Closing the Circle
by Robert H. Miller | Posted April 09, 2016
We may be approaching one of the most significant events of our time: the end of the Castro regime in Cuba. So long have Fidel Castro and his friends reigned in Cuba that it is hard to get perspective on the regime and its history. The history of Cuba itself remains little known to Norteamericanos.
Fortunately, there is Robert Miller. A longtime contributor to Liberty, Robert was reared in Cuba as a member of a prominent family. He has spent most of his life in the United States but has followed events in his homeland closely. When Liberty discovered that Robert was writing a memoir of his family’s life in Cuba, their flight to the United States, and their adventures here, we asked him if we could print parts of his work. Robert agreed. We are featuring it in several segments, of which this is the second. The first was published in Liberty in February.
The memoir is not a work of political science; it is something much more: an introduction to ways of life, parallel to those of North Americans, and connected at many points, but always pungently different. We think our readers will find this view of Cuba, before and after the Castro Revolution, strange, unpredictable, charming, funny, tragic, and always very interesting.
Part II begins with the reactions of Robert’s father (Pop) and mother (Mina) to Castro’s war against the Batista regime, which he eventually overthrew. — Stephen Cox
Mina was a skeptic; Pop was a fan. Optimistic about Castro, he was later to contribute money and property to the Revolution both before and immediately after its victory. But revolutions, no matter how well-intentioned, are inherently disruptive and unpredictable. This didn’t stop Pop. The urgency of his ambitions was fueled by the specter of the grim reaper. With the addition of rheumatoid arthritis, a crippling and disfiguring disease, his chronic malaria and angina pectoris became a threesome.
After the Bug took root, he partnered up with a German colleague from Volkswagen and launched a brand new enterprise in early 1958. Though he’d been Controller of the Oxford Paper Company for only a short time, back in 1940, he must have felt confident in opening Cuba’s first big paper products factories, Envases Modernos S.A. and Industrias Cello-Pak S.A. He wanted to give Dixie’s or Lilly’s (I don’t remember which) de facto monopoly a run for its money. When the paper cup assembly line became operative, he proudly took the family out to the factory to watch the process and presented us each with a waxed paper cup as if it were a votive offering.
Less than one month after Castro’s victory, when euphoria and grandiose schemes still permeated the Cuban atmosphere, Fidel proposed planting a thousand trees along the avenues that had hosted the rebels’ triumphant procession. Pop immediately offered to donate 1,000 paper cups to hold the seedlings. He not only did not receive an answer, but no trees were ever planted.
Pop proudly took the family out to the factory to watch the process and presented us each with a waxed paper cup as if it were a votive offering.
Nineteen fifty-eight also brought television to our home. Instantly it became hypnotic. Rin Tin Tin, Annie Oakley, Sea Hunt, Bat Masterson, Gunsmoke, all dubbed in Spanish, became staples, keeping us kids indoors in the evening, sitting cross-legged on the floor.
After Castro’s victory, however, all broadcasting became live news, 24/7, way before CNN. Though initially spellbinding, Fidel’s speeches soon tired us: the endless narration; the panoramic shots of crowds supporting this or that, or protesting this or that; the mass televised trials; and the endless coverage and speculation over the explosion of La Coubre in Havana Harbor in March 1960, a ship bearing an arms shipment — with Fidel’s endless rhetorical question, “Armas, para que?” “Arms, for what?” The arms were intended for the new revolutionary government, but Castro spun the sabotage to his advantage.
But to return to the events that put Castro in power: in May 1958, with three active guerrilla fronts operating on the island, Batista finally decided to get serious. He dispatched 10,000 troops to destroy Castro’s 300 guerrillas in Oriente Province, and the Directorio Revolucionario’s Escambray front, now also numbering in the hundreds. But it was not to be.
Throughout June, July, and August government troops suffered defeat after defeat, surrendered en masse, or switched sides. Huge amounts of equipment, including tanks, fell into the hands of the rebels. By September 1, the two Oriente fronts, one under Che Guevara, the other under Camilo Cienfuegos, had begun a two-pronged advance westward, toward the center of the island. It would be only a matter of time before they reached the capital.
With the steamroller now nearly unstoppable, Cubans began letting down their guard. No longer was Radio Rebelde listened to clandestinely; it was openly monitored and discussed. Young men — and some women — from all over the island rushed to join the advancing rebels, jumping on the bandwagon as it picked up momentum.
Headed over to the Castellanos’, in search of distraction, I ran into one of the young guys — related somehow to the ex-mayor — who were often there. He was a guy who had actually paid attention to me, shown friendship and kindness even — behavior that, to a young boy, instantly made him a role model. Now he was dressed in full olive green army fatigues, with backpack and sidearm, and was walking down the street nonchalantly. Since the regular army wore khakis, either this guy was foolish or fearless, or the risk was minimal.
