Former U.S. Consular To Cuba Reflects On His Work And The Passing Of Fidel Castro


The world is changing at a rapid pace right in front of our eyes. Trump is president-elect and Fidel Castro has died. These two incidents alone represent a monumental shift in the world. It’s a lot to take in and reflect upon, regardless of how these two powerful figures will eventually settle into their rightful place in history.

Fidel Castro’s passing, perhaps even more so than the election of Donald Trump, highlights the importance of conducting diplomacy maturely. That’s according to Tom Holladay who is retired from the State Department these days but recalls his time as U.S. Consular to Cuba. Holladay served as consular in Cuba from 1977 to 1979. He was part of a group of ten American Foreign Service people who reopened the interest section of the US embassy, as part of the Swizz embassy in Cuba. “The Swizz had been representing us since we broke relations with Cuba and left in 1961. So, we went back to our old building, which had been kept by the Swizz, and we set about trying to reestablish a channel of communication with the Cuban government and solve some problems that had been outstanding,” he explained.

CUBA – CIRCA 1962: A stamp printed in Cuba shows image of the Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz, a Cuban communist revolutionary and politician who was Prime Minister of Cuba from 1959 to 1976, and President from 1976 to 2008, circa 1962.

ePa: Can you describe the state of Cuba upon your arrival in 1977?

TH: I don’t think it was really that different than a lot of the countries in Latin America at the time, materially, probably a little more run-down. Cuba was sort of a dependency of the Soviet Union so they weren’t that bad off. A lot of old cars, a lot of unpainted buildings…interesting place, but I didn’t really focus on what the place looked like.

ePa: At the time, U.S. relations with Cuba were much different. Were you well received, or was it a hostile welcoming entering the country?

TH: No, no, this was an initiative of President Carter that actually during the Ford administration, even under Kissinger, we had started this effort to try to normalize relations with Cuba, and it was briefly interrupted by the elections when Carter ran against Ford. Ford was trying to get his own term in office. Ford administration had started this optimate, and they cranked it back down for the elections, probably because of the Cuban vote in Miami. And then Carter, as soon as he was elected, his transition people started the process of getting ready to open with Cuba very shortly after he took office.

I was working in Cuban Affairs in Washington during the time of the run-up, and then going back down, then cranking back up again, and so when we arrived, it was an optimistic time.

The problems were that the Cubans were becoming militarily involved in Africa. The Cubans, had among other things figured out a way to fly troops to Angola via Guiana, using old Bristol Britannia aircrafts that didn’t really have the rage without a fuel stop, and the Guianese gave them the fuel stop. So, as we were opening up and dealing with some of the issues that I was involved in, we were also concerned about their increase activity in Africa. And that eventually put the kibosh on the improving relations. We really couldn’t make any progress on that political side.

The real reason the Carter administration gave for opening up with Cuba was that they could solve some of the human rights issues that had been pending, and some U.S. citizen issues that we couldn’t really resolve if we didn’t have a presence and a dialogue.

ePa: Can you describe some of the issues you dealt with?

TH: We had political prisoners, hijackers, including American citizens who couldn’t leave Cuba with their families for many years because Cuba wouldn’t give them permission to leave. And then there were a lot of Cuban citizens who suffered from the human rights situation there, who wanted to leave but couldn’t get out, so we were trying to solve all those problems.

We were trying to reestablish a dialogue and reestablish some semblance of normal relations.

ePa: What was your first day of work like?   

TH: The first day we opened, all of the people with complaints and problems came to the opening—American hijackers, Americans who couldn’t leave the country, people with permission to leave but needed American visas, all kinds of people—they all showed up as we were talking to the press out front. The management was worried that this would mar the opening. So, they brought them all inside for me to deal with. But, they forgot to screen out the media when they did this. So then I got into a question and answer session with these people, and of course it was all recorded and people in the United States saw me on television that night.

ePa: Can you talk about the hijackers?

