Fidel in Chile

Fidel Castro in Chile

 

I’m late to this, but it’s a good time to look at Fidel Castro’s extraordinary 24-day visit to Chile in 1971, when Salvador Allende, a Socialist, was in office.  A couple of years ago, this blogger filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the U.S. government for documents on this visit, as it was something the Nixon administration watched rather closely.

Such documents can shed light not only on U.S. policy but on the events themselves, as witnesses tell diplomats things they do not tell journalists and academics.  How did Chilean and Cuban officials get along? What did the Chileans think of Castro’s extended visit?

But first, a brief recap. It was supposed to be a 10-day visit. Fidel arrived on November 10, 1971 and embarked upon an extensive tour, from the Atacama Desert to Tierra del Fuego, visiting copper mines, vineyards, gas and oil installations and meeting with laborers, trade unionists, students, fellow Marxists—and the military.  There are photographs of him alongside future dictator General Augusto Pinochet, who at the time was commander of the Santiago army garrison, so the two men must have engaged in some conversation.  And he gave Salvador Allende was an AK-47, with his name inscribed, which the Chilean leader would use to kill himself in the presidential palace during the brutal military coup on September 11, 1973.

Castro’s 10-day itinerary was extended to 24 days, creating a rather awkward situation for Chilean officials, none of whom wanted the job of telling Fidel to go home. Carlos Altamirano, who at the time was secretary general of the Chilean Socialist Party, said in an  interview that Allende had asked him to ask Castro to wrap up his visit, but Altamirano refused. It was not easy, he said, to say something like that “to a head of state of Fidel’s stature, ‘enough already, go.’ And I wasn’t the most appropriate person to say this to him.”

Back to my Freedom of Information Act request, which made the rounds of the U.S. State Department, the National Security Agency, Defense Department and the Central Intelligence Agency. I got nothing from the State Department; the National Security Agency sent a letter in September of last year saying that my request had been reviewed and that the relevant material remains classified as TOP SECRET.

“The information is classified because their disclosure could reasonably be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security,” the chief of the FOIA office wrote to me, then described the agency’s appeal process, which I then followed. Hopefully there’ll be more on this later.

In October of this year I received a polite letter from the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) giving me a status update on my request. “Please by assured that our office is committed to processing your request as soon as possible as the DIA continues its efforts to eliminate the large backlog of FOIA requests.”  My request was #139 of 232 in the Awaiting Response Queue, and there was a telephone number if I had any questions.

But the biggest surprise was the relatively quick response from the Central Intelligence Agency, which sent me only lightly redacted weekly summaries from October 29 to December 4, 1971, a short daily presidential briefing plus an eight-page intelligence memorandum, “Castroism Clarified in Chile,” which had been downgraded from “secret” to “sensitive.” Here are some highlights:

The President’s Daily Brief said that Castro was apparently satisfied with his Chile trip and its impact on the rest of the hemisphere. The Cuban leader was “generally well-received by a curious public and frequently showed that he still retains the capability of capturing the acclaim of crowds.”  The length of his visit, however, “eventually bored many Chileans.”

The Weekly Summary dated 29 October 1971 is headed with the words, “Cuba Dusts Off Its International Image” and says that the Chile visit will be Castro’s first trip abroad since 1964. There was speculation that the Cuban leader might arrive in time to help Allende celebrate the anniversary of his electoral victory on 4 November (he didn’t) and that officials of both countries had refused to pinpoint the dates for the visit.

The Central Intelligence Bulletin dated 9 November 1971 said that Havana’s decision to publicize details of Castro’s arrival “probably stems from a desire to reap the greatest propaganda advantage from the outset of the visit, though the degree of real enthusiasm among Chileans for it remains uncertain.”  The length of the visit was not mentioned, the report says, and there is a redacted sentence, followed by the arrival of Castro’s advance party four days earlier.

The 12 November Weekly Summary mentions Castro’s arrival in Santiago and that aside from a few minor incidents, “his reception was warm and friendly and large crowds turned out to greet him.”  His four-member delegation, the report said, was “remarkably unspectacular and suggests the trip is not a business one.” The presence of the Havana army commander indicated that Cuba “realizes the importance of developing a “correct” professional relationship with Chilean military leaders.” One wonders whether the Cuban army commander had any contact with Pinochet.

