by Victoria Jones, photos by Victoria Jones
There was a reason Cuba was on my mind in the summer of 2017. Of course, any chance to travel in general was undoubtedly appealing, but, in fact, what was more important in my head was the time-sensitive nature of visiting Cuba as an American. For the past two years, Obama had pursued improvement of relations with Cuba—the so-called “Cuban Thaw”—starting in late 2014. This included loosening travel restrictions for Americans, removing Cuba from the US list of state-sponsors of terrorism, and an official presidential visit to the island nation, which took place on March 20, 2016—the first since 1928. However, the tension was still present—I learned this from personal experience when my Venmo account became temporarily suspended, as a result of US restrictions on trade with the country, since I had included the word “Cuba” when transferring money for my plane ticket to a friend.
It was rumored that Trump could potentially reverse the progress in these bilateral relations, which meant that visiting Cuba—many American travellers had been going under the ambiguous ‘people-to-people’ education category, which solely required an objective to interact with locals—could once again become more difficult. For now, however, the process was simple enough; you fill out a visa form at your last stop in the US before departure to Havana, which, for us, had been Atlanta. Upon arrival, my passport—the main page, oddly enough—was stamped with what turned out to be an amorphous blotch of bright pink ink, and we breezed across the border.
While in Cuba, it felt like the revolution had just taken place a few months ago. There were posters, street art, and other homages to Che everywhere, and some to Fidel, but much less so. There’s a reason for this - Fidel did not want a cult of personality to develop around him, and a law in Cuba was passed after he died to ensure these wishes were protected. Even while alive, in 1959, Fidel himself ordered one statue that had been created in his image destroyed in order to counteract idolatry, claiming this was contrary to the goals of the revolution; he called it “The Law of the Revolution.” In a 2003 speech delivered on International Workers’ day, Fidel reiterated, “The leaders of this country are human beings, not gods.” This is perhaps why Fidel chose to be cremated as well.
We heard mixed messages from store owners with whom we chatted; some said that it was actually illegal to sell things with representations of Fidel on them. Nevertheless, we came across plenty of stores that did just this—geared toward the tourist crowd, of course. Fidel postcards, t-shirts, keychains, and stickers filled the shops.
Having recently conducted research on the CIA’s role in the Bay of Pigs Invasion, I was eager to visit the Museo de la Revolución, the main attraction in Havana. I was the only person in the museum for the majority of the time I spent inside it. Of particular interest were the depictions of the US. All of these snippets of information, paired with photographs, were typed in Spanish alongside poorly translated English equivalents. I decided to investigate some of them further. Examples included:
The allegation that the CIA deliberately introduced African swine flu into Cuba in 1971.
Since the virus does not infect humans, its harm lied in severely damaging the pig meat supply in Cuba. On January 10, 1977, sourcing Newsday, the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle read “CIA Link to Cuban Pig Virus Reported,” with the first line stating “With at least the tacit backing of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency officials, operatives linked to anti-Castro terrorist introduced African swine fever virus into Cuba in 1971.” The article reports that an American intelligence source revealed that he had instructions from the CIA to hand over a container holding an unknown substance, given to him at a US military base and CIA training facility in the Panama Canal Zone, to an anti-Castro cohort.
Five days later, Newsday reported on the Senate inquiry that had been set up to investigate this matter and that the CIA denied these accusations. The inquiry determined that the virus had made its way into Cuba via dried meats that came from Europe. The article called this conclusion into question as it cited Ahmed Dardiri, an expert who conducts research on this particular disease, who claimed that he had never heard of the virus being transmitted in such a manner.
The allegation that the CIA was behind the attack on Cubana Flight 455 in 1976.
The explanation in the museum asserts “The CIA performed a series of terrorist activities against Cuban diplomatic headquarters and airlines,” then references Orlando Bosch, Hernán Ricardo Lozano, and Freddy Lugo, who blew up a plane travelling from Barbados via Trinidad to Cuba and carrying 73 people, among them the Cuban national fencing team on October 6, 1976. After some investigation, I learned that, while Ricardo and Lugo, both Venezuelan, were responsible for planting the bomb, it was discovered that Bosch and Luis Posada Carriles were behind the attack, both of whom were Cuban exiles and had worked for the CIA prior to the plot but reportedly had no ties to the organization in the months leading up to the bombing. Both men were working for Venezuelan intelligence around this time, and it is there that they were arrested and imprisoned. A memorandum sent to Henry Kissinger on October 18 1976, states that one source had heard Posada saying “We are going to hit a Cuban airliner…Orlando has the details” just days before the plot.
The allegation that the CIA deliberately introduced dengue fever into Cuba in 1981.
A contemporary New York Times article published on September 6, 1981, reported on the tension between the US and Cuba after earlier that year, Fidel publicly accused the CIA of intentionally bringing the dengue fever to Cuba on July 26, a significant date in Cuban history and the namesake for Fidel’s revolutionary movement. The numbers in the article line up with those listed in the exhibit: approximately 340,000 cases with 150 deaths. The article, however, includes official statements by the US State Department vehemently denying any American participation. The statement reads, “The Cuban revolution is a failure, and it is obviously easier to blame external forces like the United States than to admit those failures.” Also according to the article, there are multiple strains of dengue fever, some deadlier than others. Some at the State Department speculated that perhaps this strain was brought to Cuba from troops who had been in Angola.
Even today, in as late as February 2016, the website CubaDebate, run by a group that calls themselves the “Circle of Cuban Journalists Against Terrorism,” cites a medical study in the Cuban magazine Bohemia which “confirms that the US introduced Dengue Fever in Cuba in 1981.”
This long list of charges against the US culminated in the last section of the museum, which consisted of large caricatures of Batista along with three US presidents. This part of the exhibit was entitled the “Rincon de los cretinos,” which translates to “Corner of cretins.” Each of the four figures had a plaque alongside it, thanking the person for their contribution to the path of Cuba’s revolution in Spanish, English, and French. Below are my English translations from the Spanish.
Batista: Thank you, cretin, for helping us make the revolution.
Reagan: Thank you, cretin, for helping us strengthen the revolution.
Bush Sr.: Thank you, cretin, for helping us consolidate the revolution.
Bush Jr.: Thank you, cretin, for helping us make socialism irrevocable.
Perhaps the most distorted of the caricatures is George W. Bush, who looks more animal-like than human and is sporting a swastika on his helmet as well as reading a manual on creating a free Cuba upside-down.
In the end, Trump announced he was going to tighten up the rules for US citizens travelling to Cuba on June 16, 2017—exactly one week after we returned home. No longer could individuals travel under the people-to-people category; organized group tours were required. In June 2019, Trump eliminated the category entirely. However, it still may be possible for Americans to travel to Cuba using the “Support for the Cuban People” justification; many travel companies advertise services to plan itineraries that fit the criteria required, one of which is stated as” promot[ing] the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities.” US travellers are also not supposed to spend their money at state-owned restaurants or hotels, according to the latest constraints.
Going to Cuba in early June 2017 was a valuable learning experience, as Americans often only hear one side of the story in the US regarding our relationship with this island nation that lies just over 100 miles south of Florida. Museums can frequently provide a glimpse of the narrative advanced by a country’s government, and, though many of the accusations against the US are still disputed, the Museo de la Revolución—in a state where history is strikingly present as well as political—did precisely that.