With Castro, When the Crime Was Committed

Fidel Castro and French journalist Jean Daniel at the Riviera Hotel on November 22, 1963, the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. (March Riboud/L’Obs)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Jacobo Manchover, Paris, June 20, 2020 — An article by French journalist Jean Daniel, “Avec Castro, à l’heure du crime” (“With Castro, When the Crime Was Committed”), figured in a 1978 investigation by the U.S. House of Representatives’ Commission of Inquiry into Political Murders. The article was first published in French in the weekly news magazine L’Express on November 28, 1963 and in English in The New Republic* on December 7, 1963. It was later picked up by about twenty other publications and in numerous languages. Was this a international scoop? Or simply an alibi?

Jean Daniel died in February 2020, at the ripe old age of ninety-nine, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. He had been co-founder and editor of the news weekly L’Obs, formerly Le Nouvel Observateur and, before that, France Observateur. A few months earlier an interview with him was published in the October/November issue of the pretentiously titled La revue pour l’intelligence du monde (The World Intelligence Review), headed by his friend Béchir Ben Yahmed. He later appeared in a documentary broadcast by the France 5 television network in early February 2020.

Even in the final months of his life, he still spoke with pride about the time, almost six decades earlier, that he happened to be present when Fidel Castro was told by phone of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. At no point did it occur to him that perhaps it was too coincidental. Could it have all been stage managed? continue reading

There was a detail that should have caught the attention of experts on the subject. The interview took place during a lunch with Fidel Castro, a nocturnal animal when it came to his encounters with foreign personalities, whether they were politicians or journalists. Why was a reporter able to enjoy such privileged access?

For his whole life Jean Daniel wanted to be an emissary of peace in different parts of the world, especially in the Israeli and Palestinian territories. On one occasion he met with Ernesto “Che” Guevara in Algeria. Though he had been born there, Jean Daniel was a supporter of Algerian independence. The meeting with Che convinced him that he could be the man to reduce tensions between the United States and Cuba.

With that in mind, he met several times with Fidel Castro after having interviewed John F. Kennedy a few weeks before, on October 24, in the Oval Office. The White House meeting lasted about twenty-five minutes. In his opinion the message Kennedy was conveying through him was of utmost importance. He wanted to bring back an encouraging response from Castro on maintaining secret contacts in light of the extreme tensions created in October and November of the previous year by the Missile Crisis.

Castro’s first meeting with the French journalist took place in a hotel room at the Riviera Hotel along Havana’s Malecón on the night of November 19 to 20, between 10:00 P.M and 8:00 A.M*. Castro’s arrival was completely unexpected since it had not been previously announced. The commander-in-chief came dressed in his ubiquitous combat uniform and a black beret.

Jean Daniel and his future wife Michele were resting, faces down, with their shoes next to the bed. The scene was more reminiscent of a vacation trip than a diplomatic mission. Also present were Castro’s personal physician and right-hand man until his death in 1969, Commander René Vallejo, and a translator, Juan Arcocha. During the meeting Vallejo, who was also dressed in battle fatigues, fell fast asleep, as was perfectly understandable given the time of night.

Nothing strange about that. Castro often gave interviews to countless reporters late at night, waiting until a few minutes beforehand, “for security reasons,” to announce his arrival. Snapshots of his meeting with Jean Daniel, taken by photographer Marc Riboud, were published in The New Republic, a magazine to which the reporter contributed articles, and in L’Express, immortalizing the rather informal meeting at the Riviera hotel.

Castro invited Jean Daniel to accompany him to the resort town of Varadero, about 130 kilometers east of the capital, on Friday November 22, where he was supposed to visit some new houses. Around 1:30 P.M., Cuba time (12:30 P.M in Dallas), it was announced that an assassination attempt on Kennedy had taken place. This time no photo of the historic moment was taken, at least as far as is known.

But why Varadero? Jean Daniel says it had something to do with his house on the beach. Officially, Castro did not own a house there, though there were countless “protocol houses” throughout the island at his disposal. Perhaps it was because Varadero had the advantage of being far from Havana and, therefore, from other sources of information who might contradict what Castro told the reporter.

