Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Catching Sight of A Revolution – From Harvard to IU

In the time between the world wars, our father, like so many Americans, had visited Cuba’s exotic capital in the interwar period. He was in Havana in 1930 during the country’s heady Republican Period, but decades later my brother Jeff and I had only passing awareness of revolutionary Cuba of our own time.  We’d both seen the family photo of Irving as a young man – he was 21 – dressed to the nines with a good looking blonde at the bar in Sloppy Joe’s – the famous celebrity hangout on Cuba’s Golden Riviera.

Irving Sharlet (l), our father, in Havana, 1930

Irving had grown up in comfortable circumstances; he had some money and was something of a playboy. At the time, Prohibition reigned as the law of the land in the States. To get a drink without a password in a back alley speakeasy, well-heeled Americans would sail off to Europe or head to the Caribbean to relax with a highball in fashionable public places. Sloppy Joe’s was one of the in-places, just off-shore so to speak, where one might see John Wayne or Clark Gable or even Cuba’s most famous North American visitor, Hemingway, down the bar.

Decades afterward during the postwar period when dramatic changes began happening in Cuba, the island country was on the periphery of our young lives. Jeff in his short life – he died at 27 – had been heavily involved with Vietnam. Serving there early in the growing conflict, he later became an international leader of GI opposition against the war. I became an academic, a specialist on the Soviet Union, where I had studied and visited periodically. I spent most of my adult years teaching and writing about the country.

Still, as the Cuban Revolution emerged in the ‘50s and consolidated in the early ‘60s, quite serendipitously Jeff and I bore witness to some of the salient moments of the island’s transition from a popular Caribbean tourist destination to the epicenter of the global Cold War. Cuba first came to my attention unexpectedly in late fall ’56. In the phrase of the day, I was fulfilling my military obligation in the army.


The rebellion in Cuba is over, and students of foreign affairs can now 
give  themselves again to Hungary and the Middle East.

I was fortunate, having been assigned to a congenial posting for a year of study at the Army Language School (ALS) on the sunny California coast. I was being trained in a Slavic language, my only duties six hours a day of class and a little homework. At lunch break, I always had the latest issue of the airmail edition of the British paper, Manchester Guardian, in my back pocket as I waited in the chow line. Reading it was a pleasant respite from the morning’s grammar lessons, pronunciation drills, and vocabulary tests.

One noontime I was glancing through the early December ‘56 issue of the Guardian. Hungary and the Suez Canal were the lead stories. The Soviets had just bloodily crushed the Hungarian Revolution while the Israeli, British, and French forces had defeated the Egyptians, whose nationalization of the Canal had touched off a brief but fierce war.

Perusing the back pages, my eye fell on an unfamiliar story, ‘The battle for Cuba’, with a dismissive opening line, “The rebellion in Cuba is over, and students of foreign affairs can now give themselves again to Hungary and the Middle East.” Reading on, I found a lighthearted account, rife with British irony, of a hapless invasion of the island by a band of Cuban revolutionaries sailing from Mexico.

As I would learn a few years later, the Guardian had some of the key details wrong, but it was right on the end of the affair – the armed forces of the dictator Batista had quickly routed the invaders – killing or capturing most of them on the beach.

The invasion group – 82 of them – had arrived offshore aboard a yacht perilously overloaded with men, weapons, and ammo and leaking to boot. Departing from the Gulf of Mexico, most of them became seasick and were depleted as the boat twice nearly capsized in rough waters. Then, after crossing the Caribbean Sea, they missed their landing spot on the Cuban coast, ran aground in a swamp, and had to wade ashore in chest-high water. Needless to say, the would-be revolutionaries were sitting ducks for the defenders.

The leader of the unlucky band, Fidel Castro, an exiled revolutionary, was reportedly killed, but he actually made it off the beach and into the mountains along with some 20 survivors to fight again another day. But in late ’56, the Guardian wrote the expedition off with the sardonic line that the “invasion fleet” (the yacht) “was badly damaged and might be unfit for charter for the rest of the tourist season.”*

I had reached the mess hall food line, laughed off the Caribbean caper, and gave neither Fidel nor Cuba any further thought. Afternoon classes awaited, and it was back to the Cold War. But to my surprise, Cuba briefly reappeared on my radar just over a year later while I was serving in the forces in West Germany. On an off-duty weekend, I had covered the German Grand Prix – an international Formula 1 car race in the Eifel Mountains – for an American paper.

It was an exciting, closely contested race at staggering speeds – won by the reigning world champion, the Argentine Juan Fangio at the wheel of a Maserati, edging out his British challenger in a Ferrari by a margin of three seconds. I filed my story stateside and it was again back to the Cold War. So much for the glamorous world of F-1 racing.†

But then, El Maestro Fangio, whose name was usually found on the world’s sports pages, turned up as front page news in the Paris Herald Tribune. He had gone to Havana in ‘58 for the Cuban Grand Prix to defend his title and was ‘politely’ kidnapped by the Fidelistas – by then a formidable guerrilla movement with broad support, they constantly tweaked Batista’s forces in classic hit and run encounters.

