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The Cuba Project: Castro, Kennedy, and the FBI's Tamale Squad

The Cuba Project: Castro, Kennedy, and the FBI's Tamale Squad

by Peter Pavia

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A sexy, shoot-em-up telling of the CIA and FBI's attempts to take control of Castro's Cuba before and during the Kennedy administration, Pavia's colorful account reveals high-stakes bumbling and wishful thinking on the part of U.S. intelligence and diplomatic officials. The story features a bold cast of characters: Casino owners, washed up oddities like actor Errol


A sexy, shoot-em-up telling of the CIA and FBI's attempts to take control of Castro's Cuba before and during the Kennedy administration, Pavia's colorful account reveals high-stakes bumbling and wishful thinking on the part of U.S. intelligence and diplomatic officials. The story features a bold cast of characters: Casino owners, washed up oddities like actor Errol Flynn, mob boss Santo Trafficante, and a covert band of ex-cons dubbed the "Doughnut Army" converge with countless agents trying to keep a lid on the tinderbox of revolutionary Cuba and Cuban Miami. The book is based on extensive interviews with the American Cold Warriors who lived and breathed "The Cuba Project."

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This shallow history of America's multifaceted anti-Castro machinations chronicles the misadventures of four interlocking groups: Cuban exiles in Miami, seething with quixotic plans to oust Castro; the FBI's "Tamale Squad," charged with keeping a lid on them and chasing Cuban agents in the U.S.; the CIA, working to organize a paramilitary overthrow of Castro; and American mobsters motivated by Castro's shuttering of their Havana casinos to help the CIA assassinate him. Journalist Pavia (coauthor of The Other Hollywood, about the porn industry) frames this confluence of insurgents, spies, gangsters and gumshoes as a glamorous Cold War cultural efflorescence (he recounts Havana's fall through the eyes of actor George Raft, besieged in his casino by angry crowds), but it's an unstylish story of dour ineptitude. The Tamales mainly do mundane police work, the expatriates bicker, the assassination and invasion plots fizzle toward the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the gangsters supply some color but no excitement. Pavia relies heavily on interviews with grizzled Cold Warriors like CIA agent/Watergate felon E. Howard Hunt and seems to have imbibed their glib anticommunism, thus foregoing any serious assessment of American policy toward Cuba. (May) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An account of the early years of official anti-Castroism, forged in the certainty that "America was good, and America was good for the rest of the world."Working through books and articles on the period between Fidel Castro's rise to power in 1959 and the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, and adding to them interviews with now-retired FBI agents and other cold warriors, novelist/journalist Pavia (Dutch Uncle, not reviewed) turns in a tale of spy-versus-spy that makes neither side look good. The Havana of the 1950s was a demimonde of brothels and casinos thoroughly under the thumb of American organized crime; on that point, Pavia's account of movie idol and minor mobster George Raft would be touching were its subject not so loathsome, if less so than Errol Flynn, who "loved Cuba because he could act whatever way he wanted-usually badly-and not have to worry about Hollywood gossipmongers bloodhounding his tracks." All that changed when the intensely moral-minded Castro rolled into town and threw out the corrupt government-and began executing its soldiers and minor functionaries on Stalinist charges of genocide. The U.S. responded with the formation of an FBI group called the Tamale Squad, a curious moniker given that tamales are a foodstuff of Mexico and Central America, but one that speaks to the agency's renowned tin ear. Then CIA types like Howard Hunt started spooking around, dreaming up damage. Then came the formation of anti-Castro militias, well-funded by the Kennedy administration (anti-Castro activity first began under Eisenhower), though easily infiltrated by Castro's agents. Pavia's sometimes too-breezy tale ("Kennedy was all about youth and vigor and good looks and ambition")continues with the catastrophe at the Bay of Pigs; Pavia's account of that grim, useless battle is the best part of the book. An uneven summary of a very strange history.
From the Publisher

