111. Memorandum From the Deputy Director of the Office of Middle American Affairs (Stewart) to the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs (Snow)1
- Cuban Situation
The writer was in Habana from July 11 to 16 and spent most of the working days in the Embassy. During this period long discussions were held with Ambassador Smith, Attachés of the Armed Services, heads of our military missions and officers of of the Embassy. Conversations with a number of American and Cuban friends of long-standing were held outside the Embassy. Separate conversations with Consul Park Wollam and Vice Consul Richard [Robert] Wiecha of Santiago were held in the Embassy.
My impression is that the situation has deteriorated in Cuba since two weeks spent there on vacation last year. Among American friends there was a feeling of pessimism about the future, different from the earlier viewpoint that their best interests would be served by supporting the Batista regime. They now feel that an eruption is inevitable, either in November, when elections are scheduled to be held, or in February, when Batista is supposed to leave office.
One friend, a top leader in the American community who has lived in Cuba for more than 20 years, was most pessimistic. He anticipated a violent uprising in February and saw no possibility of anything changing the course of events. Asked for his opinion on our present policy toward the Batista regime, he responded that, of course, we had to maintain such a position because of hemispheric sentiment and the hopeless local situation. Asked whether a revolution would reveal an economic situation that prevailed in Argentina after Peron’s downfall he said it was hard to say, since accurate statistics on the Cuban financial situation were hard to obtain. He complained that his bank was being forced to buy Government short-term bonds. He confirmed that Senor Joaquin Martinez Saenz, head of the Central Bank, was violently anti-American.
Another American friend, whose salesmen travel all over the island, reported that assassinations both by rebel and Government forces are occurring every day. This activity, details of which are not publicly known because of the tight censorship, extends to all provinces.[Page 163]
A doctor, taxi driver and airline employee, questioned about the possibility of elections in November, were pessimistic. If held, they will be in favor of Batista’s candidate, the three said, and they all expressed the opinion that elections could not even be staged under the present conditions.
Dr. Carlos Marquez Sterling of the Free People’s Party, is still a candidate in opposition to Andrés Rivero Agüero, Batista’s choice. He prepared a long memorandum for Ambassador Smith2 in which he defended the holding of elections in November and urged financial support by foreign companies (i.e., American) of his campaign. He also guardedly advanced the thought that Batista may be permitting Fidel Castro’s movement to continue in order to have a readily available excuse for maintaining firm control of the country. This may have been Batista’s idea in the beginning but he has permitted the development of a Frankenstein which he is powerless to crush today.
Dr. Ramón Grau San Martin, ex-President, announced he would participate in the November elections but Cubans adopted a wait-and-see attitude toward this statement. Grau is old, ill and unpredictable. It will be recalled he withdrew from the 1954 campaign shortly before elections with the charge they were “rigged.”
It has been abundantly demonstrated over the past year that the majority of the Cuban people are against Batista. The stand taken by the Catholic Church hierarchy in March; the Civic Institutions movement; the Civic Resistance movement and the special opposition of the professional class are evidences. All these organizations are not opposing Batista with violence. This is being carried out by the 26th of July movement; the Revolutionary Directorate and the Federation of University Students, both of which are made up of university and secondary school students, and smaller groups which are coming into being. The writer cannot speak for the labor movement, which is controlled by the pro-Batista labor leader Eusebio Mujal.
The tragedy of Cuba is that its youth is fighting and dying against Batista. If an Army officer or soldier is killed, three, four or more youths are found shot to death the next morning beside a road outside the locality where the attack against the soldiers occurred. This has become standard procedure. Consul Wollam says that the youth of Santiago have taken to the hills to fight with Raúl Castro. In other parts of the island, particularly in Las Villas and Pinar del Rio Provinces, youths are either fighting actively against the regime or have arms available to take up the fight whenever needed. Some young men are reported to have left Habana, Camaguey, Trinidad and other cities to join the rebel fighting forces.[Page 164]
The University of Habana has been closed for two years and other institutions of higher learning have been shut down for almost that long. A whole generation of Cuban youth has been sidetracked from normal pursuits to plotting and killing. Their parents are sending them out of the country because they fear they will become involved in the the unequal strife or may become innocent victims of slaying by the secret police or armed forces. There are many instances on record of this occurring.
