Cuba: Notes on a History of Best Intentions

The only foreseeable means of alienating internal support is through disenchantment and disaffection based on economic dissatisfaction and hardship….every possible means should be undertaken promptly to weaken the economic life of Cuba. If such a policy is adopted, it should be the result of a positive decision which would call forth a line of action which, while as adroit and inconspicuous as possible, makes the greatest inroads in denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government.

-Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Lester D. Mallory.

In his Dec. 17, 2014 statement calling for normalization of diplomatic relations with Cuba, President Barak Obama paused to speak directly to the Cuban people. “We believe that you should be empowered to live with dignity and self-determination,” he said. No mention was made of Lester D. Mallory. [1]

Even while strenuously working to destroy the Cuban revolution, US presidents like to say that Cubans should decide their own future. But what if the Cuban people decided to choose communism?

Alluding to the sordid history of US efforts to dissuade Cubans from choosing communism, Obama said that it was all “rooted in the best of intentions.” Here is an example of one of those best intentions.

The Cuban project

From the early 1960s, sabotage and terrorist attacks against Cuba were carried out as direct action by the US government such as the guerrilla offensive in the Escambray Mountains in 1960 organized by the CIA. When it failed, the Eisenhower administration decided to arm and train an exile invasion force to land at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961.

After that failed, a more ambitious program of sabotage and political propaganda continued under the Cuban Project (Operation Mongoose), begun by order of President John F. Kennedy in November 1961. The operation was led by Air Force General Edward Lansdale and directed by Attorney General Bobby Kennedy. The objective was “to help the Cubans overthrow the Communist regime from within Cuba and institute a new government with which the United States can live in peace.” [2]

Although the schedule of actions required precision planning and execution with little room for error, Lansdale acknowledged that “We still know too little about the real situation inside Cuba,” but the Project went forward anyway into official uncertainty.

The Project’s central strategy was the promotion of civil discontent and social upheaval that would lead to a coup, a provisional government and US intervention. The United States would be justified in intervening militarily because of having suffered “justifiable grievances” from the false-flag operations it would have set in motion.

Lansdale’s counterrevolutionary plan – intentionally or not – mimicked the revolutionary strategy of Fidel Castro’s July 26 Movement. Both are based on winning popular support through “a strongly motivated political action movement”; a military arm (“an action arm for sabotage and armed resistance”) and communication with the population (“its own voice for psychological operations”).

Success depended on “the sympathetic support of the majority of the Cuban people” to set in motion the events leading to a revolt and foreign (US) intervention. Nevertheless, the plan recognized that such a popular movement did not exist and would have to be created by outside pressures to weaken the economy and enrage the population. Thus, “the political actions will be assisted by economic warfare to include an embargo and sabotage of Cuba’s sugar crop starting in 1961, to induce failure of the Communist regime’s ability to supply Cuba’s economic needs.” This was the Lester D. Mallory prescription.

To soften up Cuba for the Mongoose attack, the Joint Chiefs of Staff planned Operation Northwoods, which was an anthology of bizarre and odious false-flag operations designed to create real or faked terrorist incidents that would justify armed invasion. Northwoods was never implemented, but just think how the United States would suffer Lansdale’s planned “justifiable grievances” if one of these cunning plans had been carried out:

We could develop a Communist Cuban terror campaign in the Miami area, in other Florida cities and even in Washington. We could blow up a US ship in Guantanamo Bay and blame Cuba. We could sink a boatload of Cubans enroute to Florida (real or simulated).

Of course, any real Cuban killed in any of these operations would not be “empowered to live with dignity.”

Because of the intelligence failures in planning for the Bay of Pigs invasion, the new project called for the CIA to find hard information from Cuban exiles arriving in Miami. The CIA will recruit assets from among these Cubans at the Opa-locka Interrogation Center in Miami. The lack of available “political action agents” – saboteurs, assassins and other operatives – necessary for operations inside Cuba, led the CIA to recruit 30 candidates from among Cuban exiles. These were necessary to set up 20 bases inside Cuba to foment the required “popular movement.”

