Fidel Castro had taken over the government of Cuba on January 1, 1959. By the time Batista fled Havana, he had lost the support of most of the Cuban people as the result of the progressive tyranny and terror he imposed in a frustrated and futile effort to suppress the July 26 movement. I was very familiar with this as I had made trips to Cuba in 1956, 1957, and 1958 in an effort to help the government establish an effective organization to fight Communism and had watched the progressive deterioration of Batista's strength.
I decided to personally direct an inspection of activities in Latin America and mapped out a six-week trip that started in Havana and ended in Mexico City and included every country on the continent. When I went over the itinerary with the then Director Allen Dulles, he noted the stop in Havana and said he thought this would be a good opportunity to cash in on a promise that President Fulgencio Batista of Cuba had made to his brother, the Secretary of State. Batista had told Foster Dulles that he would organize an effective agency to cope with Communist activities in Cuba. In June of 1956 little had been done except to funnel some money into an organization that existed only on paper. It appeared that most of the money never reached the proper destination.
Mr. Dulles said he would get a letter from his brother to President Batista, and we discussed specific suggestions that could be made to improve the Cuban organization that went under the name of BRAC--Buro Para Represion de las Actividades Comunistas. The BRAC was far down the government hierarchy in Cuba, and was headed by a colonel who probably had trouble getting to see the President (a former army sergeant). Mr. Dulles suggested that we try to persuade Batista to put the organization directly under some member of the cabinet and that we also suggest a higher rank for its chief. He told me to consult the Latin American division and go prepared with some specific suggestions.
Cuba captivated me from the start. The richness of the tropical growth, the beauty of Havana, and the charm and gaiety of the people made me feel immediately that here was a country where I would like to come often and stay long.
I stayed at the Hotel Nacional on the Malecon overlooking the harbor, and while its gaming tables and the preponderance of Americans made it much like a transplanted Las Vegas, it did nothing to lessen the enchantment of the city.
"Our man in Havana" greeted me at the airport with some disquieting news. It seemed that Ambassador Arthur Gardner, a wealthy Michigan manufacturer by background, had issued orders that no one in the embassy was to have any contact with those elements in the Cuban political spectrum who opposed Batista. This made good sense from the ambassador's point of view. He was accredited to the Cuban government. United States policy at the time was to give full support to the Batista government, and this included military assistance. Fidel Castro had landed with a few men in the Sierra Maestra and was attracting considerable interest and some support throughout Cuba. The government was concerned by anybody who talked to Castro sympathizers and felt that any dealings with the American embassy by Castro sympathizers would provide support and encouragement to Batista's opposition. Ambassador Gardner wanted to keep relations with the government as smooth as possible, and the easiest way was to prohibit any such contacts.
This attitude made no sense whatsoever from an intelligence viewpoint and consequently it put the CIA chief in a difficult and delicate quandary. The ambassador was chief of the mission in every respect and his orders controlled all personnel in the embassy. If his orders were ignored it was direct insubordination, and if the ambassador felt strongly enough about it and caused enough trouble in Washington, he could probably succeed in having the offender removed. If, on the other hand, our man obeyed the order, then the United States would be deprived of important and necessary information about political opinions that were to form an increasingly important part of the Cuban picture. I volunteered to intercede.
As was to become my habit over the ensuing years, my first official business was to call on the ambassador. I was taken in and introduced and then left alone with him. This gave me an opportunity to explain why I was there, including the role and responsibilities of the inspector general, and to solicit his cooperation and assistance. It was also to assure him that the Agency considered it important that its personnel work well with him and the embassy, and to get his reactions to the organization's performance.
I found Mr. Gardner to be a direct, hardy man who extended me a cordial welcome. After we had concluded the amenities and I had explained the purpose of my visit, I raised the question of contacts with the opposition. I pointed out to him that the whole purpose of the Central Intelligence Agency was to gather information that could not be obtained through official channels or open contacts, and that if his injunction applied to Agency personnel, then the embassy and the State Department would be hearing only what the Batista government wanted them to hear. It was possible that the United States could lose touch with the real situation on the island. I noted that contact with the opposition meant listening and eliciting information and did not mean providing support, which indeed was not being provided. It was quite true, of course, that mere contact could be construed as a form of support and that undoubtedly some members of the July 26 movement would talk about their friends or acquaintances in the United States government, undoubtedly implying considerably more influence or impact than actually existed. It was also true that you could not legislate conduct and that it was possible some intelligence officers would not always maintain a completely neutral attitude and might indicate personal sympathy or approval, but I pointed out to the ambassador that these were men well trained in not implying United States approval and were tightly disciplined. I assured Mr. Gardner that the greatest care and discretion would be used and every effort would be made to avoid embarrassing him or the mission. The ambassador was receptive, if not happy, and fortunately that settled the issue.