Fidel's physical seclusion in the mountains but unquestioned leadership and tenacity gave him an Olympian air, abetted by his curly Greek beard — one he would never again shave.
I stopped dead on the sidewalk in front of him, speechless, eyes bugging out. The only soldiers I‘d ever been this close to were my little toy soldiers. He said he was off to join the rebels. I asked if I could go with him, even though I knew that was impossible. He smiled, metaphorically (or perhaps actually) patted my head, and kindly said no, that I was too young. When I told my parents about the encounter, they shuddered, grimacing that his behavior was beyond foolish.
In September, Guevara’s and Cienfuegos’ troops, advancing separately, met up in Camagüey province and continued their westward march as one large force. Government resistance to the advance was mostly limited to aerial bombardment, intermittent at best because of the heavy rains of the fall hurricane season.
On October 7, the now-combined Castro forces crossed into Las Villas province and encountered the forces of the Directorio Revolucionario in the Escambray Mountains under the field command of Faure Chaumont. Though Castro’s 26 of July Movement and the Directorio Revolucionario had heretofore been completely independent enterprises, Chaumont agreed to a coordinated offensive. The news ignited Cubans; hundreds of men volunteered to join the rebels.
In November, government forces concentrated behind defensive positions in the cities of Las Villas province. Rebel forces, meanwhile, worked out operational plans for the new joint command, planned the next offensives, trained new recruits, and awaited drier weather.
Fidel himself remained ensconced in his headquarters in the Sierra Maestra, coordinating military and political strategy. His physical seclusion in the mountains but unquestioned leadership and tenacity gave him an Olympian air, abetted by his curly Greek beard — one he would never again shave.
Nearly all the rebel forces sported beards and long hair, starting a sartorial trend, with philosophical implications, that would take the world by storm in the 1960s. Raul Castro, with his skimpy fuzz of a beard, gave rise to rumors that he was either homosexual or illegitimate — or both. Camilo Cienfuegos, on the other hand, hirsute as a Tolkien character in Lord of the Rings, with a beard that made one wonder whether it housed legions of unidentified critters, was beginning to upstage Fidel. Handsome, with a seductive and ready smile, and a twinkle in his eye under his black cowboy hat, he would later die in a suspicious plane crash in 1959 on a fool’s errand for Fidel.
On December 20, the final rebel offensive began. In quick succession, the cities of Cabaiguan, Placetas, Remedios, Cruces, and Sancti Spiritus fell to the onslaught. Two days later, Camilo Cienfuegos began an assault on the army garrison at Yaguajay; while Guevara’s and Chaumont’s combined forces attacked Santa Clara, capital of Las Villas province.
After nearly two weeks of intense combat and aerial bombardment, 250 government soldiers surrendered Yaguajay to Cienfuegos on New Year’s Eve, and 1,000 more surrendered to Guevara and Chaumont on New Year’s Day, 1959.
* * *
New Year’s Eve 1959 was a memorable one and not soon to be forgotten! Word passed around like wildfire that Batista and his cronies had fled, throwing in the sponge at last. The island had been cut in half at the now famous Bay of Pigs and the Escambray rebel troops were headed for Havana. On New Year’s day it became a reality and while many mobs roamed the streets seeking revenge against the hated dictator’s cronies who had not as yet left, we were not molested. I personally did not leave the house, carefully following the advice given over the local radio.
So begins my father’s account of those fateful days between Batista’s exit and the rebels’ arrival, an account he wrote for Time magazine but that was never published.
When Batista fled the country at 2 AM on New Year’s Day, 1959, Havana erupted into an orgy of celebration. The metropolitan police, technically members of the old regime, kept a low profile. We children weren’t allowed to get near the windows, much less leave the house. All the prisons were thrown open, and riotous mobs roamed the streets wreaking havoc on anything associated with the old regime, especially casinos. Another favorite target was parking meters, a hated source of government income. My sister Nani remembers one passing car peppering our living room with bullets. My mother, ever cautious, concocted a Molotov cocktail “just in case.”
Days later, when Castro’s tanks rolled into the city, mobs lionized the long-haired, bearded rebels. Contingents of the olive-clad, Thompson-submachine-gun-wielding soldiers ringed all the embassies to prevent “enemies of the people” from escaping. With the Mexican ambassador’s residence only a block from our house, I couldn’t keep away. Armed with my pellet gun — for solidarity and fun — I’d hang out for hours with the militiamen, target shooting at birds and passing the time. For a 9-year-old kid, it just didn’t get any better. As I’d later say when I learned English in Mississippi, “I was shitting in tall cotton.”
My mother, ever cautious, concocted a Molotov cocktail “just in case.”
CMQ, Channel 6, went to round-the-clock programming. Though I preferred outdoor activity, the novel, continuous TV coverage of events mesmerized us. Abuela, we kids, and the household staff — whenever they managed time between chores — gathered in the TV room to watch the Revolution unfold.
