By Barry Lando
At a time when the White House is spending hundreds of billions and has dispatched killer teams to liquidate Osama bin Laden and lesser targets, imagine what the leaders of other countries—Cuba, for instance—might do if they declared their own war on terror. That question is evoked by a disturbing new documentary chronicling the past half century of Cuban-American relations, “Will the Real Terrorist Please Stand Up.”
Written and directed by radical, Emmy-Award-winning filmmaker Saul Landau, the report shies away from revolutionary cant and vague rhetoric. Instead, Landau backs up his case with research and interviews that, taken together, represent a damning indictment of U.S. policy. Most of the facts he cites are not news to those who have closely followed relations between Cuba and the U.S. since February 1959, when Fidel Castro came to power. But the great majority of Americans have not paid attention. And most of what they have been told has been filtered through a Cold War prism that continues to warp U.S.-Cuban relations.
Washington’s war against Castro began long before May 1961, when he declared himself a Marxist-Leninist. Indeed, almost from the time that Castro marched into Havana and made it clear his revolution was the real thing, American presidents—Republican and Democrat—have attempted to combat and overthrow his regime by every possible means, from an embargo that strangled the country’s economy to allowing Cuban exiles operating from Florida to attack Cuba’s refineries, infrastructure and sugar cane fields and assassinate government officials. Of course, there were also notorious attempts by the CIA to kill Castro himself. And then came the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.
Incredibly, after Cuba charged—accurately—that the U.S. was behind the invasion, U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson had the gall to “categorically” deny the allegation: “The United States has committed no offense against Cuba and no offensive action has been launched from Florida or any part of the United States.”
As part of the agreement ending the Cuban missile crisis in the fall of 1962, President John F. Kennedy pledged that the U.S. would not invade Cuba, but the White House and the CIA continued to support radical U.S.-based exile groups that were intent on using terror and violence to topple Castro.
According to Landau’s report, in October 1976 the CIA had information that one of the Cuban exiles linked to them was planning to plant a bomb on a Cuban airliner—but the U.S. never informed the Cuban government. All 73 passengers and five crew members aboard were killed. The Cubans estimate that more than 3,000 of their fellow islanders have been murdered in such terrorist acts.
All this, of course, would have been immediately denounced and massively countered by the United States if such a campaign had been waged against the U.S. or its allies by the likes of Iran, North Korea, Hamas—or Cuba.
On several occasions, Castro attempted to negotiate with the U.S. government, and there were Americans who argued for a change in policy. As John L. Burton, the former president of the California Senate, put it, “We do business with all sorts of bad quote undemocratic countries without free elections, but we pick on Cuba because we can, because they’re small, because there’s political benefit to doing it in Florida.”
Even after the end of the Cold War, millions of voters in Florida still view the struggle to bring down Castro as a holy crusade, which is the reason no American president—including Barack Obama—has had the guts to change course. In effect, Florida is the only state with its own foreign policy.
In the face of unrelenting attacks from U.S. territory, Castro’s government did what any government would have done: It dispatched intelligence agents to the U.S. to infiltrate radical exile Cuban groups and thwart their plans.
One of the groups they targeted was Brothers to the Rescue, which flew small planes out of Florida to buzz Cuban cities and drop anti-Castro leaflets and propaganda. According to Landau’s report, the group was also experimenting with weapons that could be fired from the air.
In 1996, Fidel Castro told visiting Bill Richardson, now the former governor of New Mexico, “You’ve got to tell your government to get control of these people.” Castro also said: “What would the U.S. do if the Cubans flew over Washington? How long would that plane last?” Richardson relayed the message to Morton Halperin, point man for Cuba on President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council staff. Halperin said he would raise the issue with the Federal Aviation Administration. The flights continued.
In addition, a top Cuban official asked Saul Landau to alert Halperin that there would be drastic consequences if the U.S. didn’t stop the flights. According to Landau, Halperin indicated he would have the FAA cancel the licenses of the exile Cuban pilots. But the FAA didn’t. And on Feb. 24, 1996, Cuban MiGs shot down two of three small Cessnas over international waters, killing their occupants. Clinton, who reportedly had been hoping to loosen American policy toward Cuba, instead was forced by political pressure to further tighten the embargo.
Radical Cuban exile groups also targeted Cuba’s vital tourist industry, warning potential visitors they would turn the island into a free-fire zone. They bombed several Havana hotels, injuring and killing the innocent.
According to Landau, in 1998 Castro gave a letter to Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez to transmit to President Clinton: To stop the violent exile groups, Cuba would be willing to cooperate with the FBI. An FBI team was dispatched to Havana, and the Cubans supplied them with substantial information about exile terrorist activities.
Instead of dismantling those exile groups, the FBI used the information to discover the identities of the undercover agents in Florida working for the Cuban government. On Sept. 12, 1998, five Cuban intelligence officers were arrested in Miami and charged with, among other things, conspiracy to commit espionage and murder. Among the allegations, they were accused of giving the Cuban government the information needed to shoot down the illegal flights of the Brothers to the Rescue.
The arrested Cubans denied that charge but spent more than a year in solitary confinement and—most important—were denied a motion to move the trial from Dade County, an area seething with anti-Castro sentiment. They were found guilty and received maximum sentences; in one case, two life sentences without the possibility of parole. Last October the U.S. Supreme Court turned down their appeal to have the trial remanded for change of venue.
A couple of months later, on the other side of the world, a CIA contract operative, Raymond Davis, was arrested by Pakistani authorities after killing two men in Lahore, presumably as part of America’s war on terror. After a barrage of calls to Pakistani officials from the highest levels in the U.S. government and the payment of “blood money” to the murdered men’s relatives, Davis was quietly released to American authorities and spirited out of Pakistan.
Meanwhile, in Florida, the most prominent of the radical Cuban exiles—those proudly linked to the campaign of terrorism against Castro’s Cuba—remain free and the toast of many inside and outside the exile community.
Barry M. Lando spent 25 years as an award-winning investigative producer with “60 Minutes.” He has produced numerous articles, a documentary and a book, “Web of Deceit,” about Iraq. Lando is finishing a novel, “The Watchman’s File.”
AP / Javier Galeano
Cuban students hold photographs of Cubans believed to have been killed during attacks by anti-government militants. Those pictured include some of the victims of the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner.