There were in Washington during the Reagan administration a small but significant number of people for whom a commitment to American involvement in Central America did not exist exclusively as an issue, a political marker to be moved sometimes front, sometimes back. These were people for whom a commitment to American involvement in Central America was always front, in fact “the” front, the battleground on which, as Ronald Reagan had put it in his second inaugural address and on many occasions before and after, “human freedom” was “on the march.” These were people who had believed early on and even formulated what was eventually known as the Reagan Doctrine, people committed to the idea that “rollback,” or the reversal of Soviet power which had been part of the rhetoric of the American right since at least the Eisenhower administration, could now be achieved by supporting guerrilla resistance movements around the world; people who believed that, in the words of A New Inter-American Policy for the Eighties, a fifty-three-page policy proposal issued in the summer of 1980 by the Council for Inter-American Security, “containment of the Soviet Union is not enough. Detente is dead. Survival demands a new US foreign policy. America must seize the initiative or perish. For World War III is almost over.”
A New Inter-American Policy for the Eighties, usually referred to, because the discussions from which it derived took place in New Mexico, as the Santa Fe statement or the Santa Fe document, was a curious piece of work, less often talked about in this country than in Managua and Havana, where it was generally regarded, according to Edward Cody in The Washington Post and Christopher Dickey in With the Contras, as a blueprint to Reagan administration intentions in the hemisphere. In fact what seemed most striking about the Santa Fe document was not that it was read in, but that it might have been written in, Managua or Havana. As a document prepared by Americans it seemed not quite authentic, perhaps a piece of “black propaganda,” something put forth clandestinely by a foreign government but purporting to be, in the interests of encouraging anti-American sentiment, American. The grasp on the language was not exactly that of native English speakers. The tone of the preoccupations was not exactly that of the American foreign policy establishment:
During the last several years, United States policy toward the other nations within the Western Hemisphere has been one of hoping for the best. Too often it has been a policy described by The Committee of Santa Fe as “anxious accommodation,” as if we would prevent the political coloration of Latin America to red crimson by an American-prescribed tint of pale pink. Whatever the pedigree of American policy toward our immediate neighbors, it is not working….
The policies of the past decade regarding arms sales and security assistance are totally bankrupt and discredited at home and abroad…. Combining our arsenal of weaponry with the manpower of the Americas, we can create a free hemisphere of the Americas, that can withstand Soviet-Cuban aggression….
US policy formation must insulate itself from propaganda appearing in the general and specialized media which is inspired by forces specifically hostile to the United States….
US foreign policy must begin to counter (not react against) liberation theology as it is utilized in Latin America by the “liberation theology” clergy….
A campaign to capture the Ibero-American intellectual elite through the media of radio, television, books, articles and pamphlets, plus grants, fellowships and prizes must be initiated. For consideration and recognition are what most intellectuals crave, and such a program would attract them. The US effort must reflect the true sentiments of the American people, not the narrow spectrum of New York and Hollywood….
Human rights, which is a culturally and politically relative concept…must be abandoned and replaced by a non-interventionist policy of political and ethical realism. The culturally and ethically relative nature of notions of human rights is clear from the fact that Argentines, Brazilians and Chileans find it repugnant that the United States, which legally sanctions the liquidation of more than 1,000,000 unborn children each year, exhibits moral outrage at the killing of a terrorist who bombs and machine-guns innocent citizens. What, they ask, about the human rights of the victims of left-wing terrorism? US policy-makers must discard the illusion that anyone who picks up a Molotov cocktail in the name of human rights is human-righteous….
Havana must be held to account for its policies of aggression against its sister states in the Americas. Among those steps will be the establishment of a Radio Free Cuba, under open US government sponsorship, which will beam objective information to the Cuban people that, among other things, details the costs of Havana’s unholy alliance with Moscow. If propaganda fails, a war of national liberation against Castro must be launched.
