Raul Capote, history professor/double agent

By Michael Sprague

Our first day in Havana we went to the headquarters of ICAP ‐ Instituto Cubano de Amistad con los Pueblos, or the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples, where we would have some meetings. The first meeting we had, and one of the most interesting people we interviewed, was Raul Capote, a former history professor at the university of Havana who claimed to have worked for both the Cuban security agencies and the CIA. He told us he took actions on behalf of the CIA related to regime change by promoting ideology among the youth as part of an operation called “Project Genesis”.

This operation was financed by USAID and implemented through Creative Associates, and the focus was to form youth leaders at the university, which he claimed was based off of a model of an operation in Yugoslavia. Project Genesis was supposed to give scholarships to young leaders in Cuba who might promote democracy or policies that aimed to change Cuba, while also creating internet and cellphone networks outside government control, which he described it as USAID‐built “Cuban Twitter”. Though it was meant to be non‐violent, there was “inevitably” some violence, he said, but didn’t elaborate further.

After Fidel stepped down in 2006 the actions of the project were accelerated, and became a plan to fabricate confrontations in media studios to create the image of chaos and violence across Cuba and mass human rights violations. Professor Capote was then meant to call for US military intervention. However, the proper conditions in Cuba never came to pass, but, he said, this operation was carried out in Libya in 2011. He told us that now with normal relations this program of student leadership and technology development can be seen as helping communication, whereas before normalization it was for regime change.

There are many benefits, he said, to being “good neighbors”. He said that relations between our two nations could become much better, and mentioned the fact that the U.S. was the first visit of Fidel Castro when he took power. However some important issues remained unresolved, he said, such as many criminals from the Batista regime who now live in the U.S., as well as some “very dangerous people”. He also said that the United States was waging “economic war” on Cuba. He hastened to add though that many Cuban people have relatives who live in the U.S. and follow American culture closely so the distinction between the people and their government is clear, and the Cuban people don’t hold the American people responsible for the decisions of policymakers.

He was asked what he thought the reason was for the CIA treating Cuba as a threat after the end of the Soviet era in the 90s, and he answered that it was because of the self‐perpetuating legacy of previous laws and actions, as well as the blockade and various economic measures, which simply needed justification. He stated “Cuba has never committed any terrorist acts, or hosted terrorist groups,” and also that “Cuba has never had any chemical or biological weapons”. He also said that the reason no actions taken by the CIA in Cuba were ever successful was because they didn’t understand Cuba very well, and he didn’t think there was ever a change in the CIA’s policies or actions towards Cuba, no matter what administration was in the White House. He claims there were 600 attempts on Fidel’s life, which he said actually fueled the revolution longer because it inspired people to defend their leader.

The majority of Cubans support the current government, he said, and he’s not worried that closer ties with the U.S. will threaten that. Most leaders in Cuba are young, and there are many women leaders, he said. The average age for people elected to the National Assembly was 47, with the youngest member only 17 years old. The Cuban government gives jobs to all who graduate, though he admitted they are not always the job that are desired. Brain drain is a challenge, as for all developing countries, but Cuba has very high human capital, he said.

ICAP was pleased with the change of policy between Cuba and the US, which they had been hoping for but not expecting. He said that the news was well received all over Cuba, and seen as a brave move to bring the economic reality of the contentious relationship into the political realm where it belonged. He also expressed hope that the rapprochement could lead to future collaborations on things like drug trafficking and people smuggling.

He was also asked about the swap of an USAID contractor for the remaining members of the famous Cuban Five that took place when the new policies were announced. The exchange of Alan Gross for “heroes” was just a goodwill gesture on both sides, not an intelligence quid‐pro‐quo, he said.

There are many false impressions of Cuba in American media, he claimed, especially that it’s heavily militarized. Cubans follow US news and media very closely, and though there are restrictions,”all information is impossible to control”. There is internet access at universities, clubs, cafes, and the phenomenon of “the package”‐ buying and trading hard drives full of content‐ which is how most media in Cuba is consumed. This, he told us, was originally thought up by a CIA officer as a method of cultural subversion.

I found the talk with him to be extremely interesting, not only for the spy stories but also for the worldview they came from. While it may seem beyond far‐fetched to think the chaotic events leading up to U.S. involvement in Yugoslavia or Libya were faked inside television studios, it is also very revealing that educational grants and communications projects, while readily acknowledged as a benign gesture of goodwill during friendly times, were seen, during times of less trust, as an attack on the government, and on Cuban society as a whole.

This interview impressed on me how important it is for the United States to be very sensitive to the perspectives of the Cuban people and the Cuban leadership of our shared history and our actions and policies now. When there is trust between both sides, a very bright and constructive future is possible, but we’ll have to listen closely to each other to make sure that trust exists.

Fancy straws and the Cuban command economy

By Joy Mulhollan

Neon orange, green, yellow, hot pink. Not the colors of fruity cereal or a fever dream, but what Communism looks like.

Coming back from Cuba, after making sure I didn’t get thrown in jail or contract some rare disease, because that’s what happens to everyone who survives travel to such a foreign, dangerous land (eye roll), the first thing that people ask is, “What was it like?” And of course no one actually wants to know what it was really like, so I usually respond, “It was great, really interesting.” And it was, but it was also more, and at the same time, less, than that.