Under the exceedingly repressive decrees in force until August 7, at least, the workers, journalists, in fact anyone, can be arrested and imprisoned for opposing the regime. Nine judges were dismissed in June because they protested against police interference in administering justice. Another judge is in exile because his life was threatened when he prepared to issue warrants charging two high officers of the armed forces with murder. He signed the complaints at the airport just before leaving for the United States.
Under the present suspension of guarantees and the repressive decrees, the Batista regime rules with an iron hand. The ruthlessness by which the Government forces suppressed the widely advertised general strike in April was manifest proof to most Cubans, especially those in Habana, that any overt opposition to the regime would result in being shot, jailed or tortured. The editor of the respected daily El Mundo reported to the Inter-American Press Association that during the abortive general strike attempt in April, he and his associates heard an order given over police radio by General Pilar García, head of the National Police of Cuba, that no prisoners were to be taken in the roundup of suspects. This remark was in response to a report from a squad car that two suspects had been killed in a fight and a third wounded person was in their custody. All newspaper offices have on the city desk a radio set tuned in on the police shortwave frequency to enable the editors to assign reporters quickly to major crime stories.
The Castro Movement
The kidnapping of the 47 American and three Canadian citizens served to reveal one significant and, to me, alarming fact. Castro’s military strength is increasing everyday. Raúl Castro broke out of the Sierra Maestra with 150 men and he now has a force estimated to number between 2,000 and 3,000 men. Consuls Wollam and Wiecha describe his forces as made up of peasants and city youth, fanatical, fatalistic and thoroughly indoctrinated with 26th of July propaganda. The latter preaches bitter hatred against Batista and a nebulous better future under a Castro-dominated Government. Many of the members of the forces have been embittered by killings or torturing against members of their families.[Page 165]
Raúl Castro’s force is one of three main fighting groups. Fidel Castro is in the Sierra Maestra, some 100 miles to the southwest, with an undetermined number of soldiers, probably around 1,000. In Las Villa Province, in the Sierra de Escambray, north of Trinidad, the Revolutionary Directorate has a fighting force. It started as a small group but has grown to a force with an estimated maximum strength of 600 with the joining of 26th of July supporters. This figure may be excessive.
Raúl Castro told Wollam and Wiecha that the 26th of July movement had small forces operating in the plains around Victoria de las Tunas and Holguin in Oriente Province and Camaguey, capital of the Province of the same name.
The Castro forces in Oriente are opposed by a force of Army troops estimated at between 10,000 and 12,000. Most of the soldiers are stationed in cities. Consul Wollam and those kidnapped Americans who live in Oriente Province, seriously doubt that the Cuban Army can ever dislodge the rebels. Raúl told Wollam that his forces could take the cities whenever they so desired but would then lay themselves and the urban population open to aerial bombing. There is a feeling that the Cuban soldier did not enlist to be shot and has no stomach for fighting the rebels. This is probably true, although many soldiers share the hatred of the opposition because they have suffered tragedies in their families.
There is a sort of unwritten understanding in the Castro-held territory that the rebel forces will range freely over the land in return for which they will not molest the small garrisons stationed at sugar centrals, etc. Both sides fear any incident which would disturb this arrangement. A Cuban sugar central owner told me he flew his plane to his holdings between Bayamo and Manzanillo a few days before our conversation. The rebel leader of the area told him to have the plane flown to a city immediately because he feared two pilots in his group might steal the craft. The Commander of an Army garrison of 12 told him to move the plane right away because he could not protect it and if a fight developed over its possession his whole post would be wiped out. The plane left immediately. This same Cuban said the next sugar harvest could be a disaster, as the rebels already are threatening to destroy the mills and not merely burn the crops. He thought, however, that if the Castros set up a Free Territory in Oriente Province (as Wollam heard from Raúl) they will permit the mills to operate if they pay enough tribute to the new Government. United States owners of property in the rebel-held area will also be faced with this problem.
Many of Castro’s supporters in Habana, according to one of the leaders, are alarmed about the growth of Fidel’s movement. They say they have created a Frankenstein which may, with the passage of time, take over the control of the country. The person with whom I talked [Page 166] pleaded that the United States get behind the moderate opposition elements immediately to make possible a coup which will head off the growing strength of Castro. He was genuinely worried but has not desisted from getting financial help for Fidel because he hates Batista too much to abandon the 26th of July movement. He said Fidel Castro had instructed him to see about printing money for the Free Territory and drawing up a tax plan. He has been stalling on these requests.