The five authors of A New Inter-American Policy for the Eighties, who called themselves “The Committee of Santa Fe,” were all well known on the right, regulars on the boards and letter-heads of the various conservative lobbies and foundations around Washington. There was Lynn Francis Bouchey of the Council for Inter-American Security. There was David C. Jordan, a professor of government at the University of Virginia and the coauthor of Nationalism in Contemporary Latin America. There was Lieutenant General Gordon Sumner, Jr., at one time chairman of the Inter-American Defense Board and later, during the Reagan administration, special adviser to the assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs. There was Roger Fontaine, formerly the director for Latin America at the Georgetown University Center for Strategic and International Studies and later, during the Reagan administration, a Latin American specialist at the National Security Council. There was, finally, Lewis Tambs, who had worked in Caracas and Maracaibo as a pipeline engineer for Creole Petroleum and was later, during the Reagan administration, appointed as ambassador first to Colombia, then to Costa Rica, where, as he later told both the Tower Commission and the select committees investigating arms shipments to the contras, he understood himself to have been charged with the task of opening a southern front for the Nicaraguan resistance.
According to these men and to that small but significant group of people who thought as they did, the people with whom they shared the boards and letter-heads of the various conservative lobbies and foundations around Washington, the “crisis” facing the United States in Central America was “metaphysical.” The war was “for the minds of mankind.” What the Santa Fe document had called “ideo-politics” would “prevail.” These were not people, as time passed and men like James Baker and Michael Deaver and David Gergen moved into the White House, who were particularly close to the center of power. They were all, in varying degrees, ideologues, people who had seized or been seized by an idea, and, as such, they were to the White House—where the distinction between a crisis and no crisis was increasingly understood to be one of what David Gergen had called “setting the scene” or “the story line we are trying to develop that week or that month”—only sometimes useful.
Where they were useful, of course, was in voicing the concerns not only of the American right but in some inchoate way of the President himself: with the Santa Fe document they had even managed, in the rather astonishing context of a foreign policy proposal, to drill through their own discussion of the Roldós Doctrine and the Rio Treaty and into that molten core where “New York” was the problem, and “Hollywood,” and women who liquidated their unborn children, the very magma of resentment on which Ronald Reagan’s appeal had seemed always to float. Where these conservative spokesmen were less useful, where they were in fact profoundly not useful, was in recognizing when the moment had come to move the war for the minds of mankind out of the story line; in accepting a place in the wings when the stage was set for a different scene. They tended to lack an appreciation of the full script. They tended not to wait backstage without constant diversion, and it was precisely the contriving of such diversion that seemed to most fully engage, as time went by, the attention and energy of the Reagan White House.
Sometimes a diversion was referred to as “sending a signal.” The White House Outreach Working Group on Central America, or, as it was sometimes called, “Operation Outreach,” was a “signal,” one of several efforts conceived during 1982 and 1983 when the White House decided that the time was right for, as David Gergen put it in a conversation we had in 1984 about the administration’s Central American policy, “laying the groundwork,” for “building some public support for what we might have to do”; for, in the words of an April 1982 National Security Planning Group document, addressing the “public affairs dimension of the Central American problem” through a “concerted public information effort.” There was at first talk about something called “Project Truth.” “Project Truth” melted almost immediately into the “Office of Public Diplomacy” that was set up in 1982, put under the direction of a former Miami city official named Otto Juan Reich (who was born in Havana in 1945 but whose parents had emigrated there from Australia), and charged with a task that appeared in practice to consist largely of disseminating classified and sometimes “unevaluated” information (“unevaluated” information was that which had not been and in some cases could not be corroborated) tending to support administration contentions about Nicaragua and El Salvador.
The Office of Public Diplomacy, although at the time of its inception controlled by the White House and the National Security Council, was technically under the aegis of the State Department. At the White House itself there was the “Office of Public Liaison” (the word “public,” in this administration even more than in others, tended to suggest a sell in progress), and it was out of this “Office of Public Liaison,” then under the direction of Faith Ryan Whittlesey, that the White House Outreach Working Group on Central America emerged. The idea was, on its face, straightforward enough: a series of regular briefings, open to the public, at which the administration could “tell its story” about Central America, “make the case” for its interests there. “We hadn’t in a systematic way communicated the facts to people who were perfectly willing to do more themselves to support the President but just didn’t have access to the information,” Faith Ryan Whittlesey told the Los Angeles Times not long after the Outreach Working Group began meeting, every Wednesday afternoon at two-thirty, in Room 450 of the Old Executive Office Building. “All the people need is information. They know what to do with it.”
