520. Despatch From the Embassy in Cuba to the Department of State1
- Visit of Ambassador Bonsal to Oriente Province2
Ambassador Bonsal visited Santiago and Nicaro in Oriente Province on May 16–18. The trip was another in a recent series of visits to various parts of the island for purposes of familiarization and contact with American residents. Within the past few weeks the Ambassador has visited the Isle of Pines and Pinar del Río Province.
The Ambassador was accompanied by Mr. Robert Stevenson, Cuban Desk Officer, and the two reporting officers, as well as the Air Attaché and Assistant Air Attaché who piloted the Air Force Mission plane which was used to make the trip.
The party left Havana during the early morning hours of May 16. That day and night were spent visiting various places in Santiago and its environs. The following day the group traveled to Nicaro. The balance of the day was devoted to going over the nickel plant, visiting schools and observing the construction of the new town of Levisa. That evening the Ambassador and members of the party were entertained by the general manager of the nickel plant at a double function which gave the Ambassador the opportunity to meet the Americans working at the plant as well as the top Cuban managerial personnel. After overnighting in Nicaro the party returned to Habana on the morning of May 18.
It had originally been planned that the trip include visits to Preston, one of the United Fruit Company sugar mills near Nicaro, and Chaparra and Delicias, two sugar mills on the northwestern coast of Oriente Province belonging to the Cuban-American Sugar Company. At the last minute both of these visits were canceled at the request of officials of the two companies who because of recent developments at their respective installations considered that the Ambassador’s presence at that particular time might not be advisable. A visit to the Guantanamo Naval Base was included on the itinerary. However, because of events during the previous week the visit was made contingent on Major Calixto García’s (Oriente Province Military Commander) [Page 919]accepting the Ambassador’s invitation to accompany him to the Base. It was not possible to establish direct contact with the Major, so this part of the trip was dropped.
During the course of the trip the group had several interesting experiences and received a number of significant impressions. These are recorded below under separate headings:
1. Surveillance of Party While in Santiago and Nicaro
During the twenty-four hours spent in Santiago the group appears to have been under fairly constant surveillance, presumably by agents of DIER. These agents were not particularly noticeable during the day on May 16 as the party visited the consulate, lunched at the Rancho Club, and toured such places of interest as El Cobre, Las Guasimas, Siboney Beach, El Caney, and the Surrender Tree Site. However, members of the crew of the Mission aircraft reported having seen what appeared to be agents at the airport on arrival and being followed as they traveled around the downtown area that night. Agents are believed to have kept the group under surveillance during the night at the Rancho Motel. At least a car with three agents was posted at the motel when members of the party got up early the next morning. This same car trailed the Consulate car carrying the Ambassador as it went to the Consulate and from there to the airport via the Morro Castle.
At Nicaro a military guard was assigned to the group. The guard followed the party as it toured the installation and took up positions during the night around the quarters where the Ambassador stayed. The Ambassador was notified that the guard was being assigned to him. The reason given was for his physical protection. In conversations with members of this guard it was evident that they had been heavily indoctrinated.
2. Highlights of Conversations with American Business and Professional Leaders in Santiago
At a reception given at the home of Consul Eberhardt the Ambassador and members of the party had an opportunity to speak with leading executives of American industrial, banking and sugar firms as well as other leaders of the American community in Santiago. Regarding counter-revolutionary groups in the area, they indicated that there had been little activity in recent weeks. Skepticism was manifest over the Beaton group. His support appears to stem from the widespread family connections of the Beatons in the Sierra Maestra which one of the observers described to be as numerous as a Scottish clan. People are still not fully convinced that he might not be a trap. The Nino Diaz movement was described as serious, although he himself was said to be of the swashbuckling type. He reportedly is a man of some means, [Page 920]being the owner of a chain of coffee houses in Santiago. Nobody had any information on his whereabouts or the strength of his movement. Consulate officers who had spoken with Mrs. Díaz, who has applied for a visa, reported that she claimed complete ignorance of the activities of her husband. It was pointed out that Nino Díaz had led the party into Moa which took several Americans up into the Hills in June–July, 1958.
There was a general impression manifest that the Government was encountering increasing economic difficulties in Oriente and popular unrest was growing. Lack of funds to meet current obligations, mismanagement, realization that land was not to be owned by individuals, and recognition of the fact that cooperatives were in many respects little more than mass labor pools were listed among the principal reasons for this unrest. These observers reported that the Government was behind in the payment of wages to public works employees. Workers in cooperatives were said not to have been paid for several weeks or to have received small cash payments with the balance of credit chits for the “tiendas del pueblo”. These “tiendas”, they claimed, were poorly stocked. The Government was also increasing the dimensions of its economic problem daily as it took over more and more administration cane, and to a lesser degree cane belonging to large colonos, with all the attendant responsibility for working this land and paying the workers. These workers were now confronted with the prospect of being paid less by INRA, or having no work at all, and not having available the credit advances which the mills and colonos customarily extended to help tide them over the “dead season”. The consensus was that INRA activities had been conducted without regard to expense and that refusal to heed experience gained over the years by private industry would result in substantial losses in production over a short period of years. In the rice program, although more acreage had been planted, production per acre would be less than heretofore. In the sugar cane industry, the cutting of larger areas this year, the plowing up of some fields for other crops, the failure to make new plantings and cultivate existing crops, and certain other ill-considered actions could only result in diminishing yields for the next few years. One American Sugar Company manager stated that if the Government spent $50,000 a month for employment on his company’s former lands alone, and in addition engaged in huge public works programs, there would still be unemployment and discontent. Several observers felt that by August or September the Government would be confronted with serious unrest unless it is able to pump substantial amounts of money into the area in the intervening months.
