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“It’s in the genes.” Javier Figueroa de Cárdenas is a relative of Miguel Figueroa, a brilliant 19th century autonomist. Autonomism was a way of being patriotic in Cuba, especially since the “Pact of Zanjón,” which in 1878 put an end to the “Ten Years War,” until 1898 when the United States tipped the balance in favor of the Cuban insurrection.
The independentism promoted by José Martí defeated autonomism, but, as the most reliable historians recognize today, the best Cuban minds were autonomists: Rafael Montoro, Antonio Govín, José María Gálvez, Eduardo Dolz, Figueroa himself, and a very long etcetera. Unfortunately, the experiment only lasted 20 years (from 1878 to 1898,) the same period that the “Liberal Autonomist Party” lasted —the first political entity that emerged in an independent Cuba.
Javier Figueroa is an excellent professional historian. I met him with Sylvia, his wife, in Puerto Rico, where he taught until he retired. He got his Ph.D. from the University of Connecticut, and he has published a remarkable book, with more than 700 pages and almost 2000 footnotes, which he called “The Unfinished Dream: A History of the Student Revolutionary Directorate (DRE). Cuba 1959-1966.”
The unfinished dream and the “Spanish pax”
Why is it called The Unfinished Dream? Because Cuba has not been liberated, and democracy has not been restored, as Alberto Muller, Juan Manuel Salvat, and Ernesto Fernández Travieso —the three founders of the DRE— proposed at the beginning of the adventure in 1961. And why could they not achieve it? Somehow, this first review tries to address that issue. In fact, Cuba and all of Latin America pay to be far from the European fight arena. They pay (and charge) for the Spanish isolation. The 19th century brought the destruction of the “Spanish pax.”
For several centuries Spain had kept her colonies on the sidelines of European crises, only bothered by the actions of pirates and corsairs. But Napoleon appeared in European history, invaded Spain and, after a moment of doubt, the Latin American people became independent, except for Cuba and Puerto Rico. (I know I am oversimplifying, but this is not the place to detail the hypothesis.)
Not all were costs, of course. There were some advantages. To the extent that Spain did not participate in the two world wars, with their enormous share of blood and destruction, but with the relative advantages of the two post-war years. Latin America continued to be perceived as something different, even though language, religion, the layout of the streets, the division of powers, and the rest of the symptoms pointed to Europe itself, led by Spain and Portugal, sticking its head out across the Atlantic.
Fidel Castro was a disciplined communist
Thus, on January 1, 1959, came the news that Fulgencio Batista, president and (not so) strong man of the country, had fled the island, leaving his army completely helpless. In the US embassy in Havana, there was total confusion. Some accuse Fidel of being a communist. Others, of being, fundamentally, “fidelista.” There are even some (the fewest) who think that he is an “anti-communist democrat.”
A few weeks must pass to unravel the mystery. It happened in April 1959. But the outcome is not at all clear. Castro travels to the USA that spring. The press association has invited him. He announces that he will go as part of “Operation Truth” to contradict those who oppose the executions.
Ike Eisenhower, president, and Richard Nixon, vice president, are in the White House. On April 19th, Nixon invited Castro to visit him. Eisenhower is not available. He has some urgent golf games. The VP writes a short memo in which he characterizes Fidel as charismatic (which he is) and as “incredibly naïve” regarding communism (which he is not) or a “disciplined communist” with all its consequences (which he is.) But Nixon’s opinion was not taken seriously by Ike.
Until the beginning of the next year, 1960, an election year in which, in the November elections, Kennedy was preferred over Nixon at the end of the year. However, Eisenhower adopted the wrong strategy, perhaps due to a misunderstanding of the Cuban drift that forged the presence of atomic weapons pointing at the United States from Cuba, just 90 miles away.
Let me be clear. Stalin died on March 5th, 1953. With him, he had taken to the grave the notion that the Latin American people should wait for the American revolution to assault the “winter palace.” That was the talk of Earl Browder and Browderism. Fidel Castro had shown that a communist revolution could be made at a stone’s throw from the USA. Everything depended on what Moscow was willing to risk.
