Since its 1959 revolution, the US has invaded Cuba, orchestrated more than 600 assassination attempts, imposed a suffocating embargo, and supported far-right terrorists
By Ben Norton / Salon
“We don’t need the empire to give us anything,” asserted revolutionary leader Fidel Castro in a recent article criticizing President Obama in the wake of his trip to Cuba.
Obama made history this month as the first standing U.S. president to visit the neighboring island nation in 88 years.
The president was applauded for a speech in which he described Cuba as “family,” and called for easing tensions between the countries.
“It is time, now, for us to leave the past behind,” Obama insisted. The former Cuban president scoffed at the idea.
“I suppose all of us were at risk of a heart attack upon hearing these words from the President of the United States,” Castro wrote in “Brother Obama,” an open letter published in the Cuban state newspaper Granma.
He continued, listing acts of U.S. aggression against Cuba: “After a ruthless blockade that has lasted almost 60 years, and what about those who have died in the mercenary attacks on Cuban ships and ports, an airliner full of passengers blown up in midair, mercenary invasions, multiple acts of violence and coercion?”
Pundits portrayed Castro’s comments as a sign of supposed ill will and ingratitude. But an objective look at the history shows that his response was not only wholly justified; it was frankly quite mild.
For the crimes — and there is no question that they are crimes — the U.S. has repeatedly and continuously committed against its sovereign neighbor over the past five decades include:
- a violent invasion that left hundreds dead
- more than 600 assassination attempts
- myriad covert campaigns dedicated to fomenting “hunger, desperation and overthrow of government”
- the unilateral imposition of a suffocating embargo
- and the harboring of CIA-trained admitted terrorists who murdered Cuban civilians in hopes of toppling the socialist state.
Since the 1959 revolution that overthrow the brutal right-wing regime of U.S.-backed Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, the U.S. has pursued policies in and against Cuba that can only, according to any consistent definition of the term, be described as terrorism. This is precisely what world-renowned scholar and foreign policy analyst Noam Chomsky has called U.S. actions in the country: a “terrorist campaign” and a decades-long “murderous terrorist war.”
Even former government functionaries have admitted as much. Writing in the New York Times in 1978, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and historian Garry Wills detailed the U.S.’s “campaign of terror and sabotage directed against Castro.” Wills was reviewing the research of illustrious historian Arthur Schlesinger, who worked closely with and advised both John and Robert Kennedy and described the U.S.’s strategy as an attempt to unleash “the terrors of the earth” on post-revolutionary Cuba.
As Wills put it in the U.S. newspaper of record almost four decades ago:
‘The C.I.A. findings are important in a biography of Robert Kennedy, because Mr. Schlesinger recognizes that the Attorney General, after the Bay of Pigs, became the principal cheerleader for Operation Mongoose, the campaign of terror and sabotage directed at Castro. Mr. Kennedy’s own notes of a White House meeting on Nov. 4, 1961, present his determination: “My idea is to stir things up on island with espionage, sabotage, gender disorder, run & operated by Cubans themselves with every group but Batistaites & Communists. Do not know if we will be successful in overthrowing Castro but we have nothing to lose in my estimate.”
‘Two months later, Mr. Kennedy met with the C.I.A. organizers of Mongoose and told them their work was “top priority,” that “no time, money, effort – or manpower – be spared.” Chemicals to incapacitate sugar workers were discussed, and the encouragement of “gangster elements” in Cuba. When an opportunity for reassessment arose, Mr. Kennedy wrote: “I am in favor of pushing ahead rather than taking any step back.” Mr. Schlesinger concludes that Mr. Kennedy wanted Mongoose to unleash “the terrors of the earth” on Cuba because “Castro was high on his list of emotions.” Like others, Mr. Schlesinger can find no direct evidence that Mr. Kennedy knew of the assassination plots against Castro. But the C.I.A. was being urged to acts of secret war that involved killing; it probably felt authorized by what Mr. Schlesinger calls “a driven sense in the administration that someone ought to be doing something to make life difficult for Castro.”‘
Cuba and the Castros are frequently demonized in the U.S., but the actual history of American policy in the country is rarely discussed.
While describing U.S. policy in Cuba as a “murderous terrorist war” in the preface to the 2015 edition of his book “Year 501: The Conquest Continues,” Chomsky also added, “Whatever one thinks of Obama, he cannot be accused of ignorance of the history that he is erasing in this performance.”