The briefings themselves were somewhat less straightforward. For one thing they were not, or the first forty-five of them were not, open to the public at all: they were not open, most specifically, to reporters, the very people who might have been expected to carry the information to a larger number of Americans than were apt to arrange their Wednesday afternoons to include a two-hour session in Room 450 of the Old Executive Office Building. Even after the Outreach briefings had finally been opened to the press, in April of 1984, the White House Office of Public Liaison seemed notably uninterested in talking to reporters: I recall one week in Washington during which, from Monday through Friday, I placed repeated calls to Faith Ryan Whittlesey’s office, each time giving my affiliation (I had been asked by a magazine to write a piece about the Reagan administration, and given a kind of introduction to the White House by the magazine’s Washington editor), detailing my interest in discussing the Outreach program, and expressing my hope that either Mrs. Whittlesey or someone else in the White House Office of Public Liaison could find a moment to return my call.
Neither Mrs. Whittlesey nor anyone else in the White House Office of Public Liaison did find such a moment, not any day that week or ever, which did not at the time unduly surprise me: it had been my experience that people who worked for the government in Washington tended to regard anyone who did not work for the government in Washington as a supplicant, a citizen to whom the rightful order must constantly be made clear, and that one of the several ways of asserting this rightful order was by not returning telephone calls. In other words I thought of these unreturned calls to Faith Ryan Whittlesey as unspecific, evidence only of an attitude that came with the territory.
Not until later, after I had managed to attend a few Outreach meetings, febrile afternoons in 1984 and 1985 during which the United States was seen to be waging the war for the minds of mankind not only against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the FMLN in El Salvador and the Castro government in Cuba and the Machel government in Mozambique but also against its own Congress, against its own State Department, against some members (James Baker, Michael Deaver) of its own executive branch, and, most pointedly, against its own press, did it occur to me that this particular series of unreturned telephone calls may well have been specific; that there was in the White House Outreach Working Group on Central America an inherent peculiarity perhaps best left, from the White House point of view, undiscussed.
This peculiarity was at first hard to assimilate. It did not exactly derive from the actual briefings, most of which seemed, however casually inflammatory, however apt to veer vertiginously out of Central America and into Mozambique and Angola and denunciations of Chester Crocker on the African desk at the State Department, standard enough. There was Francis X. Gannon, adviser to the secretary general of the Organization of American States, on “Central America: A Democratic Perspective.” (“Somebody at OAS said about the Kissinger Commission, ‘what should we send them?’ And I said, ‘send them a map.’ “) There was General Alexander M. Haig, Jr., on “The Imperatives of Central America in Perspective” (“My opinion of what is happening in Central America is this: the jury is still out”), a raconteur’s version of American foreign policy during which General Haig referred to one of its principals with doubtful bonhomie (“So Henry had one of those Germanic tantrums of his”), to another by a doubtful diminutive (“I again will not make any apologies for recounting the fact that I was opposed to covert action in 1981, as Jeannie Kirkpatrick will tell you”), and to himself in the third person, as “Al Haig,” or just “Haig.”
Some briefings got a little closer to the peculiarity. I recall one particularly heady Outreach meeting, in 1985, at which one of the speakers was a fantast named Jack Wheeler, who liked to say that Izvestia had described him as an “ideological gangster” (“When the Soviet Union calls me that, it means I’m starting to get under their skin”) but was identified on the afternoon’s program simply as “Philosopher, Traveler, and Founder of the Freedom Research Foundation.” As it happened I had heard Jack Wheeler before, at a Conservative Political Action Conference session on “Rolling Back the Soviet Empire,” where he had received a standing ovation after suggesting that copies of the Koran be smuggled into the Soviet Union to “stimulate an Islamic revival” and the subsequent “death of a thousand cuts,” and I was already familiar not only with many of his exploits but with his weird and rather punitive enthusiasm.
Jack Wheeler had recently been with the mujaheddin in Afghanistan. He had recently been with Jonas Savimbi in Angola. He had recently been with the insurgents in Cambodia, and Mozambique. He knew of a clandestine radio operating in South Yemen. He saw the first stirrings of democratic liberation in Suriname. He had of course recently been with the contras in Nicaragua, and had, that afternoon in Room 450 of the Old Executive Office Building, brought a few slides to share.
