• Granma International is publishing a series of articles on the events leading up to the April, 1961 battle of the Bay of Pigs. As we approach the 50th Anniversary of this heroic feat, we will attempt to recreate chronologically the developments which occurred during this period and ultimately led to the invasion. The series will be a kind of comparative history, relating what was taking place more or less simultaneously in revolutionary Cuba, in the United States, in Latin America, within the socialist camp and in other places in some way connected to the history of these first years of the Cuban Revolution
• A colorful controversy developed at the end of January, early February 1961, the result of which is not difficult to appreciate 50 years later. The characters, Esteban Ventura Novo and Tony Varona, seemed to have stepped out of a tragicomedy.
The former had made his name as a criminal due to his cold-blooded murder of revolutionaries in the Batista period. Ventura’s initial steps characterized him as a repressor of student demonstrations under the stern gaze of the University of Havana’s Alma Mater statue. It could be said that he had no godfather. Unaided, from murder to murder, he set about winning the ranks that Batista conferred on him. From lieutenant to colonel in just two years.
In the final days of the dictatorship, his tall slim figure, encased in a starched white drill suit or blue uniform, appeared on the front pages of newspapers with groups of revolutionaries arrested or lying in pools of their own blood. His most publicized feat was the monstrous crime perpetrated against Fructuoso Rodríguez, José Machado, Juan Pedro Carbó Servia and Joe Westbrook, at 7, Humboldt Street in Havana.
Ventura was particularly merciless with these student members of the Revolutionary Directorate in revenge for their assault on the Presidential Palace and possibly recalling that morning when, still a lieutenant, he entered the Calixto García Hospital in pursuit of them. Suddenly, Juan Pedro Carbó emerged from a closet – where he had hidden – cocking his first finger and thumb simulating a weapon like children do when playing cops and robbers, while ordering him to surrender.
Caught by surprise at the unexpected and mocking joke, Ventura almost dropped his weapon. Enraged, he shrieked hysterically, "I’m going to kill you, Carbó…I’m gonna kill you!"
With his characteristic self-possession, laughing in the face of terror, Carbó replied, "You’re not going to kill anyone, Ventura, you are a…"
On the other hand, Tony Varona was a professional politician, former prime minister, ex-president of the Senate, famous among CIA officers for his limited intelligence. Howard Hunt, the U.S. spy subordinate to David Atlee Phillips in CIA plans against Cuba, related in his book Give Us This Day compromising situations in which he was placed given that characteristic of Tony’s. His stupidity was such that he was known as Pony, both in Cuba and in the United States.
Ventura was angry with Tony because the latter had publicly vetoed him from joining the CIA ranks against the Cuban Revolution. That prompted the henchman to send a public letter to Varona, at that time the Company’s golden boy, stating, "We would say that those of us who were outstanding in our posts in our country’s armed forces cadres are the real veteran anti-communists, because we were the first to fight them."
After that unique profession of faith, Ventura moved on to recount some details of Varona’s history. He listed a number of murders committed against members of governments in which Pony was a prominent leader. He mentioned the crime against the students Masó and Regueyro; the license to kill granted to certain gangsters; the Investigation Bureau’s cork-lined torture chamber; and told him that Tony’s hands were not only bloodstained but also tainted by gold, given his involvement in the faked incineration of 40 million pesos, a sum appropriated by a group within the government of Carlos Prío, headed by Prío’s brother and treasury minister, Antonio Prío.
While accusing Varona, he was also mocking Batista who, when he fled Cuba, abandoned Varona there: "What was Dr. Tony Varona thinking in terms of his obligations as government premier when he tacitly accepted the granting of broad prerogatives to the notorious drug trafficker Lucky Luciano, so that he could make Havana his operational base for all of Latin America? This also produced gold, Dr. Tony Varona, gold that bathed the hands of various officials during your premiership of the regime. Bribery, sinecure, waste, the squandering of public funds, provided your cash in Cuba, Dr. Tony Varona, not precisely during the era of those stained by you, but of the ‘immaculate’ governments which preceded the coward who fled in the early hours of January 1, 1959… Cubans are not divided up by crimes, but by eras… if you are going to throw them out of the ‘temple of the pure’ for crimes, we can assure you that the temple would be left completely empty."
In the training camps for the invasion in Miami and in Guatemala, the Ventura v. Varona controversy, whose essence was about the participation of Batista supporters in the planned invasion of Cuba, was generalized and threatened to endanger the venture.
