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Fidel Castro's dictatorship in Cuba, contended Senator J. William Fulbright to President John F. Kennedy in March 1961, is a "thorn in the flesh, but it is not a dagger in the heart." Yet through U.S. actions, which helped put Castro in control in Havana, then ensured that he would be strong enough to hold that power, U.S. Presidents -- including, most recently, Bill Clinton -- have had to deal with the communist dictator of Cuba, who became much more than an irritation.

Early Revolutionary Days

Born in 1928 to a sugar cane contractor, Fidel Castro demonstrated an early affection for power, studying Hitler's Mein Kampf and spending hours mimicking before tape recorder and mirror the Italian Fascist Benito Mussolini. While some of his apologists have argued that Castro was somehow forced into communism (even after he boldly declared himself a Marxist/Leninist),his early history exposes him as a gangster and revolutionary. In 1947, for example, Castro participated in an invasion of the Dominican Republic. In 1948, when the meeting in Colombia of the Ninth International Conference of American States was attended by a large contingent of communist students, including Fidel, there were thousands killed in the Bogotazo riots. The bloody frenzy was touched off by the assassination of Liberal Party leader Jorge Eliecer Gaitan. Shortly before Gaitan's killing, Castro was seen in the presence of the assassin (who was himself killed); the communists were prepared to take advantage of the violence.

Subsequently, U.S. Ambassador to Peru and Brazil William Pawley testified before Congress that he had heard a voice on the radio saying (hyperbolically, it turned out): "This is Fidel Castro from Cuba. This is a Communist revolution. The president has been killed; all the military establishments in Colombia are now in our hands; the navy has capitulated, and this revolution has been a success." The police and even the president of Colombia uncovered Castro's role -- identifying him and another Red as "first-grade agents of the Third Front of the USSR in South America."

On July 26, 1953, Castro led an abortive coup attempt against Cuba's president, Fulgencio Batista. Although Castro and his brother Raul, a known communist, were sentenced to 15 and 13 years respectively, Batista amnestied them after 22 months. The Castro's left Cuba for Mexico, where they hooked up with Argentine communist Ernesto "Che" Guevara and others to prepare for an invasion of Cuba. The resulting 82-man "invasion" in December 1956 was a dismal failure, and Fidel and a small band of survivors took to the Sierra Maestra.

Enter Herbert Matthews

The American media, in particular Herbert Matthews of the New York Times, built up the myth of Fidel Castro -- the supposed agrarian reformer. John Kennedy compared the Cuban revolution to the American one, and called Fidel "part of the legacy of Bolivar." JFK also bought the fable of U.S. exploitation of a downtrodden Cuba.

Matthews, who had earlier backed the communist side in the Spanish Civil War, also exaggerated such things as the alleged poor health care of Cubans and even a lack of shoes. Yet even Kennedy house historian Arthur Schlesinger admitted that pre-Castro Cuba ranked near the top in Latin America in "education, literacy, social services and urbanization." Cuba's communist revolution did not start from the "bottom up." Che Guevara, in the World Marxist Review, acknowledged as much: "The armed struggle was initiated by the petty bourgeoisie."

In a series of articles starting in February 1957, Matthews blasted Batista and fawned on Fidel, "the rebel leader of Cuba's youth," who was a "flaming symbol." General Batista, assured Matthews, "cannot possibly hope to suppress the Castro revolt." Fidel Castro's program, came the word from the Times, "amounts to a new deal for Cuba, radical, democratic, and therefore anti-Communist."

Matthews' coverage of Castro in the New York Times was reprinted by Castro supporters and distributed in Cuba, leading to a series of public-relations successes. As a Castro publicist put it: "Both Matthews and the New York Times could be considered practically in our pockets, so it was better to keep them in reserve for the future." A succession of media puffs were run by NBC, CBS, and Life. At the time that Batista supposedly could not resist Castro, Castro and his men had been involved in but two minor actions -- one in which they butchered sleeping guards, according to Guevara. Little wonder, as Guevara later admitted when the revolution was over, "The presence of a foreign journalist, American for preference, was more important for us than a military victory."

Others in the media also helped in the same vein as Matthews, including Jean-Paul Sartre and C. Wright Mills. When a triumphant Fidel visited New York, in a stage-managed performance akin to the "guerrilla theater" in the Sierra Maestra, Norman Mailer proclaimed that "it was as if the ghost of Cortez had appeared in our century riding Zapata's white horse." Castro, wrote Mailer, was "the first and greatest hero to appear in the world since the Second War."

