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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
Terrorism and Civil Society as Instruments of U.S. Policy in Cuba

This article is carried at the request of Douglas Hamilton of the Cuba Support Group - Ireland/Cuba Solidarity Group

Philip Agee • August 5, 2003

(This is a heavily abridged version of a much longer article available at

Havana, May 2003

Condemnation of Cuba was immediate, strong and practically global last month for the imprisonment of 75 political dissidents and for the summary execution of 3 ferry hijackers. Prominent among the critics were past friends of Cuba of recognized international stature.

As I read the hundreds of denunciations that came through my mail, it was easy to see how enemies of the revolution seized on those issues to condemn Cuba for violations of human rights. They had a field day. Deliberate or careless confusion between the political dissidents and the hijackers, two entirely unrelated matters, was also easy because the events happened at the same time. A Vatican publication went so far as to describe the hijackers as dissidents when in fact they were terrorists. But others of usual good faith toward Cuba also jumped on the bandwagon of condemnation treating the two issues as one.

With respect to the imprisonment of 75 civil society activists, the main victim has been history, for these people were central to current U.S. government efforts to overthrow the Cuban government and destroy the work of the revolution. Indeed regime change, as overthrowing governments has come to be known, has been the continuing U.S. goal in Cuba since the earliest days of the revolutionary government. Programs to achieve this goal have included propaganda to denigrate the revolution, diplomatic and commercial isolation, trade embargo, terrorism and military support to counter-revolutionaries, the Bay of Pigs invasion, assassination plots against Fidel Castro and other leaders, biological and chemical warfare, and, more recently, efforts to foment an internal political opposition masquerading as an independent civil society.

Far from being “independent” journalists, “idealistic” human rights activists, “legitimate” advocates for change, or “Marian librarians from River City,” every one of the 75 arrested and convicted was knowingly a participant in U.S. government operations to overthrow the government and install a different, U.S.-favored, political, economic and social order. They knew what they were doing was illegal, they got caught, and they are paying the price. Anyone who thinks they are prisoners of conscience, persecuted for their ideas or speech, or victims of repression, simply fails to see them properly as instruments of a U.S. government that has declared revolutionary Cuba its enemy. They were not convicted for ideas but for paid actions on behalf of a foreign power that has waged a 44-year war of varying degrees of intensity against this country.

To think that the dissidents were creating an independent, free civil society is absurd, for they were funded and controlled by a hostile foreign power and to that degree, which was total, they were not free or independent in the least. The civil society they wished to create was not just your normal, garden variety civil society of Harley freaks and Boxer breeders, but a political opposition movement fomented openly by the U.S. government. What government in the world would be so self-destructive as to sit by and just watch this happen?

Prominent in the outrage at Cuba’s action against the dissidents were commentaries of shock over how nice things had been getting in recent years with Fidel’s mellowing and tolerance of the dissident community, and suddenly now THIS! In actual fact May 20, 2002 was the turning point when in speeches in Washington and Miami, Bush announced his “Initiative for a New Cuba.” Central to this “new” plan, citing Poland as a past success, he announced increased and direct assistance to “help build Cuban civil society,” leading to a “new government” in Cuba. I wonder. Would it be overreach to say Bush was advocating regime change through the dissidents? The Cubans made no secret of their interpretation.

The knell for “our guys” came with the arrival in September 2002 of a new Chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, the equivalent of Ambassador were Cuba and the U.S. to have full diplomatic relations. James Cason is a career State Department diplomat who has served mostly in Latin American countries, not menacing to the eye, just a bit overstuffed in the round face, double chinned like a Porky Pig in his late fifties, with wide round glasses in front of half-closed eyes. Like he’s had too many two-hour lunches and not enough jogging. Otto Reich, Cuban-American fanatic and one of the un-indicted criminals of Iran-Contra, who was serving a limited recess appointment (read no chance for Senate confirmation) as Bush’s Assistant Secretary of State for Latin American, gave Cason the job and apparently put an ample load of hot sauce on his appointee’s backside.

Cason swooped down on Havana like a fed from Gangbusters’ central casting with an “in your face” attitude big time. But give the guy credit. He ran his ass off all over this island burning his dissident friends, “our guys,” and sealing their fate as he went along. His blatant support for Washington’s civil society in Cuba looked for all the world like he was bent on getting himself PNG’d, expelled as persona non grata in diplomatic parlance. He made a show of unity with groups in the provinces as well as Havana; gave 24-hour passes to the Interests Section to favorites, including Cuban penetration agents, for free internet access and other facilities; attended meetings in dissidents’ homes where he gave the equivalent of press conferences to foreign journalists; personally launched the youth wing of the Liberal Party; entertained dissidents in his official residence, even hosting an independent journalists’ workshop there one Saturday. His conduct went so far beyond accepted diplomatic protocol that you might say he was the mother of all provocations.

