Cuba: A New Year’s Present

When I joined UPI in 1953, we were servicing two Cuban television stations and Cuba was still ruled by Fulgencio Batista, a former army sergeant who had seized power in 1933. By 1956, he was partnering with the mob, including Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano who ran narcotics, gambling and most importantly the gambling casinos in Havana.

Batista had also made a fortune from payoffs by major American companies who provided Cubans with services ranging from telephone calls to electricity.

On January 1, 1959, and I, as a new-boy, was working on the desk at UP/Movietone, when we got word that Batista was fleeing Havana. Then I called my boss, Bill Higginbotham, to ask him what to do. He laughed and told me not to worry: Movietone’s cameraman had fled the country with Batista and was arriving in Florida with film of Batista’s departure. The film came in that afternoon, we developed it, cut it and shipped it the same day and beat the rest of the world on the story.

Shortly thereafter, Castro and his guerrillas arrived in Havana and took over the government. Charley Schuman, a UPI reporter and cameraman, who had just returned from covering Castro, called him and asked if this success was a Communist revolution. Castro said no — “Ours is a special kind of revolution. It is political, not social. It is not a revolution of class against class, but of all social classes against the government — against a small army group.” Castro emphatically denied that their revolution “has anything to do with Communism.” Nevertheless, over the course of the next year, he nationalized all of Cuba’s private companies, including American corporations. He also confiscated real estate and other assets that had been acquired by American citizens.

When John F. Kennedy became president, one of the first things he did, according to a friend of mine who had joined the Treasury Department in a relatively high position, was offer Castro a deal — if Castro would repay American citizens and corporations for the assets that had been acquired “legally” (no payoffs to anyone), the United States would recognize the Cuban government.

Kennedy knew that most of the assets had been acquired through graft and payoffs to various Cuban officials; Castro would probably have had to make very few payments to Americans. Nevertheless, according to my source, Castro refused and on April 17, 1961, the U.S. invaded Cuba — the “Bay of Pigs” ended in disaster and fifty-four years of mutual hostility survived.

On November 30, 1961, President Kennedy launched Operation Mongoose whose major task was the assassination of Castro and the CIA.

In October ’62, Americans took to their bomb shelters as the Cuban Missile Crisis threatened mutual destruction of all involved: Cubans, Americans and Russians.

In 1963, the Kennedy brothers were still attempting to assassinate Castro. Working with the Mafia, the CIA developed plans ranging from planting a box of explosive cigars to exposing him to poisoned pens, or even poisoned ice cream.

Somehow Castro managed to survive it all and has lived to see another American president recognize a Cuba that is still ruled by the Castro brothers. January 1 marks the fifty-sixth anniversary of Battista’s overthrow and is a holiday that can now be celebrated by Cubans and Americans alike.