On January 2 Manuel Urrutia, the judge who had tried Castro sympathetically after his July 26, 1953 uprising, became President of Cuba. He was appointed to the post behind the scenes by Castro, no doubt because his reputation for probity and his spotless record wouldn’t cause any ructions domestically or internationally. Jose Miro Cardona became Prime Minister. Days later the US recognized the new government and appointed a new ambassador, Phillip Bonsal.
I asked Abuela how Urrutia became president without an election. She shrugged her shoulders and mumbled something I can’t remember. She’d seen so much. It would have taken too much effort and too long a time to try to explain it all to a 9-year-old kid.
Then on January 8, Fidel Castro, with his now-mechanized No. 1 Jose Marti Column slowly rolled into Havana amidst a stately procession of troops and army vehicles. It was beautifully scripted to appear spontaneous — which, to some degree, it was. Not riding atop a tank — as has often been reported — along Havana Harbor’s Malecon seawall and waving to the ecstatic crowds, Castro seemed to have turned out all of Havana — along with busloads of provincials — to line the streets.
Castro stopped in front of the Columbia Army Barracks and ceremoniously approached the podium and microphones that awaited him. It was the biggest crowd ever along the streets of Havana. After he’d begun talking, three white doves alighted on his podium, one landing on his shoulder. The crowds went absolutely wild. Most thought it was a sign from Providence: Fidel was “untouchable.” We were glued to the TV, in spite of just being little kids listening to a politician.
Mina’s cousin Eddy, a mostly unemployed bon vivant, was there also. Afterward he set out to regale the extended family about the event, to little response. He’d make the rounds of relatives ingratiating himself and cadging what he could. Mina didn’t care for him and called him a Communist. Chuchu, just a kid at the time but later to marry into our family, got to watch the procession from the balcony of his nearby home.
After Castro had begun talking, three white doves alighted on his podium, one landing on his shoulder. The crowds went absolutely wild.
In three days the TV spectacle switched to military tribunals set up to deal with members of the old regime, followed by executions before firing squads with screams of “Al paredon!” (To the firing wall!) This prime-time TV tableau vivant continued through January and into February, and trickled into March, with a break during Easter Week, by which time 483 “war criminals” had been executed — a little over half the total number of war dead on both sides during the two-year revolutionary war. Near the end of January, 100 “women in black” demonstrated against the executions. As many as 500 Batistianos — Batista partisans — were executed, with the US calling it a “bloodbath.” Had we not lost interest in the repetitive, propagandaish, and predictable drama, I sensed that Abuela might have tried to distract us with a game of cards.
In spite of this — after all, the nuances of the rule of law and due process were slippery to nonexistent in 9-year olds, and excused by most adults in the excitement of a well-intentioned revolution — all my family were middling-to-sympathetic Castro supporters. But one detail nagged me: Castro held no formal role in government. How did he wield so much influence? Perhaps it was a naïve question for a child, but it was prescient.
On February 16, Fidel replaced Miro Cardona as Prime Minister with himself. With Castro now holding a formal government post, things started to make sense to me. Kids just don’t understand power without position and titles. Twelve days after his appointment, Castro announced that “elections could not be held now because they would not be fair. We have an overwhelming majority at present and it is in the interest of the nation that the political parties become fully developed and their programs defined before elections are held.”
Revolutions, no matter how radical, always provide opportunities for profit. Sometime that winter or spring, the Felices Company, a sweets and canned guava producer, decided to sponsor a new idea — a set of 268 “baseball” cards that commemorated the Revolution and its leaders. The events depicted on the cards were rendered in colored line drawings, while photographs — like real baseball cards — depicted the Revolution’s leaders. Fidel was number 126; Raul, 127. The full collection, pasted into a bespoke album, traced the Revolution from 1952 to 1959. Production of the individual cards was dribbled out, both in time and quantity, to create a sense of drama and expectation. A flat slab of bubble gum accompanied each little packet of cards, the exact content of which was always somewhat indeterminate.
In three days the TV spectacle switched to military tribunals set up to deal with members of the old regime, followed by executions before firing squads with screams of “Al paredon!” (To the firing wall!)
This indeterminacy was a stroke of genius for the Felices Company. Kids might end up with many duplicates of the same card or a few hot-off-the-presses new cards. The resulting oversupply and scarcity created a hot trading market among kids, who were all racing to be the first to fill their albums and complete their set.
“I’ll give you two Almedias for one Che Guevara!”
“No way! Che is worth much more. One Almedia, one Chibas, and one Cubelas, and you can have Che.”
Kids who had absolutely no interest in baseball — me included — became avid collectors of the Revolution cards. Recess at St. Thomas became a swap meet for cards. Fights and impromptu games ceased. I don’t remember anyone not participating. Even my nerdy, chubby, reclusive, almost-albino friend, Urzurrun — nicknamed bola de nieve for his glaringly white complexion — started collecting the cards and pasting them in his album.
