For the past 50 years the Cuban people have been fighting a war against terrorism that has cost the lives of more than 3,400, with further thousands injured. And while America’s current campaign against the scourge of terrorism has been of upmost concern to the international community, Cuba’s battle has been fought in almost complete obscurity.
Few outside this small island know the extent of the damage that has been wrought. But inside Cuba there is but a small number among the 11 million who have not be affected, directly or indirectly.
The great irony of this conflict is that the vast majority of the terrorist acts have been committed by counter-revolutionary organisations based in and supported by the United States. In fact, American policy was directly responsible for such terror programs as Operation Mongoose, developed shortly after the Bay of Pigs failure in 1961.
Not counting the attempts against the life of Fidel Castro and others in the top echelon of government, the terrorism has been overwhelmingly directed at the average Cuban. The intention has been to impel the population to a level of desperation and insecurity where they would rise up and overthrow the Castro regime. Robert Kennedy in the early 1960s reportedly wanted “to bring the terrors of the earth” to Cuba, according to JFK adviser and historian Arthur Schlesinger, while 30 years later Representative Robert Torricelli desired “to wreck havoc” on the island.
While the terrorism has not resulted in a popular uprising, it has led to the development of a siege mentality that has had a detrimental effect on social, political and economic advancements. In addition, this unknown war against terrorism has impacted greatly on the Cuban government’s shaping of national policies and international relations – influences still being felt today.
Airline bombers walk free in Miami
Of all the acts of terrorism against Cuba, the most devastating remains the bombing of Cubana Airlines Flight 455 on October 6, 1976. All 73 on board were killed, including members of the Cuban fencing team coming back from a tournament in Venezuela.
Cuban-born Luis Posada Carriles and Orlando Bosch have long been recognized as the masterminds of the bombing. The two continue to live unfettered in Miami.
Even though the Cubana Airlines bombing happened more than 30 years ago, the families of the victims continue to suffer. People like Haymel Espinosa Gomez, daughter of co-pilot Miguel, whose last words from the flight recorder have been heard thousands of times in Cuba. Every anniversary of the bombing is given extensive media coverage in Cuba, bringing back all of Haymel’s pain and suffering.
Jorge De La Nuez is a 40 year old office worker in Havana. His father was the head of a fishing delegation that was on board the doomed flight. Jorge Jr. was five years old when his mother told him he’d never see his father again, and he still remembers vividly the sense of betrayal – that somehow he did something wrong and that his dad was punishing him by not coming back.
While Cubana Airlines was the most infamous act, it represents just a small fraction of the victims. The explosion of La Coubre in Havana harbor on March 4, 1960 devastated Old Havana. The French vessel was carrying a load of Belgium munitions, one of the few shipments that passed under the pressure the American government was exerting on countries not to sell weapons to Cuba. The steamship was rocked by two explosions, the second described as like a nuclear blast.
More than 100 were killed and 300 injured. One who survived was Juan Luis Rodriguez, who went to investigate following the first detonation. While attempting to dump a truck load of grenades into the harbor before they went off, the ship’s second blast brought down a rain of debris - one large piece ripping off Juan’s left leg. Just moments before, Juan had helped force three people away from the scene, in the process most likely saving their lives. The trio, Fidel Castro, Raul Castro and Che Gueverra, had rushed to the area in an attempt to co-ordinate the rescue operation.
In 1960, just a year after the Revolution, the Cuban government instituted a number of important social programmes – including the literacy campaign.
The operation involved hundreds of thousands of teenage volunteers tutoring farmers to read and write. It also resulted in the murder of more than a dozen teachers and their adult students. One of them, Manuel Ascunce was 16 years old on November 15 1961. He was instructing Pedro Lantigua, 30 years his senior when counter-revolutionaries broke into the home during one of the sessions. Ascunce and Lantigua were taken into a near-by forest, where the teenager was beaten, stabbed more than 14 times and hung from a tree while still alive. Lantigua suffered a similar fate.