“Pavia has ransacked the early Castro years for their sleaze quotient, resurrected forgotten vignettes, and trained his gaze on G-men, gangsters, and broken down celebrities to tell their stories in his own voice. An exciting collision between hard history and tabloid ravings.” —Legs McNeil, bestselling author of Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk

“A streetcorner poet patriot, Pete Pavia, in a voice of the Rat Pack reborn, tells a story from America's past that illuminates the present. An exiled community, supported by would-be American controllers-of-the-world, desperately plots its return to power. Sound familiar? Pavia's depiction of Cuba informs our understanding of American foreign policy from Vietnam to Iraq. Populated with gangsters and swashbucklers from George Raft and Errol Flynn to Meyer Cohen, Kennedy, Castro and Che Guevara. He uncovers the den of thieves where the politician deals in the cheat and the killer and the devil is the dealer. Where a made man can commit a kill and believe he's a patriot. He shakes the chains on the ghosts of our haunted generation. Pete Pavia is the big brother you never had, here to tell you how the world really works. Listen to his heart.” —Andrew Huebner, author of We Pierce and American By Blood

“Pavia's The Cuba Project is a vivid memorialization of one of the most important chapters of the Cold War--where the weed of communism sprouts in the United States' back yard and American might is humbled by its failure to stomp it out.” —Colin Beavan, author of Operation Jedburgh

bestselling author of Please Kill Me: The Unce Legs McNeil

Pavia has ransacked the early Castro years for their sleaze quotient, resurrected forgotten vignettes, and trained his gaze on G-men, gangsters, and broken down celebrities to tell their stories in his own voice. An exciting collision between hard history and tabloid ravings.

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The Cuba Project

Castro, Kennedy, Dirty Business, Double Dealing, and the FBI's Tamale Squad

By Peter Pavia

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2006 Peter Pavia
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4039-6603-2



The son of a milkman, William Paul Kelly was born in Trenton, New Jersey, in 1926. As a high school kid, young William got out of bed at 2:30 in the morning to deliver milk and had enough of those wintry, predawn hours to last him a lifetime. He received a draft notice in 1944 and served in the navy, but by the time the Trentonian hit the high seas, World War II was winding down and Kelly completed his obligation as a ship's mailman. He was discharged in 1946, went to Georgetown University on the GI Bill, following through to Georgetown Law, where one of his professors was the future Washington power broker Edward Bennett Williams. Kelly's life had been completely untouched by Cuban politics, but he would eventually assume a spot on the front lines of America's fight against Castro.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation in the 1950s was a lily-white stronghold that recruited heavily from the Catholic universities of the Northeast and the Midwest. For the young Bill Kelly, a law school grad without much interest in the law beyond the criminal code, the bureau was the perfect launching pad for a civilian career. He was sworn in November of 1952. Kelly put in his time in New York, the bureau's largest field office and a required pit stop in any FBI career, where the ambitious young agent did background checks on prospective employees of the federal government.

It should go without mentioning that the one thing a candidate for a government job could not have was any hint of affiliation with the Communist Party. Bill Kelly made sure those applicants were free of pink tinges. A transfer sent him to Columbia, South Carolina, where he found no Communists. Moonshiners, yes. Communists, no.

J. Edgar Hoover was a red-fighter before the FBI was even formed. Having investigated Communist doctrines and finding them wanting, Hoover, in 1919, wrote a legal brief for the U.S. Attorney General. He thought Communism stunk then, and by the 1950s, Hoover was saying "[it] is the major menace of our time. It threatens the very existence of our Western civilization."

After corresponding on a near-monthly basis with Hoover about how his talents could best be deployed, FBI Special Agent Bill Kelly beefed up his existing knowledge of Spanish and immersed himself in intensive language training. He was granted a transfer to Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico and its tropical island breezes were a welcome switch from the northeast winters Kelly remembered with no fondness from his younger days, and the posting seemed to hold out more possibilities than South Carolina. Puerto Rico was the home to many American military installations, including the naval target range at Vieques Island, and he had half the jurisdiction to himself.