But it was the educational (some might say propaganda) benefit that these cards provided that was most overlooked. Little kids don’t read much; and what they overhear adults saying about current events is discrete, discontinuous, out of context, usually boring, and often misunderstood. These cards made history and current events come alive. Some of us memorized the names of all 16 Rebel Comandantes. We’d argue about the cause and effects of the events depicted on the cards, marvel at the deeds and atrocities, and elaborate speculatively about the events given short shrift.
Some of us even went so far as to read Castro’s “History Will Absolve Me” speech — his summing-up at the end of his trial in 1952 — that was printed in full on the inside back cover of the album. Had the speech been assigned reading for an eighth-grader, eyes would have glazed and rolled, homework would have been put off, and stern admonitions from teachers would have poured forth. But the Felices Company managed not only to make fourth-graders read and reread the speech, but to do it voluntarily and with enthusiasm.
I have no idea how much the Felices Company profited from this venture or even if they ever got to keep their profits, as money and property were confiscated bit by bit. But a recent Google search for Album de la Revolucion Cubana revealed that one leather-bound, mint condition, completed album sold for $100,000 at Sotheby’s. An old, ratty one like mine goes for about $1,500 on Ebay.
In mid-April Castro visited the US on a ten-day trip, where he was greeted everywhere by exuberant crowds. TV had more or less returned to normal broadcasting, but special events always received full coverage. Because the month before Castro had expropriated the properties of ITT (International Telephone and Telegraph Company) in Cuba and had taken over control of its affiliate, the Cuban Telephone Company (CTC), some of the reporters of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, his hosts, asked him outright whether he was a Communist. Castro publicly denied the allegations.
As the future would later reveal, Castro’s grudges would rival his speeches in endlessness.
Pop must have been somewhat reassured, in spite of owning 50 shares of CTC valued at $5,000 (about $50,000 in 2010 dollars). The Cuban Telephone Company was, after all, a public utility with a de facto monopoly — to many, an excusable target for government takeover. Telephone rates dropped.
But then, in mid-May, Castro signed the Agrarian Reform Act, which in a little over one year, expropriated nearly half the land in the country, forbade foreign land ownership, and nationalized cattle ranches. Farms were restricted to 13 km2 with other real estate holdings limited to 993 acres. The majority of expropriated property was retained by the government for state-run communes, while the remainder was redistributed to peasants in 67-acre parcels.
To implement the new law, Castro established the National Agrarian Reform Institute and named Che Guevara as its head. Expecting some resistance, Guevara created a special militia to enforce the reforms. Though he supported agrarian reform, Pop began to worry about the foreign ownership bit.
We owned a small 13.75 acre piece of rural land, Finca Leon, valued at $7,000. It was well below the maximum allotment and was not a farm, but it was definitely “foreign” owned.
By this time, Pop was hedging his bets — probably a strategy he would have used no matter how confident of the future he was. As a good businessman, he tended to minimize risk by not putting all his eggs in one basket. This took the form of creating diverse partnerships, limiting capital outlay, never becoming the official CEO of any enterprise, etc.
Meanwhile, President Urrutia, to allay growing fears of Communist infiltration of the government, declared himself a strong anti-Communist and began attacking the ideology. In response, Fidel Castro theatrically resigned as prime minister, demanding Urrutia’s resignation. In mid-July, Urrutia and his entire cabinet, pressured by Castro, newspapers, and a 500,000-strong protest march, resigned the presidency. A week after his own resignation, and in the presence of great public consternation, Castro resumed his post as prime minister, giving long speeches both when he resigned and again when he resumed the office. He replaced Urrutia with Osvaldo Dorticos Torrado, an obscure Cuban Communist Party lawyer, again without a vote.
Six months after gaining power, Castro made his first foreign revolutionary foray, in part to distract public opinion from the Urrutia cock-up: he attempted an invasion of the Dominican Republic. But it was an ill-planned, pathetically executed affair. Rafael Trujillo, the Dominican dictator — and a truly sadistic butcher — was perceived in Cuba as the twin of the much more benign Batista. Castro proudly declared that it was his duty to extend his revolution to the sister republic. It was a wildly popular move, because Trujillo had helped Batista. But the real reason was revenge. Trujillo had done everything he could to derail Castro’s revolution and, as the future would later reveal, Castro’s grudges would rival his speeches in endlessness.
Castro’s expeditionary force of 200 men was wiped out by Trujillo’s army, which had been tipped off and was awaiting them. (The ancillary irony is that when Batista fled, he sought refuge in Santo Domingo from Trujillo; but Trujillo held him hostage for months until Batista paid him a ransom of many millions of dollars from his ill-gotten gains. Then the Dominican President allowed him to fly into permanent exile in Portugal.) Undeterred, a month later Castro launched an identical operation against Haiti’s dictator, Papa Doc Duvalier. There were practically no survivors.