TH: Well the hijackers that I dealt with were Americans. They were guys who hijacked planes to Cuba. And they came in and said, ‘we want to leave, we can’t take it anymore.’ So then I had to tell them that, I can’t give you a U.S. passport to leave because you’re on the FBI Wanted list so the only way I can send you home is into the hands of the U.S. authorities. So then they would go to the Cubans and the Cubans would say, ‘if you have a U.S. passport we’ll let you leave.’ Course we couldn’t give them one, so I’d tell them, go back and tell the Cubans I’m not going to give you the passport until we can arrange a way for you to go home that you can’t get beyond that reach.

Most of these guys were American black guys. One group came to Cuba, asked to see Fidel, robbed all the passengers and tried to give Fidel what they stole from the passengers. Fidel had them put in jail immediately, and they never got out again.

So they (hijackers) wanted to leave so we organized their return to the United States via Canada. Air Canada sent down a plane with most of the passengers being undercover Mounties. So, we got them all out to the airport and the stewardesses refused to fly with them. We had to abort the operation. Then, the Canadians spread the rumor that they had gotten to Canada and they (hijackers) were at large there. That didn’t work out. The Cubans thought it was ridiculous that an airline couldn’t transport some fugitives, and that the stewardesses could veto such an operation.

In any case, they were supposed to fly to Canada. Their plane would become an FBI charter and they’d fly to the U.S. where they would come under arrest, had it played out. But, we moved them via Jamaica a few days later with the same plan.

ePa: What happened after the hijackers arrived in the U.S.?

TH: They got back to the United States and then one of them said that I promised him that he would get off if he promised to go back. So, I got dragged up to Federal court but the judge believed me. They all came in and lied that I had enticed them to go to the United States…

ePa: When they got back here eventually, they were all arrested?

TH: Yes, exactly and sentenced to jail for periods of time. One of them was a Puerto Rican guy who hijacked the first 747 to Cuba. His name was Rivera, (R. Campos). These guys were on the margin of society…they didn’t work, and they were sort of malcontent.

He (R. Campos) was the one who said that I tricked him into going back. But, he sent me a Christmas card for years afterwards from jail. I don’t know where he got my address, but for years I got this card from Rivera.

ePa: Really? That didn’t scare you at all, considering that he claimed you promised him freedom when he got here?

TH: (Laughing) Yeah, well it worried me and he may still be after me, but I’ve forgotten him. I think he knows that I meant no ill will toward him…he just saw these other guys leaving and thought, well, you know, I’ll do it too.

ePa: Was he in jail in Cuba?

TH: No, he wasn’t in jail. Most of these hijackers were not in jail in Cuba. They were on the street. Only some very violent and means ones, who killed people in the process of hijacking the planes, went to jail.

ePa: As Consular, did you have a relationship with Fidel Castro, or had any direct dealings with him?

TH: I never dealt with Fidel directly, only very shortly after we got there. Nobody else had access to him either. I only had access to Fidel once in connection with a hijacking to Cuba of a Delta flight, where I went to the airport for our side and Fidel went for his side. I had pretty much the run of the airport, they knew me out there. I can always get in the back way and go in the secure areas but that day I couldn’t get in.

His car was parked out there, so I went to the normal places I usually go in and they wouldn’t let me in. They said, ‘what are you doing here?’ and I said, ‘I’m here for the same reason he’s here’. I said, ‘I came to look at the welfare of the passengers of this plane’, and he, the Director of Immigration,  took me around to the VIP entrance of the tarmac, pushed me through the door, and there was Fidel.

So we sat down on a little couch, I asked him about who the hijacker was and he gave his little ditty about the hijacking group. We had a bilateral hijacking agreement, in which we agreed to return hijackers or punish them locally. The Cubans were hijacking boats and going North and the Americans were hijacking planes. Some Cuban planes had been hijacked too, but he (Fidel Castro) was just giving the reassurances that all of the United States should start respecting the terms of the hijacking agreement, which is in sustention, we’re going to abide by its principles in handling this case.