One of the main things that has stuck with me even a few weeks after touching down again in as they say, North America, is the Cuban straws. This isn’t a euphemism for cigars or anything else; I mean the actual straws that are served with mojitos soda or bottled water. The reason is that they’re all the same. I expected one brand of ice cream or one type of third grade uniform for every third grader in the country, but seeing the same wild straws in every restaurant, whether state-run or privately owned paladar, shocked me in a way that I did not expect.

Fancy straws, as they came to be known in our group (I preferred the pink ones), were not only ubiquitous, they represented something greater. They were the nationalization of private enterprise that occurred in the 1960s, the bright-façaded, crumbling buildings, and the young student diplomats-in-training we met with, who were all very clearly different from each other, yet all conveyed the same shiny, propagandist message.

Don’t get me wrong, the fancy straws were great. Their five neon colors meant that the straws were always ready for a party, and plus they were the bendy kind, too, making drinking out of a straw even that much easier. All in all it was obvious that a lot of R&D went into the design of these perfect straws, but at the same time, what if I wanted a clear straw, or a black one? Those weren’t available, because in a command economy there is no competition. There is one kind of cola, one kind of tour company, one brand of toilet paper. And if you don’t like the strawberry ice cream? Get vanilla or do without.

That is what the straws taught me. They were great, really interesting, but at times maybe a little bit less than that.

Croquetas, Ropa Vieja, and Tostones: Reflections on a journey through Cuban culture, history, and food

By Sarah Sterling

While I was on my way back from Cuba to D.C., I had a three-hour layover in Miami with nothing to read and lots of time to kill. I decided to peruse a bookstore, as expensive as they might be in airports, to pick up something light and fun to read. There I found a great book called “Fork in the Road” by Lonely Planet, which contains short stories by food aficionados from their travels all over the world. Once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. It made me realize how much my travels and memories of places are linked to the food I have eaten while I was there.

While I am not a famous food critique or a professional chef by any stretch of the imagination, I do love food. It’s not necessarily the food itself — the ingredients, the aroma, the flavors — that I love about food but more so the emotions it evokes in me and how it can directly connect me to a specific place and time. All three of the foods are linked to memories that I will now have forever of Cuba.

In Cuba food is so much more than just food – it contains the soul of the culture, history, and the people. It is infused with meaning and in Cuba, food is a type of daily religion that everyone practices. Croquetas, ropa vieja, and tostones were all iconic foods during my short trip in Cuba and while there were many other staple foods (like my favorite Cuban black beans and rice) these three were the ones that also connected me to the country itself and helped me to start to try to make sense of a country full of wild juxtapositions and contradictions, and a place that will leave you with more questions than you had before you got there.

The Ant and the Elephant: A Love Story

The relationship between Cuba and the United States is like a love affair between the ant and the elephant. Even if they love each other very much, if the elephant rolls over in the middle of the night, the ant is dead.”

— Jorge Mario Sánchez, Economist at the University of Havana

A love story between the U.S. and Cuba may seem unthinkable to those of us raised on a steady diet of negative messages about the island. Cuba is a “state sponsor of terror”[i] and a “communist tyranny,”[ii] according to the U.S. government. Until recently, the relationship between the two nations seemed to be an unbreakable stalemate, strained by mutual distrust and suspicion rooted in Cold War hostilities. [iii]

It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that the United States and Cuba have:

  • A cooperative and professional military-to-military relationship governing borders on land and at sea
  • Mutually beneficial, market-conforming, large scale agricultural trade
  • Effective bilateral migration agreements between sovereign equals
  • Long-lasting, tightly coordinated hurricane tracking protocols and frequent information-sharing between national weather services and science bureaus
  • People with mutual appreciation of one another’s music, art, scholarship, and culture
  • Large diplomatic missions posted in their respective capital cities[iv]

There are strong cultural ties, too, between the United States and Cuba. Cubans watch American television shows and U.S. newspapers. Many have relatives and friends in the states.  South Florida is home to over one million Cuban immigrants, and as the Jimmy Buffett song says, “Everybody’s Got a Cousin in Miami.”  Cuban artists and musicians like Desi Arnaz, Celia Cruz and the Buena Vista Social Club have influenced popular culture, introducing Americans to new musical forms like salsa, rumba, mambo and cha-cha-cha.

Yet for over fifty years, Havana and Washington have been separated by a political, ideological and economic gulf that belies their geographic proximity. Why is that our respective governments have been unable to bridge the differences between them despite successful cooperation on tactical matters like migration, border management, and disaster response? That question was one of the many mysteries that confronted us as we traveled to Cuba last month.



[i] The U.S. State Department has included Cuba on its State Sponsors of Terrorism list since 1982. http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/2886.htm

[ii] The Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (also known as LIBERTAD or Helms-Burton) Act of 1996. 22 U.S.C. §§ 6021. Public Law 104-14, 110 Stat. 785. http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c104:H.R.927.ENR: http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/F?c104:1:./temp/~c104BS5iUP:e4317:

[iii] Peter Baker, The New York Times, Dec. 17, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/18/world/americas/us-cuba-relations.html?_r=0

[iv] Domínguez, Jorge I. “Reshaping Relations Between the United States and Cuba,” in Debating U.S.-Cuba Relations: Shall We Play Ball? Edited by Jorge I. Domínguez, Rafael Hernández, and Lorena G. Barberia.  http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~jidoming/images/jid_reshaping.pdf

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