More troubling than the Agrarian Reform Act was the establishment of the ironically titled Ministerio de Recuperacion de Bienes Malversados (MRBM), or Ministry for the Recuperation of Ill-Gotten Gains. Established in January 1959, it at first focused on the recovery of the previous regime’s illicit proceeds. But it didn’t hit full stride until later that year, when it began going after exiles’ property. Its remit extended over every type of private property, owned by just about anybody, down to personal jewelry and silverware. Historian Herminio Portell-Vila says that it “functioned capriciously, without the rule of law, anarchically, settling cases hastily . . . and without the protection of [the courts].” It even ransacked banks’ safe-deposit boxes — without warrants — for loot. By the end of 1959, the MRBM had confiscated $58 million worth of property, a figure that would, by 1961, rise to over $400 million.
Pop hadn’t quite become like the proverbial slowly boiled frog, but he decided to take a break from the increasingly bad omens in Cuba with an old-fashioned car trip in the US with the family, visiting the recently opened Disneyland in California before the start of the 1959–60 school year.
The most absurd stretch of military rank protocol was Mexican President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna’s conferral of a state funeral with full military honors to his amputated leg.
Next to Fidel, 27-year-old Camilo Cienfuegos was the most popular Comandante in the Revolution — and he was probably more trusted, because of his unassuming, transparent demeanor. Che Guevara wasn’t even in the same league. Though popular, not only was he a foreigner, he was also an idealistic ideologue who wasn’t affected by the limelight. Not far down that line stood Comandante Huber Matos, who had been made military commander of Camagüey province.
Cuban military ranks had been subjected to curious political manipulations ever since 1933, Sergeant Fulgencio Batista led his non-commissioned officers’ coup against both the higher echelons and, by later, behind-the-scenes machinations, the government. He’d then promoted himself incrementally to colonel, then general.
Throughout Latin America, rank inflation since the wars for independence had gotten out of control, like incontinent old men engaging in a pissing contest. Titles such as field marshal, emperor, dictator-for-life, and most serene highness, all self-conferred and bandied about to a degree that relegated the rank of general to dogcatcher. Probably the most absurd stretch of military rank protocol was Mexican President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna’s conferral of a state funeral with full military honors to his amputated leg.
Fidel Castro took a different approach, even though his rank of Comandante, Commander, was also self-conferred. Comandante was the highest rank in the rebel army. There were only 16 Comandantes including Fidel. It was a stratagem that implied humility and equality, a fiction that the primus inter pares didn’t take long to dispel.
In late October 1959, Comandante Huber Matos, along with 14 of his officers, resigned, citing the appointment of Communists to key positions of power in the government. Suspecting that Matos was organizing counterrevolution, Fidel dispatched Camilo Cienfuegos to arrest him. But after talking to Matos, Camilo didn’t want to arrest him. He argued with Castro that Matos was an honorable man and should be allowed to resign for reasons of conscience, that Matos was no danger to the Revolution, that he was not planning an uprising, and that he was a man who kept his word. But Castro wasn’t moved. So Camilo arrested the 15 men and had them incarcerated. Afterward, he boarded a plane for Havana.
The plane never made it back.
Some believe Castro ordered it shot down, perhaps because Camilo was becoming too popular or because he questioned Castro’s orders after talking with Matos. Others think it simply disappeared over the ocean during the night flight. A few days’ search yielded nothing but speculation; speculation that, to this day, has only caused both sides to reach for more tenuous extremes of supporting evidence.
Though others were questioning Castro’s intentions, it was the Cienfuegos-Matos affair that put the first doubts about the Revolution in my 10-year-old mind. Matos was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment in the Carcel Modelo on the Isla de la Juventud (Isle of Pines). He served his full sentence, 16 years of it in solitary confinement, subjected to multiple beatings and torture. Afterward, he joined the Miami-based anti-Castro CID (Cuba Independiente y Democrática).
I wasn’t the only doubter. Matos’ conviction marked the end of the “revolutionary coalition” between moderates and radicals, and put the great Cuban exodus that continues to this day into high gear.
By mid-December, only nine of the original 21 ministers of the revolutionary government remained. With Raul Castro as Minister of Defense, Dorticos in the presidency, Guevara in charge of the Central Bank, and himself as Prime Minister, Castro had concentrated all the reins of power in his hands.
Money, instead of being the root of all evil, is the tangible, distilled essence of a person’s best efforts, a repository that allows him to store his labor and talents in tiny bits of otherwise useless paper and metal for later conversion to food, housing, clothing, transportation, dreams, and even love. For safekeeping, once the reservoir exceeds, say, a month’s earnings, people resort to the safety of a bank, where funds are guarded and insured. It is a sacred trust.