This source mentioned also that if the Batista forces are unsuccessful in any drive to defeat the Castro armies in Oriente Province it is likely that whole Army units may defect to the rebel movement. I do not consider this a remote possibility at all, given the Cuban Army’s general aversion to fighting a bushwacking war in strange territory with the majority of the populace against them.
Wollam is of the opinion that the Castros are getting arms regularly from the outside and opposition leaders in Cuba and the United States smile knowingly when Venezuela is mentioned as the source. The Castros appear able to find recruits to use as many arms as they receive.
The rebels fear and respect the Cuban Air Force, although they claim the principal victims have been innocent villagers in their territory. The Naval Intelligence unit at Guantanamo and Wollam have seen planes being armed at Santiago and the Los Caños airfields. The latter is near Guantanamo. Not only are the Cubans using their grant aid-supported P–47s but they have armed the Canada-purchased Beavers, Piper Cubs and grant aid B–26s. Col. Dysinger, chief of the United States Air Mission, told me 14 of the B–26s were kept at the Campo Columbia air field in Habana. Some of the B–26s have been observed preparing for bombing missions, however.
Sale of Arms to Batista
The rebels are particularly touchy about planes. Whoever sells more planes to the Cubans must consider the possibility that they will be utilized by the Batista regime in bombing and strafing the rebels. Wollam, after his experience with Raúl Castro’s group and his general knowledge of Oriente Province, feels that if we sell any planes to Batista we should anticipate possible reprisals against Americans and should consider the evacuation of all our people from the area and perhaps from other areas in Cuba. Canadian or British citizens might run the same risk if their governments sold planes to Batista. President Batista was bitter toward us for allegedly influencing the Canadians to withhold sale of a lot of planes described as “Furies.” The Ambassador was informed that this charge had no substance. The Canadians may be aware of danger to their nationals and. are placing the blame on the United States for withholding sale of the planes to Batista.[Page 167]
Ambassador Smith invited the writer to meet with the service attachés and the chiefs of the Air, Navy and Army missions. Col. Dysinger, as senior head of the missions, said the failure of the United States to go through with the sale of the T–28s would just about finish the effectiveness of the missions. A detailed explanation of the political aspects of the problem was made but none of the group was convinced. Some of them expressed the view that reports of Batista’s repression and killings were false. The feeling was gathered that the officers are attempting to carry out their instructions faithfully but are loathe to consider the political aspects of the situation. It is understood that Col. Treadway, the Army Attaché who departed for a new assignment recently, was more politically aware than the other officers. It is not known whether this was reflected in his reports. In any event, the officers with whom the writer met were not convinced by the presentation and met with Ambassador Smith on the following day to urge his support in holding the line on the T–28s. Embtel 79 of July 163 was the result.
The writer is firmly convinced that sale of the T–28s would get us into deep trouble with the Cuban opposition, liberal elements in the hemisphere and the United States, and those Senators and Congressmen who have been making much ado of our policy toward dictatorial governments. On the other hand, failure to go through with the sale may well cancel out any further effectiveness of our military missions in Cuba as long as Batista is in power, and make life uncomfortable for our military personnel.
- Batista’s regime is unpopular and he has not succeeded in convincing the public that he will provide honest elections.
- The armed insurrection led by Fidel Castro is gaining strength at an alarming pace.
- While still suspect, our policy of withholding combat equipment from Batista is generally approved by the forces in opposition to Batista.
- A change in arms sales policy could lead to further kidnappings in Oriente Province or reprisals against American citizens, property, or both, not only in Oriente but elsewhere.
- Failure to sell the ten T–28 trainers, which has become a cause célèbre with Batista and the Cuban military, will greatly decrease the effectiveness of our military missions. In fact, it may lead the Cuban military to shun our mission personnel. It is possible that Batista might [Page 168] cancel his military agreements with the United States and order the missions to leave but the political repercussions that would result seem to make this too great a risk.
- If there is no improvement in the situation the opposition to Batista will continue and as time drags on Castro will become stronger and stronger.
- All-out support to Batista would only prolong the eventual showdown and it would be an unpopular move not only with the majority of the Cuban people but also would draw strong criticism from other quarters.
- Serious thought should be given to alternative courses of action not hitherto considered in order to resolve the Cuban situation before Castro becomes so strong he can dictate the type of government that will rule when the showdown eventually comes. Frankly, we do not know what Castro has in mind, although his letter of December 19574 which announced his break with the other Cuban opposition groups contained some proposals which, in effect, would make him as much of a dictator as Batista.