INTERVIEW WITH ERNESTO BETANCOURT, FORMER RADIO MARTI DIRECTOR
By Agustín Blázquez, edited by Jaums Sutton
Ernesto Betancourt, born in Cuba, served briefly in the original government of Fidel Castro, but quickly defected. Years later he served as head of Budgeting at the Organization of American States, where, among many accomplishments, he is credited with coining the name of the “Alliance for Progress” launched by President Kennedy. He also was the first and most respected Director of Radio Marti. Today he provides consulting services to the World Bank and other institutions related to governance reform in emerging democracies. He is the author of several books and a regular contributor to El Nuevo Herald and other publications. His father was Cuban born, but came to New York as a child and later joined the US Marines at the end of the First World War. After his service, he returned to Cuba where he married, became a CPA and Manager of the Western Electric branch in Cuba.
AB: What are your early memories of Cuba?
EB: I had a very happy childhood, despite the turmoil that surrounded our life as a result of the depression and the revolution against Machado. I attended the Lasalle Christian Brothers academy for my primary education and High School No. 1 in downtown Havana for my secondary education.
I was always very interested in politics as a child and adolescent. While in high school, I also followed closely the Second World War. The death of my father [in 1945] is probably the most crucial event in shaping my life.
AB: What do you think of Batista’s six-year government?
EB: After marrying very young in 1948, I came to live in Washington for two years, but we went back to Cuba, where I got a job as office manager for an advertising agency. The day after Batista´s coup [March 11, 1952], our agency had programmed a meeting with Dr. Roberto Agramonte, the most likely winner of the presidential election that Batista aborted. We were going to present Dr. Agramonte our ideas for his advertising campaign for the presidency.
To me the Batista coup was a betrayal for my generation and I was utterly disappointed at the passivity of the political leadership in the face of it. That summer, I took a series of courses in advertising at the Summer School at Havana University and afterwards decided that the situation in Cuba was hopeless. So we came back to Washington in 1953. I returned to my previous job and registered at American University evening school to major in advertising and marketing.
AB: What was your initial opinion of Castro?
EB: I had an initial negative impression of Castro as one of what were called at the time the "happy trigger" guys. That is gangs who resorted to violence to solve petty disputes at the service of various political bosses. And, at Havana High School No. 1, those gangs tried to intimidate and manipulate students to do their bidding and we had to cope with them on our own because the police was under political restrains and bent to their pressure. So, although Castro was not at my high school, he was associated with one such group at the university, the Emilio Tro gang.
AB: Did you work on Castro’s behalf before 1959?
EB: After the arrest of Colonel Barquin and his officers in April, 1956 and the disaster of the Granma expedition in November, 1956, we had lost any hope that anything could topple Batista. Therefore, when the Herbert Matthews articles appeared in the New York Times in February 1957, we came to the conclusion that something new and different was starting. Despite my misgivings about Castro, I eventually decided that [Castro’s group], the 26th of July Movement represented an effort worth supporting. Not for Castro alone, but for the many other people from my generation who were involved. Therefore, I contacted the groups associated with it in New York and offered to act as the Washington representative for the Movement.
AB: When you were in Washington, DC, did you have to register as a foreign agent?
EB: As soon as I started making declarations on behalf of the 26th of July Movement, I was approached by the FBI and told that I had to register as a Foreign Agent at the Justice Department, or I would be violating the Foreign Agent Registration Act. That, I did. To a certain degree it was favorable to me, since it legitimized my role in the absence of any official designation as representative of the Movement.
The FBI was very frustrated because I never got instructions, either by mail or phone, which they tried to intercept and failed. This lead them to the conclusion that I had some super elaborate electronic contact with [the rebels in] the Sierra [Maestra Mountains in Cuba] to make quick press releases stating the Movement’s position on any issue. They never accepted my explanation that I tried to deduct, on the basis of Castro’s general line, what would be his position on any issue and reacted accordingly.
The fact that I never was rebuked by Castro, confirmed them in their suspicions. In two years, I never got an explicit instruction on any event. I learned how to read Castro’s intentions very well. An asset I have used to this day.
AB: What role did you play in the first days of Castro’s revolution?
EB: On January 1st 1959 I led the take-over of the Cuban Embassy in Washington at 7:00 AM on behalf of the 26th of July Movement. Dr. Emilio Pando, the third in rank as career diplomat, became the formal Charge d´affairs of Cuba in line with usual diplomatic practice. To the surprise of many, I had more people working for me inside the embassy staff than the ambassador, Nicolas Arroyo, who that day was in New York, where he had gone to attend a New Year’s eve party.