How Che Guevara, an Argentine doctor, became head of the Cuban National Bank owes more to ideology than to expertise. Soon after taking power, Fidel had to transition his confidants from military duties to civilian appointments. During one brainstorming session — according to a story Guevara told David Atlee Phillips (Pop’s CIA tenant) at a popular Cuban coffee house — Fidel asked who among them was a dedicated economist. Che Guevara, for some unknown reason, heard “dedicated communist.” His arm shot up, so Castro appointed him first, minister of industries, then Finance Minister, and finally, in November 1959, president of the National Bank.
The Argentine immediately began a series of draconian currency controls that, in effect, stole depositors’ money. But he did it incrementally, so that depositors wouldn’t withdraw all their money and run. Much later, between June and October 1960, these controls culminated in the nationalization of all the banks, and then, in a quick sleight-of-hand move, the introduction of a new currency, convertible only in limited amounts. Most Cubans’ life savings suddenly shrank or even disappeared.
Fidel asked who among them was a dedicated economist. Che Guevara, for some unknown reason, heard “dedicated communist.” His arm shot up, so Castro appointed him head of the Cuban National Bank.
I cannot begin to imagine the stress Pop and Mina were undergoing towards the end of 1959, but I’m certain they were no longer at all sanguine about the direction the Revolution was taking. I seldom saw either one — not that they’d confide their worries and troubles to us kids. In his action against the Cuban government, filed under the International Claims Settlement Act of 1949, Foreign Claims Settlement Commission of the United States, Pop would file a subclaim of $24,219 for “Impairment to health & loss of ability to work.”
It wasn’t just his immediate family that Howard was worrying himself sick about; it was also his employees, their families, their livelihoods. These were the people who depended on him and his businesses for a living. He was concerned about all of them equally. Pop came from a family who took in stray cats; who, upon encountering an upside-down beetle would stop to right it; who shooed away flies instead of killing them; who wrote poetry to pass the time — a family so shy, sensitive, quiet, and self-effacing that few of his siblings ever married, preferring to continue living together for the rest of their lives.
Christmas of 1959 revealed little of the brewing storm. The big public controversy was Castro’s suggestion that true Cuban patriots should decorate a palm tree for Christmas instead of an imported pine tree and should relegate Santiclos to the dustbin of history. We stuck to a locally grown pine tree.
Pop and Mina went all out. When we kids awoke at 5 AM and tiptoed down the stairs to see what Santiclos had brought, there were more presents under that tree than I had ever seen. But the pièce de résistance was the elaborate, full-scale Lionel train set with my name on it; one which, when it came time to leave the island, I was forced to leave behind.
I well remember New Year’s 1960. Alone, at the end of one of the streets that butted up to the Almendares Barranca, I reflected on my life thus far, and on the new decade and the changes that might come. As I sat on the inner barricade, when midnight struck I said goodbye to the ’50s, realizing in amazement that they were forever gone and would never return — their events now part of the past. And I wondered what the new decade, the ’60s, would bring. It was so curious, so concretely surreal, to stand at the exact threshold between my first and second decade. At the moment the clock struck 12 (not that I had a watch; the instant was marked by distant bells, bangs, and fireworks) I felt the pang of the irreversible passage of time, forever irretrievable.
A few minutes after midnight, I wandered home. No one questioned my whereabouts.
* * *
Not everyone welcomed the New Year as reflectively as I had.
Now that Che Guevara held the three most important economic portfolios in Cuba — president of the National Bank, minister of industry, and head of Agrarian Reform — he began rapidly extricating the Cuban economy from world markets and bringing it into dependence on the Soviet Bloc. His first moves, to sever Cuba’s ties with the Inter-American Development Bank and from the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (aka the World Bank), were coupled with a sweetheart trade agreement with the USSR.
On February 6, Soviet Deputy Prime Minister Anastas Mikoyan visited Cuba and signed a preferential Trade and Payments Agreement worth $100 million in oil, petroleum products, wheat, iron, fertilizers, and machinery for . . . sugar. With the exits from the IADB and the World Bank, the Castro regime destroyed the traditional geopolitical ties between Cuba and the Western world. Full diplomatic relations with the USSR were established in May after having been severed by Batista seven years previously, after his coup in 1952. Ironically, it had been Batista who first established diplomatic relations with the USSR, back in 1943, and who had brought a number of Communists into his government, albeit without voting rights.
United States responses to these moves began as early as October 1959 with preliminary studies, and took actual form in January 1960. Concerned about the possibility of another attempted Soviet military base in the Western Hemisphere only five years after the overthrow of the Marxist Arbenz regime in Guatemala, President Eisenhower ordered the CIA to create a Cuba Task Force to draft overt and covert response scenarios to the deteriorating diplomatic and human rights situation.
There are many misconceptions surrounding the US Central Intelligence Agency. Its basic remit is to gather information about foreign governments in order for the US to design an effective and appropriate foreign policy. Since the US cannot depend on CNN and Fox News for its information, it must depend on on-the-ground, on-the-spot sources abroad, along with satellite and electronic surveillance. This is called “spying” — an essential operation for a practical and engaged foreign policy. It is not a “government onto itself,” is not a military organization, does not have any law enforcement capabilities, took no part in Watergate, and is very limited in its domestic intelligence gathering. Its operatives have a GS 1-15 government employee rating and are subject to normal federal regulations.
