A report by Jon Blistein for Rolling Stone.
Hosts Brendan James and Noah Kulwin discuss the CIA’s dalliances with organized crime, interviewing Cubans about the Revolution, and challenging America’s canned narratives
When Brendan James and Noah Kulwin were trying to figure out what to cover on the second season of their history podcast Blowback there were, unfortunately, a lot of options — after all, the show grapples with the machinations, mishaps, and misdeeds of the American empire. Blowback debuted last year with a widely praised season on the Iraq War, but, for season two, they chose a conflict closer to home: The Cuban Revolution.
The story of the 1959 Cuban Revolution and its aftermath, as James recently told Rolling Stone, presented a “classic, exhaustive” case of almost every trick America uses — economic sabotage, assassination attempts, psyops, etc. — “when it comes to destroying an alternative social system being built somewhere in the world.”
Season Two of Blowback, the first episode of which arrives on all platforms Monday, April 19th (the first two episodes are available on Stitcher Premium), is brimming with intrigue: dissections of events like the CIA’s scheming with organized crime, the Bay of Pigs fiasco, and, yes, how all this may or may not tie in with the assassination of John F. Kennedy (“All will be revealed,” James quips). But it also prominently features interviews with Cubans who offer an invaluable, previously stifled perspective on the Cuban Revolution that diverges greatly from what’s typically presented in the United States.
Blowback gets its title from a bit of Central Intelligence Agency jargon — the unintended and adverse consequences of covert operations. But apt as it may be, James (who also composed the score for Season Two and will release it later this year as an album co-produced with Wet’s Joe Valle and Marty Sulkow) stresses that it’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek. “Even the concept of ‘blowback’ is a convenient excuse a lot of the time,” he says. “Like, ‘Oh, we’re just this bumbling giant and we accidentally gave those guys Stinger missiles, and oop, it bit us in the ass.’”
Or, as Kulwin puts it, “The things we would call fuck-ups, errors of American empire, are part of a self-sustaining system. That’s something we saw in Iraq — the escalating calamity provided for escalating opportunities to further dominate and control that region of the world, and a long line of people profited from it. If you go back to [the Cuban Revolution] and use a similar frame, you see a lot of the same things play out.”
While in both Iraq and Cuba, the U.S. tried to impose its will and interests on a foreign country, James and Kulwin note the latter offered a chance to dive deeper into America’s Cold War efforts to obliterate social and economic alternatives to capitalism. This was done under the banner of “anti-communism,” regardless of whether a country was actually communist or just too left-leaning for America’s taste. As the pair note in an early episode, even former CIA director Allen Dulles didn’t think Fidel Castro had “any communist leanings” after he came to power in 1959; that changed a few months later when Cuba’s government began reclaiming Cuban land from American corporations like United Fruit and King Ranch.
But ultimately, the heart of Season Two is the interviews with people like Cuban academic Marta Núñez Sarmiento and diplomat Raul Roa-Kouri. Sarmiento, for instance, shares memories of Operation Peter Pan (an allegedly CIA-backed “humanitarian” program that convinced parents to send their children, unaccompanied, to America), while Roa-Kouri shines some fresh light on Castro’s famous 1960 visit to Harlem.
“These are people who came from a variety of backgrounds and were open about what they saw as Cuban society’s flaws,” Kulwin says. “But what felt crazy was, they articulated this country, this government and this revolution that was doing things like teaching people how to read. It hits pretty hard when you think, ‘And what was my government doing then?’ They were trying to kill those teachers.”
“All of these people were so young,” he continues. “They were trying this radical new policy program, and imagine if we had bothered to try learning from them. It shows the falsity of our rhetoric about international democracy and human rights, because if we really cared about spreading international democracy and human rights, we would have showed up to Cuba with notepads and not guns.”
What do you think the conventional American narrative of the Cuban Revolution is?
Brendan James: The canned history is the classic: A romantic revolution is popular and admirable, but betrayed by the people who led it, in this case, Fidel Castro, his brother [Raúl Castro] and Che Guevara. They proceed to sell out their revolution to the Soviets, who are the real empire, who move in and run Cuba as a totalitarian colony.
