In his introduction to a new book on terrorism against Cuba, US academic Noam Chomsky details the history of US governments’ violent and often bizarre reactions to its small but defiant neighbour. CubaSí is privileged to have permission to exclusively reprint this introduction...
Perhaps the most striking feature of Washington’s war against Cuba since it dared to liberate itself at last in 1959 has been the frenzy with which it has been waged. Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs invasion soon after taking office was authorized in an atmosphere of “hysteria,” Defense Secretary Robert McNamara later testified before the Senate’s Church Committee. At the first cabinet meeting after the failed invasion, the atmosphere was “almost savage,” Undersecretary of State Chester Bowles reported, describing “an almost frantic reaction for an action program.”
The core component of the “action program” was a major terrorist war. Robert Kennedy, who was assigned the task of coordinating the massive campaign of state-directed international terrorism, repeatedly declared that overthrowing the government of Cuba was “the top priority of the United States Government—all else is secondary—no time, money, effort, or manpower is to be spared.”
The president himself was aware that allies “think that we’re slightly demented” on the subject of Cuba, a condition that persists to the present. When Cuba was in dire straits after the collapse of the Soviet Union, liberal Democrats led by Bill Clinton tightened the noose, outflanking the Bush administration from the right, in order “to wreak havoc in Cuba” (Representative Robert Torricelli, who was point man).
The extremism was of some concern to the Pentagon. The US Army War College in 1993 cautioned against the “innate emotional appeal” driving US policy-makers who saw Castro as “the embodiment of evil who must be punished for his defiance of the United States as well as for other reprehensible deeds”—though whether any of those conjured up ranked as high as “defiance of the United States” is doubtful.
The Kennedy brothers sought to bring the “terrors of the earth” to Cuba, in the words of JFK adviser and confidant historian Arthur Schlesinger. The terrorist war against Cuba peaked again in the late 1970s. The Reagan administration reacting by adding Cuba to the list of states that sponsor terror.
The irony passed without notice, as did the fact that Cuba replaced Saddam Hussein, who had to be removed so that the Reaganites could provide substantial aid to their new friend. Saddam remained a favored friend until 1990, when he quickly shifted status to reincarnation of Hitler by committing a real crime, not trivial misdemeanors like slaughtering Kurds but disobeying orders, or perhaps misunderstanding them. After the US invasion of Iraq he was captured, tried, and sentenced to death—for crimes committed in 1982, the year when he was dropped from the list of states supporting terror.
Again, the ironies passed unnoticed. There was of course an official pretext for condemning Cuba as a terrorist state in 1982: Cuba was allegedly supporting Central Americans who were resisting the “war on terror” declared by the Reagan administration as it entered office—in reality, an extraordinary terrorist assault on Central Americans that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and left much of the region in ruins, handed down in history as a grand victory of American idealism and promotion of democracy. The other standard official reason, until today, is Cuba’s human rights record, a pretext that can only inspire ridicule outside of deeply indoctrinated circles, in the light of the human rights records of Washington’s favored clients, not to speak of its own.
While launching his terrorist campaign, President Kennedy also sharply intensified the embargo that President Eisenhower had initiated—legitimately, high officials explained, because “The Cuban people [are] responsible for the regime” (Undersecretary of State Douglas Dillon) and therefore must suffer hunger and deprivation for its sins. Kennedy agreed that it was Washington’s right and duty to cause “rising discomfort among hungry Cubans.” Eisenhower State Department official Lester Mallory had outlined the basic thinking in April 1960, at the time when the Administration secretly committed itself to overthrowing the insolent regime: Castro would be removed “through disenchantment and disaffection based on economic dissatisfaction and hardship [so] every possible means should be undertaken promptly to weaken the economic life of Cuba [in order to] bring about hunger, desperation and [the] overthrow of the government.”
Along with his terrorist war, Kennedy imposed a trade embargo of unprecedented severity, barring any transaction involving merchandise “of Cuban origin” or that “has been located or transported from or through Cuba [or] is made or derived in whole or in part of any article which is the growth, produce, or manufacture of Cuba.” In the years that followed, huge resources have been devoted to monitor international commerce to ensure that the strictures are upheld—no slight task when it is necessary to ban any product that might include Cuban nickel (Presidents Johnson and Reagan) or Swiss chocolate using Cuban sugar (President Clinton).
Allies might be pardoned for regarding “demented” as something of an understatement for these fervent efforts, across the political spectrum. One illustration has been provided by the Treasury Department, reporting to Congress in April 2004 on the activities of its Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), responsible for investigating suspicious financial transfers, a central component of the “war on terror.” OFAC informed Congress that of its 120 employees, four were assigned to tracking the finances of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, while almost two dozen were occupied with enforcing the embargo against Cuba.