Jean Daniel and Michele were chatting amicably with Castro through the interpreter, Juan Arcocha, when suddenly the phone rang. Commander René Vallejo, who was in the next room, and a security guard went to answer it. Castro was immediately told that President Osvaldo Dorticós wanted to speak to him. It was apparent something very serious had happened. Otherwise, it was inconceivable that Castro would be interrupted.

His reaction was one of astonishment: “How? An attack?” He listened to what the President was saying and repeated his responses three times and out loud so that his guests would hear and understand him, even if their understanding of Spanish was rudimentary: “That’s bad news. That’s bad news. Bad news.” In effect, Jean Daniel transcribed Castro’s emphatic reaction in his article.

But the phone call seems strange. In fact, President Dorticós’ position was only a ceremonial one. Real power on the island lay with Fidel Castro, who at that time was prime minister. It is inconceivable that he would receive the news from someone in a subordinate position rather than from his security services, or from his brother Raúl, who was minister of defense. Dorticós ultimately fell from grace, though he continued to hold a ministerial position, that of justice minister. In 1976 Fidel officially assumed the title of President of the Council of State and the Council of Ministers, with Raúl as his vice-president. Dorticós ended up committing suicide in 1983. Suicides among Cuban political, military, or police leaders are common, especially when they carry unspeakable secrets.

Between 1:30 and 2:00 P.M., Cuba time, those present at the Varadero house were tuned in to a radio station broadcasting in English from Miami, with Commander Vallejo roughly translating, when they learned of Kennedy’s death at Parkland Hospital in Dallas. Castro told Jean Daniel that he thought he would be blamed for what happened, even though they did not yet know the identity of the alleged assassin, who was still at large after he had shot police officer J.D. Tippit. He turned out to be Lee Harvey Oswald, who had gone to the Cuban consulate in Mexico City to apply for a visa.

Jean Daniel realized then and there that his role as an intermediary between Castro and Kennedy, whom he had planned to see again upon his return to Washington, was over. Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson would automatically assume the presidency and nothing would be the same again. But Jean Daniel still had the instincts of a reporter. He described how Fidel Castro learned, at the same time he did, of the assassination in Dallas. It is not known who — he or an editor at L’Express — came up with the odd title: “With Castro, at the Scene of the Crime.” Nor does it specify what the crime was. But the ambiguity of the wording leaves little doubt that the person responsible for the crime might have been Castro himself.

This is how Jean Daniel achieved international fame. Moreover, his article became the quasi-official account, endorsed by Fidel Castro himself in at least two speeches he gave on November 23 and 27.

Jean Daniel served as Fidel Castro’s sole emissary. It never occurred to him that he might have been manipulated into believing he was the only reporter to witness Fidel Castro’s reaction firsthand. It would not have been the first time the old guerilla had fooled someone, however.

Herbert L. Matthews, a New York Times reporter who was on vacation with his wife in Cuba in early 1957, casually described how Castro had tricked him in the Sierra Maestra mountains, convincing Matthews that he was leading a full-fledged rebel army when in reality it amounted to a group of about twenty men. Matthews went on to become a personal friend of Fidel Castro and the best propagandist for his policies in the United States. Jean Daniel must either have not been aware of Matthews’ story or did not much care. He believed he was, or wanted to be, the first.

What was in the message that John F. Kennedy wanted his go-between to pass onto the Cuban prime minister? In one of his articles, Jean Daniel reports that Kennedy told him that he and his brother Robert — then attorney general and later assassinated himself in Los Angeles in 1968 after winning the California Democratic presidential primary — had become deeply distrustful due to Castro’s “insanities” and Communist stance after the Bay of Pigs operation and the Cuban missile crisis. During that crisis Castro had sent a letter to Nikita Khrushchev asking the Russian premier to launch a preventive nuclear strike on a large American city, a request that Kruschev fortunately denied.

