260. Memorandum of a Conversation, Washington, March 12, 19591

PARTICIPANTS

  • Congressman Adam Clayton Powell
  • Mr. William A. Wieland—Director, CMA
  • Mr. Robert A. Stevenson—Officer in Charge, Cuban Affairs, CMA

Congressman Powell returned from Cuba today2 and called Mr. Rubottom stating that he would like to talk with someone from the Department regarding Cuba. Mr. Wieland and Mr. Stevenson were warmly received by Congressman Powell who served them coffee which he was in the process of brewing upon their arrival and upon being seated he brought out a box of fine Puerto Rican cigars. He opened the conversation by remarking that things are very bad in Cuba and that trouble could break out there at any time. Fidel Castro is getting only two or three hours of sleep each night and keeps going on benzedrine. Furthermore, [7 lines not declassified]. The women make no bones about their annoyance with their leader. (Note: The Congressman mentioned this situation several times in the course of the conversation and clearly he felt able to judge the seriousness of this development). Recently, too, Fidel made a three-hour speech concerning [Page 425]the re-trial of the aviators3 in which he was often incoherent—so much so that Lopez Fresquet had tears in his eyes at the conclusion and remarked upon Fidel’s condition. The Congressman has concluded that Fidel is very close to a nervous breakdown or crack-up of some sort. “He has gone haywire.” Many friends and staunch supporters of Fidel reported to him this same concern. Also, Mr. Powell believes that the Communists are taking advantage of the chaotic conditions to move in to positions of strength wherever they can and with disturbing success so far. He said that Lopez Fresquet has tried twice to resign in disgust over Fidel’s countermanding of his measures of which he learned “only by reading of it in the papers the next day”. Faustino Perez of the Ministry for the Recovery of Misappropriated Assets is completely disgusted and does not report for work in his office; Ray, the Minister of Public Works, is disillusioned. Castro’s Ministers asked Powell to speak with him and try to make him see into what a state the country is getting—telling Powell that they are not able to arrange a meeting with him. Oscar Gans,4 former Ambassador to Washington and “an old friend” of Mr. Powell told him that conditions are very bad and that the decent, anti-communist elements in the country are beginning to prepare for a show-down with the leftist extremists—even to the extent of house-to-house fighting. The Communists have gotten control of the 26th of July paper, “Revolucion”, and continue to increase their power as the middle class and other anti-Communists remain disunited and demoralized. However, the Congressman feels that the mature structure of Cuban society and the really strong feeling for democracy will not permit the Communists to take over without a fight. A sense of fear prevails throughout the island—Mrs. Gans wanted to accompany Mr. Powell when he left and his Puerto Rican secretary told him that she would not go back with him if conditions remained as they are. His taxi driver told him that he had been a 26th of July fighter and since Castro had come into power his pay had been cut from $180 to $80.00 and, recognizing Mr. Powell, he asked him to tell “that SOB Castro” that he didn’t like it.

[Page 426]

The Congressman said that Castro has cut all rents in half; and that he has done the same to the price of all land and real estate. These measures have caused great resentment among the middle class. He cited the case of one former strong Castro supporter who was recently elected head of a group of landowners who have organized to fight these Castro measures. Mr. Wieland asked Powell if he had discussed all this with Castro to which he replied that he had managed to see him and had talked with him for over three hours, but that he hadn’t yet learned just how bad things are when he had talked with Castro. However, he had read to him Herb Matthews’ article from the “New York Times Magazine” of March 8 (partly in English and partly in Spanish with the aid of Powell’s secretary-interpreter), but it seemed to make no impression—just didn’t get to him. He told Castro that Castro didn’t know anything about economics (he mentioned that he tried to explain to him Gresham’s Law with no success whatsoever) and that the economy is going to the devil and the peso being sold at a great discount; that he should let his ministers run their ministries without interference, and if he felt the need of an advisor and didn’t trust a non-Latino he should try to get Dr. Pico from Puerto Rico to come over and help him for a while. He said that Castro seemed to accept his arguments, but he is convinced that under present conditions nothing will be done to implement his suggestions.

Raul Castro, Mr. Powell believes, is a Communist or should be one, and is a very bad influence. He holds him responsible for the retrial of the aviators in Santiago de Cuba. However, he has no real support on his own and wouldn’t last long if he should try to take Fidel’s place, even temporarily. Faure Chomon, the Directorio Revolucionario (DR), told Powell that the DR would not accept Raul for a minute; also that the DR members are armed and ready (Dr. Gans told him that almost everyone has a weapon of some sort in the house) should the leftist extremists gain control. Che Guevara is a Communist according to Mr. Powell, who declared that none other than Louis Dejoie had told him this saying, “Adam, I like Che very much but he is without any doubt a Communist.” Also, Dejoie reportedly said that Che has been sick with pneumonia and is believed to have tuberculosis. Asked about Fignole, Powell replied that he is not in Cuba but in New York. From there he had sent down a tape-recording which had been broadcast. Camilo Cienfuegos is a likeable fellow but a woman chaser without any influence or real ability; Juan Almeida is smart and well-regarded by the small group around him, but has little influence. He commented also on William Morgan, the American DR commander, describing him as “a sweet guy but very tough”, who recently has frequently criticized Castro openly.