Those were the days of Khrushchev, who believed the future would be communist. He thought that the USA was a giant “Potemkin village.” The first object had left Earth and headed for outer space. It was Russian. The USSR was winning the space race. There were reasons to be confused.
In 1966 it wasn’t like that. But what could Eisenhower have done in the last year of his second term, in 1960? Perhaps, understand Fidel Castro’s danger, admit that Latin America was one more region of the European side facing the communist challenge, and act accordingly. That meant that he should openly engage his armies and not uselessly try to hide behind the CIA, created at the beginning of the “Cold War” in the late 1940s.
This course of action only contradicted the widespread prejudice that Latin America was not part of the same value system of the Western nations, subscribed to by Eisenhower. And Fidel Castro should not be taken seriously by his enemies. (It is said in Cuba, sotto voce, that on that first trip to the US, after the triumph of the revolution, a drunken Congressman, Republican or Democrat — in this case it makes absolutely no difference — stared at Fidel Castro, tried playfully to take his hands, and just said, “Oh, Fidel Castro, Cha-Cha-Cha!” The Maximum Leader, as he was called then, looked at him in astonishment.)
A book about Cuba from 1959 to 1966
It gave me great joy that the author gathered in one volume so many scattered friends or even dead or executed: Virgilio Campanería, Manolo Salvat, Alberto Muller, Joaquín Pérez Rodríguez, José Basulto, Juanito de Armas, Emilio Martínez Venegas, Nicolás Pérez, Huber Matos, Rolando Cubelas, Miguelón García Armengol, Ramón Cernuda, Luis Fernández Rocha, Ignacio Uría, Pedro Subirats, José María de Lasa, Miguel Lasa, Pedro Roig, José Antonio González Lanuza, José Ignacio Rasco, Manuel Artime, Fernando García Chacón, and so many others that would make this chronicle a useless catalog of names.
It occurs to me that the same scruples that Muller, Salvat, and Ernesto Fernández Travieso had in accepting the CIA aid were shared by all the groups and personalities that joined the fight in that first wave. To what extent was it honorable to receive financial aid from the CIA?
José Miró Cardona, engineer Manuel Ray and the People’s Revolutionary Movement (MRP), Manuel Artime at the head of the Revolutionary Recovery Movement (MRR), Tony Varona with his Revolutionary Rescue (RR), and all the organizations with their acronyms in tow had severe doubts about accepting the aid offered by the CIA. Perhaps they didn’t know that the collaboration between the USSR and Fidel Castro began as soon as the revolution began.
Angelito Martínez Riosola
Indeed, the party of Cuban communists, the PSP, took over State Security at the beginning of the revolution and put a man trained by the KGB at its helm. On March 4th, 1960, when Eisenhower became convinced of Fidel Castro’s communist drift and asked the CIA to put together a response, it was already too late. That same day, Soviet General Francisco Ciutat de Miguel arrived from Curaçao to take charge of the defense of the communist tyranny that had emerged in Cuba. On the Island, he was called “Angelito Martínez Riosola” by direct appointment of Fidel Castro.
The CIA was not effective at all in fighting the KGB. It was even almost lost in Guatemala in 1954. Despite this, they entrusted the same team with preparing a response plan. The infiltrations it made behind the Iron Curtain were all annihilated. It was an extremely unfair fight.
Salvat ended up selling books in Miami, Miró Cardona teaching law in Puerto Rico, and Ray exercising his profession as a builder of cheap prefabricated houses. In short, the first batch settled for “the unfinished dream.” Downhearted, Santiago Álvarez told me that the Kennedys would have solved the issue, but I don’t know. They would have to use the US armies or wait for the inherent inability of the collectivist economy to produce goods and services, to cause specific changes that would wipe out the system. That’s what we’re waiting for.
This article is part of a partnership between El American and Interamerican Institute for Democracy.
Carlos Alberto Montaner es periodista, escritor y político cubano. Su trabajo ha sido distinguido por la Comunidad Autónoma de Madrid, el Instituto Juan de Mariana, entre otros // Carlos Alberto Montaner is a Cuban journalist, writer and politician. His work has been distinguished by the Autonomous Community of Madrid, the Juan de Mariana Institute, among others.