The 19 November Weekly Summary said that Castro’s first week in Chile “reinforced early suspicions that the visit would be less a working trip than an attempt to improve Castro’s image” and that the Cuban leader had gone out of his way to be cordial and discreet in his public pronouncements, even going so far “as to moderate temporarily his attacks on the US.”  The report said that the Chilean media coverage of the visit had been generally factual.  The Chilean Socialist Party was praising Castro so effusively that “it reportedly provoked a complaint from President Salvador Allende that Socialist treatment of the visit emphasizes Castro’s stature at Allende’s expense.” There was a bomb explosion near the northern city of Antofagasta the day before Castro was due to arrive, blamed on “a small right-wing extremist group that has condemned Castro’s visit.” But overt opposition to Castro’s presence in Chile, the report said, “has been limited.”

The next CIA bulletin, dated 26 November 1971, said that the Castro tour “has been successfully demonstrating Cuba’s solidarity with Chile and improving his international image.”  Chilean Communist Party members were receiving him “cautiously,” and Castro “has been circumspect in his remarks, however, lest he be accused of meddling in Chilean domestic affairs” and that he was “even less bitter than usual about the US base at Guantanamo, saying only that Cuba “one day” would recover it without a shot being fired.”  He had spent relatively little time with Allende, other than a two-day cruise to Chile’s southernmost city, Punta Arenas.

The 2 December 1971 bulletin reports that a farewell rally in Santiago was scheduled for that evening and that Castro “probably believes that he has accomplished all his journey’s goals and now realizes that after three weeks his welcome is wearing thin.”

The last document, an intelligence memorandum on Castroism in Chile, is dated 27 December 1971 and reads like a summary of the earlier bulletins.  One of the more interesting passages:

“Castro has a lot going for him in this regard. His large physical appearance and his breezy informality contributes much to his charisma. To Chileans accustomed to the dour Allende, Fidel was quite a shock, pleasant to some, scandalous to others. Where the throngs could make a direct comparison of Castro and Allende, Castro’s proclivity to play basketball, kiss babies, don miners’ helmets, etc., captivated many. Moreover, his nonstop traveling and speaking must have left most Chileans gasping at the man’s stamina.” But the report also notes that Fidel also had to deal with antagonistic confrontations with students, especially from the Christian Democratic Party and that on occasion he lost his cool. These encounters with detractors and the failure to attract a large turnout at his farewell rally affected him and that he “was an unhappy militant when he left Chile.”

fidel-and-allende

 

Raul Castro in Chile, 1959

Browsing the New York Times online archive, I found this curious item:

“Chile gives snub to Major Castro”

It is dated August 19, 1959 and describes how Raul Castro, commander-in-chief of the Cuban armed forces, landed a plane in Santiago after a conference of foreign ministers had ended, ostensibly to take Cuban Foreign Minister Raul Roa Garcia home.

“After a delay in debarking because no suitable ramp could be found, Major Castro was taken to the customs office like any tourist.

The only leading Chilean greeting Major Castro was Senator Salvador Allende, unsuccessful 1958 Presidential candidate of a coalition of extreme Left-wing parties.

At a news conference tonight Major Castro declared “We confess we made an error” in sending a military  aircraft here with soldiers.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Christmas story from Canada and Cuba

Cubans unload an anaesthesia machine from Canada

Cubans unload an anaesthesia machine from Canada

MEMO (Medical Equipment Mobilization Opportunity) http://www.memoministry.org/ is a charity based in Thunder Bay, Ontario which collects and ships redundant medical equipment and supplies no longer needed by Canadian hospitals to clinics in Cuba, El Salvador and Liberia. This blogger interviewed the charity’s director, Dr. Jerome Harvey, for my book, Cuban Health Care: Utopian Dreams, Fragile Future and one of the better quotes he gave me was that “the Cuban health care system is like a well-trained army with no weapons and no ammunition.”

The charity pays the shipping costs, which often include overland transport over Canada’s vast territory before the medical equipment can be packed into a shipping container and sent overseas. Run entirely by volunteers, MEMO receives shipping funds from private donors but has no other financial backing. In the spirit of Christmas, here’s a recent letter from Dr. Harvey about a serendipitous discovery:

“A year ago a little baby girl was born in Cuba.

Due to complications, she required a tracheostomy and ventilator.

She is a year old now, still needs the ventilator, but can go home with her parents who are doctors if they can obtain a ventilator.

On $60 a month salary her parents could never afford to buy a ventilator if one was even available.

It would have to be a special ventilator for an infant and run on electricity using room air, as oxygen would be impossible expensive.