Several persons manifest the belief that when trouble came, it would be most serious in Habana. They claimed that the impact of the Government’s propaganda was greater in Habana than in the provinces. [Page 921]As a result the capital would be the last stronghold for the Government’s policies and anti-American attitude, and it would be there that the struggle would be the most bitter and bloody.
There apparently is no imminent clash between communist and anti-communist forces at the University of Oriente as in Habana. The students of the Law School were described as the ones most militantly pro-Government.
The May Day parade and celebration was reported to be poorly attended and unenthusiastic. Sugar mill owners reported that “campesinos” were rounded up during the evening and the night before the parade and taken to Santiago in buses, trucks and trains. Many of those who went did so out of fear or for the lark of the trip.
3. Visit to Cuban-American Cultural Center
On the afternoon of May 16 the Ambassador visited the new Cultural Center in downtown Santiago. This center was established a little over six months ago and is under the direction of George McCready. A tour of the building showed that the Center is very much of a going concern. Mr. McCready reported that at the start of the third trimester the enrollment for English classes had risen to 190 students. As funds become available, he plans to extend and improve facilities for classrooms, library and exhibit room. He reported that so far the political climate resulting from the anti-United States campaign of the Revolutionary Government had not had any appreciable effect on the Center. He indicated that the bulk of the original membership of the Organizing Committee continued on the Committee, including the Provincial Director of Culture. He also stated that cooperation with Government entities continued, particularly with INIT. At the same time, however, he did mention continuing rumors that the Government might intervene or otherwise seek to restrict the operations of the Center.
4. Efforts to Contact Major Calixto García
Efforts by Consul Wollam to make an appointment for the Ambassador to call on Major Calixto García proved unsuccessful. Just before departing Santiago the Ambassador went to the house of Major Calixto García to leave his card and to leave word that if the Major were in a position to do so, he would very much like to invite him to visit the Naval Base. The guards at the house indicated that Major Calixto García was not in but that they would relay the message. The Ambassador indicated that the reply could be sent to the Consulate. No word had been received by the Consulate as of the time that the party returned to Habana. The Ambassador asked Consul Wollam to [Page 922]continue to try to reach Major Garcia and to inform him that he would be glad to return to Santiago if he could make the trip to the Naval Base.
Given the early hour at which the Ambassador called at Major Calixto García’s house and the presence of two automobiles outside the house, it is not unlikely that the Major was in at the time and did not want to receive the Ambassador.
5. Reception at Nicaro Airstrip
There was a small group of men bearing Cuban flags at the Nicaro airstrip when the Ambassador arrived. They were a rather nondescript, listless bunch who said nothing, bore no placards and in general appeared more curious at the show of the arrival of a United States Air Force plane bearing the Ambassador than intent on flaunting the “new” Cuban independence and sovereignty before the Ambassador. A group of demonstrators stationed at the intersection of airstrip road with the highway did wave Cuban flags and shout “Viva Cuba” and “Viva Fidel Castro” as the Ambassador’s car came to a stop. The ringleader shook the Ambassador’s extended hand and kept up with the slogans. When the Ambassador replied with good humor, “Viva los Estados Unidos”, he repeated “Viva Castro” and “Viva Cuba”, but when the Ambassador countered with “Vivan los dos países”, he apparently did not know how to reply so he half-heartedly repeated the same slogan and the incident closed goodnaturedly. At no time could it be said that there was any display of hostility.
6. Tour of Schools at Nicaro
When Nicaro officials informed the Ambassador that some teen-agers not enrolled in the school within the company compound were trying to organize a parade past the place where he was staying, Ambassador Bonsal suggested that he visit the schools in the area. Two of these were Cuban public schools using facilities provided by the company and a third school for the children of American employees. The visit was started shortly after lunch. At the Cuban public school within the Nicaro compound several teenage boys were observed with a large Cuban flag in the process of getting the parade organized. The Ambassador entered each of the school rooms, shook hands with the teachers and principal and spoke to and greeted the children. As he was doing this the teenagers with the Cuban flag moved into the auditorium of the school, which served as entrance and focal point for the school, and started their chant of “Viva Fidel” and “Patria o Muerte”. Many of the students, laughing and acting as if they were in a holiday mood at this break in studies, took up the chant.[Page 923]
At the second public school at La Pasa just outside the company grounds the situation was different. The Ambassador was received politely by the principal, teachers and students. Although there were teenage agitators in the corridors they did not attempt to make any disturbances and there were no chants or other forms of demonstrations in the classrooms. The Cuban captain of the Nicaro Company guards commented that the difference in the way the Ambassador was received was due to the fact that in the second public school the principal was a man who kept very firm control over the school, and that while he could not have prevented a demonstration outside the building, he certainly would not have allowed the agitators to enter the school premises.
