elections. But Kennedy believed what Khrushchev told him…. Khrushchev did not foresee that the CIA would discover the missiles. The combination of secrecy and hoodwinking gave Kennedy a moral advantage before the world.”

As for the Soviet decision to withdraw the missiles, “There was no consultation, no notification. When the news arrived, we realized that Cuba was, in the end, only a bargaining chip. It was a humiliating time. The reaction of our nation was not relief but profound indignation.

Had we known that Khrushchev was preparing to withdraw the missiles, we would not have been opposed. There had to be a solution. But US verbal guarantees were not enough. Nikita should have traded the missiles for guarantees ‘satisfactory to Cuba.’ His readiness to trade his missiles in Cuba for the American missiles in Turkey proves that the defense of Cuba was subordinate to the defense of the Soviet Union. If the cause of the emplacement of missiles was the protection of Cuba, what did the Turkish missiles have to do with the defense of Cuba? Nothing at all.”

Here Castro seems unaware of contradictions in his own position. Khrushchev began by offering him the missiles on the ground that they would protect Cuba. Castro says he accepted them not for this reason but on the ground that missiles in Cuba would strengthen the “entire socialist camp.” When Cuban missiles were traded for Turkish missiles, Castro and Khrushchev exchanged positions. Khrushchev was now acting to strengthen the socialist camp, while Castro now resented the deal because it had nothing to do with the defense of Cuba. In any event, the denouement makes it clear that the missiles were sent to Cuba for Soviet reasons, not for Cuban ones.

Castro turns to the CIA. With a gesture toward the bearded Ray Cline, who had been CIA’s deputy director for intelligence in 1962, he says affably, “The man who looks like Hemingway isn’t going to like this.” He goes on: “There are three forces in the United States—the CIA, the Pentagon, the State Department. Pentagon and CIA are more powerful than State. If they continue to have this power, I look with gloom on the future….

Our priority is our own survival—the survival of our revolution. The most important thing is to affirm the rights of national sovereignty. Nationalism is very strong in the world today; so is religion. We socialists made a mistake in underestimating the strength of nationalism and religion….

I don’t think that the Americans are contemplating an invasion. Their hope is that we will not survive the problems we are facing. But our scientists and engineers are working to solve our problems. We are conserving fuel. We have gone back to the bicycle. We are compelled to devise new inventions. We shall survive.”

The conference recesses. Janet Lang now presents Castro, who had once been scouted by the New York Giants, with an official National League baseball signed by relics from the Kennedy administration. Fidel accepts with a broad smile: “I am very glad to have this baseball, trusting as I do that there is no bomb inside.”

In the evening we go to a reception at the opulent presidential palace, with green trees and ferns planted on patches of ground among the marble floors and large abstract paintings on the walls. While we drink frozen daiquiris and cluster around an elaborate buffet, Fidel holds court, bantering with Ray Cline of the CIA and other Americans and rather conspicuously turning his back on the Russians, except for the sons of Khrushchev and Mikoyan. I ask him how he looks on the impending quincentennial of Christopher Columbus. He says, “We are critical. Columbus brought many bad things.” I say, “If it weren’t for Columbus, you wouldn’t be here.” He says, “Well, Columbus brought good things as well as bad.”

When I had met Raúl Castro in 1985, he seemed gloomy and withdrawn; but tonight he is unexpectedly friendly and engages in animated conversation with McNamara. Raúl too ignores the Russians. He says that sometime he would like to show McNamara the training film they use to teach Cuban draftees how to repel an American invasion. McNamara says, “Why not right now?” Raúl briefly consults with Fidel and returns with an OK. General Gribkov starts to accompany us; Raúl brusquely turns him down. He accepts the sons of Khrushchev and Mikoyan.

We walk to the Ministry of Defense, five minutes away. On the walls of Raúl’s office hang three profiles, embossed in wood: Fidel Castro, José Martí, Lenin. He points out trophies from the Sierra Maestra and Angola. Then he takes us to what he calls “the hall of the Russian generals,” where photographs of a dozen Soviet marshals surround a large photograph of Lenin. He regards the Soviet connection with evident nostalgia. “As long as I’m the minister of defense,” he says, “this room will stay as it is.”

Then the film, a version prepared for visitors, in which the narration is in English. The theme is the arming and mobilization of all Cubans for protracted war. We see a network of tunnels, laboriously built over eight years to the length of two hundred kilometers. After the film McNamara says he wants to make two points: first, he admires the Cuban emphasis on self-reliance for their own protection; second, he hopes the Cuban leadership recognizes that with the end of the cold war the chance of an American invasion, minimal over the last thirty years, will be nil in the period ahead.

Raúl insists that we see his hotline to Moscow. He asks Sergei Khrushchev to pick up the phone but Khrushchev is reluctant, perhaps wondering what the reaction will be in Moscow when the phone is answered and he says, “Khrushchev calling.”

Sunday, January 12. This morning we go to Finca Vigía (Lookout Farm), Hemingway’s house on top of a hill about fifteen miles from Havana, now a museum. We see it all through open windows; visitors are not permitted to enter the house. It is a lovely, airy house, elk and buffalo heads on the walls, bookshelves in nearly every room (including the bathroom)—nine thousand books in all, we are told—a closet filled with a formidable collection of hunting boots, a bar displaying a half-filled bottle of Old Forester, everything as Hemingway left it.

The last session of the conference begins punctually as usual at 3 PM. McNamara repeats his hope that, in a world fundamentally changed by the end of the cold war, differences between Cuba and the United States can be handled through normal diplomatic channels. He adds: “Let me say—you may not agree, Fidel Castro—but I consider myself a revolutionary. I believe that the right to live a productive life is fundamental to all other rights. I applaud what Cuba has done in education and in health.” He also notes that the infant mortality rate is lower in Cuba than in the District of Columbia.

Castro replies, “I have harbored for some time, ever since McNamara became president of the World Bank, the suspicion that he is indeed a revolutionary.” As for the conference, “I say with absolute sincerity that I have learned a great deal at this meeting. I have learned things that I did not know. I believe that the spirit with which things are discussed has been excellent.”

The conference adjourns. The Americans agree that Castro has indeed been more candid and illuminating than some of us expected and that he has more than fulfilled the assurance that he would contribute to historical knowledge. We have said little about current issues, however, and we feel more strongly than ever the need to bring up the question of human rights, especially since we have become aware of developments that will likely intensify the crackdown already in progress. At the end of December, three exiles fresh from Miami were caught landing on Cuban shores with guns and explosives. A few days later, according to the Cuban government, people trying to flee Cuba by boat killed three young policemen who were about to arrest them. Speaking at the funeral of the policemen, Raúl Castro threatened to bring back the Revolutionary Tribunal notorious for its summary execution of Batistianos after the revolution of 1959. The three Miami men, we are told today, have been condemned to death. (In fact, one was executed a few days later and the others sentenced to thirty years in prison. In February, two men charged with killing the police were also executed.6 )

  1. 6

    In addition to the three policemen who were killed, a fourth, Sergeant Rolando Pérez Quintosa, who had been wounded, died in February. The Cuban government said that the two men murdered the policemen while they and seven others were trying to seize a boat at an East Havana dock, and that Sergeant Pérez Quintosa survived long enough to identify his attackers.

    Both Radio Martí in Washington and Radio Mambí in Miami have broadcast reports claiming that the policemen who died were trying to leave the island and were shot by other police; the reports came from anonymous sources, however, and have not been confirmed.

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