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Four Days with Fidel: A Havana Diary

Tuesday, January 7. We are flying to Miami en route to Havana for a conference, with Fidel Castro, on the Cuban missile crisis.

This is the fifth conference in a series that began in 1987, in Hawk’s Cay, Florida, as an all-American affair, in which Kennedy administration veterans were asked questions about the crisis by political scientists and historians. The second meeting, at Harvard, brought in Soviet representatives. Then Cubans complained that everyone called it the Cuban missile crisis but no one ever asked them. (Actually the Cubans themselves call it the October crisis.) So the third meeting, held in Moscow in 1989, included Cubans, as did a fourth meeting a year ago in Antigua.

The Cubans then proposed a fifth meeting in Havana. But they had stuck so dogmatically to the Party line in Antigua that some of us questioned the usefulness of a Havana conference. Where the Americans and the Soviets had divulged internal debates and declassified relevant documents, the Cubans had gone on about the iniquities of the CIA, long since exposed in the US, and revealed nothing about their own decisions and actions.

After all, Castro had his own CIA; and Cuba’s clandestine war in the early 1960s against other Latin American states, especially against Rómulo Betancourt’s progressive democratic regime in Venezuela, was an essential part of the story. The Kennedy administration had seen the future of Latin America as essentially a contest between the Castro way and the Betancourt way. Castro, we believed, saw the contest similarly and had therefore made Venezuela his major target.

Jim Blight and Janet Lang, the organizers of the Cuban Missile Crisis Project for the Center for Foreign Policy Development at Brown University, last summer got the Cubans to promise to release declassified documents by November 15, but so far no documents have been forthcoming. Robert McNamara and I both have forebodings and agreed last weekend that, if the conference degenerates into a propaganda barrage by Castro and his team, we will walk out.

Wednesday, January 8. After much waiting, a crowded plane takes off on the forty-minute flight to Havana. I first visited Havana in 1950, for a meeting of the Inter-American Association for Democracy and Freedom, when I met Betancourt and other democratic leaders like José Figueres of Costa Rica, Juan Bosch of the Dominican Republic, Eduardo Frei and Salvador Allende of Chile. I next visited Havana thirty-five years later—in May 1985 and again in October, this time on human rights missions with Robert White, a former ambassador to El Salvador, and a champion of Latin American democracy. We had frank, and not uncordial, sessions with Castro on each occasion.

Human rights are obviously not on the agenda of the impending conference, and the primary purpose of the present trip is to clarify the historical record of the supreme crisis of the nuclear age. However, some of us, especially Wayne Smith, former head of the US Interest Section—the de facto embassy—in Havana, and Robert Pastor, McNamara’s son-in-law and a Latin American expert on Jimmy Carter’s National Security Council, are also concerned to see what we can of the human rights situation.

That situation has recently been growing worse. September and October 1991 saw the arrest of dissidents on such charges as “illegal association,” “clandestine printing,” “contempt of the President.” On November 19, the poet María Elena Cruz Varela was brutally treated by government demonstrators and forced to swallow a moving declaration of principles she had written for the small human rights group Criterio Alternativo. She was subsequently sentenced to two years in prison, and some in the exile community fear that she has been given psychotropic drugs in preparation for a public appearance at a Havana trial. On November 22, Elizardo Sánchez Santacruz, the head of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, was besieged and beaten by a mob in his own house—this was an organized “spontaneous” assault by one of the so-called Rapid Response Brigades in what the regime called an “act of repudiation.” On December 20 Yndamaro Restano, head of the Movimiento Armonía, a social democratic group, was arrested. All these people and their organizations call for political freedom and peaceful reform. All are opposed to violence.

On December 27 Carlos Aldana, the leading ideologue on the Politburo, delivered a vicious attack on the human rights movement. The “imperialist policies promoted by President Carter,” he said, had “granted priority to so-called human rights issues, with all the hypocrisy and cynicism that characterizes this type of accusation.” Human rights activists, Aldana continued, proclaim their apolitical nature; but, though they try to separate themselves from CIA terrorists, they too “are directed by the CIA…they obey instructions and are part of an overall plan.”

The movement of Elizardo Sánchez, Aldana said, is “squalid, counterrevolutionary garbage.” María Elena Cruz “has maintained the most stable, close ties with the CIA center in Miami”; in addition, she has a “personality disturbance” and suffers from “hysterical neurosis.” The human rights agitators have “begun to move from the activities they have traditionally been carrying out in human rights matters—and even though they have insisted that this was all they were about—to direct, clandestine counterrevolutionary activities.” Any Communist receiving counterrevolutionary leaflets would naturally wish “to go to find that person and call him to account for it”—hence the “act of repudiation” against María Cruz, “a brawl,” said Aldana, “in the noblest sense of the word.”

