The release this week of thousands of once-secret FBI documents provides new detail on the close eye federal law enforcement officials kept on Cuba and the Miami exile community during Fidel Castro’s rise to power through the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
The more than 12,000 pages of letters, reports, newspaper clippings and photos compiled over 20 years starting around 1955 show that the FBI watched with concern as the movement against Cuban leader Fulgencio Batista progressed, worried that the “Batista crowd” was growing in Miami and expressed alarm at a potential Batista plot to shoot down Castro’s plane after the new Cuban leader made a trip to the United States.
“What is striking is the degree to which the FBI paid attention to routine Cuban internal affairs,” said Cuban historian Louis Pérez Jr., a professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Experts say the documents, obtained by the nonprofit Assassination Archives and Research Center, don’t appear to break significant new ground in a well-studied period. But the intricate details they reveal will be fascinating for Cuba and FBI history buffs. Available for anyone to peruse, they demonstrate how obsessive the FBI was about Cuba and the Miami exile community.
For example, a Jan. 24, 1959 briefing for then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover provided a wide-ranging look at the state of Cuban affairs three weeks after the Castro takeover in Havana. It noted Russia’s offer of “unlimited funds” to the new government, talked about concerns that Castro sympathizers had penetrated Miami’s Cuban community and would expand throughout the United States, and discussed the role of Argentine revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara in the march of Castro’s forces into Havana.
What is striking is the degree to which the FBI paid attention to routine Cuban internal affairs.
Cuban historian Louis Pérez Jr.
In a May 13, 1959, cable to the State Department, Hoover wrote that “Batista elements” had assembled 1,000 rifles and more than 150 machine guns in the West Palm Beach area of Florida, along with two single-engine F-51 military aircraft. It cited a cable sent a week earlier about a plan for the planes being used to shoot down Castro’s plane upon its return to Cuba following his first trip to the United States after taking power, when he met with then-Vice President Richard Nixon.
“The arms mentioned in the referenced communication were purchased by former Cuban Senator Rolando Masferrer and that a United States pilot name (redacted) or (redacted) may fly one of the planes for the Batista element,” Hoover wrote about the potential Batista plot. Masferrer, a Batista loyalist and exile leader, was killed by a car bomb in Miami in 1975.
The documents had been released previously, according to the research center, which is based in Washington and studies the Kennedy assassination. But the original release had been heavily redacted, so the center filed another public information request for another set of documents, which, it said, resulted in fewer redactions.
Those less-censored versions show that the FBI went to incredible lengths for details about Cuban events. In a June 16, 1959, cable, for example, agents reported they’d tracked Batista’s wife, Marta, to Suite 13D in New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel. An FBI contact then met with Marta Batista at a beauty salon, where, the report noted, Batista spent four hours and talked about her husband, who, five months after fleeing Havana, had yet to arrive in the United States.
She “hoped that he would be here in order to see their sons before they went off to school,” the agent wrote.
One takeaway from the documents, said Gregory Weeks, the editor of the academic journal The Latin Americanist, is evidence that the FBI had spent a lot of time chasing down rumors and then reporting on them.
The documents are likely to prove disappointing to Kennedy assassination conspiracy buffs. They contain little new about Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassination of Kennedy in Dallas in 1963 and no evidence that Oswald was controlled by Cuban intelligence, as some conspiracy theorists suggest.
“People have been talking about Oswald forever and his connection to Cuba,” Weeks said. “I’m not saying they’re not interesting, but it’s not going to change U.S.-Cuba relations.”
Perez said it would take time before historians could properly study the thousands of pages to determine what was new and what, if anything, was groundbreaking. He noted that while the period has been well researched, previous records studied have come primarily from the State Department. The FBI files will provide political scientists with another source of materials for study and to cross-reference with what is already out there, he said.
“If you’re looking for the larger logic of this reporting, it’s not immediately apparent,” Perez said.