“This is Charley.” Jack Wheeler had chuckled as the first slide appeared on the screen. “Charley is a contra. He only looks like he’s going to kill you. Actually he’s a very nice guy. I told him he looked like Chuck Berry.” The slide had changed, and there on the screen was Jack Wheeler himself, his arm around Enrique Bermúdez, the FDN comandante who had been until 1979 a colonel in the Somoza National Guard: “Enrique Bermúdez is convinced—he told me—that only the physical defeat of the Sandinistas will remove the cancer of Soviet-Cuban imperialism and Marxism from Central America.” Another slide, this one of a full-breasted young woman carrying a rifle, another chuckle: “One thing that has got to be dispelled is this myth of hopelessness. The myth that they can’t win, so why support them…. I wouldn’t mind having her fighting alongside of me.”
On such afternoons the enemy was manifold, and often within. The “Red Empire” was of course the enemy. “Christian communists” were also the enemy. “Guilt-ridden masochistic liberals” were the enemy, and “the radical chic crowd that always roots for the other side,” the “Beverly Hills liberals with their virulent hatred of America.” I recall a briefing on the 1984 Salvadoran election in which “people like Tom Brokaw” were the enemy, people like Richard Meislin of The New York Times and Sam Dillon of the Miami Herald, people whose “sneer was showing,” people who “did not need to be in El Salvador to write what they did”; people who were “treated well” (“although the bar at the Camino Real was closed for the day, they got back to it that night”) but persisted in following what the briefer of the day, a frequent speaker named Daniel James, who had been in the 1950s managing editor of the New Leader and whose distantly polemical interest in Latin America had led him to the directorship of the Americas Coalition, one of several amorphous groups formed to support the administration’s Central American policy, referred to as “the media party line.”
“I’m saying ‘party line’ in quotes,” Daniel James had added quickly. “Because I don’t mean to imply that there’s any kind of political party involved.” This kind of parenthetical disclaimer was not uncommon in Room 450, where irony, or “saying in quotes,” was often signaled by raising two fingers on each hand and wiggling them. “Party line” was in quotes, yet there were for Daniel James “just too many similarities” in stories filed from El Salvador. The American press, it seemed, had been “making up deeds of right-wing terror” in El Salvador. The American press, it seemed, had been refusing to “put tough questions to the guerrillas” in El Salvador. “What does that tell you?” Daniel James had asked that afternoon in 1984. “Is this responsible reporting? Or is it done with some kind of political motivation?”
The answer to such questions was, in Room 450, understood, since the meetings of the White House Outreach Working Group on Central America were attended almost exclusively by what might have seemed the already converted, by the convinced, by administration officials and by exiles from the countries in question and by native ideologues from both the heart and the distant fringes of the American right; true believers who in many cases not only attended the briefings but on occasion gave them. I recall seeing Sam Dickens of the American Security Council, which had cosponsored the press conference and lunch at which Roberto d’Aubuisson spoke during his illegal 1980 visit to Washington and which was already deeply committed to aiding the Nicaraguan contras. I recall seeing Lynn Francis Bouchey, one of the authors of the Santa Fe document and the chairman of the Council for Inter-American Security, which was equally committed. “Hear, hear,” Lynn Francis Bouchey said when Jack Wheeler asked him if the situation in Mozambique did not remind him of the situation in Nicaragua.
This was not a group that would have appeared to need much instruction in administration policy in Central America. This was not a group apt to raise those questions about Central America commonly raised in less special venues. In fact there was for many people in Room 450 just one question about Central America, which was why the United States was compelled to deal through surrogates there when it could be fighting its own war for the minds of mankind, and it was this question that the briefers addressed by tapping into the familiar refrain: the United States was forced to deal through surrogates because of the defeatists, because of the appeasers, because of the cowards and the useful fools and the traitors, because of what Jack Wheeler had called “that virulent hatred for America as a culture and as a nation and as a society” which was understood, by virtually everyone in the room, to infect the Congress, to infect the State Department, and above all to infect the media, which were, as Otto Juan Reich had said not long after he was appointed Coordinator of Public Diplomacy, “being played like a violin by the Sandinistas.”
