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JFK’s assassination, Fidel Castro and I

Over the past week, accounts of people recalling where they were when Kennedy was assassinated appeared in the press

Abdallah Schleifer

Published: Updated:

Over the past week, accounts of people old enough to recall where they were when they heard that Jack Kennedy had been assassinated - on Nov. 22, 1963 - have appeared in the global press, and in particular in American media. I was in Havana, Cuba.

Later I would learn that shortly after the assassination an FBI agent had appeared in Tangier, Morocco making inquiries with my friends there and with the authorities,, but by then I had left Tangier for my third and last trip to Cuba.

The FBI’s interest in me was reasonable enough; by then I had already spent more than a year in Cuba in the course of two previous visits , written favorably about the Revolution for left-wing publications and was informally associated with the Fair Play for Cuba Committee (FPFC). JFK’s assassin – Lee Harvey Oswald - had boasted of his own alleged FPFC connections as well as a sort of weirdly expressed affinity for communism in the months preceding his brief, but terrible, moment of fame.

Only a few years out of university I had been a Fidelistia in spirit in the late 1950s. While Castro was fighting in the mountains I was in New York writing a poem “For Fidel, Somewhere in the Sierra Maestre” and proudly publishing social criticism in an intellectually- important, and otherwise obscure journal Dissent , that was socialist but anti-communist. But in the early sixties as Fidel drifted towards communism, so did I.

In retrospect I don’t think a democratic demeanor ever figured as part of Fidel’s psychology. But he was not a communist when he took power. Fidel was a fervent nationalist and a social revolutionary with an authoritarian bent very much in the Latin American mold.

America reacts

So the tone of much of the reporting in American media for the first week or so after the assassination, implied, and in some cases directly accused, Cuba of being behind the killing of JFK. By then Oswald himself had been assassinated by Jack Ruby, a night club manager with Mafia connections - the Mafia had run flourishing gambling casinos in Cuba before the Revolution.

When Fidel and his Rebel Army swept into Havana on Jan. 1, 1959 and formed a government, there wasn’t a single member of the Cuban Communist Party in his cabinet. It was this cabinet that declared a land reform, dramatic yet milder than the land reform the U.S. had imposed in Japan after World War II.

But that land reform affected large American corporate holdings and Eisenhower was influenced by his vice president, Richard Nixon, who was openly hostile to Fidel, no doubt due to Nixon’s long and close friendship with a wealthy Cuban -American businessman with Mafia connections.

Thus, Eisenhower made one of his two truly terrible mistakes of an otherwise benign presidency. He decided only months after Castro had taken power that he had to be overthrown, setting in motion events that would drive Castro into the arms of the Russians – much like a similar myopia on the part of Eisenhower’s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles had driven Gamal Abdul Nasr into an uneasy alliance with the Soviet Union only a few years earlier. The difference of course was that Nasr first bought arms and then took financing for the Aswan Dam and political support from the Russians but he didn’t buy into the whole package. Fidel did.

Conventional thinking at the time of the assassination was that the failed invasion of Cuba in April 1961(during JFK’s first months in office) by Cuban exiles trained and armed by the CIA as well as attempts to assassinate Castro, also organized by the CIA, prompted Castro to order Kennedy’s assassination. Most of those Americans alive today who were old enough at the time of JFK’s death to now remember, probably still think Fidel was responsible.

But Fidel and his highest ranking officials in Havana were in shock as JFK had sent secret messages on at least two different occasions suggesting it is was time to work towards a diplomatic solution to end the Cuban-American conflict. I had met one of those envoys socially—Jean Daniel of L’Express when he was in Havana just after he had interviewed Fidel, and he talked in that small circle about the message he had passed on from JFK. The other message bearer was a former American congressman officially in Cuba to negotiate the ransom for prisoners surrendered at Playa Giron.

But Fidel and his highest ranking officials in Havana were in shock as JFK had sent secret messages on at least two different occasions suggesting it is was time to work towards a diplomatic solution to end the Cuban-American conflict

Abdallah Schleifer

Fidel sent his own message back when he was interviewed by Lisa Howard of ABC News in the Spring of 1963 and told her, on camera, that he was ready to resolve the issues between America and Cuba. Accommodation with Cuba - which would mean ending economic sanctions and restoring diplomatic relations - was under serious discussion in the White House a year before the assassination and plans were being made to secretly send an American diplomat to Havana to meet Castro - at Castro’s invitation - or in New York only weeks before the assassination.

If there was a conspiracy involved in the assassination of JFK it would have directly to do with aborting this initiative and creating a crisis that would conceivably compel JFK’s successor Lyndon Johnson, to order U.S. forces to invade Cuba. Johnson deferred, but JFK’s initiative was aborted and to this date there are still no diplomatic relations and the sanctions - while slightly eased - are still in place.

I also knew by the time of JFK’s death, that he had not initiated the original plan and preparation for the Playa Giron invasion but had inherited it from his predecessor President Eisenhower upon taking office in January 1961.
By imposing devastating last minute limits on the tactical military support the U.S. was to have directly provided the invaders, JFK doomed the operation.

Long after that debacle, and shortly before the assassination, one Cuban exile leader had publicly sworn in Miami that the exiles would soon be revenged. It is plausible that on Nov. 24 1963 a rogue CIA element that had had worked closely with the Cuban exiles preparing for the Playa Giron invasion left the Agency and did just that.

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Abdallah Schleifer is Professor Emeritus of Journalism at the American University in Cairo, where he founded and served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for Television Journalism. He also founded and served as Senior Editor of the journal Transnational Broadcasting Studies, now known as Arab Media & Society. Before joining the AUC faculty Schleifer served for nine years as NBC News Cairo bureau chief and Middle East producer- reporter; as Middle East corrrespondent for Jeune Afrique based in Beirut and as a special correspndent for the New York Times based in Amman. After retiring from teaching at AUC Schleifer served for little more than a year as Al Arabiya's Washington D.C. bureau chief. He is associated with the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C. as an Adjunct Scholar. He was executive producer of the award winning documentary "Control Room" and the 100 episode Reality- TV documentary “Sleepless in Gaza...and Jerusalem.”

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