But expelling Cason would have led to a new crisis with the U.S., and the Cubans didn’t take the bait. For six months they waited and watched through their highly placed penetrations of Cason’s dissident community. Then they decided to act. They had the evidence of criminal activities in support of Helms-Burton and in violation of other legislation on sedition, so they finally decided to sweep away Cason’s constituency in a stroke. And there he stood in March, appropriately like the Emperor who wore no cool. Indeed, there’s been not a peep from the man since his acolytes were picked up.

One can imagine the bitterness from prison with 75 of “our guys” reflecting on how stupid they were to fall for Cason’s grandstanding. So now Cason and his staff, CIA and AID officers included, have to start all over, pretty much from scratch. But hey, buddy, careful whom you all recruit. You may be salivating tomorrow over another of Fidel’s finest. Never know, do you? Think about that when you file for security clearances on your next generation of dissidents.

Without a doubt the Cubans weighed the price they would have to pay with friends and foes before taking the decision to act. And they knew they had a lot to lose. The movement in the U.S. to end the embargo and travel ban, in Congress and on the street, would peel rubber in reverse with all the media distortions. Cuban entrance into the Cotonou Agreement for preferential trade and aid with the EU would likely go back into the deep freeze, which it did. Moreover, the U.N. Human Rights Commission was then meeting in Geneva, and the U.S. was trying as hard as possible, with threats and bribes, to get a motion approved condemning Cuba for human rights violations. In the end they didn’t get it, but the Cuban government was willing to take this risk as well.

With so much at stake, the timing of the decision triggered intense speculation. In truth the dissident community, including those imprisoned, has never been a threat to the revolution, and Cuba could have gone on indefinitely tolerating, penetrating and monitoring their U.S. government-ordered activities. But the U.S. might have seen that as weakness, and that’s the last thing you want a Grendel to think.

Moreover there was an important internal political dimension to tolerating Cason’s insulting provocations because they were so widely known here. He had gone so far beyond the pale that people in general wondered about the government’s tolerance. This too could be seen as weakness by supporters of the revolution. So they decided to stop him once and for all and to send a message to his remaining protégés, to stretch the protective connotation just a bit in the Cuban context. In 1996 the government had stopped the highly visible Brothers to the Rescue overflights by the shootdowns, largely for internal political reasons, knowing full well the price they would pay internationally. So also in 2003 they decided to firmly use the hook on Cason’s Top Gun stage act regardless of international opinion. As in the shootdowns, internal Cuban politics, not international reactions, more than likely determined the timing.

The Three Executions

The hijacking of the Havana harbor ferry, the Baraguá, couldn’t have come at a worse time. It was the 7th hijacking in 7 months and came on April 2, a day before the trials of the dissidents were to start, making it easy for Cuba’s enemies, and not a few of its friends, to lump the two disparate events into one “wave of repression.”

The ferry was no more than a flat-bottomed self-propelled barge with a cabin, safe only for calm harbor waters, and that night there were 50-odd people on board including children and foreign tourists. The armed hijackers took it to sea in a highly dangerous Force 4 wind, ran it out of fuel, and threatened by radio to start throwing hostages overboard if they were not given enough fuel to reach Florida. The amazing part is how the Cuban coast guard convinced the hijackers to allow a tow of the drifting ferry to the port of Mariel where special forces set up a trap and divers prepared for the rescue. After many hours of standoff, it all ended in less than a minute when a French woman suddenly dove overboard and was followed en masse by the other hostages and the hijackers as well. The hostages were all rescued, and the hijackers quickly arrested.

In the trial the state asked for, and received, the death penalty for the three ringleaders of the hijacking, an action upheld by an appeals court because it was a terrorist act of extreme gravity even though no one was injured. Then the Council of State had to ratify or commute. Should Cuba end their nearly three-year moratorium on executions? Should they stir up condemnation from the world movement against the death penalty? Should they delay their decision and let those guys wait on death row for a while---not 15-20 years like in the States but at least a few weeks so as not to show undue haste? Or should they commute to life and show mercy.

Frankly, being against the death penalty, I thought a combination of the last two would be best: wait and commute. But I didn’t know that at the time the Cuban security forces were investigating another 29 hijacking plots. From the Council of State’s point of view it surely looked like the beginning of a wave of hijackings encouraged as always by the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act and the wet-foot, dry-foot policy that discriminates against all non-Cuban illegal immigrants. Particularly galling to Cuba is the hero treatment hijackers have gotten in Florida and the fact that if a pilot flies a plane over there willingly, he’s not considered a hijacker and is guilty of no more than misappropriation of property.

If there is one principle that Cuba has always followed, at least since the missile crisis of 1962, it is never to give the U.S. a pretext for military action. Another Mariel exodus or rafters crisis, or indeed a wave of hijackings, would be just such a pretext, as Fidel later reasoned, for imposing a U.S. naval blockade, an all-out bombing campaign, and an outright invasion. They could avoid another Mariel or rafters episode, but they had to stop the hijackings immediately. And he was right. On April 25th the chief of the Cuba Bureau of the State Department told the Chief of Cuba’s Interests Section in Washington that the United States considers any more hijackings to be a serious threat to U.S. national security. Understanding “one more and we take military action” would not be paranoia.

