Recalling Castro's Ascension — And CIA Reaction

50th anniversary banner in Cuba i i

hide captionA banner depicting Fidel Castro and a guerrilla leader hangs in downtown Havana. Jan. 1 marks the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, when Fulgencio Batista was forced to flee Cuba.

Rodrigo Arangua/AFP/Getty Images
50th anniversary banner in Cuba

A banner depicting Fidel Castro and a guerrilla leader hangs in downtown Havana. Jan. 1 marks the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, when Fulgencio Batista was forced to flee Cuba.

Rodrigo Arangua/AFP/Getty Images

Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba 50 years ago today. Dictator Fulgencio Batista, reviled as a corrupt tyrant, fled the island in the early morning hours as Castro's rebel forces entered Havana, and people poured into the streets on New Year's Day to celebrate.

The U.S. reaction to Castro's victory was mixed: Batista was seen as a reliable ally almost to the end, but Castro had supporters inside the U.S. government. Many were in the CIA — the very agency that would soon try to overthrow him.

Swift Collapse Of Batista Regime

For people in the United States, the story of Castro and his ragtag guerrillas triumphing over Batista's army could hardly have been more dramatic.

"The forces of Castro's 26th of July Movement, named for the anniversary of his first attack on the regime in 1953, have grown vastly. Nearly two years of hit-and-run warfare culminated in victory as 1958 ended," announced one U.S. newsreel, featuring scenes of Castro's men arriving in Havana to a wild reception. "Now Batista has fled. A new leader is on the scene — Fidel Castro — in many ways an unknown quantity in his politics and policies, but certain to be dominant in Cuba's new era just begun."

The uncertainty surrounding Castro stemmed in part from the raucous scenes that accompanied his triumph. On Jan. 1, 1959, his supporters stormed the casinos in Havana hotels, tearing them apart as symbols of the Mafia-controlled gambling world that Batista had allowed to flourish on the island.

"I slept the next two nights in the lobby of the Hotel Nacional because we started evacuating American citizens," says Wayne Smith, then a young U.S. diplomat based at the embassy in Havana. "Not that there was really any danger, but a lot of people — a lot of American citizens who were there as tourists — wanted to go. They wanted to get out of there, so we organized an evacuation from the lobby of the Hotel Nacional."

In Washington, officials were shocked. The U.S. had stopped sending arms and ammunition to Batista a few months earlier, but the speed with which his regime collapsed caught President Dwight Eisenhower and his administration by surprise.

Historian Thomas Paterson, the author of Contesting Castro, points to a meeting of Eisenhower's national security team on Dec. 18, 1958, just two weeks before Castro took power.

"Eisenhower is told by Allen Dulles, the CIA director, and others that the rebels are moving very fast from the eastern part of the island to the central part, and Eisenhower says, 'Well why wasn't I told this before?' " Paterson says.

Widespread Support For Castro

It is now known that there were many U.S. reports about Castro's popularity in Cuba and about Batista's loss of support, but apparently those reports weren't all passed on to higher levels. The U.S. ambassador in Cuba, Earl E.T. Smith, was a strong Batista supporter, and those who knew him say Smith was in denial right to the end about the strength of Castro's movement.

"Earl Smith did not trust Castro at all," says Jay Mallin, a correspondent for Time magazine in 1958 who had many meetings with Smith. "He thought he was a Communist even back then, and he did everything he could to prevent him coming in."

Smith was a political appointee, not a professional diplomat, and he didn't always pay close attention to his political officers or to the CIA agents assigned to Cuba at the time.

Wayne Smith, who was a vice consul at the embassy, recalls that the CIA officers he knew were predicting Batista would be overthrown.

"From talking to them in the snack bar and at parties, I had the impression that most of the guys in the station didn't think Batista could win," Smith says. "They probably would have preferred to see some negotiated solution so that someone other than Castro would come in, but if that was not possible, then Castro was going to win. They were realistic enough to understand that."

Collecting Intelligence On Castro

It's the job of intelligence officers to know what is happening in their countries, and in 1958 Havana, CIA agents were keeping close track of the rapidly growing revolutionary movement. But Mallin says agents who got too close to Castro's followers could get in trouble with Earl Smith.

"Put it this way — they were certainly in touch with the underground, but they would have to be careful because the ambassador was against it," Mallin says. "So I can see there would be friction."

The best CIA reporting on Castro and his followers came from Santiago, the city at the eastern end of Cuba where the movement was strongest. Robert Chapman, the chief CIA officer in Santiago, was on his first field assignment when he arrived in 1957 and found himself in the center of a revolution.

"I knew everybody in town, more or less," Chapman says. "The press was coming through. I would brief them on security, and I later found that my name was posted in the New York Press Club. If you're going to see Castro, see Bob, you know?"

Castro was originally from eastern Cuba, and Santiago was a hotbed of revolutionary activity in 1958. Chapman couldn't have asked for a better assignment.

"I had most contact with what was the civil resistance movement," Chapman says. "They formed a group to support the revolutionaries, and I had very good contact with them. And I occasionally had contact with the underground itself, the 26th of July Movement. It was great because there was action taking place at all times."

Some writers have alleged that Chapman covertly aided Castro and his followers, even that he personally directed $50,000 in CIA funds to the rebel group.

Chapman vigorously denies such allegations, saying he was suspicious of Castro and dutifully reported that the Cuban had Communist connections. But Chapman says the CIA officer who immediately preceded him in Santiago, Bill Patterson, was indeed sympathetic to the revolutionary movement, and says he doesn't rule out the possibility that Patterson may have given Castro's movement some material support.

"When [Patterson] introduced me to these people that he knew in the civic resistance movement, I mean, he was wildly embraced. I mean, he was actually almost loved," Chapman says. "And I thought that very unusual at the time, that an intelligence officer would have such relationships with the people in the civic resistance."

Patterson, who died a few years ago, later turned against Castro, as did many of Castro's U.S. supporters. But Earl Smith, the ambassador, never got over what he saw as CIA officers' excessive sympathy for the Cuban revolution. In his 1962 memoir, Smith wrote, "There is no advantage to the United States in sending an Ambassador to a country if the CIA representatives there act on their own and take an opposite position."

Smith might have been exaggerating the extent of CIA support for Castro, but in any case, it didn't last long. Within 15 months of Castro's triumph, CIA officers in Cuba were seeking out his opponents and attempting to organize a new counterrevolution.

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