During the Cold War the United States government spent tens perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars seeking the death of their greatest perceived communist nemesis in the Western hemisphere, Fidel Castro. He was everything business interests and corporations feared, a formerly rich person who embraced violent populism, nationalization of industry, and overturning the established order of Cuban society for communal doctrine. Years passed and the foretold implosion of the Castro regime failed to materialize due in part to widespread popularity and the brutal repression of dissident voices. This left a stark enemy camped just less than one hundred miles from the United States and Castro began to dominate the imagination of several anti-Communist leaders. Yet what if Fidel Castro was not the true communist influence but instead just the dominant ego of the regime, what if all those failed plots were not just a costly series of failures but failed targeting the right Castro.
The chance for amicable relations between Cuba and the United States following the Cuban Revolution in nineteen fifty-nine seemed more likely in the early winter of that year. According to one document, President Eisenhower had appointed a replacement Cuban Ambassador to smooth over relations and prevent the prior officeholder's support for the defunct Batista regime from affecting diplomacy. When the Eisenhower administration's new ambassador met his diplomatic counterpart, the American president hoped for an "ever closer relationship between Cuba and the United States."i International relations seemed poised to make significant progress in the wake of Cuba's revolution if these two governments located common ground.
Regrettably, a meeting between Fidel Castro and American Vice-President Richard Nixon seemed to initiate a dramatic slide in diplomatic relations. "Castro left the meeting convinced that Nixon was hostile towards Cuba. Nixon's impression of Castro's communist beliefs led him to recommend President Eisenhower take measures to quash the Cuban revolution. According to the recollections of Ambassador Bonsal, Nixon perceived the situation to be so serious that he advocated an active role by the CIA in providing arms, ammunition, and training of Cuban exiles for use against the Cuban government."ii These suggestions would form government policy in the following decade as more unlikely and exotic methods to dispose of Castro proved beyond the ability of related leaders.
On repeated occasions in the early days of his power, Fidel Castro stated that Cuba was "neither Communist or Capitalist, while his brother Raul Castro clearly and specifically identifies the Cuban revolt with the previous Communist government of Guatemala". The Central Intelligence Agency prior in nineteen fifty-four overthrew the fallen Communist allied government of Jacobo Arbenz held in esteem by Raul Castro on the orders of Eisenhower administration. Raul also told public media that he admired communist leaders such as China's Mao Tse-tung and that capitalists were the common enemy of Cuba and other communist aligned nations. Yet not everyone in the CIA believed Nixon's claim that Fidel Castro represented the primary communist threat.
Leo Cherne was an economist, lawyer, advised nine United States presidents, and was a Central Intelligence Agency adviser. During nineteen fifty-nine, Cherne reported in one of his many political journals that Fidel Castro was not the organizing force of the Communist rise in his government. Castro's relationship with the Eisenhower administration had soured but he was not yet avowedly communist. Conversely, his brother Raul Castro was steeped deeply in the Marxism that later defined Cuba's new government. Cherne advised that Raul's place in Cuba's developing society were "misunderstood and underestimated". "Although Raul's influence within the Revolution is not new, his public emergence as the real organizer of the government is significant." While Fidel Castro operated as the supreme leader of the regime, he left the details of establishing and implementing desired laws to his brother.
Fidel tasked Raul with selecting key appointments in the government that included the Cuban president, armed forces leadership, and government control of land reforms. These land reforms would include the nationalization of foreign businesses that seized all the holdings multiple powerful corporations. While undertaking a consistent political doctrine under communist tenets, Raul additionally used his political influences to remove or intimidate political moderates into compliance with his ideology. The younger Castro brother was effectively manipulating a growing discord with the United States that Nixon had so foolishly began. Cherne notes, "Whether Fidel Castro fully realizes it or not, he had by now all but lost the ability to balance off Raul's power by backing moderates or middle class figures." The CIA adviser clarifies the Castro brothers have differed in policy before such as when Raul launched a military invasion of Panama and his forces kidnapped United States citizens without consulting Fidel. The Cuban Premier did not support Raul's brazen move and he ordered the immediate withdrawal of all forces. By curtailing this and other dangerous gambits the more pragmatic Fidel understood a powerful enemy nation might crush the infant revolutionary government if sufficiently incited.