With such wretched events in mind, we ride from the airport into Havana. Returning after half a dozen years, I am struck by the silence of the streets. The oil shortage has left very few private automobiles and not many buses on the road. The motor vehicles are mostly trucks. We pull up at a red light next to one filled with shiny new bicycles imported from China. Castro is engaged in an extensive effort to convert Cuba into a nation of bicycle riders. Cubans, however, appear to be reluctant cyclists. Some are just walking their bikes. We pass many schools; also swimming pools, most of them empty. No portraits of Castro, but occasional revolutionary slogans. Signs point to the Teatro Karl Marx.

We are installed in official guest houses in El Lagito (Little Lake), a pretty estate with rolling green lawns and a placid pond populated by pink water lilies and three brilliant orange flamingos. The Russian group, which includes the sons of Nikita Khrushchev and Anastas Mikoyan, is housed in a neighboring villa. In the afternoon we all—Americans and Russians—drive through the empty streets for a ceremony of welcome around a SS-4 missile standing in a historical park by the sea. Much handshaking and picture-taking.

Thursday, January 9. The “Conferencia Tripartita Sobre La Crisis de Octobre de 1962” opens at 3 PM in the Palace of Conferences.1 Castro arrives promptly, looking extremely fit in well-tailored fatigues. He speaks with his usual magnetic force. No one had reminded him, he disarmingly but unconvincingly says, that the conference was beginning today, so he has not had time to read all the documents. He will therefore defer his major presentation, he says, until he has done his homework. He jokingly recalls the absence of Cubans at earlier meetings: “Just as we were left out of the solution of the crisis, so we have been left out of the historical analysis.” He assures us that he has no animosity toward anyone, adversaries or allies. He finishes in eleven minutes, probably the shortest Castro speech on record.

McNamara’s opening statement masterfully distributes blame for “misinformation, miscalculation, and misjudgment” impartially among all three countries. If he had been a Cuban, he says, he might well have expected an American invasion in 1962; but “I can state unequivocally we had absolutely no intention of invading Cuba.” To avoid future crises, potential adversaries must try to understand how others will interpret their actions. With the cold war now over, he concludes, the US no longer has security concerns about Cuba. He hopes that remaining issues between the two states can be addressed “through normal diplomatic dialogue.”

General Anatoly Gribkov, a grim-faced military man who had been in Cuba during the crisis, provides an authoritative account of Soviet military deployment. In 1962 there were, he tells us, 43,000 Soviet troops in Cuba. (The CIA had estimated 10,000.) “Never before had we transported so many troops over such a distance.” Moreover, the Soviet force had nuclear warheads (the CIA was never sure whether the warheads had actually arrived)—and not only for strategic but for tactical missiles.

This last statement startles, and appalls, the Americans present. The Soviet force, Gribkov continues, had six tactical missile launchers with nine nuclear warheads—and Soviet field commanders had authority to use tactical nuclear weapons against an American invasion, without clearance from Moscow. Incredible. I had earlier believed that we had overestimated the dangers of the crisis—that Khrushchev, well aware of US overall nuclear superiority as well as of US conventional superiority in the Caribbean, would never have risked war. But Soviet forces, we are now told, were ready to fire tactical nuclear missiles at an invading force.2

McNamara later observes that he had rejected Admiral Dennison’s request that the US troops be equipped with tactical nuclear weapons. But had the Soviets used such weapons against an invasion, he adds, the demand for a nuclear response would have been irresistible.

Gribkov says, almost regretfully, “We expected heavy casualties and were prepared if necessary to move to guerrilla war.” The decision to withdraw the missiles was a terrible blow, though, he concedes, “the wisdom of the three leaders prevented a nuclear catastrophe.” He says with feeling that, in his fifty-five years in the Red Army, “his most humiliating experience was the US inspection of the ships bringing the missiles out of Cuba.”

Oleg Troyanovsky then speaks. The son of the first Soviet ambassador to Washington, a former student at Sidwell Friends School and Swarthmore, later ambassador to Japan, China, and the United Nations, he was a special assistant to Khrushchev during the crisis. He was taken aback, he says, when he learned that nuclear missiles were going to Cuba; “I knew it would entail the most serious consequences.” Khrushchev agreed that it was a serious question: “But why can’t we do what the Americans have been doing all along?” In October Khrushchev told Troyanovsky that the missiles were now going in and would likely cause a storm. Troyanovsky said, “I hope we will not founder.” Khrushchev: “Let us hope not.”