There were some tricky points in this, although none that the briefers did not negotiate to the apparent satisfaction of most people in the room. The United States was forced to wage the war for the minds of mankind (or, as J. William Middendorf, US ambassador to the OAS, was calling it, “the battle for the freedom of the Western world”) through surrogates, but in any case these surrogates could, if allowed to do so, win: “The only thing keeping the contras from victory is Congress,” as Alexander M. Haig, Jr., had advised the group in Room 450. The war for the minds of mankind was being fought through surrogates only because the United States was thwarted in its wish to enter the war directly, but in any case the entry of the United States could not affect the outcome: “What is needed to shatter the myth of the inevitability of Marxist-Leninism is a genuine peasant rebellion from within a Soviet colony,” as Jack Wheeler had advised the group in Room 450. “These heroic freedom fighters ask only for our help, they do not want us to fight for them.”
An arresting amount of administration effort went into what might have seemed this marginal project. The weekly planning meetings for the Outreach program were attended not only by Faith Ryan Whittlesey and her aides at the Office of Public Liaison but also by representatives from the United States Information Agency, from the Central Intelligence Agency, from the State Department, and from the National Security Council. The National Security Council was often represented by the protean Colonel Oliver North (Colonel North was responsible as well for overseeing Otto Juan Reich’s Office of Public Diplomacy at the State Department), who was, according to a Washington Post story in August of 1985, a “mainstay” of the Outreach project, not only in the planning meetings but also as a “briefer of choice” in Room 450 itself.
Some of the peculiarity inherent in the Outreach project seemed clear enough at the time. It was of course clear that the program had been designed principally, if not entirely, as a weekly audience between the administration and its most passionate, most potentially schismatic communicants; a bone thrown to those famously restless troops on the far frontiers of the faith. It was also clear that many people in Room 450 on these Wednesday afternoons had links to, or could be useful to, the private funding network then being quite publicly organized, in support of the Reagan Doctrine and the war for the minds of mankind, under the official direction of General John K. Singlaub and what was known even then to be the unofficial direction of some of the very administration officials who gave the briefings in Room 450.
Other things were less clear than they might have been. One thing that was less clear, in those high years of the Reagan administration when we had not yet begun to see just how the markers were being moved, was how many questions there might later be about what had been the ends and what the means, what the problem and what the solution; about what, among people who measured the consequences of what they said and did exclusively in terms of approval ratings affected and network news calibrated and pieces of legislation passed or not passed, had come first, the war for the minds of mankind or the private funding network or the need to make a move for those troops on the far frontiers. What was also less clear then, particularly in Washington, most abstract of cities, entirely absorbed by the messages it was sending itself, narcotized by its own action, rapt in the contemplation of its own markers and its own moves, was just how much residue was already on the board.
Steven Carr for example was residue. Jesus Garcia for example was residue. Steven Carr was, at twenty-six, a South Florida low-life, a sometime Naples construction worker with the motto DEATH BEFORE DISHONOR and a flaming skull tattooed on his left biceps; a discharge from the navy for alcohol abuse; and a grand-theft conviction for stealing two gold-and-diamond rings, valued at $578, given to his mother by his stepfather. “She only wore them on holidays, I thought she’d never notice they were gone,” Steven Carr later said about the matter of his mother’s rings. He did not speak Spanish. He had no interest in any side of the conflict in Nicaragua. Nonetheless, in March of 1985, according to the story he began telling after he had been arrested in Costa Rica on weapons charges and was awaiting trial at La Reforma prison in San José, Steven Carr had collected arms for the contras at various locations around Dade County, loaded them onto a chartered Convair 440 at Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport, accompanied this shipment to Ilopango airport in San Salvador, and witnessed the eventual delivery of the arms to a unit of 2506 Brigade veterans fighting with the contras from a base about three miles south of the Nicaraguan border.
This story later became familiar, but its significance at the time Steven Carr first told it, in the summer of 1985, to Juan Tamayo of the Miami Herald, was that he was the first person to publicly claim firsthand knowledge of all stages of a single shipment. By the summer of 1986, after Steven Carr had bonded out of La Reforma and was back in South Florida (the details of how he got there were disputed, but either did or did not involve American embassy officials in Panama and San José who either did or did not give him a plane ticket and instructions to “get the hell out of Dodge”), doing six months in the Collier County jail for violation of probation on the outstanding matter of his mother’s rings, he was of course telling it as well to investigators from various congressional committees and from the US Attorney’s office in Miami. This was the point, in August 1986, at which his lawyers asked that he be released early and placed, on the grounds that the story he was telling endangered his life, in a witness protection program. “I’m not too popular with a lot of people because I’m telling the truth,” Steven Carr told the Miami Herald a few days before this petition was heard and denied. “I wouldn’t feel very safe just walking the streets after all this is over.”