After a few days, I went to Havana with the documentation I had obtained from the embassy files. Upon arrival in Havana, I went to the Presidential Palace to deliver those documents to José Llanuza, who had been my superior in the Movement. Afterwards, I started to look around to get a feeling of the situation. Dr. Miro Cardona wanted me to be ambassador to Washington, which I was not interested in, and Dr. Felipe Pazos offered me the position of Managing Director of the Cuban Bank of Foreign Trade, which I accepted.
My family came from Washington and we were to start our new life in a post Batista, democratic Cuba. Soon I realized that things were not going to be easy. I was unhappy with the revolutionary trials.
I had one case of a bank supervisor in Oriente province who had been falsely accused by a subordinate of being an informer for the Batista police, as a bureaucratic revenge. After confirming the man’s innocence, he actually belonged to an opposition party, I contacted the 26th of July Committee in Oriente Province and requested the man be sent to me in Havana as my prisoner.
Upon his arrival, along with the denunciation letter, I sent him home and summoned the accuser to Havana. The accuser was a Movement member and claimed he had spoken on emotion, but after I confronted him with the letter, he was disconcerted. I asked him to resign or I would have to dismiss him for making false accusations endangering the life of another person. At the time, Raul Castro was executing people every day without much ado. The accuser resigned. My first dismissal was a Movement member.
Although I attended a Catholic school, I am not a religious person. Revolutionary situations present you constantly with situations in which you either pray for divine guidance or ask for pardon afterwards, in confession. Since I could not do either, this was a most burdensome and trying period for me. I am proud of not having made any decisions I regret.
AB: What was your participation in Castro’s 1959 trip to the US?
EB: In April 1959, I was asked to accompany Castro in his visit to Washington as his advisor. Castro was annoyed that I had not visited him earlier and told me so at the apron in Rancho Boyeros Airport, where we met for the first time. I told him I was very busy working sixteen hours a day and could not waste time waiting for him, since he was always late. An answer that was not too helpful to start our relationship on the right foot.
My role was to brief Castro on the people he was meeting according to the schedule for every day and to review with him any issues that may cause controversy. I started my work at 6:00 AM every morning, regardless of at what time we had gone to bed, by waking him up. The US Secret Service had assigned Dr. Regino Boti, the Minister of Economy, and me to the room fronting the embassy living quarters in case there was any attempt on Castro’s life and he was in the next room, with a connecting door between the two rooms.
Despite our initial conflicting introduction, Castro was very receptive to my advice. I was very impressed by his ability to pick up information from briefings and also by his capacity to win over an audience to his point, even a skeptical one such as the National Press Club.
At the same time, I was very troubled by the order he gave the first day to members of the delegation from the economic sector not to engage in any conversations on US economic assistance to Cuba, as well as on his desire to cancel the meeting that had been arranged with Vice-President Nixon.
Only when Ambassador Ernesto Dihigo, a highly respected professor of international law at Havana University, threatened to resign if the meeting was cancelled, did Castro agree to attend it. The whole myth that he turned to the Soviets because he felt slighted by President Eisenhower is not true. Fidel did not want to have a meeting with Ike and during the whole trip he never expressed any unhappiness about that matter.
AB: What did you conclude from that trip about your opinion of Castro?
EB: I came back from that trip convinced that there was a chance we could persuade Fidel to take the correct road. Boy, was I wrong!
AB: Describe your defection.
EB: Psychologically, I broke with the regime in July, 1959 when, during a regular meeting with the economic cabinet at the National Bank, Castro confided with us that he was getting ready to dismiss Dr. Manuel Urrutia, the President he himself had installed in power.
He asked for opinions on the economic impact such a political crisis could have. One of the respondents stated that the regime had antagonized American sugar interests with land reform and such political instability could provide an excuse for an American intervention.
Castro’s response was instantaneous: "Well, if they send the Marines I don’t care, they will have to kill between 300,000 and 400,000 Cubans and I will get a bigger monument than José Marti." That evening, upon reaching home, I told my wife we had to get out of Cuba, that I had not joined the revolution to be a grain of sand in anybody’s monument.