Troyanovsky recounts the reaction at the Kremlin when Kennedy announced the discovery of the missiles. Vasily Kuznetsov proposed that Khrushchev respond by bringing further pressure on Berlin. Khrushchev said harshly, “We do not need that kind of advice.” The grimmest day, Troyanovsky recalls, was Saturday October 27, when word arrived that an American U2 had been shot down over Cuba and when a letter from Castro appeared to call for a preemptive nuclear strike against the United States. These developments accelerated the decision to withdraw the missiles.

Aleksandr Alekseev, who had been Soviet ambassador to Cuba in 1962, remembers his shock when Khrushchev told him of the decision to send missiles. “I didn’t know how to react. Finally I said, ‘I don’t think Castro will agree because the Cubans regard solidarity with other Latin American countries as their best protection. If Cuba accepts nuclear missiles, other Latin American countries will turn against Cuba.’ ”

But Khrushchev was convinced that the missiles could be sent out in secret. He told Alekseev that, after the midterm American election in November, “I will travel to Cuba and tell the world about the operation. The Americans will have to swallow our missiles, as we have had to swallow their missiles.”

At this point Castro, who has been listening carefully and occasionally taking notes, calmly interjects: “The Soviets had far more military experience, so we had unlimited confidence in them. When we had an opinion, we offered it, but we thought they knew better than we did. I remember Nikita saying, ‘We have missiles that can hit a fly.’ ”

Fidel now speaks with emotion and with eloquent gestures. When Raúl Castro as minister of defense went to Moscow in July to work out the military agreement, he continues, Fidel told him to ask Khrushchev just one question: “What will happen if the operation is discovered?” “Nothing to worry about,” Khrushchev replied. “If anything happens, we will send over the Baltic fleet as a show of support.”

Castro was not wholly reassured. He had not asked for nuclear missiles and accepted them only because Khrushchev argued that Soviet missiles in Cuba would strengthen the “entire socialist camp.” “What was protecting us,” Castro notes, “was the global might of the Soviet Union—not the rockets stationed in Cuba.” But why not, he then proposed to Khrushchev, go public? “We were not outlaws. We had every sovereign right to accept missiles. We were not violating international law. Why do it secretly—as if we had no right to do it? I warned Nikita that secrecy would give the imperialists the advantage.” Castro smiles and adds with an affable nod to the Americans, “Today I would put it differently. I would say, ‘Give our adversaries the advantage.’ ”

The Americans wonder among themselves what, if Khrushchev had followed Castro’s advice, we would—or could—have done. It would have required elaborate legal reasoning to justify recourse to the Rio Treaty of 1947 and its provisions against extra-continental threats to the Americas.

Friday, January 10. We discuss the grimmest day of the crisis, the shooting down of the U2. General Gribkov says that the order to shoot had not come from Moscow; in fact, Moscow had rejected requests from the commanders in Cuba for authority to fire at the U2s. Nor had the order come from Castro. The Soviet units were under Soviet command; the Cuban units under Cuban command. The U2, the general says, was shot down by a Soviet battery on an order from the Soviet commander in the field.

Castro’s hands, with their long, white, tapering fingers, are in constant motion, pointing, making fists, squares, supplicative praying gestures, as he talks. It is still a mystery, he observes, what led the Soviets to shoot down the U2. His own interpretation is that when the Cubans started firing against low-level American over-flights, the Soviet command decided out of comradely solidarity to go after the U2s.

Nikita later accused us of having shot down the U2. I don’t know whether he thought that we had brought it down directly or that our example had led the Soviets to do it. But he got that idea fixed in his mind and even wrote it in his memoirs….3 Still I was totally in favor of shooting down the plane. I assume full historical responsibility.

(One gets the impression from this recital and from the testimony of Gribkov and Alekseev that, whatever the technical division of command, Castro had acquired psychological command of all the forces in Cuba. He plainly fascinated and apparently dominated both the general and the ambassador.)

Khrushchev, Castro continues, also was confused about “my letter”—the letter he wrote on October 26, which Krushchev read as recommending a preventive nuclear strike. “He really believed this.” Why was Krushchev confused? Because, Castro says, “I dictated the letter at the Soviet Embassy late that night.” The letter was translated into Russian as he dictated. (Alekseev, who helped translate, later said that his knowledge of Spanish was not perfect; his translation may have introduced ambiguities.)

