Voices From the Other Side: An Oral History of Terrorism Against Cuba

9780745330402Few global conflicts illustrate the vindictive character of US power as dramatically as Washington’s ongoing war against the people of Cuba. The latest episode in this war was unveiled in an AP report detailing a USAID program designed to destabilize Cuban society. Using a social media website named ZunZuneo, the program’s stated objective was to “renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society,” by organizing “smart mobs” willing to overthrow the revolutionary government of Fidel and Raul Castro. This transformation would be made possible through the dissemination of propaganda aimed at discrediting the government. Apart from exposing the geopolitical goals of a purportedly “humanitarian” organization, this story has served as a fascinating case study into the historical amnesia that prevails in some of the most respected sectors of American intellectual culture. Responding to the mild, tactical criticisms made against ZunZuneo, the editorial board of the Washington Post published a statement praising the operation as necessary to undermine Raul Castro, a leader “who [insists] on a level of political control that has gone out of style everywhere except Havana and Pyongyang.” ZunZuneo was, according to the board, simply another strategy in “the Obama administration’s efforts to relieve the Cuban nightmare.”

Conspicuously absent from this statement, and others that mirror it in ideological commitment, is the long history of state-sponsored terrorism directed at Cuba traceable to power centers in Washington. Understanding this record of terror is crucial in developing a more honest and coherent picture of US-Cuba relations. Keith Bolender’s examination of this violent history and its devastating effects on the people of Cuba Voices From the Other Side stands out as a dramatic example of the moral and intellectual courage required to divorce ourselves from the myths propagated by outlets like the Washington Post. Far from a phenomenon unique to the 20th century or Cold War politics, US hostility towards Cuban independence can trace its origins back to the 19th century when the island was a colony of Spain. In 1832 Secretary of State John Quincy Adams wrote that “Cuba, forcibly disjoined from its own unnatural connection with Spain, and incapable of self-support, can gravitate only towards the North American Union.” This myth–that the Cuban people are “incapable of self-support”–is a defining feature of US policy towards Cuba that has been embraced by virtually every American President from Kennedy to Obama. It was this myth that allowed the US to fulfill Adam’s desire to subjugate Cuba to American power after the Spanish-American war (often falsely portrayed as the “liberation of Cuba”) and legitimize this annexation through a series of deceptive amendments and treaties, none of which granted Cubans any meaningful degree of independence. Take for example the Teller Amendment of 1898 which declared that the US did not impose its military might on Cuba to seize its territory or economically exploit its people. Instead the US intervened to “leave control of the island to its own people”, words that carry a predictability which should only elicit uncontrollable laughter, at least when they are not being uttered in the presence of more disciplined audiences as when President Obama recently justified Bush’s invasion of Iraq as a war that left this target of first world savagery to “its own people.”

Luis Posada Carriles, 82, walks with his lawyers after leaving the court in El Paso, Texas
Luis Posada

Doubtless, similar sentiments were articulated by President Eisenhower and Kennedy when they laid the groundwork for what Bolender accurately describes as the principal threat in Cuba’s multi-decade war on terror, a war on terror that radically differs from Bush’s “war on terror” in that it doesn’t entail the unleashing of horrific amounts of state-terror against civilians in other countries. While conventional narratives restrict examples of US force in Cuba to the Bay of Pigs failure, the historical record tells a far more gruesome story. Since the initiation of the US assault on the Cuban revolution in 1960 “the personal toll has been calculated at 3,478 dead and 2,099 injured.” Furthermore, “the [Cuban] government has documented approximately 800 terrorist acts inside Cuba since 1960”, the majority of them organized in Miami, often with the cooperation (if not direct participation) of the CIA. Alpha 66, Omega 7 and Commandos F4 are some of the more prominent terrorist organizations responsible for these atrocities. Tactics used to destabilize Cuban society ranged from the bombing of hotels, ammunition ships, civilian airliners, department stores, and movie theaters, machine gunning defenseless neighborhoods, the murder of literacy activists, chemical warfare, psychological warfare and even biological terrorism. Perhaps the most significant aspect of Bolender’s study is that it is not satisfied with mere statistics about these US-backed atrocities. Embedded in this defense of historical memory are several deeply touching and humanizing portraits of the victims of these attacks, how they have dealt with the loss of loved ones and endured in the face of overwhelming odds. Take for instance the story of Jorge De La Nuez and his mother Niuvis. On October 6, 1976 Jorge’s father was murdered on Cubana Airlines Flight 455 after a bombing orchestrated by Luis Posada Carilles, a terrorist who currently resides in Miami, sent Jorge Sr. and the 72 other passengers aboard plunging to their deaths in a ball of fire. Jorge Sr. was the head of a delegation of shrimp fisherman. On the day of his death he was planning to make a surprise visit to his wife as it was their wedding anniversary. Jorge Jr.’s childhood recollection of the moment he discovered his father was murdered is enough to make one tremble with rage:

“So I got home and went upstairs, at the top of the stairs I saw my mother, and she was crying. It was a shock, a hit, to see her crying. I thought ‘why would she be crying?’ My dad is home and she should be happy. When I got to her she grabbed me and gave me a hug, she hugged me hard. She gave me a kiss. She said ‘oh my son’ and I replied ‘what’s the matter mom?’ She said once again ‘oh my son, something terrible has happened.’ And I start screaming ‘What happened to my dad? Why are you crying? You have to be happy.’ My mother told me my dad was not coming back. I thought, well he is not coming home today, when is he coming home? But she said my dad had been in an accident. She said my father would not be coming home ever.”

This stomach-turning story and others like it lend Bolender’s study a unique quality that separates it from traditional academic work on US power which may satisfy all the demands of empirical research and analytical rigor but, for various reasons, fail make the suffering of the victims truly palpable. By doing this, Bolender sheds much-needed light on the severe moral costs attached to criminal policies and how we should position ourselves when evaluating the US role in these atrocities. For instance, Bolender’s description of how Dengue 2, a deadly mosquito borne disease, was introduced in Cuba as a form of biological terrorism finds meaning in a mother’s distress dealing with the loss of one child to the disease only to confront what at the time appeared to be the imminent death of her older child by the same plague. Ariel Alonso Perez, a leading authority on biological terrorism, states “there have been a minimum of 23 events of biological terrorism against Cuba,” a record that has resulted in “more than 100 dead children.” Although there isn’t 100% certainty that the CIA was responsible for this outbreak, strong reasons exist to suspect the agency was behind it, like the fact that “the United States conducted various research projects into biological warfare, including Dengue fever in 1959 at Fort Derrick in Maryland,” or that “Pentagon officials suggested a chemical and bacterial program to contaminate Cuba’s food supplies, and part of the sabotage criteria under Operation Mongoose was to induce failures in food crops.” In 1984 Eduardo Arocena, a Miami-based Cuban terrorist and member of Omega 7, confessed that he was sent on a mission to Cuba in 1980 to introduce “some germs” to the country.

While the imposition of terror through bombing and biological warfare stimulated disorder throughout Cuba, no other attack directly affected as many Cubans as the psychological terror behind what was called Operation Peter Pan. Under this covert operation, run by the CIA and the State Department with the decisive participation of Father Bryan O. Walsh, the Catholic Church in Miami and the Headmaster of Ruston Academy in Havana James Baker, thousands of I-20 student visa applications were illegally processed leading to what Bolender describes as “the exodus of more than 14,000 children from November 1960 to October 1962.” Underpinning this criminal operation was the mass circulation of black propaganda alleging that Fidel Castro and his comrades were plotting to “transfer parental authority to the state.” The foundational source of this psychological operation was a manufactured document called La Patria Potestad or the Act of Parental Authority. Unless Cuban parents sent their children out of the country, prominent members of the clergy argued, “they’d be subject to 15 years in jail, or simply made to disappear.” Also enlisted to take part in this propaganda coup was a radio program called Radio Swan. Radio Swan was created by the CIA in 1960 and was behind the first example of Peter Pan propaganda. In October of 1960 the following message was sent across the airwaves in Cuba:

“Cuban mothers don’t let your son be taken away from you. The new government law is to take your children away at five years old and give them back to you when he is 18 years. And by then he will already be a monster. Attention mothers, go to church, and follow instructions from the clergy.”