With that out of the way, I then told the ambassador about the plan to enlist President Batista's support in improving the BRAC and gave him the Secretary of State's letter to read. He immediately gave his enthusiastic support and had a call put in to the Presidential Palace to secure an appointment. The proposal was to suggest to the President that he have BRAC report directly to Santiago Rey, his minister de la gobernacion, a respected and able lawyer. It also urged that the organization be put under the command of Major General [Martin] Diaz Tamayo, a tough but correct army officer. These also received Ambassador Gardner's immediate endorsement.
The visit to the Presidential Palace was one that would not be easy to forget. Just three months before some students had attempted a raid on the palace in an effort to assassinate President Batista. They had succeeded in reaching the second floor on their way to the private quarters on the third floor before they had been stopped by the guards, and consequently extensive new security precautions had been instituted. The ambassador's limousine, flying the American flag from its front fender, was more than a block from the palace when we were stopped at a barbed-wire barricade by a soldier with a tommy gun slung casually across his arm. We were stopped twice more before we finally reached the palace.
Ambassador Gardner had very kindly made arrangements for us to enter the palace by the rear door, which had only a few steps and was much easier for a wheel chair than the formal front entrance which had twenty or thirty steps.
The car swung into the driveway at the back of the palace where I was pleased to see only one step, but noted at least a squad of soldiers around the door. Their presence was explained by the fact that this was the door used by the student rebels, who had arrived hidden in a panel truck for their attack.
We were met by the chief of protocol, immaculately clad in a white suit that I looked at jealously--white suits not being very compatible with getting around in a wheel chair. He took us up in the elevator to the second floor and to a large, handsome room near the President's office. I was a little curious as to why we were to wait here, being reasonably certain there must be a smaller, more intimate waiting room. It all became clear after the interview, when we were ushered out through the formal entrance and through about a dozen plain-clothesmen who had obviously taken over the smaller room as the best place to guard the President.
After a few minutes the door to the President's office opened and the previous visitor was ushered out. Ambassador Gardner went over to exchange greetings with him, explaining to me later that it had been Julio Lobo, the Cuban "sugar king," who had been conferring with President Batista on the state of the sugar crop, on which the Cuban economy depended almost exclusively.
Minister Santiago Rey then escorted us into the President's office. I was interested in seeing Batista, as I had read about him for years and had been refreshing my memory with some research. I was particularly interested in observing how this ex-army sergeant who had twice seized power would conduct himself. He had now been President for four years, having staged a coup in 1952 when it appeared that he would fare no better than third in the legitimate election.
Batista came to the door to greet us and to shake hands. His English was very good, undoubtedly considerably helped by his exile in Florida. He too was in spotless white and looked cool, calm, and collected. He sent for coffee and offered us Cuban cigars. He and Ambassador Gardner then started to talk about the portrait of Jose Marti, which hung on the wall, and how it could be better lighted. I remembered that Marti had been one of the leaders of the movement in Cuba for independence from Spain and that like Fidel Castro he had also landed in Oriente Province at the eastern end of the island and tried to build up a guerrilla force. I wondered whether Batista was thinking of this similarity as they were talking. Or maybe he was remembering that Marti had been killed before Cuba was free.
As soon as we were settled with the coffee and cigars, Ambassador Gardner informed President Batista that I carried a letter to him from Secretary of State Dulles. He expressed pleasure, and when I handed it to him, he read it with interest. We then exchanged the rather stilted expressions that always seem to accompany the presentation of a new proposal by one government to another. Batista said that the Cuban government would welcome anything that the United States could do to help in suppressing Communism. I replied that the United States was willing to do anything it could to help, and noted that there was considerable knowledge available on Communist techniques and tactics that we would be glad to impart, and that we would be glad to assist in training and providing guidance to the BRAC. There was a strong feeling in Washington that a more aggressive effort was needed and I was there to see that we did everything to help that we could. He replied that he was delighted I had come to Cuba and brought this message and that he would designate Minister Rey to work with me on it. I told him that I would work with Minister Rey, and that before I left we would present him with specific proposals in writing for strengthening the BRAC. This concluded our meeting and we went out through the Secret Service.