Steven Carr was released from the Collier County jail, having served his full sentence, on November 20, 1986. Twenty-three days later, at two-thirty on the morning of December 13, 1986, Steven Carr collapsed outside the room he was renting in Panorama City, California (a room which, according to the woman from whom he had rented it, Jackie Scott, he rarely left, and in which he slept with the doors locked and the lights on), convulsed, and died, of an apparent cocaine overdose. “I’m sorry,” Steven Carr had said when Jackie Scott, whose daughter had heard “a commotion” and woken her, found him lying in the driveway. Jackie Scott told the Los Angeles Times that she had not seen Steven Carr drinking or taking drugs that evening, nor could she shed any light on what he had said next: “I paranoided out—I ate it all.”
Jesus Garcia was a former Dade County corrections officer who was, at the time he began telling his story early in 1986, doing time in Miami for illegal possession of a MAC-10 with silencer. Jesus Garcia, who had been born in the United States of Cuban parents and thought of himself as a patriot, talked about having collected arms for the contras during the spring of 1985, and also about the plan, which he said had been discussed in the cocktail lounge of the Howard Johnson’s near the Miami airport in February of 1985, to assassinate the new American ambassador to Costa Rica, blow up the embassy there, and blame it on the Sandinistas. The idea, Jesus Garcia said, had been to give the United States the opportunity it needed to invade Nicaragua, and also to collect on a million-dollar contract the Colombian cocaine cartel was said to have out on the new American ambassador to Costa Rica, who had recently been the American ambassador to Colombia and had frequently spoken of what he called “narco-guerrillas.”
There were in the story told by Jesus Garcia and in the story told by Steven Carr certain details that appeared to coincide. Both Jesus Garcia and Steven Carr mentioned the Howard Johnson’s near the Miami airport, which happened also to be the Howard Johnson’s with the seventeen-dollar-a-night “guerrilla discount.” Both Jesus Garcia and Steven Carr mentioned meetings in Miami with an American named Bruce Jones, who was said to own a farm on the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Both Jesus Garcia and Steven Carr mentioned Thomas Posey, the Alabama produce wholesaler who had founded the paramilitary group CMA, or Civilian Materiel Assistance, formerly Civilian Military Assistance. Both Jesus Garcia and Steven Carr mentioned Robert Owen, the young Stanford graduate who had gone to Washington to work on the staff of Senator Dan Quayle, had then moved over to Gray and Company, had in January of 1985 founded the nonprofit Institute for Democracy, Education, and Assistance, or IDEA (which was by the fall of 1985 on a consultancy contract to the State Department’s Nicaraguan Humanitarian Assistance Office), and had been, it was later revealed, carrying cash to and from Central America for Oliver North.
This was, as described, a small world, and one in which encounters seemed at once random and fated, as in the waking dream that was Miami itself. People in this world spoke of having “tripped into an organization.” People saw “freedom fighters” on Nightline, and then in Miami. People saw boxes in motel rooms, and concluded that the boxes contained C-4. People received telephone calls from strangers, and picked them up at the airport at three AM, and began looking for a private plane to fly to Central America. Some people just turned up out of the nowhere: Jesus Garcia happened to meet Thomas Posey because he was working the afternoon shift at the Dade County jail on the day Thomas Posey was booked for trying to take a .380 automatic pistol through an X-ray machine on Concourse G at the Miami airport. Some people turned up not exactly out of the nowhere but all over the map: Jesus Garcia said that he had seen Robert Owen in Miami, more specifically, as an assistant US attorney in Miami put it, “at that Howard Johnson’s when they were planning that stuff,” by which the assistant US attorney meant weapons flights. Steven Carr said that he had seen Robert Owen in Costa Rica, witnessing a weapons delivery at the base near the Nicaraguan border. (Robert Owen, when he eventually appeared before the select committees, acknowledged he had been present when such a delivery was made, but said that he did not see the actual unloading, and that his presence on the scene was, as the Miami Herald put it, “merely coincidental.”)
