Document created: 28 October 2003
Air University Review, November-December 1973

Phases of Subversion

The Castro Drive on Latin America

Jay Mallin

Few countries in the world in recent history have carried out programs of subversion with the consistency and determination of Communist Cuba under Fidel Castro. Subversion, directed especially against other Latin American countries but also reaching as far away as Africa and even into the United States itself, has been a primary policy of the present Cuban government almost from the day it came into power.

Less than a month after the revolutionary movement took control in Cuba early in 1959, Ernesto “Che” Guevara declared, “‘The Revolution is not limited to the Cuban nation.”1 And in March 1959 Fidel Castro stated, “The Caribbean is ours.”2 In July 1960 Castro bluntly declared, “We promise to continue making [Cuba] the example that can convert the Cordillera of the Andes into the Sierra Maestra of the American continent.”3 This was not mere rhetoric; the Castro regime matched actions to words. Exiles of diverse nationalities and political stripes flocked into Cuba following the rebel victory, and those deemed to be ideologically acceptable—especially by Guevara, the government’s in-house international expert—received moral support and military assistance in the form of training and equipment.

The first Cuban aggressive effort was directed against Panama. In an amateurish and near-comical venture 84 expeditionaries, 82 of whom were Cuban, landed at Nombre de Dios, an almost inaccessible village on the Caribbean coast of Panama. The invaders had to be “rescued” by the Panamanian National Guard, which utilized a landing barge borrowed from U.S. authorities in the Canal Zone. After a brief stay in a Panamanian jail, the invaders were sent back to Cuba with a stern warning. One Cuban stayed behind; he decided to marry a Panamanian girl he had met at Nombre de Dios.

Cuba was not deterred by this fiasco. In June 1959, coordinated air and sea landings of expeditionaries, armed in and launched from Cuba, took place in the Dominican Republic. All but a few of the invaders were killed by Dominican forces. In August 1959 another invasion group infiltrated Haiti from Cuba, and it, too, was wiped out. In Nicaragua also an insurgency, which had received an arms shipment by plane from Cuba, was quelled.

These four attempts to establish guerrilla operations in Caribbean-area countries having failed, the Cuban government developed more sophisticated subversive techniques. No more filibustering expeditions would be launched from Cuba. Instead other tactics were employed: Cuban diplomats provided financial aid to pro-Castro groups in the Latin American countries. Cuban fishing boats slipped weapons ashore to be used by insurgent movements. Propaganda was beamed from powerful Cuban shortwave stations, circulated through Cuban diplomatic missions, and distributed by the Prensa Latina news service. (Prensa Latina was organized by Jorge Ricardo Masetti, an Argentine friend of Guevara’s who would die a few years later leading a Castroite guerrilla movement in Argentina.)

The greatest emphasis, however, was on the instruction of Latin Americans in guerrilla warfare. To this end, hundreds, and then thousands, of men were brought to Cuba, trained in special schools and camps, and returned to their homelands to start insurgencies or join campaigns already under way. Venezuela, Colombia, and Guatemala were among the nations most seriously affected by Cuba-assisted guerrillas; however, few countries in Central and South America escaped at least minor outbreaks.

Guerrilla courses in Cuba lasted from three to six months and occasionally as long as a year. Manuel Celestino Marcano Carrasquel, a Venezuelan who received the training, later described it to an investigative committee of the Organization of American States. He reported:

I took courses in guerrilla and counter-guerrilla tactics, theory and practice; assembling and disassembling short and long weapons, especially some of the ones that were easiest to acquire. . . . In explosives I was given a course that covered home-made bombs using chlorate, grenades, booby traps, “Molotov cocktails” of various kinds.  . . . They put a great deal of emphasis on blowing up pipelines. . . . I took a course in mapmaking and map reading, including reading of tactical maps. . . .4

The first Cuban efforts at subversion in 1959 appear to have resulted from a combination of factors: the exuberance of the revolutionaries after their victory against a regime considered to be militarily superior; a belief on their part that it was up to them to set right what was wrong in other countries; a desire by Castro to become, as signs in Havana proclaimed, El líder de las Américas; and the eagerness of Guevara to export Marxist revolution. As Cuba moved toward Communism and became alienated from the rest of Latin America, the support of insurgency developed into an integral part of Cuban foreign policy. It was a policy which aimed at the communization of other countries, but it had practical as well as ideological motivations. Cuba needed allies that could provide it with support and break its hemispheric isolation. Venezuela was a particular target of Cuban subversion because of its vast oil reserves. Obtaining access to these would have made Cuba less reliant on the Soviet Union, Cuba’s sole provider of vitally needed petroleum. Blas Roca, a leading Cuban Communist, stated in 1963:

If their [Venezuelan] struggle is a help to us today, their victory will give us an even more tremendous help. Then we shall no longer be a solitary island in the Caribbean confronting the Yankee imperialists, but rather we shall have a land of support on the mainland.5

Because of its geographical proximity, the Dominican Republic was another priority target for Cuba’s insurgency program. First came the abortive June 1959 expeditions. Then, in November 1963, another guerrilla operation was launched with full Cuban support. Cuba had trained a number of the guerrillas who participated and attempted to send them a shipload of weapons; these were intercepted by Dominican forces. This guerrilla movement also was defeated. In 1965 an unexpected opportunity for Cuban subversion occurred. Late in April of that year the government of Dominican President Donald Reid Cabral was overthrown as the result of a military uprising. No clear-cut change of authority took place, however, and the situation in the capital city deteriorated rapidly. Mobs swirled through the streets, stores were looted, policemen were killed.

Rebel elements, including some army troops, controlled the downtown area of Santo Domingo. The air force, which had its own tank and troop units, held the big San Isidro air base across the Ozama River. Air attacks were carried out against the rebels, but the air force’s troops were unable to force their way across the Duarte bridge and into the insurgent stronghold. Within the city, foreign embassies were fired upon, the Guatemalan ambassador was threatened by a mob, and U.S. diplomatic personnel gathered Americans and other foreigners at the Embajador hotel in preparation for evacuation.

There were three Communist parties in the Dominican Republic, including the Castro-aligned Agrupación Política Catorce de Junio, named for the date of the 1959 expeditions. The chaotic situation in Santo Domingo was made to order for the Communists, particularly those who had received training in subversive techniques in Cuba. They armed themselves and assumed control of the street crowds. Several thousand weapons were trucked in from a rebel army camp and distributed among civilians.

The Communists helped organize paramilitary units and set up strongpoints at strategic locations. Directing the Communist military activities was Manuel González González, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War who was believed to be an agent of Cuba’s intelligence service. Approximately a thousand troops of the regular army had participated in the revolt. The Communists hurriedly armed themselves and other civilians whom they controlled, and these paramilitary forces soon outnumbered the troops. As a result of this burgeoning power, the Communists within a few days were generally dominating the rebel leadership. (Titular leader of the revolt was an army colonel named Francisco Alberto Caamaño Deñó.) The United States, supported by the Organization of American States, intervened militarily in the conflict, probably preventing what might have become a Communist take-over of the entire country. 

The Dominican uprising was an aberration—a move by military men which degenerated into near-chaos and a resulting opportunity for the Communist movement. Other countries suffered Cuba-directed or -assisted insurgencies, but in these countries, too, the subversive efforts failed to achieve their objectives, the establishment of pro-Castro Communist regimes. The Latin America of the sixties was not Cuba of the fifties, where the army of strongman Fulgencio Batista was unable to cope with the guerrilla movement. Farsighted Latin American governments were undertaking significant social programs. Armies, acutely aware of the danger inherent in guerrilla movements, moved with determination to wipe these out whenever they appeared. The United States, on its part, developed counterinsurgency concepts, including civic action, and instituted effective means of teaching these to the Latin American military.6

Castro, however, was not discouraged. His regime was, in fact, prepared to make an attempt to institutionalize subversion. What could only be termed an international conference to foment subversion was held in Havana from 3 to 15 January 1966. Officially, it was called the “First Conference of Solidarity of the Peoples of Africa, Asia, and Latin America,” but for brevity’s sake it came to be known as the “Tricontinental Conference.” From 82 countries came over 600 representatives, chosen by local Communist parties and “liberation movements.” The tone and purpose of the conference were indicated by the agenda, which included such phrases as “Struggle against imperialism . . . Struggle for complete national liberation . . . Intensification of all forms of struggle . . . Ways and means of aiding the liberation movements in Africa, Asia, and Latin America . . . Burning issues of the struggle.”7 The Tricontinental adopted 73 resolutions aimed at “the system of imperialist, colonialist, and neo-colonialist exploitation against which it has declared a struggle to the death.”8 Castro told the delegates that the conference had been “a great victory of the revolutionary movement.”9

Two permanent organizations grew out of the conference. The first, created by resolution of the conference as a whole, was the Organization of Solidarity of the Peoples of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, whose task was “to unite, coordinate, and further the struggle” on those three continents.10 The second organization was created by the 27 Latin American delegations; on 16 January they announced setting up of the Latin American Organization of Solidarity (Organización Latinoamericana de Solidaridad—OLAS).