The development of events was giving the right to the henchman over the politico. The CIA preferred Batista’s people in its ranks. The CIA thought like Ventura: the first anti-communists had been the ex-henchmen. But it wasn’t about Tony vetoing all the Batista followers. The issue was about certain ones, like Ventura. Others, such as Calviño and the King were acceptable. But the presence of Ventura Novo was too scandalous.
Arthur Schlesinger, President Kennedy’s advisor as well as a writer, later admitted that preference, dressing it up with tactical reasons: "The U.S. advisors were growing impatient in the face of what they considered political subtleties. They preferred men with professional military experience (from Batista’s army), like Pepe San Román, who had been trained in Fort Belvoir and Fort Benning in the United States, who could be trusted to fulfill orders given." (1)
In real terms it was Batista’s officers who had the military experience, even though that was worth nothing to them in the Sierra Maestra.
As a screen for the aggression, in June 1960, the CIA had created the Democratic Revolutionary Front, bringing together five of the main capos. One of them was Tony Varona, who hastened to declare when he was accepted that assets confiscated by the Castro regime would be returned to their American and Cuban owners. But CIA control led to resentment within the Front, Schlesinger noted.
In September of that year, the CIA appointed Tony Varona coordinator of the group, which prompted the resignation of one of its members, Aureliano Sánchez Arango, former minister of education and foreign relations in the Prío government, to which Varona also belonged.
That storm passed, but in the training camps the infighting for the leadership was reflected among Batista’s men. Those in favor of Tony Varona and Manuel Artime, the brigade’s political chief, were demanding their presence in Guatemala so as to personally relay their complaints, and the disrespectful attitude of many of the U.S. instructors. But the leaders of the CIA front did not allow them to visit the camps in Retalhuleu, and they were forced to accept orders or lose their lucrative income.
But the situation developed into a crisis and, defying the opinion of the CIA chiefs in the training camps, Washington decided to authorize Varona and Artime to go there and try and solve the problem. But no airs or social graces were allowed in CIA headquarters. They had to cover all their own expenses, including the easy life and the capos’ tours of American and Europe. Howard Hunt was given instructions to take them to the training base in Guatemala and to bring everyone into line.
Hunt was an old friend of Miguel Ydígoras, the Guatemalan president. When the CIA organized and executed the plot against the constitutionally elected President Jacobo Arbenz in 1954, Hunt was chief of political actions. An intelligence officer since the times of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), he had even been congratulated by Eisenhower for the 1954 operation. The Varona and Artime of that adventure were Colonels Carlos Castillo Armas and Miguel Ydígora himself. Hunt took Varona and Artime to meet President Ydígoras, who was known for his eccentricities, such as the much commented occasion when he decided to dance the Suisse before TV cameras.
Varona owed Ydígoras for having handed over Guatemalan territory for the training camps. Ydígoras owed Varona for having utilized the men of the future 2506 brigade to suppress a military uprising against his government a few months previously. But both of them were aware that they owed those favors to the CIA and, in order to back up U.S. interests, Hunt relayed back their meeting, which must have been delightful.
Varona affected his most pompous voice and tried to impress sincerity into his words in a rhetorical speech. But Ydígoras dictated a memo to his secretary while the former prime minister disguised as liberator was speaking. He had already played that role and knew it well. Afterwards, Hunt ironically wrote that it was proof of Ydígoras’ talent for doing two things at once. The future Watergate plumber made news in the 1970s for having directed the Nixon espionage operation against the headquarters of the Democratic Party in Washington, using the same individuals of Cuban origin involved in the invasion plans. In Retalhuleu, Varona had no alternative but to obey Hunt’s instructions and calm his friends down, although a number of them had already been behind bars in the Guatemalan jungle.
Those preferences for the Batista followers are still reflected, with more intense nuances, in Congress members of Cuban origin leading anti-Cuba conspiracies, headed in the last few years by Ileana Ros Lehtinen and the Díaz-Balart brothers, sons and nephews of high-ranking officials from the Batista regime, and closely linked to the dictator. •
(1) Arthur M. Schlesinger: Los mil días de Kennedy, (A Thousand Days: J. F. Kennedy in the White House), Ayma Sociedad Anónima, Barcelona, 1966, P. 179.
Havana. February 17 , 2011