As for the letter itself, Castro says, “I knew Nikita well and was sure he was extremely anxious about the situation. My aim was to encourage him, to strengthen his position from a moral viewpoint. I remembered how Stalin had refused to believe that the Nazis were planning to attack in 1941. I did not want Nikita to make the same mistake. I wanted to be sure that the Soviet forces were ready for anything. I was convinced that an invasion of Cuba would lead on to nuclear war against the Soviet Union. My recommendation for a preventive strike was not in case of an American air attack but in case of invasion and occupation. Actually my letter had no effect. By the time it arrived Khrushchev and Kennedy were already moving toward a solution. Nikita could have sent us copies of his letters to Kennedy. But we were told nothing.”4

Edwin Martin, who in 1962 was assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, then bluntly explains US hemisphere policy, emphasizing the need felt in Washington to offset Cuban “subversion” against other Latin American states. The Cubans show their irritation. General Fabian Escalante, vice minister of the interior and a top man in the secret police, responds by reciting, as he had at Antigua, a litany of the awful things that the CIA had done or contemplated in its notorious Operation Mongoose—the hit-and-run raids, the sabotage teams, the attempts to contaminate the sugar crop and to burn down mills and to spread rumors that Castro was the antichrist and the Second Coming was imminent. McNamara responds, as he did at Antigua, that Mongoose was “reprehensible” and “stupid” but then demands that the Cubans reflect on what might have driven “otherwise intelligent people to be associated with such actions.”

During the luncheon interval we consider what to do if the Cubans won’t go beyond their Antigua fulminations about the sins of the CIA, We discuss walking out—and do so loudly enough for microphones to pick this up. We want the Cubans to understand that they face a choice as to whether or not they wish the conference to succeed.

After lunch Castro joins the argument. He is on the attack, but, as he goes on, he seems somewhat responsive to the aims of the conference. He begins by bridling at the word “subversive”; he prefers “revolutionary…. Of course we wanted revolution. Of course we were prepared to help the revolutionaries. And if we became interventionists in Latin America, it might have been because we had a great teacher: the United States. Which country has violated more international standards: the US or Cuba?” But Cuba, Castro insists, was not exporting revolution; it was supporting revolution, often against governments that were joining in the effort to destroy the Cuban Revolution. “Yes—we admit it. We supported the revolutionary movements, and we believe that a country assailed and harassed as Cuba was had every right to do so.”

(On Saturday I ask him why he attacked democrats like Betancourt. “You call me a ‘subversive,’ ” he says. “Betancourt was a ‘subversive’ too. He also supported revolutionaries—as against Trujillo. Betancourt was a man of the left, but he never sympathized with our movement. Relations were not good between us. For whatever reason, we just didn’t get along. He became an enemy of the Cuban Revolution. Perhaps he was jealous of the great reception I received when I visited Caracas. Nor will I deny that the ideological factor had an influence.” Here he apparently refers to the difference between communism and social democracy. “Moreover, Betancourt had strong opposition on the left. We did not organize that opposition. But we supported it.” He adds, “You can’t imagine the reprimand the Soviet Union sent us because of our aid to the revolutionary movement in Venezuela,” by which he evidently means the weapons and support Cuba gave to the Venezuelan guerillas.)

If you ask me if we still support revolution in Latin America, if that is Cuba’s policy today, I tell you, ‘No’…. Have we changed? Yes, we are more mature, more realistic. We have learned from experience. We have changed. Latin America has changed. The world has changed.” The calm in Latin America today, he says, is deceptive. The relative stability will not last. Deep social problems remain. But, “if those countries become destabilized, we are not going to promote the destabilization. We are not going to take advantage of the objective conditions to promote anything. That is a policy of a different era…. We wanted revolutionary change. We still do. This doesn’t mean that we are going to help anybody do it.”

But then he bursts into an attack on North American “slanders” about violations of human rights, calling them “disgusting lies.” People do not disappear in Cuba, as they did in Argentina or Chile. Police do not fire on students. Is there anywhere in the world where more is done for basic human rights—for health, education, employment? There are no beggars in Cuba, no poverty, no starvation, no racial discrimination, no discrimination against women, no prostitution. “You defend your blockade on the ground of human rights, but you imposed no blockade on Pinochet, on Somoza, on South Korea, on South Africa….”

Concluding that Castro was determined to get such views on the record before the conference went any further, McNamara says his statement that Cuba has abandoned the support of revolution is welcome and we should move on to other matters. The next time Castro speaks he seems in a relaxed mood. Everyone is relieved.

Saturday, January 11. The schedule now calls for Castro to make his major statement. “We must begin,” he says, “by analyzing personalities. Khrushchev and Kennedy were men for whom I have great respect. Khrushchev did many things for our country. Whenever we requested anything, he did his best to meet our request. I had the feeling that I was dealing with a wise, intelligent peasant; very audacious, very courageous.