Help at State

Obviously it took more than press clippings to communize Cuba -- it also took the U.S. State Department. When Ambassador Earl E.T. Smith was posted to Havana, he was told outright that (as later recounted before a Senate subcommittee by another ambassador, Robert Hill) he had been "assigned to Cuba to preside over the downfall of Batista. The decision has been made that Batista has to go. You must be very careful."

In charge of the project, as Smith found out, were Roy Rubottom, Assistant Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs, and William Wieland, director of the Office of Caribbean and Mexican Affairs. Both, as it happens, had been in Colombia at the time of the Bogotazo riots and knew about Castro's actions but had not reported about it at that time, nor did they deign to mention that most pertinent matter to Ambassador Smith when he went to Cuba in July 1957. As late as 1961, Wieland and Rubottom were officially peddling the line that Fidel was not a communist, though they knew otherwise, as was later determined in security hearings. Friends of Wieland, for example, testified that he had told them in 1957 and 1958 that he knew that Castro was a communist. There can be no doubt that Rubottom and Wieland were covering for Castro.

Smith, a brave man who risked the wrath of all those pushing the Red line -- in Havana and in Washington -- later recalled in The Fourth Floor:

I now know that those in charge of Cuban affairs in the State Department were advised from many other sources of the Communist infiltration of the 26th of July Movement and the Communist sympathizers who held important positions in the Movement, especially among the troops led by Raul Castro.

From the time Castro landed in the Province of Oriente in December 1956, the State Department received reports of probable Communist infiltration and exploitation of the 26th of July Movement. The State Department was aware of Castro's contacts with Communists in Mexico. Certain officials in the State Department were familiar with Castro's part in the bloody Communist-inspired uprising in Bogota, known as the "Bogotazo" of 1948. In addition to my reports and information from many outside sources, the State Department also had reports from its own Bureau of Research and Intelligence.

All of which led Smith to testify before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee that the U.S. "Government and the United States press played a major role in bringing Castro to power." The turning point in ousting Batista, and opening the way to Castro, many agree, was the announcement in March 1958 that the U.S. was cutting off arms sales to the Batista government, a move engineered by Wieland and Rubottom, among others. Prior to that, Fidel (who never had more than 3,000 fighters) had not amassed more than 300 men. In cutting off support to Batista, the supposedly pro-Batista Eisenhower Administration signed the death warrant for resistance to communism in Cuba. Castro, in the meantime, was clandestinely supplied with arms from the United States while officials looked the other way.

Former Ambassador William Pawley, the organizer of the Flying Tigers in China, repeatedly tried to warn President Eisenhower as well as Wieland and Rubottom of Fidel's communist allegiance. To no avail. Pawley later wrote: "I believe that the deliberate overthrow of Batista by Wieland and Matthews, assisted by Rubottom, is almost as great a tragedy as the surrendering of China to the Communists by a similar group of Department of State officials fifteen or sixteen years ago and we will not see the end in cost of American lives and American resources for these tragic errors."

To imply that these were merely errors is, we believe, to be charitable. When Pawley was asked in 1961 by the general counsel of a Senate subcommittee about Wieland (who served as the ambassador's press attaché in Brazil) and about the possibility of Wieland's being a communist himself, Pawley demurred. Was Wieland serving "the cause of our enemies" intentionally? Answered Pawley: "I have got to say that he is either one of the most stupid men living or that he is doing it intentionally."

Embassy Assistance to Reds

Except largely for the ambassadors (Smith, and before him Arthur Gardner), the U.S. embassy in Havana was as pro-Castro as the State Department. New York Times correspondent Ruby Hart Phillips, who was presented with an orchid by Castro as he rolled into Havana, wrote that at the time of the revolution, "one man laughingly asked me if I knew of the 'Castro cell' in the U.S. Embassy. It was no secret that several of the officials there favored the overthrow of Batista and the assumption of power by Castro." The U.S. consul in Santiago was also sympathetic to Castro.

The public affairs officer of the U.S. embassy in Cuba helped to arrange press interviews with Castro in the mountains; he went so far as to hide an underground Castroite (a Matthews confidante and later minister in Castro's cabinet) in his house. The embassy even harbored an American pilot who was illegally supplying arms to Castro but whose plane had crashed on its 20th mission. A "Student Directorate" assassination attempt on Batista was known beforehand by the embassy, which did nothing.

His True Color

While the State Department and the leftist U.S. media whitewashed Castro, even after he took over officially on January 1, 1959, and the bloodthirsty cry of Paredon! (to the Wall!) preceded hundreds of executions, not all had been blind. Robert Welch, founder of the John Birch Society, for instance, presciently wrote in the September 1958 American Opinion that Castro's whole past was evidence that "he is a Communist agent carrying out Communist orders...."

