295. Memorandum From the Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs’ Special Assistant (Hill) to the Assistant Secretary of State (Rubottom)1
- Cuban Situation
The following is a summary of impressions and conclusions which I obtained in Habana on April [March?] 19–222 as a result of my detailed consultation with the Embassy, [less than 1 line not declassified], USIS, and the Service Attachés as well as my own observations. It is important to remember that this was before Castro’s visit to the US.
Public Attitudes. All American observers were agreed that Castro had lost the support of most of the propertied classes but retained the support of the masses. The point was made by several that the latter was ephemeral—probably 400,000 of the 600,000 Habaneros who demonstrated for Castro in January were the same persons who demonstrated for Batista after the 1957 students’ attempt to assassinate him—and that much of this support would evaporate as Castro’s actions tended to aggravate the already difficult economic and unemployment problems looming in the next several months.
My impression, however, is that Castro retains a very strong following among the less privileged people and that the propertied and disaffected elements are guilty of some degree of wishful thinking in counting on a rapid growth of popular opposition to him. Added to the natural attraction of the victor and strong man, Castro is a colorful figure and appears to have been remarkably successful in projecting among the populace the image of a leader sincerely dedicated to solution of Cuba’s problems and to asserting Cuba’s national dignity. One saw on the streets groups still raptly listening to his broadcasts and, on questioning people one finds, particularly, admiration for his “honest” government and hope for his promised reforms. Disillusionment may come slowly, especially as the regime with Communist support may be expected to heap blame for difficulties on the rich, counter-revolutionaries, the US, etc.
Among the propertied classes and even among “bourgeois” journalists and intellectuals, opposition to Castro was startlingly pronounced and there was an atmosphere of concern amounting to fear. [Page 487] The symptoms were many: a number of wealthy people—I met one myself—were leaving Cuba with their families in expectation of more troubled times later; money for anti-government activities is said to be even more available than in Batista’s time; letters were being smuggled abroad for mailing for fear that there was censorship and any critical remarks would lead to trouble; there was constant talk of a “crisis” in, variously, June, July, August; Americans in the Embassy reported that Cuban friends felt unsafe being seen with them and while I was there practically none of the Cuban guests showed up at a party given by our Assistant Naval Attaché.
Communism. Among the propertied classes, there appeared to be very real concern about the mushrooming of Communism, and all officers of our Embassy are very alert to this problem. Specific instances were widely known in Habana of Communists in labor, in the armed forces and in public information media. Less well known, perhaps, is the rapid progress Communists were making in infiltrating the educational system and in organizing characteristic “mass” organizations. A reputed Communist has been included in the commission to revise school texts, and Communists were said to be behind a current wave of difficulties affecting secular and religious private schools. A Communist-front women’s organization was being formed while I was there. In the Armed Forces, persons who are at least pro-Communists feature prominently in “G–6”, the Army indoctrination section at Camp Libertad and at Cabaña Fortress. Everyone is agreed that Castro and his advisers had made it impossible to speak up firmly against Communism without being charged as a counter-revolutionary.
Graft. Although in public the regime still emphasized “honest” government, there were signs of deterioration. A reputable businessman swears that Haydee Santamaria de Hart, wife of the Minister of Education, personally called him to demand $300,000 for the July 26 Movement—she became very angry when he asked if there would be a receipt and legalization of the collection—and there were numerous reports of similar extortions under the pretext of continuation of July 26 “taxes”. There was no accounting of these funds, and general acceptance that they were at least in part being diverted to personal use by the new elite. On a lower scale, there were reports that unemployed “barbudos” are beginning to put the squeeze on shopkeepers, etc.
Political Organization. Although Castro has announced that the July 26 Movement would be transformed into a political movement, this has not been done. He has no organized political support of his own. The “spontaneous” crowds—as at the March 22 rally attended by Figueres—are turned out by the labor movement. Only the Communists have an active organization.[Page 488]
Security and Armed Forces. The evaluation of our Service Attachés, generally concurred in by the Embassy and [less than 1 line not declassified], was that there were only three units with any sort of discipline and organization:
- The Navy—which although cleaned out of senior officers has retained its professional junior officers and non-coms;
- The Marines, which are outside of Habana and
- The “Paratroops,” now undergoing basic training south of Habana under Major Borbonet.