From 1990 to 2003, OFAC reported 93 terrorism-related investigations with $9,000 in fines; and 11,000 Cuba-related investigations with $8 million in fines. Nothing changed, apparently, after radical Islamists who had been supported by the CIA came very close to destroying the World Trade Center in 1993, along with far more ambitious plans, barely thwarted. These revelations passed with no report in the press, though there was mention of Senator Max Baucus’s condemnation of “the administration’s absurd and increasingly bizarre obsession with Cuba” and “misuse of taxpayer money” to punish Cuba, “a dangerous diversion from reality…when the United States faces very real terrorist threats in the Middle East and elsewhere.” A “bizarre obsession” that traces back to the early months after the overthrow of the US-backed Batista dictatorship, and reached true fanaticism under Kennedy.
The effort to sustain the righteous punishment of the people of Cuba persists in the face of virtually unanimous global opposition, as demonstrated by the annual votes on the US embargo at the United Nations, where Washington can muster only dependent clients: Israel and some Pacific island. Dismissal of world opinion is of course standard. Also standard is the disregard for public opinion within the US, which for decades has favored normalization of relations with Cuba, by large majorities. More unusual is the fact that the frenzied assault persists in opposition to the will of major concentrations of private power: agribusiness, the pharmaceutical industry, energy corporations, and others.
The state interest in crushing Cuba overwhelms even this normally decisive factor in shaping foreign relations. The “bizarre obsession” appears irrational in the light of any threat posed by Cuba, apart from the quite serious threat in October 1962 that was largely a consequence of the terrorist war which was designed to culminate that month with “open revolt and overthrow of the Communist regime” that could achieve its “final success” only with “decisive U.S. military intervention.” Historian Thomas Paterson concludes, quite plausibly, that “had there been no exile expedition at the Bay of Pigs, no destructive covert activities, no assassination plots, no military maneuvers and plans, and no economic and diplomatic steps to harass, isolate, and destroy the Castro government in Havana, there would not have been a Cuban missile crisis. The origins of the October 1962 crisis derived largely from the concerted U.S. campaign to quash the Cuban revolution.” But apart from self-induced threats, the “hysteria” does appear to pass beyond the bounds of reason.
Irrationality, however, does not entail that there is no rationale, and there most definitely was. Apart from its deep historical roots, the rationale derives rationally from the exigencies of world control. The CIA informed the White House that overthrow of the Castro regime “was the key to all of Latin America; if Cuba succeeds, we can expect most of Latin America to fall.” And if we cannot control our own backyard in Latin America, Nixon’s National Security Council added, we will not be able “to achieve a successful order elsewhere in the world”: that is, to impose our rule over the world. As Henry Kissinger explained while expressing his support for Reagan’s terrorist wars in Central America, “if we cannot manage Central America, it will be impossible to convince threatened nations in the Persian Gulf and in other places that we know how to manage the global equilibrium”; to translate into English, we will not be able to rule the world effectively— always for the good of mankind, by definition. Other parts of the world had an even more cosmic significance, particularly the Middle East energy producing regions. Controlling them will provide “substantial control of the world,” in the words of the influential planner A.A. Berle, a prominent figure in the Roosevelt and later liberal administrations.
The basic logic was “the domino theory,” which has two variants. For the public, the threat is military conquest, as when Reagan strapped on his cowboy boots and declared a National Emergency because Sandinista hordes are only two days from Harlingen Texas, about to overwhelm us, and invaded the nutmeg capital of the world because it might provide a military base for the Russians (if they could find it on a map); and other similar effusions over the years. That version is dismissed with ridicule after it is exposed as absurdity, but the more serious version of the domino theory is never abandoned, because it is entirely reasonable. We might call it “the Mafia doctrine,” one of the few pervasive principles of imperial domination—the dedication to ensure “global equilibrium” or “stability,” in the preferred euphemism.
The logic is straightforward, and completely rational. The Godfather does not tolerate disobedience. If some small storekeeper fails to pay protection money, the Godfather sends his goons, not just to collect the money, which he wouldn’t even notice, but to beat him to a pulp, so that others do not get the idea that disobedience is permissible. He has to ensure that “the virus” does not “spread contagion” elsewhere, to borrow Kissinger’s terms when he was dealing with the urgent need to overthrow the parliamentary regime in Chile and impose a regime of killers and torturers—who quickly acted to spread a more acceptable form of “contagion,” establishing a brutally efficient international terror center with US backing, Operation Condor. The Mafia logic regularly applies in international relations. Cuba is an example, but only one of many. In the case of Cuba, the basic problem was clearly perceived at once by the Eisenhower administration.
The State Department understood that Castro “rejects the concept that hemisphere defense under U.S. leadership is necessary”— the term “defense” having its usual meaning: control and where necessary aggression.
What is more, State warned, Castro “favors a greater role for Latin America, if possible under Cuba’s leadership, in world affairs,…as an independent force, associated closely with the Afro-Asian bloc.” The latter concerns elicited more hysteria 15 years later when the Portuguese empire fell and Cuba played a leading role— and as historian Piero Gleijeses has demonstrated, a remarkably selfless one—in the liberation of Black Africa and in laying the foundations for the collapse of the US-backed Apartheid regime in South Africa. Eisenhower’s State Department warned further that the success of Castro’s economic programs might endanger US economic interests in Latin America, perhaps even beyond. Acting Secretary of State Douglas Dillon warned that “If Cuba gets away with the actions she is taking against American property owners [who pretty much owned Cuba], our whole private enterprise approach abroad would be in serious danger.”
