Last month, the United States and Cuba began the long overdue process of mending hearts and fences. After 50-plus years of an embargo, numerous CIA plots, and other covert attempts to seed social unrest failed to put a spear into one the final bastions of socialism, the United States is trying a new approach. It seems this administration is hoping that kindness will work better than hostility – one might call it the “you catch more flies with honey than vinegar” tactic.

But the announcement of the US’s new stance toward Cuba has been profoundly divisive; while many enthuse that tourist dollars and increased trade could help bring democracy to Cuba, others argue the relaxation of the embargo condones a repressive Cuban regime, and undermines the efforts of Cubans who have been working to promote democracy.

It’s too soon to know just where the chips will fall, but it seems clear that a sea change is coming. With yesterday marking the 56th anniversary of Fidel Castro and his revolutionary forces seizing Cuba, we took a moment to reflect back on some of the crazy-but-true events and polarizing figures that have made up the fabric of these five and a half decades of embargo.

1

Cuban Exile Orlando Bosch Battled Castro With Bazookas

Being an exile blows super hard. Not only do you have to contend with losing your livelihood and country of origin, you have to make do with another country that A). doesn’t really know what to do with you, and B). wants you back to Cuba ASAP.

Orlando Bosch wasn’t your average exile – in fact, he was somewhat of a lightening-rod in the Cuban exile community. The type of man who embodied the maxim that ends justify means, Bosch had one all-consuming end in mind: getting rid of Fidel Castro. Funnily enough, he was once friends with Castro back when they were university students in Havana, and worked with him to overthrow Batista. But Bosch rapidly became disillusioned with the direction of the new regime, and fled to the United States after leading a failed counter-revolution. That’s when things got real.

Over the next 20 plus years, Bosch would go on to become implicated in dozens of anti-Castro terrorist acts that would make him a cult hero in the Cuban exile community. The most notable of these was the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner,  which killed 73 people, and which Bosch was accused of masterminding. He was tried but acquitted in 1980.

According to a report from the U.S. Justice Department, Bosch was involved in 30 acts of sabotage in the United States, Puerto Rico, Panama and Cuba from 1961 through 1968, which also included firing a bazooka at a Havana-bound Polish freighter docked in Miami, attempted postal bombings of Cuban embassies in four countries, and the failed assassination of the Cuban ambassador to Argentina.

To be fair, the vast majority of Cuban exiles are non-violent, but the actions of a few like Bosch inadvertently aided Castro by legitimizing his claim that outside forces were trying to derail the revolution.

When asked during a 2006 interview by a British documentary crew if he had anything to do with the plane bombing, Bosch replied “I’m supposed to say no.”

2

USA Spent Millions of Dollars Fighting Mostly Pointless Radio Wars

Radio was one of the most pivotal tools of mass communication for the socialist revolution in Cuba – it was the most effective way to reach the rural and urban poor, communities who had lower literacy rates and were unlikely to own televisions. It was also a way for Cuba to disseminate news of the revolution to the rest of the world. So it’s not surprising that radio waves quickly became a battleground between the U.S. and Cuba.

It started in 1961, when pirate station Radio Swan was launched by the CIA to support the Bay of Pigs invasion. Broadcast to Cuba and disguised as a commercial station, Radio Swan consisted mostly of anti-Castro speeches by Cuban exiles, along with some pop music – you know, to lighten up the mood. Cuba then retaliated with Radio Havana – a sister station to Che Guevara’s famed Radio Rebelde. Geared towards an international audience, it ran on a powerful frequency  that reached American radios, and played propaganda from the Vietnamese, Russians and Cuba’s own stuff. Plus pop music, which was apparently the formula for making revolutionary messages palatable. (Maybe those illuminati Jay Z rumors aren’t so far off…)

An audio sample from Cuba’s Radio Rebelde:

By mid 80s, you’d think the radio stuff would have been squashed, but the US was still at it. Under Reagan, the Radio Martí station was created, to provide “accurate, unbiased” news and entertainment programming to the Cuban people. The reaction from the Cubans was less than neighborly; they jammed the signals and retaliated by having their transmitters interfere with regular American commercial radio in Florida. But Radio Martí remained undaunted, and the project spent tons of taxpayer money to try and circumvent the jammed signals and expand to include a television station as well.

In fact, according to a 2009 Government Accountability Report, Radio Martí and TV Martí have spent more than $500 million taxpayer dollars to reach a tiny portion of Cubans (some estimates place the audience share at 1% of the Cuban population…).

So basically for about thirty years, both countries got insanely worked up about radio broadcasts that almost no one listened to or cared about. Both Radio Havana and Radio Martí continue to broadcast to this day, although, as far as we can tell no one was ever fooled into thinking either station did anything useful.