"There wasn't a whole lot going on out there," Kelly said. "The VA [the veteran's club] on the eastern end of the island consisted of one black guy at a card table." Kelly was itching for some action, and although he enjoyed the weather, Puerto Rico was dullsville.

* * *

Enjoying the full backing of the armed forces, during his second tilt at the presidency, Batista may have caught a break: there was no credible opposition. Meanwhile, Fidel Castro got busy fighting the government on two tracks: the daylight maneuvering of public protest and court proceedings; at night, the shadowy shiftings of conspiracy. The language of Fidel's movement — yet unnamed — was, of course, leftist. The property of the "aristocracy" when the revolution came would have to be handed over to "the people." But Castro resisted collaboration with the Cuban Communist Party. He was sympathetic to their views, but had no love for their ideological rigor; he was busy distilling his own theories. The party had no real power to exploit. It simply wasn't that useful. Besides, the Cuban Communists had their own power structure, and Fidel Castro was not a part of it.

During 1952, Castro and his few followers published an anti-Batista hate sheet. Called El Acusador, the newsletter had a three-issue run: the secret police found the mimeograph machine it was printed on, smashed it, and that was the end of that. Castro also tried to broadcast anti-Batista harangues over two ham radio sets, but Batista's security apparatus seized these, too. Fidel's movement sputtered.

By the summer of the next year, he was ready to replace agitation with action. His first military move, an attack on the Moncada army barracks, was shrewdly selected for its location in the rural Oriente province, far from Havana. The mostly black guajiros (hillbillies) broke their backs four months a year harvesting the sugar cane crop and spent the next eight out of work. Castro thought a successful attack amid the poor and pissed-off sugar workers would trigger an uprising in the province, a revolt that would spread before Batista had a chance to clamp down on it. Castro's fighters would overwhelm three guards, invade the barracks compound, and capture the weapons stored there. They planned on getting away clean.

The rebels set out before dawn on July 26, 1953. With 121 men (and 2 women) dressed in army uniforms that had sergeant's stripes sewn on the sleeves, they approached the guardhouses. They told the sentries, who assumed they must belong to some unknown military marching band, to "make way for the general." The soldiers waved them through, and the rebels seized their guns.

Castro had stopped 150 yards short of the barracks gate. He was surprised by a two-man patrol, both armed with submachine guns. He stomped on the accelerator, but lost control of his rented Buick, hit a curb, and stalled. A sergeant now outside the compound leveled his weapon at Fidel. From positions behind their leader, the rebels opened fire. The sergeant went down. Then somebody inside the barracks set off an alarm, sounding the death knell for the Moncada attack. Over sixty rebels, not counting those killed in action, were captured, tortured, and executed.

Castro was taken prisoner and under interrogation admitted everything. A Batista official issued a press release summarizing the rebel action, then stupidly let Fidel give interviews and even conduct a radio broadcast. Instead of the Cuban people turning against the rebel cause, as the officer expected, Castro was transformed in the public mind from half-baked romantic to bold leader, a man with ideas and plans.

Fidel defended himself during his brief trial. The verdict was a foregone conclusion; he was found guilty and sentenced to fifteen years in prison. But in an impassioned two-hour speech, the kind he was becoming famous for, Fidel told the judges and the world outside the courtroom, "History will absolve me."

Throughout this same period, American interests strengthened their hold on the Cuban economy. U.S. companies controlled over three-quarters of the country's utilities, just short of half of its sugar, and ninety percent of Cuba's mineral resources. But Havana was swinging. Some of the hottest music in the world was coming out of its nightclubs, there were scandalous live sex shows for those in the know, and the casinos offered more betting than any sport could reasonably crave. Meyer Lansky, always where the action was, had by then expanded operations. He joined Florida's Santo Trafficante and other American wise guys in the capital's booming gambling rackets. But Havana's gambling hells, both high and low, were running crooked games. Their operators hadn't learned the lesson Lansky built into his philosophy years before: the house doesn't need to cheat. Give the suckers fair odds and they keep on being suckers. A wide-ranging ramble by a Saturday Evening Post reporter of that era discovered that the only casino not rolling loaded dice was Lansky's Montmartre Club.