Kennedy knew Castro was capable of anything. He noted, however, that his guerrilla war against the government of Fulgencio Batista, which ended when Castro seized power in 1959, had aroused some sympathy in the United States, feelings which Kennedy implied he himself shared. But Castro’s misstep with the Soviet Union forced him to abandon any such feelings. The tension was obvious during the 1960 presidential campaign when Kennedy harshly criticized Castro. It culminated in the Bay of Pigs debacle, an operation whose planning had begun under the Eisenhower-Nixon administration. If Castro could return to his initial proposals, however…

By November of 1963 Cuba and the Soviet Union were not enjoying the closest relations, nor was the friendship between Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev at its best. Nevertheless, no American leader could imagine the relationship breaking apart. A few months later, in April 1964, Fidel Castro undertook a 38-day trip to the USSR, during which he was greeted with full honors by the senior leaders of the Communist Party. The quarrels with the great “brother country” ended or were swept under the rug for decades.

The importance of Kennedy’s message to Castro, like Jean Daniel’s interpretation of it, should be considered in context. The reporter had gotten his exclusive and, out of naivetee or vanity, had made his views known to the world: Fidel Castro could not have known of a possible assassination attempt on John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 since at 12:30 P.M., Dallas time, he was with the reporter in Varadero. And the whole world believed it.

This brief article arose out of a strange feeling I always had about Jean Daniel’s account of his meeting with Fidel Castro and the interviews I had with him shortly before his death. Those who knew firsthand the ways in which Castro wielded power could harbor legitimate suspicions.

*Translator’s note: In The New Republic article, Jean Daniel says the meeting lasted until 4:00 A.M., not 8:00. A.M. The title of the article, “When Castro Heard the News,” also differs  from the one in L’Express.


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“Betrayals” According to Batista

Did Batista believe he could once again be “The Man” of providence, in the absence of somewhat demagogic leaders like Chibás? (Archive)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Jacobo Machover, París | 5 January 2019 — Cuba Betrayed is the English title of Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar’s book, published two years ago in Mexico and titled simply Respuesta… (Response). It is the defense by the island’s one-time strongman against all the attacks against his regime and his person.

The American edition takes up again the key idea of the book: that of betrayal. But it would have been better to say “Batista betrayed” instead of Cuba. Because his defeat was, according to his point of view, much more a consequence of an interminable series of betrayals by the Americans, by the Cuban bourgeoisie (which he sometimes designates as “the economic classes” in opposition to the workers, who had remained faithful to him), and by some of his peers, the closest military figures, than by the struggle of Fidel Castro’s rebels. continue reading

This testimony contrasts, in any case, with the epic tales about the Revolution, the majority based on the stories of the guerrillas once in power, principally Episodes of the Cuban Revolutionary War by Ernesto “Che” Guevara, published throughout the first years after the taking of power and reorganized in one volume in 1963, but also from the anecdotes distilled in the speeches of Fidel Castro or in the interviews granted to innumerable foreign journalists.

Other versions of the same “feats” appear in The Book of the Twelve — first published in various European countries in 1965 and then in Cuba in 1967 — by Carlos Franqui, one of the ideologues of Castroism, who left the island as a result of the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968. But few were those who made an effort to analyze the rotting of power from within.

This is the fundamental interest of Batista’s book, which is not simply a response to his detractors but also an attempt to justify his coup d’etat of 10 March 1952, and a detailed account of the evolution of the opponents within and outside of his own side until the final disintegration of his Army, in the last days of December 1958. And also of his abandonment by his old allies, the United States, explicitly accused of having taken the side of the rebels. From that perspective, the Cuban Revolution is of course different. It’s time to take an interest in this version, not at all heroic, but which does express the vision of the defeated, without pathos, with a certain clarity.

Fulgencio Batista, considered a “ruthless tyrant,” instigator of a “dictatorial and cruel” regime, endeavors to emphasize in his own defense that his objective was not such, in taking power by force in 1952, but rather on the contrary that he wanted to re-establish a democracy weakened by the chaos that reigned in the Republic, during the third constitutional mandate initiated in 1948 under the presidency of Carlos Prío Socarrás, consecutive to his own presidential period between 1940 and 1944 and that of Ramón Grau San Martín between 1944 and 1948.

Carlos Prío’s years in power were marked by an increase in confrontations between gangs, all of which presented themselves as revolutionary but which did no more than kill each other in order to gain positions, very well paid, in the police or administration, and to control the University Students’ Federation (FEU), bands of which Fidel Castro, personally accused of having carried out various murders, formed a part.