The next several days were spent in developing the proposals for the Buro Para Represion de las Actividades Comunistas. These were simple and fundamental. It should be placed under the minister de la gobernación. It should be headed by a general officer, and sufficient funds should reach it so it could do an effective job. It should be able to pay adequate salaries so that it could hire able personnel, preferably lawyers or trained investigators. We suggested that its personnel be primarily civilian rather than military on the assumption that this would develop a higher quality organization which would not be subject to the disruptive factor of military tours of duty and the constant rotation of personnel. Great stress was also placed on the systematic development of adequate files that are essential to any investigative or intelligence organization. Finally, we puzzled at some length as to how we could diplomatically make the point that this organization should concentrate on the Communists and not be used as a weapon against all opposition to the government as were the SIM (the military intelligence service) and the Buro de Investigaciones. We decided that the best approach was to emphasize the highly specialized nature of anti-Communist work and then do our best through constant monitoring to keep it on that effort. And we debated over including some injunction against the use of violence, which was so characteristic of the SIM, but decided that the moment was not propitious and that we were being sufficiently critical as it was.
With the suggestions for improving the BRAC completed, we had a luncheon meeting with Santiago Rey and gave him our suggestions. He was cordial and receptive and urged that I go with him to present them to President Batista. My schedule called for an early departure the next day, and besides it was important that the Cubans take the initiative, so I declined his invitation. As we were leaving the restaurant, his driver's coat gapped open as he leaned over to open the car door and the sun glistened on the gun in his shoulder holster. "Oh, he isn't taking any chances," my friend said. "Somebody took a shot at him, too, last week."
The next morning I headed south for Caracas.
Upon my return to Washington five weeks later, a fairly detailed report from Havana indicated that Batista appeared to be following to a letter all of the suggestions that had been made. It was true that the recruitment of personnel was progressing slowly, but Santiago Rey had personally gone to work in this area to help get some able young lawyers, and that was encouraging. I took steps to insure that we lived up to our commitments to assist and made plans to visit Cuba again early the following year.
When I returned to Havana in April 1957 there had indeed been some progress. The BRAC now had its own building, which was both good and bad. It was good because it was a mark of prestige, something that should not be underestimated in any government. It was bad because it created a symbol for the Communists to attack with propaganda, and of course was a tempting target for penetration.
A thorough tour of the premises was of course obligatory. This was followed by a briefing that lasted most of the day and consisted of more brass than briefcases. As an inspector general I found this disconcerting because it meant we were getting the official version, but it was their organization and since we wanted to keep it so, there was not much we could do about it. If we had really wanted to dig deep, the only satisfactory method would have been a series of small meetings with the branch chiefs. As a former briefing officer I also found disconcerting the frequent interruptions by the brass who kept correcting the briefers.
When we returned to our quarters we compared notes and the liaison officer who worked full-time with the BRAC gave us his candid impressions. Yes, there had been progress, but it was painfully slow. In fact, one could even say dangerously slow. Major General Diaz Tamayo had been made the chief of the organization, but had been left there only a few months and then had been transferred to Santiago to head the military district in Oriente, where the situation with Castro's rebels was becoming increasingly serious. And there was evidence that BRAC might be too enthusiastic in some of its interrogations. We thought a lot more should be done in the recruitment and training of investigators and surveillance personnel, and there was a desperate need for the consolidation of the files of all of the investigative agencies, of which there were too many.
We had just completed our review when we received a call from Ambassador Gardner's office saying that the Presidential Palace had called and we were expected there at that moment to report on our findings.
This time there were four of us in the ambassador's Cadillac, the fourth being a husky Marine in civilian clothes who was Mr. Gardner's bodyguard. It seemed that the ambassador had been threatened. The guard never left us all afternoon and even sat through the meeting with President Batista. I found my whimsical mind wondering whether he too might be a sergeant, and thus felt a close affinity to the President of Cuba.
The ceremonies were quite similar to the previous year, but there were more guards. Hardly a day passed in Havana at that time that there wasn't some bombing or shooting, as the opposition to Batista increased.
There hadn't been time to make arrangements to enter the palace by the back door, so we recruited some of the army guards to help us go up the numerous front steps of the palace. As the wheel chair was being rolled up, step by step, I found myself piously praying that the guards had their tommy guns on safety as they bounced crazily about their shoulders.
After the coffee and cigars President Batista startled us by suggesting a group picture as a souvenir of the occasion. Over the years I had grown allergic to cameras in the hands of others, but did not know whether one should insult a chief of state by refusing to have a picture taken with him. I looked hopefully at Ambassador Gardner, hoping he would have a ready and diplomatic out at his fingertips, but he was already agreeing. I turned desperately to "our man in Havana," but he was quietly disappearing into the drapery. So I was had. After the cameraman had snapped his quota I laughingly noted that this was something unusual for me and that I hoped these were only for our personal files to commemorate a memorable and hopefully profitable occasion. Oh, yes, I was assured, that was all. As soon as we were alone afterward I clamped a firm grip on my colleague's arm and told him to get those pictures. He shook his head sadly and started his telephone calls. The next day the picture was in eleven Havana dailies describing the call as official and identifying me by name, title, and organization. Thus I found myself being used to bolster a shaky and increasingly unpopular regime.