Failures of policy and the compelling desire to strike at this potential threat overwhelmed most contending analysis. While Fidel was publicly opposed to training outside expeditionary revolution forces abroad, Raul supported the development of such forces in Haiti, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic. The older brother previously insisted on just the exportation of revolutionary ideas, Raul instead was committed to the "export of revolutionary muscle." Fidel at one event joked, "If anything should happen to me...you will have my more violent brother to contend with."iii It may be the Congressional testimony of a former leading Cuban military officer to the United States government took the rightful communist suspicion from Raul and transferred it to a more visible figure.
The analysis of Leo Cherne after visiting Cuba multiple times in nineteen fifty-nine states that former Cuban Air Force Chief Pedro Diaz Lanz labeled Fidel Castro a communist distorted the matter. Diaz Lanz following his defection was prevented from giving information to intelligence organizations for confirmation until after his testimony to garner maximum effect in the press. This public intervention by America "at the hands of Senator Eastland, who is an open admirer of Dictator Trujillo" was a serious mistake diplomatically. "Nothing could better suit the Latin American Communists or more impede the work of U.S. Embassies or the State Dep't." Unfortunately, the subsequent American government policy targeting Fidel Castro using assassination was more akin to the interventionist activities favored by Raul. This undoubtedly led Fidel to embrace his brother's call to purge capitalism from Cuba and consider all nations supporting it as their lethal political enemy.
The American State Department did not appreciate Cherne's unvarnished appraisal of developments in Cuba that did not conform to popular government sentiments. When CIA representatives consulted the State Department on Cherne's upcoming report they replied thinking "it was a good idea for Cherne to make an honest, factual report; however, that they would like to have him, in his report, stick as close to Department policy as possible." Official haste to protect departmental policy would force Cherne to minimize some of the useful information and the primary mover toward Communism in Cuba would remain hidden.iv This disastrous miscalculation would feasibly realign the perceived status of which Castro brother was the primary communist threat.
A CBS news program debating the slide of island nation into a Communist dictatorship featured Cuban delegate to the United Nations Carlos Lechuga who declared, "Cuba is rapidly becoming one of the most solid democracies of the hemisphere."v The Castro representative states despite "the mass executions" that followed Castro's ascension in the early days of his rule it was not true that opposition voices were suppressed. Additionally, popular "reforms" of the Cuban government included the violent or financial disruption of opposition press along ideological lines.vi Each unlawful act verified the worst claims about Castro while distancing any chance of finding common ground. While Cuba under Castro was indeed not yet a declared communist state, the island was never a functional democracy following the introduction of state approved domestic purges.
Attempts by the United States to interfere in Cuban interests against some popular reforms, retaliatory actions of the Cuban government, and the poor diplomacy between national leaders set further political gears into motion. As the arrest, torture, and execution of Cuban dissidents continued Raul Castro visited Moscow on a diplomatic mission and Ernesto "Che" Guevara declared in the press "the Revolution was on the road set by Marx" and seemingly this path in Cuba became nearly inevitable.vii The same year the Eisenhower administration increased economic trade pressures on Cuba and authorized Nixon's suggested arming and training of Cuban rebels to overthrow Castro. The Central Intelligence Agency employed Mafia leaders to consider assassinating Fidel Castro and things quickly spiraled into a series of repeated failed undertakings that became a legendary example of official skulduggery.
American leaders chose embracing clandestine operations in spite of useful opposing intelligence analysis to the great detriment of policy. Why did they ignore repeated signs indicating not Fidel but Raul Castro was the seeming communist threat guiding Cuba to a political conflict with opposition governments? Administrators wasted a colossal amount of resources, agents, and years in futile assassination efforts and the Bay of Pigs nearly sparked a war. If they had been successful in their limitless desire and Raul Castro had assumed power in the shadow of his politically martyred brother, how many people in both nations would have died in the resulting violence for killing the wrong Castro?
i. House Select Committee on Assassinations, Segregated Central Intelligence Agency file, No Title, p. 1, National Archives and Records Administration Identification Number: 180-10142-10396
ii. Ibid, p. 3
iii. HSCA, Seg. CIA file, Reel 4, Folder B, Cherne-Conte, Cherne, Leo, Urgent report on Cuba, August 1, 1959 pp. 1-2, 1994.03.09.09:22:49:750005
iv. Ibid, Telephone Conversation with Leo Cherne, July 27, 1959, pp. 1-2
v. Ibid, "Is Cuba Going Red? Pat II", May 28, 1959, p. 4
vi. HSCA, Seg. CIA file, No Title, p. 2
vii. Ibid. p. 4