But the Council of State didn’t have to wait for that news. They knew it already. They ratified the sentences on April 10th, and they were carried out the next morning. You can fault Cuba on the principle of “no death penalty under any circumstances,” but the fact is that Cuba is one of more than 100 countries that have it on the books. They had just seen what U.S. bombs and missiles had done to Baghdad, saw the painstaking work of two generations at risk, including their centers of science and technology, educational institutions, hospitals and clinics, their historic cultural heritage, but most important their people who would be killed and maimed. And they didn’t confuse the hijackers with dissidents. They were delinquents turned terrorists who had threatened vastly more than their 50 hostages.

It came as no surprise to Cuba when, with the executions and the sentencing of the dissidents at nearly the same time, the howling around the world began. They seemed to be ready for it to a degree, but you could sense a certain shock when long-time friends of the revolution like Eduardo Galeano and Jose Saramago joined the chorus of condemnation. They were joined by Chomsky, Zinn, Albert, Davis, Dorfman and others, whose works are treasures in my library, who signed the superficial statement of the Campaign for Peace and Democracy: “We the undersigned strongly protest the current wave of repression in Cuba…[against dissidents]…for their non-violent political activities…” Like the dissidents are not equal to terrorism, embargo, and psychological warfare as instruments in Washington’s unending campaign to convert Cuba into another American vassal. Fair enough if that’s what they want for Cuba. Pitiful if they signed without thinking.


In Washington, despite the black eye that Cuba is seen to have self-inflicted, the Congressional supporters of legislation to end or ease the embargo and to abolish the travel ban are again moving ahead with the introduction of new legislation for that purpose. While most condemned the April events, they are sticking with their principles, mostly in the belief that Americans who come to Cuba will change the Cubans. Over the years I’ve seen just the opposite happen, but ending the travel ban is certainly worthy, reasons aside.

The Bush administration, peopled as it is with hard line Cuban-Americans, continues to ratchet up the pressure with the expulsion of 14 Cuban diplomats in Washington and New York on vague espionage charges. Clearly a political, not a national security decision, someone in the FBI leaked the news that the White House had apparently told the State Department to expel Cubans, and State asked the FBI for some names. The FBI source added that none of the Cubans was the subject of an on-going espionage investigation. Conversely the Cuban-American congressional representatives from Miami, Ros Lehtinen and Díaz Balart, whine openly that Bush won’t take their calls demanding a swift end to the Cuba problem once and for all.

In Miami all those NGOs sucking at the teats of AID and NED to keep their anti-Castro industry going, along with their comfortable life-styles, will have to go back to their computers and draw up new plans for civil society in Cuba. They’ll have to look for ways to salvage their counterpart fronts across the straits and for more Cubans with few enough scruples and just enough self-destructive instincts to take their money.

Over here in Havana, James Cason would do well to slip away on consultations back at the State Department and quietly retire. He did, after all, get 75 of “our guys” put away, some for quite a while, and all the anti-Cuban propaganda dividend flowing from his service to Reich in no way compensates. He’s finished in the Foreign Service even though he was carrying out Reich’s orders, for Cason, not Reich, is the one who’ll take the fall. Then again he might just find a fat new anti-Cuba career with one of the Miami NGOs.

At the U.S. Interests Section, State, AID and CIA officers will now have to start beating the bushes for new blood, sending names and background information for security clearances on people willing to work with the Miami NGOs following in the footsteps of the 75, and the Cuban security service will surely oblige with promising candidates as they always have in the past.

And the rest of us?

The threat of war in Cuba from Bush and his coterie of crusaders, all of them crazed with hubris after Iraq, is real. A military campaign against Cuba, coinciding with the already-underway 2004 electoral campaign, may be the only way he can hope to finally get himself elected, even if only for his second term. And every day the economy is working against him with no signs of improving for 2004. He knows the economy in ‘92 did his father in, and he may conclude that fulfilling his divine mission to extend U.S. military control of the world will need a crisis very close to home.

The time to mobilize against that war is now, and not a day can be lost.

Philip Agee is an ex-CIA agent who left the agency in the 1970s after publishing a book that exposed the covert agents and operations of the CIA in Latin America. He is now the Director of Cuablinda, a web-based travel agency in Havana which encourages US citizens to break the economic blockade by travelling to Cuba.

Republished with permission



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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
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Index: Current Articles

5 August 2003


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Doing Something Right
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The Ideas of Frantz Fanon

Liam O Ruairc


Terrorism and Civil Society as Instruments of US Policy in Cuba
Philip Agee


The Letters Page has been updated.


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Our Places in the Great Wall
Seaghán Ó Murchú


Mr Michael McKevitt's Statement at the Special Criminal Court
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Belfast's Big-headed Bully-boy
Margaret Quinn




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