They held Fangio just a few days to garner maximum international publicity. When released unharmed, the champion spoke favorably of his captors, a propaganda coup for Castro. He had shown he could snatch a world famous figure right off the streets of Havana with impunity, a sure sign the regime was on its last legs.

Later that year I got out of the Army and was back in college, just in time for fall semester at Brandeis University outside Boston. My father had gone bust financially, so I was on my own, on borrowed money for tuition and working nights as a cabbie for Boston Checker. To be closer to my job and because it was a cool place, I rented inexpensive digs on Eliot Street just off Harvard Square, Cambridge.

While I was settling back into the world of books and classes, Castro and his revolutionary army finally defeated Batista. Entering Havana as victors, they took power on New Year’s Day ’59. The old regime had been notorious for its cruelty and corruption, so the Cuban Revolution was greeted warmly by Americans as well as Europeans, not to mention the Communist Bloc and Third World nations.
At Harvard I was in the crowd of 10,000 exuberantly welcoming Castro.

Several months after the victory Castro was invited to the States. Landing in Washington – although coolly received by the Eisenhower (Ike) Administration – the charismatic Maximum Leader took the country by storm, making his way up the East Coast city by city in a triumphant tour. Castro looked and acted the hero, and the American public took to him.

Not everyone was happy about his visit though – there were death threats at every stop. As a result, when Castro reached New York, the city organized the greatest security cordon in its history, even more so than for a president. His final stop in the US was Boston where he was scheduled to speak at Harvard. I saw the posters in Harvard Square and decided to go hear him.

It was late April ’59 – actually 55 years ago this week – when Castro  appeared at the Harvard Field House on a warm Saturday evening. After a bomb scare in New York, Boston was taking no chances. The Cuban leader’s train had been met at Back Bay Station by 300 of the city’s finest. As he was driven the several blocks to his hotel, cheering crowds lining the route were held back by a wall of blue.


Cuba’s Ethan Allen leading the Green Mountain boys had taken on and defeated King George III in the guise of Fulgencio Batista.

A few hours later, Castro was accompanied to Harvard by a combined force of Boston cops, Metro police, State Department security, and the FBI. As he walked across the grounds of the field house complex, he was flanked by a phalanx of tall Massachusetts State Troopers in their sky blue jackets, jodhpurs, and black boots.

Castro being escorted by Massachusetts State Troopers, 1959

I drove down Boylston Street to the Charles River, crossed the Eliot Bridge, and walked on up Soldiers Field Road to the field house. There I found myself part of an enormous crowd of some 10,000 students and others exuberantly welcoming the Cuban leader. He took the salute from a speaker’s stand high above the field where we all stood.

Harvard Law School was his host – Fidel was educated as a lawyer – although he was introduced by the Dean of Harvard College, McGeorge Bundy. It turned out that Fidel had applied to the law school as a young man in ‘48, but was turned down. Dean Bundy made light of this, saying that Harvard wanted to make amends and would now accept him.

Cuban and American flags were on display, and Castro was decked out in his trademark olive-green military fatigues and field cap. Standing at the podium above the Harvard crest, he was unobtrusively shielded on both sides by personal bodyguards and Boston security. When he was introduced, the roar of the crowd was deafening – Fidel and the guerrillas were seen through the prism of American legend. Cuba’s Ethan Allen leading the Green Mountain boys had taken on and defeated King George III in the guise of Fulgencio Batista.

Castro speaking at the Harvard Field House

Fidel was a forceful rather histrionic speaker given to dramatic gestures. His remarks were billed as ‘The Cuban Revolution’, but he didn’t dwell long on past battles. Instead he gave a thoughtful, albeit rambling, speech on the problems of backwardness and underdevelopment plaguing revolutionary Cuba.

From the press, he well understood that Americans, in their enthusiasm for his victory over a dictatorial regime, were expecting democracy and the rule of law to follow, but he patiently explained the more immediate problems facing his government were hunger, mass illiteracy, and a level of unemployment greater in scale than during the American Depression.

Castro went on to say all things would come in due time, but for now elections – absent political parties – would have to be put off at least two years. And he added pointedly that rights of the criminally accused would have to wait until the revolution dealt summarily with the many who had administered the terror and carried out torture under the old regime.

Up to that point, he still had the majority of the audience with him, but then a law student called out a question about a recent criminal case in Havana. A couple of Batista’s pilots had attempted to bomb the presidential palace. They received a stiff prison sentence, but Castro, dissatisfied, ordered a retrial.
Second time around they got the death penalty.

Wasn’t that double jeopardy the questioner persisted? Castro bridled at the challenge, responding aggressively that the second trial was justified by the higher right of the revolution to defend itself. At that, a chorus of boos floated up from below.