The OLAS was of special interest to Castro. Through its establishment a facade of international respectability, at least in Communist eyes, was given to the subversive efforts Cuba directed against other Latin American countries. The headquarters of OLAS was set up in Havana, and the First Conference of Solidarity of the Latin American Peoples was held in that city 28 July5 August 1967. A “general declaration” issued after the conference proclaimed “that it is a right and a duty of the peoples of Latin America to make revolution.”11

The holding of the Tricontinental conference graphically demonstrated that Castro’s subversive interests extended beyond Latin America. In the Guevara-Castro view, undeveloped nations were particularly susceptible to Communist take-overs via guerrilla movements. Acting in accordance with this concept, Cuba has given a full measure of attention to Africa. As early as 1961 a Zanzibar National party office, headed by a former Mau Mau, John Okello, was opened in Havana. By mid-1962 men from at least nine African countries, including Zanzibar, were receiving subversive training in Cuba. In January 1964 a rebel movement in Zanzibar led by Okello overthrew the pro-Western government and set up the “People’s Republic of Zanzibar.” Cuba has also been involved in the Congo (Brazzaville), where Cuban troops help maintain the leftist government in power, and in Portuguese Guinea, where Cubans serve with the guerrilla forces (eight Cubans were reported killed early in 1973 when they were intercepted trying to infiltrate the colony).

The United States hardly qualifies as an undeveloped country, but even here Castro’s agents have been active. In November 1962 the FBI arrested three Cubans in New York, including an attaché of Cuba’s United Nations mission, and charged them with planning to place bombs in stores, oil refineries, and the New York subway system. A cache of explosives and incendiary devices was seized. In 1968 two other Cuban representatives at the U.N. were barred from the United States because they had been providing guidance and financial assistance to American black extremist groups.

Through the first half of the sixties Guevara masterminded Cuba’s operations abroad. Then, apparently tiring of the successive failures in Latin America, he decided to go into the field himself once more. He chose Africa as his new battleground, feeling that this continent was comparatively far from the United States’ sphere of power and influence and close to Communist and other sympathetic countries. Leading a group of Cubans, Guevara involved himself in the struggles in the Congo.

The African adventure also failed—Guevara was evidently there six months—so Guevara returned secretly to Cuba, where he began preparations for yet another guerrilla movement. This one would be in Bolivia, where he believed the government of President René Barrientos could be overthrown much as that of Cuba’s Fulgencio Batista had been brought down in 1959. Furthermore, Bolivia was centrally and strategically located so that, in Guevara’s view, it could serve as a base for spin-off operations in adjoining countries, especially Argentina.

A high-level military group was organized and trained in Cuba and then infiltrated into Bolivia. There a farm had been purchased in an isolated area near the town of Camiri, and this was to serve as the base camp for the guerrilla operation. Guevara, in disguise and using two Uruguayan passports, traveled to Bolivia via Spain and Brazil. On or around 7 November 1966 he arrived at the base camp, and the insurgency was under way. An indication of the importance given to it by Cuba was the presence with Guevara of sixteen Cuban military men, including three comandantes (highest rank in the Cuban army) and six captains. Three of the officers, in addition to Guevara, had been members of the Central committee of the Cuban Communist party.

On 23 March 1967 the guerrillas staged their first attack. They ambushed a Bolivian army patrol, killing seven soldiers and taking eighteen prisoners. Other guerrilla actions in the following months were similarly successful, but eventually the tide turned against Guevara’s group. The peasants of the region did not provide the support Guevara expected and needed (Bolivia had had an extensive agrarian reform in 1952, and Guevara had little to offer). A clandestine apparatus in the cities which might have supported the guerrillas was broken up by the Bolivian authorities. Even the local Communist parties, refusing to accept leadership from Guevara, a foreigner, failed to provide assistance. The Bolivian army encircled the area in which the guerrillas operated and effectively isolated them. The United States, rather than permit itself to be sucked into a potential Vietnam-like situation, did not send combat troops but, instead, gave four months of training to a Bolivian Ranger battalion. It was this unit that eventually tracked down Guevara and the remnants of his band. Guevara was captured 8 October 1967, and the next day he was executed.

The climactic phase of the eight-year Cuban insurgency program had terminated in total defeat. The full extent of the Cuban operation was revealed later when Orlando Castro Hidalgo, a defector from the Cuban intelligence service, disclosed that at approximately the time Guevara was preparing to go to Bolivia, two comandantes of the Cuban army, both of them members of the Cuban Communist party’s Central committee, were infiltrated into Venezuela to assist guerrillas in that country.12 Guevara’s movement in Bolivia had been part of a two-pronged attack on South America. The Venezuelan effort, like the one in Bolivia, ended in failure (although, unlike Guevara, the two comandantes in Venezuela eventually got back to Cuba).