Kennedy was talented and courageous. He made mistakes, but he also had great successes. He was a man with new ideas, some brilliant, like the Alliance for Progress, a policy with a content, with a social direction. It’s a miracle they didn’t call Kennedy a communist when he proposed the Alliance for Progress.5

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 )

Wayne Smith saw Elizardo Sánchez this morning and told him that I hoped to call on him this evening. At lunch the head of the Cuban delegation told Smith that his visit had been most imprudent; there was great popular indignation against Sánchez, and there might have been trouble. Evidently an “act of repudiation” by the Rapid Response Brigades is scheduled.

After adjournment, the three delegations hold a press conference. Fidel vanishes, but he has invited McNamara and me to meet privately with him afterward. The press conference opens with a long wrangle over the no-invasion guarantee that Kennedy offered shortly after the resolution of the missile crisis. Kennedy’s offer, however, was conditioned on Castro’s acceptance of UN inspection to assure the removal of the missiles. Since Castro rejected UN inspection, the guarantee never went into effect7—or at least not until Henry Kissinger proclaimed a unilateral guarantee in 1970. The Cubans insist that there was a moral if not a legal guarantee from 1963 on. The whole argument is pointless because no American administration has planned to invade Cuba.

McNamara again expresses his hope for normalization of relations. A Cuban responds that Cuba is all for rapprochement; the problem is the lack of “political will” in the United States. This gives me the opening I have been looking for. I am, I said, an advocate of rapprochement. I am against the embargo; I am for the restoration of diplomatic relations. I do not believe that the US government should subject Cuba to more severe human rights tests than those it has applied to other countries—China, for example, or Turkey, or Pinochet’s Chile. I subscribe to the traditional doctrine that diplomatic recognition does not imply moral approval of a country’s internal arrangements.

But speaking practically (I continue), there is strong opposition to normalizing relations. One reason for this is that Cuba does not observe civilized standards with regard to political and intellectual and artistic freedom. (I say “civilized” with some emphasis, expecting the word would sting Castro, who, I was sure, was listening to the press conference somewhere else in the building.) Every time a human rights activist is arrested or harassed, it strengthens the opposition to normalization. It would greatly facilitate the task of those who favor rapprochement if Cuba pursued a more generous and honorable course with regard to human rights.

These words provoke an outburst from Carlos Lechuga, who, as Cuban ambassador to the United Nations in 1963, had worked with William Attwood in exploring rapprochement. Lechuga is a seemingly urbane fellow, and I am surprised by the crudity of his response. “Waste no sympathy,” Lechuga says, “on these so-called poets and engineers and intellectuals. Almost all of them are agents of the CIA. I think the CIA must have a department of literature set up to recruit such people.” And so on.

The press conference ends on this sour note. I supposed that after my remarks Castro might cancel my invitation to the private meeting. But we—McNamara, Bob Pastor, Jim Blight, and I—are ushered into a room where Fidel, flanked by Carlos Aldana, José Antonio Arbesu, chief of the Cuban Interest Section in Washington, and two other Cubans, greets us cordially. He talks about his only meeting with Hemingway when, during the spring of 1960, in his second year as premier, he won a marlin fishing contest and Hemingway presented the prize. “I’m not a good fisherman,” Castro says, “but the captain of my boat knew where the marlin were running and all I had to do was to throw my line in the water.”

I no longer play baseball or basketball,” he goes on, “stationary bicycling is too boring; all I have left is scuba diving.” He then tells about a wonder drug called PPG that has been devised in Cuba’s biotechnology laboratories. According to Castro, PPG lowers cholesterol, lowers blood pressure, relieves circulatory troubles, improves memory, and accounts for his apparently unlimited energy.

About the future of Cuba, he says that Cuba’s oil supply in 1992 will be one third of what it was in 1989. Factories are closing down. Public transportation is impaired. Food is rationed. Oxen are replacing tractors. He emphasizes self-reliance as the means by which Cuba will overcome its troubles. “Everything served at the reception last night,” he tells us, “was homegrown—except for the Chilean wine…. Nothing is free in this world, so we have to depend on our own efforts.” Volunteers from the city are laboring in the fields. Tourism, medical biotechnology, sugar: these will earn foreign exchange.

We have thousands of people working together in cooperation. In a market economy they would be in destructive competition with each other.” Look at the Soviet Union: the government and the Party have lost all authority; they have no capitalists, only speculators; everything is in disarray; the result is chaos; “Russian nihilism has prevailed.” China is doing a far better job in handling its economy.

If we don’t meet our test, then we will blow up”—said with a broad smile. “Our people are very much aware of that.”

