How dictator Batista tried to settle in Ireland

Despite US pressure to accept the Cuban strongman the State refused asylum, writes JOHN MORAN. GENERAL FULGENCIO Batista of Cuba was Ireland’s first asylum seeker, according to documents uncovered by The Irish Times. 

The papers also reveal that the US government made formal and informal approaches to Ireland in 1959 to have the fugitive dictator settled here.

The Batista asylum attempt was first reported in The Irish Times on April 15th this year after the discovery of a letter from his wife Marta to former Irish president Seán T O’Kelly. The letter was dated March 30th, 1959, barely three months after the general had fled to the Dominican Republic when his brutal regime was overthrown by forces led by the Castro brothers, Fidel and current Cuban president Raúl.

Mrs Batista’s letter appeared to have been a simple, personal plea by the dictator’s wife and until now, it was thought the matter ended with a simple acknowledgement.

However, a full account of the Batista asylum bid – which has been under wraps for more than half a century – can now be given, and it reveals the letter’s links to senior US state department officials, and that matter was discussed by the cabinet of the then taoiseach Éamon de Valera.

Most of the new story comes from a National Archives file which has been gathering dust for more than 50 years. Further information has been gleaned from the National Library, contemporary newspapers, and material that had been edited from a new book in which the state department officials mention Ireland as a potential home for the dictator.

What is now known is that Mrs Batista’s letter was just the beginning of the story, and that within days of its receipt, the issue would be under consideration by the department of external affairs (now Foreign Affairs), which included the minister Frank Aiken, secretary to the department Con Cremin and his close adviser Dr Conor Cruise O’Brien.

The initial letter to O’Kelly was sent from Mrs Batista’s suite at the Waldorf Astoria hotel on March 30th, the day before O’Kelly boarded a luxury liner in New York for a leisurely cruise home after an extended and hugely successful US tour as official guest of president Dwight D Eisenhower.

Newspaper files show that while in New York, O’Kelly shared the same hotel as Mrs Batista, the Waldorf Astoria, and that a dinner was held there in his honour on March 21st, attended by more than 700 dignitaries.

O’Kelly’s US tour, on which he had been accompanied by Aiken, was particularly important at the time as diplomatic relations with the US had been fractured by neutral Ireland’s vote for talks at the UN on the admission of China – at the height of the cold war, the Red Scare and the nuclear arms race.

So when Mrs Batista’s letter dropped on to government department desks in Dublin after the grand US tour – which seemed to have settled any diplomatic rupture – the letter from the Waldorf was something of a fly in the ointment. It also became Ireland’s first application for asylum.

That asylum bid took a more official turn on April 10th – the same day that Aiken’s department received its copy of the letter – when the minister took a call from the US ambassador to Ireland, Scott McLeod, who told him Gen Batista’s lawyer of 25 years, Lawrence Berenson of New York, was in town and that he “would be glad if Berenson could be received”.

Cremin’s notes – marked “Confidential” – reveal that ambassador McLeod had been instructed to arrange the meeting by Robert Murphy, US deputy under-secretary of state. Berenson said the US wanted Batista out of the Caribbean area in the interests of regional security. While Batista would like to go to the US, he said this “would compromise relations with Dr Castro”.

Berenson said Batista was well liked in the US, as a result of which during his term of office US investment of $1 billion flowed into Cuba. He said Gen Batista “did not, during his period of office, accumulate colossal wealth but, as is the practise in Latin American States, put aside quite substantial sums”.

After being briefed on this meeting, Aiken said that while it might be easier to reject the application, it should be considered. He added that because of Berenson’s remarks on US interest in the case, he would talk to McLeod, which he did on April 14th.

Aiken then asked Cremin to have a memorandum prepared for the cabinet on the case. This, he said, should examine the principle of political asylum, how it is practised in other states, facts of the Batista regime and its overthrow and international repercussions for Ireland if asylum were granted.

Aiken also told Cremin to wire the Irish ambassadors in the US, UN, Canada and the charge d’affaires of the Irish legation in Argentina for their private assessments of the international implications were Ireland to accept Batista. Each swiftly advised against. Ireland’s envoy to the US, John J Hearne, said it would “be a grave mistake and would not be understood by our friends”.

The 16-page report on asylum prepared by the department of external affairs covers the issue and contains newspaper reports specific to Batista’s period in power and his asylum applications to other countries.

In his advice to Cremin, having considered the report and the opinions of the ambassadors, O’Brien concluded: “From the point of view of our international relations, and of international public opinion, it would appear therefore to be definitely unwise to admit Batista.”

The detailed reasoning behind this conclusion was outlined in a confidential draft memorandum for the cabinet, Grant of Asylum for Senor Batista.

Interestingly, this document noted that while in Dublin, “Senor Batista’s agent, Mr Berenson, gave it to be understood that Batista and his family will settle in the United States as soon as the circumstances which at present render it difficult for the United States to accept him have changed.” Despite advising against taking Batista, the memo added that if the government decided to take another view, they should not do so without being given a date by the US when they would take him.

On April 24th, the cabinet was briefed by Aiken and after discussing the closely argued draft document they agreed with its conclusions and rejected the application. The next day, Cremin advised Berenson and the US embassy of the government decision. On the Monday he cabled the Irish envoys.

However, the matter did not end there. The following Tuesday in Washington Hearne was called to a meeting “urgently arranged”, where much to his surprise, senior official William Snow told him he was aware of Berenson’s approach and that “while you had not turned down [the] request, you are not enthusiastic about granting asylum”.

Snow asked Hearne to emphasise “the request for temporary asylum is not so much in favour of Batista as in interests of stability in Caribbean area”.

More information on this extraordinary meeting has now been uncovered. It comes from a reference in a new book, Red Heat: Conspiracy and Murder in the Caribbean, by Alex Von Tunzelmann. She writes that Batista sought a visa for the US after fleeing Cuba for the Dominican Republic.

“This prompted a desperate flurry to the State Department to find somewhere else to send him. Liechtenstein, Holland, Ireland and Andorra were tried.”

She told The Irish Times she had redacted an account of that Washington meeting between the US officials and the Irish ambassador where Hearne was referred to as “a delightful little leprechaun type of fellow” by Robert Stevenson, a former Cuba desk chief at the state department.

“Suddenly the little Irish Ambassador sat bolt upright and said, ‘You don’t mean you want us to take him, do ye?’ (Stevenson laughs). The Irish desk officer and I . . . we just doubled over. It was so funny . . . and Bill [Snow] said, ‘Well, you know, that is the idea, Mr Ambassador.”

Meanwhile, back in Dublin, Cremin received a cable from Hearne on this baffling meeting where the Irish government’s decision to reject Berenson’s asylum application appears to have been misunderstood or ignored by the US officials.

After informing Aiken of this development, Cremin replied to Hearne that the minister “was unable to re-open a question which was considered by the government”, and which had been made known to the US embassy.

Whatever the explanation for the Washington démarche, by April 28th any possibility of Ireland taking its first asylum seeker had finally ended less than a month after the plaintive letter from Mrs Batista began a process that led from a luxury suite in the Towers of the Waldorf Astoria, to the Irish cabinet of ministers and to the corridors of power in the United States.

For the original report go to http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2011/0801/1224301685200.html

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