Cuban society was violent and profoundly corrupt, also marked by the collusion of certain political figures with various representatives of the American mafia — whose establishment in Cuba happened long before Batista’s coup — who found on the island the opportunity to continue with their businesses (hotel and casino construction, trafficking of all types), far from the severe controls of their home country’s administration.

Cuba had also been shaken by a drama that forever marked national history: the suicide, in 1951, practically live on the radio of Eduardo Chibás, the most popular of politicians, leader of the Cuban People’s Party (Ortodoxo). Chibás fired a bullet into his stomach but the radio program had been interrupted by advertising because he had by then exceeded the time that he had paid for, so the suicide was not actually carried live. He had made the fight against corruption his goal, adopting the symbol of the broom to clean the stables of the elites of the island.

When unable to offer the proof of his accusations against an acting minister, Aureliano Sánchez Arango, Chibás had preferred to end his life. His proverbial integrity and a certain degree of madness had finished him off. The Cuban people would never recover from that loss. His burial was the largest spontaneous expression of mourning by Cubans — the funerals of Fidel Castro, organized and controlled to the millimeter by his brother Raúl in 2016, cannot be considered in the same way.

Did Batista believe he could once again be “The Man” of providence, in the absence of somewhat demagogic leaders like Chibás? In any case, the motivations for his uprising are not at all clear. Indeed, he does not allude to a coup d’etat but rather to the “revolutionary regime of March 10.” Within the family, as his son Bobby explains, they referred to the “regime of March,” eliminating the description “revolutionary.”

That “revolution” was not bloody, he explained, justifying himself, just like that of the “sergeants,” which he had led in September of 1933, almost twenty years earlier, and which had put an end to the uncontrolled violence that followed the fall of the dictator Gerardo Machado. That action had made him, until his democratic election to the presidency in 1940, the true creator in the shadows of the island’s politics.

The coup d’etat of 10 March 1952, however, was not as peaceful as he claims. During the wee hours between March 9 and March 10, General Batista left his residence located to the west of Havana, the farm called Kuquine, in the company of his closest circle.

They split up in three vehicles and without firing a shot entered, at 2:43 in the morning, the military camp of Columbia, the most important in Cuba. The nocturnal coup was perfectly organized. The security barrier was raised right away to let them pass while, with the same ease, his generals were taking command of the principal military strongholds of the capital: the colonial fort of La Cabaña and the barracks of San Ambrosio.

Batista was dressed as a civilian, with a leather jacket and an open shirt. He nevertheless was hiding underneath his clothing a 38 calibre pistol, in case the action didn’t go as planned. Photos show him smiling in front of a portrait of José Martí — the “apostle” of the war of independence against Spain, killed in action in 1895 — surrounded by soldiers, received triumphantly by the troops.

This undoubtedly led him to think that the Republic was waiting for him as if he were its savior and that he would restore even the degraded democracy. At least that was what he wrote to his second wife, Martha Fernández, in the letter that he had left when he left Kuquine, his eventual testament. It was just an illusion.

Later, in the early morning, after the radio announced the revolt, president Carlo Prío, who had only a few months left in his mandate, since elections were supposed to take place on June 1, was arriving at 4:30 am at the Palace, located at that time in the heart of Havana.

In front of one of the side entrances of the building, a shootout took place between several of Batista’s men, who were in a police vehicle, and the Palace guard. Two of the assailants died in the act, as well as one of the guards, struck by the rebound of a bullet, while another was injured. It was the only effective resistance that morning.

But, quickly, some twenty students from the FEU met with Carlos Prío to demand arms. The president judged that any type of resistance was futile at that moment because the Army was in control of communications and all of the strategic points in the capital and in the whole of the country: Batista was still popular in the military institution, as in the time of the “sergeants’ revolution.”

Prío then made the decision to hide in the home of some friends located at the beach of Guanabo, to the east of Havana. Batista knew where he was. He nevertheless permitted him to take refuge in the Mexican embassy, from which he could leave on the way to exile, which he would take advantage of to later organize armed actions against him. That weakness toward his political enemies, even Fidel Castro, was later going to cause him to make bad moves, hastening his downfall.

Excerpt from the book “Betrayals,” according to Batista, published by Editorial Verbum, Madrid, 2018.

Translated by: Sheilagh Carey


The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.