At last the conversation turns to human rights. I observe that it is surely essential to distinguish between non-violent and violent dissent. It is a great error to equate human rights activists with terrorists from Alpha 66. Opposition does not equal treason. It is very hard, Castro replies, to sustain such a distinction. The human rights groups are in contradiction with the basic interests of the country. Because they prepare the way for the terrorists, they are in effect partners of the terrorists. We are in a life and death struggle and can take no chances. “Look at the Soviet Union! I predicted that perestroika would lead to disintegration.”

You can’t imagine how tolerant we have been. There is great popular anger toward these dissenters. My people criticize me for excessive tolerance…. After all,” he continues, gesturing toward me, “you have slandered our country. You have said that we aren’t civilized. But we haven’t arrested you!”—again the laugh.

I point out that his hard line exacts severe political costs in Europe as well as in the United States. “We have taken that into account,” he says. “But we must defend our Revolution.” I urge him to help the friends of Cuba abroad by being more tolerant of dissenters at home. He says coldly, “I will take your views under consideration,” cutting off that part of the conversation.

We part amicably after a couple of hours. As we leave, Pastor tells Castro that he and I plan to call on Elizardo Sánchez later in the evening. Castro turns to Carlos Aldana and says, “Will that be all right?” Aldana says after a moment that it will. We take it that if an “act of repudiation” is scheduled, it will be postponed.

At about 9:30 PM Bob Pastor, Wayne Smith, Alexandra Schlesinger, and I arrive at Elizardo Sánchez’s tidy, high-ceilinged house on a quiet (at least this night) street in the suburban La Playa section of Havana. He is not there but is expected shortly. We meet his mother, a strong-looking woman with snow-white hair. His wife and children are living in Miami, where they are subjected to harassment by the right-wing Cubans of the Cuban American National Foundation. A single photograph hangs in the front room: Elizardo Sánchez and Senator Edward Kennedy, signed by Ted.

Soon Sánchez arrives. He is a sturdy, quiet man in his forties, with a round face and closely cropped black hair. He has spent eight and a half of the last ten years in prison. He recalls the night of November 22, 1991, when the mob broke into the house and terrified his mother. This house, he tells us, has been raided by the police more often than any other house in Cuba. He says he admires the Revolution’s achievements in health, education, and housing, but emphasizes that the time has come for political freedom. Castro, he says, is trapped by “the absolute solitude of power.”

Sánchez believes in national reconciliation. He wants a country where many ideas can live side by side, where groups from right to left can have a part in the nation’s political life. He is a modest man and makes no great claims for his own group; but he detects pluralist tendencies among young people and says many small groups like his are scattered around the island. Still, he is pessimistic about the future, citing the failure of the Fourth Party Congress in October to propose serious reforms and recent menacing speeches by Carlos Aldana and Raúl Castro.

We ask what would help the cause of human rights in Cuba. His first answer is, “Visits like this.” He goes on to say that a relaxation of tensions, including a loosening of the embargo, would be of the greatest help. He wrote recently in the Miami Herald, “Increased US pressure on Cuba may impede rather than encourage the kind of reforms that we need.” He is scornful of the “pseudo-democratic, ultraconservative Cuban exiles in the United States who want nothing so much as to intensify the US-Cuban cold war.” They think I am a Communist, he ruefully says, and Castro thinks I am an agent of the CIA.

We depart, troubled by what may lie in wait for this intelligent, reasonable, very brave man.

On the following Thursday, January 16, a Rapid Response Brigade—as many as three hundred people—surrounded, besieged, and battered the house of Elizardo Sánchez. As of this writing he has not been arrested. However, another human rights activist, Sebastian Arcos, was arrested in mid-January and charged with “rebellion.” On February 18, the Miami Herald quoted Sánchez as saying that, while Yndamaro Restano and Sebastian Arcos are “not being treated badly,” María Elena Cruz Varela was serving her sentence “under very adverse conditions. She is being held in a small cell with three other women who are dangerous common criminals. One of them is a child killer, another is in prison for beating her husband, and a third one is mentally deranged…. That cell is hell.” Sánchez also warned against a new wave of mass vigiliantism allegedly directed against thieves and gamblers but “we know that the main motivation is political.”