The Army in Habana was most often described as a “rabble in arms” although the state of discipline in Guevara’s La Cabaña is somewhat better than at Camp Libertad. The discipline evident in January had disintegrated as veterans have dispersed, and no effort is made to maintain and train the remaining “barbudos” in unit strength. There are apparently no formations, drills or even morning strength reports, and individual groups simply live in various houses around the city. All but ten percent of the former Cuban officers and non-coms and the bulk of the enlisted men had been dismissed or simply drifted off. The civil police had been somewhat improved over the weeks immediately prior to my arrival, but the consensus was that there was no force in existence to maintain public order in Habana in the event of serious disturbances.
Opposition Elements. There was agreement among all observers that, despite increased middle and upper-class discontent and the willingness of some wealthy elements to finance opposition to Castro, there was in fact only embryonic opposition activity. The reasons said to be usually given by Cubans for this was that “it is still too early” or “too dangerous”. The principal nuclei of opposition appeared to be as follows:
Catholic Groups. A number were organizing specifically to counter Communism and generally to oppose Castro’s program and, if necessary and feasible, Castro himself.
Autenticos. Although Varona and Prio are kept under close surveillance, the former was staying in the limelight by TV appearances and quietly seeking to reorganize and build up the OA while keeping his lines out with other opposition elements. He is being very cautious at this stage.
Ex-Army Personnel. This group, for whom no economic provision has been made, were greatly discontented and there was a good deal of plotting—in the planning stage—going on among various handfuls of them, but they were not organized. Barquin, who had been on a two-day leave, was being cautious. Cantillo was in the hospital following an ulcer operation and was no longer considered a factor.
Businessmen. Several businessmen’s groups were discussing possible ways to counter the trend if not more directly to oppose or overthrow Castro.[Page 489]
Second Front. Gutierrez Menoyo still had a considerable number of men under arms in Las Villas province and was generally considered to be anti-Communist. However, there was some speculation that he was acting with the full knowledge and concurrence of Castro who wanted to preserve his people in the hills as a counter to any possible counter-revolution.
Directorio Revolucionario. There were reports that there was dissatisfaction within this students’ organization with Faure Chomon’s statements favorable to Communism and Chomon himself was reportedly recently arrested.
There was agreement that a unified opposition, made up of these disparate elements, was not a likelihood for at least some months.
Basic Questions. During my visit, I asked all observers for their personal estimates on four questions, as follows:
- What would happen if Castro were killed or otherwise was incapacitated. There was general agreement that the situation would disintegrate, probably dangerously. Although Raul Castro might temporarily succeed to the leadership, he would not be generally accepted even within the July 26 Movement. There was no force capable of resisting any mass hysteria which might ensue.
- Assuming that Castro did not modify the trend of anti-Americanism, pro-Communism and economic reforms what could be expected to happen. (This was before his US visit.) The consensus, with two exceptions, was that matters would head for a crisis sometime between July and December 1959 and that there would be no leadership prepared to take over. The two exceptions inclined to the view that a crisis would take somewhat longer to mature, one of them citing the bourgeois mentality of Cuba as a factor which would tend to slow Castro down from a precipitous course.
- The growth of Communism. There was general agreement that the Party would be allowed to operate freely and would increase its capacity to influence Cuban national life. I strongly emphasized to all concerned the importance of having detailed documentation and evaluation.
- Intervention by Castro in the other Caribbean countries. There was, at the time, a large number of reports of planning and preparation for revolutionary activities, but our observers, taking into account discussion and disorganization, tended to discount the possibility of any immediate expeditions backed by Castro and Company.
Special Problems. In my discussions I found: (a) USIS was anxious to develop a strong program but was unable to do so because of insufficient staff and guidance; and (b) the political section was seriously handicapped by lack of stenographic help. I am taking up the details with the appropriate people in Washington. It appears particularly important to me that the Mission be equipped to undertake a strong program among students, for which it does not now have the personnel.[Page 490]
It also appears to me that there is an urgent need for the Embassy and the agencies in Washington to focus more carefully on what we would do if: (a) Castro were assassinated; (b) we were to conclude he endangered our vital interests; or (c) the situation in Cuba disintegrates. Particularly, we should examine how we might, as the situation matures, identify and develop an alternative acceptable to us.