Interview with Stephen Kinzer

Tell us about your first trip to Cuba? How did people receive you?

In 1974, I got permission to go to Cuba, at a moment where very few journalists or Americans of any kind were allowed to go. Between 1974 and 1984, I was in Cuba ten times--about once a year. The mística was still there about the Revolution. There was the sense that this project could work.

I remember covering the pilot elections in Matanzas (Poder Popular) that everyone within Cuba was talking about. I also witnessed the opening of farmers markets, where Cubans brought whatever they had to sell once the markets were opened. I remember officials took me to Alamar after it had just been built. At that point it was a model neighborhood. They took me to Mazorra, the mental hospital, to construction projects and other sites so that I could talk to Cuban people and observe some of the Revolution’s achievements. Many of the controversial issues that you hear discussed on the streets of Cuba today had yet to emerge. Most people seemed to embrace the narrative of the Revolution.

In the 1970s, I would say that the Cuban people were living reasonably well. As a result of subsidies from the Soviet Union, Cuba’s government was able to follow economic policies that have been proven failures in every other country where they’ve been tried. Particularly in the later 1970s, I came away with the sense that if you were an ordinary poor person, you would be better off in Cuba than in some other nearby countries. There were not material shortages.  Subsidies allowed the government to paper over structural economic problems.

What kind of infrastructure existed for tourism at the time, specifically for Canadian and Latin American tourists?

Canadians were welcomed to the island. Cuba was quite isolated, and so the idea of having foreigners visit was appealing. I remember talking to one Canadian businessman by the hotel pool. He said to me, “We are capitalists, and that means we capitalize on opportunities. Thanks to you, we have an opportunity.” These men came to foster business deals in the absence of American companies. Later, we began to see this phenomenon of Canadians who fly down just to go to the beach.  To them it didn’t matter that this was Cuba. They weren’t like Americans, who came to think of Cuba as another planet.

The first times I was there, you were only staying in the former American hotels. It was not until the 1980s that the options of places to stay began to diversify. It took a while for Cuba to invest in Varadero and realize that it could become an advantageous opportunity for tourism. I think it was the Canadians who first awoke the Cuban government to the idea that tourism could earn them a good deal of hard currency.

What were the regional views on Cuba and the Revolution?

Cuba was a polarizing phenomenon at that time. In most Latin American ruling circles it was considered the font of all evil. What happened in Cuba led the elites in places like Guatemala and El Salvador to conclude that any tactics to prevent more revolutions were justified. Cuba also stood as an example to other revolutionaries in the region. Fidel Castro and Che Guevara were hugely inspirational as figures who challenged world powers. A small island nation in Latin America was able to make the United States squirm. It was as if the Cuban Revolution was payback for a century of intervention. Among ordinary Latin Americans, there was a real sense of solidarity with Cuba.

Nonetheless, I want to point out a negative aspect of this inspiration. The example of Cuban revolutionaries was terribly misinterpreted by revolutionaries in other countries. They begin to think that all you needed to win a revolution and take political power was to get a bunch of fighters together, go to the mountains, and start attacking police stations. These insurgencies brought down savage regression and decimated a generation in Latin America. Being a journalist in the region led me to revise my perspective on Che Guevara and the inspiration that he provided. The thrilling example that came from Cuba had a complicated and violent effect on Latin America.

Crimen de Barbados

Editor’s Note: In 1976, Cubana de Aviación Flight 455 was bombed by a group of Cuban and Venezuelan exiles with connections to the CIA, killing all seventy three people on board.

I was a freelance reporter covering Latin America for the Boston Globe, and was making a trip around the Caribbean which included Barbados. My next stop was Cuba. In those days, you had paper plane tickets that were pages long, and for each flight they would rip off a page. The second-to-last page of the booklet was my ticket from Barbados to Cuba. I finished my work in Barbados a couple of days earlier than I had anticipated and decided to try to get to Cuba sooner. I went down to the office of Cubana de Aviación to ask if I could get on the earlier flight, and after some negotiation, they found me a seat.