Confiscations of U.S. property took place; schools were turned into propaganda factories; civil liberties were suspended; free elections were dismissed; and alliances with Moscow were made. On October 13, 1960 nearly 400 locally owned firms -- sugar mills, banks, large industries -- were socialized. After that came the socialization of all commercial real estate. There was a takeover of the courts. The rival anti-Batista forces agreed to lay down their arms, sealing their fate. Revolutionary "justice" and purges began, as the non-Reds in Castro's movement learned they had been duped.

The horrendous suffering and torture in Castro's prisons has been painfully described by Armando Valladares, a 22-year veteran of such ordeals who was freed by Western pressure. In Against All Hope, Valladares writes movingly of condemned Cuban patriots crying, "Long Live Christ the King! Down with Communism!" -- until guards were unnerved and gags had to be applied before the firing squads took over.

In comparison, the words of Herbert Matthews, not that long before, are as dust: "Castro has strong ideas of liberty, democracy, social justice, the need to restore the constitution, to hold elections."

How about the alleged anti-communism'? Well, as Castro explained in Le Figaro magazine in June 1986, back in 1959 the U.S. wanted "us to make a strategic and tactical error and proclaim a doctrine as a communist movement. In fact, I was a communist .... I think that a good Marxist-Leninist would not have proclaimed a socialist revolution in the conditions that existed in Cuba in 1959. I think I was a good Marxist-Leninist in not doing that, and when we did not make known our underlying beliefs."

Belated Anti-Castroism

In the summer of 1960, Cuba was flooded with Soviet arms. In response to the growing threat to the U.S., a plan was formulated by the Central Intelligence Agency during the Eisenhower Administration to oust Castro. Though JFK knew about this before the election (as, of course, did Vice President Nixon), Kennedy tried to make political hay of anti-Castro feeling in the presidential debates -- backing any exile effort against Castro. Nixon felt compelled to keep mum on the plans being considered. In short, JFK didn't inherit an out-of-control policy when he came into the White House.

The President-elect was also briefed during the interregnum about the idea (akin to a 1954 CIA effort in Guatemala) to get rid of Castro. The effort against Castro was not to be a military operation, however. And, as we know now, it was not going to get rid of Castro either. It is not far-fetched to think that the liberals in the new Administration, drawn into the notion begrudgingly (and some of whom favored "Castroism without Castro"), deliberately sabotaged the operation known now as the "Bay of Pigs" fiasco. Whether the effort might have worked may be debated, but that it couldn't work the way it was carried out seems indisputable -- with some 1,400 Cubans abandoned on the beaches to murderous fire from aircraft and tanks.

By the time the anti-Castro move came, the plans had been revised drastically at JFK's orders. The President, however, seemed to have little idea of the dangers of an amphibious landing, especially at night. While the original plan did not involve direct U.S. forces, the CIA and military, it seems clear, expected that if need be U.S. forces would be available to prevent a failure. And, indeed, the Cubans were led to believe that they would have air cover and whatever other support was needed to succeed.

However, Kennedy seemed obsessed with keeping the official forces of the U.S. out of action. A larger plan, centered on the city of Trinidad, was the initial proposal presented. But this site (which had a fallback plan for guerrilla activity from the Escambray mountains) was scrubbed at the last minute for one that would make "less noise" at the Zapata swamp area near Bahia de Cohinos -- the Bay of Pigs, which happened to be one of Fidel's favorite fishing spots.

The Kennedy Administration, it has since been learned, was deeply involved (before and after the Bay of Pigs) in assassination plans against Castro; some involved a mobster who shared a mistress with JFK. LBJ, who said Kennedy was running "a damn Murder Incorporated in the Caribbean," later surmised that Kennedy "was trying to get Castro, but Castro got to him first."

Be that as it may, the Cuban patriots never got the backing they were promised. This despite the King of Camelot's noble promise to "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty."

Brigade 2506

Named for the serial number of a Cuban who died in training, Brigade 2506 was supposed to land intact on Cuba's southern coast and establish a beachhead. Operation Pluto, as Mario Lazo pointed out in Reader's Digest in 1964 and a subsequent book, was essentially an air operation that demanded that Castro's air force be first knocked out on the ground. That is exactly what didn't happen.

