Lyndon Johnson’s Low-Risk Cuba Policies Yield Rewards for Fidel Castro

“We had been operating a damn Murder Inc. in the Caribbean,” President Lyndon B. Johnson said of Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.) actions toward Cuba carried out under his predecessor in office, John F. Kennedy. On February 20, 1964, newly appointed C.I.A. Director John McCone, records the president saying he “wanted to do everything possible to get me out of the cloak and dagger business.” The Johnson administration diverged from Kennedy’s policies of U.S.-sponsored sabotage, subversion, and assassination attempts on Cuban soil, establishing what has been characterized by foreign policy experts as a “low-risk, low reward” stance toward Cuba. While Johnson publicly propounded a hardline anti-communist stance, C.I.A. operatives were to be private and strictly “behind the scenes” in providing support to Cuban counterrevolutionaries.

The Johnson administration’s “low-risk” strategies to thwart Fidel Castro’s regime included financial support of Cuban counterrevolutionary movements, constant dissemination of anti-communist propaganda at home and abroad, and political appeals to gain the votes and cooperation of anti-Castro Cuban expatriates.  This paper examines how Castro turned several of Johnson’s “low-risk” strategies to topple his regime on their tails. Ironically, Castro capitalized on U.S.-backed attempts to subvert his regime, using them to unite Cuba’s citizens at home and forge sympathetic allies abroad.

Counterrevolutionaries Gone Wild!

Direct interventions in Cuba, of the “counterrevolutionary” invasion and “poison-pen” assassination plot varieties, were off the table in Johnson’s foreign policy shop. However, Johnson continued the prior administration’s path of backing “independent” Cuban counterrevolutionary groups’ efforts to cause havoc, foment dissent, and, in a perfect world, incite an overthrow of the Castro regime. Instead, even the “best” C.I.A.-sponsored operatives like Eloy Menoyo, the “old experienced guerilla fighter” who impressed handlers with his “intelligence, security, and carefulness,” ended up accomplishing little more than fueling pro-revolutionary, anti-Yanqui fervor in Cuba. Menoyo had waged guerilla war alongside Castro in the Revolution. Disenchanted with Castro once in power, he defected and became a C.I.A.-trained counterrevolutionary. He was ultimately captured by Cuban forces. The Cubans made the captured turncoat appear in a television interview confirming U.S. involvement in counterrevolutionary operations. Menoyo confessed to his personal involvement in about half a dozen armed attacks on Cuban targets, funded by fifty thousand dollars raised in Miami. “It is within the realm of possibility” that innocents may have been killed, the former M-26 Revolutionary turned Yanqui-backed terrorist admitted on camera as nearly all of Cuba watched.

In September of 1964, another group of anti-Castro commandos under U.S.-backed counterrevolutionary operative Manuel Artime, attacked and destroyed with rocket launchers and .50-caliber guns what they thought was the Sierra Maestra, a Cuban freighter loaded with sugar. In actuality, they sunk the Sierra Aranzazu, a Spanish freighter. The Spanish government placed blame for the “independent” counterrevolutionary attack squarely at the door of the United States in a scathing press release: “Such acts would never have taken place were it not for the piracy and banditry against Cuba which has been carried out by the U.S. government…” The Spanish foreign ministry further stated that the U.S. knows “perfectly well” who attacked its ship, since they were “equipped, paid, and directed by the Central Intelligence Agency.” The erroneous sinking of the Sierra Aranzazu called attention to U.S. sponsored terrorism against Cuba on an international stage. The failures and negative attention caused Johnson to cease covert U.S. sponsorship of terror in Cuba. They also served, for Castro, as useful examples of Yanqui Imperialism to steel his compadres’ love for the revolution and readiness to fight for its defense.

Anti-communist Rhetoric Ramps Opposition to Yanqui Imperialism

Johnson’s anti-communist political position was one that many American patriots and Cuban expatriates found appealing. The President, while not prepared to risk running “Murder, Inc.,” undoubtedly would have viewed the ouster of Cuba’s communist regime as a welcome result of the “low risk” meddling he authorized in Cuba. “We don’t propose to sit here in our rocking chair with our hands folded and let communists set up any government in the Western hemisphere.” The 1965 U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic prompted Johnson to utter those words explaining his hawkish action, but they were aimed squarely at the communist Castro regime in Cuba as well. Privately, immediately after the Dominican invasion, Johnson summoned Republican congressional leaders, and said, “I’ve just taken an action that will prove that Democratic presidents can deal with communists as strongly as Republicans.”

