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There were few causes closer to Fidel Castro’s heart—and none more likely to arouse the ire of his country’s superpower neighbor—than the status of Puerto Rico, which came under U.S. control after the Spanish–American War in 1898, the very same conflict that led to Cuba’s independence. Given Cuba’s own experience with Spanish rule and U.S. occupation, the Cuban leader was always ready to champion decolonization.
But with an increasing chorus of prominent individuals—from politicians such as Senator Bernie Sanders and Congressman Luis V. Gutiérrez, to celebrities such as Ricky Martin and Lin-Manuel Miranda—calling for President Obama to commute the sentence of Oscar Lopez Rivera, the alleged leader of the FALN (a militant Puerto Rican separatist group), Castro’s support for radical Puerto Rican “independistas” deserves renewed scrutiny.
Castro considered Cuba and Puerto Rico “two wings of the same bird,” as the Puerto Rican poet Lola Rodriguez de Tio, put it; “They receive flowers and bullets into the same heart.” Indeed, Castro echoed this line during a secret meeting with U.S. officials in Havana in 1978, calling Cuba and Puerto Rico “two islands of the same sea, and two daughters of the same history, with a common language and culture and association with Latin American, not Anglo-Saxon, countries.” He believed that this shared history precluded perpetual U.S. control over the island. “From the depths of our hearts,” he continued, “we reject the idea that Puerto Rico could be a state of the United States.” In the following decades, Cuba publicly pressed for independence for Puerto Rico.
Just how far Castro took this policy, however, remains a matter of debate. Questions still loom about the extent of Cuba’s covert support for violent Puerto Rican separatists such as the FALN, based in the United States, and the Macheteros, based in Puerto Rico. Some on the left have argued that accusations about the FALN’s Cuba connections are part of an attempt to defame a legitimate independence movement and the FALN “political prisoners” who—until a controversial 1999 pardon by former U.S. President Bill Clinton—languished in U.S. prisons for decades; others on the far-right, meanwhile, have characterized the FALN as tantamount to a Cuban proxy force.
What is beyond contention, however, is that the FALN was one of the deadliest, best organized, and most prolific terrorist groups operating on U.S. soil during the 1970s and 1980s. It was responsible for over 130 attacks during this period, including the infamous bombing of Fraunces Tavern in lower Manhattan, which killed four and injured 53. For its part, the Macheteros carried out dozens of bombings in Puerto Rico, including fatal attacks on U.S. service personnel. There were over 100 bombings by dissidents on the island in 1975 alone.
To be sure, Cuba’s overt support for the independistas was clear enough. By the mid-1970s, to the great consternation of U.S. officials, Cuba was stressing the Puerto Rican issue at a number of international fora. In 1975, it introduced a resolution (not for the first time) at the United Nations to acknowledge “the legitimate aspirations of the Puerto Rican people struggling for independence.” That same year, Cuba hosted an “International Conference of Solidarity with the Independence of Puerto Rico” in Havana, which was organized by the Soviet-dominated World Peace Council. Hundreds of delegates, including a large American contingent, flew in for the event. Cuban society was being primed for a free Puerto Rico: an FBI informant at the conference reported that Cuban schoolchildren had told him, “Puerto Ricans should react to the Americans the way the Cubans had . . . by throw[ing] them out with armed revolution.”
Even as voters in Puerto Rico consistently and overwhelmingly rejected independence-oriented parties during local elections—and, in a series of referendums, independence from the United States itself—Castro remained ideologically committed to a liberated Puerto Rico.
The FALN returned the admiration. The group was ardently Marxist, dedicated to a free and socialist Puerto Rico. It looked to Cuba for moral leadership and support—and perhaps much more, besides. In an October 1975 communiqué released by the organization after it had committed simultaneous bombings in New York, Washington DC, Chicago, and Puerto Rico, the FALN said:
We especially acknowledge the moral support given to our organization in a speech made by Prime Minister Fidel Castro in August, in which he said that the Cuban government would do all it could to support the FALN. Although we have acquired everything we need at this time from our own efforts, as the struggle intensifies and the needs increase, we may have to claim concrete expression of such support, not only from the revolutionary government of Cuba, but from all the supporters of Puerto Rican independence.