I was lying by the pool of the Hotel Riviera, and who should walk over but Lionel Martin, my journalist friend [a Canadian journalist who later wrote a biography of Fidel Castro]. He said, “Do you know what just happened? A Cuban airline just crashed into the sea off Barbados.” My first reaction was to ask, “Was it an accident?” Lionel looked at me and said, “Planes don’t blow up in the middle of the air by accident.” We went over to the bar to listen to the radio, and suddenly it dawned on me that this was the plane I was supposed to be on. I had just missed that plane.

This shook me deeply. Here I was in Cuba, and there were no other American journalists. There were one million people in the Plaza [de la Revolución]. It was the largest crowd of people I have ever seen in my life. There were about half a dozen coffins on the platform, as they were able to recover a few bodies. One of the stewardesses had been the wife of a famous Cuban filmmaker, and the Cuban youth fencing team was on board, among others. Fidel was there. I sat just a few feet away from him on the tribuna [platform] as he spoke to the crowd. This was the first time I saw Castro in person when he was on duty.

It was a very sobering incident. Naturally, I followed the investigations. It became clear that Luis Posada Carriles was involved, and his CIA connections were revealed. Castro had a sense that this was a historic moment, a new high point in CIA attacks on him and Cuba. In the wake of the Crimen de Barbados, the question lingered of what would come next from the U.S. government and the CIA. In the US, though, no one was interested in the story. American media brushed it off, and it did not penetrate into the American consciousness.

How did Cuba respond to Jimmy Carter’s diplomacy and attempts to reshape U.S.-Cuba relations?

In the period that I was traveling to Cuba, I did not hear any discourse from the Cuban government that shifted its position on relations with the U.S. With the flow of money coming in from the Soviets, the government did not feel any great pressure to grab the life preserver that Jimmy Carter threw their way. In fact, a change of position from within the White House seemed suspicious to the Cuban government after years of antagonism.

I covered Mariel1 on both ends. I got to Key West when Cubans were pouring off the boats at a naval base. Then my editor decided I need to report on Mariel from within Cuba. I bluffed my way through a couple of checkpoints and made it to Mariel. Cuban-Americans living in Florida were coming down on their boats to pick up Cubans who wanted to leave. It was clear that Castro was taking advantage of this moment to get rid of many people. Carter was not prepared for the influx of people, and Castro was quite clever about it. In a sense, he said, “You can have them all.” By then it was too late for the U.S. to go back on its offer to welcome and embrace all Cubans who wanted to leave for the United States.

The attitude of Cuban leaders was anger that so many Cubans wanted to get out, mixed with amusement and a sense of satisfaction that the Cuban government was able to manipulate the U.S. in the end. For Americans, Mariel was a shock. It told Jimmy Carter that if you put your hand out to Cuba, Castro will bite your finger.

The fact that the Cuban government had blessed the departure of such a large number of Cubans naturally led to some discussions about why people surged to escape. Cubans were able to talk about their neighbor who had left, to question if he or she was a traitor or just fed up with the limitations of life in Cuba. In the wake of Mariel, government leaders worried again about how far to open up their society, and about the possible consequences of new projects that involved civic participation--especially given the country’s history with the CIA.

The “Golden Years” [of the 1970s and 80s] versus Cuba today: What has changed in your view?

In the 1980s, there was a sense that things were moving in Cuba’s direction. It seemed that Cuba might be the model for Latin America. Now it seems clear that in many ways, the island has been left behind by history. In the 1970s, Cubans were proud at how far they were ahead of other Central American nations. Now they ask themselves why their experiment did not work out as they had hoped. Today, not many Cubans will tell you that their country is on a truly encouraging and positive track. I witnessed the transition of the Cuban mindset from “We succeeded” to “We failed.” Take Alamar as an example. I was taken there to see it being built, as a showcase of how great Cuba was becoming. Now “Alamar” is a byword for “catastrophe.” It serves as a metaphor. Like Cuba’s larger project, it looked great at the beginning but did not have the pillars to succeed.

Within Cuba, there is a great residue of affection for Americans. Today, when asked about America, the ordinary Cuban does not think of the CIA or the attempted assassinations of Castro. I sense a much warmer view of the United States in the younger generations of Cubans. In a way, they are circling back to where their grandparents were, with a generation that disliked Americans in between.



[1] Between April and October 1980, roughly 125,000 Cubans fled the island from the port of Mariel. This first major migration out of Cuba since the 1960s is known as the “Mariel Boatlift.”