Earlier, on January 19, Sánchez, Restano, Gustavo Arcos of the Cuban Committee on Civil Rights, Osvaldo Paya of the Christian Liberation Movement, and Lazaro Loretto of the Association for the Defense of Political Rights issued a Declaration of Good Will reaffirming their rejection of violence and “their aspiration to reconciliation among all Cubans.” The declaration emphasized that “isolation and deprivation [i.e., the current US policy] shall not be instrumental in enabling the Cuban People to take, in freedom and peace, the steps they desire and need to overcome the crisis which they are enduring” and called on the United States to initiate talks with the Cuban government and thereby “to contribute to the achievement of a tension-free environment which would allow Cubans to carry out peacefully any changes which the Cuban people themselves may decide upon.”8

On January 14, Granma, the Communist Party newspaper, said that so long as the United States maintains an “aberrant and obstinate policy to destroy the Cuban Revolution…there cannot be the slightest tolerance or flexibility.” Does this imply that a relaxation of the blockade might lead to a relaxation of repression, as Sánchez has suggested? Democratic leaders in Latin America, while pressing Castro to undertake reforms, also call for the end of Cuba’s isolation and its read-mission to the Organization of American States. Carlos Andrés Pérez, the heir of Betancourt in Venezuela, sees no point in continuing the US embargo: “It has been there for thirty years. That says it all.” Caribbean states, including Barbados and Trinidad, also advocate an end to the embargo. In one sense, the embargo can be said to protect Castro’s Revolution. Flooding Cuba with US tourists and US consumer goods would do a great deal more to subvert the revolution than anything ever figured out by the CIA.

Some small changes are quietly taking place—quietly, Gillian Gunn of the Carnegie Endowment surmises, because of “Castro’s reluctance to be perceived as giving in to pressure.” The encouragement of foreign private investment may be of special significance, even though largely confined so far to tourist facilities. Castro himself speaks of “socialism with joint ventures.” Such subversion of socialism by capitalism would seem much in the US interest. Yet, Wayne Smith says, “In case after case, the United States has threatened potential third-country investors with reprisals if they go through with their deals in Cuba.”

Our opportunities for observation were limited, but we did not get the impression of a country on the brink of explosion; and if the melancholy and desperation one found in the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe in the 1980s are present in Cuba, we did not sense it. Perhaps a million Cubans—10 percent of the population—have fled the country. But among those who remain Castro seems to retain much of his old popularity—though without free speech, free press, free elections, how can one tell? The police are ever ready to suppress public protest and dissidence.

Castro’s strength is ultimately rooted not in his doctrinaire socialism but in his passionate nationalism. Social advances are important too. Cubans value their schools, their doctors, their houses. Memories of the disparities between rich and poor under Batista linger, at least among the older generation. Young people—and almost 60 percent of the Cuban population was born after Fidel came to power—resent belt-tightening and censorship and envy the consumer society ninety miles away; they would like freedom of speech and freedom to move in and out of Cuba. But few, I suspect, wish to abandon the social gains of the Revolution.

In particular, few Cubans want to turn their country over to the Cuban American National Foundation, the Miami organization described by Ernesto Betancourt, the Cuban exile who was the first head of Ronald Reagan’s indignantly anti-Castro Radio Martí, as “dominated by former collaborators of the hated Batista dictatorship.” Its self-aggrandizing chairman, Jorge Mas Canosa, who claims the support of the Bush administration, is said to see himself as president of a post-Castro Cuba and has already sponsored a post-Castro constitution. When Mas Canosa recently attacked the Miami Herald as “Nuevo Granma,” the publisher of the Herald received bomb and death threats from right-wing fanatics.

However repressive Castro’s rule is, many Cubans, including dissidents, regard the alternative offered by the Cuban American National Foundation as worse; indeed, dread of the return of the Miami exiles represented by the foundation is a major source of Castro’s continuing strength. The Bush administration’s supposed support of the foundation, Betancourt says, leads dissidents within Cuba to “perceive Mr. Castro’s removal as more threatening to their interests than his staying in power. They fear that the US intends to impose on Cuba the advocates of revenge and restoration of the past…. It is in the US interest to encourage the internal solution”—i.e., to support those inside Cuba who are working for political freedom and democracy.

In fact, the Cuban American National Foundation is not the only alternative to Castro; nor does it represent all Cuban exiles in the United States. Among the other exile organizations, for example, is Cubans for Independence and Democracy (CID), which espouses social democracy and is led by Huber Matos, who was with Castro in the Sierra Maestra; after he showed signs of independence, he spent twenty years under horrible conditions in Castro’s jails. The Democratic Platform Coalition was founded in 1991 by Carlos Alberto Montaner and supports human rights activists inside Cuba. Liberal Cuban exiles recognize that the succession to Castro will have to come from within Cuba, not out of Miami.