The distinguished American dissident was referring to a different speech by the president, but his remarks are just as pertinent in this case. Obama effectively erased the brutal history of U.S. imperialism in Cuba in his rosy call “for us to leave the past behind.” A brief look at this history helps one understand just where El Comandante is coming from.
Until 1959, Cuba was a virtual colony of the U.S., having previously been seized from colonial Spain in the 1898 Spanish-American War.
Before the revolution, right-wing American-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista worked hand-in-hand with wealthy landowners and multinational corporations that exploited Cuba’s plentiful natural resources, particularly its sugar plantations, while violently clamping down on the labor movement and brutally repressing dissent.
Batista’s U.S.-backed regime killed and tortured thousands of people. He also fostered a strong relationship with the American mafia. (The film “The Godfather Part II” cleverly depicts this criminal friendship in a scene in which mafiosos and corporate oligarchs slice up a cake with Cuba on it and merrily gobble it up.)
When Fidel Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara launched a guerilla uprising against the Batista dictatorship, they quickly gained the support of Cuban workers and peasants, who feared the repressive regime and who lived in extreme poverty while a small corporate elite got richer and richer.
On Jan. 1, 1959, the 26th of July Movement led by Castro overthrow Cuba’s dictatorship and established a socialist government. In post-revolutionary Cuba, resources were nationalized on behalf of the whole population, and the island wrestled itself out of the chokehold American corporate power had held it in for decades.
Despite claims to the contrary, Cuba did not ally itself with the Soviet Union until a few years after the revolution, at which point the U.S. had already tried to undermine its popular newly independent government.
Today, against the will of 99 percent of the international community, the U.S. maintains a strict embargo on Cuba. For 24 years, the vast majority of U.N. nations (191 of 193 in 2015) have voted against the unilateral U.S. trade ban.
This embargo — which Cuba and other Latin American countries commonly refer to as a blockade — was first imposed on Cuba not, as is often claimed, in 1962 in response to Castro’s alignment with the USSR, but rather in 1960.
Why did the U.S. impose an embargo on Cuba in the first place? In the words of a State Department official, “to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government.”
In an April 1960 memo titled “The Decline and Fall of Castro,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Lester Mallory admitted that the “majority of Cubans support Castro” and that there “is no effective political opposition.” He therefore concluded that the “only foreseeable means of alienating internal support is through disenchantment and disaffection based on economic dissatisfaction and hardship.”
The State Department official insisted that “every possible means should be undertaken promptly to weaken the economic life of Cuba.” In order to engage in such economic sabotage, Secretary Mallory said the U.S. government, while being “as adroit and inconspicuous as possible,” should make “the greatest inroads in denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government.”
“The principal item in our economic quiver would be flexible authority in the sugar legislation,” he proposed — that is to say, an embargo on sugar.
“All other avenues should likewise be explored,” he added.
Although the U.S. would later try to justify its unilateral imposition of an embargo on a sovereign neighbor with Cold War fearmongering, President Dwight D. Eisenhower in fact prevented sugar, oil, and weapons from being traded with Cuba just after the revolution, before Castro allied with the Soviets.
The fact that the embargo continues still to this day, 25 years after the fall of the USSR, demonstrates just how dishonest the excuse is.
Violence and covert operations
While setting the stage for the ongoing sabotage of the Cuban economy, Eisenhower also began organizing paramilitary forces with plans to directly, and violently, overthrow the new Cuban government.
Just months after entering office, in April 1961, President John F. Kennedy oversaw the U.S.’s invasion of its sovereign neighbor, resorting to violence in hopes of taming post-revolutionary Cuba. In the assault, known popularly as the Bay of Pigs, at least 176 Cuban soldiers were killed. Historians say hundreds and perhaps thousands more Cubans died, were wounded or went missing.
The Kennedy administration’s Operation Mongoose was devoted to using covert action to overthrow the Cuban government. More than 50 years later, the campaign continued in spirit, if not in name.
A decade ago, British news outlet Channel 4 created a documentary called “638 Ways to Kill Castro.” The 2006 film details how, over a period of 45 years, the CIA tried to murder Fidel Castro hundreds of times.
According to Fabian Escalante, the former head of Cuba’s secret service, the Cuban government foiled 638 assassination attempts on Castro by 2006. Some of the ideas the CIA came up with were truly outlandish, including the use of poison pills, toxic cigars, exploding mollusks and even a fungus-infected diving suit.
