El mérito es estar vivo

Luis Báez, El mérito es estar vivo (Havana: Prensa Latina, 2005).

On a visit to New York in 1995, someone asked Fidel Castro what ranked as his greatest accomplishment. The answer: “surviving” (estar vivo). Hence this book’s title. And indeed after reading these pages one wonders how he has managed it.

The eleven essays that comprise this book center on the theme of counterrevolutionary activities, mostly from the 1960s and ‘70s. Six chapters are parts of interviews with prisoners freed during that period by the Cuban government, conducted by author Luis Báez while they awaited transport to Miami. One consists of an interview with a US CIA agent, also at the time of his release. (Báez delayed publication of this material for both political and personal reasons.) Three longish essays focus on US/CIA plots to assassinate Fidel and other members of the Cuban leadership; the invasion at Playa Girón [Bay of Pigs]; and a step-by-step story of how Cuban intelligence infiltrated a counterrevolutionary cell and destroyed it.

The text contains minute details throughout and a host of names of those who collaborated in the effort to undermine the Revolution. Some pages read like fast-moving mystery stories and others like scripts from a James Bond movie. Báez, a noted Cuban journalist, often provides sources from US government documents such as Congressional hearings or from books written by respected Cubanologists. The cast of characters reads like a Who’s Who of US diplomacy, politics, and espionage. Since the transcripts published here are not complete, one hopes that the tapes have been archived where future scholars can access them. They cast particular light on the activities of Cuban counter-intelligence. The text includes photos of participants and of planned assassination-sites.

Even for the reader steeped in Revolutionary history, the breadth and scope of counterrevolutionary activities may surprise. The (obviously) failed attempts on Castro’s life (some 600 are known) include: shootings, car bombs, poison (in rum, cigars and other things), pills, bazooka attacks, cancer causing agents, and many other tricks employed in the spy trade. We do not know why these efforts all failed, but changes of itinerary, security measures, lack of courage, and even luck played a large role. On one occasion Fidel stopped for his customary chocolate milkshake at the Hotel Havana Libre cafeteria. A waiter had been given lethal pills to put in the drink. He stowed them in a freezer locker, but when he tried to access them they disintegrated completely, foiling the attempt.

On the whole the book serves to remind us of three things about the Revolution’s struggle for survival against its foreign enemies. First, several nations besides the US (both European and Latin American) actively supported the subversive movement; there was British, German, Spanish, Mexican, Venezuelan, etc. participation. Second, the Catholic Church, although not monolithic, acted as a powerful anti-revolutionary influence at both institutional and individual levels. Third, if the interviews are at all representative, those who served long prison terms feel enormous resentment toward the US government, which used them and then abandoned them in Cuban jails once they no longer served a purpose. Resentment surfaces too against those who fled to Miami, often abandoning comrades in the midst of struggle.

The on-going Bush offensive against Cuba represents only a continuum of US hostility toward the Revolution dating from even before it took power. This constant US interference raises the question: which nation, Cuba or the US, qualifies as a terrorist or rogue state? CIA-funded and -supported activities included sabotage, bombings of department stores in Havana, chemical warfare such as the introduction of dengue fever, and support for internal armed bands. As of January 2002 some 3,478 persons had been killed by these provocations. The recent publication of a report by the US government-appointed Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba only marks another step in this process (see the article by Daniel Egan in this issue). Although much of the report is classified, the opening section –- “Hastening the End of the Castro Regime” -– leaves no doubt about its thrust. Among other measures, it calls for $80 million to support opponents of Castro.1 So while we may be reading about events some of which took place half a century ago, they remain relevant today.

Reviewed by Hobart Spalding
Professor Emeritus CUNY;
Socialism and Democracy


1. See also the August 2, 2006 interview with Ricardo Alarcón on Democracy Now! (www.democracynow.org).

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