“The climactic moment of revolt,” in Lansdale’s fabricated popular movement of Cubans deciding their own destiny, was to be the point at which they would react in anger to some government action or process brought about by the Project – open revolt would follow. The “popular rebellion” would then take and hold areas of the country giving “the free nations of the Western Hemisphere” the opportunity to offer assistance.

Cubans and populations of other Latin American nations were to be enlisted in the Project by closely identifying the Soviet Union with the Cuban government. The CIA was to generate public demonstrations in Latin America against a Sovietized Cuba with the help of psychological operations funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The world outside of Cuba would be encouraged to view actions of the Cuban government as “foreign tyranny” imposed by the Soviet Union on a puppet government. In this way, the Project would redefine the Cuban revolution as an issue of the Cold War and accuse the Soviet Union with doing exactly what the United States was planning to do to Cuba.

Lansdale issued a follow-up report on February 20, 1962, proposing a more elaborate and meticulous timetable culminating in the overthrow of the Cuban government in October 1962. It ran from “Phase I, Action, March 1962. Start moving in,” to “Phase VI, Final, during month of October 1962. Establishment of new government.”

There you have it — just eight months to empower Cubans into a new government.

In the process, the plan lays out schedules for sabotage, radio propaganda, development of an underground, insertion of freedom fighters from abroad (Hungary, Poland, Latin America) and assassination of top Cuban leaders.

The United States would quickly grant recognition to a provisional government, “To give legality to the moral right of the Cuban revolt.” There would be an interregnum of indefinite length, presumably under US command.

The detailed schedule was of course never followed because of the ensuing missile crisis in October, but the general outlines of the Project will show up in a more political form in the 1996 Helms-Burton Act and reworked again in the proposals for Assistant to a Free Cuba during the George W. Bush administration.

Manuel Hevia, director of the history section of the Cuban State Security Archives, said in a 2002 radio interview that Mongoose was not suspended after the Missile Crisis but was “liquidated as a subversive operation by our people, even without knowing the name with which our enemies had baptized it.”

Lansdale’s expectation that a popular rebellion in Cuba could be manufactured lived on after the Project was dropped in the form of “democracy promotion” through funding of civil society organizations and the creation of a paid dissident movement. The George W. Bush administration reworked the theme that the United States did not intend to overthrow the Cuban government, but that the Cuban people would one day do it in the name of freedom and democracy.

Death by illusion  

Had the Lansdale plan been fully successful and had Fidel Castro been ousted and assassinated, it would have been regime change by manipulation of illusions. Cubans and friendly countries would have had to believe that the Cuban revolution was a fiction disguising the expansion of international communism.

There is nothing in the thinking of Lansdale and the Joint Chiefs about what Cuba actually is — its history, culture and aspirations. Even what Cubans thought about their country was to be invented in Washington and pasted on the cardboard Cubans of Washington’s imagination.

In a sense, the US government and mass media have refused to acknowledge that there is a real country named Cuba. They deny the existence of the real country while forging elaborate plans to “free” the imagined one, where imagined Cubans are to be manipulated like pieces on a board game.

And what about the future for the Cubans Obama wants to empower? In 1988, Fidel Castro addressed the question of how some future renewed diplomatic relations might play out:

Even if one day, relations between socialist Cuba and the empire improve, that will not cause that empire to give up its idea of crushing the Cuban Revolution, and they do not hide it. Their theoreticians will explain it; the defenders of the imperial philosophy will explain it. There are some who say it is better to make certain changes in policy toward Cuba in order to penetrate it, to weaken it, to destroy it, if possible even peacefully.


1 Use of the word “empowerment” should probably be avoided. Anne-Emanuèle Calvès surveyed the term’s erosion: “It has come to equate power with individual and economic decision-making; it has de-politicized collective power into something seemingly harmonious; and has been employed to legitimize existing top-down policies and programs.” Anne-Emanuèle Calvès, “Empowerment: The History of a Key Concept in Contemporary Development Discourse,” Revue Tiers Monde4/2009 (No 200), p. 735-749,

2 Program Review by the Chief of Operations, Operation Mongoose (Lansdale), U.S., Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States 1961-1963, Volume X Cuba, 1961-1962, Washington, DC, 18 January 1962.

Robert Sandels writes on Cuba and Mexico. Nelson P. Valdés is Emeritus Professor of Sociology, University of New Mexico.