The planning for the operation was hardly a secret. There were early accounts of training in Guatemala (the brigade later transferred to Nicaragua before embarking) in the New York Times, La Hora out of Guatemala City, and in subsequent reports in The Nation and elsewhere. Shortly before the invasion, the New York Times (among others) had much of the pertinent information, editing its front-page account of the coming assault slightly when the White House found out about it. Press secretary Pierre Salinger, who said that Castro knew everything eight days before the invasion but the time and place, called it "the least covert military operation in history."

Two weeks before the Bay of Pigs, Nikita Khrushchev told Walter Lippman about the pending attack, saying it would fail. Secrecy was almost nonexistent. Even as the force was nearing its target, the New York Times actually called Revolución in Havana to see if they had any word on details yet; that publication alerted Fidel.

Two top agents running the operation wanted to quit due to all the debilitating changes, as Peter Wyden points out in The Bay of Pigs. They were convinced to stay, but when action began, matters got worse. The President, who had equivocated before, began to hedge even more -- even as the operation was underway. As the political risk was lessened (in his mind, ostensibly), the military risks grew.

The promised air "umbrella," it turned out, wasn't there for the Cuban exiles. There were supposed to be three air strikes, but after the first (largely ineffective) one caused a ruckus at the United Nations, the President cancelled the second one outright -- without even telling top military commanders. Chief of Naval Operations Arleigh Burke didn't find out until ten hours after that vital strike cancellation. Potential cover from the carrier Essex was vetoed. Only a moderate one and one-half strikes were permitted; of the 48 sorties that had been scheduled to knock out Castro's planes, only eight were allowed. Just a handful of Castro's planes were knocked out, with appalling results. Militarily, the operation was a fiasco, with ammunition and communications being early casualties. Then the bloodbath on the beaches began.

Betrayal and Beyond

Even so, CNO Burke thought the situation could have been retrieved by using a barrage from but one destroyer, but that too was refused by JFK, who said he didn't want the U.S. to become involved. "We are involved, sir," Burke reportedly argued. "We trained and armed these Cubans. We helped land them on the beaches. G**d***it, Mr. President, we can't let those boys be slaughtered there!"

But they were deserted. Cuban calls for help became more pitiful to those Americans who were handcuffed. A typical one from the beach commander: "Do not see any friendly air cover as you promised. Need jet support immediately. Pepe." Plea denied. The final message from the beach commander of the Free Cubans, sent to the U.S. vessels standing offshore of the Bay of Pigs: "I am destroying all my equipment. I have nothing left to fight with. The enemy tanks are already in my position. Farewell, friends!"

Arthur Schlesinger noted the irony that the President was then willing to take more risks to take the Cubans off the beach than to put them on. Some 114 in the invading force were killed; 1,189 were captured; of the 150 or so others, a few were rescued and some never landed. Though the anti-communist underground had not even been alerted, Castro rounded up perhaps 300,000 Cuban suspects and declared that his was a socialist revolution after all. It gave Castro, reported Paul Johnson, "the opportunity to wage a terror-campaign against the opposition."

The eventual ransom of the Cuban exiles was humiliating and complicated. At first, Castro's asking price was some $28 million in tractors. After show trials started, arrangements were finally made to get Brigade 2506 returned, at a cost of around $53 million in medical supplies and baby food, with the donating pharmaceutical companies given tax breaks by Robert Kennedy.

When the men of Brigade 2506 were released, after a year and a half, President Kennedy was handed the flag of the brigade in a dramatic Miami ceremony. He vowed, "I can assure you that this flag will be returned to this brigade in a free Havana." In 1976, however, lawyers for the brigade were forced to hire a lawyer to get the flag back from the U.S. government; it had been crated up in the Kennedy Library in Massachusetts.

Some six months after the Orange Bowl event celebrating the release of the Cuban fighters, the President met with Herbert Matthews, as Matthews recounted in Revolution in Cuba. "Fidel Castro ought to be grateful to us," remarked Kennedy. "He gave us a kick in the a** and it made him stronger than ever." That is why some believe it was the perfect failure.


William P. Hoar

American Opinion Publishing Incorporated


Cuba, España y los Estados Unidos | Organización Auténtica | Política Exterior de la O/A | Temas Auténticos | Líderes Auténticos | Figuras del Autenticismo | Símbolos de la Patria | Nuestros Próceres | Martirologio |

Presidio Político de Cuba Comunista | Costumbres Comunistas | Temática Cubana | Brigada 2506 | La Iglesia | Cuba y el Terrorismo | Cuba - Inteligencia y Espionaje | Cuba y Venezuela | Clandestinidad | United States Politics | Honduras vs. Marxismo | Bibliografía | Puentes Electrónicos |

Organización Auténtica