The business meeting with President Batista went off well. It should have. He desperately needed all the help he could get from the United States. We discussed briefly the military situation in Oriente Province, and I tried to find out why the Cuban army was ineffective against the rebels. Then the conversation turned to Abraham Lincoln, one of Batista's favorite reading subjects. It was quite apparent that he would have liked to have been Cuba's Lincoln.
My third and last trip was in September 1958. There was still a strong desire to strengthen the BRAC and make its work against the Communists more effective. We also wanted to see whether we could not do something about the increasing number of Soviet freighters and sugar ships that were visiting Cuban ports. To this end I took along an expert who not only was bilingual in Russian, but also had spent considerable time during World War II in the Navy helping to train the crews of the Soviet merchant marine. We thought there was the possibility that he could encounter some of his former trainees in Cuba and be able to establish some profitable contacts.
We occupied the last two seats available on the plane to Havana, and as I got a glimpse of my fellow passengers I realized why. It should have been called "the gamblers' special," as our fellow passengers were straight out of Damon Runyon. All the men were wearing loud sport shirts and a few had flashy sport coats, most, however, being coatless. They were all either chomping cigars or chewing gum, and before the plane had even started to take off, they were badgering the purser and stewardess to start serving the frozen daiquiris that were standard refreshment on the fifty-five-minute flight. The women were wearing sun dresses that were more appropriate for the beach, but would obviously be acceptable at the gaming tables. Everybody was talking at once, and they all obviously had friends at the other end of the plane. I asked the steward what the system was and he told us that it was the same on this flight every night. They all flew to Havana to gamble and party all night, and would then take the first plane back to Miami in the morning.
The airport in Havana showed few signs of the increasingly tense political situation in the country. There might have been a few more soldiers around than usual--it was hard to tell. The check of passports by Immigration and of the baggage by Customs seemed about the same as before. And the quickly produced complimentary frozen daiquiris were still there.
But we started to learn about the change in the situation on the drive in from the airport, and then listened for several hours through drinks and dinner after we arrived at the apartment. It was a story of the progressive deterioration of the strength of the Batista government and an increase in strength of the opposition crystallizing around the July 26 movement of Fidel Castro. It was now a vicious and deadly cycle. As the terrorism of the opposition increased, the brutality of the police and military intelligence people became more horrible. I was told that the Bohemia, then one of the most popular picture-news weeklies in Cuba and widely circulated in Latin America, had been trying secretly to keep a tally of those tortured to death or executed by the police, and now estimated that as many as ten a week were killed in Havana alone.
I was skeptical, as my friends had known I would be. They had brought pictures to prove it. These photographs had been taken by a doctor of a woman who had come to him for treatment. She was a schoolteacher and had been arrested with one of her male students on suspicion of plotting against the government. They were taken by the police to a prison where they had been tortured. She had been severely beaten and he had been pounded into unconsciousness. They had been released because the teacher's sister fortunately had friends in high enough positions in the government to open the prison doors. The doctor who treated the woman said he had never seen a human body more mistreated. He had taken the pictures, with her permission, because there were still some who did not believe or realize what was going on. The horrible wounds on the woman's body were convincing, as were the reports of case after case of the sons of prominent Cuban families who had joined either the students' organization or the July 26 movement and had been arrested and killed.
It was this type of atrocity that was costing Batista the last of his support among the people of Cuba. Originally the Castro movement had attracted only the rabble fringe, the extreme left, and those elements of students who were always revolutionary. It was known that there were some Communists with him in the Sierra Maestra Mountains. Vilma Espin, who had been known as a Communist when she attended graduate school in the United States, was there; she was later to marry Raoul Castro. Che Guevara, a known Argentine revolutionary, was there. And it was known that Fidel himself had participated in the Bogotazo, the riots in the capital of Colombia in 1948 that had disrupted the inter-American conference. It was hard to determine how many of Castro's hard-core guerrillas were Communists, or how powerful were the Communists in the July 26 movement. Castro had been known as a revolutionary since his student days at the University of Havana and had achieved notoriety for his unsuccessful attack on the Army barracks at Moncada on July 26, 1953, the date for which his movement was named. But we were not sure whether he was an avowed Communist.
By the fall of 1958 it was estimated that 80 percent of the people had turned against the Batista regime, and while probably nowhere near that percentage supported the July 26 movement, it was rapidly gaining greater support throughout Cuba. Only the army stood between Batista and disaster.