[Page 427]

Mr. Wieland asked Mr. Powell what he would recommend that the Department should do in this situation. He pointed out to Mr. Powell that the Department’s attitude has been conciliatory and cooperative since the 26th of July came into power and that at no time has the Department criticized the Movement as such, but that Castro has not reciprocated in any way so far and has made it very difficult for us to do anything to help him—Mr. Powell would recognize the difficulties Castro has created with our own Congress.

Mr. Powell seemed hard put to come up with any suggestions pointing out that the responsible elements have no spokesman, no rallying point or party. He said that the way things are going Castro may not even last until April 17th. He added that Ambassador Bonsal is very popular and is cheered when he walks on the street; perhaps he will be able to do something. (He also said at one point that Marinello [the PSP leader]5 is cheered when he appears in public.) He mentioned that Augustin Batista of the Trust Company of Cuba is the most powerful man in the financial-business world—a man with guts. (Note: Also with large real estate holdings in New York City). He glanced approvingly at a Trust Company of Cuba financial statement to which he referred to obtain Batista’s name, reading off the total assets figure with a certain seeming satisfaction and approval. Felipe Pazos, head of the National Bank, has no guts—an able economist perhaps—but no guts. He remarked that Castro has recently gotten a competent secretary in the person of Dr. Juan A. Orta which might help.

On the subject of international adventuring, Congressman Powell said that Castro definitely has something cooking against the Dominican Republic and that it is under the direction of Captain Jimenez, a man of doubtful ideology. He said that he had remonstrated with Castro about the foolishness of supporting such endeavors when there is so much to be done in Cuba—750,000 unemployed right now and hunger and discontent everywhere. Castro told him that he still has the support of 75–80% of the people, but Powell feels that even if this is true he can lose most of it very quickly if things go on as they are at present. Mr. Wieland remarked about the cost to the Cuban economy of any attempt to equip and stage an invasion from Cuba pointing out the cost in loss of confidence which would be reflected in business investment. Mr. Powell agreed and remarked that if he “were an American businessman in Cuba right now he would pull out as fast as he could”.

In closing Mr. Wieland told Mr. Powell that knowing of Mr. Powell’s close association with Fidel Castro and his Movement he particularly appreciated the Congressman’s frankness in his appraisal [Page 428]of the situation in Cuba. Mr. Powell thanked him graciously and said that he, of course, feels that his first concern is always for United States interests.

Comment: Mr. Powell was most cordial throughout the conversation and disarmingly frank—admitting that he had been misled and previously misjudged several aspects of the current Cuban scene. One can speculate that he is about to change horses—among other things.

Addendum:

In connection with his comments on “Che” Guevara Mr. Powell pointed to Mr. Wieland and said, “Luis Munoz about a month ago sat right there where you are sitting and told me that he did not believe Guevara to be a communist”. He added the remark that Munoz is his good friend but that he misled him on Guevara and if he thinks Guevara is just a nice guy with odd ideas he is badly mistaken. “I don’t know if he carries a card or not”, he said, “but he [Guevara]6 appears like a communist to me.”

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 737.00/3–1259. Confidential. Drafted by Stevenson. Initialed by Stevenson and Wieland. The place of the meeting is not indicated on the source text, but it may have been Powell’s office.
  2. Prior to leaving Cuba, Congressman Powell told an Embassy official that Castro, in a talk with Powell on March 10, had been “incoherent” and Powell was convinced he was a sick man due for a breakdown at any moment. From his conversations with many Cubans, Powell had also become convinced that the Communists were gaining control of the situation. Powell said that within 2 weeks “violent changes” would take place led by elements that Powell refused to identify; the results would be contrary to U.S. interests. Powell also believed that Treasury Minister Lopez-Fresquet and others of ministerial rank would soon resign. (Telegram 1049 from Havana, March 12; ibid.)
  3. On March 3, 44 airmen who had served in Batista’s air force were found innocent by a court in Santiago of charges that they had committed war crimes. In a television address, Castro said that the acquittal had been an error and ordered a new trial. At the second trial, with a new prosecutor and members of the court, all the airmen were found guilty and given prison terms of from 2 to 30 years.
  4. Oscar Gans is 56 years old; former Ambassador to the United States (1949–50); presidential candidate in 1952; member Prio’s cabinet; Prime Minister briefly in 1952. Described as unreliable opportunist. Founded Cuban Stainless Co. with aid of Mr. Jones, a building contractor from Miami. Agitated for U.S. to sell nickel sinter to this company from Nicaro production. U.S. sold company 10,000 lbs. which it made up into anodes but could not sell as cost too great. Jones allegedly dropped $100,000 in the deal. [Footnote in the source text.]
  5. Brackets in the source text.
  6. Brackets in the source text.