As the Ambassador was leaving the second school a caravan of some ten to twelve cars drove by bearing Cuban flags and posters with the slogans cited above. Persons driving in the cars did not shout or make any aggressive gestures. On the contrary they displayed curiosity over the presence of the Ambassador. When he smiled and waved to them, some were observed to smile sheepishly, laugh and return the greeting.
At the American school the Ambassador followed the same procedure of visiting each classroom and greeting the teachers and students. As in the second public school, the reception here was only one of respect.
7. Visit to Levisa
During the Batista regime Levisa was a shanty town on the outskirts of Nicaro where squatters and some common laborers employed at the plant lived in miserable conditions. The town was burned down by the Batista Air Force during the latter part of 1958 because of the alleged cooperation of its inhabitants with the rebels. The Revolutionary Government in July, 1959 set about rebuilding the town on a new, more healthful site using land donated by the United Fruit Company. The construction project was undertaken by the Comisión de Vivienda Campesina of the Rebel Army.
The Ambassador was shown around the project by Lieutenant Lisea, the officer in charge of construction. Lt. Lisea proudly displayed a map of the entire project showing some 300 houses, three schools, churches, shopping and recreational area. Around thirty of the houses were in process of construction. During the tour it was learned that the Nickel Processing Company (Nicaro) was providing its cement-block-making equipment and gravel, while the Cuban Government was providing the cement and labor for making the cinder blocks for the buildings. The molded concrete and chicken wire sheets for the roofing were being made at the Levisa site. According to Lieutenant Lisea [Page 924]the deadline for completion of 200 of the houses had been set for July 26. Each house consisted of two small rooms for living or sleeping, a kitchen and bath.
Later on in the afternoon the Ambassador and his group drove by some of the large, two-story frame barracks, formerly occupied by construction workers for the Nicaro plant which are now teeming with squatters, mostly from the old Levisa site. Presumably some of these people will be resettled in the new Levisa houses. In the meantime they continue to constitute a bothersome problem for Nicaro officials.
8. Meeting with Nicaro Labor Leaders
The Ambassador met briefly with top officers of the Nicaro labor union: José Garcia García, Secretary General, José Luis Ramos, Delegate to Official and Management Organizations, and Fernando de la Vara, Delegate of the Accounting Department. The exchange with Garcia was very cordial. He indicated that it was the interest of the union leadership, reflecting the wishes of the rank and file, that the plant maintain operations and hoped that other factors between Cuba and the United States would not result in closing the plant. The Ambassador indicated that the United States regarded Nicaro as a mutually advantageous enterprise and it was our desire that production continue uninterrupted. With regard to other factors the Ambassador pointed out quite clearly that the United States desires good relations with Cuba and that the present difficulties are attributable to misinformation or erroneous conclusions about United States policy or intentions on the part of Revolutionary Government leaders.
9. Observation of Nicaro Officials
Nicaro officials commenting on labor-management relations at the plant indicated that they had had no problems with their Cuban employees. They stated that the visit of the Ambassador had deeply worried Garcia, who feared that he might have come in connection with the closing down of the plant. They also reported that the closing of Moa and Bethlehem Steel had had a sobering effect on Nicaro labor (some 2, 500 employees) who thought that Nicaro might be next.
Company officials and members of their families expressed deep appreciation for the Ambassador’s visit.
Press treatment of the Ambassador’s visit to Oriente was limited but interesting. Sierra Maestra, the principal government paper in Santiago, came out with a front page story on May 18 under the headline “Mr. Bonsal’s Presence in Nicaro Protested”. The article blew up the motorcade to 200 cars and had them blowing horns and in other ways making a noisy demonstration of disapproval of the visit. The article raises the question of what was behind Ambassador Bonsal’s trip, [Page 925]which it described as “strange and suspicious”. It labeled the visit to the schools as “hypocrisy”. Norte, the daily from Holguín, carried much the same report with additional embellishments. They had the Ambassador arriving in Nicaro from the Guantanamo Naval Base in a Base aircraft. Several radio stations in Habana carried news items on the trip in which they had the Ambassador going to the Naval Base in a military aircraft. Otherwise the Government propaganda machine has not made an issue of the trip. The Habana papers barely mentioned the trip.
Daniel M. Braddock
- Source: Department of State, Central Files, 737.00/5–2360. Confidential. Drafted by William G. Bowdler and George O. Gray.↩
- Rubottom apparently broached the idea of such a trip, among other things, in a letter of April 1 to Bonsal, a copy of which has not been found. In a reply of April 7 to Rubottom, Bonsal referred to Rubottom’s April 1 letter, and noted that he had already made travel plans. (ibid., Rubottom–Mann Files: Lot 62 D 418, Cuba (April–June) 1960)↩