I asked how the army was doing in its operations against the guerrillas and was told that it was not fighting. Only rarely did it venture from its barracks and obviously was very reluctant to move into the hills to seek out the rebels. It was the usual pattern of a rising rebel force: ambushes of army columns, hit and run attacks, assassinations, and sabotage.
Castro's strength in the Sierra Maestra was steadily increasing. Raul Castro was now commanding another force in the Escambray Mountains in Central Cuba, and Che Guevara reportedly had a third column in the west in Las Villas Province. They were able to live off the land as they treated the campesinos well and got their support--intelligence as well as food--and then were able to ambush government trucks, cut communications and supply routes, and move around themselves with relative impunity.
I inquired as to the progress of BRAC and was given the discouraging report that it had gone the way of the other Cuban intelligence agencies. It was now concentrating almost exclusively on the Castro organization and using violence in its interrogations, despite our constant protests. The only encouraging note was that its fourth chief was a respected former police officer who had served in the United States and who would do the right thing if so ordered.
Then came more disquieting news. There was a serious split in the United States embassy. With the change of administrations, Ambassador Gardner had been replaced by Earl E. T. Smith, a former stockbroker who was doing his best to maintain cordial relations with the Batista government but was beset with many problems, some in Washington and some in Havana. The major problem came over what the true situation in Cuba actually was. We had known in Washington of some of the problems, but not of the severity of the split.
Ambassador Smith had started his duty in Havana with what must obviously have been a disturbing and traumatic experience. His staff had urged him soon after his arrival to get out of Havana in order to get a better feel of the situation. The staff suggested a visit to Santiago as a good place to start--it being near Castro's hide-away in the Sierra Maestra Mountains, close to the United States Naval Base at Guantanamo, and increasingly the scene of political unrest. Smith agreed to go to Santiago. While there he was approached by a group of women clad in black protesting the government's repressive measures. The women had been rather roughly hustled away by the police, and Ambassador Smith, with the full backing and encouragement of his staff, had promptly denounced the police action. The government in Havana reacted promptly and denounced Ambassador Smith's actions as interfering in the internal affairs of Cuba, and let the word seep through unofficially that he might be declared persona non grata. Earl Smith, faced with what might be an early and ignominious end to his first diplomatic mission, had to beat a retreat, although the odds were overwhelming that Batista would never have gone so far as to throw out the American ambassador. After all, he had few other friends left at that point.
If the only desired effect of the Cuban government action had been to knock the ambassador in line, it succeeded. And it also succeeded in creating a schism in the embassy. Smith undoubtedly felt that his staff had misled him in encouraging him to denounce the police action in Santiago, even though his instinctive reaction was to do just that. (He was never again to trust his staff in Havana and later wrote a very bitter book about his experiences in Cuba, entitled The Fourth Floor.)
It was well after midnight when our friends finished briefing us, and I turned off the radio that we had been playing rather loudly to frustrate any listening devices which friend or foe may have planted in the apartment to hear what was being said. We had of course gone over it rather carefully when we arrived to see if there were any discoverable microphones, but were well aware that the sophistication of such devices had reached the point where we really could not be certain there were none unless we practically tore the place down.
The next morning I arrived early at the handsome embassy building on the Malecon, was admitted through the basement freight entrance by the Marine guard, and took the elevator up to the top floor. I couldn't avoid stopping for a few minutes to gaze out the window at the always fascinating view of the beautiful waterfront looking eastward to the harbor entrance.
I was not looking forward to my meeting with Ambassador Smith as I was sure he was going to express great unhappiness with our organization and the situation in general. I was not mistaken. His greeting was cordial enough, and he asked me what an inspector general did. I told him, and he commented that there was plenty for me to do in Cuba. I also told him why I had brought a Russian expert with me, and he was interested. Then he opened up.
Ambassador Smith made it very clear that he thought the whole CIA mission was too close to the July 26 people and too influenced by them. He said we ought to stop giving them support and encouragement. He also said that he thought our estimates of Communist party strength in Cuba were far too low and cited a figure about four times what was then considered the strength of the party.
He then turned his attention to Washington and the State Department and expressed great frustration. He noted that he was accredited to the government of Cuba, and that he interpreted this as being a mandate to give Batista full support and assistance. Yet the United States had stopped military assistance to Cuba when it was most essential, and he was sure that this was because Castro sympathizers in Washington and in the press had protested because American arms were being used to kill rebels.
I told the ambassador that I could not comment on American policy toward Cuba, because policy was out of our province. He did not let this pass for a second, and snapped back that it might be out of our province but that the CIA had a great influence on policy and that by giving glowing reports on the strength of the July 26 movement we were discouraging assistance to the Batista government. I pointed out to Ambassador Smith that our duty was to report facts, and that he and his Political Section received a copy of every report that the CIA sent in and had ample opportunity to comment to the Department on each report individually or collectively. His only comment was to snort and say that the Political Section and the CIA were in cahoots and agreed on everything.
