On January 1, 1959, after a sustained armed revolt led by Fidel Castro and others took control over most of the country, Fulgencio Batista fled Havana, marking the end of one era and the beginning of another. With the departure of the despised dictator, there was initially hope that life in Cuba would improve. William Lenderking, arriving in Havana in March 1959, witnessed how optimism quickly gave way to fear and repression as the new government began indoctrinating youth and instituting widespread control over libraries, newspapers, and magazines. Lenderking concludes that Castro was never truly interested in good relations with the United States. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in March 2007.
You can read about Kathleen Turner’s experiences in Castro’s Cuba as a little girl and about re-establishing ties with Cuba in 1977.
“The feeling of euphoria dissipated quickly”
LENDERKING: Fidel Castro had just come to power two months earlier and Havana was euphoric. In the early days, Fidel and his circle were regarded as folk heroes, even worshipped by some Cubans, and I had to admit when I saw them in public they cut a fine figure, especially Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, who was later supposedly removed by Castro when he had doubts about the revolution. Everyone seemed to think that this was a new era, that a bad government had been ousted and that we could get along with Castro and he would certainly want to get along with us because of our power and influence. And so it was a period of real optimism there.
I was not just the youngest and most junior officer on the USIS [U.S. Information Service] staff — we had about six or seven officers there — I was the youngest and most junior officer in the whole embassy. In fact, I was still in trainee status, and did not have an official position, which meant I was supposed to get experience in all the sections or at least the two USIA sections, information and culture, and as it turned out that was only a one-year assignment. That is the way USIA did it in those days.
And in that one year the whole situation in Cuba turned 180 degrees. The feeling of euphoria dissipated quickly, at least among those who were not committed revolutionaries, and changed to one of deep dismay and opposition. There were constant crises between the U.S. and Cuba; Castro was denouncing us all the time, there were demonstrations, intrigue, high emotions. It was very exciting. My wife and I thought, ‘Wow, this is a great place to be,’ and I had chosen the right career. Shortly after our arrival, my first child was born, and I couldn’t have been happier.
The ambassador was Philip Bonsal, an eminent career ambassador, very much of a gentleman, a diplomat of the old school. His wife was a lovely lady and was cordial to the junior wives from her rather lofty perch….Bonsal was the Eisenhower administration’s attempt to initially get along with Castro. His predecessor, Earl E. T. Smith, was a wealthy Republican investment banker who was well connected with the Cuban Old Guard and supportive of Batista, and he was very unpopular….
One of the biggest knocks on U.S. foreign policy, especially in Latin America, was that we always supported corrupt, brutal, and unsavory dictators like Batista, Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, Somoza in Nicaragua, Perez Jimenez in Venezuela, and a host of others. Bonsal was a gentleman, low key and sophisticated, not at all bumptious, spoke excellent Spanish, was familiar with Cuba and Latin American history, and he was popular with the Cubans. He tried very hard to have a good relationship and get us over the bumps of old resentments that were always getting in the way.
“Castro was not really interested in good relations with us”
Certainly in the beginning we hoped there would be a chance to build a new relationship to replace the old one of dependency and exploitation based mostly on sugar. I’m convinced that the Eisenhower administration genuinely wanted this, and the Kennedy administration would have backed any initiatives in that direction with even greater vigor.
But in retrospect I think Ambassador Bonsal was slow to recognize just how far Fidel Castro was prepared to go and that he was not really interested in good relations with us, except totally on his own terms. In short, I think from the beginning Fidel was convinced he could never carry out his revolution unless Cuba’s close ties with the U.S. were broken. He later said he’d always been a Communist and forged a close relationship with the Soviets, replacing Cuba’s dependency on the U.S. with one on the Soviet Union. But in his radical student days and in the early period of his rule, Castro was never a committed Marxist-Leninist and merely used the rhetoric and the socialist model as guideposts for his very personalized policies….
And everyone was wondering what was really happening throughout the country, which way Castro was moving and what he would do next, and what would happen to Cuban-U.S. relations. Since I was the most expendable American officer, still technically in training, I went to people in some of the interior cities where there was a massive program of indoctrination going on beyond anything we were aware of in Havana, and it was against the U.S. and it was pro-Communist. Castro’s officials were taking the books out of the libraries and replacing them with Marxist tracts, supplied massively in Spanish through the cheap paperback programs the Soviet Union had in those days, worldwide. We also had a worldwide book translation program, but it wasn’t in the same league in either depth or breadth with what the Soviet Union was offering.
They understood the importance of ideas and argumentation much better than we did. And it wasn’t just books. The regime was taking over the newspapers and independent magazines, one by one, picking off anything and anyone who offered an independent opinion.
I also witnessed on several occasions kids outfitted something like the Boy Scouts being marched through the squares chanting, “Uno-dos-tres-cuatro, Viva Fidel Castro Ruz!” Well, I’d read “Animal Farm,” “1984,” “Darkness at Noon” “Brave New World,” and others in that same general vein and what was happening in Cuba was alarming. It was nothing less than the stifling of all independent voices and the indoctrination of the youth of an entire country, and it seemed to me very ominous.
“No one else in the entire Embassy had seen what I had”
So I went back and wrote all this up, a couple of lengthy reports, and the political section liked it, and they sent it to Washington. I was, of course, elated that something I had witnessed and written about was deemed interesting enough to send on to Washington as a political cable. But the plain fact was that no one else in the entire Embassy had seen what I had, and it was all there in plain sight going on in the squares of the interior cities.
