Stalinist Cuba, mass graves, and a U.S. president’s legacy

Special to
By Frank Calzon

On Jan. 8, 1959, as Fidel Castro entered Havana in triumph and the dictator Fulgencio Batista fled Cuba, Raul Castro opened up a mass grave in Santiago and immediately executed seventy one Cubans without due process.

As the Obama Administration begins a final year of diplomatic appeasement of tyrants and terrorist regimes, the early days of the Castro revolution, which the President blithely says do not concern him as he was not born at the time, are well worth recalling. They represent a textbook case of a recurring American pattern in the face of gruesome and dangerous events beyond our borders. It is a pattern that can almost be termed schizophrenic, inasmuch as one side we are repelled and horrified, and on the other we choose to believe plain facts are not to be trusted, certainly not for policy-making purposes.

Fidel Castro remained in power continuously until 2006, when his brother Raul succeeded him.
Fidel Castro remained in power continuously until 2006, when his brother Raul succeeded him.

But of course, this is not schizoid: the confusion takes place not in the same individual, but between different sectors of the polity. Hence the duty of memory – accurate memory.

The Cuban dictator left after hosting his cronies on New Year’s Eve. Not long after midnight aircraft that had kept their engines running departed from Havana’s military airport heading for Santo Domingo, where Generalissimo Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, one of the region’s bloodiest dictators, was in power. A tragic chapter in Cuba’s history came to a close.

Cubans celebrated the arrival of freedom, and nobody expected anything but the continuation of the island’s striking economic development, now under democracy and the rule of law.

Just before Batista fled, a rebel column led by Che Guevara reached Santa Clara, 162 miles from Havana in central Cuba, having purchased free passage on Cuba’s highways from army officers. Fidel was in the Sierra Maestra mountains 417 miles from the capital.

Batista chose not to make a stand, acquiescing in the forceful suggestion of U.S. Ambassador Earl T. Smith that he relinquish power.

Washington had made clear its new Cuba policy when it imposed an arms sales embargo and welshed on weapons and spare parts that the regime had paid for: the demoralizing impact on the regime of the arms embargo, the result of Castro’s successful lobbying in Washington, was huge.

Fidel Castro, like Mussolini on his march on Rome, took his time and did not arrive in Havana until Jan. 8; in the long march on the Central Highway that stretches from one end to the other of the island hundreds of Cubans now felt safe to join the rebels. A sense of the romantic feeling of the time was demonstrated when Fidel called on Cuba’s boy scouts to direct automobile traffic, since the city had been left without traffic police for several days.

This is all ancient history. Barack Obama had yet to be born. Most Cubans rejoiced; there were no tensions between the new men in Havana and Washington’s foreign policy makers, nor reasons to believe that any would arise. Most Americans paid scant attention to Hispanic America; those who did mostly assumed a tin horn dictator was good and bully for the Cuban people.

On Jan. 8, Fidel was given a hero’s welcome by Cuba’s burgeoning civil society: bar associations, cultural and professional institutions, newspapers, magazines, radio and TV stations, manufacturers, the Catholic Church, sugar mills owners, the Chamber of Commerce, and just about everyone else.

Fidel commenced what would become his signature rhetoric, a marathon speech to an adoring crowd (not stage managed as they would soon become) of Havaneros, saying little about the United States, and nothing about communism.

As he spoke, his brother Raul, 28, opened up a long pit and began his executions.

Time reported that the mass grave was dug within sight of San Juan Hill near Santiago. “A bulldozer ripped out a trench 40 ft. long, 10 ft. wide, and 10 ft. deep…six priests heard last confessions…their hands tied, their faces drawn. Some pleaded that they had been rebel sympathizers all along. Some wept. Most stood silent. [One of the prisoners] got a three-hour reprieve at the request of TV cameras, who wanted the light of a full dawn…A Constitution, a humanitarian document forbidding capital punishment, was overridden.”

The Cuban Constitution Time referred to had been suspended by Batista. Castro, while fighting in the hills, declared the revolution would reinstate the Constitution and the rule of law. However, there were few public protests against the early summary executions.