When Meyer and his brother Jake threw open the doors of their gleaming new operation at the Hotel Nacional in 1955, Batista was, in effect, their partner. The Nacional immediately began to throw off cash. If the price of doing business was high, Meyer had dealt with that fact his whole career. "Bribes, payoffs, favors, they were meat and drink to him. In the Cuba of the 1950s," Lansky biographer Robert Lacey wrote, "that sort of corner cutting was raised to a fine art."

Batista ran a greedy show. Some said his regime resembled an ongoing criminal enterprise more than it did a government. Though the men avoided the vulgarity of direct cash transfers, Meyer Lansky made sure the dictator reaped a healthy chunk of all casino profits, to the tune of 1.28 million dollars a month. Payday was Monday. One of Lansky's lieutenants would stride into the presidential palace carrying a briefcase stuffed with bills, and the loot would be allocated through Batista's chain of command, down to his despised and fearsome secret police.

Havana attracted more than wise guys and swells. High rollers get all the stroking and absorb most of the perks, but the bread and butter of the casino business is the slots player clutching a bucketful of coins. Just-folks vacationing Yankees arrived in droves for holidays of sun and sin. Havana's service economy created a substantial middle class, in the capital at least, and Cuba's tourist trade boomed. In a post card from the Nacional dated 1957, from "Jane" to "Dot" in New Jersey, Jane wrote: "This is where we stayed for two days. If you want to lose your bankroll fast, this is the spot."

* * *

In 1955, an asthmatic Argentine allergist named Ernesto Guevara landed in Mexico City after some very interesting travels, and became enmeshed in the city's thriving intellectual community. Young Ernesto joined political exiles, painters, poets, and writers who had come to soak up the freewheeling atmosphere. Guevara had earned a degree in medicine two years earlier, but the healing arts could not hold him. He set out to seek his fortune, and in one letter home he described himself as "100% adventurer." It was adventure he would find.

Back in Cuba in the meantime, Fidel Castro's incarceration made him the most famous political prisoner in the country. The influential magazine Bohemia published an interview with the jailed rebel leader that gave him major national publicity. Fidel came out blazing, listing Batista's sins and detailing his own plans for revolution. Staying true to its political tin ear, the Batista government continued to underestimate Castro.

Batista had held elections, as promised, in November 1954, running unopposed for president. Early the next year, he received state visits by American government officials, including Vice President Richard Nixon. Business was good. Fulgencio was feeling strong. Among the Cuban people at the same time, an amnesty campaign for the prisoners of Moncada was gaining momentum. Why spoil the party spirit with "misguided public sympathy for a few immature revolutionaries?" Batista had Fidel Castro and the other moncadalistas released from prison on May 15, 1955. It was a profoundly arrogant and stupid move.

Castro, still bitter, vowed to pick up the fight where he left off. On June 12, out of jail and back in Havana, Fidel founded the Movimiento 26 de Julio, the July 26 Movement. Violence between student radicals (some who supported Castro and some who had grown indifferent to him) and Batista's security apparatus exploded, and in this overheated climate, Fidel dispatched his brother Raúl to Mexico City for safekeeping. Mutual friends introduced him to Ernesto Guevara. They saw each other almost every day. A few weeks after Raúl's arrival, Fidel came to Mexico himself and asked Guevara to join his guerilla movement. Ernesto, Guevara biographer Jon Lee Anderson wrote, "accepted on the spot."

Through the early months of 1956, Castro's followers filtered into Mexico, where he organized them into cells and spread them out in various safe houses around Mexico City. The men underwent physical conditioning and arms training while Fidel worked frantically to raise money. Then, in September, he slipped into Texas from Mexico to meet with the exiled Carlos Prío Socarrás. Prío was preoccupied with his own skulduggery; one rumor had him plotting an invasion of Cuba backed by Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo's forces. But whatever delusions Prío may have been suffering, and for reasons still obscure, Castro left his meeting with the former Cuban president with fifty thousand dollars. He spent it on an unseaworthy tub, the thirty-eight-foot yacht Granma, and had it overhauled.