Meanwhile, last year in Watson Lake, Yukon the little 50-bed worn out hospital was replaced with a brand new one.

Much of the hospital’s equipment was left behind being replaced with new equipment.

Now go back to June 2014.

Educational consultants with the EFCCM [Evangelical Free Church of Canada Ministries] John and Naomi Hall met me at Shalom Clinic in El Salvador.

They were teaching teachers at the Amilat Christian School and I was visiting to see how MEMO projects were going in El Salvador

John and Naomi just happen to live in Watson Lake, Yukon!

Fast forward to spring 2015. John and Naomi learn of all the used by still useful hospital equipment to be disposed of from the closed Watson Lake Hospital.

They contact me with a long list of medical equipment almost all of which would be extremely useful in overseas hospitals.

They get permission from the Yukon Health Authority to donate it to MEMO.

The problem: Trucking companies would charge $6000 to bring it to Thunder Bay.

Guess what?  The pastor of the EFCCM church in Watson Lake grew up in North Western Ontario and volunteered to drive his flat bed truck with all the equipment on it  to Thunder Bay while he visited his relatives. The  Halls paid for the cost of the diesel fuel.

The stretchers, delivery table, monitors and boxes and boxes of stuff arrived in October.

We have slowly been working at unpacking and checking all kinds of really useful medical equipment over the last three months.

Now we go to the first week of this November.

Martha Delgado goes to Cuba wit the team holding workshops on senior care in Havana and Santa Clara.

While there she meets Dr. Montiel Yumar who tells her about the baby needing a ventilator.

Back in Canada Martha asks me if MEMO could find a ventilator.

I tell her we don’t have one, but who knows.

The next week I am going through boxes from the Yukon.

You guessed it! There was a ventilator suitable for a child weighing more than 22 lbs. Runs on electricity 110V using room air with battery back p for power failures up to 10 hours long.

As well the Halls had included three brand-new breathing tubes to connect the machine to the baby’s tracheostomy tube.

It was compact weighing about 8 pounds.

The only thing it needed was a new back up battery which is now on order from “Amazon.”

We are looking for a tourist to take it to Cuba for us.”

 

 

Are the Cubans going to Syria?

The Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami posted a report on the presence of Cuban military personnel in Syria. The report says the Institute

“ has received information that General Leopoldo Cintra Frias, Head of the Cuban Armed Forces, visited Syria recently leading a group of Cuban military personnel sent by Cuba in support of Syria’s dictator Assad and Russian involvement in that country.

“The Cuban military contingent will be primarily deployed in Syria manning Russian tanks provided to Assad by the Russians. It will also operate as a military force against Isis and other opponents of the Assad regime.” http://ctp.iccas.miami.edu/main.htm

The report has been picked up by a number of conservative news outlets, and Fox News secured a quote from an anonymous U.S. official who said that Cuban troops may have been training in Russia and may have arrived in Syria on Russian planes: //http://www.foxnews.com/world/2015/10/14/cuban-military-forces-deployed-to-syria-to-operate-russian-tanks-say-sources/

Note the word “may.”  A few days later there was an official Cuban response. Foreign ministry official Gerardo Penalver “categorically denies and refutes the irresponsible and unfounded information regarding the supposed presence of Cuban troops in the Syrian Arab Republic,” a government statement said.

 

On public hospitals in Chile and in Cuba

Some commentary on the state of hospitals in two very different Latin American countries:

Helen Cordery is a young blogger from New Zealand living in Santiago’s Recoleta neighbourhood, and her accounts of everyday life in the Chilean capital make excellent reading. Her most recent piece is a frightening account of rushing her 18-month old son to a local hospital when he stopped breathing, and the hellish week she and her husband spent at his bedside. While there was real kindness on the part of some hospital staff, Cordery and her husband Luis were told by a hospital nutritionist (!) that their son “should be drinking fruit juices instead of water, and that every meal needed to have a sweet treat afterwards.”

https://queridarecoleta.wordpress.com/2015/08/24/a-week-of-hell-a-public-hospital-story/

Over at the Blog de Medicina Cubana, there is an opinion piece in English on the neglected state of Cuba’s medical facilities.  It is a somewhat awkward Microsoft translation from the original Spanish, but worth a look:

http://medicinacubana.blogspot.co.uk/2015/08/abandonment-and-neglect-in-health.html