Later that month I presented my resignation to the President of the National Bank, for that and other reasons. He decided to keep it in his drawer. However, in October that year , when Hubert Matos was arrested and Pazos himself resigned, leading to the appointment of Che Guevara as Bank president, I resigned again and this time it was processed and accepted. I returned to Washington in February 1960.
AB: What is the importance of Radio and TV Marti’s efforts to provide information to Cubans?
EB: Radio Marti was established in 1985 to bring to the Cuban people the news that the Castro government prevented them from having access to. Its mandate was very different from that of Voice of America (VOA), and more like that of surrogates Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe.
TV Marti was added in 1990 to expand the broadcast to visual media. My objection to TV Marti was that, in my opinion, any US broadcast should be first rate in content and quality of signal and, from what had been established in the VOA Task Force for TV Marti, this was not feasible at the time. Rather than give a victory to Castro, I suggested we postpone starting the station. I was offered a promotion to a post for which I was not qualified and I opted to resign. Time has shown I was right.
By breaking the news monopoly Castro enjoyed, Radio Marti played a central role in promoting the growth of the Cuban dissidence. Now that the regime is facing a more determined opposition and divisions in government ranks, it is time to make whatever investment is necessary to ensure that the US Government has the capability to communicate directly with the Cuban people in the inevitable crisis that is looming on the horizon.
AB: What is the effectiveness of Radio and TV Marti and what is the best way to reach the Cuban people in 2003?
EB: Radio Marti has suffered a massive loss of audience. We had attained a seventy percent level of penetration and the latest figures I have seen indicate it was down to around seven percent. The main reason is jamming which makes listening to it a very uncomfortable experience. Programming also had stagnated but I don’t think that is the main cause. We need a two-fold effort in improving the strength and reach of the signal, as well as in researching what programming is currently most attractive to meet the informational needs of the audience.
As to TV Marti, the test made with the C-130 [airplane] on May 20 this year revealed that that is the way to go. Programming turned out to be most adequate. Perhaps in order to save money, broadcasts could be limited to one or two hours daily during prime time, with adequate additions to the very capable present staff. But what is lacking so far is a decision by the present administration to do something really effective and put the necessary resources to attain that goal.
AB: What is preventing the US improving its accessibility to Cubans?
EB: The lack of decision in committing the necessary resources to Radio and TV Marti. I think that other means of reaching the Cubans by direct delivery of materials should be continued but realizing that Castro has the capability of preventing their distribution. One means of communications that is booming in Cuba and in which the US has the technological vanguard is the Internet. The Defense Department professional capabilities in this field can bring state-of-the-art techniques to break through the present monopoly enjoyed by the regime in the intra-net. As to printed material, we can explore using balloons as we did in Eastern Europe before resorting to the surrogate radios.
AB: Why do you think the US is still honoring the Kennedy/Khrushchev agreement of 1962 if Cuba and the Soviet Union did not abide by their part of the deal, especially given that the Soviet Union ceased to exist over 10 years ago?
EB: I think that the Kennedy/Khrushchev exchange of letters is moot today. Under current world conditions an American invasion of Cuba would be a gross historic mistake. Nothing would make Castro happier than to end his regime creating such a situation in which Cuban nationalism will be fed with anti-American feelings for years to come. The American people will not support such an effort. If anything, Americans should be warned of Castro’s moves to provoke a Gotterdammerung as his grand finale and the Cuban military should de warned not to obey any Castro orders to provoke such a reaction from the US. Recent moves by Castro may well be an indication that he has given up any hope the Cuban economy can recover and is setting the stage for such a provocation.
AB: Can the current Bush administration change the Castro/Clinton immigration agreement to return Cuban refugees to Cuba if they don’t set foot on US soil?
EB: The Bush administration is not eternally bound by the Clinton agreements with Castro on immigration. However, it should move with extreme care not to fall in the trap of offering Castro an excuse for unleashing an immigration wave like Mariel or the rafters. At the same time, it is absurd for US officials, after the execution of hijackers made by Castro, to negotiate penalties for those we return to Cuba, as was done with a group that hijacked a boat to the Bahamas.
We have every right to tell the Cubans that their policy of executing hijackers has made it impossible for us to return those people to Cuba. Therefore, we will either send them to Guantanamo or to other countries willing to offer them asylum.
As to other people coming in their own vessels, we should have never sunk the 1951 Chevy truck. It should have been preserved as a monument to human ingenuity in trying to flee a totalitarian regime to be exhibited at some museum. Besides, sinking private property while we return public property to Castro undermines the Republican commitment to the private sector.