Castro, aided by Guevara, Raúl Castro, and other able lieutenants, had led a guerrilla movement which was part of the revolution against Batista. The movement was a major factor in Batista’s eventual overthrow, but it was not the only factor: effective operations by urban clandestine organizations, a substantial decline in the Cuban economy, and the United States’ cutoff of arms and support for Batista also contributed to his fall. Upon coming to power, however, Castro and Guevara overlooked these other factors, preferring to emphasize the guerrilla role in the revolution. Out of this grew a mystique of guerrilla invincibility, a mystique in which Castro and Guevara really believed (so much so that Guevara staked his life on it, and lost). It was this mystique that was the conceptual foundation for much of Cuba’s subversive effort during the sixties. Start a guerrilla movement, support it, and it will eventually succeed—thus thought the planners in Havana. But not one such guerrilla operation in Latin America succeeded, and with the death of Guevara and the failure of the grand plan (Bolivia-Venezuela), Havana was forced to accept the fact that other methods were needed.

Cuban subversion entered a new phase. There would be more sophistication and selectivity in the program. Substantial numbers of men would no longer be sent abroad to start guerrilla operations.13 Funds, weapons, and trained agents would still be sent to existing movements, but not on the scale of previous efforts.

A doctrinal shift also occurred. In a speech on 13 March 1967 Castro faulted Venezuelan revolutionaries because in their strategy there had been “an over-estimation of the importance of the capital and of the struggle in the capital and an under-estimation of the importance of the guerrilla movement.”14 The death of Guevara was a severe blow to the guerrilla mystique, and now Cuba reluctantly, turned its attention to the cities of Latin America as a potentially fruitful battleground. A case in point was Montevideo, Uruguay, where the Tupamaro clandestine organization was growing in strength, boldness, and operational capability. A number of Tupamaros were trained in Cuba; an interrogation manual used by the Tupamaros was written in Cuba or by a Cuban. The Uruguayan army’s intelligence department learned that Castro, during a trip through Africa, met with a Tupamaro representative and gave him $265,000 in cash to support the insurgent movement.

The Tupamaro movement was crushed by the Uruguayan army in 1972. Castro, however, seems intent on continuing to use urban terrorism as a major method of subversion. In February 1973 a U.S. State Department official reported that “several hundred” persons in Cuba were being trained in urban terror tactics.15

Castro’s persistence in pursuing a policy of subversion has a direct bearing on relations between Cuba and the United States. These relations were broken in January 1961, and American officials have repeatedly stated that they will not be resumed until Castro, among other things, ceases trying to subvert Latin American countries. Castro, however, has indicated no interest in doing this. He stated bluntly in 1971, “Cuba maintains its policy of support to the revolutionary governments and also support of the revolutionary movements of Latin America.”16 Subversion continues to be an operational policy of the Cuban government.

Coral Gables, Florida

Notes

1. Ernesto Guevara, “Proyecciones Sociales del Ejército Rebelde,” Ernesto Che Guevara, Obras 1957-1967 (Havana: 1970), Vol. 2, page 21.

2. “Fastest Gun in Havana,” Time, 23 March 1959.

3. James Monahan and Kenneth O. Gilmore, The Great Deception (New York: 1963), p. 153.

4. Report of Committee 1 of the Twelfth Meeting of Consultation of Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Organization of American States (Washington: 1967), p. 74.

5. Jay Mallin, Fortress Cuba (Chicago: 1965), p. 73.

6. Willard F. Barber and G. Neale Ronning, Internal Security and Military Power (Columbus, Ohio: 1966).

7. Orlando Castro Hidalgo, Spy for Fidel (Miami: 1971), p. 96.

8. Cuba Socialista, Havana, February 1966, p. 101.

9. Ibid., p. 79.

10. Ibid., p. 149.

11. “Declaración General de la Primera Conferencia Latinoamericana de Solidaridad, Teoría y Práctica, Havana, August 1967.

12. Castro Hidalgo, p. 48.

13. In special cases Castro seems still willing to try to set up new guerrilla operations. After the termination of the 1965 Dominican uprising rebel chief Caamaño went to London as Dominican military attaché. In October 1967 he took a trip to The Hague, where he disappeared from public sight. He went to Paris in disguise and from there was spirited by the Cuban intelligence service to Cuba via Prague. Evidently Castro wanted to use him in the Dominican Republic again one day. Early in February 1973 Caamaño did land on the Dominican coast with a small group of armed men. Pursued by Dominican forces, he was killed in battle a fortnight later.

14. Speech transcribed by the Latin American Monitoring Service.

15. “ ‘Urban Terror’ Experts Reported Cuba-Trained,” Miami Herald, 21 February 1973.

16. Foreign Broadcast Information Service, 20 April 1971.


Contributor

Jay Mallin (A.B., Florida Southern College) is an author and journalist who specializes in military affairs. He worked in Cuba as a journalist, 1950-61, and since then has covered Cuban developments from Miami. He has traveled throughout Latin America and observed at first hand several aspects of Cuban subversion mentioned in this article. Mallin is editor of the Series on Unconventional Warfare published by the University of Miami Press.

Disclaimer

The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.


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