Voices From the Other Side: An Oral History of Terrorism Against Cuba by Keith Bolender, Pluto Press, 2010, 220 pp., $21.00 (paperback)
In the ten years since the 9/11 attacks, terrorism has become thoroughly incorporated into the popular vocabulary and a featured subject in all U.S. media. On September 8 alone, The Wall Street Journal referenced no less than seven separate stories involving terrorism on just its front page, only one involving 9/11. Terrorism, for the average person in the United States, is limited to “them” doing something to “us.” This view, however, is historically inaccurate. As the book Voices From the Other Side amply demonstrates, the use of terrorism has formed an integral part of U.S. policy for decades. Award-winning journalist Keith Bolender examines the case of Cuba, shining light on the little-known aspects of the undeclared war that the United States has fostered against the Cuban Revolution since its triumph in 1959.
Bolender has produced a very powerful book. Each chapter is laced with quotes from official documents and testimony from actors from both Cuba and the United States, leaving no doubt to the depth of official and unofficial U.S. involvement in the campaign against the Revolution. The book contains three interrelated strands. The first is a general history of U.S.-Cuban relations with emphasis on the post-revolutionary years. The second describes specific instances of terrorism against Cuba after 1959. The third focuses on the individuals who have been affected by these acts of terror. Together, these strands draw a horrific picture of aggression against Cuban citizens, but also stand as tribute to the resiliency of the human spirit under pain and stress.
The oral testimony of those who have been directly impacted by acts of terrorism is the defining feature of Voices From the Other Side. It is impossible to even attempt to describe the gamut of emotions expressed in their quotes. They have lost family and loved ones, been physically wounded with the loss of a limb or worse, often frantically searched wreckage and morgues for the missing, and been forced to live with nightmarish memories for the rest of their lives. Their gut-wrenching stories detail the effects on young men and women when they learn that their fathers will never return, or wives waiting anxiously for news of their husbands, or parents seeing their children killed. The sister of a young student who was tortured, castrated, and killed for teaching peasants to read and write said, “I don’t want to think of how he suffered, how much pain they put him through before he died. They were really hard on him. At the funeral we saw the body and found out what had happened. My parents were destroyed.”
Jorge De La Nuez Orozco, who was five years old when his father was killed in the Cubana Airlines bombing, recalls, “I thought how could my father not come home. He’s cheating me. My mother said he had an accident and we can’t see him anymore. I cried and cried. I didn’t understand death but I was sad that I wouldn’t be able to see him again.”
The victims’ anger, for the most part, is not directed at the American people, but at the terrorists and those who support that network—the U.S. government and right-wing organizations.
“The United States government has for the past 50 years been torturing Cuba, why?” asked the father of a young man who died in a 1997 hotel bombing. “This country is no military threat. The only difference is the system. If you build hospitals, if you build schools, if you eliminate unemployment and hunger, for this you are attacked, for this you are subject to terrorism?”
Pictures of almost all the interviewees are included in the text, along with a few images of places where attacks took place. That said, the presentation is measured given the subject’s volatility. While clearly sympathetic to the Revolution, Bolender also recognizes its limitations.
Bolender attempts to answer several questions: Why did these acts occur? What did they hope to accomplish? Where they successful? In the years immediately after the Revolution most terrorism originated from groups still fighting inside the island (known locally as “bandits”) but as the regime consolidated, the locus of terrorism moved to the exile community in Miami where it remains today. Perpetrators received encouragement and financing from the CIA and other official U.S. organisms. Initially, the terrorists hoped to destabilize the government, spark an internal revolt against the new regime, and demonstrate that the Revolution could not govern successfully. When the expected push-back came in the form of increased surveillance and restrictions on civil liberties, critics quickly jumped to point out the supposed totalitarian nature of the regime and its anti-democratic characteristics. Early on, the CIA admitted that these acts of terror were not aimed at defeating the government militarily but at building internal pressures against it. As Bolender explains, this in turn justified increased efforts to overthrow the Revolution.
The cost to Cuba has been considerable not only in resources to combat hostile forces, but also in material losses. Over 800 acts of aggression have been officially documented, killing 3,478 and injuring 2,099 (although actual figures are likely far higher). In order to assess the true impact of terrorism, we must also count the $400 million lost to tobacco disease, the 300,000 persons affected by dengue fever, and the 500,000 pigs that had to be slaughtered when they developed swine flue—all diseases likely introduced from abroad.
“According to the scientists and international health agencies who have studied these occurrences, there is little doubt that the outbreaks of deadly viruses were not natural events,” writes Bolender.