AB: Recent protests about the “wet feet/dry feet” policy, deemed “inhumane” by Cuban Americans, could cost President Bush votes in the next election. Does the Bush administration have reason to overturn that policy? What has prevented them from doing so?
EB: The wet feet/dry feet policy of the Clinton administration was a cruel arrangement coming from the leadership of Janet Reno, despite her hypocrisy in claiming love for Cuban-Americans. However, at this stage, it is my opinion that it will be very difficult for the administration to back out of it. Castro could use such a move to create the immigration crisis he seems to be craving to force an American intervention.
Therefore, the administration could maintain the distinction, except offering to have a more sympathetic and humane review of individual cases than recent actions seem to indicate, use of the Guantanamo base as a return port rather than [the ports of] Cabañas or Mariel, and asking for friendly countries to offer asylum to these people.
AB: How should the US deal with the Castro problem?
EB: It seems that Castro is facing a terminal crisis. That is why he is broadening his antagonism to the Europeans. There are also indications that there is growing disagreement within the regime on economic policy and in response to issues such as the Varela Project [pro-democracy movement].
Castro reacted with panic in 1997 when Clinton sent his message to the Cubans about the assistance the US was willing to mobilize to support a post-Castro Cuba. Today, he is even more vulnerable to that reasoning.
Let us convoke a task force of international lending agencies, with the cooperation of the Europeans, to start planning for transition assistance. Let us tell the Cuban military that Castro is trying to carry them with him into a disastrous confrontation with the US, that although Fidel and Raul are not acceptable, we are prepared to deal with anybody who has hands clean of blood and is willing to join in making the transition to a democratic and free market Cuba. And make all this part of the message of Radio and TV Marti.
AB: In view of Castro’s continued aggressive behavior, like the ongoing jamming from Castro’s intelligence base in Bejucal, near Havana, of the US government Voice of America broadcast in Farsi-language to Iran and the Iranian pro-democracy owned radio and TV stations broadcasting also to Iran from Los Angeles, what should the US response be?
NB: The Cuban military is the one that handles these signal-emitting facilities. There is not only the interception of signals broadcast to Iran. Cuba has in the past interfered with the radio stations at US airports of the so-called ARINC network. I have the reports of such interferences. Cuban military officers handling such facilities should be warned that the US reserves the right of using the same precision weapons used in Iraq to dismantle such installations should they ever again interfere with the security of American flyers or our broadcasts to third countries.
AB: What steps should the US take to make the American public aware of the ongoing threats that Castro’s government still represents to our national security?
EB: The Administration should authorize Under-Secretary of State, John Bolton, to testify before the US Senate on the information on which he based his questions on Cuba’s access to weapons of mass destruction.
One key semantic problem with the use of the word “weapon” is that, within the intelligence community, this word is reserved for an artillery or missile head and there is little question that Cuba does not have a capability for production of such weapons. However, starting in 1980 Cuba developed a capacity under what was called the Biological Front, to inoculate migratory birds with viruses to introduce epidemics in the US, such as the West Nile virus.
The CIA and the CDC have been adamant in opposing any digging on such an issue. In view of the current doubts generated by agencies trying to cover their previous failures by ducking such investigations, there should be open Senate hearings on such matters as requested by Senator Pat Leahy.
There should be also full disclosure of the damage assessment of the Ana Belen Montes spy case, the Defense Intelligence Agency’s highest ranking Cuba specialist who was dismissed only ten days after 9/11 and is now serving a non-parole 25 year sentence that was plea bargained.
Revelation of that damage assessment could serve to stop the world wide campaign launched by Castro pretending that the five spies of his Wasp Network never spied on US military facilities. The results of all these revelations should be the subject of Radio and TV Marti broadcasts so the Cuban people can learn what their leadership has been up to.
Agustin Blazquez, Producer/director of the documentaries
COVERING CUBA, CUBA: The Pearl of the Antilles, COVERING CUBA 2: The Next Generation & COVERING CUBA 3: Elian presented at the 2003 Miami Latin Film Festival.
Author with Carlos Wotzkow of the book COVERING AND DISCOVERING and translator with Jaums Sutton of the book by Luis Grave de Peralta Morell THE MAFIA OF HAVANA: The Cuban Cosa Nostra.
For a preview and information on the documentary and books click here
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