Bolender interviews the children, now adults, who were victimized by this psychological operation. Two of the victims are unambiguous in describing the operation as an act of psychological terrorism. Marina Ochoa, a Cuban native who lost her brother at the age of 10 to the operation, stated “there is the instillation of fear, the targets are civilian, there is a purpose to disrupt government functions, and the act is designed to achieve political aims. What else do we need to call it an act of terrorism?” Incidentally, we can ask the same question about the Obama administration’s “Cuban Twitter” program as it also meets this standard criteria only with a human cost that is , thankfully, much less devastating. As late as the 1980s, decades after the program was initiated, the US State Department rejected a request from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees “to help reunite Cuban children with their parents.” Other examples of US defiance of the international community include the refusal to lift the economic embargo against Cuba despite overwhelming opposition (in October 2013 the UN vote on the embargo was 188 to 2 with the US and Israel voting in favor of maintaining the blockade) and the imprisonment of the Cuban Five.

Cinco_heroes_cuban_five_2
The Cuban Five

In September of 2001 the Cuban Five–Gerardo Hernandez, Rene Gonzalez, Ramon Labanino, Antonio Guererro and Fernando Gonzalez–were sentenced to four life sentences and 75 years for “conspiracy to commit espionage, being unregistered agents for a foreign power and holding false documents.” In a revealing precursor to the Obama administration’s unprecedented war on whistleblowers the Cuban Five were actually punished for infiltrating and blowing the whistle on Miami-based terrorist organizations. When the Cuban Ministry of the Interior provided a FBI delegation with “detailed accounts of actions and plans, recording of phone conversations, videos, samples of explosive substances and other information their agents had gathered from infiltration work in Miami,” the FBI responded by using the material to reveal the identities of the Cuban agents and arrest them. Much like the response to Chelsea Manning’s release of the Collateral Murder video, this incident is a glaring indication of just how low a priority preventing terrorism is to the power elite especially if that terrorism is directed towards official enemies. The real criminals under this imperial logic are those who expose this gangsterism. Despite the fact that the case of the Cuban Five holds the ignoble distinction of being “the only judicial proceeding in United States history condemned by the Work Group of Arbitrary Detention of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights”–the Commission described the sentences as “not impartial” and “excessively severe”–when the case was presented to the Supreme Court in June of 2009 they “refused to hear the case.” Reflecting on the absurdity of the imprisonment of the Cuban Five, the wife of Rene Gonzalez, Olga Salanueva, noted “We had no choice but to prevent these [terrorist] acts by sending men for the sake of our country and family … We couldn’t invade Florida, like America did to Afghanistan.”

It’s worth mentioning that these crimes make up a mere fraction of the catalog of murder, torture, lies and exploitation featured in this incredibly penetrating and moving look at the world from the other side of the Godfather’s gun. Simply recommending or sharing a copy of this text with a friend or colleague constitutes a form of humanitarian intervention that regularly escapes some of the most educated members of privileged society who are more concerned with bringing the right weapon to a “flame war” than seriously examining the historical roots of popular discontent with US policies abroad. None of the lessons imparted in this book can be absorbed through articles which praise attacks on sovereignty as worthy or “applause” or a sign of the “imagination” and “ingenuity” needed to put Cubans in their place. Propaganda of this kind encourages thuggish behavior under the assumption that the Castros and their supporters are, in the words of Johnathan Mahler, “not gentle socialists.”  Works like Voices from the Other Side dares us, as citizens of the empire, to outgrow the sanitized, polite, and not coincidentally, psychologically comfortable discourse preoccupied with data retention and defending US “interests.” Bolender compels us to view the world through new eyes, through the lens of the Other. Those interested in waging this authentic war on terror will no doubt consider Bolender’s book, in many ways, unprecedented both in its attention to detail and moral maturity. For these reasons, Voices from the Other Side is a towering achievement in the highest tradition of dissident literature.

 Sources:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/a-us-plan-to-help-cubans-communicate-should-be-applauded/2014/04/06/28ba5794-bc2b-11e3-96ae-f2c36d2b1245_story.html
http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2014/04/15/when-is-foreign-aid-meddling/democracy-aid-is-legitimate-but-risky
http://www.chicagotribune.com/sns-wp-blm-news-bc-bg-editorial-cuba04-20140404,0,6443154.story
http://www.democracynow.org/2013/10/30/headlines/un_general_assembly_votes_overwhelmingly_against_us_embargo_of_cuba
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