A Cuba civil liberties round up

The New York-based Human Rights Foundation has issued a report on its inquiry into the death of Cuban dissident Osvaldo Paya in a car accident three years ago, stating that the “evidence, which was deliberately ignored, strongly suggests that the events of July 22, 2012 were not an accident, but instead the result of a car crash directly caused by agents of the state.” The complete report can be downloaded from the Foundation’s web site: http://humanrightsfoundation.org/news/cuba-hrf-report-on-oswaldo-payas-death-evidence-suggests-government-may-have-killed-him-00446

The Associated Press reports on how visiting US congressional delegations are ignoring Cuban dissidents during their recent visits to Havana, in order to meet Cuban officials:

Legislative staffers say Cuban officials have made clear that if Congress members meet with dissidents, they will not get access to high-ranking officials such as First Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel, the man expected to be the next president of Cuba who has met with U.S. politicians like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont.

http://bigstory.ap.org/article/960953a0d69a479b9426070cde01c321/cuban-dissidents-feel-sidelined-us-focuses-state-ties

For a look at the Cuban legal system, here’s an interesting article published two months ago by the Daily Business Review, about Havana lawyer Osvaldo Miranda Diaz’s presentation to a delegation from the Florida Bar Association. An excerpt:

Miranda Diaz explained the criminal justice system in Cuba to the shocked Americans. When a Cuban is arrested, he can be jailed without the right to see a lawyer or make a phone call for 72 hours. After a week, the prosecutor decides whether to grant the person bail or not.

At that point, he or she has just five days to hire a lawyer and does not get access to his or her criminal file until the case is through. This is despite the fact the island country claims an “innocent until proven guilty” philosophy.

“They can keep you in jail for one week and do what they want—interrogate you, do anything,” he said. “It’s like the Soviet system.” http://www.dailybusinessreview.com/id=1202727711630/Havana-Lawyer-Assesses-Cuban-Legal-System#ixzz3gjvCb4wh

There’s a sidebar to this article. Julie Kay, a reporter who accompanied the delegation, wrote the article on the Cuban lawyer’s presentation, and “basically regurgitated everything the lawyer had said. I did no independent research, put no “spin” on the story.” She filed the story from her hotel and a short time later her group’s guide confronted her with the article, and told the lawyers in the group that she should be kicked off the tour. She was allowed to remain, but decided not to file any more stories until she returned home. http://www.dailybusinessreview.com/id=1202728015496/She-Learned-Firsthand-Just-How-Lacking-in-Basic-Freedoms-Cuba-is

Someday Cuba will have an official inquiry into human rights abuses, but until that time the Cuba Archive Truth and Memory Project has been doing what it can with limited resources to document as much as possible. Its reports can be viewed on its website: http://cubaarchive.org/home/

Opening day–and some Cuba links

The U.S. Interests Section in Havana is now the U.S. Embassy, and the Cuban Interests Section in Washington is now the Cuban Embassy. Fingers crossed, and for any non-Spanish speakers wanting to follow developments in Cuba, here are some interesting links:

Granma, the official organ of the Cuban Communist Party, publishes an online edition in English http://en.granma.cu/ , as well as in French, German, Portuguese and Italian. Buzzfeed recently did a story on the paper, describing its newsroom as the slowest in the world, noting the paper’s lack of Wi-Fi but also the fact that Granma will be the first news outlet to report Fidel Castro’s death when it happens: http://www.buzzfeed.com/karlazabludovsky/inside-the-worlds-slowest-newsroom#.ru34xRMY1

14ymedio, the digital newspaper set up by Cuban independent journalists, also has an English edition, though not all its articles get translated from Spanish: http://www.14ymedio.com/englishedition

Since 2011 Larry Press, a professor of information systems at California State University, has been writing an excellent blog on how the Internet is developing in Cuba http://laredcubana.blogspot.co.uk/ . One of his more entertaining posts is an open letter to the anonymous Cuban official charged with monitoring his blog http://laredcubana.blogspot.co.uk/2011/12/letter-to-my-state-security-officer-if.html

Finally, there is a wealth of detail on everyday life in Cuba to be gleaned from the country’s bloggers, and Translating Cuba http://translatingcuba.com/ has over 60 blogs by independent commentators. Yoani Sanchez is perhaps the best known of these, but there are many other good bloggers such as Regina Coyula, who posted earlier this year on the return of bus conductors on Havana’s transport system: http://translatingcuba.com/privatized-regina-coyula/