Noah Kulwin: And a colony exporting Soviet totalitarian ideology to the rest of the Western Hemisphere, in violation of America’s sworn promise to protect it in the form of the Monroe Doctrine.
James: Additionally, this totalitarian system produces only poverty and hunger, and these poor, hungry people hightail it to the United States. And all of this requires efforts — however sometimes morally questionable — of the United States to intervene and give the country back democracy. That’s the official narrative. I think every part of that is wrong.
Kulwin: Well, hold on — Cuba is an island in the Caribbean. Eleven million people live there. We have confirmed that much. But we’re working to verify a lot of the rest.
What do you think we get wrong about Fidel Castro? Where is criticism warranted and where has it been overblown?
Kulwin: I would say Fidel Castro is cast as a villain on the level of Saddam Hussein in America. And sure, he may have been a leader who had flaws, but what Fidel Castro did was lead a movement that led to the transformation of a country from a neo-colony, where the majority of people were poor and illiterate, to a state that is successful and healthy by any fair and modern standard. The villainization of Castro is a consequence of America’s adolescent Cold War perspective on how we should get to decide how the rest of the world organizes their societies.
James: One thing we’re really happy with about this season are the interviews with Cubans who lived through the revolution. And for them — and, I would argue, in most of the world — Castro is viewed, rather uncontroversially, as a hero. And it’s not all about Castro either — I think that’s one way American narratives try to discredit the revolution, by putting it all on one guy. This was a mass movement that was incredibly popular.
The interviews are a big difference from Season One — does America still make it difficult to speak with people in Cuba?
Kulwin: It’s incredibly difficult for Americans to have any kind of relationship with Cubans — business, social. It’s a fairly unheralded fact that things like WhatsApp allow for open and free communication between the U.S. and the island. And it’s because our government does an enormous amount of work. They still fund organizations dedicated to painting Cuba as a totalitarian state where people are unthinking and have a perverse way of life.
At the end of March, the Biden administration published a State Department white paper, compiled by the Trump administration, on human rights in Cuba from 2020. It’s all cherry-picked and drawn from outlets like CubaNet. [Ed. note: CubaNet is a non-profit media outlet that says it’s dedicated to “promoting the alternative press in Cuba” and sharing information “about the reality of the island.”] If you go to CubaNet and say, “Where do they get their money from?” They get it from the National Endowment for Democracy, which is the U.S. government.
James: If that happened in a country like Cuba, or Russia, or China, American newspapers would mock the fact that it was the government providing evidence for its own agenda. But when the National Endowment for Democracy produces evidence on countries on our naughty list, it’s solemnly reported on.
Kulwin: And to that point, critics will say, “Well, Cuba doesn’t have freedom of speech and freedom of expression,” and they will point to the many dissident artist movements. And you’re right: Cuba does not have the same rules around speech that we do. But to pretend like our government doesn’t abuse societies that have open and free press systems to destabilize them is obnoxious.
Let’s turn to my two favorite characters in this story, the CIA and the mafia.
James: The CIA is one of the funniest characters we’ve ever had.
Kulwin: We’re trying to find a way to write him into season three — his people are difficult but we’ll see how it goes.
What do you think these two institutions have in common and why are they not exactly strange bedfellows?
James: We’re not the first people to say this, but the CIA is really as close as you can legally get to creating an arm of government that’s organized crime. In this case, the CIA wanted to murder Fidel Castro and others in leadership and roll back an entire revolution — which is quite a hubristic assumption, because people will tell you that killing Castro would have been a tragedy, but there were CIA estimates at the time that said it wouldn’t have rolled back the revolution in and of itself. But they thought it was a pretty good idea, so they went with one of the most obvious arrangements that offered plausible deniability.
Kulwin: Also it was grounded in a shared history. The myth about organized crime during World War II is that the wise guys and the cops put down the salami sandwiches and nightsticks to get along and protect our beautiful ports.
James: Our beautiful boaters!