Fidel grew visibly angry, and his speech dissolved into a rant as he occasionally slipped from English into Spanish. The crowd’s good will toward him began to ebb. The atmosphere in the field house complex had changed, and the evening ended on a down note for many there.

I went off to grad school a year later. Indiana University (IU) had given me fellowship money to study Soviet Russia. As it happened, brother Jeff also arrived in Bloomington for his Freshman year. I was delighted with the lively, competitive graduate school milieu – in the midst of the Cold War, Soviet Studies was the hottest field around.

Jeff, however, was unhappy at the university. He had graduated from a small Eastern prep school and felt lost on the vast campus, a virtual small city in itself. He had hoped to go to an Ivy League school where all his friends were, but Pop’s business reversal precluded a costly private college.

One of my friends in the Russian Institute was George Shriver. Like me, he had come out to IU from the East – from Harvard where he’d majored in Russian. While I was in the Political Science PhD program, George’s focus was Russian language and literature. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, George was also a left political activist.

At IU that fall he had quietly organized a campus chapter of the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA), the youth affiliate of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Then, from the small band of campus Trotskyists, George also spun off a local branch of the national Fair Play for Cuba Committee (FPCC) in support of the Cuban Revolution.

George Shriver speaking at an YSA meeting, Indiana University

As fall term ‘60 was coming to an end, George, as FPCC chair, was organizing a trip to Cuba over Christmas break. Jeff got wind of the trip and put his name down, but even though the cost was modest, he didn’t have the money. He wrote home for funds. While our parents were apolitical, they were wary of anything controversial when it came to their sons, so Jeff had to make a persuasive pitch since the US government considered Cuba leaning toward Communism.

Yet to come, the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion was an open secret in Miami émigré circles, and Castro’s forces were more than ready for them.

In his letter, he explained that the trip was sponsored by FPCC, a national organization dedicated to offsetting critical media coverage of Cuba and giving the revolution a fair shake. He added:

   The Cuban government wants Americans to come there and judge the situation and the results of the revolution for themselves. There is nothing political involved. It’s just to have a good time and get informed on the real situation in Cuba.

Jeff asked me to add an endorsement to his letter, which I was happy to do. I knew he was drifting at IU and was glad to see him finally taking an interest in something.

Apparently the parents were persuaded, but in the end Jeff never made it to revolutionary Cuba. There weren’t enough takers, so the trip was called off. Not long after he dropped out of school and a year later found himself in my old military outfit. However, instead of sailing off to Europe as I did, he was taught Vietnamese and landed in Southeast Asia in the middle of a small war.

But I’m getting ahead of the story. By that spring of ’61 Cuba was back in the headlines. The time was JFK’s first 100 days, and he had adopted Ike’s animus toward Castro and, worse, his predecessor’s misbegotten plan to remove him from power – another hamhanded invasion of the island by Cuban exiles – although this time not a revolutionary vanguard, but a brigade of CIA-trained anti-Castro ‘patriots’.

Once again McGeorge Bundy, by then JFK’s National Security Advisor, was out front – serving as White House liaison to the Agency’s invasion planners. The ensuing Bay of Pigs fiasco is well-known – the whole ill-fated enterprise had become an open secret in Miami’s Cuban émigré circles, and Castro’s forces were more than ready for them.
The operation was a personal tragedy not just for the hundreds of brigadistas who survived, languishing in harsh Cuban prison camps for nearly two years – it was also a political disaster for America’s new young president. However, the image of his administration as a bunch of bunglers and himself personally as lacking in resolve only steeled JFK’s determination to get Castro. One of the President’s favorite maxims was ‘Don’t get mad, get even’.
After purging senior CIA people responsible for the debacle, JFK tasked the Agency to covertly eliminate Fidel – in a word, assassinate him. The hit plan, code-named ‘Operation Mongoose’, enlisted Cuban émigrés again, but this time the American Mafia as well – the very guys whose Havana casinos had been seized by the Castro regime in ’59.  

By summer ’62 the bizarre plotting to decapitate Communist Cuba was well underway.  Some of the looney ideas the plotters came up with included a lethal exploding cigar, exposing Castro to a fountain pen treated with poison, and, perhaps looniest of all, slipping a chemical into his shoes to cause his signature beard to fall out – that wouldn’t have worked anyway.

Unbeknownst to the US, that very summer Khrushchev was planning clandestine operations to carry out regime change in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, Latin American dictatorships firmly in the Western camp.

However, sensing that Kennedy might attempt another attack on Cuba, Khrushchev changed his mind and decided instead to secretly reinforce his new Caribbean client state, a move which would erupt in the coming months into the Cuban Missile Crisis – arguably the most dangerous moment of the long Cold War – but that’s a story for another post.
*Manchester Guardian (December 4, 1956).

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