A Republican administration haunted by an exaggerated fear of its own right wing is not likely, above all in an election year, to recast its policy toward Cuba. It lies within the US government’s power, though, to stop the paramilitary raids undertaken in violation of the neutrality laws by Cuban exiles trained in the environs of Miami by Alpha 66 and other right-wing outfits. And it lies within Castro’s power to stop the persecution of dissenters, to carry out reforms in the economy, and to move toward political and cultural freedom.

Whether Castro is ready to seek rapprochement is not clear. He remains a puzzle—a tyrant and a bully capable of gloating over one-time comrades he has sent to prison, yet also a leader capable of humor, charm, and limitless energy. The question that lingers is whether this eloquent, witty, and intelligent man, who once seemed the most flexible and resilient of the world’s Communist leaders, will end, along with Kim Il Sung, as the last of the neo-Stalinist dinosaurs.

February 27, 1992

Letters

Castro’s Cuba: An Exchange May 28, 1992

  1. 1

    Quotations are from my own notes taken at the time. A full and authoritative account will be available in James G. Blight, David A. Welch, and Bruce J. Allyn, Cuba On the Brink: Fidel Castro, the Missile Crisis and the Collapse of Communism, forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. This is a sequel to Blight’s earlier work, On the Brink: Americans and Soviets Re-examine the Cuban Missile Crisis, 2nd ed., with David A. Welch (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990), and The Shattered Crystal Ball: Fear and Learning in the Cuban Missile Crisis (Rowman and Littlefield, 1990).

  2. 2

    Gribkov’s account does not square with what General Dmitry Volkogonov, the military historian and biographer of Stalin, told the Moscow conference in 1989. When asked about this, Gribkov merely said that Volkogonov was wrong. Oleg Troyanovsky, however, said that he had never heard this before; and the delegation of authority to use tactical nuclear weapons is unknown in other Soviet theaters. If Gribkov is right—and having been in Cuba at the time and having no reason to dissemble, presumably he is right—then it may be that Khrushchev did not know of, or at least did not appreciate the implications of, the arrangement.

  3. 3

    In fact, Khrushchev knew that a Soviet commander issued the order. The statement in the memoirs is apparently a mistranslation of the original text.

  4. 4

    The text of the letter, as released by the Cuban government in December 1990, bears out Castro’s claim. He wrote, “If…the imperialists invade Cuba with the goal of occupying it, the danger that that aggressive policy poses for humanity is so great that following that event the Soviet Union must never allow the circumstances in which the imperialists could launch the first nuclear strike…. That would be the moment to eliminate such danger forever through an act of clear legitimate defense, however harsh and terrible the solution would be, for there is no other” (emphasis added).

  5. 5

    It is the fashion among revisionist historians to dismiss the Alliance for Progress as public relations or as an instrument of American imperialism. That has never been Castro’s view. He told Jean Daniel in 1963: “It was a good idea, it marked progress of a sort…. The idea in itself constituted an effort to adapt to the extraordinarily rapid course of events in Latin America…. [But] Kennedy’s good ideas aren’t going to yield any results.” Historically, Castro continued, the United States has been committed to the Latin American oligarchy. “Suddenly a President arrives on the scene who tries to support the interests of another class (which has no access to the levers of power)…. The trusts see that their interests are being a little compromised…the Pentagon thinks the strategic bases are in danger; the powerful oligarchies in all the Latin American countries alert their American friends; they sabotage the new policy; and in short, Kennedy has everyone against him.” Jean Daniel, “Unofficial Envoy,” The New Republic, December 14, 1963.

    A dozen years later he said much the same thing to Frank Mankiewicz: “It was a politically wise concept put forth to hold back the time of revolution…. One has to admit that the idea of the Alliance for Progress was an intelligent one; however, an utopian one.” Frank Mankiewicz and Kirby Jones, With Fidel (University of Chicago Press, 1975), pp. 200–202.

  6. 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.

  7. 7

    As I wrote in A Thousand Days in 1965, “Castro’s resistance…made it impossible to establish the UN inspection Khrushchev had proposed, and the United -States therefore never completed the reciprocal pledge not to invade Cuba” (Houghton Mifflin, 1965), p. 833.

  8. 8

    On February 5 Congressman Robert Torricelli of New Jersey introduced a bill entitled “The Cuban Democracy Act of 1992” that would tighten the blockade and penalize third countries contemplating private investment in Cuba. Liberal Cuban exiles promptly asked why Torricelli had “refused to listen to the advice and opinions of leaders of human rights organizations and other dissident groups” inside Cuba and why he was proposing legislation “in conflict with the opinions and convictions of those he claims he wants to help.” Elizardo Sánchez subsequently authorized Ramon Cernuda of the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation in Miami to use the Declaration of Good Will as a basis for opposition to the Torricelli bill.

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