The Johnson White House and the operatives it largely controlled, including the Organization of American States (O.A.S.), maintained a consistent hard line when it came to Cuban relations. For example, a July 1964 O.A.S. resolution, signed in Washington D.C., “condemned Cuba for aggression,” accused Castro of seeking to aid in overthrowing the Venezuelan government, and “ordered Western hemisphere governments to maintain no diplomatic or consular relations” and suspend “all trade with Cuba, except … for humanitarian reasons.” Johnson, ever the “humanitarian,” at the October 3, 1965 signing of the Immigration Bill on Liberty Island, New York, Johnson characterized Cuba’s citizenry as “oppressed” and invited  them to seek refuge on US shores: “I declare … to the people of Cuba that those who seek refuge here in America will find it. The dedication of America to our traditions as an asylum for the oppressed is going to be upheld.” This characterization of Revolutionary Cubans as oppressed serves as another example of Johnson’s approach “dealing with” communist Cuba.

While the Johnson administration busied itself maligning communism and Cuba on a domestic and world stage, Castro united Cubans in readiness to defend the revolution by leveraging the threat that US rhetoric and actions relating to Latin America posed. Ironically, actions intended to be adverse to the Castro regime helped it thrive. Cuba’s government reflexively, defensively “hardened” their regime because it constantly felt under attack. This “hardening” served to stunt the growth of the very seeds of dissent that the C.I.A. had hoped to plant and fertilize in the region. Largely thanks to well-known U.S. threats to Cuban sovereignty, Castro was able to very effectively rally and unite his people to preserve their homeland’s freedom from U.S. hegemony: “Our enemies, our only enemies, are the Yankee imperialists. Our only insuperable contradiction is with Yankee imperialism. The only enemy against whom we are ready to break our lances is imperialism.”

Temer a “Los Gusanos” – Fear the Worms

Los gusanos, “the worms” as Castro labeled them, were deposed Cuban elites who mostly fled to the United States after the fall of the Batista regime. The revolution had robbed many of these gusanos of a privileged lifestyle that a position of favor in Batista-era society had afforded their families. This segment of the Cuban diaspora moved to Miami with a flood of refugees that would re-shape southern Florida’s social order. These Cuban expats became a powerful political force. The gusano counterrevolution had by 1961, with the help of the C.I.A., completely relocated to Miami. From Cuba’s perspective, the dispossessed old-guard, enriched with Yanqui resources and hungry to re-take their homeland, stood poised to do just that.

Anti-Castro activities of the counterrevolution in the U.S. actually helped Castro unify and strengthen the revolution he led. Hate for the gusanos, and fear of their return, served to unite the Cuban people behind the revolutionary government. To most Cubans, harboring hate and fear of the greedy gusanos seemed the rational course. U.S. support of their counterrevolutionary efforts underlined and validated their fear of losing all of the blessings the revolution had bestowed. If the gusanos returned to reclaim their properties and positions, the educational, medical, housing, and nutritional improvements that had benefitted the vast majority of Cubans could be lost. Castro often extolled this very argument in speeches, eliciting demonstrations of public support.

Conclusion: Castro’s Political Jui-jitsu

In the martial art of Jui-jitsu, a combatant uses the opponent’s force and energy against them. Castro’s masterful spinning of U.S. rhetoric and actions into justified political denouncements of Yanqui imperialism served to strengthen his regime. Both on the homefront and in terms of international relations, Castro’s handling of Johnson’s repeated attempts to undermine his regime can be described as nothing less than “Political Jui-Jitsu,” perfected. The Johnson administration’s “low-risk, low reward” attempts to undermine Cuba’s legitimate government were rewarding indeed for that very government. Ultimately, the constant threat from the U.S. was instrumental in uniting the nation in support of Castro’s regime for the rest of his life.


Brown, Jonathan C. Cuba’s Revolutionary World. Cambridge, Massachusetts ; London, England: Harvard University Press, 2017.

Castro, Fidel, and Ignacio Ramonet. Fidel Castro: My Life: a Spoken Autobiography. Scribner, 2009.

Chomsky, Aviva. A History of the Cuban Revolution. Wiley Blackwell, 2015.

Colhoun, Jack. Gangsterismo: the United States, Cuba, and the Mafia: 1933 to 1966. New York: OR Books, 2013.

Kross, Peter. The JFK Files: What the Government Has Kept Secret for Decades. Kempton, IL: Adventures Unlimited Press, 2019.

Tunzelmann, Alex Von. Red Heat: Conspiracy, Murder, and the Cold War in the Caribbean. Toronto: Emblem, 2012.

Photo by Spencer Everett on Unsplash

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