Exploding Cigars, Exploding Heads

In 1962, at the tender age of 12, I won a million dollar bet with Thomas Hale.

Mr. Hale, of similar age and equivalent sophistication, was a kid straight from the hollers of West Virginia.  We were both outcasts at Phil Sheridan Public School in South Chicago, but for different reasons.  He was isolated from the crowd due to his being characterized as a “hillbilly.”  As for me, I was quite small for my age and just a little too bright for my classes.  I also had just begun wearing spectacles, which served to further identify me as a nerd.
But in October of 1962 we had other problems.  After years of air raid drills – you know, the kind where you “kiss your ass goodbye” – we were now on the brink of the real thing.  The Russians were putting missiles in Cuba.  President Kennedy gave them an ultimatum, demanding they remove them. We were days, maybe hours, from mutual assured destruction in the form of a nuclear exchange.

I had watched the Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960.  My parents – who would inexplicably vote for Goldwater in 1964 – were Kennedy supporters. So, then, was I.

Hence the bet:  Thomas wagered that we were about to become annihilated in a nuclear holocaust.  I wagered that President Kennedy would not let that happen, that the Russians would stand down.

I won the bet.

I have yet to collect.

It was a sucker’s bet anyway.  How would Thomas have collected the million dollars if we were wiped out in an atomic exchange with the Soviets?

That was my first real introduction to the man who died on Friday.  Fidel Castro, the longest-serving head of state in the world, with the exception of the Queen of England.  The man we tried to kill, over and over again, and never even got close.

My mother used to tell me that Castro had betrayed us all; that he had taken control in Cuba as a revolutionary, yes, but as someone we could work with.  He revealed himself to be a Communist only after he took power in Havana (with some American assistance).  That was the story, anyway.  My mother used that example as the reason she told me never to trust anyone with a beard.  “They always have something to hide,” she would say.

Ha.  If she could see me now …

Anyway.

So we had the Cuban Missile Crisis (“Only 90 miles off our shore!”) and before that the Bay of Pigs invasion.  Plans were underway to assassinate Fidel, almost from the start.  CIA (and the Mafia, which lost a fortune in Cuba when Fidel came to power) became involved in all sorts of bizarre plots, even going so far as to develop a chemical substance that would enable his beard to fall off thus rendering him somewhat less charismatic to his people (but evidently more trustworthy, at least according to dear old Mom).  There were exploding sea shells.  Exploding cigars.  The list goes on and on.

And then there was Miami.  Operation Mongoose: the largest CIA station in the world at the time, and it was located on the campus of the University of Miami.  And why not?  The Cuban population in Miami was exploding like those famous cigars.

And then, November of 1963.

It developed that Lee Harvey Oswald – in the months leading up to the assassination of JFK – had gone to Mexico City in an effort to obtain a visa for Cuba.  Photographs of a man purporting to be Oswald were taken outside the Cuban Embassy, but it obviously was not Oswald.  The mystery deepened.

The CIA action officer in charge of the doomed Bay of Pigs operation was E. Howard Hunt (“Eduardo”), later of Watergate fame. He would later be linked – rightly or wrongly – to the Kennedy assassination himself.  Later, close to death in South Florida, he would admit that there was, indeed, a plot at some level of CIA to kill Kennedy.  So, both Oswald (the putative assassin) and Hunt (the possible assassin) had ties to Cuba, and it was in desperation that Oswald’s past was sanitized to remove any traces of a Soviet or a Cuban connection to the assassination, otherwise World War Three would have started in earnest (and I would have lost any possibility of collecting on my million dollar bet).

Hunt would go on to greater glory in the Watergate affair, enlisting the aid of – you guessed it – Cubans in order to break into the headquarters of the DNC at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C.   (This was in the days before the Internet, boys and girls, when you had to hack a political party old school: with picks and locks and flaps and seals, as they used to say back at the Farm).

Fast forward to 1994.

I am in Puerto Rico, staying at the lovely Old San Juan Hotel.  I am there for business.  As an IT executive, I am arranging distributorships for our widgets throughout Latin America prior to my reassignment to Southeast Asia.  My local contacts and distributor there were of Cuban ancestry, as was most of their staff.  President Clinton had just sent troops to Haiti to reinstate the former Catholic priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide as the democratically elected president of the republic after an attempted military coup. My hosts were outraged, claiming that Haiti would be Clinton’s Vietnam.  Of course, that did not happen.  And, anyway, aren’t we supposed to support democratic elections?  (Oh, yeah, I forgot.  Chile.)

My hosts, as US citizens of Cuban descent, were all Republicans.  They hated and despised President Kennedy because of his failure to support the Bay of Pigs operation.  All Democrats, to them, were evil incarnate.

At the risk of losing business, I gently pointed out that no GOP president ever had invaded Cuba.  That Republican presidents had invaded Grenada, intrigued against Nicaragua with the Contras, removed Manuel Noriega as President of Panama, and even invaded Iraq in defense of Kuwait, but none had proposed, remotely seriously, an invasion of Cuba.  I tried to suggest that perhaps the American Cubans were being manipulated with a lot of brave and heroic rhetoric about “Cuba Libre” in order to secure the Cuban vote in Florida, an important swing state, but that there was no intention by any administration of actually overthrowing Castro’s regime.