At this point the ambassador's telephone rang and Mrs. Smith was on the line to check some social engagement with him. "Dear," he said, "I can't talk long--Allen Dulles' inspector general is here inspecting me!"
When he had hung up, I said, "Mr. Ambassador, I am not here to inspect you, or the embassy, but I am here to inspect everything the Agency does, and how well it works for you and with the embassy. What you have told me disturbs me very much, and I intend to the best of my ability to find out the facts while I am here. I will advise you of my findings before I leave.
"It is quite true," I noted, "that there are contacts with representatives of the July 26 movement here, in Caracas, and elsewhere. But these are solely for the purpose of getting information. We are not supplying them money or assistance of any kind, and never have. It would seem that they are getting plenty of assistance elsewhere, and I understand that the Prio [Carlos Prio Socarras, a former president of Cuba] and other groups in Miami may be supplying them with as much as a million dollars a month. Further, Mr. Ambassador, I would remind you that every person we have sent into the Sierra Maestra either to try and secure the release of the Guantanamo people or to check on the situation there, has been sent not only with your advance knowledge, but with your blessing.
"Finally, as you well know, we have been doing our best to build up the BRAC, have helped train their people, have provided equipment, and have a full-time liaison officer with them."
With that little speech I parted. Unfortunately I did not get to see Ambassador Smith again before my departure the next week, and indeed was not to see him until two months later, in November, when we were together at a lunch in Washington at a time when everybody was desperately trying to do something in Cuba's eleventh hour. I'm not sure whether another meeting in Havana would have proved anything or not. For by the time I left I was even more convinced that the days of the Batista government were numbered.
On leaving Ambassador Smith's office I made my way to all sections of the embassy to get their views: the Political Section, Military Attaches, Public Affairs Officer (USIA), Legal Attache (FBI), and many others. With little variation it was the same story that I had heard the night before--a government out of touch with the people and the situation, hanging on desperately and hoping for a miracle. The minute the army wavered it would collapse.
There were two particularly memorable meetings that bear mentioning. I did not want to attract attention by going to the BRAC building. My picture taken with Batista the previous year had been attention enough, and a wheel chair is hard to disguise. So we asked Colonel Mariano Faget, the chief of BRAC, to come to the embassy. He was cooperative, informative, and obviously apprehensive over the situation. I admired the way in which he told me the facts without being in any way disloyal to the regime. When I told him of my concern over reports of brutality in his organization, he held out his hands in the classical gesture of despair. When I asked if it would help if we protested to Minister Santiago Rey in the hopes that it would get to Batista, he urged that I do so. We did exactly that and the memo that I handed Santiago Rey was very blunt.
The second meeting scared me to death. I was told that there was an important man who insisted on seeing me at the hotel and that it was vital that I do so, listen to him, and ask him all the questions that came to mind. I asked John Topping, the very able political counselor of the embassy and a Foreign Service officer with considerable experience, whether he thought I should see the man, and he urged me to do so.
My guest arrived at the apartment in the late afternoon. He was a prominent Havana professional man, who had never been engaged in politics and who had an impeccable reputation for honesty and integrity. He had had enough, had joined the July 26 forces, and was now one of their leaders in Havana. His life wouldn't have been worth anything if these facts were known and he had been apprehended by the Batista police.
We offered him a drink. He didn't drink. He did smoke, almost without stopping. And he talked about the political situation in Cuba for almost two hours and then answered my questions for another hour. I breathed a sigh of relief when he left and was glad he wasn't picked up while meeting with us. He never was!
When he left I drafted a cable to Washington. It created quite a stir in the Agency when it arrived, but perhaps not enough. It was probably the most precisely prophetic cable I ever wrote. For obvious reasons I cannot, and would not, quote its exact text, but essentially after reporting at some length on the situation in Cuba as mentioned above, it said that it appeared that the army was disintegrating and that it was unlikely that Batista could last to the end of the year. ( He fled Cuba December 31 )
With our meetings over, we packed the car and headed for Varadero for the weekend. My conscience never bothered me the slightest during those two days of glorious weather. I felt I had earned my relaxation!
One episode had occurred shortly before my visit that well illustrated the most difficult position of the American embassy in Havana. By progressively cutting off military aid and assistance to the Batista government, Washington was obviously cooling the welcome that the ambassador would receive at the Presidential Palace. As the tempo of rebel terrorism increased, the frustration of the regime magnified and its irritation at Americans having anything to do with even suspected July 26 sympathizers reached the boiling point. Even though the government was working closely with the CIA--and obviously accepting assistance--it was not beyond striking out in that direction if it thought it could get any concessions from the United States.