The CIA, under specific executive branch orders, also promotes democracy in its wider sense: not just electoral democracy, but also individual rights and free markets. As to “overt” and “covert” actions, the first refers to US military operations; the second to aiding and organizing homegrown resistance against despotic regimes. Covert operations are impossible without credible and widespread domestic opposition within the target country. Since 1960, counterterrorism and nonproliferation of nuclear weapons have been added to the CIA’s priorities.
We kids had no inkling of the gravity of the impending changes until Nana, after playing at a neighbor’s house, came home one evening with trivial gossip. Marcia, her friend, had sat her down conspiratorially on the bed to confide something her mom had told her: that “everyone will soon be leaving Cuba by boat because of the Communists.”
Nana’s talk with Mina produced more of a shotgun shell of hidden queries than a comment: What did Marcia’s mom mean? How could everyone leave Cuba by boat? Were we going to leave Cuba in a boat?
Mamá approached her response slowly and thoughtfully, first saying that talking politics was impolite, but then, after a long pause, adding that it was “dangerous to talk politics.”
Whether 9-year-old Nana could make the connection between politics — as in elections and voting on the one hand — and leaving Cuba by boat on the other hand (this also being a kind of “politics“) is questionable, though she already had a healthy fear of Communism, not just from her catechism classes but from watching movies of the Spanish Civil War. At that age Nana was too slow and shy for followup questions. Nonetheless, Mamá’s response and the way she delivered it made a deep and lasting impression on Nana.
An even more blatant incident went completely over my own head. I had been assigned a poem to memorize and recite at an upcoming public forum at St. Thomas, celebrating something I can’t recall. When the day arrived, Mina was present, sitting with all the proud parents and attendees on movable bleachers. In between presentations, the St. Thomas Military Academy brass band played martial music. For a short while, I took center stage.
My father arrived at his Envases Modernos paper factory to be welcomed by big red graffiti on the yellow walls urging “Miller al paredon!”
I don’t remember being nervous or even the gist of the poem, but there was only perfunctory applause afterward, even though my recitation had been flawless. At the close of the ceremonies, Mina was nowhere to be found. I waited patiently by the car for her appearance. After a while I spotted her marching around the corner, headed for me, all four horsemen of the Apocalypse in one big bundle of angry woman. Steam was coming out of her head, but she said nothing during the drive home. I retreated into inconspicuousness, unwilling to experience any collateral damage from that critical mass.
Later, I overheard her and Pop discussing the incident. Mina thought the poem was un-American. But not just “un-American” — it was a load of scurrilous lies made to be delivered by a 10-year-old American kid to a Cuban audience. Mina took it personally. But she also didn’t take it as an isolated incident. She was connecting dots that led all the way up from a poem at St. Thomas through the new public policy ukases now filtering into education at even private schools, to Fidel Castro himself.
I was later to glean that it was this incident that, for Mina, sealed our exit. Trivial as it seemed, compared to the conflicts Pop must have been struggling with, forthcoming events were to indicate that he doggedly insisted on reconciling irreconcilable views. His concern for the family butted up against his optimism that everything would not turn out as bad as the Cassandras perceived. Mina’s insistence convinced him to leave, yet he remained frustratingly diffident. He took no concrete steps to divest himself of Cuban assets, thinking that his businesses and expertise would be beneficial to the new order — or, since I’m trying to delve into a mind long gone — he did not want to raise any red flags with the regime by appearing to think about leaving the sinking ship.
But a sinking ship it was. By March 1960 the New York Times had reported five serious anti-Castro groups operating out of Miami. Soon after, President Eisenhower initiated the by-now 55-year-old embargo. The embargo terminated US Cuban sugar purchases, ended US oil deliveries to the island, continued the arms embargo of 1958, begun so as not to take sides in the Revolution, and authorized a “Covert Action Plan Against Cuba,” which included the organization of a paramilitary force of Cuban exiles to overthrow Castro — what was to become the Bay of Pigs invasion.
One week after Eisenhower’s authorization, David Atlee Phillips, our old tenant, was appointed Director of Propaganda for the Cuba Operation. He immediately began the project to set up and run Radio Swan, the disinformation arm of the operation. This powerful CIA anti-Castro radio campaign was based on Swan Island, an uninhabited tiny dot in the Caribbean halfway between Nicaragua and Cuba, but claimed by Honduras. Starting out with 40 CIA operatives, nearly 600 noncombatants were to be involved in the Bay of Pigs operation — as trainers, organizers, technical experts, and all-round fixers.