Kulwin: That’s not actually how they collaborated. There’s a fun philosophical version of this, which is, what really is the Central Intelligence Agency? Is it about gathering intelligence? I don’t think you can answer that with a straight-up, “Yes.” The CIA’s emphasis was on covert operations and psychological warfare. The things they did instead of intelligence gathering are the stuff of organized crime. Part of calling it the CIA and giving it the fine name of espionage and James Bond and Jack Ryan is to obscure the actual reality, and ethical reality, of what the thing is.
When you’re dealing with inherently secretive groups like the mafia and the CIA, you inevitably end up in the realm of innuendo. How did you try to navigate that space?
James: Well, occasionally too many footprints are left and we have a decent idea of how things transpired in certain moments. Like the multiple attempted hits on Fidel Castro by Sam Giancana and Johnny Roselli in partnership with the CIA. But it’s difficult. There’s a lot of great journalism [by Jack Colhoun, Mary Ferrell, Warren Hinckle, and William Turner] that’s done about as much as you can to make these things concrete. I tend to want to be conservative when it comes to the mythology side of things because there’s still speculation even in very good books.
Kulwin: Also, there’s what they would’ve called in the Watergate days, “a limited hangout” — the fact that the government often puts out deceptive information. We should maintain a healthy distrust of institutions that are supposedly responsible for acting in the name of national security, and who are also theoretically responsible for being transparent to Congress and the public.
“It’s a myth that in the Kennedy era there was this liberal, enlightened government that was trying to — I don’t know — kill Castro the ‘right’ way, or the ‘moral’ way, and the CIA were just the dirty guys getting too crass about it.” – Brendan James
James: There’s a story that [filmmaker] Alan Pakula, when he was making All the President’s Men, was informed that Bob Woodward once enjoyed a moment in the Office of Naval Intelligence, which isn’t the most coherent detail if you’re telling a story about an intrepid journalist squaring off against the powerful institutions of the American government. And apparently, [Pakula] was said to have responded, “I’ve heard that, but I can’t think about that right now or I’ll go crazy.” [Ed. note: This story was shared by noted film historian Joseph McBride, who said he had this conversation with Pakula.] I don’t know if it’s humility or neuroses, but I get worried that a source that looks reputable could be a limited hangout. That’s just part of the game. We’re using a lot of, hopefully, honest research by people who have spent their whole lives trying to get to the bottom of this stuff, and we respect that a lot.
Kulwin: Most of the folks I’ve interviewed were alive in the Sixties, and I think it’s been a lot harder for them to have these conversations about the implications that these agencies did X, how much we can trust them and how accountable they are. We live in a destabilizing time and people have a different relationship with the government now, as every octogenarian I’ve interviewed has reminded me (at least the American ones). People have less trust of the government, and buried in that is a lot of scary stuff. But there’s also the capacity for people to understand some of the really bad things our government did and continues to do.
To what extent do you think these “anti-communist” impulses that fueled American foreign policy in Cuba and elsewhere during the 20th century are still alive today?
Kulwin: They’re in vogue against Cuba now. I think the Obama process [of normalizing relations with Cuba] in 2014 created a real problem where he initiated something and then left it in suspension. Now that Biden has reentered office, the assumption is that there’s some reversion to the status quo happening, but it isn’t. The sanctions are still in place, we’re not moving toward an end of the embargo and we’re making up shit like sonic attacks in Havana that have no basis in reality. We’ve backslid, and it’s a tragedy. There are millions of people who, with executive action, could have their lives improved drastically.
James: Everywhere you look in our modern world, the lines on the map, figurative and literal, come from this ongoing campaign. Communism is a world historical movement that’s been maligned in our country, and there’s a lot to go into with that. But I think one thing we’re trying to do is expose how that happens and, in some cases, reveal the mirror image — that the United States is projecting every time it describes the horrors of communism. That it’s really talking about stuff we’ve done throughout history.
Kulwin: One of the primary accusations that’s existed for years against the Cuban government is that it supports terrorism around the world. The reality is, Cuban exiles have committed crimes like the detonation of an airplane and a hotel bombing in the Nineties. People with real blood on their hands were protected and nurtured by the American government repeatedly. We have such an embedded commitment to rooting out communism, that we’re still comfortable having harbored all these nasty terrorists.