All this made the intelligence job in Havana all the more difficult. Unhappily, the popular version of intelligence work is too often colored by adventure stories that sell millions of copies in the popular fiction. Few people seem to realize the intense care that must go into the work, particularly in a foreign country where carelessness, or even overenthusiasm, can lead to difficulties ranging all the way from an embarrassing incident to being thrown out of the country. With the ambassador's extreme sensitivity over anybody in the embassy even being in contact with the opposition, and the government's willingness to make an issue out of an innocent meeting, every contact had to be assessed and weighed with great care. Further, a day didn't pass that several new and unknown Cubans would try to make contact with the embassy: some simply to tell a tale of terror or to express their opposition to the government; others to try vainly to get United States assistance. Every effort was made to screen the requests and to see those who might have important information. It was never forgotten that one could be an agent provocateur, sent by the government but posing as an opposition sympathizer to see what comments or commitments he could wheedle out of the Americans that could be used to embarrass them.
After one persistent request for a meeting that had been carefully screened and was judged to be important and legitimate, one of the senior men went to a meeting with three July 26 men in a doctor's office. The meeting place was apparently under surveillance because Batista's military intelligence agents arrived almost immediately and arrested all present. The American was released, but the Cuban government immediately said they would declare him persona non grata. They didn't--a prominent government official who happened to be a good friend of the man involved suggested to the embassy that they casually ask the Cuban Foreign Office why a certain aircraft was being used to transport arms illegally from Florida to Cuba. He even obligingly supplied the serial number of the aircraft. The government promptly forgot about asking the man to leave Cuba, and to insure there were no hard feelings, even gave him a very prestigious lunch.
I always thought it was ironic that the ambassador couldn't forget the incident just as promptly, or at least recognize that it was in the line of duty and in the service of the United States. Ambassador Smith later testified before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee that he thought the man concerned was a Castro sympathizer. Smith, as a former college boxer, should have known this was a low blow, because the man couldn't even reply without jeopardizing his intelligence career--even though he did consider suing the ambassador when Smith wrote about it in his book.
When I returned to Washington after a swing around the Caribbean, I was told that my cable from Havana had started an intra-Agency controversy. It appeared that the intelligence production side of the house wanted to publish it as a report but that the operators said that this was contrary to the system and that since it didn't come from an agent it couldn't be published. I thought at the time-- and still do--that this was a rather bureaucratic view and that it could have been put out as a special memorandum clearly labeled for what it was--a trained observer's report after a short visit, but based upon rather intensive and extensive discussions over a period of days. Such a report can often offer an insight not otherwise available in the day-to-day reporting by those on the scene. Happily, this procedure was relaxed over the years and the Agency is more inclined to take advantage of the reports of a mere staff officer.
The situation in Cuba deteriorated rapidly in the fall of 1958. Everybody feared the unrest and bloodshed that might follow the overthrow of Batista, and there was considerable discussion of what to do about it. It was finally decided to ask William Pawley, a former ambassador who had had many business interests in Cuba and was a personal friend of Batista, to undertake a special mission to Havana. His objective was to convince Batista to step aside for a military junta in order to avoid a blood bath. It was felt that a junta offered the best possibility of bringing peace to the troubled island. There was debate on which generals would be able to wisely restore order. The problem was made the more difficult because they had to be acceptable to Batista or he would never yield to them, yet they could not be too closely identified with the President or they would be unable to deal with the rebels. The Secretary of State also decided that Ambassador Smith in Havana, for his own effectiveness, should not be told about the effort.
Despite William Pawley's persuasive best, Fulgencio Batista was not yet ready to turn over the government. He didn't believe that the situation was as bad as Pawley described it and felt that the army would still be able to turn back the Castro forces.
In the meantime, Ambassador Earl Smith returned to Washington for consultation, and Allen Dulles invited him to lunch at the Agency. It was interesting to note that Smith now felt that Batista had to go and most of the lunch was devoted to a discussion of who could replace him. There were no optimistic conclusions.
It was only a few weeks later that Batista came to the conclusion that he could no longer hold on and summoned his closest cronies to Camp Libertad (Colombia) on the outskirts of Havana, held a farewell reception and then left the country. On January 1, 1959, Fidel Castro and his bearded followers took control of Cuba.
Views in Washington were varied about what type of government Castro would bring. When he announced his initial cabinet there was hope, because it included some of the most respected political figures in Cuba.