Since then, the U.S. has orchestrated numerous other campaigns in hopes of overthrowing Cuba’s socialist government. These policies have continued under the Obama administration as well, even after Fidel Castro retired in 2006 and was replaced by current President Raúl Castro.
In 2014, it was revealed that the U.S. had created a fake Cuban version of Twitter called ZunZuneo in hopes of stirring up unrest and toppling the Cuban government.
Later that same year, another U.S. sabotage plot was uncovered: USAID, the American agency ostensibly devoted to administering foreign aid, had recruited Cuban hip-hop artists to spread anti-government propaganda.
Yet this is not even the worst of it. Likely the most egregious U.S. policy toward Cuba is the fact that, still today, the country leading the “War on Terror” continues to provide refuge to anti-Castro terrorists.
Scholar Peter Kornbluh, the director of the National Security Archive and an expert on U.S. policy in Latin America, has described anti-Castro militant Luis Posada Carriles as “one of the most dangerous terrorists in recent history.” Yet the admitted terrorist lives in Miama, Florida today.
After the Cuban Revolution, Posada Carriles fled to the U.S., where he has remained on and off since. He participated in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, and then became a CIA agent. Subsequently, he carried out numerous anti-Castro bombings, often targeting civilians. While he was carrying out these terrorist attacks, Posada Carriles maintained ties with the CIA.
He has admitted involvement in numerous terrorist attacks, and has been convicted of several crimes in Panama and Venezuela.
When Posada Carriles was released from a U.S. jail in 2007, the Department of Justice requested that the court not allow him to go free, stating he was “an admitted mastermind of terrorist plots and attacks.”
Posada Carriles has also long been accused of having ties to the 1976 bombing of the Cubana airlines flight 455, which killed 73 civilians, although he denied involvement in this particular attack.
Government documents declassified by scholars show that the CIA had concrete intelligence about the planned terrorist attack before it took place. A CIA source heard Posada Carriles say before the bombing, “We are going to hit a Cuban airliner.” At the time of the attack, the accused terrorist was in touch with CIA and FBI agents in Venezuela.
Fellow anti-Castro militant and alleged terrorist Orlando Bosch was additionally accused of being involved in the bombing of the Cuban flight, although Bosch also denied involvement.
Together, Posada Carriles and Bosch created the Coordination of United Revolutionary Organizations, which the FBI has classified as “an anti-Castro terrorist umbrella organization.”
Former Bush-era Attorney General Richard Thornburgh called Bosch “an unreformed terrorist.” When the accused terrorist died in 2011, he was living in Miami.
“You remember there was something called the Bush Doctrine — Bush II: A country that harbors terrorists is the same as the terrorists themselves,” Chomsky said in a 2015 interview. “That’s for others, not for us. We harbor them and also support their activities.”
In short, in light of this history, Fidel Castro’s wariness of Obama’s claims that the U.S. is interested in rapprochement is completely understandable.
Although Cuba is a small country — smaller than many U.S. states — the Cuban Revolution was among the most important moments in the long 20th century. This is because, despite its size, Cuba freed itself from U.S. hegemony in Latin America and declared independence in Uncle Sam’s own backyard.
Are there critiques to be made of the Cuban government? Certainly — as is the case with any government. But the notion that Cuba has a uniquely stained human rights record — or that its human rights record and putative lack of democracy is the reason the U.S. is so adamant on undermining Cuba, not its independent, anti-imperialist socialism — is particularly ludicrous when compared to the blood-soaked records of draconian U.S. allies like the extremist, theocratic absolute monarchy in Saudi Arabia (where a young man arrested at a pro-democracy protest as a teen is slated to be beheaded and crucified, and where women lack basic rights) or the repressive military dictatorship in Egypt (where the regime massacred more than 800 people in one day for the crime of protesting the U.S.-backed coup that toppled Egyptians’ first democratically elected government).
True, Cuba does not have a perfect human rights record — and it might also be mentioned that the worst human rights violations on the island happen to take place at the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, where the U.S. has indefinitely detained hundreds of people without due process, and used extreme forms of psychological and physical torture.
The sudden concern with Cuba’s human rights record is particularly fascinating considering many of the pundits bringing it up themselves simultaneously support a slew of unsavory U.S. policies like torture or indiscriminate bombing.
But this is beside the point. The history of U.S. policy in Cuba can only be encapsulated in one word: terrorism. And Castro has every reason to be suspicious of the notion that the superpower that has tried to violently overthrow his government for decades now suddenly wants to be friends.