January 07, 2010

Protecting the USA from the Cuban Empire

It literally fell on my head as I reached for something totally unrelated in the crowded storage closet. How did that get up there? I thought as I picked up the book by Bradley Earl Ayers; “The War That Never Was: An Insider’s Account of CIA Covert Operations against Cuba.” Some mysteries, particularly relating to the US war on Cuba, the JFK assassination and the existence of UFOs, may not be solved in our lifetime.
Ayer’s book pulls back the covers on a topic that America has been told to forget, and is worth reading, whether you agree with the author’s actions or not. I’m sensitive about a muscle-bound empire plotting sneakily against a little country that (at the time) had been struggling for freedom for nearly 450 years, so I don’t condone his actions. But at the same time I understand that in his own way he was an American patriot. On some level he’d bought into the idea that he was protecting his country, and his experiences are worth exploring today.
Recruited from the Army to work on top-secret CIA operations against “Communist Cuba” shortly after the Missile Crisis (1963), Ayers presents a sympathetic human face lacking in other “anti-Castro” books written by comparable men of action and adventure. The details are often grim and disturbing, and the total complete failure of covert attempts to topple the Cuban government becomes more disturbing when you consider that good people like Ayers were suckered into lying to their families, betraying their ideals and practically destroying their lives.
With a fake name, and under the cover of a real estate broker and developer, Ayers’ task was training the Cubans who would be asked to risk their lives, under US funding, training and total control, to save their “Communist-enslaved” country. “We would be doing with the Cubans essentially what the Army does with men in basic training,” he writes, “except that in our situation it would have to be done entirely covertly amid a very active and curious civilian community.”
Ayers goes back and forth between his disdain and admiration for the Cubans, though I suspect the later was initially a disguised excuse for his love of the “dangerous missions” and the adrenaline rush of undercover ops. In one instance he suggests that anti-Castro paramilitary group Alpha 66 “would publicly take credit” for CIA-run anti-Castro sabotage efforts, and he describes the “grapevine” of Miami’s emerging Little Havana as “a real headache in terms of security.”
The attempted commando missions are described in some detail, with enough narrative vivre to recall that by the time Ayers wrote and published this book, in 1973, there had already been 5 or 6 James Bond movies in the collective awareness, and it would not surprise me if he’d seen them all. Ayers describes how infiltration teams were issued a kit with “a special capsule containing a painless, rapidly acting lethal poison.” Of course, “use of the items in the kit” was “at the discretion of the individual.”
In spite of having his wife and three children move to Miami to be closer to him, Ayers insists on going on a Mission to Cuba, where the possibility exists that he might lose his life or be captured. This doesn’t seem particularly smart or responsible, and I guess you’d have to be in the Army to fully understand his reasoning, yet eventually I began to comprehend his caring for the men he’s training, and his need to share the danger. (In some abstract way this recalls for me how, seventy or so years earlier, José Martí insisted on participating in a battle against the Spanish Army. It was in this first battle that he was killed.)
Unlike other books on this topic, this isn’t a right-wing fantasy about the CIA protecting the USA from a hidden Cuban empire, or saving the world from communism, and Ayers returns to the serious nature of these actions repeatedly; “Our participation in the CIA’s anti-Castro activities violated the agreement made between Kennedy and Khrushchev during the missile crisis,” he recognizes. “Our cover stories would have to stand up under scrutiny and must conceal our true status even from certain other CIA personnel…” unlike the cover story used for the US invasion at Bay of Pigs, which crumbled at the mere touch.
That level of precision secrecy can be lethal. Isn’t that why the HAL 9000 went crazy in Kubrick’s 2001? Still, it does seem ironic that many of the people who’ve undertaken the task of terrorism against Cuba are able to convince themselves (and U.S. prosecutors) that they’re doing it for the right reasons. That some are willing to do it with so little convincing is disturbing. I guess you had to be there.
In the process, Ayers is able to maneuver a young immigrant Cuban woman into a temp CIA job and a love affair, keeping it secret, like a good spy, from his family and colleagues at the CIA. Even she doesn’t have a clue about who he really is.
Towards the end of 1963, just prior to a sabotage effort against a Cuban oil refinery, President Kennedy is murdered, and as Viet Nam becomes the war-du-jour under the Johnson administration, the author sadly experiences “the beginning of the end of CIA anti-Castro operations in Miami.” And yet, after lying to everyone he knows and loves, the author has trouble with the “moral” implication of the U.S. government abandoning the Cuban American cause.
Ayers touches on some serious issues surrounding this sad history, but doesn’t take it beyond the rapture of a basically honest man seeking truth; his search is personal and immediate; how can we just abandon this after so much effort? What about all the life and money already invested? Was all this just for the sake of someone’s political expediency? He never pointedly asks if it was all just political theater, but you can almost feel him thinking that it was.
At this point the book seems to change from well-told right-wing treatise on undercover ops into a slice of reality from which the author will emerge broken and dumbfounded. Eventually, after an affair with a CIA secretary that he eventually mistrusts as a possible “recruiter,” Ayers goes through a deep, soul-searching period that ends in divorce, withdrawal from the CIA, resignation from the Army and the questioning of his “most significant decade” with the U.S. Army. He does express some fears about the CIA coming after him (“they had no rules, except expediency”) and even fantasizes about taking up, on his own, the last mission he was involved with against Cuba; the destruction of an oil refinery.
Shortly afterward he returns to Miami as a civilian hoping to rejoin the anti-Castro effort, and he encounters a wealthy and ambitious Cuban “doctor” that wants him to use his plane to drop a 500-pound bomb over Havana. The doctor wants to pay him $10,000 to do the job, and tells him that this act will certainly topple Castro. “The idea was symbolic of all that was wrong with the exile movement,” he writes, and walks away from this mission.
It is the last part of the book that addresses the personal cost of the U.S. government’s war against Cuba, and I found myself curious about Mr. Ayers’ life after the events depicted in his book. And yet he’s very careful with his criticisms of the anti-Castro movement.
Ayers went to work as a private investigator, and eventually worked for investigative reporter Jack Anderson, and as an undercover DEA agent in Florida.