My friend Mario Lazo arrived in Washington from Havana and asked if I could meet with him and the new Cuban ambassador. The three of us had lunch in my office and they urged that the United States recognize the Castro government as the only method of restoring order. Recognition of the Cuban government was a matter solely for the State Department, but they would want CIA's views on the stability of the regime. Castro's courts were working overtime at that moment trying Batista's followers for alleged atrocities. In what seemed to all Americans a mockery of justice, many were sent to their deaths before the firing squads after trials of only a few minutes, characterized by public denunciation and the roars of bloodthirsty crowds. Undoubtedly some of these deserved their fate for atrocities committed under Batista, but there appeared to be little judicial about the proceeding. It reminded one of the French Revolution with a firing squad substituted for the guillotine and only Madame Delafarge and her knitting missing.
I felt rather keenly about the firing squads in view of what happened to the BRAC. It apparently was target number one when the barbudos swept into Havana, as they made immediately for its headquarters and seized all the files and those personnel who were foolish enough to be around. The files were taken to the fortress at the entrance to Havana Harbor, as were many of the prisoners. One of those seized was an army lieutenant who was one of the section chiefs who had briefed us several times. His only crime was that he worked for the BRAC and obviously the Communists in the July 26 movement wanted to get rid of not only the files, but all people who might identify them. As soon as it was learned that the BRAC people had been arrested, every effort was made by the United States government to secure their release. The appeal finally reached the ears of Castro, who said that the matter was out of his hands, and that only Guevara could act on it. Guevara was impossible to reach and the lieutenant was shot. It hurts when friends and associates are lost in a hostile country, but in a supposedly "friendly" country it was even tougher to take.
Mario Lazo, on the other hand, was a highly respected Cuban lawyer. We had become good friends on my several visits to Cuba. He was a graduate of Cornell and together with his partner, Jorge Cubas, ran Havana's most prominent law firm, which represented a large number of the major American companies doing business in Cuba. Mario was an astute political observer and I know that he felt there was a possibility that the United States could live with Castro's Cuba.
It proved to be impossible, but it may be some time before we have all of the facts at hand to carefully assess the factors involved in these two countries falling apart after a close relationship of more than half a century. The United States accorded the Castro government recognition, but rather than lessening the stream of insults from Fidel, this seemed to open up an even more abusive torrent. The American Society of Newspaper Editors Association invited Castro to visit the United States, but even that unofficial effort to warm things up didn't accomplish much. Then came the break in diplomatic relations, followed by Castro's visit to the United Nations Assembly in New York, which would have been high comedy if he hadn't been the head of state of one of our important neighbors--the picture of the bearded Cubans in their rumpled uniforms carrying live chickens into their hotel probably didn't thrill too many revolutionaries from other parts of the world. Those tall buildings probably reminded the Castro party of their hideaway in the Sierra Maestra Mountains where they had spent so many months.
Perhaps the best comment on the politics of Fidel Castro at that time was made by the wise statesman, Robert Lovett, who has served his country in many capacities including Under Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense. As a member of the President's Board of Consultants on Foreign Intelligence Activities in the second Eisenhower administration, he was naturally very much concerned with the situation in Cuba. After listening to an extensive CIA briefing in the fall of 1960, in which no clear answer appeared as to whether Castro was or was not a Communist, he summed it up in a few words: "Well it really doesn't matter, does it? He acts like one."
What it all seems to add up to is that Fidel Castro is a revolutionary, who originally had no precise political philosophy and who turned Communist when the Communists seemed to offer him the most support. He started in the hills of Cuba with relatively few followers and little support. He treated the peasants well; promised them what they wanted. He appealed to the students and gradually won their support as they became more and more disenchanted with the corruption of the Batista government and the increase in repressive measures. The Cuban army didn't want to fight anyway, and by treating prisoners fairly and concentrating attacks on the officers he eventually succeeded in breaking its resistance.
When Castro took over the government of Cuba the Communists, already strong in his movement, went to work in earnest, taking over the key spots. The moderates who dominated his early government were gradually forced out or, repelled by his measures, left. By 1960 Cuba was in all respects a Communist country.
The question then before the American government was what to do about it. There was wishful thinking--as there has been about every Communist takeover--that Castro could not last. But every day that passed belied this, as he got stronger and established himself more firmly in power. The United States had outlived the day of "dollar diplomacy" and had renounced intervention in the internal affairs of other nations by the use of force. But there was almost a frantic desire in Washington to get rid of Castro, and perhaps it was only natural that the effort should be made by irregular means--after all, that was how Castro himself had gotten in. If the United States could assist the Cuban exiles in developing paramilitary forces, perhaps these could land in Cuba and overthrow him just as he had overthrown Batista.
Thus was born the Bay of Pigs.