The chapters are organized by the specific acts of terrorism launched against Cuba. These cover, for example, the March 1960 sinking of the French ship La Coubre carrying Belgian arms in Havana harbor, the 1976 bombing of a Cubana airliner, hotel and department store bombings, raids against coastal communities, aggression against fishermen, and assassinations of people involved in the l960–61 literacy campaign and the rural mobile movie caravans. Some space is also devoted to Operation Peter Pan, begun in the early 1960s, which ferried some 28,000 young Cubans to the United States with the help of the U.S. State Department, the Catholic Church, and the airlines. The families were told that they would be soon reunited when the regime fell, which never happened. Many of the children received shabby treatment in the United States and harbored severe feelings of rejection and betrayal. Some returned to Cuba years later preferring to rejoin their families.
The chapter on biological terrorism is particularly disturbing. Bolender notes there have been at least 23 acts of biological terrorism by the United States against the island nation, including the introduction of viruses, foreign organisms, and pests into the country. The Cuban government itself alleges that the United States surreptitiously infected Cuban people and livestock with viruses including dengue fever, influenza, typhus, avian flu, and botulism, provoking the death of 120 children, 35 elderly people, and hundreds of thousands of livestock. The economic costs of this biological terrorism have been substantial. Bolender estimates that 15% to 20% of the annual sugar crop is lost due to disease.
Two of the more gruesome episodes in the book involved the Cine Riego Theater in Pinar del Rio and a plot to assassinate Fidel Castro in Panama. In the former, counter-revolutionaries set fire to a movie theater at a cartoon matinee with mostly children in attendance. The perpetrators barred the only exit, but a military parade was passing outside and its personnel opened the doors saving many lives. In the second event, explosives were placed in the University of Panama auditorium where Castro was scheduled to speak in 2000. The planted 33 pounds of lethal material was discovered in time, or else hundreds of young Panamanians and perhaps Castro himself would have lost their lives.
The author of the second crime proved to be Luis Posada Carriles, who, along with Orlando Bosch, is probably the best known of the anti-Cuban operators. Both have been convicted of heinous acts. The former roams free today despite criminal convictions in both Panama and Venezuela, as did the latter until his recent death. According to Bolender, President George H.W. Bush pardoned Bosch in 1990, as a favor to his son Jeb Bush (who would later become Florida governor) so he could score points with the right-wing Cuban exile community in Miami. Documentation and names of countless other perpetrators abound in these pages, but in many instances the aggressors go free while their victims have to live with the results for the rest of their lives.
Cuba’s response to U.S. aggression has been threefold. It has protested without much response in the United Nations. It has defended itself at home. And it has tried, with some success, at thwarting acts by infiltrating terrorist organizations in the United States.
The last chapter looks at the case of the Cuban Five, Cuban agents who joined Florida-based counter-revolutionary groups to collect intelligence about plans to commit terror acts against Cuba. In June 1998 the Cuban Ministry of Interior shared their findings with the FBI in hopes that U.S. authorities would prevent the planned attacks. Instead the U.S. government used the information to quickly arrest the “Five” and prosecute them as foreign agents. Since their conviction in a Miami court, the group has remained in jail, despite numerous appeals. No action resulted against the terrorist cadres planning to carry out raids on Cuba.
Despite the horrendous effects of the U.S. terror campaign on Cuba, the author does note a “positive” side to the violence. The Cuban anti-terrorism campaign allowed the government to consolidate the revolution by encouraging solidarity among the people and creating a “Cuban national identity.” The neighborhood-based Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, for example, developed largely as a local defense against terrorism. Bolender argues that the strength of the Cuban identity helped the country to withstand the terrorist onslaught. In almost every testimony, the speakers note that support for victims quickly flowed from family, neighbors, and the government. Bolender further argues that a “culture of resistance” exists that allows people to go through hard times and to pull together.
He does, however, indirectly pose an interesting, unanswerable historical question. If there had been no terrorist campaign, where would things in Cuba be today? While there can be no doubt that the campaign against Cuba succeeded in a limited way, it also is clear the nation became stronger in the face of adversity.
This book deals with the past, but it is extremely relevant today. It serves as a reminder that dirty tricks and foul play form an integral part of U.S. policy, as do outright lies and total deniability. While some former CIA agents have apologized for their participation in these heinous acts—such as Philip Agee, Ray McGovern, and others—the damage has already been done. The pain lingers on, as clearly heard in the voices of the victims. Meanwhile, Cubans continue to suffer from the hypocrisy of U.S. policy, which has declared Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism since 1982, even while waging a half-century terror campaign against the island nation.
“[W]e’ve been born and raised knowing about terrorism against Cuba and knowing friends who lost their children, when bombs were put in stores, nurseries, the Cubana Airlines,” says Elizabeth Palmero, in Voices From the Other Side, whose husband, Ramón Labañino, was arrested in 1998 as a member of the Cuban Five and remains in a Florida prison. “If not for the terrorism, there would be no need for the Cuban Five.”
Hobart Spalding is a member of the NACLA Editorial Committee.
Read the rest of NACLA’s November/December 2011 issue: “Latino Student Movements.”