Then, we had to figure out how to pay for the fuel. The Delta pilot had a credit card he couldn’t use in Cuba. So, I had to commit to making sure that the Cubans got their money for Delta’s fuel. I said I would guarantee that this 15-thousand dollars worth of fuel would be paid for, which a Consular Officer is never supposed to do…is commit the U.S. government to payment. But, Delta lived up to their word. They transferred the money to us and we issued the check on to the Cuban Central Bank.

Those are some of the nitty-gritty operational details…

ePa: Can you talk about some of the political prisoners you dealt with?

TH: Larry Lunt, (Lawrence K. Lunt) was an ex-pat who was married to a member of the Belgium Royal House. He was C.I.A. He was in prison and I visited him every month. The Belgium Ambassador also visited him. The Belgium Ambassador was his wife’s cousin. So he was really well taken care of… I don’t think the Belgium Ambassador had anything else to do.

We had another guy who ran the American Club; we had another guy who worked for Look Magazine who parachuted into the country, just different guys who had U.S. citizenship but who were in jail for political crimes. They wore different color uniforms and were segregated from common prisoners. So, I visited them every month. They were an odd lot, (laughing).

Meanwhile, secret talks take place between Miami Cubans and the Cuban government, which the U.S. government did or did not participate in, where they agreed that the Cubans would release 3 to 5-thousand Cuban political prisoners, if we would take them. And we agreed to take them at a rate of 500 a month. The Cubans also agreed to give permission to leave the country to 15-thousand ex-political prisoners. So then, we started processing them.

The first group was a VIP group. One of them was Paulita Grauw. Paulita had been involved in an attempt to assassinate Fidel by putting a poisoned pill in a milkshake at the Havana Libre. She had delivered this poison pill to the guy at the Soda jerk and he had put it inside the freezer and it had stuck to the wall of the freezer and when he took it out the poison leaked out and he was unable to put it in Fidel’s milkshake. They somehow uncovered the plot and arrested them all. So, Paulita had this attempted murder rap and I had to do an advisory opinion to the department to justify sending her to the U.S. The people who cut this deal where the Miami Cubans. We agreed to do this for them because Carter was big on human rights and we wanted Cubans to release their political prisoners. This would meet one of our conditions for them to improve our relationship, and it would prove that Carter opening to Cuba actually brought some results.

ePa: Can you reflect on Fidel’s death, and what it means for U.S. Cuba relations moving forward?

TH: You know, I’m very torn because I obviously was, I mean, we were subjected to surveillance, bugging, harassing phone calls, break-ins. These security people were on us like flies on shit. They were on top of us all the time. It was an oppressive atmosphere, but I was there trying to do a job and I wasn’t really there to judge them. I was seeing these huge prisons full of people, listening to horror stories all day long, the injustices and the difficulties, the hardships people had gone through because of the revolution, so I was basically dealing with the malcontent of the revolution. But, I believe that the guy deserves some recognition for being the sob that he was, for noble purposes, even though his methods were very bad.

ePa: What are your thoughts on the future of the Cuban people?

TH: I have no idea. Raul is now in charge, has been since 2008. These guys aren’t going to let go. Hopefully they will get the message and start an incremental effort to open up the economy and open up the society in a gradual way. Maybe follow the Chinese model. They have a lot of enemies out there and a lot of people who celebrated Fidel’s death. I’m not sure that it’s that relevant to contemporary Cuba.

Raul has decided to open up diplomatic relations with United States. That’s pretty radical. But, now all bets are off because we have our own domestic problems to content with. We might break relations with Cuba and go back to square one.

If we continue on the path of dialogue and communication instead of posturing and playing fault, we’ll probably be able to move forward. Good things can come from communication and dialogue and dealing direct and nothing good usually comes from vitriol and exchanges of insults.

ePa: Do you think Fidel Castro has brought anything positive to his people and to the world in general?

TH: The guy was a brave man, a tough man, a brilliant man, a master politician, a master chess player. And, he managed to win the hearts and minds of millions of people in the third world. I don’t think you can deny his place in history.

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