Voices from the Other Side: An Oral History of Terrorism against Cuba

Reviewed by Gail

Keith Bolender, Voices from the Other Side: An Oral History of Terrorism against Cuba (London: Pluto Press, 2010)

Americans know close to nothing about the long history of terrorist attacks against Cubans. There are other ways to find out about this subject, but Keith Bolender’s Voices from the Other Side is the most readable comprehensive account available in English, with each chapter telling the story of a specific attack at a specific time in the lives of particular Cubans.

Terrorism consists of “acts of violence against civilian targets in the attempt to … instill fear in the general population and disrupt government functions” (83). Bolender cites CIA director Richard Helms’s list of US-sponsored terrorist attacks, but key to this policy was that these acts “would not be publicized, recognized or acknowledged outside of Cuba,” so that Cuba’s response to them could be “portrayed as paranoia, totalitarian and evidence of the repressiveness of Fidel’s regime” (14). In addition to revealing this terrorist war to the US public, Bolender shows us the human faces of its victims – unarmed citizens going about the routines of daily life – through their own testimony.

The glue holding these stories together is found in Chapter 1, where the author explains the motivation for some 800 terrorist acts since 1960, the personal toll of which is calculated at 3,478 dead and 2,099 injured. After the 1961 defeat at the Bay of Pigs, US policy was directed at forcing the Cuban government “to use precious resources to protect itself and its citizens [as] part of the overarching strategy of making things so bad that the Cubans might rise up and overthrow their government” (13). Chapter 2 details the actions of Luis Posada Carriles and Orlando Bosch in planning the 1976 bombing of Cubana Airlines flight 455, as well as the US government’s role in instructing and protecting them. Bosch said of the 73 victims, “There were no innocents on that plane” (29). Haymel Espinosa Gómez, whose father (the plane’s co-pilot) was killed in the blast, talks about the residual effect of the violence 34 years later – the absence of peace or justice in her family’s life. Jorge De La Nuez talks about his rage and resultant social problems produced by the childhood trauma of losing his father and not understanding why anyone would do such a thing.

The random nature of terrorism is revealed in the rash of hotel bombings from April to September 1997. Once again Posada Carriles was involved in orchestrating the acts that injured dozens and killed Fabio DiCelmo, a 32-year-old Italian businessman who died at the Hotel Copacabana when a shard of glass struck his jugular vein. Fabio’s father, Giustino, decided to move permanently to Cuba and opened a pizzeria in his son’s name. He is 87 years old and outspoken about terrorism: “The US government has for the past 50 years been torturing Cuba, why? The country is no military threat. The only difference is the system.… No one in the US knows about these terrorist attacks against Cuba, they only know the bad things” (57).

Terrorism can take various forms. Operation Peter Pan is an example of psychological terrorism. Peter Pans are children born in Cuba but whose parents abandoned them by sending them alone out of the country after being persuaded (by the Catholic Church and by US propaganda) that the communists would take their children away and indoctrinate them. It is estimated that between 14,000 and 25,000 children were affected by Operation Peter Pan. Some 14,000 children were sent to the US (often to orphanages or abusive homes) and their siblings were obviously affected. The separations caused tremendous emotional turmoil and animosity, often pitting family members against each other for life.

On the night of October 12, 1971, the town of Boca de Sama in the northern part of Holguín in eastern Cuba was attacked by fifteen men from the Miami-based terrorist group, Alpha 66. Many Cubans know the story of Nancy Pavón who was 15 at the time. Her right foot was destroyed by gunfire while she tried to escape. Her subsequent life has been an ordeal – first fighting for survival through multiple surgeries and later living with the disability incurred from the attack. A day does not go by that she does not relive the horror of dragging the remains of her foot while fleeing the gunfire.

Other chapters deal with attacks on Cuban fishermen, attacks on young teachers during the 1960-61 literacy campaign (14 dead), the March 1960 bombing of the French vessel La Coubre in Havana harbor (100+ dead and 300 injured), the 1961 bombings of Havana department stores, and attacks from November 1962 through January 1963 in Matanzas on the mobile cinema programs. The horror of these attacks documented by the victims themselves is not easily forgotten. One is driven to ask, how can such terrorism be prevented?

The last chapter deals with the Cuban response to counterrevolutionary terrorism. “To combat these organizations (centered primarily in south Florida) there has been only one choice – to send intelligence agents to penetrate the Cuban-American organizations in an attempt to gain information and warn the Cuban government of impending plots. Cuba has used these methods for almost as long as the terrorist war, increasingly so in the 1990s when they felt particularly vulnerable following the collapse of the Soviet Union” (219f). In 1998 a group of Cuban intelligence agents in Florida was apprehended by the FBI. Five stood trial in Miami in 2000-01. The judge sentenced the Cuban Five to a total of four life terms plus 75 years. The trial was long, complicated, and a tragic study of how the political climate  can affect American jurisprudence. Given the history of relations between the US and Cuba for the past 50 years, the outcome was not surprising.  Reading Voices from the Other Side allows us to understand the context for this tragedy.

Gail Lindenberg New York, NY industrialigera@yahoo.com