There were no particularly novel elements in either the story told by Jesus Garcia or the story told by Steven Carr. They were Miami stories, fragments of the underwater narrative, and as such they were of a genre familiar in this country since at least the Bay of Pigs. Such stories had often been, like these, intrinsically impossible to corroborate. Such stories had often been of doubtful provenance, had been either leaked by prosecutors unable to make a case or elicited, like these, in jailhouse interviews, a circumstance that has traditionally tended, like a DEATH BEFORE DISHONOR tattoo, to work against the credibility of the teller. Any single Miami story, moreover, was hard to follow, and typically required a more extensive recall of other Miami stories than most people outside Miami could offer. Characters would frequently reappear. A convicted bomber named Hector Cornillot, a one-time member of Orlando Bosch’s Cuban Power movement, turned out for example to have been during the spring of 1985 the night bookkeeper at the Howard Johnson’s near the Miami airport. Motivation, often opaque in a first or a second appearance, might come clear only in a third, or a tenth.
Miami stories were low, and lurid, and so radically reliant on the inductive leap that they tended to attract advocates of an ideological or a paranoid bent, which was another reason they remained, for many people, easy to dismiss. Stories like these had been told to the Warren Commission in 1964, but many people had preferred to discuss what was then called the climate of violence, and the healing process. Stories like these had been told during the Watergate investigations in 1974, but the President had resigned, enabling the healing process, it was again said, to begin. Stories like these had been told to the Church committee in 1975 and 1976, and to the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1977 and 1978, but many people had preferred to concentrate instead on the constitutional questions raised, not on Johnny Roselli in an oil drum in Biscayne Bay or on the hypodermic syringe containing Black Leaf 40 with which the CIA was trying in November of 1963 to get Fidel Castro assassinated, but on the separation of powers, and the proper role of congressional oversight. “The search for conspiracy,” Anthony Lewis had written in The New York Times in September of 1975, “only increases the elements of morbidity and paranoia and fantasy in this country. It romanticizes crimes that are terrible because of their lack of purpose. It obscures our necessary understanding, all of us, that in this life there is often tragedy without reason.”
This was not at the time an uncommon note, nor was it later. Particularly in Washington, where the logical consequences of any administration’s imperial yearnings were thought to be voided when the voting levers were next pulled, the study of the underwater narrative, these stories about what people in Miami may or may not have done on the basis of what people in Washington had or had not said, was believed to serve no useful purpose. That the assassination of John F. Kennedy might or might not have been the specific consequence of his administration’s own incursions into the tropic of morbidity and paranoia and fantasy (as early as 1964, two staff attorneys for the Warren Commission, W. David Slawson and William Coleman, had prepared a memorandum urging the commission to investigate the possibility that Lee Harvey Oswald had been acting for, or had been set up by, anti-Castro Cuban exiles) did not recommend, in this view, a closer study of the tropic.
That there might or might not be, in the wreckage of the Reagan administration, certain consequences to that administration’s similar incursions recommended only, in this view, that it was again time to focus on the mechanical model, time to talk about runaway agencies, arrogance in the executive branch, about constitutional crises and the nature of the presidency, about faults in the structure, flaws in the process; time to talk, above all, about 1988, when the levers would again be pulled and the consequences voided and any lingering morbidity dispelled by the enthusiasms, the energies, of the new team. “Dick Goodwin was handling Latin America and a dozen other problems,” Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., once told us about the early months of the Kennedy administration, as suggestive a sentence as has perhaps been written about this tabula rasa effect in Washington life.
In the late summer of 1985, some months after the Outreach meeting in Room 450 of the Old Executive Office Building in Washington at which I had heard Jack Wheeler talk about the necessity for supporting freedom fighters around the world, I happened to receive a letter (“Dear Fellow American”) from Major General John K. Singlaub, an invitation to the International Freedom Fighters Dinner to be held that September in the Crystal Ballroom of the Registry Hotel in Dallas. This letter was dated August 7, 1985, a date on which Steven Carr was already sitting in La Reforma prison in San José and on which Jesus Garcia was one day short of receiving a call from a twenty-nine-year-old stranger who identified himself as Allen Saum, who said that he was a major in the US Marines and had been sent by the White House, who enlisted Jesus Garcia in a mission he described as “George Bush’s baby,” and who then telephoned the Miami office of the FBI and told them where they could pick up Jesus Garcia and his MAC-10. “He looked typical Ivy League, I thought he must be CIA,” Jesus Garcia later said about “Allen Saum,” who did not show up for Jesus Garcia’s trial but did appear at a pretrial hearing, where he said that he took orders from a man he knew only as “Sam.”