On November 25, the Granma, weighted down with eighty-two revolutionaries and a stack of weapons, set sail across the Gulf of Mexico bound for Oriente province in Cuba. Her voyage was a debacle. The trip was supposed to take five days; it lasted seven. The rebels got seasick. The navigator fell overboard. And when the yacht eventually did make land, she ran aground on a sandbar. The July 26ers split into two groups and wandered around a mangrove swamp for a couple of days, all the while strafed by machine gun fire that hailed down from Batista's planes.

Somehow, the rebels managed to regroup. With a local peasant pointing the way, they marched in the direction of the Sierra Maestra mountain range, but were soon ambushed by Bastista's forces. The revolutionaries disintegrated in a blind panic. Men walked (or ran) in circles. Some screamed for surrender. Some froze in their tracks. Still others dropped their guns and fled. Batista's troops rounded up the stragglers, including the wounded and those who tried to surrender, and shot them.

According to legend, twelve men out of the eighty-two escaped, including Fidel and Raúl Castro. Guevara was shot in the neck and abandoned his weapon, but he managed to escape as well, along with four others. Navigating by the stars, they walked east toward the mountains. But Guevara, who had now begun to be called "Che" by his Cuban comrades after Argentine custom (an American equivalent might be "buddy"), should have paid closer attention in astronomy class. It was not skill that got them into the sierra, it was dumb luck.

But in the aftermath of the Granma disaster, Batista made another stupid mistake. His government announced that victory over the rebel interlopers had been complete. A UPI reporter wrote the story the way Batista wanted it told, and out it went over the wire, worldwide, that Fidel and Raúl Castro, along with Guevara, had been killed in action.

On Christmas Eve in 1956, July 26 members or their sympathizers set off a number of bombs in Oriente. Batista hit back hard. Twenty-two government opponents were killed; two were lynched and their bodies were left hanging on the trees. Batista's secret police answered every explosion in Havana by riddling an opponent (from July 26 or another group) with bullets and dumping him in the street. A bomb was then stuck in the dead man's hand. The press was alerted so that photographs could be taken; these grisly set pieces were known among Habeneros as "Batista's classified advertisement."

There were equally horrifying "Batista Christmas presents." The week between Christmas and New Year's turned up an additional twenty-six killed in Havana; in Oriente, four more, one of whom was no more than fifteen years old. The boy had been tortured for a full day before being executed, and on January 4, his mother, amid a throng of women estimated at eight hundred strong, marched through Santiago under a banner that demanded that Batista "Stop the Murder of Our Sons."

Castro's band of guerrilla fighters scored some middling successes against rural army installations. Batista's troops were not disciplined or courageous, but as if to counter this fact, the army claimed that the rebels were nothing to worry about. The pronouncement sent Castro into a rage. Desperate to disprove this misinformation, he dispatched a comrade to Havana to get out the word: Fidel was willing to talk. And on February 17, 1957, Herbert Matthews of the New York Times walked into the rebel camp.

A tough guy himself according to none other than Ernest Hemingway (who said the reporter was "brave as a badger"), Matthews had covered the Spanish Civil War as a young man. His attachment to the left was forged by his experience in Spain; Matthews never got over the loss the fascist Nationalists handed the Republicans in that conflict. In the romance and the righteousness, the youth and the zeal of July 26, Matthews saw that death blow to socialist idealism being avenged.


Excerpted from The Cuba Project by Peter Pavia. Copyright © 2006 Peter Pavia. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Peter Pavia is the author of Dutch Uncle, a novel, and co-author of The Other Hollywood: The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film Industry. His work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, New York Post, GQ, Detour, and Gear. He lives in New York with his wife and daughter.

Peter Pavia is the author of Dutch Uncle, a novel, and co-author of The Other Hollywood: The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film Industry. His work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, New York Post, GQ, Detour, and Gear. He lives in New York with his wife and daughter.

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