On the other hand, a liberal American Senator, Sen. Wayne Morse (D-Oregon), called them a “bloodbath.” The Governor of Puerto Rico and the Uruguayan Ambassador to the United Nations and a few others spoke out. Fidel’s response was exactly the same as Raul’s recent answers to Obama’s expressions of mild concern regarding incarcerated human rights activists, Christian pastors, and independent journalists. He said mind your own business.

Cubans were happy Batista was gone, and it was hard to imagine that Raul would do such a thing, even if he had conducted executions during the revolt, administering the coup de grace. There were rumors Raul Castro was an ideologue, one of the few known Marxists in the revolutionary leadership.

Last year President Obama joked about Fidel and Raul paying a visit to Washington. Jokes, as we know, have a way of revealing what we think. The President also stated Raul Castro is no ideologue.

Sixty years of Cuban communism furnish ample evidence of Raul’s ideological orientation and his personal ruthlessness. The simple way of describing this man is that he is a committed Stalinist and a murderer.

Murder is a touchy issue for American politicians.

President Obama became emotional recently talking about gun violence.

Emotions, like jokes, are revealing; they often indicate a suspension of reason in the sizing up of a problem or an issue. Conceivably Barack Obama does not know that Gerardo Hernandez, one of the Cuban spies serving two life sentences who was released and returned to Cuba to demonstrate American good faith in the normalization of relations process, had been convicted for his role in the murder of four pilots, three American citizens and one Florida resident, in the Florida Straits after having infiltrated the organization that the downed pilots volunteered for. This took place in 1996, in international airspace.

Raul Castro was Minister of the Armed Forces at the time, and he gave the order for Cuban warplanes to shoot down American civil air craft. He pinned medals on the pilots who shot down and killed the unarmed Americans, one of whom, the son of Cuban exiles, was born in New Jersey and had never been to Cuba.

American negotiators have yet to ask Havana about those deaths, as well as the deaths of other Americans killed by terrorists who continue to enjoy in Havana a quality of life denied to most Cubans.

One such terrorist, a black extremist, Joanne Chesimard, killed a New Jersey State patrolman, was sentenced to life in prison, and escaped to Cuba. There are several others.

That Chesimard is a guest of Raul Castro while she remains on the FBI’s most wanted list, did not prevent President Obama from embracing the Cuban líder (leader or, more accurately, führer) in Panama and at the UN General Assembly in New York.

The President acquiesced to Raul Castro’s demands and removed Cuba from the State Department list of supporters of international terrorism.

Congressmen and senators have brought these matters to the attention of John Kerry, the Secretary of State and Roberta Jacobson, his Assistant Secretary for Latin America who negotiated with Havana. Her nomination to be American Ambassador to Mexico is on hold while congressmen await her answers.

Shouldn’t those around the President brief him on these issues, since he is giving thought to his legacy as president, and a decent respect for history is an important element of successful statesmanship?

Sen. Morse turned out to be a rare voice of reality in those early, heady days of January some 55 years ago. The Cuban people were the first to recognize the delusions hope can bring: many of Fidel and Raul’s most heroic comandantes found themselves in jail, such as Huber Matos, or dead, like Humberto Sori Marin, Plinio Prieto Ruiz, and William Morgan.

The lame duck Eisenhower Administration soon reversed its optimistic expectations for a new democratic Cuba. The revolution spread terror and subversion in Latin America, Africa, always in the name of combating the evil represented by “Yankee imperialism.” The revolution devoured its children, as revolutions are wont to do.

For no reason, without arguments, with no evidence of the dawning of a conscience and a love of liberty in the now octogenarian tyrants, the Obama Administration has determined that bygones are bygones and the Cuban people, held hostage for over half a century, will benefit if their oppressors are given a new lease on life, which is to say new tools and credits to keep the jails filled with Christian pacifists and a few more years to design and develop another promise of that first, dramatic week, the “new socialist man” who would give his all to make a better, more fraternal world.

Frank Calzon is Executive Director at the Washington-based Center for a Free Cuba.