An entire village was terrorized in late 1971 when Boca de Sama came under attack by members of Alpha 66. Two residents were killed, eight others wounded. Carlos Andres Escalante was shot eight times as he tried to defend the schoolhouse. He survived, as did the Pavon family, who had a home on a hill overlooking the village. During the fighting a number of 50 caliber bullets smashed through their house, one hitting 15-year-old Nancy. The projectile shattered her right foot, leaving it hanging by the tendons. Desperate, the family stumbled into the darkness, and after hours of terror evading the bandits, was finally able to make it to the safety of a neighbour.
In the early 1980s Cuba suffered from an array of biological terrorism, according to government scientists. These experts, including United Nation specialists, point to the substantial evidence to conclude that a variety of diseases were intentionally introduced into Cuba. One of the worst was Dengue 2. In six months from June to November 1981 more than 300,000 cases were being reported along a line from Havana to Cienfuegos and Camaguey. More than 100 children died.
Ana Elba Caminero was living in a neighborhood near the Havana airport when she was faced with the horror of seeing her two daughters Janet and Isnaviz come down with headache, fever, and aching bones. Both soon started vomiting blood. At the time the Cuban doctors could not identify the affliction as there was no previous known history in Cuba of Dengue 2. One day later Janet, six years old at the time, died. The same day Janet was buried the mother had to visit the hospital to comfort Isnaviz, who was aware her younger sister had just died of the same disease she had. Fortunately, a few days later the 12-year-old recovered and Cuban authorities were able to identify the infection.
Terrorists attempt to undermine tourism
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, the Cuban government quickly moved towards opening up the country’s tourist sector to gain much needed hard currency. It wasn’t long after that the terrorists responded. In 1997 a series of explosions shattered hotels in Havana and Varadero. An Italian tourist, Fabio de Celmo, died when a bomb destroyed the lobby of the Hotel Copacabana.
Others were luckier. Nicolas Rodriguez Valdes was the barman at Cuba’s most famous café, Bodegita del Medio, when a bomb blew out the top floor of the Havana restaurant in September 1997. While no one was killed, dozens including Nicolas were severely injured. Remarkably, just moments before the explosion Rodriguez agreed to have his picture taken with a tourist who turned out to be Ernesto Cruz Leon, the Salvadorian later arrested and convicted with planting the Bodegita bomb.
In response to these attacks the Cuban government has been forced into a virtual siege to protect itself and its citizens. Initially the government instituted a series of internal surveillance programs, the most comprehensive known as the CDR. The Committee for the Defense of the Revolution was intended for neighbors to watch and report on any suspicious behavior in an attempt to thwart further terrorist acts.
The development of those surveillance systems and the need for internal security has been a contributing factor to the restrictions of certain civil liberties, low tolerance of organised opposition, suppression of dissidents perceived to be in the employ of the United States and the hesitancy to move towards a more pluralistic society for fear of weakening the strength through solidarity required to combat this war against terrorism. The government has also been forced to divert vast sums of money, manpower and resources to maintain security and defense systems far in advance of what most small nations require. It has come at the expense of improvements to infrastructure, health and educational facilities, and the expansion of social programs.
Cuba has had few options to combat the terrorist war. One of the most important methods has been the infiltration of the suspected terrorist groups in Florida with counter-intelligence agents, which has been accomplished successfully in the past, but has led to the imprisonment of the Cuban Five, currently serving excessively long jail terms in the United States.
The terrorist attacks have all but ended, although the legacy remains. Eventual normalization with the United States and the abandonment of America’s hostile policies may release the pressures of the siege. Regardless, what is needed now is the long overdue acknowledgment of this unknown terrorist war, its costs and consequences. And with it recognition of the individual Cubans who have suffered in this unknown war against terrorism.
Report by Canadian author Keith Bollander, exclusively for CubaSí.