A basic problem, US Ambassador to Cuba Philip Bonsal explained, is that “Castro continues to enjoy the support of the masses,” leading State Department Latin American analyst Calvin Hill to lament the “marked emotional reluctance among many Cubans to face up to the fact that their union with Castro is turning out badly.” The childlike emotionalism of the Latin temperament has always troubled sober and reasonable American officials, again in November 2009, when President Obama broke with Europe and Latin America by supporting the elections carried out under military rule in Honduras, and the US representative to the OAS had to instruct the backward Latin American peons that they should join the US in the real world, abandoning their “world of magical realism,” and should recognize the military coup as Big Brother did.
When Kennedy took over from Eisenhower, the CIA spelled out much the same concerns. In July 1961 the CIA observed that “The extensive influence of ‘Castroism’ is not a function of Cuban power… Castro’s shadow looms large because social and economic conditions throughout Latin America invite opposition to ruling authority and encourage agitation for radical change,” for which Castro’s Cuba provides a model. The same conclusion had already been presented to incoming President Kennedy by Arthur Schlesinger, transmitting the report of his Latin American Mission, which warned of the susceptibility of Latin Americans to “the Castro idea of taking matters into one’s own hands.” The dangers of the “Castro idea” are particularly grave, Schlesinger later elaborated, when “The distribution of land and other forms of national wealth greatly favors the propertied classes…[and] The poor and underprivileged, stimulated by the example of the Cuban revolution, are now demanding opportunities for a decent living.”
The Soviet threat was not entirely ignored. Kennedy feared that Russian aid might make Cuba a “showcase” for development, giving the Soviets the upper hand throughout Latin America. The State Department Policy Planning Council soon expanded on these concerns: “the primary danger we face in Castro,” it concluded, is “in the impact the very existence of his regime has upon the leftist movement in many Latin American countries… The simple fact is that Castro represents a successful defiance of the US, a negation of our whole hemispheric policy of almost a century and a half”—that is, back to the Monroe Doctrine, which asserted Washington’s intention and right to dominate the hemisphere.
As the charge against Castro indicates, the 50-year crusade to overthrow the Cuban government has deep historical roots. The great grand strategist John Quincy Adams, the intellectual author of the Monroe Doctrine, wrote that “the annexation of Cuba to our federal republic will be indispensable to the continuance and integrity of the Union itself.” Thomas Jefferson agreed. He wrote that Cuba’s “addition to our confederacy is exactly what is wanted to round our power as a nation… The control which, with Florida Point, this island would give us over the Gulf of Mexico, and the countries and isthmus bordering on it, as well as all those whose waters flow into it, would fill up the measure of our political well-being.” His successors found these constraints to be far too modest.
The eminent historian John Lewis Gaddis traces “the roots of the Bush doctrine” of preemptive war to the famous state paper of his hero, John Quincy Adams, justifying the murderous invasion of Florida in 1818, also setting the precedent for executive war in violation of the Constitution. Gaddis explains that Adams established the principle that expansion is the path to security, a principle which, he observes sympathetically, has guided political leaders ever since, by now reaching to plans for “ownership of space” for military purposes.
Adams understood that the indispensable conquest of Cuba would have to wait. The British were a powerful deterrent, just as they blocked repeated efforts to conquer Canada. But Adams wisely observed that as US power increased, and Britain’s declined, the deterrent would vanish and Cuba would fall into Washington’s hands by “the laws of political gravitation,” as an apple falls from a tree. By 1898 the laws of political gravitation had worked their magic, and the US was able to carry out the military operation known as “the liberation of Cuba,” in reality the intervention to prevent Cuba from liberating itself from Spanish rule, converting it to what historians Ernest May and Philip Zelikow rightly call a “virtual colony” of the US. The Eastern end, including Cuba’s major port on Guantánamo Bay, has remained an actual colony, held under a 1902 treaty that Cuba was forced to sign at gunpoint, and used in recent years in violation of the terms of the “treaty,” such as it is, as a detention camp for Haitians fleeing the terror of the US-backed military junta and as a torture chamber for those suspected of having harmed, or intended to harm, the US. The “virtual colony” gained authentic liberation in 1959, apart from its Eastern region. And within months the assault began, using the weapons of violence and economic strangulation to punish the inhabitants of “that infernal little Republic” who had so angered the racist expansionist Theodore Roosevelt “that I would like to wipe its people off the face of the earth,” he declared in fury as they continued to rebel, not recognizing that we had set them free. And to this day refusing to comprehend that their role is to serve the master, not to play at independence.
The valuable study that follows permits us to hear the voices of the victims of the international terrorism launched by the Kennedy brothers—for the first time, a remarkable comment on the reigning culture of imperialism in the US and its Western allies.
Noam Chomsky, 25 December 2009
Introduction to‘Voices from the other side: An oral history of Terrorism against Cuba’ by Keith Bolender, published by Pluto Press in August 2010.