Just before the Easter holidays of 1960, Castro ordered an island-wide strike against foreign-owned businesses. My father arrived at his Envases Modernos paper factory to be welcomed by big red graffiti on the yellow walls urging “Miller al paredon!” (Miller to the firing squad wall). He realized that it hadn’t been painted by his workers; he knew them all too well and shared a mutual trust and affection with them. To him, it looked more like Fidel’s handwriting on the wall — a much more troubling scenario. His diffidence disappeared.
Pop drove to the AIC offices downtown and told Hilda Navarro, his secretary, “I’ve got to leave.”
Hilda, a large, fun-loving, twinkle-in-her-eye woman, was incredulous. She responded, “Nonsense, I can live under any government,” and agreed to hold down the fort for what they both believed would only be a temporary interlude. Later, after the “temporary” became wishful thinking, she wrote to Pop asking for help in seeking exile. She successfully escaped from Cuba.
Two days later, under the guise of going on vacation, my father and mother and we three kids left for Merida, Yucatan, carrying a suitcase apiece and $25 each. My grandmother, Ana Maria Diaz y Otazo, stayed. She was too old and too Cuban to leave, and too parsimonious to abandon our grand mayoral residence to the clutches of Castro, as the new revolutionary law was very soon to require.
Over the course of the spring and summer, Cuba nationalized all US companies and properties, singling out oil companies and banks. Meanwhile, Eisenhower’s Covert Action Plan Against Cuba went into full swing. Work began on a 5,000-foot runway at an airfield at Retalhuleu in Guatemala to supply the Cuban exile force that was training in the nearby mountains on the Pacific coast of Guatemala.
Pop didn’t even leave the airport. An associate who met him there warned him to leave immediately, as there was a warrant out for his arrest.
Although the entire operation was meant to be top secret, almost from the start it became an open secret, with Castro’s secret police and even journalists discovering and reporting on the operation. But I doubt that Pop was aware of it.
In a vain attempt to salvage some of his business interests, he flew back to Havana in the fall. He carried 5-year-old Patsy with him. Why, I can’t fathom. Either Pop was still in a state of partial denial as to the danger he was in, or it was a temptation to draw Abuela into exile with us. Either way, it was foolhardy.
On October 13 — virtually coinciding with his visit — the Urban Reform Act took effect. This legislation effectively outlawed the sale or rental of residential property. Existing rents that were not covered by the act were cut in half. Additional protocols stipulated ratios of inhabitants to floor space. To hang on to our big house — and to avoid eviction — Abuela invited the remaining servants’ relatives to move in with her. Most of Carmen’s immediate family took up the offer. Other, separate legislation nationalized nearly 400 Cuban companies.
Pop didn’t even leave the airport. An associate who met him there warned him to leave immediately, as there was a warrant out for his arrest. Later, my father was to successfully lobby the Kennedy administration to pass legislation to allow the deduction of Cuban property losses through the federal income tax.
* * *
Uncle John was more bullheaded — in spite of Aunt Marta’s persistent nagging about the fact that Howard and Mina had left, that Howard was smart, that Mina wouldn’t do something stupid, that he didn’t want his sons to come to any harm, and that blah, blah, blah . . . But Uncle John was a tough operator and took pride in obstinately resisting Marta. In October he finally relented and sent Marta and his sons Johnny and Richard off to the US. He, however, stayed behind, hoping to salvage something of his rapidly disappearing life’s work.
Even worse was the shipping of 1,000 kids to the Soviet Union in January of 1961 for schooling.
What he thought of Operation Pedro Pan, I’ll never know. Over the course of the summer and fall, the Castro regime had closed all parochial schools and expelled the nuns and priests who ran them, taking over the operation of all primary and secondary schools. Cuban parents were aghast. They feared the indoctrination of their children by the government; they feared that the Castro regime would take away their parental authority. Remembering the airlift of Spanish children to the USSR during the Spanish Civil War for “safety and education,” and paying heed to the alarming rumors going about, over 10,000 worried parents, led by James Baker, the headmaster of our kindergarten alma mater, Ruston Academy, and with the help of the Catholic Church and the US government — to the tune of a million dollars and visa waivers — organized an airlift of 14,000 children to Miami the day after Christmas.
Their fears turned out to have been altogether too true. Under the guise of the Literacy Campaign of 1960 and School Goes to the Countryside, thousands of kids were removed from their homes for 45-day periods to camp with their teachers in farming cooperatives, combining education with productive work. According to Flor Fernandez Barrios in her book, Blessed by Thunder, the abuse and punishment for nonconformity at the camps was nearly as bad as having to eat your own vomit.
Even worse was the shipping of 1,000 kids to the Soviet Union in January of 1961 for schooling.
When, on January 3 of 1961, the US severed diplomatic relations with Cuba, Uncle John finally left, in the vanguard of what was to become an exodus of over one million Cubans during the next two decades.
Robert H. Miller is a builder, outdoor adventure guide, and author of Kayaking the Inside Passage: A Paddler's Guide from Olympia, Washington to Muir Glacier, Alaska.
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