The letter from General Singlaub urged that any recipient unable to attend the Dallas dinner (five hundred dollars a plate) plan in any case to have his or her name listed on the International Freedom Fighters Commemorative Program (fifty dollars a copy), which General Singlaub would, in turn, “personally present to President Reagan.” Even the smallest donation, General Singlaub stressed, would go far toward keeping “freedom’s light burning.” The mujaheddin in Afghanistan, for example, who would be among the freedom fighters to benefit from the Dallas dinner (along with those in Angola, Laos, South Vietnam, Cambodia, Mozambique, Ethiopia, and of course Nicaragua), had not long before destroyed “approximately twenty-five percent of the Afghan government’s Soviet supplied air force” (or, according to General Singlaub, twenty MIGs, worth one-hundred million dollars) with just “a few hundred dollars spent on plastic explosives.”
I recall experiencing, as I read this sentence about the mujaheddin and the few hundred dollars spent on plastic explosives, the exact sense of expanding, or contracting, possibility that I had recently experienced during flights to Miami. Many apparently disparate elements seemed to be converging in the letter from General Singlaub, and the convergence was not one which discouraged that “search for conspiracy” deplored by Anthony Lewis a decade before. The narrative in which a few hundred dollars spent on plastic explosives could reverse history, which appeared to be the scenario on which General Singlaub and many of the people I had seen in Room 450 were operating, was the same narrative in which meetings at private houses in Miami Beach had been seen to overturn governments. This was that narrative in which the actions of individuals had been seen to affect events directly, in which revolutions and counterrevolutions had been framed in the private sector; that narrative in which the state security apparatus existed to be enlisted by one or another private player.
This was also the narrative in which words had tended to have consequences, and stories endings. NICARAGUA HOY, CUBA MAÑANA. When Jesus Garcia talked about meeting in the cocktail lounge of the Howard Johnson’s near the Miami airport to discuss a plan to assassinate the American ambassador to Costa Rica, bomb the American embassy there, and blame it on the Sandinistas, the American ambassador he was talking about was Lewis Tambs, one of the authors of the Santa Fe document, the fifty-three pages that had articulated for many people in Washington the reasons for the exact American involvement in the politics of the Caribbean which this plan discussed in the cocktail lounge of the Howard Johnson’s near the Miami airport was meant to ensure. Let me tell you about Cuban terrorists, the Havanaborn Miami architect Raúl Rodríguez had said in the spring of 1985 in an Arquitectonica condominium overlooking Biscayne Bay. Cuba never grew plastique. Cuba grew tobacco, Cuba grew sugar cane. Cuba never grew C-4.
The air that evening in Miami had been warm and soft even at midnight, and the glass doors had been open onto the terrace overlooking the bay. The daughter of the fifteenth president of the Republic of Cuba, Maria Elena Prío Duran, whose father’s grave at Woodlawn Park Cemetery in Miami lay within sight of the private crypt to which the body of another exiled president, Anastasio Somoza Debayle of Nicaragua, was flown forty-eight hours after his assassination in Asunción (no name on this crypt, no dates, no epitaph, only the monogram “A.S.” worked among the lilies on a stained-glass window, as if the occupant had negotiated himself out of history), had lit her cigarette and immediately put it out. When Raúl Rodríguez said that evening that C-4 grew here, he was talking about what it had cost to forget that decisions made in Washington had effects outside Washington; about the reverberative effect of certain ideas, and about their consequences. This dinner in Miami took place on March 26, 1985. The meetings in Miami described by Jesus Garcia had already taken place. The flights out of Miami described by Jesus Garcia and Steven Carr had already taken place. “As a matter of fact I was very definitely involved in the decisions about support to the freedom fighters,” the fortieth president of the United States said more than two years later, on May 15, 1987. “My idea to begin with.”
This is the last in a series of articles on Miami.
July 16, 1987