Although a “smoking gun” linking Puerto Rican militants to Cuba has never been found, there is strong circumstantial evidence that Cuba provided material support to these groups. For one, Cuba was a strong backer of the Puerto Rican Socialist Party (PSP), the island’s pro-independence Marxist party, which advocated for armed struggle against the United States. The party was an officially recognized political organization in Cuba, and had permanent representation in Havana. The party was headed by Juan Mari Bras, whom FBI agents determined had been recruited as a Cuban intelligence agent as early as 1963. The PSP had a number of U.S. affiliates in cities with large Puerto Rican populations (the New York City branch, for instance, helped organize a pro-independence rally at Madison Square Garden in 1974 that was attended by 20,000), and there is evidence that the PSP was a feeder organization for the far smaller cell-based militant networks of the FALN.
Meanwhile, according to a 1973 FBI report, 135 Puerto Rican radicals had traveled to Cuba for “extensive instruction in guerilla war tactics, preparation of explosive artifacts, and sophisticated methods of sabotage.” And then there is the case of Filiberto Ojeda Ríos, the pro-independence militant considered the co-founder of both the Macheteros and the FALN. Ojeda Ríos, who was killed in 2005 during a gunfight with the FBI in Puerto Rico, was also widely seen by U.S. law enforcement as being connected to Cuban intelligence; in fact, court documents from a 1983 FALN trial state that Rios, who went by the alias “Reuben,” was “a Cuban intelligence agent who told an undercover NYPD officer that he had been trained in sabotage and explosives in Cuba.” According to Bryan Burrough in Days of Rage, a detailed account of 1970s-era militancy, in 1974 Ojeda Ríos was believed to have worked with a group of Cuban agents stationed at the United Nations to recruit a group of Puerto Rican militants in the United States—the group that eventually became the FALN. “This theory,” Burrough writes, “while never proven, suggests that the FALN was at least initially a creature of Cuban intelligence. No one, however, has ever suggested that the Cuban government had an operational role in the bombings.”
If it is indeed true that Castro initially financed or trained those who carried out attacks on domestic American targets, it would mark a dark chapter (among many others) in U.S.–Cuban relations, and one deserving of official recognition by both countries. Castro’s death provides an opportune moment to revisit this history, as there now perhaps exists a small window to attempt to shed some light on this period of our shared history. U.S. officials, for one, could selectively declassify documents on the subject—and, perhaps, in the interest of balance, on the United States’ own support of anti-Castro terrorists.
When it comes to Cuba, of course, Washington has a rather sordid history of its own. As is well known, the United States trained and financed thousands of anti-Castro militants in the 1960s, and some continued to wage a private war against Fidel even after U.S. policy toward Cuba softened. For instance, CIA-trained Cuban exile terrorists such as Luis Posada Carriles, who masterminded the 1976 Cubana Airlines bombing that killed 73—including Cuba’s entire national fencing team—orchestrated deadly attacks in Cuba well into the 1990s. Posada, who lives freely today in Florida, was recently photographed celebrating Fidel’s death with a number of other infamous ex-militants at a gathering in Miami. (Posada reentered the country illegally in 2005 and was the beneficiary of some unsettlingly lenient treatment by the George W. Bush administration.) You can be sure that Cuban President Raul Castro would still like to see Posada extradited to stand trial for the 1976 airplane bombing, which was a national trauma. Cuba, meanwhile, has its own resident terrorists to answer for. Among them is William Morales, the FALN’s bomb maker, who executed a daring escape from a New York prison in 1979, and who eventually found refuge in Cuba, where he lives to this day.
But it is unlikely that the United States or Cuba will come clean. After all these years, the wounds are still too fresh. Indeed, Cuba was only removed from the official U.S. “State Sponsors of Terrorism” list in May 2015, during the Obama administration’s delicate rapprochement with the Castro regime. And with the probable cooling of relations between Cuba and the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump, the possibility of bilateral cooperation on extradition matters seems even more remote. This is a shame. The victims of Posada’s crimes deserve justice. So do those of Morales’s. Neither will likely receive it. Even after Castro’s death, it seems, the movements he inspired, and perhaps even had a hand in organizing, continue to reveal the stress fractures between societies that he was, for decades, so adept at exploiting.