Of course there was a Consulate in Santiago de Cuba, and we had consular agents in a couple of other cities, and the CIA must have had reports (which I never saw) coming in from their contacts, but I think the small American staff was overwhelmed in just trying to keep up with the big problems coming their way every day. For example, dealing with the confiscation of American property and the harassment of American citizens, screening people trying to leave the country for visas (and some of these were in great danger), dealing with officials of Castro’s government and searching for those who genuinely wanted to work with us instead of blaming the U.S. for all of Cuba’s ills since the beginning of time, and many other problems – you can imagine it was a huge workload and our officers simply didn’t have the time to take a few days off to take the temperature of the country.
I was assigned to various information tasks, such as writing articles in English, which we would have translated, and try and get placed in newspapers about one thing or another. The idea was to emphasize the practical benefits of democracy and a free press, and the hazards of following authoritarian models, which was clearly the direction Castro was taking Cuba in a big hurry. We hit hard on the idea that you could have thorough reform without confiscating all private property and driving away entrepreneurs and people you needed to make the economy productive.
I would write under a pseudonym, and this was a way of criticizing the way things were going without confronting the regime directly. For example, I wrote a pamphlet on agrarian reform, which was the heart of the revolutionary program, and we didn’t like the way the government was just taking people’s land and throwing the owners off without any compensation. Some of the landowners were Americans who had made genuine and honest contributions, and they were driven out with no compensation. My pamphlet was on how land reform had succeeded in our state of Georgia.
Unfortunately, when it came out under a title everyone thought I was talking about Georgia in the Soviet Union so I am not sure the pamphlet had much of an impact. Especially since Castro was taking control of the newspapers one by one and the daily drumbeat of really vicious attacks and false charges was much greater than anything we could respond to. But we tried….
Smuggling Senior Officials Out of the “New Cuba”
In the beginning the [Cubans] were very friendly. From my experience and the experiences of others, I believed Cubans genuinely liked Americans and vice-versa. But Cubans had a very highly developed sense of grievance toward the United States, which in my view was justified to a large extent by having had Cuba as an American colony, and after Cuba’s independence in 1934 continuing to treat it like one. But we tried to meet as many people as we could and in the beginning, as I said, neither my wife nor I spoke very good Spanish but we were picking it up quickly and we tried to develop relations with people our own age who were up-and-comers in the Castro government, or in the “new Cuba.”
One person I had an introduction to through my wife’s sister, who had met him when he was visiting at Yale, was a senior official in the foreign ministry. He was a Yale graduate, a charming bon vivant, and when I contacted him he said, ‘Okay, I will take you to lunch.’ Well, we hit it off instantly – he was suave and very outgoing and we just bounced from one topic to another at this upscale restaurant he took me to, with the din of the Cuban luncheon cocktail hour and Cuban music blasting in our ears….but I did cultivate my friendship with him and when things really got bad I offered, and he accepted, my help to get him and his wife out of the country….
It’s a long story but basically what happened is I was able to get him an expedited visa. I argued with the visa officers who insisted he appear in the Embassy in person. We all knew the Embassy was being watched, and he, as a senior official in the Foreign Ministry would certainly be spotted by the surveillance people, and he was very apprehensive of coming into the Embassy.
I arranged for him to come in and leave by a side door and maybe that helped….The risk was real enough — he could have been arrested, jailed, and even executed as a traitor — it happened to others. Fortunately, he and his family got out – disguised heavily….These incidents were very exciting. Even though we were Embassy people, being in Havana when relations were going downhill fast carried genuine risk. It was jarring to think that Havana was regarded as almost a paradise and a haven for tourists of all kinds only a few months previous to all this.
Spying from Within
I’ll tell you one more story that I think is interesting. The head Cuban cultural affairs assistant at the Embassy, in USIS, was very popular and well connected. Everyone loved her. She was just perfect, and had been my older sister’s advisor when she was at SmithCollege. So we naturally had a lot to talk about, and everyone liked her and relied on her. But there was only one problem — she turned out to be a spy for Castro. She was in the Embassy in a glassed-in ground floor office, so she saw all the people who came and went, and she was reporting to Castro’s intelligence services. I’m sure some people ended up in prison or being roughly interrogated because of her.…
“There was no way the United States could get along with Castro”
So that was the kind of atmosphere it was: it went from euphoria in the beginning to very unpleasant….There was certainly debate but I think we were all dismayed about the way the government was going. It was shutting down the newspapers and censoring, seizing land without compensation, mounting scurrilous and vicious public attacks on anyone who dared to criticize what was happening, and none of these were essential to a successful revolution.
So we began to see that Castro’s agenda did not include a friendly relationship with the U.S. and a willingness to sit down and work out our problems. And we were all operating from the premise that our problems could be negotiated and settled and it was in the interest of both our countries. And I think almost all of us felt very strongly about that and were dismayed. At one point, I can’t remember exactly when it was, but it was before I left in May of 1960, so it would have been somewhere around fall of 1959, the Embassy, I guess it was the country team, had a straw vote, just the Embassy section chiefs, the Ambassador and the DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission], and they voted that there was no way the United States could get along with Castro if he continued on his present course, because things had gone too far. And after that point I think we all prepared for what would be an eventual breaking of relations.