This was just throwing gasoline on the flames, however, and resulted in all sorts of unkind things being said about Democrats regardless of the lack of action on the part of Republicans.  There can be no doubt that anti-Castro Cubans were used by all manner of clandestine operatives both in the United States and abroad.  Michael Townley used a team of anti-Castro Cubans when it became time for him to assassinate former Chilean ambassador Orlando Letelier.  In Washington, D.C.  Our nation’s capital.

Then it was revealed that one of my hosts had been the godchild of former Cuban leader Fulgencio Batista, the man who was overthrown by Castro in 1959.  With pedigrees like that, it is virtually impossible to make any political points so I was forced to reign in my attempts at logical discourse, except for one last salvo.

Knowing my hosts were devout Catholics – as befitting anti-Communists – and passionately pro-life, I asked them if they thought that Fidel Castro should have been aborted as a fetus.

 

From exploding cigars to heads that explode, the story of Castro, Cuba and the United States is complex and any attempt to frame it in a simplistic us-versus-them framework is simply dishonest.  Batista was an evil and corrupt dictator.  The Mafia had the run of the island, and together with Batista deprived all but the rich of any power or autonomy. The rampages of United Fruit – on whose board sat the Dulles brothers – are legendary. A revolt against Batista was inevitable. A revolt against the system that had allowed Batista to flourish was likewise inescapable.  Those who rail against Communism – especially the Communism of the mid-twentieth century – know nothing (or choose to know nothing) of the serious oppression of the poor by the wealthy in countries where Communism seemed like the only ideology capable of putting up any kind of resistance since its whole raison d’etre was based on economic classes and the exploitation of labor.  No one else was talking to the poor and the disenfranchised (and the colonized) except the Communists. Instead there is this fantasy of depraved Communist agents seducing poor but happy and carefree peasants with their murderous ideology, possessing their souls like Regan’s Pazuzu.  We don’t realize that these people had been abandoned by their State, except as forced labor or prostitutes, with no possibility of owning their own land or being captains of their own destiny.  No “pick yourselves up by your bootstraps” motivational speeches are gonna work with people who don’t have any boots.

So then one gets a revolution, undertaken by people who finally were empowered by a belief system that sounded pretty logical and scientific, but more importantly who had nothing left to lose.  What did you expect?

This is not a defense of Communism or of Fidel Castro.  It is a critique of an American foreign policy that found it easier to support dictators like Batista, Marcos, Soeharto, Stroessner, Pinochet, Franco, Salazar, and so many others around the world simply because they were “anti-Communist.”  So what?  So were the Nazis. So were the Fascists in Italy.  The Ustasche in Croatia. The Iron Guard in Romania.

And as a result: the boycott of Cuba that has lasted for more than fifty years and which has accomplished nothing.

 

I live, for my sins, in South Florida, and have spent a lot of time along Calle Ocho in Miami.  I’ve eaten at the famous Versailles, and at other Cuban cafes and restaurants in the area.  I have had conversations with old Cuban refugees over some cortaditos who, when they learn I published a book about Hitler (Unholy Alliance, translated into Spanish as Alianza Malefica), invariably tell me that Castro was the bigger Hitler.  They haven’t read my book, by the way.  The Spanish language translation – published by a large and reputable firm in Mexico, the same publisher as Gabriel Garcia Marquez – is not available in the United States even though one can obtain a wide variety of Spanish-language books on the Nazis, Hitler, and even Nazi occultism.  This is because the Spanish language book distribution network in the States is solidly anti-Communist which means that it found my printed remarks concerning Chile, Pinochet and the Nazis as too leftist for their taste. Many of us still live in a world where being anti-Nazi implies one is pro-Communist.

But, wait.  Didn’t the Castro regime throw homosexuals in prison?  Of course.  Did the regime practice censorship?  Certainly. Still does. Did the Batista regime encourage the proliferation of prostitution and gambling?  Sure.  Did Batista virtually sell off his country to the highest bidders in the United States, ransoming the birthright of his people to foreign (mostly American) corporations and the Mob?  Absolutely.  It’s a matter of public record.  So … did the corruption of the Batista regime contribute to the circumstances that gave rise to the Castro revolution?  Without a doubt.

Actually, people tend to forget that Americans threw homosexuals in prison, too.  That was what the Stonewall riots of 1969 were all about.  Police raids on gay bars were so frequent that they were expected as part of doing business.  Transvestites were routinely arrested and thrown in jail simply because of their choice in couture. Sodomy – loosely and often erroneously defined – was still on the books as a crime in fourteen states as late as 2003.