James: Look at Guatemala. This is a coup in 1954 that in many ways serves as the dry run for the Bay of Pigs. The Bay of Pigs was not successful, but it was in Guatemala. And what happens after in Guatemala? Decades of military rule and a genocide that by the Nineties, by all mainstream accounts, kills 200,000 people — chiefly indigenous people — in a very small country. And this is carried out by one of the most violent, brutal, pro-American, and American-supported regimes in the hemisphere. That’s the kind of thing the Cuban revolution prevented.
What do you hope people take away from this season in terms of following America’s current exploits abroad?
Kulwin: There’s a myth about the CIA and other agencies during this period being “rogue,” and it persists today. There’s an assumption that our government isn’t capable of being a certain way. But now we’re in this moment where we find out, actually, our government is cool with letting several hundred thousand people die in a pandemic. Our government is cool with aiding and abetting genocides and acts of cruelty around the world, and that we do so at home, too, in terms of how American law enforcement acts. And in fact, other countries take cues from us on how to discipline their restive populations.
James: Cues and equipment.
Kulwin: It’s all very profitable for so many people. We’re far from the first to say this, but there hasn’t been a meaningful conversation in this country about what American imperialism looks like in decades. And part of that is because of movement failures, and part of that is because the government did its darndest to kill it. We’re not political organizers, but if we’re channeling any message, it’s to say, “Your anti-imperialist antenna should always be raised.”https://14cf2dab460ec34d84a171b4fc929554.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
James: It’s a myth, for example, that in the Kennedy era there was this liberal, enlightened government that was trying to — I don’t know — kill Castro the “right” way, or the “moral” way, and the CIA were just the dirty guys getting too crass about it.
Kulwin: I watched the MLK/FBI documentary recently, and in it, James Comey talks about how on his desk as FBI director, he kept a letter that [J. Edgar] Hoover sent MLK urging him to commit suicide. And Comey said he kept this letter to remind him of the bad things the FBI had done and to always be mindful of justice, or what justice means, or something. Truthfully, I don’t remember his exact words, neither do I care. The important thing is, we live in a society that views such a declaration not as Comey putting a grotesque trophy on his desk — whatever his intentions may be — but something that’s supposedly a marker of progress.
In the first episode, you talk about how, after the Spanish American War, the U.S. started using Cuba as kind of a testing ground for this new brand of 20th-century empire. What do you think are the defining qualities of that kind of empire and how do they still persist today?
James: There’s a book, Neo-Colonialism, by the former president of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, and in it, he outlines the basic idea, which is that the “neo” part is essentially presenting the illusion of sovereignty where it usually wasn’t even pretended before. Because of things like World War One and national liberation movements, America realized it had to adjust its language — as any good marketing campaign is aware of — with the trends. And what would actually make it more effective, more insidious, was using progressive language while still performing the same nasty business. The neo-colonial method is to present a front of neutrality to countries that are really under the American thumb due to economic, social, and political pressures we force on them. It’s like when you see an Amazon ad with a smiling worker saying, “I can go to the bathroom any time I want!” And it’s shot beautifully, it looks like a vodka commercial, but it’s trying to manage something deeply authoritarian, unjust, and evil.
There was a slick New York Times video a couple of years ago that had a young ex-pat Venezuelan comedian say like, “Hey, all you Twitter bro-cialists, stop trying to tell me whether or not America should invade my country.” It hit all the right notes to paint anyone — I mean, Noah and I are disgusting, bro-cialist guys from Brooklyn, but discount that for a second — who makes any case against American imperialism as white dudes who have too much time on their hands. When in fact, that’s the minority of people who tend to care about this stuff. It’s insulting to paint the situation that way because the majority of people who care about this stuff are the people in countries that are gonna get fucked over by America, but they don’t have a voice. So, this slick messaging that happens around these things is very clever and insidious, but I hope it’s not a terribly effective way of manufacturing consent around these things in 2021.