3

The Cuban Military Helped Smuggle Cocaine to Florida

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a communist country has to resort to crime to balance its ledgers. In fact, it’s sort of a rite of passage for a mature communist nation. You’d be shocked to read up on some of the stuff Russian officials did to stay afloat during the 80s. In Cuba’s case, the time for crime came when the nation’s economy took a nosedive in the 80s. The solution? Become middlemen for drug traffickers by allowing Cuba to be used as a waypoint for cocaine shipments into Florida.

The US released a scathing report in 1983 that exposed Cuban complicity in using drug trafficking to undermine the US and finance operations in Latin America. The Cubans dismissed the findings, but by the later end of the decade, the evidence was incontrovertible and led, in part, to the Ochoa Affair, in which decorated war hero General Arnaldo Ochoa and other military officials were arrested and executed on trumped up charges of drug trafficking.

Why was Ochoa targeted? All we can do is speculate, given that Cuba isn’t exactly known for freedom of information. Some historians believe that scapegoating Ochoa was a way to stamp out dissent within the ranks, as Ochoa was considered to be critical Castro’s failing revolution and reportedly wanted Cuba to pull a Deng Xiaoping.

Then again, the U.S did more than its share to look just as repulsive during this time.

Anyway, if you’ve seen classic mob film Scarface, just know that these were some of the real life inspirations behind the making of that film.

4

The Baseball Game that Almost Was

During détente, when tensions between the US and the Soviet Union were thawing, US Baseball Commissioner Bowie K. Kuhn expressed interest in setting up a US- Cuba baseball match in Havana. The idea was that baseball could be a form of diplomacy to break the ice between the two nations. You know, the National Pastime squares off against the Commies. Or something like that.

The Cubans loved the idea; Fidel Castro was a baseball player in his youth, and Cuba is famous for its love of the sport. And despite all the mean stuff being slung back and forth, the US and Cubans still talked to each other throughout this period of time.

Things got as far as actually scheduling a game before Henry Kissinger stepped in. Kissinger was a man who knew how to be pragmatic, a man who embodied realpolitik, a guy who could see past differ- oh, what, he just wrote “no” on the memorandum? Oh, okay.

Cold War considerations were simply not going to let this happen, especially with Cuban involvement in Angola.

The Americans and Cubans finally played each other in 1999, nearly a decade after the end of the Cold War. Had the games actually happened in 1976 as planned, then who knows what could have happened? While it seems like a stretch with regards to Cuba, the Americans tried the same approach with the Chinese and ping pong, and guess what; the U.S and Chinese are inseparable!

5

The US Made Multiple Insane Assassination Atempts on Castro

This is old news to anybody with a passing interest but it must be said; the US really, really hated Castro. Like, we really wanted his heart to stop physically beating. That he wasn’t taking any of our shit was one thing, but the fact that he was 90 miles away from Florida just put it over the top.

The CIA (among other entities) planned many different attempts on Castro’s life, from the classic exploding cigars to bombs to truly bizarre plots like poisoning his milkshake with a botulism pill, giving him a poisoned wetsuit, and recruiting an honest-to-God femme fatale to kill him. Still other, equally insane plots were aimed at destroying Castro’s character, including slipping him LSD to make him appear to be losing his grip on reality, and using female hormones to make his beard to fall out.

The CIA was and is very skilled at killing people, but the Cubans were equally as skilled at saving their own. Cuba’s intelligence agency is considered one of the best in the world for the simple reason that to be second rate is to be dead.

That being said, Castro survived due to good luck and skill. The CIA gave up when they realized Castro was in it for the long haul, while Cuban exiles continued with their Quixotic attempts to depose Castro on their own.

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6

The Mariel Boatlift Helped Spark a Pro-Gay Movement in the US

Communism has a weird relationship with homosexuality. On the one hand, the early Soviet Union was pretty accepting of LGBTQ peeps and so were the early German communists who battled far right thugs in the 1920s. But according to historian Julio Capó Jr., Castro was not cool with the LGBTQ community, deeming them anti-revolutionary “undesirables.”

Due to the intolerant climate in Cuba, a significant amount of the LGBTQ community fled to the U.S in 1980 during the Mariel boatlift. The U.S had a policy of accepting refugees from communist countries but the status of LGBTQ refugees was an iffy one, given that homosexuality was officially grounds for exclusion into the country until 1990.

Despite this policy, Americans demonstrated what being American is all about and accepted the Cuban LGBTQ refugees into the country, where they were embraced by the gay community in Miami. In 2010, Capó released a scholarly article on the subject, Queering Mariel: Mediating Cold War Foreign Policy and U.S. Citizenship among Cuba’s Homosexual Exile Community, 1978–1994. It’s a fascinating read that explains how the Mariel boatlift not only altered the South Florida community, but also cemented a new, politicized gay movement throughout the United States.

The article is only accessible through scholarly databases like JSTOR, so hit up your friends who are still in school for their login info and read up.

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