Was the Castro regime repressive and dictatorial?  Of course it was.  No one can deny or defend that.  Yet it certainly can be understood as the result of being completely isolated from the rest of the world with the exception of the old Soviet Union and its allies, and a natural reaction to the fact that the world’s greatest superpower – the United States – was sitting the proverbial 90 miles away, hostile as ever and constantly looking for ways to assassinate its leader and destabilize its government.  Instead, it has become standard practice to demonize not only Castro but those who had – in one way or another – attempted to initiate a dialogue with his regime.

In the immortal words of Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny, “What a nightmare!”

 

Many readers know that I did a lot of business in China, especially in the period 1984 – 2004 when I was traveling constantly to Beijing, Shanghai and virtually every province in the country.  In the 1980s, I was told openly by Party members that China welcomed foreign investment, foreign technology, and foreign expertise but most emphatically rejected foreign cultural influence which was considered “spiritual pollution” by the Communist regime.  I had to smile.  My very presence in China was “spiritual pollution.”  Average Chinese could see me, see that I did not breathe fire or have horns coming out of my head, and that I was a pretty amicable sort of fellow.  I even spoke some Mandarin, and knew about Chinese history and could quote from Mao’s “little red book.”  Me, and people like me (and eventually there were a lot of us), were a walking advertisement for America and for American institutions. We helped change China by the mere fact of our being there, bringing our technology and our investment, sure, but also by bringing our culture and our attitudes, being friendly and non-threatening, and embracing their culture and language the best we could (which was only the most pragmatic thing we could do as business people).

We could have done the same to Cuba, a long time ago, if our government had let us.  I guarantee Castro would have been gone decades ago were it not for the boycott and the blockades that ensured Castro’s scape-goating of America and its reliance on Soviet aid.

In Moscow in the 1990s I made the acquaintance of a former KGB officer who had served in Cuba late in the game.  He didn’t particularly care for the island, but he admitted to me that the American boycott of Cuba made his job a lot easier.  It gave the Soviets virtual run of the place.  By isolating Cuba we made it virtually impossible for Castro to turn to any other country.

So, how’s that working out for you?

There is a lot we can learn about our long and tortured history with Cuba’s Communist regime and the ways in which we tried to force change on that island through intimidation, force, assassination, boycotts, blockades, and the like.  We can learn what works and what doesn’t when it comes to “regime change.”  We can also learn how that situation created a unique demographic in our own country that for so long was a single-issue voting bloc: the Cubans who vote on whether or not a politician promises them a return to Cuba in their lifetime.  Divided loyalties …

But we won’t learn anything from this.  I mean, we haven’t so far so why should today be any different just because el Viejo murio?

Instead, we have the spectacle of a resurgence of interest by young people around the world in the Cuban revolution and in particular the romantic figure of Ernesto “Che” Guevara: the Argentine revolutionary who became such an iconic figure of that revolution and who tried to export it to other countries outside of Cuba.  You can find young people wearing Che T-shirts in Asia, Europe, and even in Latin America.  To demonize Che and Castro – and the revolution with which they are identified – is to miss the important message they bring with them. Che and Castro represent the pendulum swing away from corporatism, statism and fascism towards collectivism, equality, and the abolition of a way of life that sees the very wealthy own all the country’s resources at the expense of the lives, health, education and well-being of the poor and middle classes. It is an extreme swing, filled with violence and hatred towards an entire class of people and the institutions they represent.  It is predictable, but for some reason we never seem to be  able to predict it.

Like the Russian Revolution of 1917 or the Republicans of the Spanish Civil War; the Vietnamese revolution that saw the ouster of the French (and eventually the Americans) from their country; and the Indonesian revolution that saw the Dutch removed from theirs: the Cuban revolution began as a movement of people with nothing left to lose making a desperate attempt to reclaim their dignity if not their livelihoods and their land.  We ignore that impulse, that emotion, that honesty, at our peril.  We can call their proponents “leftists” or “communists” or “socialists” all we like, if that makes us feel better and makes it easier to demonize them, but in the end they are only people.  Men, women, children.  Poorly armed.  Poorly trained. Hungry. Wet. Tired. Sick. But in an age of cynicism and skepticism they are equipped with something the best of us do not have in such overwhelming and dangerous abundance.

They are equipped with belief.  And when belief is married to desperation you will have a Cuban revolution.  An Indonesian revolution.  The Islamic State.  The PLO.  The Tupamaros. The Miristas.

A French Revolution.

And (dare I say it?) an American Revolution.

Revolutions don’t begin from the top, down.  They start at the bottom – the very bottom, the place of open sewers, dirty drinking water, disease, poverty, and starvation – and work their inexorable way up. If we really think Castro was a bad guy, a “Hitler” as I was told by los Cubanos viejos del Calle Ocho, then let’s do something about it.  Let’s put our money where our cavernous mouth is.  Let’s re-evaluate our foreign policy objectives and methods to engage not with the military leaders and corrupt dictators of “friendly” governments because that never ends well but with those on the ground who used to admire us, love us even, dreamed about us and our country, and who now see us as the source of the problem.  Let’s identify with the revolutionaries for once.  After all, that’s how we started and we didn’t do too badly.

And then, who knows, maybe I can win another million dollar bet.

La lucha sigue, baby.

Venceremos.